Over the past months, the country and the economy have radically shifted to unchartered territory. Now more than ever, we must reexamine how we spend health care dollars.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed challenges with health care in America, we see two overarching opportunities for change:
1) the under-delivery of evidence-based care that materially improves the lives and well-being of Americans and
2) the over-delivery of unnecessary and, sometimes, harmful care.
The implications of reallocating our health care spending to high-value services are far-ranging, from improving health to economic recovery.
To prepare for coronavirus patients and preserve protective equipment, clinicians and hospitals across the country halted non-urgent visits and procedures. This has led to a substantial reduction in high-value care: emergency care for strokes or heart attacks, childhood vaccinations, and routine chronic disease management. However, one silver lining to this near shutdown is that a similarly dramatic reduction in the use of low-value services has also ensued.
As offices and hospitals re-open, we have a once in a century opportunity to align incentives for providers and consumers, so patients get more high-value services in high-value settings, while minimizing the resurgence of low-value care. For example, the use of pre-operative testing in low-risk patients should not accompany the return of elective procedures such as cataract removal. Conversely, benefit designs should permanently remove barriers to high-value settings and services, like patients receiving dialysis at home or phone calls with mental health providers.
People with low incomes and multiple chronic conditions are of particular concern as unemployment rises and more Americans lose their health care coverage. Suboptimal access and affordability to high-value chronic disease care prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was well documented As financially distressed providers re-open to a new normal, hopeful to regain their financial footing, highly profitable services are likely to be prioritized.
Unfortunately, clinical impact and profitability are frequently not linked. The post-COVID reopening should build on existing quality-driven payment models and increase reimbursement for high-value care to ensure that compensation better aligns with patient-centered outcomes.
At the same time, the dramatic fall in “non-essential care” included a significant reduction in services that we know to be harmful or useless. Billions are spent annually in the US on routinely delivered care that does not improve health; a recent study from 4 states reports that patients pay a substantial proportion (>10 percent) of this tab out-of-pocket. This type of low-value care can lead to direct harm to patients — physically or financially or both — as well as cascading iatrogenic harm, which can amplify the total cost of just one low-value service by up to 10 fold. Health care leaders, through the Smarter Health Care Coalition, have hence called on the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Azar to halt Medicare payments for services deemed low-value or harmful by the USPSTF.
As offices and hospitals reopen with unprecedented clinical unmet needs, we have a unique opportunity to rebuild a flawed system. Payment policies should drive incentives to improve individual and population health, not the volume of services delivered. We emphasize that no given service is inherently high- or low-value, but that it depends heavily on the individual context. Thus, the implementation of new financial incentives for providers and patients needs to be nuanced and flexible to allow for patient-level variability. The added expenditures required for higher reimbursement rates for highly valuable services can be fully paid for by reducing the use of and reimbursement for low-value services.
The delivery of evidence-based care should be the foundation of the new normal. We all agree that there is more than enough money in U.S. health care; it’s time that we start spending it on services that will make us a healthier nation.
Despite a raft of data suggesting that wearing face masks (in conjunction with hand washing and social distancing) is effective in preventing person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus, the practice is still a partisan political issue in some places even as new cases continue to rise.
A new review published in The Lancet looked at 172 observational studies and found that masks are effective in many settings in preventing the spread of the coronavirus (though the results cannot be treated with absolute certainty since they were not obtained through randomized trials, the Washington Post notes).
Another recent study found that wearing a mask was the most effective way to reduce the transmission of the virus.
90% of Americans now say they’re wearing a mask in compliance with the CDC’s recommendations, up from 78% in April, according to a new poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for the Data Foundation.
But despite the conclusive research and what seems to be a public consensus, masks remain a divisive subject.
As new coronavirus cases surge in Arizona, where cases have jumped 300% since the beginning of May, for instance, Governor Doug Ducey has not made it mandatory to wear masks in public, and in Orange County, California, officials on Friday rescinded a mask mandate after public backlash, even as cases rise; when cases peaked in April, on the other hand, New York made wearing a mask mandatory when people could not socially distance from others, and other states passed similar restrictions.
Part of the politicization of masks may have to do with resistance to heavy-handed government mandates, which in this case could cause people who are already skeptical of wearing face coverings to dig in their heels.
Lindsay Wiley, an American University Washington College of Law professor specializing in public health law and ethics, told NPR last month that stringent mask requirements “can actually cause people who are skeptical of wearing masks to double down.” And in turn, that “reinforce[s] what they perceive to be a positive association with refusing to wear a mask … that they love freedom, that they’re smart and skeptical of public health recommendations.”
