TIME Health Care

Terminally Ill Brittany Maynard May Not End Her Life, After All

Death With Dignity Advocate
This undated file photo provided by the Maynard family shows Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old terminally ill woman who plans to take her own life under Oregon’s death with dignity law. AP

The 29-year-old woman, who was diagnosed with brain cancer, explains her state of mind two days before her scheduled death

A terminally ill 29-year-old woman who has said she plans to commit physician-assisted suicide on Nov. 1 implies in a heart-wrenching new video that she may not go through with it in the end.

In the six-minute clip, released with advocacy group Compassion & Choices, Brittany Maynard says she may or may not choose to die on that date, People reports.

“So if Nov. 2 comes along and I’ve passed, I hope my family is still proud of me and the choices I made,” says Maynard, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given six months to live last spring.

Read more at People

TIME ebola

U.S. Health System Is Not Ready for Ebola, Report Says

"Many health systems are already overwhelmed"

The United States health care system is vastly unprepared to handle Ebola should the virus spread, according to a new report.

An investigation of emergency preparedness by the Associated Press reveals the country is not ready to handle the disease even on a smaller scale, nor is it equipped to handle the spread of other infectious diseases that are airborne, like a new flu strain or SARS.

“Even though there have been only a couple cases, many health systems are already overwhelmed,” Dr. Kenrad Nelson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the AP.

Experts say it’s unlikely that Ebola will spread widely in the U.S.

Read more at the Associated Press

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Milk Might Not Save Your Bones, Study Says

Glass of milk
Getty Images

Sugars in milk may lead to aging

The bone-strengthening powers of milk have been claimed over and over again in advertisements, pop culture and around the dinner table. But a new study published in the BMJ suggests that the truism may not be true. High milk intake, the study found, doesn’t appear to protect against bone fracture and in fact may lead to increased mortality.

Researchers looked at questionnaires from more than 100,000 people in Sweden on their dairy consumption habits. The study, which followed up with many of the participants after 11 to 20 years, found that high milk intake was associated with higher mortality in both men and women, as well as higher bone fracture in women.

“Our results may question the validity of recommendations to consume high amounts of milk to prevent fragility fractures,” the study says. However, the authors stress that the study is merely observational and not meant to draw causal conclusions.

One possible explanation the authors give for the results is that high levels of the sugars lactose and galactose in milk may cause bones to undergo changes—like inflammation—that resemble aging, leading to the fractures. In animals, supplementing with galactose has been shown to increase aging processes like inflammation and oxidative stress. Data from the study showing a correlation between reduced fractures and low-lactose milk consumption further supports this claim.

More research is needed, of course. “As milk features in many dietary guidelines and both hip fractures and cardiovascular disease are relatively common among older people, improving the evidence base for dietary recommendations could have substantial benefits for everyone,” wrote Mary Schooling, PhD, a professor at the City University of New York, in an accompanying BMJ editorial.

MONEY Health Care

Why You Should Forget About Ebola and Get a Free Flu Shot Instead

Flu Shot Sign
Getty Images

Americans are nearly as worried about Ebola as they are about catching the flu. But influenza is the risk you should pay attention to. And you probably don't need to spend a penny to protect yourself.

Take a break from worrying about Ebola and get a flu shot this fall. While the Ebola virus has so far affected just four people in the United States, tens of millions are expected to get influenza this season. More than 200,000 of them will be hospitalized and up to 49,000 will likely die from it, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A new HuffPost/YouGov poll of 1,000 adults found that the flu is perceived as only slightly more threatening than the Ebola virus, however. Forty-five percent of people polled said that the flu posed a bigger threat to Americans than Ebola, but a substantial 40% said it was the other way around. Fifteen percent said they weren’t sure.

“Ebola is new, mysterious, exotic, highly fatal, and strange, and people don’t have a sense of control over it,” says William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University.

Influenza, on the other hand, is a familiar illness that people often think they can easily control, Schaffner says. “They think, ‘I could get vaccinated, I could wash my hands’ and prevent it.”

Yet that familiarity may lead to complacency. Flu shots are recommended for just about everyone over six months of age, but less than half of people get vaccinated each year.

Now there’s even more reason to get a shot. The health law requires most health plans to cover a range of preventive benefits at no cost to consumers, including recommended vaccines. The flu shot is one of them. (The only exception is for plans that have been grandfathered under the law.)

