Doctor and activist


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Category: Health Insurance

NDIS Individual Assessments; A Symptom of a Wider Problem

10 July 2021

The current issue in the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) is the government’s efforts to introduce ‘independent assessments’ of people on the scheme and those who want to get on the scheme.  The idea has been abandoned for the present, but that is not the end of the story. It is the beginning.

Some context is needed here.  I was on a State Parliamentary inquiry into disability funding during which we heard evidence of inefficiencies within the disability sector where often there were shortages of appropriate services, and in some areas there were none at all.  The real crunch time was when parents with children with disabilities realised that they were going to die eventually and wanted to make a plan for the rest of their child’s life.  People would apply at various facilities, and be turned away as there were no places.  They then assumed that they were on a waiting list, but usually no lists were kept. When a vacancy occurred, whoever applied at that time got it.  It was mainly luck.  Naturally the people trying to help their loved one wanted a guaranteed package that would continue after their death.  More articulate parents and carers, who had struggled for years just wanted the money to buy the services that they felt that they needed. Many carers simply wanted more services, and hoped that a national system that guaranteed services for disability.  

Given the political context of privatisation and reducing government involvement in everything, the scene was set to have disability services delivered by the private sector as a massive market for services.   The private sector naturally wanted to get access to services that had been provided by government as a source of business and profit.

Government also had a real estate agenda.  Some large institutions were on valuable land. The large facilities at Peat Island in the Hawkesbury and Stockton Disability Centre was on beachfront land just north of Newcastle.  There was a residence for the grossly disabled opposite Wollongong Hospital that had taken years of fundraising for the parents to achieve.   These could be sold off as the mental health facilities had been a few decades earlier, with the catchy slogan of putting the residents ‘back in the community’. The idea that the residents were better off isolated in a suburban homes with few facilities rather than in a community of people with the same problem and a well-structured programme of activities seemed a dubious proposition to me.  Resident groups such as the relatives of long-term psychiatric facilities at Bloomfield in Orange were very scared of the suggested changes.  There had been problems with the old system and some inappropriate facilities, but an overall lack of facilities was the major problem.  It was not even throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it seemed more like smoke and mirrors. 

The key question in dealing with any problem is how big a task is it?  When the Committee asked how many people with disabilities there were, there was no answer.  No register was kept.  The two ways of calculating it were:

  1. To add up all the people on all the types of possible benefits and get to a total. 
  2. To look at the AIHW (Aust. Institute of Health and Welfare) figures of what percentage of the population was disabled, then multiply this by the total population. 

The latter method gave figures about ten times greater.  So clearly if help or services were made more available, the numbers involved were going to blow out hugely from what was currently funded.

John Howard passed the Aged Care Act in 1998, which was the blueprint for the privatisation of the sector. Old people are very vulnerable. They have often sold the family home, so they are temporarily cashed up, looking for accommodation and long term care with mental and physical facilities failing, or they would not be there.  Carers faced with responsibilities that they were not used to and uncertain of what care was needed were easy pickings also.  The whole sector is more like a dysfunctional real estate market; a market failure due to insufficient ‘consumer information’, but also distorted incentives and priorities.

The NDIS was similar.  Private operators with slick marketing made promises which would not be tested for some time, but people were signed up now.  The not-for profit sector had never paid staff well, but most had a ‘care ethos’.  Some of the private providers did not, and regulatory supervision was minimal. The government was pro-business and trying to give away responsibility. 

But an absolute shortage of services was still a big factor.  A neighbour who was a 95 year old retired academic widower wanted 2 hours a week of home help.  For some reason he could not get a community nurse.   The best deal he could get was 2 sessions of 2 hours at $65 an hour.  The lady delivering the service was paid $21/hr.  So much for private services; the ‘overheads’ are huge.  I had suggested to Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Vision in 2000 that the Government needed to licence service providers as individuals if they wanted a market model, and our neighbour could have selected a person on a one to one basis.  (I never even got an acknowledgement).

Now the government wants ‘independent assessors’ to evaluate cases, presumably to lessen costs.  A number of points can be made about this.  It assumes that the assessors will learn more about the patient in an interview than the people who work with them already know.  The new management philosophy since the 1980s always assumes that a manager at the top will know more than the person actually doing the job.  Naturally if the object is to save money and have the person at the bottom paid minimally, requiring no skills and interchangeable in staffing, this may be true.  But if the people at the bottom were respected, trained and empowered, the need for the middle level experts might be much less.

