• Come work with me!

    Colleagues and I are advertising for two policy analysts. If that’s you, this is an opportunity to work with us at the Partnered Evidence-based Policy Resource Center (PEPReC). Though PEPReC is a center in the Veterans Health Administration, the position will be filled through Boston University.

    Apply here (writing focus) or here (budget/spreadsheet focus).


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  • What Does Medicare Actually Cover?

    We’ve been hearing a lot of pretty general plans to implement Medicare for all Americans. How would that work? Medicare as it exists today has some coverage gaps. How would that be addressed in Medicare for All?


    This video was adapted from a column Austin Frakt and Elsa Pearson wrote for the Upshot. Links to sources can be found there.


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  • Some recent publications

    While I was on vacation, I published two pieces elsewhere.

    1. On hospital mergers and prices with Elsa Pearson in the Providence Journal: “Mergers are often advertised as a way to reduce prices and improve quality of care. We know from decades of research that they do neither of those things and it’s time we stop believing those who say they do.”
    2. On clinical practice guidelines with Gilbert Benavidez on the Health Affairs blog: “Guideline structure, requirements, and adherence continue to be widely varied. With no universal standard nor enforcement of any methodology, a fragmented mass of promulgating bodies will continue to publish guidelines subject to the bias, contradictory information, lack of rigorous evidence, and limited applicability that prior studies have documented.”

    Both pieces received research support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.


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  • Is Morning Exercise More Effective?

    You may have seen news stories this week saying that if you exercise in the morning, you’ll lose more weight. Can this be true?



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  • Sickle Cell Disease Still Tends to Be Overlooked

    The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2019, The New York Times Company)

    Sickle cell disease affects about 100,000 Americans, most of them African-Americans. There are few treatments for it, and experts say not enough is being done to prevent complications. Just recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services declined to put in quality measures that might help monitor care improvements.

    There is also a question about what role race and wealth play in how much attention and funding the disease receives.

    The disease, also called sickle cell anemia, is caused by a gene mutation that leads to red blood cells that are misshapen. These malformed cells have more trouble traveling through blood vessels, and can break or clump in ways that can lead to significant pain, strokes, and tissue or organ damage. Sickle cell disease is not a mild illness. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is probably responsible for up to 6 percent of childhood deaths.

    The cell malformations were identified more than a century ago. The inheritance patterns were published 70 ago. The first treatment, hydroxyurea, was approved only in 1998. It was the only treatment available for almost 20 years. A second drug, Endari, was approved two years ago.

    Stem cell transplants can be curative, but they are very risky and can be performed only when a match is found. They also require lifelong therapy to prevent rejection. Recent news has also hinted at the promise of the gene-editing technology CRISPR to treat sickle cell disease, but only one patient in the United States has been treated so far, and it will be some time before results can showif it can be more widely used.

    1994 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the median age of death for a woman born with sickle cell disease in the United States was 48 years; for a man it was 42. A more recent study in Public Health Reports found that in 2005, the median age of death was 42 for women and 38 for men.

    Even without treatments, things can be done to prevent complications, especially in children. Many studies have shown that treating children preventively with daily antibiotics significantly reduces the chance of infections and sepsis. Other studies have shown that screening children each year with an ultrasound of the head can help prevent strokes. For decades, national guidelines have recommended both of these measures.

    And yet too few children get them.

    A study last year in Pediatrics examined how many children with the disease, helped by coverage from Medicaid in a number of states, received antibiotics for at least 300 days over the course of a year. Only 18 percent did. Children with more health care encounters were more likely to receive a prescription, but not as many as you might think.

    Another study two years earlier in JAMA Pediatrics looked at how many similar children received a yearly transcranial Doppler screen. Although rates of screening increased over the six-year study period, they peaked at 44 percent, meaning that more than half of children were not screened.

    We don’t know whether rates have improved since then because there’s no national registry for sickle cell disease.

    One way to increase these numbers would be to use quality measures. The Medicaid program has a set of 25 measurements they recommend to states to assess the health care provided to patients. Although reporting on the measures is currently voluntary, many states and organizations have adopted them.

    Last year, the pediatric Measure Applications Partnership, an expert panel set up by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (C.M.S.), voted by 19-1 to add two sickle cell measures — one for preventive antibiotics and one for transcranial Doppler screening — to the core set of pediatric measures. These measures were also endorsed by the National Quality Forum, an independent group that assesses quality measures for reliability and validity.

    Dr. Gary L. Freed, a professor of pediatrics and health policy at the University of Michigan, and a voting member of the partnership in 2018, said: “Right now, no one is held accountable for the current standard of care that is provided to children with sickle cell disease. C.M.S. had the opportunity to send a clear message to states, and, by extension, to Medicaid health plans and to providers, that the quality of care for these children matters.”

    Last fall, though, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decided not to add these measures to the core set. The main argument for that position: Some states have a low incidence of sickle cell disease, most likely because they have fewer African-American residents.

    But reporting by states on the measures in the core set is voluntary, and each state could determine for itself if the sickle cell disease measures were appropriate for its population.

    Moreover, although sickle cell disease is rare, other rare diseases achieve much more attention.