Masks have also become a heavily politicized issue in recent weeks: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last month voiced his support of mask wearing in public, for instance, in contrast to President Trump and other GOP leaders who have portrayed masks as a sign of weakness. Trump infamously refused to wear a face mask as he toured a Ford facility in Michigan last month. When asked about the mask, he said that he wore one in private but “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has voiced her support for the practice: “real men wear masks,” she said earlier this month.
A video posted to Twitter on Friday showed a street in New York City’s East Village that was packed with people ignoring social distancing guidelines, most of whom were not wearing masks, drew widespread criticism. “When there’s a new spike people will blame the (masked) protests, but it’s really gonna be maskless crap like this,” one Twitter user wrote.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo even weighed in on the scene. “Don’t make me come down there,” he tweeted.
On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release employment numbers for April that are expected to show a tragic and historic increase in unemployment. Consensus estimates anticipate more than 20 million jobs lost and an unemployment rate of 16 percent—a figure that may well be an underestimate given that millions of people may not be looking for jobs, effectively exiting the labor force and reducing the labor force participation rate. Moreover, state-level unemployment claims data show that this economic pain is being felt across the country, with sharp rises in joblessness in every state. And Thursday’s jobless claims release suggests that job losses have continued at high levels since the April unemployment survey was taken.
While the immediate cause of this spike in joblessness is, of course, the necessary stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures taken to respond to the crisis, the rise in unemployment—and how long it lasts—cannot be separated from choices made by the Trump administration. In understanding the state of the economy, as well as what comes next, the following three elements of this crisis must be understood:
There is an alternative path, however: Taking the necessary steps to address the public health crisis and ensure that people can go back to work safely and doing what is needed to address the immediate economic pain and avoid prolonged unemployment. As Congress and the administration consider an additional stimulus package, they should put in place necessary public health protections while providing robust aid to families, workers, and communities for as long as the crisis lasts. This will allow us to avoid double-digit unemployment from being a devastating reality for American families for the next year and a half or more.
The rise in unemployment over the past two months is a direct consequence of the public health crisis—one that could have taken a far less severe toll under an administration that had been better prepared for it and that had approached it more wisely. The Trump administration has failed to develop an evidence-based plan to end the coronavirus crisis. Instead, its mismanagement has resulted in widespread fear and uncertainty as to when it might be appropriate to reopen parts of the economy. President Trump did not take the pandemic seriously when cases first emerged in the United States; his administration failed to use the month of April—when the nation was largely shut down—to ramp up the testing, contact tracing, and other pieces necessary for the public health response. And now, Trump is pushing states to reopen too soon. Before people feel comfortable enough to once again venture out of their homes and reengage in work and other economic activities, we need to ensure the country has developed the necessary health infrastructure to allow us to gradually reopen our economy without sparking a second wave of infections.
The Trump administration and its allies are arguing that the way to solve the economic crisis is to open up the country, ending stay-at-home orders and engaging in aggressive efforts to force business to return to normal. But in the absence of public health measures that actually allow activity to return safely, the administration’s strategy appears to be one of “ignore and press on,” with potentially devastating results for workers and communities. This strategy includes:
These steps reflect an acceptance of elevated risks of transmission, and ultimately, death. And despite the president’s rhetoric, it will make it less likely that the economy can return faster.
First, it is clear that the public isn’t going to feel safe to return to normal economic activity absent additional public health measures. A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that “67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store, and 78 percent would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant.” These results were similar both in states that had loosened restrictions and those that had not and is consistent with other data. As long as people are anxious that returning to normal activities could put them at risk of contracting the virus, the economy will be unable to recover.
Second, a strategy that fails to put in place the necessary protections against spreading the virus will increase transmission among the public, and especially workers, in ways that may force additional shutdowns and prolong the period of public health crisis. In sum, prolonged public health crisis equals a prolonged state of economic distress—extending the number of months with a job market like April’s. The best approach—an approach adopted by other countries who are faring better both with their health outcomes and their economic impacts—is a national plan to fight the virus that is based on testing, tracing, and isolation.
The CARES act provided large, necessary relief to most Americans, including assistance for workers, families, and small businesses. But this assistance will run out before the economic emergency is behind us, forcing the economy into unnecessarily prolonged hardship.