The provision making the vaccine available with no out-of-pocket expense is limited to services delivered by a health care provider that is part of the insurer’s network.

Depending on the plan, that could include doctors’ offices, pharmacies, or other outlets.

Medicare also covers flu shots without patient cost sharing.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY Health Care

Why You Could Get Stuck Paying for More of Your Health Care

Red traffic light
Your insurer may put a stop to how much it will spend on your surgery. iStock

A growing number of companies are capping what your insurance will pay for certain medical procedures. Get more expensive care, and you could be on the hook for the extra.

Aiming to contain health care costs, a growing number of employers and insurers are adopting a strategy that limits how much they’ll pay for certain medical services such as knee replacements, lab tests and complex imaging. A recent study found that savings from such moves may be modest, however, and some experts question whether “reference pricing,” as it’s called, is good for consumers.

The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), which administers the health insurance benefits for 1.4 million state workers, retirees, and their families, has one of the more established reference pricing systems. More than three years ago, the agency began using reference pricing for elective knee and hip replacements, two common procedures for which hospital prices varied widely without discernible differences in quality, says Ann Boynton, CalPERS’ deputy executive officer for Benefit Programs Policy and Planning.

Working with Anthem Blue Cross, the agency set $30,000 as the reference price for those two surgeries in its preferred provider organization plan. Members who get surgery at one of the 52 hospitals that charge $30,000 or less pay only their plan’s regular cost-sharing. If a member chooses to use an in-network hospital that charges more than the reference price, however, they’re on the hook for the entire amount over $30,000, and the extra spending doesn’t count toward their annual maximum out-of-pocket limit, Boynton says.

“We’re not worried about people not getting the care they need,” says Boynton. “They have access to good hospitals, they’re just getting it at a reasonable price.”

In two years, CalPERS saved nearly $6 million on those two procedures, and members saved $600,000 in lower cost sharing, according to research published last year by James C. Robinson, a professor of health economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Berkeley Center for Health Technology. Most of the savings came from price reductions at expensive hospitals.

The agency recently set caps on how much it would spend for cataract surgery, colonoscopies, and arthroscopic surgery, Boynton says.

Experts say that reference pricing is most appropriate for common, non-emergency procedures or tests that vary widely in price but are generally comparable in quality. Research has generally shown that higher prices for medical services don’t equate with higher quality. Setting a reference price steers consumers to high-quality doctors, hospitals, labs and imaging centers that perform well for the price, proponents say.

Others point out that reference pricing doesn’t necessarily save employers a lot of money, however. A study released earlier this month by the National Institute for Health Care Reform examined the 2011 claims data for 528,000 autoworkers and their dependents, both active and retired. It analyzed roughly 350 high-volume and/or high-priced inpatient and ambulatory medical services that reference pricing might reasonably be applied to.

The overall potential savings was 5%, the study found.

“It was surprising that even with all that pricing variation, reference pricing doesn’t have a more dramatic impact on spending,” says Chapin White, a senior policy researcher at RAND and lead author of the study.

Even though the results may be modest, a growing number of very large companies are incorporating reference pricing, according to benefits consultant Mercer’s annual employer health insurance survey. The percentage of employers with 10,000 or more employees that used reference pricing grew from 10% in 2012 to 15% in 2013, the survey found. Thirty percent said they were considering adding reference pricing, the survey found. Among employers with 500 or fewer workers, adoption was flat at 10% in 2013, compared with 11% in 2012.

The approach is consistent with employers’ general interest in encouraging employees to make cost-effective choices on the job, whether for health care or business supplies, says Sander Domaszewicz, a principal in Mercer’s health and benefits practice.

This spring, the Obama administration said that large group and self-insured health plans could use reference pricing.

The health law sets limits on how much consumers have to pay out of pocket annually for in-network care before insurance picks up the whole tab—in 2015, it’s $6,600 for an individual and $13,200 for a family plan. But if consumers choose providers whose prices are higher than a plan’s reference price, those amounts don’t count toward the out-of-pocket maximum, the administration guidance said.

Leaving consumers on the hook for amounts over the reference price needlessly drags them into the battle between providers and health plans over prices, says White.

