It has been a couple of weeks since the landmark Oregon Experiment paper came out, and the buzz around it has subsided. So what now? First, with passage of time, I think it is worth reflecting on what worked in Oregon. Second, we should take a step back, and recognize that what Oregon really exposed is that health insurance is a small part of a much bigger story about health in general. This bigger story is one we can’t continue to ignore.
So let’s talk quickly about what worked in Oregon. Health insurance, when properly framed as insurance (i.e. protection against high, unpredictable costs) works because it protects people from financial catastrophe. The notion that Americans go bankrupt because they get cancer is awful and inexcusable, and it should not happen. We are a better, more generous country than that. We should ensure that everyone has access to insurance that protects against financial catastrophe. Whether we want the government (i.e. Medicaid, Medicare) or private companies to administer that insurance is a debate worth having. Insurance works for cars and homes, and the Oregon experiment makes it clear that insurance works in healthcare. No surprise.
The far more interesting lesson from Oregon is that we should not oversell the value of health insurance to improving people’s health. While health insurance improves access to healthcare services (modestly), its impact on health is surprisingly and disappointingly small. There are two reasons why this is the case. The first is that not having insurance doesn’t actually mean not having any access to healthcare. We care for the uninsured and provide people life-saving treatments when they need it, irrespective of their ability to pay. Sure – we then stick them with crazy bills and bankrupt them – but we generally do enough to help them stay alive. Yes, there’s plenty of evidence that the uninsured forego needed healthcare services and the consequences of being uninsured are not just financial. They have health consequences as well. But, claims like 50,000 Americans die each year because of a lack of health insurance? The data from Oregon should make us a little more skeptical about claims like that.
So what really matters? Right now, we are pouring $2.8 trillion into healthcare services while failing to deliver the basics. To borrow a well-known phrase, our healthcare system is perfectly designed to produce the outcomes we get – and here’s what we get: mediocre care and lousy outcomes at high prices. Great.
Continue reading “The Oregon Experiment Revisited”
Filed Under: THCB
Tagged: Ashish Jha, Costs, Insurance, Oregon Medicaid Experiment, Outcomes, Quality
May 23, 2013
Much has already been written about the Oregon Medicaid study that just came out in the New England Journal of Medicine. Unfortunately, the vast majority is reflex, rather than reflection. The study seems to serve as a Rorschach test of sorts, confirming people’s biases about whether Medicaid is “good” or “bad”. The proponents of Medicaid point to all the ways in which Medicaid seems to help those who were enrolled – and the critics point to all the ways in which it didn’t. But, if we take a step back to read the study carefully and think about what it teaches us, there is a lot to learn.
Here is a brief, and inadequate, summary (you should really read the study): In 2008, Oregon used a lottery system to give a set of uninsured people access to Medicaid. This essentially gave Kate Baicker and her colleagues a natural experiment to study the effects of being on Medicaid. Those who won the lottery and gained access were compared to a control group who participated in the lottery but weren’t selected. Opportunities to conduct such an experiment are rare and represent the gold standard for studying the effect of anything (e.g. Medicaid) on anything (like health outcomes). Two years after enrollment, Baicker and colleagues examined what happened to people who got Medicaid versus those who remained uninsured. There are six main findings from the study. Compared to people who did not receive Medicaid coverage:
- People with Medicaid used more healthcare services – more doctor visits, more medications and even a few more ER visits and hospitalizations, though these last two were not statistically significant.
- People with Medicaid were more likely to get lots of tests – some of them probably good (cholesterol screening, Pap smears, mammograms) and some of them, probably bad (PSA tests).
- People with Medicaid, therefore, not surprisingly, spent more money on healthcare overall.
Continue reading “Misunderstanding Oregon”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Ashish Jha, health care access, Medicaid, NEJM study, Oregon Medicaid Experiment, Outcomes, Quality
May 2, 2013
Ensuring that Americans who live in rural areas have access to health care has always been a policy priority. In healthcare, where nearly every policy decision seems contentious and partisan, there has been widespread, bipartisan support for helping providers who work in rural areas. The hallmark of the policy effort has been the Critical Access Hospital (CAH) program– and new evidence from our latest paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that our approach needs rethinking. In our desire to help providers that care for Americans living in rural areas, we may have forgotten a key lesson: it’s not about access to care. It’s about access to high-quality care. And on that policy goal, we’re not doing a very good job.
