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Cardiovascular Disease Is Primed to Kill More Older Adults, Especially Blacks and Hispanics

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by Judith Graham
Tue, 30 May 2023 09:00:00 +0000

Cardiovascular disease — the No. 1 cause of death among people 65 and older — is poised to become more prevalent in the years ahead, disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic communities and exacting an enormous toll on the and quality of life of older Americans.

The estimates are sobering: By 2060, the prevalence of ischemic heart disease (a caused by blocked arteries and also known as coronary artery disease) is projected to rise 31% with 2025; heart failure will increase 33%; heart attacks will grow by 30%; and strokes will increase by 34%, according to a team of researchers from Harvard and other institutions. The greatest increase will between 2025 and 2030, they predicted.

The dramatic expansion of the U.S. aging population (cardiovascular disease is far more common in older adults than in younger people) and rising numbers of people with conditions that put them at risk of heart disease and stroke — high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity foremost among them — are expected to contribute to this alarming scenario.

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Because the risk factors are more common among Black and Hispanic populations, cardiovascular illness and death will become even more common for these groups, the researchers predicted. (Hispanic people can be of any race or combination of races.)

“Disparities in the burden of cardiovascular disease are only going to be exacerbated” unless targeted efforts are made to strengthen health education, expand prevention, and improve access to effective therapies, wrote the authors of an accompanying editorial, from Stony Brook in New York and Baylor University Medical Center in .

“Whatever focus we've had before on managing [cardiovascular] disease risk in Black and Hispanic Americans, we need to redouble our efforts,” said Clyde Yancy, chief of cardiology and vice dean for diversity and inclusion at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, who was not involved with the research.

Of course, medical advances, public health policies, and other developments could alter the outlook for cardiovascular disease over the next several decades.

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More than 80% of cardiovascular deaths occur among adults 65 or older. For about a dozen years, the total number of cardiovascular deaths in this age group has steadily ticked upward, as the ranks of older adults have expanded and previous progress in curbing fatalities from heart disease and strokes has been undermined by Americans' expanding waistlines, poor diets, and physical inactivity.

Among people 65 and older, cardiovascular deaths plunged 22% between 1999 and 2010, according to data from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute — a testament to new medical and surgical therapies and treatments and a sharp decline in smoking, among other public health initiatives. Then between 2011 and 2019, deaths climbed 13%.

The pandemic has also added to the death toll, with coronavirus infections causing serious complications such as blood clots and millions of seniors avoiding seeking medical care out of fear of becoming infected. Most affected have been low-income individuals, and older non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic people, who have died from the virus at disproportionately higher rates than non-Hispanic white people.

“The pandemic laid bare ongoing health inequities,” and that has fueled a new wave of research into disparities across various medical conditions and their causes, said Nakela Cook, a cardiologist and executive director of the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, an independent organization authorized by Congress.

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One of the most detailed examinations yet, published in JAMA Cardiology in March, examined mortality rates in Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic white populations from 1990 to 2019 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It showed that Black men remain at the highest risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, especially in Southern states along the Mississippi River and in the northern Midwest. (The age-adjusted mortality rate from cardiovascular disease for Black men in 2019 was 245 per 100,000, compared with 191 per 100,000 for white men and 135 per 100,000 for Hispanic men. Results for women within each demographic were lower.)

Progress stemming deaths from cardiovascular disease in Black men slowed considerably between 2010 and 2019. Across the country, cardiovascular deaths for that group dropped 13%, far less than the 28% decline from 2000 to 2010 and 19% decline from 1990 to 2000. In the regions where Black men were most at risk, the picture was even worse: In Mississippi, for instance, deaths of Black men fell only 1% from 2010 to 2019, while in Michigan they dropped 4%. In the District of Columbia, they actually rose, by nearly 5%.

While individual lifestyles are partly responsible for the unequal burden of cardiovascular disease, the American Heart Association's 2017 scientific statement on the cardiovascular health of African Americans notes that “perceived racial discrimination” and related stress are associated with hypertension, obesity, persistent inflammation, and other clinical processes that raise the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Though Black people are deeply affected, so are other racial and ethnic minorities who experience adversity in their day-to-day lives, several experts noted. However, recent studies of cardiovascular deaths don't feature some of these groups, including Asian Americans and Native Americans.

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What are the implications for the future? Noting significant variations in cardiovascular health outcomes by geographic location, Alain Bertoni, an internist and professor of epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, said, “We may need different in different parts of the country.”

Gregory Roth, a co-author of the JAMA Cardiology paper and an associate professor of cardiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, called for a renewed effort to educate people in at-risk communities about “modifiable risk factors” — high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, smoking, inadequate physical activity, unhealthy diet, and insufficient sleep. The American Heart Association has suggestions on its website for promoting cardiovascular health in each of these areas.

