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Reflections of a Privileged White Male

This title is redundant. I am privileged because I am white and male.

I usually write about healthcare, employee benefits and insurance issues, but given the racial unrest in our country, I feel compelled to write about a much more complicated and emotional topic.

The senseless killing of George Floyd, another black man while in police custody, has rightfully brought shock and outrage to our country. But with our history of racism, prejudice and social injustice, shock and outrage has never been enough to overcome the inequalities that consistently plague racial minorities.

It is time to be honest with myself, and I implore you to do the same. I am a white male who is protected by our status-quo society, given unwarranted power and prestige at the expense of others. This privilege buffers me from the naked truth of what is happening to non-white citizens. I don’t know what life would be like without having that privilege. Consequently, how can I possibly understand the perspectives and struggles experienced by those without privilege? I simply can’t.  But it is imperative that I begin to try harder.

In 1984, while unknowingly taking a wrong turn on a one-way street in downtown Minneapolis, I was stopped by a police car, sternly directed to step out of my vehicle and place my hands on top of the car. I quickly complied. The officer then forcefully kicked my feet apart and told me that I was driving the wrong way – the interaction felt unnecessarily aggressive.

Despite my privilege – power through wealth, health and opportunity that others are not afforded because of the color of their skin – this simple traffic stop made me feel demeaned. I was humiliated, frightened and incensed about how I was treated. But, unlike George Floyd and too many other people of color, my life was never at risk.

Watching George Floyd’s brazen killing changed everything for me – in a very fundamental way.

Upon reflection, that experience of feeling demeaned 36 years ago makes me realize that privilege is the ability to get angry and see that moment as an isolated incident. That experience lasted 10 minutes…not a lifetime. My societal privileges have shielded me from the reality that people of color are at risk of experiencing much worse every day. I have been complicit by not speaking up about such social injustices.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described this complicity: “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”

I have not stood up as I should have.

It is said that any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its vulnerable members. Dignity should not be discretionary and should be afforded to all people.

So how can we as Americans move forward from this history of systemic racism? I don’t have the answer. However, I do know for real change to happen, it must begin with a confession from me, and from each white American who comfortably accepts the privileges enjoyed. Merely believing you are ‘not racist’ is not enough. We must learn how to be anti-racist in our core beliefs and practices.

I am responsible for educating myself and can no longer remain silent. I must not tolerate ignorant or intentionally harmful actions or words aimed at people of color. Listening and learning are the first steps in the very long and critically important journey ahead. Voting is a necessity – insisting on policy and political reform to eradicate social injustices. We, as a society, must step up.

I do not write this because I am more enlightened than others. But change must start with me – and each of us, individually.  I must recognize that my societal privileges have been at the expense of those who are without. I can certainly do better. Our country can do much better – and together, we must.

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New Trend or Passing Fad?
Remote Work Environments

This blog is the first in a new series regarding the ‘unintentional consequences’ of the COVID-19 pandemic. As our lives have been abruptly altered due to social distancing requirements – both at home and in the workplace – unplanned ‘disruption’ of previous normal activities could permanently replace sacred elements once believed to be unyielding to any change. But COVID-19 just may have dictated new approaches to how we live and work.

Prior to March and the COVID-19 pandemic, shuttered workplace offices and businesses in Iowa and around the country was unthinkable, it just could not happen – or so we believed. The only way it could happen, we reasoned, was through a sci-fi movie that made this horrifically possible.

But it DID happen, and this B-level movie with an apocalyptic plot has now become reality. Jeffrey Cole, a research professor at the University of Southern California, calls this period in our lives the “greatest social science experiment of all time.” Lockdowns, layoffs and massive public measures to contain COVID-19 “will last long after any threat from the virus is gone,” Cole shared. “In the future, we’ll talk about ‘BC,’ before corona, and after.”

As organizations prepare to reopen businesses and offices throughout our country, thermal scanners and hand sanitizers will be the bare minimum required to keep employees and customers safe. The foreseeable future remains extremely murky as to when (or whether) life will return to pre-virus living. Although working remotely has been around for many years, telecommuting has become an uninvited experimentation for many Iowa and U.S. employers and their employees.

Many health experts believe it will be months, if not years, before a ‘new normal’ develops in our country. Scientists struggle to understand the intricacies of COVID-19. The Wild West mentality of searching for a vaccine to protect people has become a major national priority. America, after all, must cobble together innovative approaches to get people back to work while keeping the public safe.