A little background will be helpful. In the 1980s and 1990s, a large number of rural hospitals closed as the number of people living in rural areas declined and Medicare’s Prospective Payment System made it more difficult for some hospitals to manage their costs. A series of policy efforts culminated in Congress creating the Critical Access Hospital program as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. The goals of the program were simple: provide cost-based reimbursement so that hospitals that were in isolated areas could become financially stable and provide “critical access” to the millions of Americans living in these areas. Congress created specific criteria to receive a CAH designation: hospitals had to have 25 or fewer acute-care beds and had to be at least 35 miles from the nearest facility (or 15 miles if one needed to cross mountains or rivers). By many accounts, the program was a “success” – rural hospital closures fell as many institutions joined the program. There was widespread consensus that the program had worked.
Despite this success, there were two important problems in the legislation, and the way it was executed, that laid the groundwork for the difficulties of today. Continue reading “How the Best of Intentions Is Hurting Care for Americans Who Live In Rural Areas”
Filed Under: Hospitals
Tagged: Ashish Jha, CAH, Critical Access Hospital Program, Hospitals, IOM, JAMA, Quality, rural health, Telemedicine
Apr 2, 2013
In 2006, Governor Mitt Romney signed Chapter 58 of the Acts of 2006 entitled “An Act Providing Access to Affordable, Quality, Accountable Health Care.” It has been described by many names, including Massachusetts Healthcare Reform (MHR), Romneycare, or simply, as the template for the Affordable Care Act. The goal of the act was straightforward: to ensure near-universal access to health insurance for citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The bill quickly led to insurance expansion: by 2010, 94.2% of adults under 65 had health insurance, an 8 percent increase over the 86.6% in 2006. By all accounts, the goals of insurance expansion were met.
But the bill has not been without controversy. There have been two main concerns: first, that the bill did too little to control rising healthcare costs. The cost crisis led to the 2012 bill that many refer to as “Mass Health Reform 2.0” – formally called Chapter 224 of the Acts of 2012. Its focus is to curtail healthcare spending, and while reasonable people have reasons for skepticism about the likelihood of success, that’s a topic for another day.
Continue reading “Did Massachusetts Health Care Reform Hurt Access To Care For the Previously Insured?”
Filed Under: OP-ED
Tagged: Affordable Care Act, Ashish Jha, Florida, Health Insurance Exchanges, hospitalization, Massachusetts, Medicare, Reform, Romneycare, Texas
Mar 5, 2013
Should we hold hospitals accountable for what happens after a patient leaves the hospitals’ doors? A year ago, I thought the answer was no. A hospital’s job was to take care of sick patients, make them better and send them on their way. With more thought and consideration, I have come to conclude that I was probably wrong. It may be perfectly reasonable to hold hospitals accountable for care beyond their walls, but we should be clear why we’re doing it. Readmissions are not a good quality measure – but they may be a very good way to change the notion of accountability within the healthcare delivery system.
The debate around the readmissions measure has come to the forefront because of the CMS Hospital Readmission Reduction Program, which penalizes hospitals for “greater than expected” readmission rates. It has raised the question — does a hospital’s 30-day readmission rate measure the “quality of care” it provides? Over the last three years, the evidence has come in, and to my read, it is unequivocal. By most standards, the readmissions metric fails as a quality measure.
Why do I say that readmissions are a poor measure of hospital quality? First, we have to begin by thinking about what makes a good quality measure. Quality is about the essence of the thing being produced – a good or a service. The job of a car is to get you from place A to place B and a high-quality car may be one that does the job reliably, safely, or maybe even comfortably. The job of a restaurant is to provide a meal that you don’t have to cook — and a high quality restaurant may provide food that is fresh, tasty, or with an attention to service that you enjoy. What is the job of a hospital? When you get sick and require hospital services, a high-quality hospital should give you the right treatments, attend to your needs while you’re there, and make sure nothing bad (i.e. a new nosocomial infection) happens along the way. That’s how we measure hospital quality.
