Repeal + Replace

Repeal + Replace

Making the Physician-Patient Relationship Great Again

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21st Century Cures is now law. Aside from its touted research and mental health provisions, it’s the most significant health information technology regulation since HITECH, now 8 years ago. A decent summary of the health IT provisions of the bill by John Halamka concludes with “That is just not realistic.” He’s almost certainly right to the extent your perspective is the hospital-centered mega-EHR model. You can’t get there from here.

Halamka and others who think that consolidated institutions will drive interoperability are in denial of the gap between financial integration and clinical integration. This recent post by Kip Sullivan describes some of the wishful thinking. But there’s another reason why HITECH’s institutional EHRs cannot get us to the Triple Aim, and it’s mostly about liability.

Halamka ignored one of the items in 21st Century Cures that could lead to clinical integration around a patient: a longitudinal health record. Section 4006 on page 149 includes:

“(1) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary shall use existing authorities to encourage partnerships between health information exchange organizations and networks and health care providers, health plans, and other appropriate entities with the goal of offering patients access to their electronic health information in a single, longitudinal format that is easy to understand, secure, and may be updated automatically.”

Useful longitudinal health records require curation and, almost by definition, the curators are not going to be affiliated with any single hospital or other institution operating a traditional EHR. Allowing licensed physicians, family caregivers, and the patient themselves to edit an institutional EHR is risky to the point of impossible. That’s why the current initiatives to introduce modern APIs into EHRs like SMART and Sync for Science are read-only.

The Price Is Basically Right

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Recently, President-Elect Trump selected Rep. Tom Price, MD to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.  Suffice it to say, this signals Mr. Trumps’ resolve and commitment to definitively repealing and replacing.  Dr. Price has already sunk his teeth into health care reform, having proposed alternative healthcare solutions in every Congressional session since 2009.  As a physician myself, I am delighted at the prospect of having another doctor at the helm of HHS. The last physician to lead HHS was Louis Sullivan, MD as part of the administration of George H.W. Bush.  Having a physician, who can understand the needs of physicians and patients, representing both in health policy decision making at the federal level gives everyone the best chance for meaningful and successful health care reform. 

Dr. Price is a third generation physician and a retired orthopedic surgeon with experience in clinical practice and academia before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  At his core, he has been a fierce critic of Obamacare.  Dr. Prices’ most frequent objection to the ACA is the fact it hinders the ability of patients and physicians to be in control of medical decision making and puts the government squarely between doctors and patients.  Amen! He understands the subtle distinction that while expanding coverage may provide insurance, it is in no way akin to delivering patients unfettered access to health care. 

Paying Doctors For Outcomes Makes Sense in Theory. So Why Doesn’t it Work in the Real World?

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For decades, the costs of health care in America have escalated without comparable improvements in quality. This is the central paradox of the American system, in which costs outstrip those everywhere else in the developed world, even though health outcomes are rarely better, and often worse.

In an effort to introduce more powerful incentives for improving care, recent federal and private policies have turned to a “pay-for-performance” model: Physicians get bonuses for meeting certain “quality of care standards.” These can range from demonstrating that they have done procedures that ought to be part of a thorough physical (taking blood pressure) to producing a positive health outcome (a performance target like lower cholesterol, for instance).

Economists argue that such financial incentives motivate physicians to improve their performance and increase their incomes. In theory, that should improve patient outcomes. But in practice, pay-for-performance simply doesn’t work. Even worse, the best evidence reveals that giving doctors extra cash to do what they are trained to do can backfire in ways that harm patients’ health.

The Arc of Justice in Healthcare

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We all fear that phone call.  A medical report turns out the wrong way and life may never be the same.  When that call arrives we all have the same needs:  A doctor who cares, a place to go for treatment and the finances to afford what’s needed.  Starting on January 20th, some of my patients will join the 20 million whose lifeline to those fundamental needs becomes jeopardized.  

One of my patients facing this threat lost his job and health insurance during the 2008 recession.   Because he’s a diabetic and has a special needs son, no insurance company would sell his family a policy.   Why would they?   Diabetics and others with serious illnesses pose high risks for future health expenses.  Insurance companies make money by avoiding such risk.   After exhausting all the options, he sweated out 18 months with no coverage.   Finally, the roll-out of the California Exchange, funded by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), allowed him to buy an Anthem Blue Cross policy for his family.  

Do we really want millions of our fellow Americans to relive those nightmares?  We all benefit from the ACA’s fundamental commitment: That everyone deserves access to healthcare regardless of their ability to pay.  The policies guided by this principle moved us toward the achievement of universal coverage without changing the existing care of the majority of working families with employer based plans nor those with self-funded coverage.   

Could Price Be Right?

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If confirmed as Secretary of HHS, Tom Price will oversee a $1 trillion budget – roughly one-third of all health expenditures.  His proposed legislation “Empowering Patients First” seeks to control costs by giving patients more choices and providing the information required to make them. He calls for publicly available standardized information on the price and quality of physicians, hospitals and other health care institutions.

It sounds like Dr. Price is prescribing a single data system. 

Medicare has had a single data system on the over-65 population for decades.  Since 2005, these data have informed Hospital Compare, a consumer oriented website comparing the quality of over 4000 hospitals.  And while prices in Medicare are relatively fixed, these same data have shown substantial variation in costs because the quantity of service – the number of hospital admissions, procedures and physician visits – varies substantially from place to place.

