How CMS Undermines ACOs and What to do About It


In my first post  in this three-part series, I documented three problems with Pioneer ACOs: High churn rates among patients and doctors; assignment to ACOs of healthy patients; and assignment of so few ACO patients to each ACO doctor that ACO “attributees” constitute just 5 percent of each doctor’s panel. I noted that these problems could explain why Medicare ACOs have been so ineffective.

These problems are the direct result of CMS’s strange method of assigning patients to ACOs. Patients do not decide to enroll in ACOs. CMS assigns patients to ACOs based on a two-step process: (1) CMS first determines whether a doctor has a contract with an ACO; (2) CMS then determines which patients “belong” to that doctor, and assigns all patients “belonging” to that doctor to that doctor’s ACO. This method is invisible to patients; they don’t know they have been assigned to an ACO unless an ACO doctor tells them, which happens rarely, and when it does patients have no idea what the doctor is talking about. [1]

This raises an obvious question: If CMS’s method of assigning patients to ACOs is a significant reason why ACOs are not succeeding, why do it? There is no easy way to explain CMS’s answer to this question because it isn’t rational. The best way to explain why CMS adopted the two-step attribution method is to explain the method’s history.

Open Season on Health Privacy in Washington DC


With Senate bill S.3530, data brokers would remove the last shreds of transparency and control that patients still have over our health data and drive healthcare costs even higher in the process. Will hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry go along?

It’s been 17 years since patients lost control over how our hospitals and insurance companies use our personal health data without any consent or a convenient accounting for disclosures. HIPAA allows so-called Covered Entities to use and sell our data without consent and, separately, often under the pretense of de-identification, through a $100 Billion network of hidden data brokers that we know don’t know about, choose, or oversee. Our data is worth $100 Billion because it helps health businesses to maximize profits and it contributes to an unknown extent to the uniquely high cost of healthcare in the US.

The Delta of Discomfort and
the Agony of Despair


I’m a radiologist. I spend my day looking at CT scans and MRI scans. When it’s a good day, I have interesting scans to review, but much of my work is not too dissimilar from a TSA screener’s. One normal scan after the next, it’s akin to trying to stay alert so that the gun someone’s trying to sneak through in their luggage isn’t missed. In my case, of course, it’s a cancer or other unexpected medical abnormality finding.

Computer-Assisted Diagnosis

Most of my day I work on a computer workstation presenting the exams. In my dream, my workstation does more than simply display the exam. It assists in reading the case. If there’s an abnormality, I can click on the area, and the workstation takes the image and compares it to millions of other cases in the cloud. It tells me, based on that patient’s age and sex and other information, how likely it is the finding is a tumor and maybe even, if so, what kind of tumor. At other times the workstation tells me whether a study is normal or not, freeing me to do other activities. However, this dream is not shared by all of my colleagues.

When I mentioned this work-flow scenario to one of my residents—this idea of computer-assisted diagnosis with constant improvement, or what is known as artificial intelligence, or AI—he said it sounded awesome, but he really didn’t want to have it if it was available to everyone. His comment is something of a mixed message: Yes, I see value but no, I don’t want it.

It’s largely based on fear of being replaced by computers. And it’s a song I’ve heard before.

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On Teaching Hospitals and Conflict of Interest and Other Politically Charged Topics


How much does it matter which hospital you go to? Of course, it matters a lot – hospitals vary enormously on quality of care, and choosing the right hospital can mean the difference between life and death. The problem is that it’s hard for most people to know how to choose. Useful data on patient outcomes remain hard to find, and even though Medicare provides data on patient mortality for select conditions on their Hospital Compare website, those mortality rates are calculated and reported in ways that make nearly every hospital look average.

Some people select to receive their care at teaching hospitals. Studies in the 1990s and early 2000s found that teaching hospitals performed better, but there was also evidence that they were more expensive. As “quality” metrics exploded, teaching hospitals often found themselves on the wrong end of the performance stick with more hospital-acquired conditions and more readmissions. In nearly every national pay-for-performance scheme, they seemed to be doing worse than average, not better. In an era focused on high-value care, the narrative has increasingly become that teaching hospitals are not any better – just more expensive.

But is this true? On the one measure that matters most to patients when it comes to hospital care – whether you live or die – are teaching hospitals truly no better or possibly worse? About a year ago, that was the conversation I had with a brilliant junior colleague, Laura Burke. When we scoured the literature, we found that there had been no recent, broad-based examination of patient outcomes at teaching versus non-teaching hospitals. So we decided to take this on.

Only Alternative Facts Can Support the Protecting Access to Care Act


In late March of this year, JAMAInternal Medicine published a study finding that the “the overall rate of [malpractice] claims paid on behalf of physicians decreased by 55.7% from 1992 to 2014.”  The finding wasn’t new.  In 2013, the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies published a study co-authored by one of us (Hyman) which found that “the per-physician rate of paid med mal claims has been dropping for 20 years and in 2012 was less than half the 1992 level.”  In fact, peer-reviewed journals in law and medicine have published lots of studies with similar results.  It is (or should be) common knowledge that claims of an ongoing liability crisis are phony.

