Physicians For a National Health Care Plan
Towers Watson, March 6, 2014
The cost of providing employer-sponsored health care benefits is expected to increase 4.4% this year, a slight uptick from last year, when cost increases fell to a 15-year low, according to an annual survey by global professional services company Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), an association of large employers.
The 19th Annual Towers Watson/NBGH Employer Survey on Purchasing Value in Health Care found that employer costs are expected to reach $9,560 per employee in 2014, an increase of 4.4% from $9,157 in 2013 (DM – but it would have been a 7.0% increase had employers not made changes to their plans that shifted more costs to their employees). The survey found the employees’ share of premiums increased nearly 7%, to $2,975, this year. Out-of-pocket costs also increased. The total employee cost share has climbed from 34.4% in 2011 to 37% in 2014. Employees now pay over $100 more each month for health care compared with just three years ago.
“Despite the moderation, health care costs continue to outpace inflation and remain a major concern for U.S. employers given the challenging macroeconomic environment,” said Ron Fontanetta, senior health care consultant for Towers Watson. “To find more effective ways to manage health costs, many employers are focusing on reshaping their health strategy for the next three to five years.”
Indeed, while the vast majority (95%) of respondents indicate that subsidizing health care coverage for active employees is a very important part of their rewards package, almost as many (92%) expect to make moderate to significant changes to their programs by 2018.
Contribution strategy for spouses changing: Nearly half (49%) of employers have increased employee contributions for dependent tiers at higher rates than for individuals. Another 19% expect to make this move next year. Only 56% of companies believe that subsidized health care for spouses will be very important for 2015 and beyond — down from over 70% today, an indication that the trend toward increased cost sharing for spouses will likely continue.
More employers embracing account-based health plans (e.g., HSAs): Nearly three-quarters of respondents currently offer these plans, with another 9% expecting to add one for the first time in 2015. Nearly one-third of all companies could offer ABHPs as their only option by 2015 if they follow through with current plans.
Employers looking at exchange options: Two-thirds of companies believe that private exchanges will offer a viable alternative to employer-sponsored coverage for active employees as early as 2015.
Retiree health: Nearly two-thirds of employers that offer access to a sponsored plan today say they are likely to eliminate those programs in the next few years and steer their pre-Medicare-age population to public exchanges.
Health and financial subsidies: Twenty-two percent of companies adopted outcomes-based incentives (other than for tobacco), and that figure could reach 46% by 2015 if companies follow through with their plans.
Value purchasing: The best-performing respondents are addressing key drivers of performance including pharmacy management, network delivery options and enhanced wellness strategies.
The most important reason that a more effective model of social insurance, such as single payer, was rejected in favor of a fragmented model of reform based on private health plans and public programs was that a majority of Americans were receiving their coverage through their employment and that was perceived as a segment of the market that was working well and should not be disrupted. “If you like the insurance you have, you can keep it.”
Not only was three-fifths of the population already covered by employer-sponsored plans, if this coverage were abandoned, the policy community working on reform would have had to devise a way of replacing the funds paying for this coverage – decisions that would likely provoke even greater public hostility than we saw with the enactment of the Affordable Care Act.
In the last half century, the best coverage has been provided mostly through large employers – those represented by the National Business Group on Health (employers with over 1,000 employees each and 55 million employees in total). These employers have been very concerned about rising health care costs, and now they know that they will have to live with our highly flawed version of comprehensive reform – the Affordable Care Act. They see very little in this Act that will provide them relief, so they are moving forward with their own measures.
We can now see where employers have been, where they have taken us, and where they are headed – on a downward spiral of ever inferior employer-sponsored health plans.
Some of the changes we are seeing, according to this and other reports:
* Higher deductibles (shifting costs to those with health care needs)
* Health savings accounts (not much help when they are underfunded or empty)
* Increasing employees’ share of premiums
* Reducing dependent coverage, especially spouses
* Sending employees to private insurance exchanges (shifting to defined contribution)
* Using narrower provider networks (taking away health care choices)
* Using outcome-based incentives that effectively penalize those with health problems
* Dumping retirees into public exchanges
* Using value purchasing – a code term for managed care
How could employers be so crass as to dump on their employees like this? Quite simple. They now have a new standard to point to – the low actuarial value private plans that are being offered through the government exchanges – plans that are using many of of the same strategies that will be harming the physical and financial health of plan enrollees. In fact, two-thirds of employers believe that “private exchanges will offer a viable alternative to employer-sponsored coverage for active employees as early as 2015” – next year! These private exchanges will offer plans using the same devious measures that will shift more costs to patients, thereby impairing access.
Our observation of this rapid deterioration in plans offered by the nation’s largest employers should cause us to sound the alarms. We need to begin immediately preparation for transition into a single payer national health program – an improved Medicare that covers all of us. The Fortune 500 employers are not going to do it for us.
By Alexi A Wright, Baohui Zhang, Nancy L Keating, Jane C Weeks, Holly G Prigerson
BMJ, March 4, 2014
The use of chemotherapy in terminally ill cancer patients in the last months of life was associated with an increased risk of undergoing cardiopulmonary resuscitation, mechanical ventilation or both and of dying in an intensive care unit. Future research should determine the mechanisms by which palliative chemotherapy affects end of life outcomes and patients’ attainment of their goals.
Bayer HealthCare and Onyx Pharmaceuticals
Nexavar is now indicated for the treatment of patients with locally recurrent or metastatic, progressive, differentiated thyroid carcinoma (DTC) that is refractory to radioactive iodine treatment.
Median progression-free survival
10.8 months Nexavar
5.8 months Placebo
Number of deaths
32% (66) Nexavar
34% (72) Placebo
Important safety considerations:
Most common adverse reactions reported for NEXAVAR-treated patients vs placebo-treated patients in DTC, respectively, were: Palmar-plantar erythrodysesthesia syndrome (PPES) (69% vs 8%), diarrhea (68% vs 15%), alopecia (67% vs 8%), weight loss (49% vs 14%), fatigue (41% vs 20%), hypertension (41% vs 12%), rash (35% vs 7%), decreased appetite (30% vs 5%), stomatitis (24% vs 3%), nausea (21% vs 12%), pruritus (20% vs 11%), and abdominal pain (20% vs 7%). Grade 3/4 adverse reactions were 65% vs 30%
(15 other important safety considerations are listed – available at the link)
****Oncology “Top Five” List Identifies Opportunities to Improve Quality and Value in Cancer Care
American Society of Clinical Oncology, April 3, 2012
The Oncology Top Five List
1. For patients with advanced solid-tumor cancers who are unlikely to benefit, do not provide unnecessary anticancer therapy, such as chemotherapy, but instead focus on symptom relief and palliative care.
For those whose lives are dedicated to the science and art of healing, this discussion on cancer chemotherapy at the end of life is one that we shouldn’t have to have. But apparently we do need to discuss it.
The new study on this topic published by BMJ confirms what we already knew. Those patients who receive often futile chemotherapy late in the course of their malignancies seemed to be programmed for a course that increases the risk of being subjected to CPR, to being placed on a ventilator, and to dying in an intensive care unit. Most in their rational moments would prefer the more humane approach of hospice care in their final days. Yet the fact that this study was done is further evidence that mostly inappropriate, aggressive, and quality-of-life reducing interventions are still being pursued.
Nexavar is a $96,000 cancer chemotherapeutic agent that was recently approved for certain progressive thyroid carcinomas. It had been previously approved for selected cases of liver and kidney cancer, though NICE (UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) did not recommend it since “available evidence does not indicate that it delays symptom progression or improves quality of life.” Regular readers may recall that Marijn Dekkers, Chairman of Bayer, said that this product was not developed for poor people in the Indian market but rather for Western patients who could afford it.
What is the evidence for its use in “locally recurrent or metastatic, progressive, differentiated thyroid carcinoma (DTC) that is refractory to radioactive iodine treatment”? Simply stated, when radiologists followed the tumors by measuring them, there was no progression for six months for those given a placebo, whereas those receiving Nexavar did not demonstrate progression until eleven months. This is a demonstration that successfully treating a test, but not the patient, is considered by some to be of therapeutic value.
But what about the overall death rates? They were the same with Nexavar and placebo. Okay, what about the quality of life? Looking at the list above, the incidence of several miserable side effects was much greater in the Nexavar treated group than it was in the placebo group. They experienced poorer quality of life and did not postpone death. If you extend the findings described in the article in this week’s BMJ, by being treated with palliative chemotherapy, they had greater odds of being subjected to CPR, to being place on a ventilator, and to dying in an intensive care unit rather than in hospice.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology certainly recognizes what is happening here. As one of the top five opportunities to improve quality and value in cancer care, they recommend that “for patients with advanced solid-tumor cancers who are unlikely to benefit, do not provide unnecessary anticancer therapy, such as chemotherapy, but instead focus on symptom relief and palliative care.”
We desperately need NICE care in the United States. We would have that under a well designed single payer national health program.
An extra: Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly (Imagine the oncologist “singing my life with his words”) : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1eOsMc2Fgg
By Robert Kocher, M.D., and Bryan Roberts, Ph.D.
The New England Journal of Medicine, February 26, 2014
Bringing a drug from bench to bedside is a risky and expensive proposition. The development of a new drug is estimated to cost many hundreds of millions of dollars; as a result, decisions about funding a drug-development program are based as much on economics as on science and medicine. Decisions to invest and reinvest at all stages of development are driven by the imperative to generate an attractive return on the capital invested, whether by venture-capital and public investors or by pharmaceutical companies.
It is not mysterious why projects get funded. As venture-capital investors, we evaluate projects along four primary dimensions: development costs, selling costs, differentiation of the drug relative to current treatments, and incidence and prevalence of the targeted disease.
Fortunately, much can be done to bring more drugs and a more diverse set of drugs to market. The two economic dimensions — development costs and selling costs — can be most easily improved. The most expensive step in creating a new drug is conducting clinical trials. Conducting a trial costs $25,000 or more per patient studied, and phase 3 trial programs consume more than 40% of a sponsoring company’s expenditures. Unfortunately, every patient is not equally valuable when it comes to clinical trials, and many clinical development programs are economically inefficient in that they are excessively large relative to the amount of information they yield, especially in light of the information-technology breakthroughs that have lowered the cost of data acquisition and analysis over the past 20 years.
High-frequency, material information about clinical efficacy and safety comes from the first few hundred patients studied in a trial. Unfortunately, most clinical development programs go far past the point of diminishing returns for frequent safety events, but they do not go far enough to permit detection of rare events. Statistically, it is only in the long tail of patient data that reliable signals of rare adverse effects can emerge and comprehensive safety can be established. Safety is critical, but studying the long tail of adverse events is not feasible from either a time or a capital perspective until after a new drug enters the market, especially if the drug is for a chronic condition.