But Medicare is only one piece of the data puzzle.  A National Bureau of Economic Research report[nber.org] added another piece last year with data from large insurance companies like Aetna and United.  For the under-65 commercially insured population, it’s not just the quantity of services that are all over the map – it’s also the prices. 

I Dub Thee “Three Pronged” Care

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There are approximately 18 million Americans who purchase health insurance on the so called individual market, on and off the Obamacare exchanges. There are another 14 million or so who could be buying insurance on the individual market, but choose not to buy anything. This puts the total individual market at about 10% of Americans. Half of those are, or are eligible to be, heavily subsided through Obamacare (including those huge deductibles). The other 5% are facing the full brunt of health insurance price increases under Obamacare. Of those, 3% are paying for Obamacare health insurance and getting garbage in return for their money, while the remaining 2% are uninsured.

This is the magnitude of the primary problem we are supposedly trying to solve. The 17% of Americans on Medicare are not upset at Obamacare. The approximately 23% of Americans on, or eligible to be on, Medicaid are not angry at Obamacare either (although the 1% eligible for the Medicaid expansion in states that chose not to expand it, might be angry with their Governors). Some of the 50% or so, who are getting health insurance through their employer, and used to get rather flimsy insurance in the past, may be somewhat disgruntled because the Obamacare imposition of “essential benefits” caused their share of premiums and deductibles to rise, and their ability to choose their doctors to plummet.

This is the secondary problem we are supposedly trying to solve. The American Health Care Act (AHCA) addresses neither problem and exacerbates both.

It Begins

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For the second time in a decade, a president and Congress will undertake a large-scale effort to re-engineer the health care system.   

Politics and debate over policy are not the primary cause of this continued upheaval.  It is our patchwork, Rube Goldberg-like system, developed ad hoc over 50 years.      

As THCB readers know, we have an insurance and care delivery system that works less well—in terms of public health, coverage, patient outcomes, and cost—than health care in most of the rest of the developed world. 

And, things are getting worse.  To wit: rising death rates among middle-aged, low- and middle-income white Americans; the unchecked rise in obesity and preventable chronic diseases and opioid addiction; and woefully slow progress to reduce medical errors and improve patient safety.    

WaPo Leaked Tape of GOP Repeal & Replace Talks is Troubling. But Also Weirdly Reassuring …

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“We’re telling those people that we’re not going to pull the rug out from under them, and if we do this too fast, we are in fact going to pull the rug out from under them.” 

– Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J)

“The fact is, we cannot repeal Obamacare through reconciliation.  We need to understand exactly: what does that reconciliation market look like.  And I haven’t heard the answer yet.” 

– Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif)

“It sounds like we are going to be raising taxes on the middle class in order to pay for these new tax credits.” 

– Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La) 

These quotes, and many others, from a leaked recording of the Republican closed-door strategy session in Philadelphia last week are both jarring and reassuring.   

They reveal in harsh light what the media, pundits, and commentators have been saying for weeks: the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are in a deep quandary about the best path forward on repeal and replace, and are just beginning to weigh the pros and cons of the complex policy options involved. 

But the discussion also shows us that rank and file Republican lawmakers understand the difficulty of the task and know the political price they’ll pay if they screw it up.  Their remarks also imply frustration with the cavalier, ill-informed, and mixed-message statements coming out of the White House.

A Better “Better Way”

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Reports coming out of Washington suggest that Republicans may have bitten off more than they would like to chew with repealing & replacing the ACA, with a proliferation of proposals and no consensus on which to support, or how to get the 60 Senate votes needed to turn an eventual consensus plan into law.

There is a general consensus in the GOP to proceed with the budget reconciliation process, but if they pass the bill the House passed in 2015, it will immediately defund plan subsidies and the Medicaid expansion, setting up 25 million or more to lose their coverage right around midterm elections in 2018.

Even a less drastic budget reconciliation bill, for example one that gets rid of the individual and employer mandates by deleting the penalties associated with them, would leave us with a, “zombie ACA”, with everything not budget-related still in place, but malfunctioning with unintended consequences.

All this uncertainty is bad—it’s bad for the government, it’s bad for industry, and most importantly, it’s bad for the tens of millions of confused consumers trying to make informed decisions about how and if they can get health coverage.

Taking a step back

As the saying goes, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In this case, when you have a legislative majority, every problem looks like it should be solved by changing the law.

But does that have to be the case? What if Congressional Republicans were to take a back seat and let Tom Price and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) begin the process of reforming health reform?

Letter from Washington:
Don’t Jump … Yet

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Washington, D.C. hardly seems like a town on suicide watch.

As November turned to December, from the venerable Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House, to Charlie Palmer Steak at 101 Constitution and over to The Capital Grille at 601 Pennsylvania, revelers abounded, in both food and drink.

At the Capitol Hyatt on New Jersey Avenue though, some contrasts were evident. While contestants from the Miss World 2016 pageant moved in and out of the upper lobby to awaiting buses, in the lower-level meeting rooms, also from November 30 to December 2, the mood was hopeful optimism meets whistling past the graveyard.

There the Jefferson College of Population Health summit brought forth Andy Slavitt, Michael Leavitt, Farzad Mostashari, NCQA President Peggy O’Kane, former advisors from the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, officials from Johns Hopkins, the Henry Ford Health System, Brookings, Deloitte, AMA, AHA and the American College of Physicians and many more to dissect MACRA and ponder “population health strategy under the new administration.”

The consensus on where value-based care (VBC) is heading?

Wait and see.