Michelle Albert, a cardiologist and the current president of the American Heart Association, said more attention needs to be paid in medical education to “social determinants of health” — including income, education, housing, neighborhood environments, and community characteristics — so the workforce is better prepared to address unmet health needs in vulnerable populations.

Natalie Bello, a cardiologist and the director of hypertension research at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said, “We really need to be going into vulnerable communities and reaching people where they're at to increase their knowledge of risk factors and how to reduce them.” This could mean deploying community health workers more broadly or expanding innovative programs like ones that bring pharmacists into Black-owned barbershops to educate Black men about high blood pressure, she suggested.

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“Now, more than ever, we have the medical therapies and technologies in place to treat cardiovascular conditions,” said Rishi Wadhera, a cardiologist and section head of health policy and equity research at the Smith Center for Outcomes Research in Cardiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. What's needed, he said, are more vigorous efforts to ensure all older patients, including those from disadvantaged communities, are connected with primary care physicians and receive appropriate screening and treatment for cardiovascular risk factors, and high-quality, evidence-based care in the event of heart failure, a heart attack, or a stroke.

We're eager to hear from about questions you'd like answered, problems you've been having with your care, and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit kffhealthnews.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

By: Judith Graham
Title: Cardiovascular Disease Is Primed to Kill More Older Adults, Especially Blacks and Hispanics
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/cardiovascular-disease-increase-mortality-older-adults-blacks-hispanics/
Published Date: Tue, 30 May 2023 09:00:00 +0000

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Therapists Learn How To Help Farmers Cope With Stress Before It’s Too Late

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Tony Leys
Tue, 25 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental crisis, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing “988,” or the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741.

GRINNELL, Iowa — The farmers' co-op here is a center of hope every spring. It's where farmers buy seed and fertilizer for the summer's crops, and where they seek tips to maximize their harvest of corn and soybeans.

But on a recent morning, a dozen mental health professionals gathered at the Key Cooperative Agronomy Center to discuss why so many farmers quietly struggle with untreated anxiety and depression.

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Studies have concluded that suicide is unusually common among farmers. Researchers believe it's not just because many farmers have other risk factors, such as rural addresses and access to guns.

The tragic trend has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sponsors training sessions like the one in Grinnell to health care professionals learn how to talk to farmers about the pressures they face in wringing a living out of the land.

“A lot of them are born to it. They don't have any choice,” therapist David Brown explained to the 's participants. He noted many farms have been passed down for generations. Current owners feel that if they fail, they would be letting down their grandparents, parents, , and grandchildren.

Brown, who works for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, led the training in Grinnell. He said farmers' fate hinges on factors out of their control. Will the weather be favorable? Will world events cause prices to soar or crash? Will political conflicts spark changes in federal agricultural support programs? Will a farmer suffer an injury or illness that makes them unable to perform critical chores?

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Brown said surveys show many farmers are reluctant to seek mental health care, partly because they think therapists or couldn't understand their lives.

Tina Recker, a mental health therapist in northeastern Iowa, attended the training session. She has lived on farms, and she has seen how the profession can become a person's entire identity. “It's just farm, farm, farm, farm,” she told the group. “If something goes wrong with it, that's your whole world.”

It's difficult to estimate how much of farmers' increased risk of suicide is due to their profession.

Part of the reason for the elevated rate could be that many farmers are middle-aged or older , who tend to be more at risk in general. “But it's broader than that for sure,” said Edwin Lewis, a USDA administrator who helps oversee efforts to address the situation.

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The Grinnell training session was part of a federal program called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. Lewis said the program, which also funds counseling hotlines and support groups, spends $10 million a year.

Jason Haglund sees the issue from multiple angles. He's a mental health advocate who farms part-time near the central Iowa town of Boone. He and his brother-in-law raise corn and soybeans on the 500-acre farm where Haglund grew up. His family has farmed in the area since the 1880s. His parents hung on despite going into bankruptcy during the 1980s farm crisis, and he embraces his role as caretaker of their legacy.

Haglund is trained as an alcohol and drug addiction counselor, and he co-hosts an Iowa podcast about the need to improve mental health care.

He said it can be stressful to run any kind of family business. But farmers have a particularly strong emotional tie to their heritage, which keeps many in the profession.

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“Let's be honest: Farming at all these days isn't necessarily a good financial decision,” he said.

Farmers traditionally have valued self-sufficiency, he said. They try to solve their own problems, whether it's a busted tractor or a debilitating bout of anxiety.

“With the older generation, it's still, ‘Suck it up and get over it,'” Haglund said. Many younger people seem more willing to talk about mental health, he said. But in rural , many lack access to mental health care.

Farmers' suicide risk is also heightened by many of them owning guns, which an immediate means to act on deadly impulses, Haglund said.

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Guns are an accepted part of rural , in which they are seen as a useful tool to control pests, he said. “You can't go into a rural community and say, ‘We're going to take your guns away,'” he said. But a trusted therapist or friend might suggest that a depressed person temporarily hand over their guns to someone else who can safely store them.