“You expect the health plan to do a few things: negotiate reasonable prices with providers, and not to enter into network contracts with providers who provide bad quality care,” White says. “Reference pricing is kind of an admission that health plans have failed on one or both of those fronts.”

Some experts, however, say the strategy can work for consumers.

“What I think is that reference pricing is a choice-preserving strategy, when you look at the alternative, which is a narrow network,” says Robinson.

That may be a question of semantics, if relatively few providers meet the reference price.

Recent guidance from the administration spells out some of the requirements that health plans must meet in order to ensure that there are adequate numbers of high-quality providers if reference-based pricing is used. Among other things, it suggests that plans consider geographic distance from providers or patient wait times.

Like so much about reference pricing, it remains a work in progress. The administration says it will continue to monitor the practice, and may provide additional guidance in the future.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY Health Care

How to Save Lots of Money on the Health Tests You Need

Legs on scale at doctor's office
Scott M. Lacey

Catching medical problems early is good for your health—and your wallet. But don't go overboard. Learn to weigh the pros and cons of what the doctor orders.

The latest big push in health care is keeping you from getting sick in the first place. Insurers are sending you reminders to schedule regular exams. Employers are rewarding workers who quit smoking or lose weight. And a key provision in the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, is full coverage for certain preventive care—with no out-of-pocket costs for you.

Getting a handful of basic tests ­every year can reap rich rewards. “So many diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes, are symptomless in the early stages, when they can be easily caught and controlled,” says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, director of the NYU Women’s Heart Center. So see your primary-care doctor annually once you reach your forties (until then, every two or three years is usually sufficient).

Even though fully covered tests are getting more common, for many ­others you will face co-pays or co-­insurance—and shoulder the full cost until you reach your deductible. To keep those costs to a minimum, we recommend two strategies.

First, look for ways to save on every test you take. Prices can vary widely for the same service, even when you stick with in-network doctors and facilities.

Start by checking your health insurer’s website—many list doctors that insurers believe offer quality care at fair prices. Keep in mind that MRIs, CT scans, and other imaging tests often cost much less at free­standing radiology centers. ­(Just be sure the facility is accredited by the American College of Radiology and that your doc will accept the results.) And when your doctor orders a blood test, ask about all your options, including outside the office. “Labs are so standardized, a $10 lipid panel will get the same results and same quality as a $200 lipid panel,” says Scott Matthews of Castlight Health, which helps big businesses manage their health care costs.

Second, learn which screenings are worth your health care dollars and which you can skip. Here’s what you need to know:

6 Essential Tests for Everyone

1) Skin exam

With skin cancer on the rise, it’s smart to have a dermatologist examine the skin over your entire body, looking for suspicious growths, moles, and lesions.

When to get it: At least once a year. “If you have risk factors, such as being fair, having a lot of moles, or having a family history of skin cancer, you may need to be seen as often as every three to six months,” says Dr. David Leffell, chief of dermatologic surgery at the Yale School of Medicine. You could go to your ­primary-care doctor, but dermatologists are better at diagnosing potentially cancerous lesions, studies show.

Cost: $50 to $150. Insurance covers the visit after you meet your deductible; your usual co-pay or co-insurance will apply.

2) Cholesterol check

This blood test, a.k.a. a lipid panel or profile, reports your total cholesterol, your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, your HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and a type of fat in the blood called triglycerides. High levels of all but the good stuff raise your risk of heart disease and stroke.

When to get it: Men over 45 and women over 50 should be checked every one to three years, says Goldberg. (Until menopause, women have the protective benefits of estrogen.) At younger ages, test every four to six years. Among the reasons for more frequent screenings: Your results aren’t normal, there’s a family history of heart disease, or you have risk factors like being overweight, you smoke, or you have high blood pressure.

Cost: $110 to $305 for test alone. Cholesterol testing is often included in an annual physical, which insurance covers in full.

3) Blood-pressure check

High blood pressure raises your risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, and other serious conditions.

When to get it: Every two years as part of a routine physical; once a year or more if your pressure is above 120/80.