Redesigning trials to include fewer patients, providing conditional approval of drugs, and requiring postmarketing surveillance could have a profound effect, allowing smaller development programs to achieve greater success. We estimate that development costs for drugs could be reduced by as much as 90%, and the time required by 50%, if the threshold for initial approval were defined in terms of efficacy and fundamental safety. Cutting costs and time, while requiring high-quality and transparent patient registries for independent safety monitoring, would be a more informative and cost-effective approach. With the widespread adoption of electronic health records and the introduction of many low-cost data-analysis tools, it is now feasible to develop mandatory postmarketing surveillance programs that make thousand-patient trials obsolete.
This approach to reducing drug-development costs would have the greatest effect on drugs for chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, since such drugs currently require the largest trials. Moreover, our ability to identify rare side effects and take action to protect patients would be substantially improved when many more patients are being followed, albeit in the absence of a control group. We believe this approach would have no adverse effect on the trend in the development of drugs for orphan diseases and cancers, since those drugs will continue to have low development and selling costs and substantial differentiation from existing treatments. Yet, this approach would make it attractive to pursue drug candidates for many more disease conditions and would lower the threshold for financing a drug’s development so that more drugs would be brought forward.
Another major factor is selling costs. It is far more cost-effective to sell a drug when it is either prescribed by specialty physicians or commonly used in hospitals, both of which effectively aggregate patients. Moreover, it is easier to predict the level of adoption by these customers on the basis of the drug’s clinical differentiation and pharmacoeconomics. Sales of drugs prescribed by primary care doctors depend on a mixture of expensive sales representatives and advertising and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
While scientists work hard to increase the rate of scientific discovery, the rest of us should do our part to improve the other variables that figure into the calculus of which cures are brought to market. Such improvement would be good for patients and would represent good economic policy, since drug prices could be lowered even as investors generated the returns necessary to finance more discoveries.
****PNHP Data Update
September 29, 2000
The new editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Jeffrey Drazen, M.D. was cited by the FDA last year for making “false and misleading” statements about the asthma drug, levalbuterol. Drazen received $7,000 from the drug’s maker, and has ties to another 20 drug firms (USA Today, 5/31/00). “Academic researchers should be able to own substantial stock in a company or accept sizeable consultant fees and still accept research support,” according to Drazen. (California Healthline, 5/26/00).
(Note: Though this was written in 2000, Jeffrey Drazen is still the editor of NEJM.)
One of the most serious defects of the U.S. health care system is that we not only allow but we encourage the participation of passive investors. For those who believe that the free market is what makes America so great, the opportunity to glom onto some of the $3 trillion that we spend each year on health care cannot pass the attention of the entrepreneurial mind. Venture capitalists in the pharmaceutical industry are a case in point.
The venture capitalists who authored this article in The New England Journal of Medicine have diagnosed a major problem with the U.S. pharmaceutical industry and are providing a solution – a solution for investors that is.
They have decided that clinical trials of new drugs are too expensive. They note that you can determine clinical efficacy from the first few hundred patients in the study and that adding many more patients goes far past the point of diminishing returns. As far as determining drug safety, we can use the computerization of health records to detect adverse events, taking advantage of the very large number of patients receiving the drug after it has been released for marketing. By reducing these research costs, and by moving products to the market earlier so they can begin providing returns, the venture capitalists then would have more funds to invest in even more new products. See, the market really works.
We have seen the tragedies of products rushed to the market, with the inadequacies of post-marketing surveillance, resulting in great harm to patients, even death, while the pharmaceutical industry pays massive fines that they pass off as simply a cost of business. When passive investors are involved, the investors must be taken care of first, certainly before the patients, and these guys writing this article want a greater piece of the action.
Why would one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals publish an article promoting the interests of venture capitalists in the pharmaceutical industry? The answer might be found in the views of the editor of NEJM, Jeffrey Drazen, MD, who in the past expressed the opinion, “Academic researchers should be able to own substantial stock in a company or accept sizeable consultant fees and still accept research support.”
It is sad when the pursuit of money contaminates even the paragons of health care, and yet those involved seem to be totally insensitive to the fact that there is even an issue here.
What does this have to do with single payer? When our own public purchasers of health care products and services enter the marketplace on our behalf to negotiate the acquisition of our health care, they can refuse to pay the money lenders who personally provide no value to our health care. If research funds are needed we can provide them ourselves though our own National Institutes of Health. Such an investment would have the goal of determining efficacy and safety – benefitting patients – and not on how fast you can turn a buck.
By Abby Goodnough
The New York Times, March 2, 2014
Dr. Sven Jonsson, a primary care physician in this rural community, is seeing a steady tide of new patients under President Obama’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act. And so far, it is working out for him. His employer, a big hospital system, provides expensive equipment, takes care of bureaucratic chores and has buffered him from the turmoil of his rapidly changing business.
About 25 miles away in the more affluent suburb of Crestwood, Dr. Tracy Ragland, 46, an independent primary care physician, is more anxious about the future of her small practice. The law is bringing new regulations and payment rates that she says squeeze self-employed doctors. She cherishes the autonomy of private practice and speaks darkly of the rush of independent physicians into hospital networks, which she sees as growing monopolies.
(Dr. Ragland) said that she embraced the goal of extending health coverage to far more Americans, but that Medicaid paid too poorly for her to treat any of the new enrollees. And while she is accepting some of the private plans sold through Kentucky’s new online insurance exchange, she has rejected others — again, because she considers the payment too low.
Dr. Jonsson owned his practice in Louisville for a decade — and did not accept Medicaid, for the same reasons that Dr. Ragland generally does not — but sold it in 2010, months after the Affordable Care Act passed. He did so, he said, expressly out of concern that the law and related requirements were about to ratchet up the pressures and expense of private practice. In particular, he dreaded having to buy and learn how to use an electronic records system, not only because such systems are expensive but because doctors’ productivity slows down while they are learning the computerized systems, threatening tight margins.
Only about 40 percent of family doctors and pediatricians remain independent, according to the American Medical Association — and many, including Dr. Ragland, feel that harsh economic winds that were already pushing against them have been accelerated by the Affordable Care Act.
Dr. Jonsson is less mired in the daily worries of running a medical business. His hospital system (Baptist Health), with far more bargaining power than a private practice, negotiates with insurers on his behalf, pays his overhead and malpractice insurance, and handles much of the ever-expanding paperwork. It provides him with an X-ray machine and a costly system for keeping digital patient records, a move encouraged by the new law. He has been able to take his first long vacations in years, including a recent month in his native South Africa.
Since the passage of the act in 2010, hospital systems have been acquiring physician practices to shore up their market positions and form networks to take advantage of incentives under the new law. For now, Baptist is taking a financial hit by putting so many doctors on staff: Moody’s Investors Service downgraded its credit rating in September, citing “increased losses from an aggressive and rapid physician employment strategy.”
Baptist enlisted about a dozen of its primary care providers in the Louisville region to take on new Medicaid patients, officials there said, both to get more paying customers in the door and, as a nonprofit system with a stated charitable mission, to help more of Kentucky’s poor get medical care under the law.
The primary care practices of Dr. Sven Jonsson and Dr. Tracy Ragland described in this article are not merely anecdotal. They are truly representative of major changes taking place in the financing of primary care today. Is this change a disruptive innovation that will deliver on the promise of an expanded primary care infrastructure with higher quality and lower costs? Let’s take a closer look.
How disruptive is this? Both Dr. Jonsson and Dr. Ragland practice in free standing clinics with only a few associates. They see similar patients with acute and chronic care needs. Previously they both felt that they could not afford to accept Medicaid patients because of the very low payment rates under their state Medicaid program. Since becoming employed by Baptist Health, Dr. Jonsson now includes Medicaid patients in his practice, whereas Dr. Ragland, who continues with her traditional primary care practice, still does not accept Medicaid patients and, furthermore, does not accept patients who are now insured through certain plans in Kentucky’s new insurance exchange – plans that have payment rates which she considers too low for her practice.
Although their practices are very similar, Dr. Jonsson is the more contented physician. He simply practices medicine without the economic concerns that he formerly faced. Dr. Ragland still has these concerns.
The difference is that Dr. Jonsson, along with his Medicaid patients and patients covered by exchange plans, are benefiting from the consolidation that is taking place in the health care delivery system in which hospitals and physicians are merging. These consolidated systems are able to extract greater concessions from the insurers since they become “must have” organizations when the insurers establish their provider networks.
Dr. Jonsson’s association with Baptist Health – a nonprofit health care organization with a charitable mission of caring for the poor – seems to be an ideal arrangement for meeting the health care needs of the community. So what could be wrong?
The obvious reason that Dr. Jonsson is personally financially secure in spite of seeing Medicaid patients is that Baptist Health is paying him more than he would be receiving from Medicaid or the exchange plans. How is that working? Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded Baptist Health’s credit rating citing “increased losses from an aggressive and rapid physician employment strategy.”
Under our current fragmented, dysfunctional financing system, when hospitals and physicians are trying to do the right thing, it still isn’t working in spite of the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. The current flux in primary care financing is highly unstable and likely will continue to be disruptive to traditional primary care practices. For those who say good riddance, realize two things: 1) prices are higher in the consolidated systems and will not be tolerated for long, and 2) traditional primary care practices, including community health centers, provide essential community health care services in regions often not attractive to large, consolidated health systems.
If we switched everyone to Medicare right now, the system would work, though many problems would remain because of the deficiencies in Medicare. On the other hand, if we created a well designed single payer system (an improved Medicare for all) our financing problems would be solved, and we could get on with repairing our health care delivery system – one in which both Dr. Jonsson and Dr. Ragland would take pride in their ability to meet the health care needs of their patients.
By Chapin White, James D. Reschovsky, Amelia M. Bond
National Institute for Health Care Reform, February 2014
When including all care related to a hospitalization — for example, a knee or hip replacement — the price of the initial inpatient stay explains almost all of the wide variation from hospital to hospital in spending on so-called episodes of care, according to a study by researchers at the former Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) based on 2011 claims data for 590,000 active and retired nonelderly autoworkers and dependents. For example, average spending for uncomplicated inpatient knee and hip replacements ranged across 36 hospitals from less than $17,500 to $37,000 for an episode of care that included all services during the inpatient stay and all follow-up care within 30 days of discharge. The pattern of spending variation for knee and hip replacements held true for other conditions, with hospital inpatient price differences accounting for the vast majority of spending variation rather than differences in spending on physician and other non-hospital services during and after discharge or spending on readmissions. Moreover, hospitals’ case-mix-adjusted relative spending per episode for different service lines — for example, orthopedics and cardiology — tend to be highly correlated with each other. Understanding why spending for episodes of care varies so much among hospitals can help private purchasers accurately target ways to control spending. This study’s findings — inpatient prices drive the bulk of episode-spending variation and hospitals with high spending for one service line tend to have high spending for other service lines — indicate that private purchasers can focus on hospitals’ overall inpatient price levels rather than pursue bundled payments for episodes of care or service-line-specific purchasing strategies.