Haglund said health care professionals shouldn't be the only ones learning how to address mental stresses. He encourages the public to look into “mental health first aid,” a national effort to spread knowledge about symptoms of struggle and how they can be countered.

A 2023 review of studies on farmer suicides in multiple countries, including the U.S., cited cultural and economic stresses.

“Farmers who died by suicide, particularly men, were described as hard-working, strong, private people who took great pride in being the stoic breadwinners of their families. They were often remembered as members of a unique and fading culture who were poorly understood by outsiders,” wrote the authors, from the University of Alberta in Canada.

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Rebecca Purc-Stephenson, a psychology professor who helped write the paper, said health professionals face two challenges: persuading farmers to seek help for mental stress, then encouraging them to keep coming back for therapy.

Back at the training in Iowa, instructors urged mental health professionals to have flexible schedules, and to be understanding when farmers postpone appointments at the last minute.

Maybe one of their animals is sick and needs attention. Maybe a machine broke and needs to be fixed immediately. Maybe the weather is perfect for planting or harvesting.

“Time is money,” said Brown, the therapist leading the training.

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The session's lessons included what to ask and not ask when meeting farmers. A big no-no is inquiring right away about how much land they are working. “If you ask them how many acres they're farming, that's like asking to see their bank account,” warned Rich Gassman, director of Iowa's Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, who assisted with the lesson.

It would be better to start by asking what they enjoy about farming, the instructors said.

Many farmers also need to talk through emotional issues surrounding when, how, or even if the next generation will take over the family operation.

Tim Christensen, a farm management specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, said some standard advice on how to deal with stress could backfire with farmers.

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For example, he said, a health care professional should never advise a farmer to relax by taking a couple of weeks off. Most of them can't get away from their responsibilities for that long, he said.

“There's a common saying on the farm: No good vacation goes unpunished.”

Warning Signs of Mental Struggle

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention lists these signs that a person might be considering suicide:

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  • The person talks about killing themselves, feeling hopeless, having no reason to live, being a burden to others, feeling trapped, or having unbearable pain.
  • The person increases their use of alcohol or drugs, sleeps too much or too little, displays fatigue or aggression, withdraws from activities and family and friends, visits or calls people to say goodbye, gives away possessions, or searches online for a way to end their life.
  • People considering suicide often seem depressed, anxious, irritable, angry, ashamed, or uninterested in activities. In some cases, they may appear to feel sudden relief or improvement in their mood.
  • People in crisis can reach the national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting “988.”

——————————
By: Tony Leys
Title: Therapists Learn How To Help Farmers Cope With Stress Before It's Too Late
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/farmer-mental-health-suicide-therapists-iowa-usda/
Published Date: Tue, 25 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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US Surgeon General Declares Gun Violence ‘a Public Health Crisis’

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Rachana Pradhan and Fred Clasen-
Tue, 25 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared firearm violence a public health crisis, as gun deaths and injuries punctuate in America.

On nearly every day of 2024 so far, a burst of gunfire has hit at least four people somewhere in the country. Some days, communities have endured four or five such shootings.

The nation's top doctor called on policymakers to consider gun safety measures such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and universal background checks for all firearm purchases. His advisory also urges a “significant increase” in funding for research on gun injuries and deaths, as well as greater access to mental health care and trauma-informed resources for people who have experienced firearm violence.

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In 2022, more than 48,000 people were killed by guns in the U.S., or about 132 people a day, and suicides accounted for more than half of those deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 200-plus Americans seek emergency care for firearm injuries each day, according to estimates from Johns Hopkins research. No federal database nonfatal gun injuries.

The Office of the Surgeon General does not set or carry out gun policy, but historically its reports and warnings have nudged policymakers and lawmakers to act.

Murthy, a physician, told KFF Health News he hoped to convey the broader toll of gun violence on the nation and the need for an urgent public health response. He cited soaring gun deaths among and teens and noted that “the mental health toll of firearm violence is far more profound and pervasive than many of us recognize.”

“Every day that passes we lose more kids to gun violence,” Murthy said, “the more children who are witnessing episodes of gun violence, the more children who are shot and survive that are dealing with a lifetime of physical and mental health impacts.”

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Firearm-related homicides over the past decade and suicides over the past two decades have driven the sharp rise in gun deaths, the advisory says.

Guns are the leading cause of death for children and teens, with higher death rates among Black and Hispanic youths. Researchers from Boston University found that during the height of the covid pandemic, Black children were 100 times as likely as white children to experience gun injuries. Hispanic and Asian children also saw major increases in firearm assault injuries during that time, that study showed.

Joseph Sakran, executive vice chair of surgery at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and chief medical officer for Brady United Against Gun Violence, said the surgeon general's declaration is a “historic moment that sounds the alarm for all Americans.”