Cost: $70 to $200 for a doctor’s visit, but insurance pays the full tab for your annual preventive checkups

4) Eye exam

Even if you think your vision is 20/20, have your eyes examined regularly—­especially after 40. As you age, you’re at risk for conditions such as glaucoma, which is symptomless. “An exam can also find signs of another disease that may be affecting your eyes, such as diabetes or high blood pressure,” says Dr. Rebecca Taylor, an ophthalmologist in Nashville and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

When to get it: Before age 40, Taylor suggests getting a full exam with an optometrist or ophthalmologist every five to 10 years (yearly if you wear glasses or contacts). After that, make it every two years. Reasons to get more frequent exams include a family history of eye disease, previous eye injuries or surgery, diabetes or high blood pressure, or you are over 65.

Cost: $75 to $200 with an ophthalmologist; $50 to $150 with an optometrist. Insurance coverage varies.

5) A1C blood test

This has become the screening test of choice for diabetes, as it measures your average blood glucose over roughly three months; the fasting blood glucose test tells doctors just what your level is at that moment.

When to get it: The standard recommendation is every three years starting at 45. The American Diabetes Association advises beginning earlier if you’re overweight and have certain risk factors, including high blood pressure.

Cost: $40 to $260 for test. If you have high blood pressure, insurance covers in full.

6) Colonoscopy

This exam is your best defense against colon cancer. While there are other screening tools, a colonoscopy is considered the gold standard: “It doesn’t just diagnose; if the doctor sees adenomas [potentially precancerous polyps], he can remove them then and there,” says Dr. Seth Gross, director of endoscopy at Tisch Hospital at NYU Langone Medical Center.

When to get it: Start at age 50, earlier if you’ve got other risk factors, such as a family history or if you have suspicious symptoms. If the test is negative, get one every 10 years.

Cost: $1,100 to $2,800. Insurance pays every 10 years for adults ages 50 to 75.

4 Essential Tests for Women

Insurance will cover the basic pelvic and breast exams that are part of your annual visit to a gynecologist. Other tests aren’t needed as often—and your insurance coverage will probably reflect that.

1) Pap smear

A Pap smear, also called a Pap test, is when your gynecologist collects cells from your cervix to screen for precancerous changes. Thanks to this test, the cervical cancer death rate declined by almost 70% between 1955 and 1992, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

When to get it: Every three years, provided your last test was normal; most women can stop at age 65.

Cost: $75 to $350. Insurance pays in full every three years from ages 21 to 65.

2) Mammogram

There’s been controversy in recent years about when to begin breast cancer screening and how often to do it, but the American Cancer Society and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists still recommend getting your first mammogram, an X-ray of your breasts, at 40— earlier if you have risk factors like a family history. Ask your doctor about 3-D mammography, now available at some major medical centers: It reduces false positives and slightly bumps up detection rates, according to a recent JAMA study.

When to get it: Once a year starting at age 40.

Cost: $150 to $375. Screening is covered every one to two years at age 40-plus. Most plans don’t cover more precise 3-D mammograms, so you may owe $40 to $60.

3) DEXA scan for bone density

An X-ray test to measure bone density, this screening is recommended for all women at age 65. But you may want to get one around menopause, when declining estrogen levels increase your risk of osteoporosis.

When to get it: Start at age 65, then consult doctor. With risk factors like smoking and osteoporosis in family, begin at menopause.

Cost: $60 to $385. Insurance pays in full when 65-plus; with preapproval, it often pays for younger postmenopausal women too.

4) HPV (Human – papilloma- virus) test

Typically done at the same time as a Pap, this checks for strains of HPV that are most likely to cause cervical cancer. Before age 30, nearly all sexually active people contract HPV at some point, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Most of the time, HPV is harmless and clears up on its own. But since HPV infection is less common in women over 30, a positive test result is more apt to signal a potential problem.

When to get it: Women ages 30 to 65 should get an HPV test paired with a Pap smear every five years.

Cost: $30 to $125. Insurance pays in full every five years from 30 to 65.

6 Tests You May Need

1) Vitamin D test

Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium and maintain strong bones. Since up to 75% of Americans have low levels (a 2009 study suggests), ask your doctor about adding this to your physical, advises Dr. Marianne Legato, professor emeritus of clinical medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

Cost: $25 to $150; some, but not all, insurers cover

2) Thyroid-stimulating hormone test

Experts disagree about whether routine thyroid screening is necessary, but make sure to get your blood level of TSH checked if you have fatigue and unexplained weight gain.