‘Independent Medical expert’ assessors are used in the Workers Compensation and CTP systems.  They work for agencies hired by insurance companies.  Often they find the patients either have nothing wrong with them, or it is degenerative and not related to their injury.  These experts are even flown from interstate and save insurers money by denying treatments. Presumably if they find in favour of the patients, their agency gives them less work.  The agency takes its cut and has to please the insurer.  So the systems are more complicated and an ever higher percentage of the money is spent in trying not to give services.  The NZ National Accident Compensation scheme, though it was government owned, went to a private insurance model and the same thing happened.  Doctors who had a track record of denying liability were flown around the country to do their medicals.

The assumption may still be that well intentioned assessors still can do better.  My widowed mother lived alone in the family home and had a stroke.  A neighbour noticed her confused, walking on the balcony.  She recovered, but seemed to have lost some judgement.  She was assessed by an ACAT (Aged Care Assessment Team) who said that she could live alone in supported accommodation. So we got her into a unit in the grounds of an old house, where she could book a dinner at a days’ notice in the communal dining room, have a nurse onsite during the day, and had a right to a nursing home bed if she ever needed one.  Seemed perfect.  She said that she could look after herself. Can you microwave a dinner?  Yes. OK. Do it.  It got done.  No problem. Dinners in the frig. Sweets in the jar on the mantelpiece; see you in 2 days.  Arrive in 2 days.  Dinners still in the frig. Lolly jar empty. Very hungry- can we go to lunch?  She could do anything when asked, but could not initiate a process. She could not think to get a dinner from the frig, or book lunch tomorrow in the communal dining room, nor ask for help.  The one-off team could not pick this.  Neither did the family. But it emerged when the situation at home was known. This is just a story, but a carer who is savvy and properly trained will know more than a university-qualified assessor who has only a short knowledge of the patient.  And naturally the person on the job actually delivers the service and is not an extra cost. They can also judge relative needs of people on a run or in an area if resources are limited.

So the scheme to bring in assessors is the tip of an iceberg. 

Private insurance models have huge problems at many levels.  The overheads of Medicare are a bit under 5%. The overheads of Private Health Insurers are about 12%, and they cannot refuse to pay doctors.  The overheads of US Health insurers are about 12-36%, as the best way to improve profits is to cut costs (payments to patients) rather than increase services and then try to prove you have and sell on that basis.  At the bottom of the efficiency barrel is our own NSW CTP system with overheads of almost 50%. The question has to be what is the focus of the system?  Delivering services, or saving money?  The US health insurers, like our CTP scheme are very good at making money.  What they make their money from just happens to be people rather than widgets.  The main cost savings of privatisation seems to be destroying award conditions and lowering ‘staff costs’.  The immense administrative savings from universal systems, where determining entitlement and paying for profits are eliminated cannot be matched by any private system, despite what the ideologues might pretend.

The NDIS is currently a fund supposedly to help people with disabilities.  These people apply to get ‘packages’ of money and services.  Businesses persuade people to spend their packages with them. It is a market.  But there are more people with disabilities than was expected, for the reasons discussed above.  So a new level of assessors, were to be rolled in, but a huge outcry has prevented this temporarily.  But the problems that led to the need for the assessors remain implicit in the design of the NDIS, which is fatally flawed.  The government, particularly this one, is not going to take this very large bag of lollies from the private sector.  The totally inefficient Private Health Insurers (PHI) give money to political parties and advance by stealth, letting Medicare become irrelevant for health care. Disability is now also privatised, and a new private lobby is in there.  It has not yet generated a Royal Commission into its rip-offs, but it will, not that the Aged Care Royal Commission has stopped the privatisation of aged care.  The political forces are too great.  It is ironic that as Medicare is starved and pays less and less of the doctors’ fees its levy was increased, using a wave of sympathy for people with disabilities to make a bigger pool of money for increasingly private disability providers.

How to fix the problem?

I do not pretend to have all wisdom on this, but in dealing with difficult political problems I think it is wise to set a direction, take some basic steps and consult widely, looking for advice particularly from those who do not get an immediate financial benefit.