But Sakran added: “It cannot stop here. We have to use this as another step in the right direction. No one wants to see more children gunned down.”

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Murthy has long said gun violence should be framed as a health issue. He argued that the approach has been successful in combating significant societal problems, citing tobacco control efforts that took hold following the then-surgeon general's landmark 1964 report concluding that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer and other diseases.

“We saved so many lives, and that's what we can do here, too,” Murthy said.

Murthy's move is one of several recent Biden administration actions designed to combat gun violence, as most gun-related measures remain political nonstarters in Congress. Federal officials have states to use Medicaid dollars to pay for gun violence prevention, and the White House has called on hospital executives and doctors to gather more data about gunshot injuries and to routinely counsel about the safe use of firearms.

While available data points to tragic outcomes across American communities, government officials and public health researchers have long been stymied by sparse federal funding devoted to gun violence research and the scope of its health effects.

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“I've been studying gun violence for about 33 years now and there's still some really basic and fundamental questions I can't answer,” said Daniel Webster, a gun violence researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

“To really understand gun violence, you need to do more than just look at publicly available surveillance data,” he said. “You need to actually do in-depth studies involving the populations at highest risk for shooting or being shot.”

A Brady analysis found that of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S., firearm injuries received the third-lowest amount of federal research funding through the National Institutes of Health for each person who died. The only causes of death that garnered less research funding through NIH were poisonings and falls, according to the analysis.

Sonali Rajan, an adjunct associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University who researches the effects of gun violence on children, said political leaders and others need to reframe the debate on gun violence from to public health.

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“We are raising a whole generation of children for whom exposure to gun violence is normal,” Rajan said.

In Michigan, “we had a kid survive the Oxford High School shooting only to go to Michigan University and see another mass shooting,” she said. “It is unbelievably shameful.”

Serving as President Joe Biden's surgeon general since 2021, Murthy has, at times, caused political controversy with his views on gun violence.

Over a decade ago, former President Barack Obama nominated Murthy to be the nation's top doctor. But Murthy's support for a federal ban on the sale of assault weapons and ammunition and additional restrictions on gun purchases drew the ire of the National Rifle Association, as well as Republicans and some Democrats in Congress. The U.S. Senate narrowly confirmed Murthy to the job in December 2014, more than a year after his nomination.

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Murthy has previously issued advisories on social isolation and loneliness, youth mental health, and the well-being of health workers. He said gun violence comes up in many of his conversations with young people about the mental health challenges they're facing.

“Fears around gun violence have really pervaded so much of the psyche of America in ways that are very harmful to our mental health and well-being,” Murthy said.

Many other causes of death are treated differently as to understanding the problems and developing solutions, Webster said. But “that's generally not what we've done with gun violence. We've oversimplified it and overpoliticized it.”

As Sakran put it: “As we look at firearm injuries, there's arguably no public issue that's as urgent.”

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——————————
By: Rachana Pradhan and Fred Clasen-Kelly
Title: US Surgeon General Declares Gun Violence ‘a Public Health Crisis'
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/gun-violence-us-surgeon-general-vivek-murthy-public-health-crisis/
Published Date: Tue, 25 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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https://www.biloxinewsevents.com/an-arm-and-a-leg-meet-the-middlemans-middleman/

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An Arm and a Leg: Meet the Middleman’s Middleman

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Dan Weissmann
Tue, 25 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

Some people who expected their insurance to cover some out-of-network care have been getting stuck with enormous bills.

One Kansas City, Kansas, couple paid thousands of dollars out-of-pocket and up-front for care. They expected to get a partial reimbursement from their insurer. So, they were shocked when instead they got a bill saying they owed even more than what they'd already paid.

It turns out, a little-known data firm called MultiPlan was working with their insurance company to suggest cuts to their coverage. MulitPlan says it's helping control ballooning health care costs by keeping hospitals and providers from overbilling. But it's often left paying the difference.In this episode of “An Arm and a Leg,” host Dan Weissmann breaks down this confusing world of out-of-network care with New York Times reporter Chris Hamby, who recently published an investigation into MultiPlan.

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Dan Weissmann


@danweissmann

Host and producer of “An Arm and a Leg.” Previously, Dan was a staff reporter for Marketplace and Chicago's WBEZ. His work also appears on All Things Considered, Marketplace, the BBC, 99 Percent Invisible, and Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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Adam Raymonda
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Transcript: Meet the Middleman's Middleman

Note: “An Arm and a Leg” uses speech-recognition software to generate transcripts, which may contain errors. Please use the transcript as a tool but check the corresponding audio before quoting the podcast.

Dan: Hey there! Paul and Kristin in Kansas City with their two kids. Kristin and their daughter, the older kid– they have some complex medical issues, need to see some specialized folks. And some of those folks don't take Kristin and Paul's insurance. They're “out of network,” so Kristin and Paul pay out of pocket– a lot. Maybe $20,000 a year. BUT their health insurance plan does reimburse some out-of-network care. 

o, in January 2023, Kristin called a help line connected with the insurance plan to find out how that was gonna work. 