Quality measures for healthcare come in three flavors – structural measures (do you have enough intensivists manning your ICU?), processes measures (did you give the heart attack patient his or her aspirin?) and outcomes measures (did the pneumonia patient die?). The elemental part of both structural measures and process measures is that they have to be tied to an outcome we care about. If having more intensivists in the ICU does not lead to lower ICU mortality (or lower complication rates), we wouldn’t think it’s a particularly good quality measure. We know that giving aspirin to heart attack patients lowers their chances of dying by 25%. We have multiple randomized trials. We don’t need much more evidence. Hospitals that have the right structures in place and reliably deliver the right treatments can reasonably be called high-quality hospitals.
Continue reading “The 30-day Readmission Rate: Not a Quality Measure but an Accountability Measure”
Filed Under: Hospitals, THCB
Tagged: Accountability, accountability metrics, Ashish Jha, CMS, CMS Hospital Readmission Reduction Program, Hospitals, JAMA, Quality, quality metrics, Readmission Rates
Feb 14, 2013
Over the past decade, there has been yet another debate about whether pay-for-performance, the notion that the amount you get paid is tied to some measure of how you perform, “works” or not. It’s a silly debate, with proponents pointing to the logic that “you get what you pay for” and critics arguing that the evidence is not very encouraging. Both sides are right.
In really simple terms, pay-for-performance, or P4P, can be thought about in two buckets: the “pay” part (how much money is at stake) and the “performance” part (what are we paying for?). So, in this light, the proponents of P4P are right: you get what you pay for. The U.S. healthcare system has had a grand experiment with P4P: we currently pay based on volume of care and guess what? We get a lot of volume. Or, thinking about those two buckets, the current fee-for-service structure puts essentially 100% of the payments at risk (pay) and the performance part is simple: how much stuff can you do? When you put 100% of payments at risk and the performance measure is “stuff”, we end up with a healthcare system that does a tremendous amount of stuff to patients, whether they need it or not.
Against these incentives, new P4P programs have come in to alter the landscape. They suggest putting as much as 1% (though functionally much less than that) on a series of process measures. So, in this new world, 99%+ of the incentives are to do “stuff” to patients and a little less than 1% of the incentives are focused on adherence to “evidence-based care” (though the measures are often not very evidence-based, but let’s not get caught up in trivial details). There are other efforts that are even weaker. None of them seem to be working and the critics of P4P have seized on their failure, calling the entire approach of tying incentives to performance misguided.
The debate has been heightened by the new national “value-based purchasing” program that Congress authorized as part of the Affordable Care Act. Based on the best of intentions, Congress asked Medicare to run a program where 1% of a hospital’s payments (rising to 2% over several years) is tied to a series of process measures, patient experience measures, and eventually, mortality rates and efficiency measures. We tried a version of this for six years (the Premier Hospital Quality Incentives Demonstration) and it didn’t work. We will try again, with modest tweaks and changes. I really hope it improves patient outcomes, though one can understand why the skeptics aren’t convinced. Continue reading “Getting Pay-For-Performance Right”
Filed Under: Hospitals, THCB
Tagged: Ashish Jha, Hospitals, Incentives, JAMA, Medicare, Outcomes, Pay for Performance, PPACA, Quality, Transparency, Value-based Purchasing
Feb 4, 2013
Healthcare: The Journal of Delivery Science and Innovation, a new journal promoting cutting edge research on innovation in health care delivery, has launched. The questions is, do we really need yet another journal? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is, absolutely yes. Here’s why.
The Need for New Knowledge on Healthcare Delivery
There is an urgent need to improve our mess of a health care system. Healthcare will consume about $2.8 trillion in 2012 – that’s an astronomical amount of money. To think of it in another way: spending in Intensive Care Units will make up 1% of all economic activity in the U.S. In a broader context, about 1 in 5 dollars in the economy will be spent on healthcare.
How will we actually spend the $2.8 trillion? Over a million doctors and nurses will see patients in hundreds of thousands of clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, and countless other settings. They will see patients who are sick and suffering and will make decisions about how to help them get better. These intensely personal decisions will be made in the context of a broader healthcare delivery system that is mindboggling diverse, complex, and fundamentally broken. We are probably wasting more on healthcare than we are spending on education. Yet, despite all this money and excess (or may be because of it), tens of thousands of Americans are dying each year because of poor quality, unsafe care. We can do so much better.