Here is a start:

Recognise that disability is not a sickness.  Some disabilities are inherited; others are acquired due to accident, illness or aging. The sector is quite diverse, often divided up by the type of disability or how it was acquired.   Sickness has an ‘episode’ model, based on traditional infectious diseases or surgical treatment models. Disability tends to be long-term and may improve or be worked around, or may degenerate gradually. As such it needs long-term solutions like welfare, but using the term ‘welfare’ now implies charity. Disability funding is funding to enable those less fortunate to have as normal a life as possible. From our common wealth, we give more to those who need more so that our society has equal opportunity for all. We are being taught that tax must be minimised and if we are getting less than we pay we are being ripped off.  A better model is to consider the statement by Rhonda Galbally, ex-CEO of VicHealth, ‘There are two populations, the disabled and the not-yet disabled; if you are lucky enough to be in the second group, you should be happy to help pay for the first’.

The idea of a universal service obligation is the cornerstone.  We should start with the assumption that people with disabilities should live in our  society with as  normal a life as possible and we should adapt to support them in as cost-effective way as possible. 

My suggestion is that the Community Nursing service is the basic structural framework.  We assume that people with disabilities will be living in society, and need varied and integrated support.  If they are born with a disability or acquire one, they will come in contact with the acute hospital system, which will hopefully document their situation and alert the community support system.  People on the ground will then liaise with family to see what support there is for independent living, and organise resources, calling in specialists of required. The cost of home support may be part of a package or allowance.  Individuals may register to offer services for everything from shopping, cleaning and lawn mowing to medical or paraplegic support services.  The government will register and insure both practitioners and those who use their services and may put training requirements on those who wish to register for some skills.  A market with consumer feedback as exists for restaurants or other practitioners will allow people to hire help directly without big corporations adding massive overheads.

Whether the monies are paid separately of via Centrelink is an administrative question, but Centrelink has to have a major makeover so that it is not the niggardly decider of the ‘worthy poor’ with its chief function being to avoid paying anyone, or paying as little as possible.  If society cannot find everyone employment, we must share what we have to those who are disadvantaged by disability or circumstance. This will collide head on with the problem of increased numbers of those with disabilities, but the extra load must be seen as part of having a decent society. 

The way we are going seems to be privatising, allowing huge profits, then running out of money and shutting the gate on those who do not yet have packages.   The independent assessors were merely the instruments of Managers who were not able to make their own assessments and did not trust the people who actually deliver the services.  The assessor problem was the tip of the iceberg of a system that has all its underlying assumptions wrong, but sadly has a lot of  political power that having been created, may not be able to be undone.  The first step is to understand what is happening.  Hence this lengthy post.

www.abc.net.au/news/2021-07-09/ndis-disability-independent-assessments-model-dead-after-meeting/100277324

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NDIS= Privatisation of Welfare

10 June 2021

It seems that the most sacred duty of corporations is to make as much profit as possible in the framework that they are in. So unless the framework restricts what they can charge and make, why would anyone expect them to behave differently?


It seems that the ‘not-for-profit’ sector is drawing from the same managerial pool, with the same ethos and expensive tastes.


My view is that a strong home support system with community nurses as its major foot-soldiers would be in the best position to assess need and relative need and bring in extra services as required.


The current top-heavy, privatised, hands-off NDIS model with ‘experts’ who do not know the people dropped in a short notice to dispense individualised packages rather than an overall programme is a sure recipe for rip-offs or resource misallocation.


Expect more examples of rip-offs until the model is changed.

www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-10/is-ndis-provider-putting-growth-above-disability-care/100199988

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CTP Insurers Pay 6.3% of Premiums to Injured People. They keep the rest.

28 May 2021

This is a huge corporate scam. Why do people think that only little people are rip-off scammers? Also the idea that most people claims are ‘accepted’ is a nonsense. Insurers accept the claim, which means that they pay for a few GP visits and some physio. But they refuse to pay for scans that might find diagnoses. Then they refuse to pay for referrals to specialists who might need to operate. Then they refuse to pay for recommended operations. Then they use tame doctors (IMEs = Independent Medical Examiners) who either say that the condition does not need the treatment or that the problem was there before the accident so the insurer is not liable.