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Kristin H: They basically said, sure, easy peasy, you pay and then you get online and you click this form, you show what you paid, and then we send you a check and reimburse you. 

Dan: Kristin was on it. She built a whole spreadsheet to track every bill she paid, every reimbursement form she'd submitted. And she waited for the checks. The insurance company gave itself months just to process the claims. And when they finally sent statements, the statements seemed … weird. They were like: 

Kristin H: Here's what you paid, and here's your discounts, and here's what you may owe. 

Dan: And Kristin was like … what? 

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Kristin H: Because I was thinking, well, I don't owe anything. We paid out of pocket, but then I was thinking, well, this must be the portion that they're paying us back. But then the math didn't add up. 

Dan: Yeah. Not at all. Kristin was expecting to get 50 percent back, like her plan said she would. But this amount wasn't anything like 50 percent. And what's this “discount” business? 

It took months– and a lot of digging from Paul, and ultimately a talk with a NewYork Times reporter– before Kristin and Paul understood what was going on, and why it was costing them thousands of dollars. 

What they didn't know until that New York Times story came out was: Someone was making a multi-billion dollar business out of experiences like theirs. As that story made clear, LOTS of people who expected their insurance to cover them for expensive out-of-network care ended up on the hook for a lot more than they'd expected. 

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That story introduced readers to a character who's become kind of a TYPE on this show. Not a type of person, but a type of business: A middleman that works behind the scenes with insurance companies. So we've seen that dynamic with pharmacy benefit managers– the folks who decide what drugs you can get and for how much– and more recently, we looked at a company that uses an algorithm to justify kicking folks out of nursing homes. The middleman in this New York Times story was a company called MultiPlan. 

Reporter Chris Hamby found MultiPlan and insurance companies they worked with were leaving patients on the hook for huge amounts that they absolutely had not expected to pay. MultiPlan was also, along with those insurance companies, pocketing big fees. That story got some folks' attention. A U.S. Senator has called for action from antitrust regulators. Those regulators might get interested. And we may wanna egg them on– so we're gonna need to understand the whole scheme. Whothis middleman is– MultiPlan– and how they got themselves in the middle of 60 million people's health insurance, by their own estimate … and how they make a lot of money. 

This is An Arm and a Leg, a show about why health care costs so freaking much, and what we can maybe do about it. I'm Dan Weissmann. I'm a reporter, and I like a challenge. So, our job on this show is to take one of the most enraging, terrifying, depressing parts of American – and bring you a show that's entertaining, empowering, and useful. 

And this time, I've got help. 

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Chris Hamby: My name is Chris Hamby. I'm a reporter on the investigations desk at the New York Times. 

Dan: Yeah, and of course, Chris is the one who spent months figuring out the story of this middleman company, MultiPlan. 

Chris Hamby: I was poking around a number of areas related to health insurance, and this name just kept coming up. 

Dan: Like in lawsuits. 

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Chris Hamby: And it wasn't always terribly clear what they did exactly or how they were compensated. 

Dan: Or how doctors and patients– regular people– were affected. 

Chris Hamby: So that's why I decided to try and figure this out, and it's sort of an opaque space as so many areas of health care are these days. 

Dan: Yeah. In fact, in order to understand this story at all– to understand who's doing WELL in this scenario– we've gotta peel back a layer. It's something we've talked about here before, but not for a while, and you know, not even my mom remembers everything I've ever said here. 

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This is about the mechanics of how most health insurance people get from their job actually works: about who actually pays medical bills when your insurance settles a claim. It's not the insurance company. It's actually the employer paying those bills. 

Of course, employers don't know how to actually RUN an insurance plan. [Unless the employer is Aetna, I guess]. So they hire insurance companies to administer them. You get a card that says Cigna or Blue Cross, but your employer's funds actually pay the medical bills, so these are called “self-funded” plans. But this is all stuff most of us are just not aware of. 

Here's Chris Hamby: 

Chris Hamby: I hadn't, until about a year ago, even heard of a self-funded plan. And I like to think that I'm reasonably well informed on this stuff. 

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Dan: Yeah, that is putting it mildly. Chris made his name and won a Pulitzer Prize covering workplace health issues. So, just park that for a minute: self-funded plan, where the employer is the “self,” actually paying the bills, and paying the insurance company a fee. The insurance company is a middleman. 

OK, now, next layer: The middleman's middleman. In this case, the company MultiPlan that Chris wrote about. What's their job? So in this story, the job they're doing– their middleman job– is to address what is admittedly kind of a tough question: If you go see somebody– a doctor, a therapist– who doesn't take your insurance, what happens? 