Cost: $15 to $115; often covered. Deductible and co-pay or co-insurance apply.

3) Cholesterol particle tests

People whose particles of LDL cholesterol are mostly small and dense have a threefold greater risk of coronary heart disease. Ask your doctor about this test if your cholesterol is borderline, especially if you’re debating whether to go on cholesterol-lowering medications, Goldberg says.

Cost: $15 to $265; not usually covered for routine screening but may be covered in part if you have risk factors.

4) Coronary calcium scan

A CT scan of your heart is used to look for specks of calcium in your arteries that may indicate early signs of coronary artery disease. While this scan is not recommended for everyone, it can be useful if you’ve got a family history or other risk factors. “A score greater than 300 tells us that you’re at increased risk of cardiovascular events in the next five to 10 years,” Goldberg says.

Another heart exam—an exercise stress test—isn’t a useful screening tool if you’re low risk, she adds, due to a high rate of false positives. As a rule, it’s best reserved for people who have risk factors or symptoms such as chest pain or an irregular heartbeat.

Cost: $10 to $300; not usually covered for routine screening, but may be covered in part if you have risk factors.

5) CRP (C-reactive protein) test

This measures blood levels of CRP, an inflammatory protein associated with heart disease. It’s most predictive in men over 50 and women over 60, Goldberg says. In a 2010 study, people in these age groups who were at intermediate risk of heart disease and who had normal cholesterol but high CRP levels benefited from going on cholesterol-lowering medications.

Cost: $10 to $115; not usually covered for healthy patients but often covered in part if you have risk factors.

6) Prostate exam

Screening for prostate cancer used to be a must. Now it’s a maybe. “Intuitively, it makes sense to treat prostate cancers early,” says Dr. Richard Wender, chief cancer control officer at the American Cancer Society. “But some grow so slowly that they’d probably never be life-threatening, and the treatment would be worse for quality of life than the disease itself.” That said, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine this past March found that men under age 65 who underwent surgery for early-stage prostate cancer (instead of watchful waiting) had better survival rates.

Bottom line: At 50, talk to your doctor about your risks (like a family history). If you decide to undergo a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test and it’s under 2.5 ng/mL, you can wait at least another two years to retest. If it’s over that, test annually.

Cost: $25 to $125 and may be covered by insurance for men older than 50, or starting at age 40 if you face certain risk factors.

 

 

 

TIME 2014 Election

Voters Say Events in U.S. ‘Out of Control’

Poll finds anxiety on a range of issues, from Ebola to health care costs

Call it the Freakout Election.

Two-thirds of likely voters in the most competitive states and congressional districts in the midterm election fight think events in the U.S. are “out of control,” according to a new poll. The survey by Politico found widespread anxiety about the Ebola outbreak, terrorism, health care costs and President Barack Obama’s leadership. Only 36% think the U.S. is “in a good position to meet its economic and national security” challenges.

The poll underscores how both Obama’s low approval ratings and a general sense of disarray are weighing down Democrats just weeks before voters go to the polls to decide which party will control the Senate. A majority of voters, 54%, either strongly disapprove or somewhat disapprove of Obama’s job performance.

Read more at Politico

MONEY Medicare

Some Medicare Advantage Plans Have Hidden Risks—Here’s How to Avoid Them

hands using measuring tape
Nils Kahle

Although they promise quality care at lower cost, some Medicare Advantage plans fall short. Before you enroll, here are key questions to ask.

Seniors have flocked to Medicare Advantage in recent years, attracted by savings on premiums and the convenience of one-stop shopping. But as the annual Medicare enrollment season began this week, a memorandum from federal officials to plan providers surfaced that serves as a big red warning flag.

The upshot: Assess the quality of any Advantage plan before you sign up.

The memorandum, first reported by the New York Times, described ongoing compliance problems uncovered in federal audits of Advantage and prescription drug plans. These include inadequate rationales for denial of coverage, failure to consider clinical information from doctors and failure to notify patients of their rights to appeal decisions. The audits also uncovered problems with inappropriate rejection of prescription drug claims.

Advantage is a managed care alternative to traditional fee-for-service Medicare. It rolls together coverage for hospitalization, outpatient services and, usually, prescription drugs. Advantage plans also cap your out-of-pocket expenses, making Medigap supplemental plans unnecessary.