To Bundle or Not to Bundle…
In Medicare, there is a compelling case for bundled payments — wide variations in post-acute care use are the main factor behind differences between high- and low-spending geographic regions and between high- and low-spending hospitals. Moreover, Medicare patients often have multiple chronic conditions that are complex to manage. But the results of this analysis show that the case for bundled hospital payments for the privately insured is much weaker — post-acute care and other ancillary services account for a relatively small share of overall spending on hospitalization episodes, and they account for almost none of the variation in episode spending from one hospital to another.
Implications for Private Purchasers
It remains to be seen whether, going forward, the tools available to private purchasers — tiered benefits, reference pricing, and so on — can counteract hospitals’ significant market power. Other more dramatic interventions, such as state-based hospital rate setting, or offering a “public option” that uses administered pricing through the state health insurance exchanges are options, albeit unlikely in most states to gain traction.
Rather than relying on proven methods of controlling health care costs through government administered pricing, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) relies on private sector integration of the health care delivery system through entities such as accountable care organizations. One of the mechanisms promoted by ACA is bundled payments – paying a single pre-set amount for all services associated with a single hospital episode of care such as a joint replacement. Will bundled payments adequately control our health care spending?
This study shows that, for private patients, the upper end of the wide variation in spending between hospitals is driven by high prices which permeate all of the hospitals’ service lines. For those services amenable to bundling, such as joint replacement, most of the services provided are related to the specific episode and thus do not vary much between hospitals. Post-acute care and other ancillary services which might otherwise be pared back with bundling are such a small part of the overall services that bundling cannot save money by reducing the volume of services connected to the episode.
Since it is the high prices of the standard services that are a problem, attacking only those services that are bundled will not save much since high prices throughout the rest of the hospital are left undisturbed or even increased some to offset any price concessions for the bundled services.
This article mentions that there is a case for bundled payments under Medicare since these more complex patients have wide variations in acute and post-acute care, providing more flexibility in controlling the volume of services. Prices are already controlled through the Medicare prospective payment system, which, to a limited degree, represents a form of bundling (think DRGs).
Other nations, even if using private insurers, utilize rigid government price setting through one form or another. The authors of this report suggest that state-based hospital rate setting or government administered pricing would not likely gain traction. Yet “bundling” all hospital spending through global hospital budgets (like fire or police department budgets), as part of a single payer system, is precisely what we need. Let’s give it traction.
By William Frist
Health Affairs, February 2014
America’s health care delivery sector stands at a tipping point—a convergence of a growing, graying, and highly consumptive population with increasingly limited financial and human capital resources.
Policy makers naturally gravitate toward government to provide the framework for solutions to this worsening scenario…. I’ve spent about equal time in government and the private health sector, and I believe there are two other levers that are more likely to be effective.
The first lever is the rapid ascent of the newly empowered consumer, equipped for the first time with actionable knowledge that can affect his or her health. The second consists of magnificent advances in information technology (IT). The exponential growth and application of these technologies are revolutionizing, in a very short period of time, the automation, connectivity, decision support, and mining of health information and data, which together will radically transform and improve health care delivery.
These two forces are just beginning to come of age. Neither was a significant driver of health care value just three years ago. Today their potential is enormous. Together, the empowered consumer and rapidly advancing health IT will channel our chaotic, fragmented, and wasteful health care sector toward a more seamless, transparent, accountable, and efficient system. They will answer the underlying question of how we will get better care for less cost. They will be the primary keys for game-changing, value-driven reform, where provider compensation and payments are determined not by the type and number of specific services rendered but by the quality and outcomes of care provided.
…. Government is slow to change and even slower to self-correct. …But what America needs now is more health for less money…. And in that effort, the newly empowered consumer is likely to lead the way.
In this article, William Frist, a former Republican senator from Tennessee, claims “the newly empowered consumer” will play the leading role in health care reform. According to Frist, “consumers” recently acquired immense power thanks to “magnificent advances in information technology (IT).” The “empowered consumer” aided by health IT will lead us to a “more seamless, transparent, accountable and efficient system.”
Why couldn’t Frist lower his decibel level a notch and simply call our attention to recent developments in HIT that have some potential to improve health and perhaps lower costs? Why all the undocumented hype?
In Frist’s case, it appears his conservative ideology is at work. He notes early in his paper that government is pokey and cannot be expected to play a leading role in health care reform. If he can draw readers into his fantasies about patients with the powers of comic book figures, readers might be less likely to ask government to play a leading role in solving the health care crisis.
But Frist’s conservative values can’t be the entire explanation because thousands of American health policy experts with no discernible political leanings, and many Democrats, talk just like him. Frist’s article represents a common style of argument utilized by American health policy researchers as well as the politicians who listen to them. Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Newt Gingrich and Tommy Thompson are other examples of politicians who have been influenced by managed-care speak.
In the rest of this comment I will use Frist’s paper as a case study with which to elucidate three key elements of this style.
First, the subjects of discussion – the mechanisms that will allegedly ameliorate the crisis – are described so abstractly it is difficult to know how to refute or confirm the claims made for them. The “accountable care organization” is a prominent example. The “empowered consumer” is another. Frist offers us not one example of how any of us would know if we fall into the category of “empowered,” and he is vague about how “rapidly advancing health IT” will confer “power” upon patients.
If Frist had simply argued that Americans are becoming more knowledgeable about their health, we might quibble about how true that is but we wouldn’t be baffled by his argument. But he speaks of more “power,” not more knowledge. Does he mean that thanks to growing access to medical records via computers, for example, that patients now have the power to browbeat insurance companies into paying for their medical care if the insurance company refuses? Does he mean that because of the numerous apps one can buy to monitor calories consumed, steps walked per day, etc. that patients have the power to force drug companies and hospitals to lower their prices?
A second characteristic of managed-care speak is the use of value-laden labels to refer to the aforementioned amorphous concepts. As Ted Marmor has noted on numerous occasions, and as he and Jonathan Oberlander noted in a recent paperhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3514994, the vague concepts advanced by American health policy experts often bear labels designed to persuade rather than enlighten. “Empowered consumers” and “seamless” care are two examples from Frist’s paper. “Accountable care,” “coordinated care,” and “integrated delivery systems” are common examples one could find in myriad other articles. What do those labels mean? And who could be in favor of their opposites, for example, “unaccountable care” or “disempowered patients”?
A third common feature of the style I’m talking about is the confidence with which conclusions are asserted even though no evidence is marshaled to support the claim, or the evidence cited is incomplete, cherry-picked, or flat wrong. In Frist’s case, he could have limited his argument to a simple statement that the spread of electronic medical records and mobile phones and the invention of numerous apps might create a better informed patient among the segment of the population that can afford access to the Internet and myriad apps. But he did not do that. Instead he got out his trumpet and heralded the coming of a new age.
Those three features – poorly defined concepts, value-laden names for these concepts, and exaggerated claims for them – coupled with their ubiquitousness are lethal for busy readers, especially busy politicians who don’t have time to give definitions a reality check and to read papers cited in endnotes to see if they say what the writer said they said. The net effect is a form “truthiness,” to borrow Stephen Colbert’s wonderful label for claims that seem to be true but aren’t. http://www.merriam-webster.com/info/06words.htm
This “truthiness” – the illusion that what experts like Frist say is based on science – is a major obstacle to a productive public debate about how to solve the health care crisis, and to the enactment of a single-payer system. It lends cover to politicians who want to take single-payer off the table.
By Mark W. Friedberg, MD, MPP; Eric C. Schneider, MD, MSc; Meredith B. Rosenthal, PhD; Kevin G. Volpp, MD, PhD; Rachel M. Werner, MD, PhD
JAMA, February 26, 2014
Importance: Interventions to transform primary care practices into medical homes are increasingly common, but their effectiveness in improving quality and containing costs is unclear.
Objective: To measure associations between participation in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Chronic Care Initiative, one of the earliest and largest multipayer medical home pilots conducted in the United States, and changes in the quality, utilization, and costs of care.
Design, Setting, and Participants: Thirty-two volunteering primary care practices participated in the pilot (conducted from June 1, 2008, to May 31, 2011). We surveyed pilot practices to compare their structural capabilities at the pilot’s beginning and end. Using claims data from 4 participating health plans, we compared changes (in each year, relative to before the intervention) in the quality, utilization, and costs of care delivered to 64?243 patients who were attributed to pilot practices and 55?959 patients attributed to 29 comparison practices (selected for size, specialty, and location similar to pilot practices) using a difference-in-differences design.
Exposures: Pilot practices received disease registries and technical assistance and could earn bonus payments for achieving patient-centered medical home recognition by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA).
Main Outcomes and Measures: Practice structural capabilities; performance on 11 quality measures for diabetes, asthma, and preventive care; utilization of hospital, emergency department, and ambulatory care; standardized costs of care.
Results: Pilot practices successfully achieved NCQA recognition and adopted new structural capabilities such as registries to identify patients overdue for chronic disease services. Pilot participation was associated with statistically significantly greater performance improvement, relative to comparison practices, on 1 of 11 investigated quality measures: nephropathy screening in diabetes (adjusted performance of 82.7% vs 71.7% by year 3, P?<?.001). Pilot participation was not associated with statistically significant changes in utilization or costs of care. Pilot practices accumulated average bonuses of $92?000 per primary care physician during the 3-year intervention.
Conclusions and Relevance: A multipayer medical home pilot, in which participating practices adopted new structural capabilities and received NCQA certification, was associated with limited improvements in quality and was not associated with reductions in utilization of hospital, emergency department, or ambulatory care services or total costs over 3 years. These findings suggest that medical home interventions may need further refinement.
****The Medical Home’s Impact on Cost & Quality: An Annual Update of the Evidence, 2012-2013
By Marci Nielsen, PhD, MPH, J. Nwando Olayiwola, MD, MPH Paul Grundy, MD, MPH, Kevin Grumbach, MD
Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative, January 2014
A summary of key points from this year’s report include:
1. PCMH (Patient-Centered Medical Home) studies continue to demonstrate impressive improvements across a broad range of categories including: cost, utilization, population health, prevention, access to care, and patient satisfaction, while a gap still exists in reporting impact on clinician satisfaction.
2. The PCMH continues to play a role in strengthening the larger health care system, specifically Accountable Care Organizations and the emerging medical neighborhood model.
3. Significant payment reforms are incorporating the PCMH and its key attributes.
Although the evidence is early from an academic perspective, and this report does not represent a formal peer-reviewed meta-analysis of the literature, the expanding body of research provided here suggests that when fully transformed primary care practices have embraced the PCMH model of care, we find a number of consistent, positive outcomes.
Imagine doing away with all primary care professionals. Patients would select a specialist depending on their specific presenting symptoms: an otolaryngologist for a cold, a surgeon for a minor laceration, a neurologist for a headache, or a gastroenterologist for an acute diarrhea. Of course, that’s ridiculous. Primary care is not a concept that we have to sell to the public. Virtually everyone accepts it as a given.