Chris Hamby: How do you determine what a fair amount to pay the provider is? And by extension, how much is the patient potentially on the hook for the unpaid balance? And that has long been a contentious issue. 

Dan: Because, if they don't take your insurance, a provider could charge … absolutely anything. So is your insurer– and again, that's often actually your employer– supposed to pay absolutely anything? How much are they supposed to pay? Figuring that out, it's a job. 

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About 15 years ago, another middleman company doing that job got sued by the NewYork state attorney general. The state said this earlier middleman's way of figuring out what to pay was screwing over both providers and patients. And the state's produced a solution. 

Chris Hamby: The insurance companies agreed to fund the creation of a nonprofit entity that was going be sort of an independent, neutral arbiter of fair prices. It was going to collect data from all the insurers and just make it publicly available. Make sure it was transparent to everyone. 

Dan: This nonprofit is called FAIR Health, and its data is actually public. It still exists. Like, you can use it yourself — you can look up the going rate for a knee replacement, a blood test, whatever. 

Chris Hamby: You can plug in your zip code, plug in your medical procedure and see an estimate of what, you know, typical out-of-network charges and in-network charges would be for these. 

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Dan: It's cool! Check it out yourself; it's useful. And all the major insurance companies agreed to use it– to use FAIR Health's benchmarks– to decide what to pay for out-of-network stuff. But, those agreements only committed insurance companies to using FAIR Health for … five years. They expired in 2014. 

Enter middleman companies like MultiPlan, saying to insurance companies: Hey, you COULD use FAIR Health– or you could route out-of-network bills to us: Hire us to get you an even better deal– better prices. 

Chris Hamby: And it's important to note also that this is a time when private equity is investing in healthcare, and there are some legitimate concerns about driving up those list prices to ridiculously high levels in a lot of cases. So, there were real issues that insurers were saying that they were responding to at the time.

Dan: OK, so that's the pitch. MultiPlan is saying to insurance companies: We'll help you hold the line. We can save you more money than if you used FAIR Health. Well, kind of. Because here's where we come back to the whole thing about self-funded insurance. MultiPlan isn't saying, “We can save YOU, insurance company, more money than if you used FAIR Health.” They're saying, “We can help you save your CLIENTS– employers who do self-funded health insurance– more money. And when you save them money, you're gonna make money. Because you can charge them a percentage of what you're saving them. And we'll get a percentage too.” A percentage of the savings. On every single bill. That's a very different deal than just using FAIR Health's data. 

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Chris Hamby: FAIR Health is not taking a percentage of the savings that they obtain. They're just selling you their data. And the insurers typically are not charging employers a fee for using FAIR Health's data. But if they use MultiPlan's data, both MultiPlan and the insurer typically charge a fee. 

Dan: A percentage. In examples from Chris's story, the insurance company gets 35 percent of those savings. 

Chris Hamby: And this has become a significant amount of money for a lot of insurance companies. Overall, UnitedHealthcare, is up to, you know, around a billion dollars per year in recent years. 

Dan: UnitedHealthcare collects like a billion dollars in fees for these services, basically, for using MultiPlan specifically? 

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Chris Hamby: And they couch that by saying some other out-of-network savings programs, but yes. 

Dan: Whooh! 

Chris Hamby: One thing that the insurers say is that the employers are aware of this; they've signed up for it. 

Dan: That employers are hiring, say, Cigna, with MultiPlan to find savings. And employers are agreeing to the fees. 

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Chris Hamby: Where it gets a little bit dicier from the employer's perspective is when you see claims where, for instance, you end up paying the insurance company more in fees than you paid the doctor for treating your employee. 

Dan: yeah, one example from Chris's story: An out-of-network provider wanted more than $150,000 on one bill. And after the insurance company and MultiPlan did their bit, the employer, a trucking company, ended up paying $58,000. Eight thousand for the provider, and $50,000 to the insurance company and MultiPlan. So, on the one hand, the employer maybe saved $90,000. But paying $50,000 for “cost containment?” Maybe doesn't sound like such a bargain. 

Some employers and a union that runs a health plan have filed lawsuits looking for some of that money back. And there's also a big irony here because MultiPlan's pitch is, you need us because sticker prices are super-wildly high. But MultiPlan isn't doing anything to contain the sticker prices as a systemic problem. In fact, the higher providers crank up their sticker prices, the more money MultiPlan and the insurance companies they work with can make. But then there's a big question too, which is, what happens to the rest of that bill for the sticker price? Who pays that? That's next … 

This episode of An Arm and a Leg is a co-production of Public Road Productions and KFF Health News. The folks at KFF Health News are amazing journalists. Their work wins all kinds of awards, every year. We're honored to work with them. 

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So, a provider sends a bill. MultiPlan and the insurance company say, “Woah, way too much.” And then what happens? Well, it depends. Sometimes, MultiPlan negotiates with the provider. They've got people who do this. And those negotiators drive hard bargains. According to Chris's story, negotiators sometimes tell providers: Here's my offer, you've got a few hours to take it or leave it, and my next offer might be lower. 