The savings can be substantial. Medigap plan premiums can cost $200 monthly or more, and stand-alone drug plans will average $39 a month next year. Enrollees have been voting with their wallets: 30% are in Advantage plans this year, up from 13% in 2005, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Advantage plans are subject to strict rules and regulations, and must cover all services offered in original Medicare, with the exception of hospice services. Some offer extra coverage, such as vision, hearing, dental and wellness programs.

And there is evidence that the quality of these plans is rising. Medicare uses a five-star rating system to grade plan quality, and plans can earn bonus payments based on their ratings. Average enrollment-weighted star ratings increased to 3.92 for 2015, from 3.86 in 2013 and 3.71 in 2013, according to Avalere Health, an industry research and consulting firm. Avalere projects that 60% of Advantage enrollment will be in four- or five-star plans next year, up from 52% this year.

But the Medicare memorandum focuses on problems outside the rating system. “It’s about basic blocking and tackling and whether a plan adheres to the program’s technical specs,” says Dan Mendelson, Avalere’s chief executive officer. “These are the basic functions that every plan should be able to handle.”

Nevertheless, consumer advocates say they deal with these compliance problems regularly, and more often with enrollees in Advantage than in traditional Medicare.

“The most typical problems have to do with plans that are making it difficult or impossible for people to get their medications,” says Jocelyn Watrous, an advocate for patients at the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “They impose prior authorizations or other utilization management rules that they make up out of whole cloth.”

Consumer advocates urge Medicare enrollees to restrict their shopping this fall to four- and five-rated plans, of which plenty are available in most parts of the country. “If a plan consistently gets four or five stars, all other things being equal it will be a high performer,” says Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center.

Few Medicare enrollees roll up their sleeves to shop, however. A study by Kaiser found that, on average, just 13% of enrollees voluntarily switched their Advantage or drug plans over four recent enrollment periods. And focus groups with seniors conducted by the foundation last May found that few pay attention to the star ratings.

“Seniors said they don’t use the ratings because they don’t feel they reflect their experiences with plans,” said Gretchen Jacobson, associate director of the foundation’s Medicare program. “Even when we told them that their plan only has two stars, many just wanted to stay in that plan.”

Advocates say the star ratings are just a starting point for smart shoppers.

They say you should check to make sure health providers you want to see are in a plan’s network. You should also consider how you would react if any of those providers disappeared during the 12 months that you are locked into the plan. Advantage plans can—and do—drop providers. UnitedHealth Group, the industry’s largest player, made headlines last year when it dropped thousands of doctors in 10 states. Advantage plans in Florida, Pennsylvania, California and Delaware also terminated provider relationships.

Also be sure to examine the prescription drug “formularies” in your plan—the rules under which your medications are covered. And talk with your doctors about any plan you are considering, especially if you see specialists for a chronic condition.

The Medicare memorandum to plans also underscores the importance of appealing denied claims, Baker says. “Appeal, appeal, appeal—it’s like ‘location, location, location’ in real estate.”

TIME Health Care

The Price of Staying Alive For the Next 3 Hours

Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price
Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price ZU_09; Getty Images

A new study suggests a little spending now can buy you a lot of time later

How much do you reckon you’d pay not to be dead three hours from now? That probably depends. If you’re 25 and healthy, a whole lot. If you’re 95 and sickly, maybe not so much. But for people in one part of the world—the former East Germany—the cost has been figured out, and it’s surprisingly cheap: three hours of life will set you back (or your government, really) just one euro, or a little below a buck-thirty at current exchange rates.

That’s the conclusion of a new study out of Germany’s Max Planck Institute, and it says a lot about the power of a little bit of money now to save a lot of suffering later—with implications for all manner of public health challenges, including the current Ebola crisis.

The new findings are a result of one of the greatest, real-time longitudinal studies ever conducted, one that began the moment the Berlin Wall fell, on Nov. 9 1989. Before that year, there were two Germanys not just politically, but epidemiologically. Life expectancy in the western half of the country was 76 years; in the poorer, sicker east, it was 73.5. But after unification began, social spending in the East began rising, from the equivalent of €2,100 per person per year to €5,100 by the year 2000. In that same period, the difference in lifespan across the old divide went in the opposite direction, shrinking from 2.5 years to just one year as the east Germans gained more time. Crunch those numbers and you get the three extra hours of extra life per person per euro per year.