Indeed, the measures in the CARES Act both leave important gaps and will expire long before the economy is expected to return to normal. States and localities are facing extreme budget shortfalls. If action is not taken before state budget deadlines on July 1, states are likely to begin implementing layoffs of teachers and first responders and service cuts in the coming months that will cause additional job loss. Expanded unemployment insurance benefits expire at the end of July, removing an important lifeline for those out of work. While the direct payments in the CARES Act provided important assistance to families, the $1,200 per person payment will not be enough to sustain households through a prolonged crisis. The initial Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) support for small businesses has run out, and a second round of funding may soon run out too. And in important areas such as housing, food assistance, child care, and health coverage, among others, the CARES Act failed to do enough to address the hardship being felt today, let alone over a prolonged crisis—even as it provided generous aid to corporations.
As a result, under baseline projections—those that assume no further action on the part of the government—double-digit unemployment is expected to be a feature of the economy for at least the next year and a half. As noted above, the CBO estimates that the unemployment rate will remain near 10 percent at the end of 2021—many months after they predict that social distancing due to the pandemic itself ends.
Yet the Trump administration and congressional Republicans have indicated that they are prepared to accept this reality, or at best, offer solutions that do nothing to shift it. White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said that another round of coronavirus relief legislation might not be necessary, and chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Sunday that nothing has been decided yet and that “there’s kind of a pause period right now” and that “we will wait and see.” Senator McConnell has dismissed state and local aid as a “blue state bailout,” despite pain being felt in all states.
To the extent the administration or its allies have signaled a desire to act, they have focused on measures that would be woefully insufficient to address the economic challenges we face. Aside from the liability shield, Trump has signaled a push for poorly targeted corporate tax cuts or a payroll tax cut that would fail to benefit those who are out of work. An illustrative example of Trump’s approach is his call for removing limits on corporate deductions for meals and entertainment—effectively allowing companies to deduct expenses for sports tickets, golf trips, or visits to casinos—which would provide a benefit to corporations and their wealthiest executives but do little to help put money in the hands of those who need it.
As it considers another package to address this crisis, Congress has the opportunity to take a path that rejects double-digit unemployment as a lasting feature of this crisis. The approach Congress should take would allow economic activity to restart safely and ensure that, as the economy restarts, we are actually getting people back to work rather than accepting a recession that keeps millions unemployed.
First, that requires a sufficient public health response. The purpose of stay-at-home orders in the first place was to suppress transmission to low levels and buy time to put in place extensive testing and contact tracing programs, but we have yet to meet those goals. Nationally, we still need to increase our testing capacity and reach at least 500,000 tests a day; scale up contact tracing—both manually and by apps that meet privacy standards—in order to isolate people who test positive as well as their contacts; and have in place a far more robust disease surveillance system.
And second, it requires an economic response that offers relief that both addresses immediate pain that families, small businesses, and communities are facing and is sufficient to build back to a stronger economy.
In particular, the package must be:
The administration and its allies appear content to accept a prolonged period of public health and economic harm that is a result of the mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis to date—essentially condemning the nation to a greater toll from the virus itself and a much longer period of economic distress. It must be clear that the harsh reality of the April jobs report—and the much broader pain that has been felt over recent weeks—was the result of both failed policy decisions and mismanagement. By the same token, we have the choice going forward as to whether we accept further pain or take steps that would both keep people healthy and get Americans back to work.
The decades-old drug that President Donald Trump has persistently promoted as a potential weapon against COVID-19 has within a matter of weeks become a standard of care in areas of the United States hit hard by the pandemic — though doctors prescribing it have no idea whether it works.
Doctors and pharmacists from more than half a dozen large healthcare systems in New York, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Washington and California told Reuters they are routinely using hydroxychloroquine on patients hospitalized with COVID-19. At the same time, several said they have seen no evidence that the drug, used for years to treat malaria and autoimmune disorders, has any effect on the virus.
Use of hydroxychloroquine has soared as the United States has quickly become the epicenter of the pandemic. More than 355,000 people in the United States have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and more than 10,000 have died. The federal government estimates that as many as 240,000 people in the country may die from the disease before the outbreak is over.
Facing those numbers, and in the absence of any known effective treatments, doctors on the frontlines said they began using hydroxychloroquine and the related chloroquine on patients who are deteriorating based on a few small studies suggesting a possible benefit. Some said they had come under pressure from patients to use the therapies widely touted by Trump and other supporters.
“I may take it,” Trump said on Saturday, referring to hydroxychloroquine, though he has twice tested negative for coronavirus, according to the White House. “We’re just hearing really positive stories, and we’re continuing to collect the data.”
Potential side effects of hydroxychloroquine include vision loss and heart problems. But doctors interviewed by Reuters say they are comfortable prescribing the drug for a short course of several days for coronavirus patients because the risks are relatively low and the therapies are inexpensive and generally available.