Chris talked with a pediatric therapist who said an offer based on MultiPlan's calculation was less than half of what Medicaid pays. Less than half. And rates– they're notoriously pretty low. Chris talked with some of MultiPlan's negotiators too. 

Chris Hamby: It was interesting because some of the negotiators felt that they were doing their part to hold down costs and really sort of stick it to providers and hospitals that were price gouging. 

Dan: But …one told Chris she knew the offers she made– they weren't fair. “It's just a ,” another one said. “It's sad.” And maybe the difference is that some of these negotiators were thinking of a big hospital charging $150,000  for something. And maybe some of them were thinking of someone like that therapist– the one who got offered less than half of Medicaid's rate. 

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And I'm not gonna get into the question of who should be doing this kind of negotiating, or what's fair. I mean, not , anyway. Because: in a lot of cases with MultiPlan, there's no negotiation at all. Negotiation only happens when the employer has told the insurance company, look, protect my people. Figure out SOMETHING with the provider so they don't go after my workers for the rest. 

But that doesn't always happen. A lot of the time, what happens is: The provider sends a bill. The insurance company kicks in whatever it decides to … and that's it. 

So Chris's story with a woman who had surgery. With MultiPlan's help, her insurance company decided to pay about $5,400. And she got stuck with a bill for more than $100,000. 

And then there's Kristin and Paul in Kansas City. They paid their bills upfront and then looked to get reimbursed– kept a spreadsheet. But when their claims finally got processed, the numbers didn't add up. Here's what they saw: Like pretty much every insurance plan, Kristin and Paul's had a “deductible”– an amount they had to pay out of pocket before insurance would reimburse anything. 

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Kristin H: Then I started watching the deductible and you know, when I calculated my spreadsheet of how much we had paid out of pocket, and when we saw what was on like our out-of-network spend, those two weren't matching. 

Dan: She really couldn't figure this out. 

Kristin H: I just kind of handed over all of my spreadsheets to Paul, and so that's when he started digging into the “your discount.” 

Dan: “Your discount…” That was this mysterious number on all the statements from the insurance company. In addition to the provider's rate, and what insurance might pay, the statements listed, quote, “your discount.” 

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Paul H: And I'm like, what is this? I don't understand why it's talking about a discount. We are paying cash out of pocket to the provider at their billed rate, and our insurance is saying that there's some sort of discount. 

Dan: After a bunch of phone calls, he figured it out: The discount was … the difference between the amount on the bill and what the insurance company– with MultiPlan's help– had decided was a “fair price.” 

Paul H: For example, an occupational therapy bill that might be $125, this third party adjuster might come back and say, essentially what the market rate for that should be is $76. And so, your discount, quote, unquote, is $49. 

Dan: Except of course, it wasn't a discount for Kristin and Paul. They had already paid that $49, when they paid the provider upfront. Once Kristin and Paul learned what the “discount” actually meant, they started to understand who actually got the benefit– the insurer. Because … 

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Kristin H: That discounted rate is actually what will be applied to your deductible. So you're not going to hit your deductible nearly as quickly as you think. Right? Because we've essentially ignored half of your payment. 

Dan: This hits Kristin and Paul in two ways. 

First, it means they're actually spending a lot more before their insurance kicks in. It also means that when their insurance does start reimbursing them a percentage of what they've spent, the insurance is only paying a percentage of that lower amount. Overall, it means the reimbursements Kristin and Paul get are gonna be thousands of dollars less than they'd expected. 

I mean, it took a LOT of work for Kristin and Paul to figure this out. At one point, Paul posted to Reddit asking for help– that's where Chris Hamby found him. In Paul's post, he noted how nobody ever even mentioned this third-party adjuster– not until he had already talked to his insurance company for what he said was “about 18 times.” Frequently on hold for 45 minutes or more. 

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Kristin says once they finally figured out what was going on, they could figure out how to budget for it. There were sacrifices. She stopped seeing one of her providers as often. But finally figuring out what was going on also them to live with it. 

Kristin H: The infuriating part was telling, like doing exactly what we were told to do, following the process, and then feeling like you are crazy. Like why, why doesn't this make sense? You know? And so I think I'm fortunate that Paul just wouldn't let it die and was gonna research until he figured it out. 

Dan: You did all of the work, you tracked it down, you identified the problem, and you, as you say, kind of resigned yourself to it. You're like, okay, this Goliath is not– we don't have the slingshot for this. Goliath is stomping all over our town, and we have to live in that reality. Having the knowledge, having done that work, gives you, it sounds like, an ability to have some peace. Like having tracked it down means that this sucks, but it's not the same as living in a situation where like, now what? Like anything could happen.