    Cystic fibrosis is another inherited disease that reduces life expectancy. In the United States, it’s about one-third as common as sickle cell disease. As with sickle cell disease, there are no definitive therapies, but a number of recommended actions and screenings can improve life immensely. In 2013, a study published in Blood compared spending on the two diseases by the National Institutes of Health and national foundations.

    In 2011, N.I.H. research funding per person affected by cystic fibrosis was more than 11 times that of per-person funding for sickle cell disease. Spending by national foundations for cystic fibrosis was 440 times higher. More than twice as many publications in the peer-reviewed literature focused on cystic fibrosis. No drugs were approved for sickle cell disease over the study period, while five were approved for cystic fibrosis.

    “Cystic fibrosis gets a lot more attention, focus and support because it affects a demographic group with potential resources and other characteristics,” Dr. Freed said. “Sickle cell disease often affects the most vulnerable of populations. Around 90 percent are Medicaid-enrolled. Sadly, there is also likely a measure of unconscious and conscious bias toward this population.”

    Because of the passage of a health act on sickle cell disease and other heritable blood disorders in 2018, some believe things are about to get better. Such predictions have occurred before, with the passage of the Sickle Cell Treatment Act in 2004, and things did not improve significantly. The 2018 law also authorized less than 50 percent of the funds that the 2004 law did.

    It’s almost impossible to improve quality without being able to measure it. When it comes to sickle cell disease, we seem to be failing to do both.


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  • Is Our Health Care Spending Actually Worth It?

    Many people know by now that the United States spends much more on health care than any other country, and that health outcomes are not a lot better (and in many instances worse). That raises the question: Is our health care spending actually worth it?

    This video was adapted from a column Austin wrote for the Upshot. Links to sources can be found there.


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  • More People Should Get the HPV Vaccine

    The CDC recommendations for the HPV vaccine have just changed. If you’re 45 years of age or younger, you might want to talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated yourself.


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  • The benzodiazepine problem

    My colleagues Nambi J. Ndugga, Elsa Pearson, and Melissa Garrido have a piece out in Axios today on the challenges posed by benzodiazepines (BZDs).

    In the U.S., deaths associated with BZDs like Xanax and Valium have increased from 135 in 1999 to over 11,500 in 2017. The dangers of misusing these potentially addictive drugs are particularly acute for adults over 50, who have experienced the largest increase in BZD prescriptions. […] One-third of older adults’ BZD prescriptions are for long durations, often prescribed for insomnia and other sleep disturbances. This raises the risks of falls, fractures, motor vehicle accidents, addiction and dementia in an already vulnerable population.

    Go read the whole thing. It’s short because its Axios. Research for the piece was supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.


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  • Follow Your Art Community Studios in Melrose, MA

    Follow Your Art Community Studios at 647 Main St, Melrose MA.

    For obvious reasons, this is not a site at which we advertise just any organization or project. However, I figure something I’m intimately involved in and to which I’ve contributed considerable effort is fair game (plus, this is where I blog).

    So, I want to tell you about something I’m very excited about.

    Over the last 18 months or so, I, my wife, and many friends and members of our community have devoted countless hours to bring Follow Your Art Community Studios into being. It’s a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to building creative community in Melrose, MA and beyond.

    FYACS is a place where people of all ages, abilities, and interests can create (a picture, story, song, or whatever their creative passion inspires) and celebrate all manner of art (listen to a concert, talk with a local writer, watch improv, etc.). Its philosophy is to encourage creative risks to try new things in a relaxing, accepting environment with responsive, informed facilitators.

    You can help! We have just launched The Big Yellow House fundraising campaign to transform the the 1889 Victorian at 647 Main Street in Melrose, MA into a home for FYACS that is fully accessible to and usable by all. It’s going to need a ramp. It’s going to need an accessible bathroom, among other renovations. Contributions to this campaign will be doubled by Melrose Bank.

    Please visit the Patronicity page for more information and to donate. This is clearly a personal appeal. I would appreciate your help and, if you live near or visit Melrose, I encourage you to come by, take a class, or see an event. Watch the FYACS website for schedules and developments.


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  • Abstract deadline approaching for HSR Theme Issue: Drivers of Health

    Submission deadline for abstracts: August 12, 2019

    Sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

    As announced a few wees agoHealth Services Research (HSR) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) are partnering to publish a 2020 Theme Issue on Drivers of Health, to be co-edited by me and David Nerenz, PhD.

    The Theme Issue will include cutting-edge work that illuminates drivers of health and on health and social/health care system interventions that promote health. For this Theme Issue, we invite studies, evaluations, and policy analyses that use rigorous scientific research methods to illuminate the causal relationships between social and health care system factors that affect hard health outcomes, including mortality, as well as broader measures of quality of life and well-being.

    We encourage work from a variety of disciplines, including health services research, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, sociology, social work, economics, political science, anthropology, history of science, and others. We also encourage work that cuts across disease categories or focuses on very prevalent, high-impact diseases. Though we will consider work focused on populations and programs outside the United States, we encourage authors to discuss lessons drawn from it for the United States and potential implications for United States health care or social policy.

    More here (PDF). This call is also posted on the HSR website.


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