So what is the Patient-Centered Medical Home (PCMH) and how does it differ from primary care? This RAND study published in the current issue of JAMA provides enough information that we can say that, for practical purposes, there is no difference.
The primary care practices studied by RAND received a stamp of approval from the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) and received bonuses for accomplishing that goal. Other than that, when compared to similar practices, they proved to be slightly better on only one of eleven quality measures and showed no reductions in utilization of hospital, emergency department, or ambulatory care services or in total costs over the 3 years of the study.
Various commentaries on this study have suggested that the reason that the study group did not do better was that the PCMH is more appropriate for people with complex, chronic problems. Only then would we expect to see improved outcomes. Really? If this effort to reinforce our primary care infrastructure is to be designed to take care of the sickest patents only, then where do the relatively healthy go? Directly to the specialists?
It has also been speculated that the practices volunteering for the study were already high-performing practices and thus did not have much room for further improvement. If that were the case, then why did the control practices do just as well?
Rather than criticizing the disappointing performance of the NCQA-recognized primary care practices, we should acknowledge that the comparison practices were providing the same efficiency and quality of care that was being provided by these selected practices. Although some might quibble with the terminology, our primary care practices are already functioning as patient-centered medical homes!
It is true that we need to reinforce primary care. The latest report from the Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative suggests that we can strengthen primary care, though the improvements that they report have not been subjected to “a formal peer-reviewed meta-analysis of the literature.” But more important, the reinforcement that we urgently need is to expand the primary care infrastructure, both geographically to provide better access, and through the greater use of non-physician primary care professionals, especially nurse practitioners.
Another interesting observation about this RAND study is that it was conducted using our multi-payer system – a system well documented to be inefficient, and one that is driven more by business interests rather than patient-service interests. Although we need more than just a single payer system to improve our primary care infrastructure, it would be a gigantic and crucially important first step in establishing a single public system that would enable further improvements in primary care, where patients come first.
By Jordan Rau
Kaiser Health News, February 21, 2014
Networks of doctors and hospitals set up under the Affordable Care Act to improve patients’ health and save money for Medicare are having varying rates of success in addressing their patients’ diabetes and heart disease, according to government data released Friday.
About 4 million Medicare beneficiaries are being cared for by one of the more than 250 ACOs that Medicare has approved. Each ACO is responsible for taking care of a group of at least 5,000 Medicare beneficiaries; although patients can go to any doctor they choose. Medicare counts as part of an ACO the patients who mostly go to doctors and facilities within that coalition. Patients generally do not choose an ACO.
The release is the first public numbers from Medicare of how patient care is being affected by specific networks. These accountable care organizations, or ACOs, are among the most prominent of Medicare’s experiments in changing the ways physicians and health care facilities work together and are paid.
To make sure the ACOs are not stinting on care in their quests to earn bonuses, Medicare is tracking 33 different quality measures.
On Friday, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released data on five of these measures for 141 ACOs during 2012. Four evaluate how well the ACOs helped patients with diabetes. The fifth examined how many patients with arteries packed with plaque received appropriate medicines to relax their blood vessels. Medicare said it did not release more measures because it did not think some of them could be easily understood by consumers or would be useful. Other measures, such as ones about cholesterol levels, were not released because the clinical standards have changed.
Single payer reform continues to be dismissed in favor of insurer-friendly reform – reform led by accountable care organizations (ACOs) initiated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This new report should make it clear that we are following the wrong path.
Of tens or hundreds of thousands of potential measurements to determine quality, only thirty-three were selected. Of those thirty-three, only five are being reported because the other twenty-seven were not useful, or could not be understood, or were measuring out-of-date standards.
It is an outrage that our government continues to take us down this expensive ACA pathway that wastes our resources while impairing access for far too many people with health care needs. They keep promising us that ACOs will improve efficiency and quality, when they have already proven otherwise. Five lousy measures! Is that all that we have to show for it!?
We need to dismiss our politicians and have them take with them their ACA with its ACOs so that we can bring in leaders who will establish for us a truly American program – an improved Medicare single payer program that covers everyone.
Five measurements, and four of them are for only one disease! Get outta here!
Covered California, February 19, 2014
Covered California™ and the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) announced today that as of Jan. 31, 2014, more than 1.6 million Californians have signed up for either Covered California health insurance plans or for low-cost or no-cost Medi-Cal.
Nearly half of those covered — 728,410 Californians — selected a Covered California health insurance plan.
Most subsidy-eligible consumers who enrolled — 451,074, or about 62 percent — signed up for a Silver plan, the second-lowest-costing plan of the four plan tiers. About 86 percent of consumers across all tiers received some sort of financial assistance.
Metal Level of Individuals Enrolled: Oct. 1 to Jan. 31:
Subsidy eligible (626,210):
0.4% – Minimum Coverage
21.1% – Bronze
67.3% – Silver
6.0% – Gold
5.1% – Platinum
5.5% – Minimum Coverage
33.8% – Bronze
28.7% – Silver
14.4% – Gold
17.7% – Platinum
****40 Percent Of Enrollees Through eHealth Website Are Young Adults
By Julie Appleby
Kaiser Health News, February 21, 2014
During a call with Wall Street analysts Thursday, eHealth CEO Gary Lauer said 40 percent of the 169,000 consumers who used the site to obtain insurance from October through December were in the young adult category (18-34), “a highly sought-after demographic.”
****Private exchange sees surge in health care enrollment
By Kelly Kennedy
USA TODAY, February 20, 2014
Gary Lauer, CEO of eHealth Insurance, said individual memberships rose 50% in the fourth quarter of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012.
Premium rates, (eHealth v.p. Brian) Mast said, dropped 25% when the law went into effect, as more people chose the less expensive bronze-level plans.
Of the 728,000 people already enrolled in Covered California – California’s insurance exchange established under the Affordable Care Act – over two-thirds of those who were eligible for subsidies purchased silver plans, whereas well less than one-third who were not eligible for subsidies also selected silver plans. Why might that be?
(First, a clarification on subsidies: The Covered California report includes both premium tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies under their definition of subsidies. However, the type of subsidy can influence whether or not an individual chooses a silver plan. Anyone with an income below 400 percent of the federal poverty level [FPL] can receive a premium tax credit if the plan is purchased through the exchange. Those with incomes below 250 percent of the FPL can also qualify for cost-sharing subsidies when they use their plans, but only if they purchase a silver plan through the exchange.)
(Clarifying metal tiers: The actuarial value of a plan is the percent that the plan pays for for health care services provided within the insurer-selected networks, leaving the rest to be paid by the patient, sometimes with subsidies. Bronze covers 60 percent, silver 70, gold 80 and platinum 90 percent. The standard for the exchanges is silver, whereas the standard for Congress is gold.)
It is likely that the conservatives are right in one regard with their consumer-driven health care in that people will shop prices when purchasing health plans. For the Covered California purchasers who were not eligible for any subsidies, more chose the lower priced bronze or minimal coverage plans (plans with very high deductibles) – 39 percent combined. Since the unsubsidized group included wealthier plan purchasers, it is no surprise that 32 percent chose the high end gold and platinum plans. Since only 29 percent of the unsubsidized purchasers selected the intermediate silver plans, it appears that these purchasers were more interested in either lower prices or better coverage, but not so much both. Consumer shopping seemed to play a role.
What about those who were eligible for subsidies – those below 400 percent of FPL? It is likely that the majority were eligible for both premium and cost-sharing subsidies, but would have to purchase silver plans to receive both. Since the spreads between the premiums for the silver and bronze plans were not that great after the premium credits were applied, most shoppers likely decided that the additional cost-sharing subsidies were well worth the small differences in the premiums. So 67 percent of this group were smart shoppers and bought the silver plans. Only 21 percent bought the bronze or minimum coverage plans, and likely many of those were above 250 percent FPL that disqualifies them from receiving cost-sharing subsidies. Only 11 percent sprung for the gold or platinum plans – not surprising that it was this low since members of this group all fall under 400 percent FPL.
Now let’s look at purchases of health plans through private exchanges that are not eligible for any subsidies, using eHealth as our example. We do not have a breakdown of the precise numbers that chose the various tiers, but the price shopping impact had to be very great. eHealth reports that their average premiums dropped 25 percent because so many individuals chose the cheap bronze-level plans. The percentage has to be huge. With no subsidies to consider, these shoppers chose price.
What can we make of all of this? Everyone should have essential health care coverage automatically. Instead we have inserted shopping decisions that are not a problem for the wealthy because they can buy the best, but they are a problem for the majority who will buy lower actuarial value plans because their personal finances are limited. Our policymakers have selected a plan with the relatively low actuarial value of only 70 percent (silver plan) to serve as the benchmark, especially for those with incomes below 250 FPL. They reduce the impact with subsidies, but this does not correct what is a fundamentally flawed policy in health care financing.
Wait until those shoppers who chose bronze plans start accessing health care. When they’re left broke, maybe they will finally understand our message – that we all can have essential health care, and we can pay for it easily through equitable taxes. Nobody has to shop plans, everyone gets care, and nobody goes broke.
By Caroline Chen
Bloomberg, February 19, 2014
One-third of U.S. employers plan to move their workers’ health-care coverage to a private exchange in the next few years, a survey found, following the lead of companies like Walgreen Co. seeking to reduce costs.
While 95 percent of employers said they would continue to offer health care in the next three to five years, 33 percent may use a private exchange to provide the benefit up from 5 percent currently, according to a survey released today by a unit of Aon Plc.
Traditionally, most large employers are self-insured, meaning they take on the financial risk of their employees’ health costs. Under a private exchange, workers are given a subsidy to pick from a limited number of health plans and the insurer takes on the risk.
“Employers are telling us they are losing confidence in their traditional approaches, like vendor changes or employee cost-sharing,” which only deliver “incremental” improvement, Jim Winkler, Aon’s chief innovation officer for health benefits, said in a telephone interview. “Employers are saying, ‘I need to do something different.’”
About 38 percent of the companies surveyed by Aon said they would offer no benefits to part-time workers within the next three to five years.
Retiree benefits are also being reworked. International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) said last year that it would send 110,000 retirees to Towers Watson’s Extend Health, the largest private Medicare exchange.
The Aon survey found that two-thirds of employers who wanted to make changes in retiree benefits were looking to follow IBM’s lead.
Only 25 percent of large employers offer subsidized retiree health benefits, Aon said, down from about 50 percent in 2004.
****Aon Hewitt Research: Employers Will Continue Sponsoring Health Benefits for Employees and Retirees, but Deliver Those Benefits in New Ways
Aon, February 19, 2014
According to Aon Hewitt’s soon-to-be-released Health Care Survey of more than 1,230 employers covering more than 10 million employees, 95 percent of employers say they plan to continue providing health care benefits to active employees in the next three-to-five years. However, a growing number plan to move away from their traditional “managed trend” approach, which includes aggressively managing costs through vendor management and employee cost sharing.