“Without the pension payments of citizens in east and west converging to equivalent levels,” said Max Planck demographer Tobias Vogt in a statement, “the gap in life expectancy could not have been closed.” Increased public spending, Vogt adds, is often framed as an unfortunate knock-on effect of longer life. “But in contrast,” he says, “our analysis shows that public spending can also be seen as an investment in longer life.”

The idea that generous, tactical spending now can be both a money-saver and lifesaver is one that health policy experts tirelessly make—and that people in charge of approving the budgets too often ignore. Bill Gates often makes the point that $1 billion spent to eradicate polio over the next few years will save $50 billion over the next 20 years, not just because there will no longer be any cases of the disease to treat, but because the global vaccination programs which are necessary just to contain the virus can be stopped altogether when that virus is no more.

As TIME reported in September, British inventor Marc Koska made a splash at the TEDMed conference in Washington DC when he unveiled his K1 syringe—an auto-destruct needle that locks after it’s used just once and breaks if too much force is used to pull the plunger back out. That prevents needle re-use—and that in turn not only reduces blood-borne pathogens from being spread, it does so at a saving. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), $1 spent on K1 syringes saves $14.57 in health care costs down the line—or $280 for a $20 order of the shots.

All across the health care spectrum, such leveraging is possible. Critics of the Affordable Care Act have slammed the law for the cost of the preventative services it provides, and while it’s way too early to determine exactly how successful the law will be, the encouraging stabilization in the growth of health costs suggests that something, at least, is working.

Global health officials are making a similar, though more urgent, preventative argument concerning the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Americans are rightly jumpy over the few cases that have landed on our shores, but the 1,000 new infections per week that are occurring in the hot-spot nations of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone make our concerns look small. Frighteningly, according to the WHO’s newest projections, that figure will explode to 10,000 cases per week by December if the resources are not deployed to contain the epidemic fast.

“We either stop Ebola now,” WHO’s Anthony Banbury said in a stark presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 14, “or we face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we do not have a plan.”

Suiting up and wading into the Ebola infection zone is a decidedly bigger and scarier deal than spending an extra euro on public health or an extra dollar for a new syringe. But the larger idea of intervention today preventing far larger suffering tomorrow remains one of medicine’s enduring truths. We lose sight of it at our peril.

TIME health

How Lessons From the AIDS Crisis Can Help Us Beat Ebola

Health officials counsel guests on the p
Health officials counsel guests on the prevention of HIV/AIDS transmission at the Argungu fishing festival in Kebbi State, northwestern Nigeria on March 13, 2008. Hundreds of fishermen from different parts of Nigeria and neighbouring West African countries have started arriving in Argungu fishing Town to participate in the fishing festival. AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images) PIUS UTOMI EKPEI—AFP/Getty Images

Ruth Katz is the director of the Health, Medicine and Society program at the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, D.C.

For too long, the history of infectious diseases has been that of ignoring a threat until it nears disaster

Without urgent action, Ebola could become “the world’s next AIDS,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HIV/AIDS has killed some 36 million people since the epidemic began, and another 35 million are living with the virus. Is history really about to repeat itself?

It doesn’t have to, if we have the wisdom to learn from past experiences. The tools we need immediately are swift international action, strong leadership, respect for science and broad-based compassion. But once we contain Ebola – and we will – we need new resource commitments and global health strategies to bring the next deadly epidemic under control much more quickly.

We’ve already done some things right. President Obama traveled to CDC headquarters in Atlanta, a rare presidential action, to detail an aggressive offensive against Ebola that includes sending troops and supplies to build health care facilities in Africa. Contrast that with the response to AIDS under President Reagan, who did not mention the epidemic publicly until 1987, six years after people started dying from it. This time around, we’re seeing leadership at the top.

Health officials have also put out a unified message about how Ebola can be transmitted – only through direct contact with bodily fluids. That, too, stands in welcome contrast with HIV, where irresponsible rumors quickly took hold and people worried about sharing toilets seats and touching doorknobs. The importance of educating health care workers and keeping them safe represents a commonality between Ebola and HIV, and must be among our highest priorities. Following the science is the only way we’re going to stop this thing.