So the government introduced the PIC (Personal Injury Commission) to arbitrate all the claims that the insurers had refused. Now the waiting time for the PIC is over a year, which suits the insurers fine as the doctors and patients will use Medicare or private heath insurance to get the treatments and the insurers will either pay less or not have to pay at all.

If you thought the banks were bad, you have not dealt with insurers. NRMA refuses a considerably higher percentage of treatments than anyone else in my statistics, and SIRA declines to keep statistics on the ‘industry’ as a whole, and no insurer has ever been prosecuted for refusing a treatment.

This is why we need Medicare- a single, just, efficient, universal health insurance scheme.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sp8R856f7cM

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US Health System and COVID-19 11/12/20

Here is an article about the US Health system and its response to COVID. Basically it seems that the US government is subsidising COVID treatments so that they are more lucrative than treatment of other diseases, so the private operators are filling their hospitals with COVID patients whether they need to be admitted or not, and non-COVID patients are excluded.

The other thing that is interesting is that there has been a huge growth in administrators since the 1970s. It has to be understood why private health systems are so inefficient. They have to keep individual insurance databases to keep track of premiums and churn as people change funds. When someone is treated they have to account for every band aid, visit, procedure or investigation, bill the patient and pay the practitioner. They have to market their product, compete for staff, and then figure out ways to avoid paying if possible.

Universal systems have everyone eligible, so do not need to worry about who is getting treated. No need to market the system, maintain many different churning databases, compete for doctors, keep accounts for every details of every treatment and bill and pay for them individually.

In terms of better health care there is no problem of adapting to whatever disease needs the most attention as the staff are motivated to do the most effective treatments, and there is no distortion of priorities to maximise profits.

The US health system is the least effective in the developed world in terms of delivering health care. but it is the most effective at its primary object- turning sickness into money.

No one has looked too closely at why the Australian system has been able to respond. Basically our public health system is State-based hospitals, which are still largely public and have doctors who could be re-directed to testing and vaccination. They can also change to do COVID if needed, and treat disease on their merit.

The private hospitals did very well out of the government subsidies here because they were emptied ready for a COVID influx that never came and they just pocketed the cash without much publicity for this from either themselves or the Government.

Australia has continued on its previous course, which is to starve Medicare and help the private system move towards a US system by stealth, and the COVID pandemic has so far not brought this to light. What is left of the public system has done well, helped by the fact that we are an island nation, so had some warning and could act to quarantine ourselves. The government was happy to take advice from the medical professionals because it had made such a mess of not taking advice from the firefighting professionals. But Medicare is still being quietly destroyed and we are moving to a US system of private medicine.

The government saves money on Medicare doing this, even though the system is much less efficient and much less equitable. But the key reason is not the savings on Medicare, it is the money to the Party coffers from the Private Health Industry (PHI), which is now much stronger with the changes John Howard did to the Aged Care system in 1997, which made it effectively a for-profit system, and the NDIS also a for-profit system, subsidised by the taxpayer through the Medicare levee, which was ironically not being used for health. (The discussion of the Aged Care system was in one of my posts last week).

The key thing to understand in the destruction of Medicare is that the rebate to doctors which was set at 85% of the AMA fee, so as to replace private medicine, has risen at half the inflation rate for 35 years and is now 46% of the AMA rate. Doctors are paid half what they were, so specialists mostly will not use it, and GPs who still bulk bill just do shorter visits.

Here is the article on the US response to COVID. Their prevention is also hopeless, as with such a poor welfare system the people cannot afford to stop work, and the story that it was a hoax was also promoted by President Trump. The obsession with ‘individual rights’ sits uneasily with the idea of staying home for the common good, and makes disinformation campaigns easier. People wanted to believe it was a hoax, because they could not afford to stop work anyway.

http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/55999.htm

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CTP Facebook Article- The Facts 11/9/16

CTP, Compulsory Third Party insurance (Green Slips) is an area where I work. In theory, if you are injured in an accident that is not your fault, all your treatment is currently paid for by your insurer. The law says that they must pay for ‘reasonable and necessary’ treatment, which I assume to mean the treatment that would happen in good routine medical practice. Wrong.