Thirty-three percent said offering group-based health benefits to active employees through a private health exchange will be their preferred approach in the next three-to-five years.
Despite having the ability to direct part-time employees to purchase health coverage through the public marketplaces, Aon Hewitt’s survey shows very few employers plan to do so in the near future. Almost two-thirds plan to continue to offer the same level of benefits to part-time employees as they do to full-time employees, with or without an employer subsidy. Just 38 percent plan to offer no benefits to part-time workers in the next three-to-five years.
According to Aon Hewitt’s annual Retiree Health Care survey of 424 employers covering 3.8 million retirees, 20 percent said they are favoring moving all or a portion of their pre-65 retiree population to the individual market/state exchanges to purchase coverage in the next three-to-five years. Today, just 3 percent of employers do so.
According to Aon Hewitt, the number of employers offering subsidized retiree health benefits has slowly declined over the past decade, with just 25 percent of large employers doing so today, compared with approximately 50 percent in 2004.
Of those companies that offer health benefits to post-65 retirees, a growing number of organizations now provide or are seriously considering providing health benefits coverage through the individual Medicare plan market. Aon Hewitt’s annual Retiree Health Care Survey found that 30 percent of companies have already sourced benefits through the individual market?most through a multi-carrier private health exchange. Of those companies contemplating future changes to their post-65 retiree strategies, two-thirds are considering this approach.
“A growing number of employers are leveraging multi-carrier private exchanges for Medicare beneficiaries because they see the value in both the competitive mix of plans offered and the Medicare-specific navigation and advocacy offered by these private exchanges,” said John Grosso, leader of Aon Hewitt’s Retiree Health Care Task Force.
OneExcahnge (previously Extend Health)
OneExchange has helped more than 300,000 retirees find the perfect Medicare plan for their needs and budget. We are the trusted leader in private Medicare exchanges.
****Private exchange sees surge in health care enrollment
By Kelly Kennedy
USA TODAY, February 20, 2014
The number of customers on the nation’s largest private health insurance exchange increased by 50% in the final three months of 2013, a direct result of demand created by the Affordable Care Act, the company’s CEO said Thursday.
Gary Lauer, CEO of eHealth Insurance, said individual memberships rose 50% in the fourth quarter of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012, from 113,600 applications in the last three months of 2012 to 169,800 in 2013.
The site operates much like the federal and state exchanges, and now that people have a better understanding of what “exchange” means, they’re drawn to the private sites, as well. In fact, many employers offer private exchange coverage, so employees may pick a plan, and many insurers are creating their own private “exchange” sites, so they can offer more products to consumers.
Those shopping on private exchanges might include business owners who make more than 400% of the federal poverty level, but who couldn’t get insurance before; retirees who are not eligible for Medicare; or people who simply disagree with the Affordable Care Act and choose to find insurance outside the federal and state exchanges — even if those plans are also through private insurers.
Premium rates, Mast said, dropped 25% when the law went into effect, as more people chose the less expensive bronze-level plans.
The activity around the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the initiation of federal and state insurance exchanges has seemed to stimulate much interest in private insurance exchanges, in all of their various forms. While some may praise the private sector for coming to the fore, we should take a closer look at what this means for patients.
Perhaps the greatest concern is the fact that this Aon survey shows that about 33 percent of employers will be eliminating their own health benefit programs within the next three to five years and start sending their employees to private exchanges to shop for their plans. This gives their employees greater choices in health care coverage, so why should we be concerned?
By providing their employees with what amounts to a voucher, employers are able to control their future health benefit costs by limiting the rate at which the value of the voucher increases. As health care costs continue to increase at rates greater than inflation, the employees will have to bear the additional costs, either through higher premiums or through further cost sharing and limitations in benefits offered by the plans.
This extends the national trend of converting employee benefit programs from defined benefit to defined contribution programs in which both risk and higher costs are shifted from employers to employees. The nation’s workforce is being left behind while the productivity gains are now all going to the top.
eHealth is the largest private insurance exchange, and many are now turning to it to purchase their plans now required by the individual mandate, but there is an important difference between the public and private exchanges. Most people purchasing plans in the federal and state exchanges are purchasing silver plans to qualify for the cost-sharing government subsidies – subsidies which are not provided for bronze plans. But what are people purchasing in the private exchanges?
Silver plans have an actuarial value of 70 percent, leaving 30 percent of costs to be paid by the patient (though adjusted down for credits and out-of-pocket caps, but up for out-of-network care). Bronze plans have an actuarial value of only 60 percent, but these are the plans selected by those shopping the eHealth market simply because they are the cheapest (i.e., they have the lowest premiums). So the concern about the surge in eHealth sales is that far too many individuals will be underinsured – having a plan that will leave them with excessive medical debt should they need significant amounts of health care.
Another form of private exchanges is represented by Towers Watson’s OneExchange – the largest private Medicare exchange – which has found a great market created by employers’ termination of employee retirement health benefit programs. Employers can now send their over-65 retirees to OneExchange where they can select from a variety of Medigap, Medicare Advantage and Part D Medicare drug plans. If you go to their website (link above) you will find that most Medigap plans charge a significant premium whereas most of the Medicare Advantage plans have no premium at all. Just as eHaelth shoppers buy the cheapest plans, no doubt the Medicare shoppers on the private Medicare exchanges will buy the cheapest plans as well – forgoing traditional Medicare and buying the private Medicare Advantage plans instead. Privatization of Medicare marches on.
So these various private exchanges are shifting us to defined contributions, to lower actuarial value plans with greater exposure to health costs, to privatization of Medicare, and to compounding the great divide between the few super-wealthy and the rest of us. This is what we want out of the private market!?
When you think about it, all of this is because we continue to insist that we have a health care financing system in which each individual is shoved into a slot with a given insurance program – a system that has proven to be so expensive and complex that the sources of the funds to pay for health care are looking for ways out. They are taking what deceptively appear to be the cheapest exits when, in reality, total costs just keep going up.
How about getting rid of the concept of a separate plan for each individual. It would be less wasteful, far less complex, and would provide us with much greater value if we had just one comprehensive plan for everyone – an improved Medicare for all. And it would actually work.
By Matthew L. Maciejewski et al.
Health Affairs, February 2014
Value-based insurance design (VBID) … is based on the premise that higher medication and administrative expenses incurred by insurers will be offset by lower nonmedication expenditures that result from better disease control. This article examines Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina’s VBID program, which began in 2008. The program eliminated copayments for generic medications and reduced copays for brand-name medications. Patient adherence improved 2.7–3.4 percent during the two-year study period. Hospital admissions decreased modestly, but there were no significant changes in emergency department use or total health expenditures. The insurer incurred $6.4 million in higher medication expenditures; total nonmedication expenditures for the study population decreased $5.7 million. Our results provide limited support for the idea that VBID can be cost-neutral in specific subpopulations…..
[S]tatistically insignificant short-term changes in expenditures fall short of demonstrating that VBID can bend the cost curve as anticipated by its proponents.
In the space of a decade and a half, the concept of “value-based insurance design” has undergone a rapid transformation: from an idea few had heard of; to the latest health policy fad; to the subject of some very good research that refuted claims that VBID will cut costs. It is not unusual for unproven health policy notions to leap onto center stage. It is unusual, however, to see them subjected to unbiased, rigorous analysis so soon after they have been loosed on the public. For cultural anthropologists who like to study the mores of the US health policy community, the VBID fad provides an interesting case study because its treatment has to date proven to be the exception to the rule.
At the turn of this century, the label “value-based insurance design” had not been invented, and discussion of the underlying concept was limited to a few professional journals. Judging from several of the early papers on the concepthttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11570020, its advocates were motivated by a desire to counteract the destructive effects of yet another health policy fad – the “consumer-driven” health policy.
In 2004, thanks largely to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the VBID idea burst out of obscurity and quickly became another hyped nostrum in the managed care pharmacopeia. The article described a successful experiment by Pitney Bowes, a self-insured Fortune 500 company, designed to reduce its total health care spending on employees with asthma and diabetes by reducing copayments on asthma and diabetes drugs. http://www.sph.umich.edu/vbidcenter/news/pdfs/2004_WSJ%20article%20%20(2).pdf
By 2005 the VBID label had been invented and a VBID “center” had been created at the University of Michigan. By 2006 the VBID label was appearing regularly in the professional literature. For the next several years the lay and professional literature published claims that VBID was not just good for patients but would also lower spendinghttp://content.healthaffairs.org/content/26/2/w204.full By 2009 congressional Democrats had incorporated VBID into legislation that would become the ACA and, when the ACA was enacted in March 2010, VBID was engraved into US law. (The phrase appears in the third full paragraph of the ACA under a paragraph entitled, “Coverage of preventive services.” http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-111hr3590enr/pdf/BILLS-111hr3590enr.pdf It reads: “The Secretary [of Health and Human Services] may develop guidelines to permit a group health plan and a health insurance issuer … to utilize value-based insurance designs.”)
But at about the time the ACA was enacted, research was beginning to demonstrate that VBID, at least as it applied to drugs, did not save money. A paper co-authored by, among others, people affiliated with Pitney Bowes concluded that Pitney Bowes’ VBID program did not cut costs http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/29/11/1995.full?ijkey=V1BuR15ZD…. A literature review published in Health Affairs in 2013 concluded VBID programs “were consistently associated with improved adherence (average change of 3.0 percent over one year),” but they did not lead to “significant changes in overall medical spending for patients and insurers.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23836741 The study by Maciejewski et al. quoted above, which examined the first VBID program run by an insurance company (as opposed to a self-insured company), reached the same conclusion. The insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, lowered copayments for medications prescribed for hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, and congestive heart failure. Adherence rates rose 3 percent over the first two years (2008-2009), but total spending did not fall.
It is instructive to ask at this point what it is about the VBID proposal that distinguishes it from other long-lived managed care fads such as the HMO, “coordination,” utilization review, report cards, and electronic medical records, all of which were and still are promoted as cost-containment ideas. A closer look at the VBID’s evolution suggests three features account for VBID’s different treatment:
• It was clearly defined;
• its costs, including the indirect costs, were much easier to measure; and
• the great majority of all costs were paid by the same payer (a self-insured employer and, more recently, an insurance company).
By contrast, many managed care fads are poorly defined, their indirect costs (for example, the administrative costs that utilization review imposes on providers) are harder to track, and the costs (as opposed to the savings) are absorbed by multiple parties.
A few payers have recently begun to experiment with applying the VBID concept beyond prescription drugs and using the “stick” approach (higher copayments for “lower valued” services) rather than the “carrot” approach (lower copayments for “higher valued” services). If that practice becomes widespread, the VBID concept may become more amorphous and its costs more difficult to track. In that event, we may see a resurgence in evidence-free claims about the potential for VBID to cut costs. If that happens, researchers should insist that analyses of VBID must continue to include an examination of all costs generated by VBID, including patient out-of-pocket expenses and higher medical costs caused by any damage to patient health.