Working Remotely – an ‘Audition’ for the Future

To ensure safe, social distancing to minimize risk of a second (or third) wave of infections, some organizations are planning to eliminate long rows of desks without partitions, replacing them with work-stations sheathed with glass sneeze guards. Having more space between desks and wearing masks will supplement periodic temperature tests. Designating staircases for entry and exit, strategically staggering lunches and work times will also be very much part of new work environments.

The pandemic has offered proof – supportive or not – that in given industries and organizations, some people can work efficiently from a remote location without having to be physically stationed in an office with other co-workers. It must be noted, however, the mental wellbeing of more isolated workers must seriously be considered and addressed before making a leap into expanding remote workplaces. Will future work mean abandoning in-person connections and replacing with internet connections?

A friend recently mentioned that working remotely for a large insurance company revealed enhanced positive customer service metrics that surpassed pre-COVID-19 results.  This revelation provides a new frame of reference to this organization that working remotely can offer surprising benefits to the company…and to its customers. Having these new performance metrics to complement decision making will be critical in the future.

Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company recently announced a permanent transition to a hybrid operating model that consists primarily of four main corporate campuses (Central Ohio, Des Moines, Scottsdale and San Antonio) for in-office personnel and working-from-home in most other locations. Although Nationwide had been investing in technological capabilities to do this for years, the pandemic has urgently nudged Nationwide to make these changes now.

Recent Studies about Telecommuting Experiences

According to data from the Coronavirus Disruption Project, 42 percent of American workers said their telecommuting experience has made them want to work from home more. Not too surprisingly, 61 percent of those teleworking said they are enjoying the relaxed attire and grooming standards, greater flexibility and lack of a commute. Over three-quarters (78 percent) said they are as effective or more so working from home.

From the employer viewpoint, nearly three-quarters of corporate finance officials surveyed in late March by Gartner, a business research and consulting firm, revealed that at least five percent of surveyed organizations will convert on-site workers to permanent remote status as part of their post-COVID cost-cutting efforts.

A survey by USA Today and LinkedIn reveals that, according to 54 percent of respondents ages 18-74, working at home positively impacts work productivity. Reasons cited for higher productivity include time saved from commuting (71 percent), fewer distractions from co-workers (61 percent) and fewer meetings (39 percent).

It is fair to say the virus has served as an audition for organizations to determine whether working remotely can become the norm based on the type of work being performed. The implications of evolving from office locations to remote or home locations can have immense consequences to the economy.

The supply and demand of office space could change significantly if organizations eschew owning larger buildings or rent smaller office space than in the past. Even ‘The Oracle of Omaha’ himself, Warren Buffett, has commented that working from home may very well become the norm because productivity has not suffered in certain scenarios. Buffett commented, “…When change happens in the world, you adjust to it.”

Conclusion

Suffice it to say that most organizations are not yet making radical permanent changes when responding to a seemingly ‘transient’ pandemic. However, developing worksites that can appropriately adapt to COVID-19 – and any future health threats – warrants implementing strategies that go beyond short-term fixes.

While embracing telecommuting, organizations may find low-hanging fruit by purchasing or renting smaller buildings and office spaces and convert these overhead ‘savings’ into other operational investments, which could positively impact employee pay and benefits. Would an upward trend of telecommuting adversely impact sectors that currently cater to office-based employees? Absolutely. Lower fuel consumption for commuting, altered business attire and relaxed cosmetic usage are just a few examples of potential long-term disruption that may occur.

We are only two months into this pandemic, yet much is to be learned by employers about long-term trends versus short-term fads in the workplace setting. My best guess is that the COVID-19 will make telecommuting a more permanent fixture in the business world where it makes most sense to the organization and its customers. As the telecommuting ‘experimentation’ phase continues, each organization must weigh the pros and cons when strategizing for the future.

Next Week’s Discussion:  COVID-19 and Telemedicine

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Five Myths about Expanding Tort Reform in Iowa

Five Myths about Expanding Tort Reform in IowaPublic discussion is gearing up on a very contentious healthcare topic: Medical tort reform. In a span of two days last week, there were two opposing viewpoints in the Des Moines Register opinion section on whether or not tort reform should expand in Iowa.  A Waterloo OB/Gyn wrote a piece supporting expansion, while I penned an opposing view one day earlier.