The insurers have 3 months to decide if they are liable for the accident. If they decide they are not they will not pay. If they decide that they will pay, all treatment decisions have to be referred to them as to whether they will pay or not, and sometimes, despite MRI scans, severe symptoms and a neurosurgeon saying that their life is at risk, they will not pay. I have a number of patients who have waited over a year in agony for treatments that are both reasonable and necessary but the insurers will not pay for. They say that the patients can get it themselves if they like (obviously if they can afford it), of they can get it on Medicare (if they have Medicare and if they can find a surgeon who will operate on Medicare for a third of the money that should be paid by the insurer. Such surgeons cannot be found).

The protocol for disputes vary slightly between insurers. For example, the NRMA protocol is that you can firstly approach the claims clerk who rejected it and ask him/her to change their mind. Secondly you can appeal to their team leader. Thirdly you can appeal to the NRMA Senior Claims Manager. Fourthly you can appeal to the government appointed Medical Assessment Service (MAS), which guarantees to assess the disputed issue and rule within 3 months! Or the treating doctor can try to find a Medicare surgeon, send them to a public hospital, or write yet another prescription for pain killers. (Mostly the insurers pay for pain killers, though they do argue over some other drugs). Many GPs have simply given up treating CTP patients.

All these delays, frequently running into months can be compared to the doctors and nurses in Emergency Departments of public hospitals who have to write long explanations for the Health Minister if patients wait more than 4 hours in the Emergency Departments. So if you think private medicine is better than public- think again. We are going the way of the US. Insurers control it all.

Patients are assesses by an iniquitous system devised by American Insurance companies in cooperation, (inexplicably enough) with the American Medical Association. This has resulted in a tome, the ‘AMA Guidelines for the Assessment of Permanent Impairment’ which supposedly gives a percentage of impairment of your body, so that injured people can get compensation based on the percentage impairment that they have. Doctors can do a course in how to use this guidebook and then do lucrative medicals based on it. The reason the book was produced was to lessen litigation on how injured someone was, which would save legal costs. As pain cannot be measured, this was left out, which is just the first reason why the book is a farce. Since pain is the main thing that stops people working, to talk of impairment without considering pain is almost like having a swimming race without water- just not quite. Secondly despite the tome’s carefully crafted descriptions, doctors assessment using the guidelines vary widely. Thirdly, it is very hard to get over 10% impairment, which is the amount Mr Baird’s reforms intend to define as more than a ‘minor injury’ so there will be many people with only a few percent impairment, and thus minimal compensation, who will be unemployed and unemployable. Fourthly, the guides only talk of ‘impairment’. Any one who works in disability knows that there is quite a difference between an impairment and a disability. For example if someone is very shortsighted they are impaired, but if they have good prescription glasses they may not be disabled by that impairment. People who work with their brains are similarly less disabled than those who need their physical strength, but have the same impairment. So physical workers are again disadvantaged.
The new scheme will cut out lawyers and advocacy, and will give a statutory small amount to ‘minor’ injuries. The insurers will dump long term patients on the welfare system and continue to get a lot of money for doing not much that is useful.

I would finish by saying that I think the whole system is appalling and that the way to solve the health system problem is to raise the Medicare rebate from 48% of the AMA fee to 85%, where it was when it started, and there would be no trouble getting doctors to treat the patients who needed it. There also needs to be a single insurer, so that disputes between insurers will not delay treatment, which they frequently do, and everyone should be covered, even ‘at fault’ drivers, who still need treating despite their error.

For the present six insurers, all are bad, but they are not all as bad as each other. There are no published figures to compare them rationally, but based on personal experience, I have just changed my insurance from NRMA to GIO. The TV ad about feeling ‘confident’ about your insurer is a bad joke.
Wish me luck, as I wish you.
Here is an SMH article by Anna Patty 12/9/16 which raises the issues in a somewhat understated way.

www.smh.com.au/business/workplace/green-slip-reforms-will-leave-most-motorists-to-fend-for-themselves-20160905-gr8zca.html

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Medicare- Did the Liberals try to abolish it?

21 June 2016 This is a current question with Shorten claiming that the Liberals are trying to privatise it and Turnbull calling this a Labor lie. What is the truth?  The answer is in the history of Medicare funding.  Medibank was set up by the Whitlam government and the bulk billing frees were set at […]

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