Kristin H: Yeah, you feel crazy or hopeless. You know? Like I've done everything and this doesn't … So there's just the sense of like, am I missing something? You know, is there anything left for me to do? I recognize that everyone is not like this, but for me, knowledge is a gift. 

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Dan: Chris Hamby says there's rarely a way to get this kind of knowledge in advance. He says you're unlikely to find these kinds of details in your insurance plan document. 

Chris Hamby: It typically will not say when you go out of network, we're going to send your claim to a third party that you've never heard of to price it. It will just give some sort of vague language about competitive rates in your geographic area. And if you call up in advance of seeking the care to try and get an estimate, most of the time you will not get much more specifics than that. They tell you you have to just go and they'll process the claim and you'll see when the explanation of benefits comes through. 

Dan: Yeah, and look, I hate to get you even angrier, but Chris says the rules can change on you, without notice. 

Chris Hamby: A lot of people that I talk with also have seen no change in their insurance plan, but they've seen their reimbursement rates decline over time. 

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Dan: Turns out, behind the scenes, their insurance made a switch from a service like FAIR Health, which looks at what's getting paid in general, to a service like MultiPlan, which looks for the steepest possible price cuts. 

Chris Hamby: And the difference between those two amounts can be vast. So you have people who in some cases stop seeing their doctors because their costs doubled almost overnight. 

Dan: Oh god. And still. Better to know. Better that as many of us know as possible. That's why Chris reviewed more than 50,000 pages of documents, and interviewed more than a hundred people for that story. And why lawyers for the New York Times helped get courts to agree to give him documents that had been under seal. 

Kristin and Paul– who had figured most of this out for themselves– they definitely appreciated all that work. 

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Paul H: When Chris published the article that he did, it was very validating to know we're not the only ones who are in this same boat. And there's actually people who have had far worse experiences than ours. Like, ours kind of pale in comparison. And then immediately, like, within 24 hours to see 1,500 or 1,600 comments on the article talking about it. It's like, okay, I might not have the stone that can slay the giant, but maybe The NewYork Times has the right sling and they might have the right stone to at least start the conversation. 

Dan: A few weeks after Chris's article came out, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar sent the top federal antitrust regulators a letter: She wanted them to take a hard look at MultiPlan. 

Chris Hamby: She expressed concern about the potential for price fixing here. 

Dan: Actually, Chris says some providers have already filed lawsuits against MultiPlan based on antitrust allegations. 

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Chris Hamby: The idea is that all the insurance companies outsource their pricing decisions to a common vendor. They're essentially fixing prices via algorithm is the allegation. 

Dan: As we noted here a few episodes ago, these antitrust regulators in the Biden administration have gotten pretty feisty. [That was the episode about the cyberattack on a company called Change Healthcare. It was called “The Hack,” if you missed it. Pretty fun!] 

And I mean, those antitrust regulators have their work cut out for them. And a lot of targets. But I do want to egg them on here. I suspect you do too. Meanwhile, you're egging US on. 

Listener 1: The first thought that went through my head was I'm going to fight this because this is absolutely ridiculous. I've already paid for this. 

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Dan: A few weeks ago, we asked you for stories about your experiences with sneaky fees, often called facility fees. 

Listener 2: When the facility fee is twice the office visit fee, it's just crazy. I mean, it's a 10-minute appointment for a prescription. 

Dan: You came through, and now we're making some calls, digging in for more details, and learning so much. We're gonna have a sneak preview for you in a few weeks. Till then, take care of yourself. 

This episode of An Arm and a Leg was produced by me, Dan Weissmann, with help from Emily Pisacreta and Claire Davenport– our summer intern. Welcome aboard, Claire!– and edited by Ellen Weiss. Adam Raymonda is our audio wizard. Our music is by Dave Weiner and Blue Dot Sessions. Gabrielle Healy is our managing editor for audience. Gabe Bullard is our engagement editor. Bea Bosco is our consulting director of operations. Sarah Ballama is our operations manager. 

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An Arm and a Leg is produced in partnership with KFF Health News. That's a national newsroom producing in-depth journalism about healthcare in America and a core program at KFF, an independent source of health policy research, polling and journalism. Zach Dyer is senior audio producer at KFF Health News. He's editorial liaison to this show. 

And thanks to the Institute for Nonprofit News for serving as our fiscal sponsor, allowing us to accept tax-exempt donations. You can learn more about INN at INN.org. Finally, thanks to everybody who supports this show financially. You can join in any time at https://armandalegshow.com/support/

Thanks for pitching in if you can, and thanks for listening.

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of KFF Health News and Public Road Productions.

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To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to its newsletters. You can also follow the show on Facebook and the social platform X. And if you've got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

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——————————
By: Dan Weissmann
Title: An Arm and a Leg: Meet the Middleman's Middleman
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/podcast/meet-the-middleman-for-middlemen/
Published Date: Tue, 25 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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