Another lesson from HIV is that adequate resources can transform disease outcomes. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a $15 billion, five-year commitment under President George W. Bush saved millions of lives around the world. But by contrast, even though the CDC is attacking Ebola with the largest global response in its history, the effort doesn’t come close to having the budget necessary to do all the field work needed to really beat back Ebola. Bipartisan funding support is crucial to enable public health officials to act aggressively.

One lesson that has not been well learned is that we stigmatize people at our own peril. During the AIDS epidemic, we saw an American teenager, Ryan White, expelled from school after he contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. In Dallas, where the first known Ebola victim in the U.S. has died, we hear reports that people of African origin have been turned away from restaurants and parents are pulling their children out of school. Cries to ban flights from Ebola-affected countries — an ineffective strategy reminiscent of the 22-year ban on the entry of HIV-positive people into the U.S. — are growing louder.

Experience tells us that when we are driven by fear, we tend to push infected people underground, further from the reach of the health-care system and perhaps closer to harming others. There was a time when many people assumed every gay man could spread AIDS; now some are suspicious that anyone from West Africa could harbor a deadly virus. Acting on ignorance is the best way to disrupt an optimal public health response.

We should look to other infectious diseases for lessons as well. After severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) surfaced in China in 2002 and spread to more than 30 countries in just a few months, an aggressive, well-coordinated global response averted a potential catastrophe. We saw how much could be done when political and cultural differences were set aside in favor of cooperation. SARS also spurred the World Health Organization (WHO) to update its International Health Regulations for the first time in 35 years, and prompted many countries to strengthen their surveillance and response infrastructure, including establishing new national public health agencies.

But glaring gaps remain in the health care and public health systems of many nations, despite years of warnings from almost anyone who has taken a careful look at them. With a population of 4 million, Liberia has only 250 doctors left in the country. That’s more than just Liberia’s problem, because if we can’t contain the Ebola epidemic there, we’re at much higher risk here. And within our own borders, we have a public health system that the Institute of Medicine termed “neglected” back in 2002. That assessment was largely unchanged a decade later when the IOM said that “public health is not funded commensurate with its mission” in the U.S.

The international community dragged its feet far too long on Ebola, and as a result, the virus still has the upper hand, outpacing the steps finally being taken to defeat it. Sierra Leone has just 304 beds for Ebola patients and needs almost 1,500 right now; by next week, it will need more. When it comes to control and prevention, speed is paramount. With the epidemic doubling every three weeks, the actions we take today will have a much greater impact than if we take those actions a month from now.

When we finally subdue this epidemic, we also need to shed our complacency towards the infectious diseases that plague us still, and the new ones likely to arrive with little warning. In a globalized world, they remain an immense threat. Almost 50,000 new HIV infections occur in the United States every year, as do 2 million worldwide. Influenza kills thousands of people annually, and more virulent strains can be much more dire. Yet we shrug most of this off, rarely paying attention until blaring headlines announce an impending cataclysm.

To get ahead of the curve, we need a renewed commitment to research and action, and enough resources to put more public health boots on the ground, both at home and abroad. Greater support for the Global Health Security Agenda, designed to close gaps in the world’s ability to quell infectious disease, should be a priority. The agenda, launched earlier this year, is a partnership involving the U.S. government, WHO, other international agencies and some 30 partner countries.

For too long, the history of infectious diseases has been that of ignoring a threat until it nears disaster, and then stepping in to prevent it from getting even worse. We can’t afford to keep repeating that pattern, and squandering blood and treasure in the process.

Ebola is a humanitarian crisis, but it does not belong to West Africa alone. We are all in this together.

 

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Ruth Katz is the director of the Health, Medicine and Society program at the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. She served from 2009 to 2013 as Chief Public Health Counsel with the Committee on Energy and Commerce in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ms. Katz was the lead Democratic committee staff on the public health components of the health reform initiative passed by the House of Representatives in November 2009. Prior to her work with the Committee, Ms. Katz was the Walter G. Ross Professor of Health Policy of the School of Public Health and Health Services at The George Washington University. She served as the dean of the school from 2003 to 2008. This article also appears in the Aspen Journal of ideas.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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