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Following passage by both houses of the Legislature, Governor Gregoire  signed the Health Benefit Exchange  bill into law on March 23– the 2nd anniversary of the federal Affordable Care Act — before  an appreciative public audience.   Passage of the Exchange bill was the result of long hard work by civic-minded advocates, including consumers and small business owners.

 

Recent developments in Washington and neighboring Oregon are reminders of the clout and lobbying power of Big Pharma on the local level.

Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen announced that he was working to implement a  discounted prescription drug program for Seattlites , a program of the National League of Cities.  At first glance this might seem like a boon most of us, cash-strapped and increasingly uninsured and underinsured, but in reality the plan is not needed, won’t offer much in the way of bargains, and is linked to a questionable PBM. With all due respect to Rasmussen, who undoubtedly has good intentions , he seems unaware that we already have a drug discount program available at no charge to all state residents, the Washington Prescription Drug Program , which offers discounts up to 60% on generics and 20% on branded drugs, while the NLC program  offers maximum discounts up to 23% of full retail prices.  Another concern is that the NLC card is an offering of CVS Caremark, the mega-PBM which has earned itself notoriety for  unethical business practices, including overcharging government employee health plans ( including the federal plan) for Rx medicines and drug-switching on scripts. The Seattle-only program is due to start next month, so now is a good time to weigh in with Rasmussen and his fellow City Councilmembers , as well as with Mayor Mike McGinn on the issue.  In addition to helping to increase awareness of the WPDP, our city elected officials could really offer a public service by creating a drug price comparison tool that surveys Seattle pharmacies.

And in the Washington Legislature, among several bills dealing with prescription drugs ( look for my comments in the future), for the third year in a row we saw  Drug Companies Fight Take-Back Program for Unused Medicine. They claim that take-back programs, which they would be required to help pay for, would do little to stop  abuse of prescription drugs and that environmental concerns about trashing meds are essentially bogus. Take Back Your Meds, a group of over 260 health organizations, police, drugstores, local governments, environmental groups and concerned individuals vows to keep up the fight.

In Oregon, a legislative defeat with direct negative impact there and for partner WA in the Northwest  Drug Purchasing Consortium , pharma and insurance industry muscle united to make sure that  Oregon Prescription Drug Program Bill Dies a Second Death. SB 1577 would have required all state agencies to purchase medicines for beneficiaries through the Oregon Prescription Drug Program, reversing the current optional  status.  When the OPDP and the WPDP were created in 2005, they formed the Northwest Prescription Drug Purchasing Consortium to achieve better prices through pooled volume purchasing but left participation optional for state agencies. In both states, for example,  the Dept. of Corrections does not participate.  And with efforts to control Rx costs stymied, we are seeing scenarios such as this year’s state budget proposal in Washington to eliminate completely prescription drug coverage for adults in the Medicaid program, only now with some hope of possible mitigation if competitive bidding for generic drugs is approved by the Legislature now in Special Session.

Lots of  excitement here tonight after a tremendous effort by advocates and lawmakers:

March 1, 2012

Health coverage will be made affordable and available to nearly half a million Washingtonians under landmark legislation approved by the Legislature today.

House Bill 2319 would fully implement the Affordable Care Act, allowing the state to meet critical development milestones in 2013 as outlined by the federal health reform bill passed in March 2010. The bill creates the standards for operation of a state healthcare exchange.

“Our efforts this year build off last year’s skeleton bill that established a public-private exchange board. Now, by Jan. 1, 2014, we’ll be ready to open the program for people,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, chair of the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee and prime sponsor of companion legislation in the Senate. Enrollment in health plans will open in the fall of 2013.

News Roundup

Health news from Washington State and around the Pacific Northwest:

On Feb. 21, the city of Tacoma passed an ordinance that will levy a B&O tax on two large non-profit health care providers serving the area.

After Slipping Through the Cracks, Beaverton Man to Receive Lifesaving Surgery at  Seattle hospital

Pharma Fights Effort To Dispose Of Unused Meds

Judge rules state can’t force pharmacists to sell ‘Plan B’ contraception

Surpluses of nonprofit health insurers in WA at $2.4 billion

With almost nothing but a steady stream of dire news about public services in 2011 , and  the prospect of even more budget cuts facing us as the Washington State Legislature convenes work today, it is heartening to hear some good news. For the third year in a row, Washington has earned bonuses for enrolling children in Apple Health for Kids, our state’s plan for low- and middle-income kids, which includes the Children’s Health Insurance Program. As Crosscut reported:

Tens of thousands more children have health insurance now, despite the state’s having reached the grim milestone of 1 million uninsured residents last year. Washington is also the only Western state to win federal awards in 2011 for both early learning and children’s insurance programs.