By Jeffrey Clemens
National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 19904, February 2014
In the early 1990s, several U.S. states enacted community rating regulations to equalize the health insurance premiums paid by the healthy and the sick. Consistent with severe adverse selection pressures, their private coverage rates fell by around 8 percentage points more than rates in comparable markets over subsequent years. By the early 2000s, following substantial public insurance expansions, coverage rates in several of these states had improved significantly. As theory predicts, recoveries were largest where public coverage expanded disproportionately for high cost populations. The analysis highlights that the incidence of public insurance and community rating regulations are tightly intertwined.
This paper studies the relationship between two instruments of health-based redistribution: tax-financed public insurance and premium regulations that generate within-market transfers. The economic incidence of these policies is tightly intertwined. Community rating regulations risk substantial adverse selection when large numbers of unhealthy individuals remain on the private market. When targeted at the unhealthy, Medicaid expansions can relieve this adverse selection. Public coverage of the unhealthy can thus reduce the size of the subsidies and/or tax penalties required to stabilize community-rated insurance markets. It can similarly be viewed as a complement to risk adjustment programs.
The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) contains regulatory measures including community rating rules, guaranteed issue requirements, and an individual mandate to purchase insurance. Three of PPACA’s features are designed to go farther than previous regulations to induce pooling of the healthy and sick. First, it taxes healthy individuals who forego insurance. Second, it limits adjustment along the intensive margin of insurance generosity. Specifically, it expands minimum coverage requirements and tightens limits on out-of-pocket spending. Third, its guaranteed issue requirements are more stringent than those typically in place across the states.
PPACA’s regulations may result in significant pressure to shift the cost of unhealthy individuals out of the insurance exchanges. The law would generously finance such efforts, as the federal government will reimburse more than 90 percent of the cost of its associated Medicaid expansions. Both the implementation of these expansions and their impact on states’ insurance markets remain uncertain. These issues will be ripe for study as PPACA’s implementation unfolds.
A major problem with financing health care through private insurers is that they will always do whatever they can to avoid insuring people who might need more health care. To prevent insurers from chasing less healthy patients away by charging them much higher premiums, community rating was established in several states. Each person would be charged the same premium regardless of health status. How has that worked out?
In fact, it did not work very well. As high-cost patients enrolled in private plans in greater numbers, premiums went up, and healthier patients dropped out because of the high premiums, which drove premiums even higher because of the concentration of sicker patients (the death spiral of insurance premiums). The net number of people enrolled in the private insurers’ risk pools quite understandably declined.
In some of these states, Medicaid programs were designed to target these high-cost patients, siphoning them off from the private insurers’ risk pools. To no surprise, with the taxpayers picking up the costs of these expensive patients, the private insurers retained the healthier enrollees, and the plans’ membership rates recovered.
This NBER paper notes that the Affordable Care Act contains regulations that “may result in significant pressure to shift the cost of unhealthy individuals out of the insurance exchanges. The law would generously finance such efforts, as the federal government will reimburse more than 90 percent of the cost of its associated Medicaid expansions.”
Why should we support a system that uses a very expensive, administratively complex form of financing health care – private insurers – to cover those with fewer health care needs, while transferring the higher costs of less healthy patients to us, the taxpayers? The issue here is not that taxpayers shouldn’t be financing our health care, but rather that we are retaining a private industry that wastes resources on insuring a less costly, heather population with fewer needs, when a public system would do that more efficiently and at lower cost – simply by placing everyone in the same risk pool.
Community rating is one of those policies in a large complex of inefficient health policies that are designed specifically to keep private insurers in business. Under a single payer system, we wouldn’t need community rating since we wouldn’t break up the financing into individually assigned insurance premiums. With single payer, instead of using individual premiums each of us would be taxed equitably based on ability to pay.
We are overburdened with the costs and workload of endless health policies that are designed to make the highly flawed model of private insurers sort of work for us, though certainly not very well and at an outrageous cost. Let’s dump those flawed policies and enact more efficient and equitable policies that are designed first and foremost to take care of patients. A single payer national health program would do just that.
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
The New York Times, February 13, 2014
American physicians, worried about changes in the health care market, are streaming into salaried jobs with hospitals.
Last year, 64 percent of job offers filled through Merritt Hawkins, one of the nation’s leading physician placement firms, involved hospital employment, compared with only 11 percent in 2004.
Today, about 60 percent of family doctors and pediatricians, 50 percent of surgeons and 25 percent of surgical subspecialists — such as ophthalmologists and ear, nose and throat surgeons — are employees rather than independent, according to the American Medical Association.
Many of the new salaried arrangements have evolved from hospitals looking for new revenues.
Health economists are nearly unanimous that the United States should move away from fee-for-service payments to doctors, the traditional system where private physicians are paid for each procedure and test, because it drives up the nation’s $2.7 trillion health care bill by rewarding overuse. But experts caution that the change from private practice to salaried jobs may not yield better or cheaper care for patients.
“In many places, the trend will almost certainly lead to more expensive care in the short run,” said Robert Mechanic, an economist who studies health care at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
Dr. Joel Jacowitz, a cardiologist in New Jersey, and his 20 or so partners decided to sell their private practice to a hospital.
Dr. Jacowitz said that the economics drove the choice and that the only other option would have been to bring in more revenue by practicing bad medicine — ordering more heart tests on patients who did not need them or charging exorbitant rates to people with private insurance.
“Some people are operators and give the rest of us a bad name,” he said, adding that he had changed his opinion about America’s fee-for-service health care system. “I’m fed up — I want a single-payer system.”
Follow the money. Hospitals consolidate to increase market power, moving more patients into higher priced hospital outpatient services. Doctors have joined hospitals because “economics drove the choice.” Current national policies encourage physicians and hospitals to organize in order to provide “accountability,” but this oligopolistic power grab results in “accountability” that only their chief financial officers would admire, certainly not the people who pay the medical bills.
Under a well designed single payer system, excess spending would diminish by improving pricing and by reducing incentives to use worthless or harmful health care services. Many physicians have grown weary of having to attend to the business side of their practices when what they really want is simply to take care of their patients.
More and more physicians will be echoing the words of Dr. Jacowitz, “I’m fed up — I want a single-payer system.” When the patients start repeating those words, the politicians will have to follow.
By Paul Fronstin, Ph.D.
Employee Benefit Research Institute, January 2014
Employers first started offering account-based health plans in 2001, when a handful of employers began to offer health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs), employer-funded health plans that reimburse workers for qualified medical expenses. In 2004, employers were able to start offering health plans with health savings accounts (HSAs), tax-exempt trusts or custodial accounts that individuals can use to pay for health care expenses. The theory behind these accounts is that giving individuals more control over funds allocated for health care services will cause them to spend the money more responsibly, especially once they become more educated about the actual price of health services.
Number of HSA accounts
2013: 7.2 million
2012: 6.6 million
Total assets in HSAs
2013: $16.6 billion
2012: $11.3 billion
Average HSA balance
Average rollover (HSA and HRA)
(10% had no rollover in 2013)
HSAs (health savings accounts) have been with us for a decade, preceded by Archer MSAs. They supposedly reduce health care spending by incentivizing the account owners to spend their health care dollars more responsibly. Let’s do a couple of calculations to see how much impact they really have.
National Health Expenditures (NHE)
2013: $2,915 billion
2012: $2,807 billion
(from CMS – Office of the Actuary)
HSA assets in 2013 as % of NHE: 0.57%
HSA assets rolled over in 2013: $7.16 billion
HSA assets spent in 2012: $4.14 billion
HSA assets spent in 2012 as % of NHE: 0.15%
(Calculations are approximate since they are based on extrapolations from incomplete data.)
Clearly only a small fraction of one percent of our national health expenditures comes from health savings accounts. Since most people with HSAs will go ahead and get the care that they need, their diligent shopping can only have had an impact on maybe ten percent of the HSA spending, meaning that HSAs may have reduced spending by only about one one-hundredth of one percent of our NHE. For those who say that shopping would reduce HSA spending by 30 percent (a dubious contention since so much care is not price shopped) then that would still be only about three one-hundretdths of one percent of our NHE. So why should we even care if those people want to play that game?
The important issue is not the health savings account. That money could have come from any other savings the person had. HSAs merely grant tax expenditures (our tax money) to the owners of HSA accounts that regressively favor the wealthy – lousy, inequitable tax policy, but it doesn’t have a very big impact on the three trillion dollars we spend on health care.
What really is important is the high-deductible insurance plan that is coupled with the HSA. That is what makes the patient a “diligent” shopper, except that it really doesn’t since most of our health expenditures are not amenable to shopping. What it does do is cause the patient to decline some care even though it is usually quite appropriate. Statistics showing that the patient doesn’t die or have other serious adverse outcomes by declining care that is unaffordable miss the point. Most studies are not powered to detect rare outcomes (e.g., deaths), and they do not bother measuring more subtle but important benefits of receiving care, even if it is as simple as being reassured that the presenting symptoms do not represent a serious problem.
The tragedy is that this concept of consumer driven health care – making patients informed shoppers by requiring that they pay maybe a couple thousand dollars before their insurance kicks in – doesn’t impact only those HSA account holders who want to be price shoppers, but it has extended to impact an ever larger percentage of us. Exchange plans were deliberately designed with low actuarial values which require high deductibles that shift spending from the insurers to patients. Employers are now greatly expanding their use of high-deductible plans, which, of course, shifts more responsibility for up-front health care spending to their employees.
The subsidies for the silver plans in the exchanges help a little bit, but they are not enough. Middle-income families are particularly hard hit by cost sharing. That is really tough in this age of growing income inequality that has left working families so far behind.
Instead of continuing with these HSA games that benefit the rich, indirectly hurt lower- and middle-income families, and fail to deliver on their promise of controlling our national health expenditures, we should adopt a program that benefits everyone and does contain costs – a single payer national health program. HSAs should not even be a part of the conversation. Besides, they should be done away with because their primary function is to provide an unfair tax-preference for the rich.
By Timothy W. Martin and Christopher Weaver
The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2014
Hundreds of thousands of Americans in poorer counties have few choices of health insurers and face high premiums through the online exchanges created by the health-care law, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal of offerings in 36 states.
Consumers in 515 counties, spread across 15 states, have only one insurer selling coverage through the online marketplaces, the Journal found. In more than 80% of those counties, the sole insurer is a local Blue Cross & Blue Shield plan. Residents of wealthier, more populated counties in the U.S. receive lower-priced choices than those living in counties with a single insurer.
The price differences reflect the strategy of insurers to pick markets where they believe they can turn a profit—and avoid areas of high unemployment and a concentration of unhealthy residents they deem more risky.
Aetna Inc. and UnitedHealth Group Inc., for instance, have limited their participation in the new health-insurance marketplaces, where consumers shop for coverage, to a much smaller map than their traditional business. They offer coverage in more counties outside of the marketplaces, where plans are sold directly to consumers and federal subsidies aren’t available.
