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Mass. Health Wonks, Start Your Engines! Contest To Guess Rise In Costs

money

This Tuesday, Sept. 2, we will know … Did Massachusetts succeed or fail in its first year of trying to keep health care costs in line with all the other things we spend money on?

In 2013, health care costs were not supposed to grow more than 3.6 percent.

So what do you think, did Massachusetts make it?

Weigh in below in the comments section, and enter our contest.

The winner will be the person who is closest (you can go over) on both of the following questions:

First, how much did health-care spending increase in 2013? Please submit to the first decimal place (for example, 0.7 percent, 1.7 percent, 4.3 percent, 6.6 percent, etc.).

Second, what was the total amount of money spent on health care in Massachusetts last year? Think double-digit billions.

Remember, the state’s calculations for both of the above will not include out-of-pocket expenses (except those related to insurance), health-care research dollars or public health spending.

The answers will come on Tuesday from the state’s Center for Health Information and Analysis.

Your prize…lunch with CHIA director Aron Boros at the hospital or health insurance cafeteria of your choice. And I might tag along too.

Hidden Price Of That Succulent Lobster: Health Woes Of Stoic Lobstermen

Longtime Maine lobsterman Jon Rogers (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Longtime Maine lobsterman Jon Rogers (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

By Richard Knox

Mainer Jon Rogers started lobstering 47 years ago at the age of 10, when he’d go out on his grandfather’s boat.

Ask him about his health and he says, “No worse than anyone else who uses his body in his work. My hips are sore, my knees are sore, my shoulders are sore, my back is sore. I get up every day and it takes me awhile to get going. I hurt every day.”

But Rogers, who lives on a skinny, south-pointing finger of land in Casco Bay called Orr’s Island, doesn’t go to the doctor much. “I never really complained about too much unless I was really hurting,” he says.

“I’d schedule a doctor’s appointment with all the intentions of going,” Rogers says. “But if there was an opportunity to haul traps for a few days, I’d set aside the doctor’s appointment and go haul traps.” This summer he’s running 800 traps, which means his days starts around 5:30 a.m.

Rogers appears to be pretty typical of Maine’s 5,000 lobstermen, and of all 9,000 people who work in the state’s fishing industry.

“They work really hard and have a lot of chronic diseases,” says Miranda Jo Rogers, Jon’s daughter. “These people have a stoic mentality — they don’t seek health [care] until they really need it. So there are no really positive role models on how to be proactive and keep healthy.”

Lobsterman Jon Rogers with med-student daughter Meredith Jo Rogers, who is studying the health of lobster harvesters. (Courtesy)

Lobsterman Jon Rogers with med-student daughter Miranda Jo Rogers. (Courtesy)

Miranda Rogers aims to do something about that. Although she’s still a Tufts Medical School student, she’s taken on a project she expects will take her to graduation and beyond — maybe decades beyond.

“I am happily indebted to the community that raised me, and I wish to make a long-lasting difference in Maine,” she wrote recently to the state’s lobster harvesters, asking them to fill out a 24-page questionnaire on their health.

It will be the most complete look ever at the health of a difficult-to-reach population with special health care needs, low rates of health insurance and high skepticism of outsiders.

“Up and down the coast, the commercial fisherman is very talkative on his own turf, but it’s a very secretive bunch and not that trusting,” Jon Rogers says. Continue reading

Democratic AG Candidates Question Whether Partners Deal Will Cut Costs

Veronica Thomas
CommonHealth Intern

The two Democratic candidates for Massachusetts attorney general are united in their skepticism: They question whether the deal forged by current AG Martha Coakley with Partners HealthCare will succeed in containing costs.

On Tuesday, The Boston Globe hosted a debate between candidates Maura Healey and Warren Tolman, who will go head-to-head for the Democratic nomination in two weeks. While the candidates diverged on a majority of issues, ranging from sexual assault to smart gun technology, they concurred (at minute 34-36 in the YouTube video above) that the controversial Coakley-Partners deal aimed at regulating the expansion of Partners, the state’s largest hospital network, may fall short.

Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi asked whether the proposed Coakley-Partners deal has “enough teeth for effective enforcement.” Here are the candidates’ responses:

Maura Healey, former Assistant Attorney General: There are aspects of this deal, Joan, that I am skeptical about. I actually had left the office at the time this agreement was done. But it’s true, Joan, I was in the office. I oversaw, as Public Protection Bureau Chief, the teams that prepared the reports on transparency, and trying to point to what was driving up costs. And I oversaw teams that began this investigation that resulted in this proposed agreement. What I’ve seen, what I’ve read, gives me pause.

I mean, we all know we’ve done a great job here as a state in terms of increasing accessibility to care, increasing quality of care, but costs are key. And as AG, you need to do everything you can to put a downward pressure on costs, and so I have some skepticism about the proposed agreement.

Warren Tolman, former State Senator: So the big issue here, from my perspective, is the ability of this agreement to control costs or not.