Of course, one of the reasons that so many children are now enrolled in Apple Health is because their parents have lost their jobs and/or health insurance. And some 100,000 eligible children are not enrolled in the program, highlighting the need to continue outreach efforts, which lost  state funding in 2009.  Nevertheless the ceaseless efforts of advocacy groups like  the Children’s Alliance are a driving force which led to this performance award, which  in turn will help the State do even more for our kids.

News Roundup

As the new year starts, some ome items of note from near and far:

The breast implant scandal strips away the glossy euphemisms of cosmetic surgery

S. Korea approves Asia’s first anti-leukemia drug

Nicotine Gum and Skin Patch Face New Doubt

No Benefits for Sick Job Seekers: After battling leukemia, man is denied unemployment benefits

Opinion: Why are Washington’s nonprofit health insurers sitting on huge surpluses?

“Gizmo idolatry,” robotic prostatectomy, and real data

Final Thoughts from A Dying Cancer Researcher

Number of uninsured in WA hits 1 million

Drug research routinely suppressed, study authors find

FBI crackdown on unproven stem cell therapies

 

Just heard this from our friends at the National Health Law Program: Health Care Reform Victory: Court Upholds Constitutionality of ACA

More details from  NY Times : Appeals Court Backs Health Care Law

 

Should we take up a collection for the tobacco companies whose claims that they would suffer “irreparable harm” ( and a cost of $20M)  if required to  redesign all of their cigarette packaging, were upheld today in a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon?  Judge Leon’s action 

…  blocked the rule that will require cigarette packs to be emblazoned with graphic images warning of the dangers of smoking and ruled that the tobacco companies suing the federal government are likely to win with their free speech argument…….

Now more so that ever, learning of positive developments and new efforts of those working to make a difference, helps me to keep going . I share here with you some news of significance at the local, state,  and national levels.

In Washington State:

State lifts three-visit ER limit for poor patients

Workers’ wellness saving jobs in parks, policing, transit

Poor people win: Judge allows 11,000 to rejoin Basic Health

In New York State:

Medicaid team passes four sets of reform proposals, including Safe Rx  to “Promote Language Accessible Prescriptions”

Governor Cuomo Issues Executive Order to Improve Access to State Services for Non-English Speakers

Nationally:

One Million Young Adults Gain Health Insurance in 2011 Because of the Affordable Care Act

For kids in foster care, law now requires that states create protocols and actively monitor the use of psychotropic medications

Launch of Pharmacists United for Truth and Transparency

I just learned that October is Health Literacy Month, via an article entitled  “Hospital discharge summaries are a health literacy issue” (a guest post by another physician) published on the KevinMD.com  blog.

(Background: this article had originally been posted on another blog called Engaging the Patient, sponsored by  Emmi Solutions, a healthcare communications firm which is promoting Health Literacy  Month.) 

The first paragraph described a patient as being a very elderly Filipino woman, and the article went on to explain how she had suffered some serious adverse effects because there was  a problem with how her Rx medicines had been prescribed.  Turned out that two of her meds had been combined into a single pill, a fact that was not apparent from the patient’s medication list.

But I was left wondering why the patient’s ethnicity was mentioned at all, since there was no discussion of any relevance to her health issues nor about if she had limited English skills, which also does not automatically track with ethnicity.  So I was surprised to read the following conclusion to the case study:

My hope is that this case illustrates the ways in which we might address health literacy issues using fail-proof systems-based approaches, rather than narrowly focusing our efforts on how we can build our patients’ capacity to interact with the health care system. Yes, teaching this patient to be a more fluent reader and to understand her prescription labels would have been ideal.

And we should have taught her to be more engaged and given her a phone number that she could call post-hospitalization to reach a Tagalog-speaking provider with questions about her discharge instructions or medications. But while we are working on engaging her with her care and teaching her to read prescription labels and providing enhanced communication support, let’s do what we can to “fix” the health literacy problem without involving Ms. Reyes at all.

Somehow the author made a non sequitur jump to depict the patient as  Limited English Proficient (LEP), but never once spoke of utilizing the services of  an interpreter at the hospital or if any  instructions had been translated for the patient.  It was likewise not mentioned that a pharmacist could have played an important role in the case. Seemingly this young physician knew nothing of the duties of the hospital to ensure communication between providers and patients, and is disseminating this scenario as typical.

So a response was in order.  I’m happy to say that my comments on the article were accepted for posting, and hope they will help make a dent.

My message for Health Literacy Month is that we need to seize the teachable moments.