In Iowa, two bills are in the legislature, HSB 596 and SSB 3085. Both are being pushed by the healthcare provider community to ensure their medical-malpractice premiums are held in check by hard-capping ‘non-economic damages,’ at $250,000 – damages that “arise from pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, loss of chance, loss of consortium, or any other nonpecuniary damages.”

The specific argument being made by the Iowa Medical Society and others who support this legislation is that “Iowa’s health care crisis” has experienced five lawsuits since 2017 – whereby Iowa juries awarded plaintiffs more than $63 million for “non-economic damages.” The argument being made is that physician’s malpractice insurance policies have a $1 million – $2 million limit, while hospitals also have policy limits. Consequently, when juries award a large amount beyond these limits, the doctors and hospitals are forced to pay the rest out-of-pocket.

According to an article written by the Iowa Clinic in the February 14 edition of the Des Moines Business Record, the ‘simple solution’ is for the Iowa legislature to place a firm dollar hard cap of $250,000 on “non-economic damages,” but patients could still receive unlimited “economic damages” to cover treatment costs and lost wages. By placing a “reasonable” limit on “non-economic” damages, lawmakers, not juries, can ensure “fair awards” for plaintiffs, providers and hospitals “while keeping costs down for all Iowans.”

There you have it. Can we assume that hard-capping “non-economic” damages will miraculously eliminate “Iowa’s health care crisis” as we know it?  The quick answer is “NO.” But to better understand why Iowa’s on-going healthcare crisis will not be remotely solved by these bills, it is helpful to know the pertinent facts conveniently left unshared by the Iowa medical establishment.

There are five myths that the medical establishment would like for lawmakers (and key health payers) to believe. I will summarily refute each myth with some verifiable facts.

1. Iowa malpractice premiums are greatly increasing

Overall, insurance is a risk tool that is predicated on the experience of those being insured. If claims go up, the premiums will also move up. As is often the case, insureds are encouraged to mitigate the inherent risks within their organizations to keep the premiums affordable. The same principle applies to physicians and hospitals. If ‘safety’ and ‘best practices’ that help avoid preventable medical errors are widely pursued, adopted and implemented as the new culture of a medical organization, claims and, consequently, med-mal premiums would indeed go down.

For some Iowa physicians and hospitals, it is true that med-mal premiums are increasing. Much of this will depend on the actual claims experience for each physician practice and hospital. Here is what we currently know about med-mal premiums in Iowa:

  • Over the last 10 years, the medical liability insurance industry has taken in $709 million in premiums from the Iowa medical profession, and paid out just $308 million in combined losses and expenses. Stated another way, the med-mal insurance industry has $401 million in surplus premiums. (Source: NAIC Countrywide Summary of Medical Professional Liability Insurance – Calendar Years 2009 – 2018)
  • The average Iowa medical malpractice insurance premiums have increased 0% for Iowa doctors over the last 10 years. (Source: Annual Rate Survey, Medical Liability Monitor, October 2009-2018)
  • Over a 20-year period (1990 – 2010)*, only 1.73 percent of Iowa physicians were responsible for one-half of all the money paid out for medical malpractice in Iowa. Most of these physicians had multiple malpractice payments. If this small proportion of physicians were either ‘re-trained’ or ‘restricted’ from practicing in this same pattern of behavior, the claims could be cut in half. But only 16 percent of these doctors had reportable action – not even a slap on the wrist reprimand – by the Iowa Board of Medicine. About 10 percent had any reportable action taken against their clinical privileges by an Iowa hospital. Consequently, only about one-sixth of the 1.73 percent of physicians have had any action taken against their licenses – and only one-tenth of them have had any action taken against their clinical privileges. (Source: Robert E. Oshel, Ph.D., retired Associate Director for Research and Disputes for the National Practitioner Data Bank at the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.)

*This calculation was made by Dr. Oshel in 2010 for each state, but has only been repeated since then on a national level only. The calculation is Dr. Oshel’s own independent, unpublished research using the NPDB Public Use File for reports information from www.statehealthfacts.org for the number of physicians in the state. This data was last updated using June 2019 data. According to Dr. Oshel, “the results for this almost 30-year period were very similar to what they have been for the 20-year period using the 2010 data. I would expect 30-year Iowa data also to be very similar.”

2. Tort reform reduces medical errors

The tort reform push in Iowa does nothing to address the root causes of why preventable medical errors occur in the first place. The medical establishment wishes to use hard caps to mitigate their claims and hold down their insurance premiums, but hard caps do not address or incent physicians and hospitals to provide safe care more effectively, through best practices.