But inconvenient facts have never stopped interest groups or politicians from making false claims about med mal litigation.  Since 1991, when Dan Quayle struck gold by asserting that the U.S. had too many lawyers, Americans have heard non-stop about “jackpot justice” in which patients who weren’t even injured win millions; about the flood of frivolous lawsuits in which doctors are sued even though they didn’t make any mistakes; about jury verdicts skyrocketing out of control; and about doctors working all their lives only to have their savings wiped out by a single malpractice suit.  All of these charges are false—you can find the evidence here, here, here, and here.  But in politics, it’s staying on message that counts; it doesn’t seem to matter whether the message is true.

House v. Price and the CSR
Payments Paradox


Many countries in the world have dysfunctional governments. Some have corrupt and devious ones, or even deadly ones. We’ve lived with serious dysfunction in Washington for two decades. Now we join the ranks of countries with a corrupt and devious government, one without a moral compass.

And I’m not just talking about Trump.

The news and blogosphere is replete with this sentiment surrounding the White House, of course, a la the “Russia thing” and Comey’s firing and all the rest.

But the cynicism and political bankruptcy that suffuses our elected leaders’ failure to assure that the cost-sharing subsidies for people buying health insurance through the exchanges will be secured for 2017 and 2018 is a new low in the wretched ongoing saga of Obamacare vs. Trumpcare.

This is playing out right now and could affect 12 million people come this fall and in 2018.

ACO Turnover is High. Doctors Have Few Patients, and Those Patients are Unusually Healthy


ACOs suffer astonishingly high turnover rates among their doctors and patients; their patients are unusually healthy; and those unusually healthy ACO patients constitute about 5 percent of each ACO doctor’s panel of patients. These facts appear in three recent reports: CMS’s final evaluation of the Pioneer ACO program, and two papers published in Health Affairs by John Hsu et al.

Each of these facts – high turnover, healthier patients, and few ACO patients in each physician’s panel – poses problems that cannot be solved without a substantial redefinition of the ACO. How are doctors supposed to influence the health and cost of patients they see only sporadically or not at all? How are ACO doctors supposed to lower costs if their sickest and most costly patients are not in the ACO? How are ACOs supposed to alter physician behavior when their physicians see fewer than 100 ACO patients out of a typical panel of 1,500 to 2,000 patients?

Suppose It’s an Obligation and Not a Right?


Suppose we frame the current health insurance* debate in a different way?

*It is about insurance. “Health insurance”=/=”health care,” although the former should lead to the latter.

Rather than arguing whether American individuals have a right to health care (beyond what you can already find in EMTALA, and please God let’s not consider repealing that), because people get very huffy about this concept, can we ask a different question?

Should we Americans collectively assume an obligation to “promote the general Welfare” by providing everyone access to basic health services, in the way that we have obliged ourselves to provide all children with access to a free public education (largely from each state’s constitution, with the exception of protections for disabled children)?

Consider this:

We have already agreed, by enacting EMTALA in 1986, that as a society we don’t want to see people die because an ER turns them away if they can’t pay. We have already assumed that obligation. But waiting until people are very nearly dead before we assume any obligation for their care is extremely expensive, and in the case of many ailments, just cruel. Think heart disease. Think diabetes. Think cancer.

We have already agreed, by enacting mandatory vaccination laws (although we have wobbled a little on this one with exemptions), that we have an obligation to protect the herd by requiring this simple public health measure. We also have quarantine laws to fulfill our obligation.

Maintenance of Conflict of Interest?


In the May 2nd issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the American Medical Association (AMA) discusses the subject of physician conflicts of interest in medicine. This puts them at an interesting juncture when the editor-in-Chief and executive editor of JAMA failed to disclose their relationship with the AMA and the AMA’s relationship with US physicians. The AMA still presents itself to the public and legislators as representing Americas’ doctors, even though representing US physicians’ interests has not been their financial priority for many years. In fact, it is telling that their mission statement no longer includes the words doctor or physician. If they do represent US physicians as they often claim, then the AMA (and its publication JAMA) are rife with numerous conflicts of interest and public clarification of this fact is desperately needed.

Which is it?

In June 2016 at the invitation of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, concerns regarding the conflicts of interest inherent to the American Board of Medical Specialties’ (ABMS) Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program were brought before the interim national AMA House of Delegates meeting. The AMA and ABMS are co-member organizations of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) and each organization took interest. The room was full of concerned physician delegates who had taken time away from their practices to represent their colleagues, alongside the President and chief council of the AMA, senior executive officer of the American College of Physicians, and the President and CEO of the ABMS. These courageous practicing physician delegates issued a “vote of no confidence” in the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) – the largest ABMS member board representing approximately 200,000 US physicians – during a national panel discussion. They later passed a resolution to end the ABMS MOC program, which is a laborious recertification process plaguing overburdened physicians across this nation. Unfortunately, the AMA leadership has yet to honor this resolution.