My mom spent the last five and half years of her life in a wheelchair, in and out of a nursing home, and in and out of hospitals. And I watched as my dad — my mom and dad had raised eight kids and they grappled with these ever-increasing costs that are associated with Partners and with other healthcare entities.

So I’m very, very concerned about the impact of the ever-increasing healthcare costs and whether this agreement really does what it’s intended to do in terms of curtailing those costs. That’s the number one concern. Continue reading

Even In Mass., Hundreds Of Young Central American Refugees Seek Care

"Flor" (Richard Knox for WBUR)

“Flor” (Richard Knox for WBUR)

By Richard Knox

CHELSEA, Mass. — The young Honduran woman appeared at the Chelsea HealthCare Center last February, fearing she was pregnant.

“Flor” — a pseudonym to protect family members back in Honduras — had paid a “coyote” $8,000 to escort her and her 3-year-old daughter to the U.S.-Mexican border. But when they got to the border town of Nuevo Laredo, the coyote sold her to a gang that held her in a tiny room with seven other women.

They raped her, then told her to pay $17,000 or they’d sell her daughter’s organs and force her into sex slavery.

Up in Massachusetts, her mother and father scrambled to borrow the money and wire it to Nuevo Laredo. Her kidnappers released Flor and the little girl; she doesn’t know what happened to the other women.

Flor and her daughter are among hundreds of Central American immigrants who’ve made their way to the blue-collar town of Chelsea, Mass., over the past year.

They represent a quiet influx that began months before the phenomenon hit the headlines and protests began flaring in communities from Cape Cod to California.

They come to Chelsea because many of them have family there. Sixty-two percent of the town’s 35,000 residents are Latino, and many are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

As we sit in a conference room at the Chelsea health center, the sun backlights the thick dark hair that frames Flor’s broad face as she tells me how and why she made the 2,300-mile trek from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.

“The decision I made, why I came here, was to give a better future to my daughter,” Flor says in Spanish, silent tears trickling down her cheeks. “In Honduras, it is very difficult. The gangs, they’re killing a lot of people. You have to give money month-to-month or they go to your house and they kill you.” Continue reading

How Transgender People Are Changing Their Voices

Lorelei Erisis, a transgender woman, tries out the Eva app in her Ayer home. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Lorelei Erisis, a transgender woman, tries out the Eva app in her Ayer home. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Lorelei Erisis taps the screen of a borrowed iPhone. The key of A, with kazoo-like resonance, fills her living room in Ayer, Mass.

Erisis taps another button labeled “start,” takes a deep breath, and sings the word “he,” trying to match the tone.

A number, 75 percent, pops onto the screen.

“My pitch was too low,” Erisis says. “Oh well. Let me try again.”

Erisis, a transgender woman, is trying out Eva, a mobile phone app that may be the first of its kind. Transgender men and women who want to raise or lower the pitch of their voice can go through a series of breathing and pitch exercises designed to help with what can be the most difficult characteristic to change — their voice.

“What I often hear is, ‘I pass as a woman until I open my mouth,’ ” says Kathe Perez, a speech language pathologist who designed the Eva app. Continue reading

Mass. Seeks $80M More From Feds For Health Website

Massachusetts will ask the federal government for another $80 million to build a new health insurance shopping website tied to the Affordable Care Act.

Massachusetts received $174 million for multi-state planning and a website that never worked.
The state has about $65 million left, but says it will need the additional money to build a new site.

So the total cost of the site — which is expected to be ready for the next open enrollment period that begins Nov. 15 — will be roughly $254 million. If the federal government agrees to the additional expense, it would end up spending about $224 million for the insurance exchange. The balance, about $30 million, would come out of the state’s capital budget.*

Project directors from hCentive, the company building out the new site, walked the Health Connector board through a demo Thursday morning. There were a few glitches, but a sample user was able to compare plans and enroll. The site has not been tested yet with the hundreds of users who are expected to log in when the next open enrollment period begins on Nov. 15. Continue reading

Mass. Pledges New State-Run Insurance Website Will Work

The decision is in: Massachusetts will go with a new state-run health insurance website.

The Patrick administration revealed Friday that it is no longer building out the option of sending residents shopping for coverage to the federal health insurance site, HealthCare.gov.

“We are poised to offer consumers a streamlined, single point-of-entry shopping experience for health care plans in time for fall 2014 Open Enrollment,” Gov. Deval Patrick wrote in a letter to federal officials, dated Thursday.

About 450,000 residents are expected to use the state’s new site, built with the Virginia-based company hCentive, when it is set to go live Nov. 15. The residents include:

– at least 251,000 residents who’ve tried to enroll for free or subsidized coverage since last October and are in a temporary plan through MassHealth (this coverage expires Dec. 31);

– another 98,000 people who were in Commonwealth Care when the website failed and have remained in those plans (this coverage also expires Dec. 31);

– and residents who purchase private insurance through the Health Connector.

Many of these people are wary of state promises. They waited months after applying for coverage online, not sure if they had health insurance. Continue reading

Beyond Good And Evil: New Science Casts Light On Morality In The Brain

Harvard brain scientist Joshua Buckholtz has never forgotten a convict he met back when he was an undergrad conducting psychological tests in prisons. The man had beaten another man nearly to death for stepping on his foot in a dance club.