After Texas implemented a hard-cap tort reform (passed in 2003), a University of Texas School of Law report years later (authored by Silver, Hyman and Black) stated that “Using standard patient safety measures, we find evidence that hospitals made more avoidable errors after the adoption of HB4 (name of reform).” This report, by the way, does an excellent job of detailing the actual subsequent outcomes of malpractice claims, healthcare costs, influx or exodus of physicians due to tort reform, and other issues that refute many of the arguments made by hard cap supporters.

A study by Black & Zabinski examined five states that enacted caps during 2003-2005 used standard Patient Safety Indicators (PSIs) that were available for at least two years prior to caps being implemented in each state allowing for comparisons later. When comparing data in the five states (Florida, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina and Texas) to PSIs from previous years, and with other ‘control’ states, the authors determined:

  • “Consistent evidence that patient safety generally falls” after caps are passed.
  • “We find a gradual rise in rates for most PSIs after [caps were passed], consistent with a gradual relaxation of care, or failure to reinforce care standards over time.”
  • “We find evidence that reduced risk of med mal litigation, due to state adoption of damage caps, leads to higher rates of preventable adverse events in hospitals.”

(Source: Bernard S. Black and Zenon Zabinski, “The Deterrent Effect of Tort Law: Evidence from Medical Malpractice Reform,” Northwestern University Law & Economics Research Paper No. 13-09 (July 2014). http://ssrn.com/abstract=2161362.).

The ultimate question that Iowa lawmakers must answer is whether hard caps will reduce medical errors. Unfortunately, rehabilitation of health providers to provide better and safer care is not baked into this tort reform, and other states consistently prove this point. Eliminating financial deterrents for medical providers will only shield them from having accountability to their patients.

3. Tort reform will reduce healthcare costs

The Texas report does confirm one key initiative that physicians and hospitals supporters wish to have:  Hard caps through tort reform greatly reduces the frequency of paid med mal claims, in addition to sharply reducing total payouts.

But implementing hard caps will do little-to-nothing toward curtailing healthcare costs. Various national sources indicate that between 21 – 47 percent of healthcare costs are considered to be waste. This waste, which represents about $1 trillion in the U.S., comes from six categories:

  1. Administrative Complexity
  2. Overtreatment – includes excessive and inappropriate care
  3. Fraud and Abuse
  4. Pricing Failures
  5. Care Delivery Failures
  6. Care Coordination Failures

Many of the above problems exist due to inefficiencies in a poorly-functioning healthcare system. Tort caps are nothing but a small band aid to a much larger systemic problem that the medical establishment fails to meaningfully address. When using this information, the estimated annual waste in Iowa employer health premiums is $2,400 for single and $6,600 for family coverages.

A 2014 study by Black, Hyman and Paik, examined healthcare spending trends in nine states that enacted caps during the period, 2002-2005, and compared this with data from other ‘control’ states. The authors found:

  • “Damage caps have no significant impact on Medicare Part A (hospital) spending, but lead to 4-5 percent higher Medicare Part B (physician) spending.”
  • “[O]ne policy conclusion is straightforward: There is no evidence that limiting med mal lawsuits will bend the healthcare cost curve, except perhaps in the wrong direction. Policymakers seeking a way to address rising healthcare spending should look elsewhere.”

(Source: Bernard S. Black, David A. Hyman and Myungho Paik, “Do Doctors Practice Defensive Medicine, Revisited,” Northwestern University Law & Economics Research Paper No. 13-20; Illinois Program in Law, Behavior and Social Science Paper No. LBSS14-21 (October 2014), http://ssrn.com/abstract=2110656.)

The Texas study mentioned earlier found that “tort reform is unlikely to reduce overall healthcare spending, and could even lead to higher spending…that overall (healthcare) growth is driven primarily by rapidly rising costs for prescription drugs, and by healthcare providers, especially hospitals, charging ever-higher prices for doing much the same things as before.” The report found that “Doctors who fear liability may sometimes do more (conduct more defensive tests and procedures) but they may also sometimes do less (avoid risky procedures). Texas was among the higher spending states per capita before (tort) reform, and is among the higher spending states today.”