Aetna targeted areas with stable levels of employment and income to attract desirable customers to its marketplace offerings, Chief Executive Mark Bertolini said last fall. “We were very careful to pick the markets” where the insurer could succeed, he said.
Reversing the trend presents a challenge because low-population areas are unlikely to draw more insurers, said Glenn Melnick, a health-care economist at RAND Corp: “I don’t think the health law can overcome those economics.”
We’ve always know that insurers market their plans in areas where there is the greatest potential for business success. As USC Health Finance Professor Glen Melnick explains, the Affordable Care Act cannot overcome those economics.
Clearly we have the wrong model for reform. Private insurers respond to business opportunities. Public insurance, such as a single payer national health program, simply enrolls everyone; there are no market decisions to be made.
So is it going to continue to be about private insurance markets, or will it be about patients – all patients? An improved Medicare for all would be about the latter.
By Daniel R. Verdon
Medical Economics, February 10, 2014
Despite the government’s bribe of nearly $27 billion to digitize patient records, nearly 70% of physicians say electronic health record (EHR) systems have not been worth it. It’s a sobering statistic backed by newly released data from marketing and research firm MPI Group and Medical Economics that suggest nearly two-thirds of doctors would not purchase their current EHR system again because of poor functionality and high costs.
* Nearly 45% of physicians from the national survey report spending more than $100,000 on an EHR.
* Nearly 79% of respondents in practices with more than 10 physicians said their EHR investment was not worth the effort, resources and cost.
* 73% of the largest practices would not purchase their current EHR system. The data show that 66% of internal medicine specialists would not purchase their current system. About 60% of respondents in family medicine would also make another EHR choice.
* 67% of physicians dislike the functionality of their EHR systems.
* 45% of respondents say patient care is worse since implementing an EHR.
* 65% of respondents say their EHR systems result in financial losses for the practice.
* About 69% of respondents said that coordination of care with hospitals has not improved.
The national survey underscores the major disconnect between the current state of EHR software and the needs of physicians.
Congress keeps coming up with schemes to try to control health care costs. Establishing financial incentives for electronic health records (EHRs) appears to be just one more example where Congress has again fallen short, based on this report of physician outcry over EHR functionality and costs.
It’s too bad. Members of Congress have before them a model that has been proven to be effective in controlling costs – a single payer national health program or “Improved Medicare for All.” If we had such a system in place then other improvements such as a health information technology system (HIT) could be developed in a coordinated manner that would better serve patients and their physicians.
The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology was established under President George W. Bush, but existed primarily to only encourage the private sector to work together to coordinate their systems. That is asking a lot of competitors that each want to have the dominant system in the market while making sure that competitors’ systems would not be compatible, so they could have the whole thing. The profit incentives in the private, fragmented EHR marketplace are considerably different from the patient care incentives that led to the successful VistA EHRs for the VA Health system – a concept developed by the National Center for Health Services Research and Development of the U.S. Public Health Service (now AHRQ).
Some may cite the boondoggle with the startup of the ACA insurance exchanges as an example of the incompetence of the government in such matters, but it was the government’s reliance on the private sector that resulted in the problems that we saw and are still seeing. Congress should enact a single payer system now so that we’ll have something to work with for the betterment of efficient patient care.
By Ole Petter Ottersen and 23 other co-authors
The Lancet—University of Oslo Commission on Global Governance for Health, The Lancet, February 11, 2014
Despite large gains in health over the past few decades, the distribution of health risks worldwide remains extremely and unacceptably uneven. Although the health sector has a crucial role in addressing health inequalities, its efforts often come into conflict with powerful global actors in pursuit of other interests such as protection of national security, safeguarding of sovereignty, or economic goals. This report examines power disparities and dynamics across a range of policy areas that affect health and that require improved global governance: economic crises and austerity measures, knowledge and intellectual property, foreign investment treaties, food security, transnational corporate activity, irregular migration, and violent conflict.
Global health inequities
* About 842 million people worldwide are chronically hungry, one in six children in developing countries is underweight, and more than a third of deaths among children younger than 5 years are attributable to malnutrition. Unequal access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food persists even though global food production is enough to cover 120% of global dietary needs.
* 1·5 billion people face threats to their physical integrity, their health being undermined not only by direct bodily harm, but also by extreme psychological stress due to fear, loss, and disintegration of the social fabric in areas of chronic insecurity, occupation, and war.
* Life expectancy differs by 21 years between the highest-ranking and lowest-ranking countries on the human development index. Even in 18 of the 26 countries with the largest reductions in child deaths during the past decade, the difference in mortality is increasing between the least and most deprived quintiles of children.
* More than 80% of the world’s population are not covered by adequate social protection arrangements. At the same time, the number of unemployed workers is soaring. In 2012, global unemployment rose to 197·3 million, 28·4 million higher than in in 2007. Of those who work, 27% (854 million people) attempt to survive on less than US$2 per day. More than 60% of workers in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa earn less than $2 per day.
* Many of the 300 million Indigenous people face discrimination, which hinders them from meeting their daily needs and voicing their claims. Girls and women face barriers to access education and secure employment compared with boys and men, and women worldwide still face inequalities with respect to reproductive and sexual health rights. These barriers diminish their control over their own life circumstances.
The overarching message of the Commission on Global Governance for Health is that grave health inequity is morally unacceptable, and ensuring that transnational activity does not hinder people from attaining their full health potential is a global political responsibility. The deep causes of health inequity are not of a technical character, devoid of conflicting interests and power asymmetries, but tied to fairness and justice rather than biological variance. Health equity should be a cross-sectoral political concern, since the health sector cannot address these challenges alone. A particular responsibility rests with national governments. We urge policy makers across all sectors, as well as international organisations and civil society, to recognise how global political determinants affect health inequities, and to launch a global public debate about how they can be addressed. Health is a precondition, outcome, and indicator of a sustainable society, and should be adopted as a universal value and a shared social and political objective for all.
The political origins of health inequity: prospects for change (38 pages):http://download.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140673613624071.pdf
In reviewing the enormity of the global health inequities and the problems that perpetuate them, our compromised status in the United States seems to be minuscule in comparison. Yet when you think of the difficulties that we do have with addressing our own health inequities, it is mind-boggling to contemplate the international scene.
In a related Lancet article, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen is noted to be at pains to point out that this is far from “a doom and gloom report.” Yet they conclude, “Health equity should be a cross-sectoral political concern, since the health sector cannot address these challenges alone. A particular responsibility rests with national governments.”
Judging from the difficulties that we have had with merely tweaking some of our injustices without addressing effectively the major problems, it is difficult to see how nations will be able to work together in making real progress in improving the health of all – but we have to try.
As this is being written, Prof. Ottersen, in closing remarks in a live webcast from the University of Oslo at which this report was presented, reemphasized that that the improvement in global health will require the involvement of national political systems. And we thought single payer was tough.
By Bill Berkrot and Sharon Begley
Reuters, February 9, 2014
The 1990 Ryan White Act offered people with HIV/AIDS federal financial help in paying for AIDS drugs and health insurance premiums, especially in state-run, high-risk pools. Obamacare, which bans insurers from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions, was designed to replace these high-risk pools.
Hundreds of HIV/AIDS patients are dependent on Ryan White payments for Obamacare because they fall into a coverage gap. They are not eligible for Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor, because Louisiana did not expand the low-income program, and Obamacare federal subsidies don’t kick in until people are at 100 percent of the federal poverty level.
Hundreds of people with HIV/AIDS in Louisiana trying to obtain coverage under President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform are in danger of being thrown out of the insurance plan they selected in a dispute over federal subsidies and interpretation of rules about preventing Obamacare fraud, Reuters reported on Saturday.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, the state’s largest health insurer, is rejecting checks from a federal program designed to help these patients pay for AIDS drugs and insurance premiums, and has begun notifying customers that their enrollment in its Obamacare plans will be discontinued.
The insurer insists it is not trying to keep people with HIV/AIDS from enrolling in one of its policies under the Affordable Care Act, but is instead rejecting third party premium payments in an effort to prevent potential fraud.
One of the advantages of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is that private insurers can no longer reject the applications of individuals with serious, expensive disorders, such as HIV/AIDS. But the response of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana – the largest insurer in Louisiana – is another example of how private insurers are not inclined to change from their business model to a patient service model.
For HIV/AIDS patients, the need was so great that Congress passed the Ryan White Act in 1990 in order to provide funds to pay premiums for them in high-risk pools. Since ACA requires insurers to accept all applicants, many of the high-risk pools are transferring their beneficiaries to the exchange plans. These are expensive patients yet the premiums the insurers receive are the same as for everyone else in the individual risk pools.
Clearly, the insurers do not want these patients, yet the Ryan White funds are still available to pay the premiums, especially for those with incomes below poverty in a state that has refused to expand its Medicaid program.
So what did Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana do? They refused to accept Ryan White checks to pay for the premiums on the basis that such payments could expose the insurer to fraud. What? A federal government check creates a greater potential for fraud?
The fraud is obviously on the part of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana which is using this ruse to keep high-cost HIV/AIDS patients out of their health plans – patients which they are required to cover.
HHS’s response? They are going to encourage insurers and Marketplaces to accept Ryan White payments. They offer what doesn’t even amount to a tweak when what we need is get rid of the private insurers and cover everyone with our own improved version of Medicare. The goal should be optimal patient service, not optimal business success for private insurers.
By Anna Wilde Mathews and Christopher Weaver
Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2014
Insurers are facing pressure from regulators and lawmakers about plans that offer limited choices of doctors and hospitals, a tactic the industry said is vital to keep down coverage prices in the new health law’s marketplaces.
This week, federal regulators proposed a tougher review process for the doctors and hospitals in plans to be sold next year through HealthCare.gov, a shift that could force insurers to expand those networks.
Meantime, regulators in states including Washington and New Hampshire are ramping up their own scrutiny, and lawmakers in Mississippi and Pennsylvania, among others, are weighing bills that could force plans to add more hospitals and doctors.
The moves come amid complaints by some consumers that they don’t have access to a broad enough range of care—such as specialists at top academic medical centers…
==Health law goals face antitrust hurdles
By Eduardo Porter
The New York Times, February 4, 2014
[I]n a remote courthouse in Idaho … less than two weeks ago a district judge sided with the Federal Trade Commission and ordered the unwinding of the merger between one of the state’s biggest hospital systems and its biggest independent network of doctors.
The ruling against St. Luke’s Health System’s 2012 purchase of the Saltzer Medical Group underlined a potentially important conflict between the nation’s antimonopoly laws and the Affordable Care Act. The new law has encouraged the creation of big, broad accountable care organizations, which are paid to keep patients healthy rather than for individual services.
“We want to be providing a more coordinated product that delivers health care at a lower overall cost to the community we serve,” Christine Neuhoff, general counsel at St. Luke’s, told me. ….