“I wanted to ask him,” he recalls, “‘In what world was the reward of beating this person so severely, for this — to me — minor infraction, worth having terrible food and barbed wire around you?’ ”

But over the years, Buckholtz became convinced that this bad deed was a result of faulty brain processing, perhaps in a circuit called the frontostriatal dopamine system. In an impulsive person’s brain, he says, attention just gets so narrowly focused on an immediate reward that, in effect, the future disappears.

He explains: “If you had asked this person, ‘What will happen if you beat someone nearly to death?’, they will tell you, ‘Oh, I’ll be put away.’ It’s not that these people who commit crimes are dumb, but what happens is, in the moment, that information about costs and consequences can’t get in to their decision-making.”

For two decades, researchers have scanned and analyzed the brains of psychopaths and murderers, but they haven’t pinpointed any single source of evil in the brain. What they’ve found instead, as Buckholtz puts it, “is that our folk concepts of good and evil are much more complicated, and multi-faceted, and riven with uncertainty than we ever thought possible before.”

In other words, so much for the old idea that we have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, and that morality is simply a battle between the two. Using new technology, brain researchers are beginning to tease apart the biology that underlies our decisions to behave badly or do good deeds. They’re even experimenting with ways to alter our judgments of what is right and wrong, and our deep gut feelings of moral conviction.

One thing is certain: We may think in simple terms of “good” and “evil,” but that’s not how it looks in the brain at all.

In past years, as neuroscientists and psychologists began to delve into morality, “Many of us were after a moral center of the brain, or a particular system or circuit that was responsible for all of morality,” says assistant professor Liane Young, who runs The Morality Lab at Boston College. But “it turns out that morality can’t be located in any one area, or even set of areas — that it’s all over, that it colors all aspects of our life, and that’s why it takes up so much space in the brain.”

So there’s no “root of all evil.” Rather, says Buckholtz, “When we do brain studies of moral decision-making, what we are led into is an understanding that there are many different paths to antisocial behavior.”

If we wanted to build antisocial offenders, he says, brain science knows some of the recipe: They’d be hyper-responsive to rewards like drugs, sex and status — and the more immediate, the better. “Another thing we would build in is an inability to maintain representations of consequences and costs,” he says. “We would certainly short-circuit their empathic response to other people. We would absolutely limit their ability to regulate their emotions, particularly negative emotions like anger and fear.”

At his Harvard lab, Buckholtz is currently studying the key ability that long-ago convict lacked — to weigh future consequence against immediate gratification. In one ongoing experiment (see the video above), he’s testing whether he can use electrical stimulation to alter people’s choices. Continue reading

Medical Marijuana 101: Doctors, Regulators Brace For ‘Big Marijuana’

The argument that marijuana is poised to become Big — as in Big Tobacco — begins more than a hundred years ago, argues Dr. Sharon Levy, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Changes in curing made tobacco easier to inhale, additives made it more addictive, and machines began to churn out inexpensive, readily available cigarettes, she says. With these “innovations” and lots of market savvy ads, tobacco use and addiction rose dramatically.

“Is there anything to prevent innovative products with marijuana that will do the exact same thing?” asked Levy, who runs the adolescent substance abuse program at Children’s.

Levy described her concerns about Big Marijuana in the New England Journal of Medicine last month. She acknowledges that marijuana is nowhere near as harmful as is tobacco, and that marijuana has some health benefits. But Levy worries that marijuana addiction rates, now around 9 percent of users, could climb to those seen among tobacco users (32 percent) without strict controls on growers and manufacturers. Growers are already producing strains of marijuana with stronger and stronger concentrations of THC, the ingredient that makes people high. It’s also the ingredient that seems to trigger depression, anxiety and sometimes psychosis in Levy’s adolescent patients.

“At the heart of it,” Levy said, “the drive to make a profitable market out of marijuana is at odds with protecting the public health because the way to make marijuana profitable is to sell more and more of it.” Continue reading

Governor Reviewing Mass. Bill That Would Expand Autism Supports

Gov. Deval Patrick, in an April 29 file photo (Josh Reynolds/AP)

Gov. Deval Patrick, in an April 29 file photo (Josh Reynolds/AP)

Many parents of children on the autism spectrum are celebrating passage of a bill that is among dozens already on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk.

The bill would create a tax-free savings account for autism and disability care; would require Medicaid coverage for autism behavioral treatment; and would give thousands of residents with autism access to state disability services. Currently only those whose IQ is under 70 qualify.

Barbara L’Italien, with the advocacy group ARC of Massachusetts, has seen autism rates skyrocket since her son was diagnosed in 1990.

“It is a public health crisis,” she says. “It is something we need to wrap our arms around and be proactive about, and I think this legislation really attempts to do that.”

The costs of expanding Medicaid and disability services is not clear.

A spokeswoman says Patrick is reviewing the bill.