However, protocols directing how these drugs should be used vary from one hospital to another, including when to introduce them and whether to combine them with other drugs. In addition, some studies showing promise involve patients who took the therapies for mild or early-stage illness. Many of those people are likely to recover from the virus on their own.
Patients admitted to the hospital in the United States are generally much sicker than the mildly ill cases cited in such studies when they receive therapy. These factors, doctors said, have made it difficult for them to determine whether the drugs are making a difference. “I have seen hundreds of patients with severe COVID and most of these people are on hydroxychloroquine,” Dr Mangala Narasimhan, regional director of critical care at Northwell Health, a 23-hospital system in New York, said in an email. “In my opinion, although it is very early, I do not see a dramatic improvement from the hydroxychloroquine in these patients.” Dr Daniel McQuillen, an infectious disease specialist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts, said he has prescribed a course of hydroxychloroquine for about 30 COVID-19 patients so far because the drug has shown “a little bit of antiviral activity.” But he has not seen “marked improvement for patients.”
“Anecdotally, it may have had limited effect in patients with milder disease,” McQuillen said. The therapy “has had no effect in limiting or slowing progression of our patients that have been at or near ICU level when they arrived.”
The experience of David Lat, a legal recruiter and commentator who founded the blog Above the Law, reflects the mixture of hope and uncertainty surrounding the drugs now being pursued as possible coronavirus treatments.
Since early March, the 44-year-old New Yorker has chronicled his near-fatal infection with coronavirus in social media posts followed by thousands of people. Lat’s case has resonated with a U.S. audience that has begun to recognize the risk that coronavirus poses not only to elderly patients with serious medical conditions, but also to generally healthy younger adults.
After more than a week of worsening symptoms, Lat was admitted to NYU Langone Medical Center on March 16 and later placed on a ventilator. On March 28, he shared on Facebook that his doctors had taken him off of the ventilator and had moved him out of intensive care after his condition improved dramatically.
In an exchange of text messages with Reuters, Lat said he was treated with hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin. He also received the experimental therapy clazakizumab, which aims to regulate an overreaction by the body’s immune system thought to trigger the respiratory distress seen in severe COVID-19. After the story was published, Lat clarified that he received a fourth therapy, the antiviral Kaletra, not Kevzara, as he had initially recalled.
“The doctors haven’t concluded what caused my recovery,” Lat said. “The state of coronavirus research is very much ‘throw stuff against a wall and see what sticks’ – but when something does stick, in terms of a good patient outcome, you’re not sure what stuck.” Lat’s doctors were not immediately available to comment on his treatment.
Some doctors have been vocal in advocating the drug. Dr Vladimir Zelenko, a general practitioner in upstate New York, has claimed that a three-drug cocktail of hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and zinc sulfate has helped mitigate the infection in nearly 200 hundred of his patients before they became sick enough to require hospitalization. His recommendations have attracted the attention of Trump’s supporters. Zelenko wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Despite such encouraging reports, hard evidence that any of the therapies now under study will work is weeks and possibly months way.
Early, but mixed, data has emerged from COVID-19 trials of the malaria drugs in China. A research team in Marseilles, France, has published data showing that out of 80 mild COVID-19 patients treated with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, 93 percent had no detectable levels of the virus after eight days.
Doctors have questioned the value of the Marseille study and several papers from China as being too small or poorly designed to offer hard evidence of benefit. Most do not compare outcomes of patients who received the malaria therapies with people who did not, considered the most reliable measure of a drug’s effectiveness. Last week, doctors in Paris reported that they tried to replicate the results of the Marseille study and failed. Results from a trial conducted in Wuhan, China, were released that included a control group of patients who did not receive the anti-malarial therapy for comparison. But critics questioned why information on the trial’s main goal — detecting viral load — was not disclosed, and said data was missing for some patients. More rigorous U.S.-led trials are now underway. But most focus on whether the drugs can help prevent illness in people exposed to the coronavirus, such as healthcare workers or relatives of confirmed patients, and not people who are already sick. Randomized, controlled trials of the drugs are being conducted in other countries, including China, Brazil and Norway.
Until the evidence is in, “each institution is setting their own treatment guidelines,” said Dr Otto Yang, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center. “There is simply no data,” he said. “It is a matter of opinion, and opinions differ.”
Trump is deeply invested in the idea that the malaria drugs will show a benefit, and personally pressured federal health officials to make them available, Reuters reported on Saturday. The president announced on Twitter last month that hydroxychloroquine, when combined with azithromycin, has the potential to become “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”