4. Tort reform will increase physicians in our state

If tort reform in Iowa is the solution to attract and retain physicians, we can learn from Texas and other states that have already implemented these reforms. A major finding from the Texas study revealed that “neither an exodus of physicians before the passage of HB4 nor an influx thereafter…Texas had a lower ratio of physicians to population than most other states before reform, and has a lower ratio today.”

Another study by Black, Hyman and Paik, examined physician supply in nine states that enacted caps during 2002-2005, and compared this data to other “control” states. The authors found:

  • “No evidence that cap adoption predicts an increase in total patient care physicians, in specialties that face high med mal risk (except plastic surgeons), or in rural physicians.”
  • “[W]e find no evidence that the adoption of damage caps increased physician supply in nine new-cap states, relative to twenty no-cap states.”
  • “Physician supply does not seem elastic to med mal risk. Thus, the states that want to attract more physicians should look elsewhere.”

(Source: Bernard S. Black, David A. Hyman and Myungho Paik, “Does Medical Malpractice Reform Increase Physician Supply? Evidence from the Third Reform Wave,” Northwestern University Law & Economics Research Paper No. 14-11; University of Illinois Program in Law, Behavior and Social Science Research Paper No. LBSS 14-36 (July 2014) http://ssrn.com/abstract=2470370.)

A suggestion to Iowa lawmakers would be to find new approaches to support effective strategies ensuring the Iowa Board of Medicine has all the resources it needs to take action when confronted with physicians who repeatedly have malpractice claims and payments brought against them. Self-policing of doctors can be effective when appropriate culture allows for this to happen. Additionally, Iowa hospitals should be encouraged to ensure that peer reviewers take needed actions. As mentioned earlier by Dr. Oshel, restricting or retraining this small proportion of physicians would be most beneficial to patients and other doctors practicing within Iowa.

Another issue that was raised by the OB/Gyn physician who wrote the DMR Op-Ed is rural communities and their hospitals. It is true that rural hospitals are financially struggling. Rural providers are not seeing as many patients as they have in the past, and because of an older patient mix, they are increasingly being paid at reduced amounts by public payers, such as Medicaid and Medicare. This requires a host of other difficult decisions and solutions, but this discussion and any subsequent solutions goes well beyond med mal issues. This is not only an Iowa problem, it is a national concern.

5. Tort reform reduces defensive medicine

It is true that defensive medicine – a practice by which physicians and hospitals perform additional tests to help mitigate potential lawsuits – is a problem. But as mentioned earlier, there are six primary categories that are extremely wasteful in our healthcare system that require major reform.

A 2010 paper by Mello et al. attempted to determine the cost of defensive medicine in the U.S. The authors took great effort to review other reports on this topic, but conveyed language from the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessement, stating, “that defensive medicine is highly prevalent, [but] reliable estimates of its cost are notoriously difficult to obtain.” Mello et al. ventured to estimate that the overall health system cost of defensive medicine to be $55.6 billion in 2008 dollars, approximately 2.4 percent of total national healthcare spending in 2008.

The argument that defensive medicine is expensive has merit, but we must not be led to believe that it makes up a large component of high healthcare costs – it does not. It is important to keep our eye on the true drivers of healthcare costs and the associated waste.

Summary

I do not support unwarranted lawsuits that result in large payouts. But I will say, especially with this particular issue, there are two sides to this story. Much too often, the lobbyists who represent the medical establishment are powerful, vocal – and extremely well-financed – to promote their own self-interests at the public’s expense. They will use this particular issue to leverage the argument about why we have skyrocketing health costs in our state and country. I wish it were that easy.

Iowa and the U.S. does indeed have a “health care crisis.” But it is not because of malpractice costs…which is merely a symptom of a much larger issue. Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the U.S.  Based on my analysis in 2016, “Silently Harmed’ in Iowa,” using Iowa and national hospital data, an estimated 2,400 Iowans die and 85,000 are harmed in Iowa hospitals by preventable medical errors each year. Even if the actual numbers were a quarter of these estimates, we would still have an absolute crisis on how care is performed in our state and country. It must be said that estimates are necessary because medical providers often fail to report medical errors, which would be a useful process to gauge future improvement initiatives.

True reform should not come in the form of med mal caps, but rather, how Iowa medical organizations practice and behave in the delivery of medical care. Additionally, the small proportion of Iowa physicians who make up about half of malpractice costs must be held accountable, primarily through the authority and appropriate action of the Iowa Board of Medicine.

Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said it quite well, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” This discussion represents the other side of what we are being led to believe as truth.

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