Paradoxically, Judge B. Lynn Winmill seemed to agree. In his decision, he noted that the merger, had he let it stand, would probably have improved patient outcomes: “St. Luke’s is to be applauded,” he wrote, “for its efforts to improve the delivery of health care in the Treasure Valley,” which stretches west from Boise.
Still, he slapped it down because the merged group, he reasoned, would be able to demand higher reimbursement rates from health insurers and raise rates for services like X-rays, pushing up health care costs for consumers. “There are other ways” to obtain the desired efficiencies that “do not run such a risk of increased costs,” he concluded.
==FTC wins challenge against Idaho hospital deal
By Brent Kendall
Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2014
Lawyer David A. Ettinger, who represented a competing Idaho hospital that opposed the St. Luke’s transaction, said the judge’s ruling effectively rebuts “the notion that all these transactions are appropriate because of the Affordable Care Act.”
By Kip Sullivan
The Affordable Care Act has set off another wave of mergers among hospitals, and it has induced insurance companies to kick doctors out of their “networks.” Both hospitals and insurers are justifying their behavior by claiming it is exactly what the authors of the Affordable Care Act wanted them to do. Hospitals claim they are merely trying to create “accountable care organizations” (a new synonym for HMO endorsed by the ACA) that will better “coordinate care” and thereby reduce costs. The insurance industry is claiming they are narrowing their networks in order to lower costs and winnow out doctors who don’t care about “quality.”
The emperor here is stark naked. The hospital and insurance industries are building up market power as fast as they can in order to maintain countervailing power against each other. By reducing the size of their networks, insurers create more power over the remaining providers and use it to negotiate lower reimbursements. By merging with other hospitals and buying up clinics, hospitals make it harder for insurers refuse to include them in their networks and to squash their fees. Neither the insurers nor the hospitals can afford to disarm unilaterally.
Proponents of the ACO provisions within the ACA should have predicted that their handiwork would set off the equivalent of an arms race. The least they can do now is admit that’s what happened and that the consequences – smaller networks and bigger hospital-clinic chains – need to be unraveled. But ACA proponents either ignore the issue or suggest solutions that make no sense. In the New York Times article quoted above, Jonathan Skinner, a leading ACO proponent, argues that empire building by hospitals won’t lead to higher prices because insurance companies are also building up countervailing power by creating narrower networks. The Times quotes Skinner as follows: “It’s certainly true that the consolidation of physician groups and hospitals can lead to greater market power and higher charges to insurance companies. But the insurance companies are creating narrower networks of providers. So providers who try to charge more risk getting dropped entirely from the now narrower network.” What Skinner is saying is that we needn’t worry about giant hospital chains because giant insurance companies will react by reducing consumer choice and all will be well. In this battle between Godzilla and King Kong, patients will lose choice of provider, but that’s not anything we should worry our little minds about. What’s important is that the ACO experiment should play out across the country.
The Times also quotes Obama ally David Cutler saying that if hospital-clinic monopolies do evolve, that’s fine because they are probably the “only way to obtain good care,” and if that turns out to be the case, then we’ll have to “regulate [their] prices or total spending.” Like Skinner, Cutler is assuming that enormous hospital-clinic chains confer such obvious benefits that society must give up choice of provider and learn to tolerate enormous hospital-centered monopolies. The only difference between Cutler’s “solution” and Skinner’s is that the government will play Godzilla to the hospital’s King Kong, not the insurance industry.
But the claim that enormous health “systems,” dressed up as ACOs or anything else, can improve care and lower costs remains unproven. Until it is proven, the FTC, the Justice Department, and state attorneys general should not stand idly by and watch the empire builders. And judges should not treat the claims made by ACO proponents as true as the judge in the St. Luke’s case apparently did. When the FTC or Justice brings the empire builders into court and the empire builders claim they are merely trying to “integrate care” per the ACA, judges should demand evidence that ACOs or “integrated systems” work as advertised. That evidence does not exist today and probably never will exist.
In ruling against St. Luke’s, the Idaho judge made a valuable observation. He said “there are other ways” to achieve the goals ACO advocates claim they want to achieve. Imagine that. May I suggest one way: Why don’t ACO proponents state concretely and specifically what they want ACOs to do, and if evidence indicates what they’re proposing is good for patients, then let’s pay clinics and hospitals (not ACOs) to provide those services. When I say ACO proponents should speak “concretely and specifically,” I mean in everyday language, not “coordinated” this and “integrated” that and other fatuous labels invented by the illuminati at 80,000 feet.
For example, if ACO proponents were to say that what they really want is nurses to visit heart failure patients at home after discharge and to monitor them remotely thereafter, I believe all of us – ACO proponents and skeptics alike – would agree the evidence indicates that is good for patients http://www.innovations.ahrq.gov/content.aspx?id=275. In that event, we could write a code for those services and order public and private insurers to pay for them. Why funnel un-earmarked “capitation” payments through the headquarters of enormous hospital-clinic chains and hope they’ll use the money to pay nurses to take better care of heart failure patients rather, than, say, more advertising or more mergers?
Paying clinics and hospitals directly would remove much of the incentive to build empires and it would give society a much better record of where our money went.
Of course, the ultimate antidote to empire-building is a single-payer system.
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, February 4, 2014
This Letter provides issuers seeking to offer Qualified Health Plans (QHPs), including stand-alone dental plans (SADPs), in a Federally- facilitated Marketplace (FFM) and/or Federally-facilitated Small Business Health Options Program (FF-SHOP), with operational and technical guidance to help them successfully participate in the Marketplaces.
Section 3. Network Adequacy
Pursuant to 45 C.F.R. 156.230(a)(2), an issuer of a QHP that has a provider network must maintain a network that is sufficient in number and types of providers, including providers that specialize in mental health and substance use disorder services, to assure that all services will be accessible to enrollees without unreasonable delay.
For the 2015 benefit year, issuers will be required to submit a provider list that includes all in-network providers and facilities for all plans for which a QHP certification application is submitted. CMS will review the collected provider list to evaluate provider networks using a “reasonable access” review standard, and will identify networks that fail to provide access without unreasonable delay. In order to determine whether an issuer meets the “reasonable access” standard, CMS will focus most closely on those areas which have historically raised network adequacy concerns. These areas may include the following:
• Hospital systems,
• Mental health providers,
• Oncology providers, and
• Primary care providers.
If CMS determines that an issuer’s network is inadequate under the reasonable access review standard, CMS will notify the issuer of the identified problem area(s) and will consider the issuer’s response in assessing whether the issuer has met the regulatory requirement and prior to making the certification or recertification determination.
Section 4. Essential Community Providers
Essential community providers (ECPs) include providers that serve predominantly low-income and medically underserved individuals (includes federally qualified health centers, Ryan White HIV/AIDS Providers, Title X Family Planning Clinics, Tribal and Urban Indian Organization Providers, Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) and DSH-eligible Hospitals, Children’s Hospitals, Rural Referral Centers, Sole Community Hospitals, Free-standing Cancer Centers, Critical Access Hospitals, STD Clinics, TB Clinics, Hemophilia Treatment Centers, Black Lung Clinics, and other entities that serve predominantly low-income, medically underserved individuals).
i. Evaluation of Network Adequacy with respect to ECP
Because the number and types of ECPs available vary significantly by location, CMS intends to propose in rulemaking an approach to evaluating QHP Applications for sufficient inclusion of ECPs for the 2015 benefit year.
If finalized, we intend for certification year 2015 to utilize a general ECP standard whereby the application would first have to demonstrate that at least 30 percent of available ECPs in each plan’s service area participate in the provider network.
In an effort to improve the function of health plans being offered through the Federally-facilitated Marketplaces (insurance exchanges), CMS has issued a Draft Letter providing guidance to Qualified Health Plans (QHPs) as they apply for certification or recertification of their plans. From CMS’s 51 page letter, two of the issues presented warrant our special attention: 1) network adequacy for the QHPs, and 2) network inclusion of Essential Community Providers (ECPs).
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) very intentionally included limited provider networks as a tool to reduce health care spending. QHPs could negotiate lower payment rates by offering physicians and hospitals exclusivity – exchanging lower fees for higher volume, while excluding the other physicians and hospitals in the community. The insurers seemed to think that they were given carte blanche and trimmed these back to narrow networks or even ultra-narrow networks. The insurers’ bargaining leverage with the few providers that sign on is even greater, plus these narrow networks further reduce spending since patients have greater difficulties accessing care because of transportation problems and difficulties obtaining appointments with overbooked providers. Patients losing their established health care providers not only have the right to be angry, but that can also be disruptive to the care of those in ongoing treatment programs for more serious problems. Disruption of care, impairing access, and depriving patients of choice of their care are opposite of the policies that reform should bring us.
The CMS Letter states that “a provider network must maintain a network that is sufficient in number and types of providers,” and that “issuers will be required to submit a provider list that includes all in-network providers and facilities” so that CMS can “evaluate provider networks using a ‘reasonable access’ review standard.”
Well, that’s a nice process. Sufficient providers? Reasonable access standard? Every community is different. How many hospitals and physicians would be needed in each network, and, furthermore, how do you choose which ones are to be anointed? Is this another one of those public-private partnerships burying corruption under the banner of market efficiency? Further, what about the next year when it turns out that the selected providers were not so hot after all? Do you then turn to the providers who were rejected? Not if they closed shop and left town. Disrupting the community health care infrastructure is the opposite of the policies that reform should bring us.
Since tens of millions will remain uninsured it is essential that ECPs be supported. The uninsured will have to rely largely on federally qualified health centers, disproportionate share hospitals, critical access hospitals, rural referral centers and other institutions that have traditionally provided care to the poor and uninsured. In many communities, these institutions also provide services to insured individuals, including especially those with Medicaid. Sometimes these sites are chosen by patients because of impaired access to mainstream providers, sometimes for convenience, and sometimes because of patient preference, especially when these sites have always been the individual’s source of care.
So what is the new proposed CMS rule on ECPs? For 2015, CMS would require that “at least 30 percent of available ECPs in each plan’s service area participate in the provider network.” The reciprocal? The health plans can exclude up to 70 percent of essential community providers from its networks! ACA reduced the funding for safety-net institutions since “everybody would be insured” so their care could be paid for through the plans. Yet when the beneficiaries use these essential community providers, the insurers do not have to pay for care provided by 70 percent of these ESSENTIAL institutions. Defunding essential community providers is the opposite of the policies that reform should bring us.
The few good polices contained in ACA do not begin to offset all of the terrible policies that already characterize our dysfunctional health care system – policies that were left in place because of the highly flawed design of ACA.
There is something we can do about it. First, it is essential that everyone has a solid foundation in knowledge about social insurance. Once we have that, it will be so obvious that we need a universal, publicly financed and publicly administered program of social insurance for health care, something like an improved Medicare that covers everyone. For those who missed yesterday’s Quote of the Day on “Social Insurance” by Marmor et al, click on the link below, read the message, and then buy the book.