Continue reading “Healthcare: The Journal of Delivery Science and Innovation”
Filed Under: The Business of Health Care
Tagged: Ashish Jha, delivery innovation, Population Health, The Journal of Delivery Science and Innovation
Dec 3, 2012
I’ve been getting emails about the NY Times piece and my quotation that the penalties for readmissions are “crazy”. Its worth thinking about why the ACA gets hospital penalties on readmissions wrong, what we might do to fix it – and where our priorities should be.
A year ago, on a Saturday morning, I saw Mr. “Johnson” who was in the hospital with a pneumonia. He was still breathing hard but tried to convince me that he was “better” and ready to go home. I looked at his oxygenation level, which was borderline, and suggested he needed another couple of days in the hospital. He looked crestfallen. After a little prodding, he told me why he was anxious to go home: his son, who had been serving in the Army in Afghanistan, was visiting for the weekend. He hadn’t seen his son in a year and probably wouldn’t again for another year. Mr. Johnson wanted to spend the weekend with his kid.
I remember sitting at his bedside, worrying that if we sent him home, there was a good chance he would need to come back. Despite my worries, I knew I needed to do what was right by him. I made clear that although he was not ready to go home, I was willing to send him home if we could make a deal. He would have to call me multiple times over the weekend and be seen by someone on Monday. Because it was Saturday, it was hard to arrange all the services he needed, but I got him a tank of oxygen to go home with, changed his antibiotics so he could be on an oral regimen (as opposed to IV) and arranged a Monday morning follow-up. I also gave him my cell number and told him to call me regularly.
Continue reading “Is the Readmissions Penalty Off Base?”
Filed Under: Commentology, THCB
Tagged: Affordable Care Act, Ashish Jha, hospital readmissions, Medical errors, Patient Safety, readmission penalties, Readmissions
Nov 27, 2012
Currently, India spends about $20 per person per year on healthcare and spending more once seemed like a peripheral concern, taking a back seat to basics like food and sanitation. However, in the past decade, as the Indian economy has grown and wealth followed, Indians are increasingly demanding access to “high quality” healthcare. But what does “high quality” mean for a country where a large proportion of the population still goes hungry? Where access to sanitation is so spotty that the Supreme Court recently had to decree that every school should have a toilet? What is “high quality” in a setting where so many basics have not been met?
It turns out that “high quality” may mean quite a lot, especially for the poor. A few weeks ago I spent time in Delhi, meeting with the leadership of the Indian health ministry. I talked to directors of new public medical schools and hospitals opening up around the country and I met with clinicians and healthcare administrators at both private and public hospitals. An agenda focused on quality rang true with them in a way that surprised me.
The broad consensus among global health policy experts is that countries like India should focus on improving “access” to healthcare while high income countries can afford to focus on the “quality” of that care. The argument goes that when the population doesn’t have access to basic healthcare, you don’t have the luxury to focus on quality. This distinction between access and quality never made sense to me. When I was a kid in Madhubani, a small town in in the poor state of Bihar, I remember the widespread impressions of our community hospital. It was a state-run institution that my uncle, a physician, once described as a place where “you dare not go, because no one comes out alive”.
Continue reading “Can Quality Be on India’s Health Care Agenda? Should it Be?”
Filed Under: Hospitals
Tagged: Access, Ashish Jha, Health Outcomes, India, Medical errors, Quality, Quality measurement, sanitation, the poor, Waste
Nov 8, 2012
A few months back, we admitted a patient we’ll call Mr. Jones to the hospital for a severe gastrointestinal bleed. We had discharged him two weeks earlier after he had come in with a heart attack and made sure he was on aspirin to prevent future cardiac events. He dutifully took his aspirin and on the day of the readmission, had a massive bleed. He made it to the hospital barely alive and an endoscopy in the ICU showed an active bleeding gastric ulcer. For Mr. Jones, the gastrointestinal bleed, likely brought on by the aspirin, was an “unintended consequence” that almost killed him. Yet no one questioned whether we should have given him aspirin in the first place. I felt terrible about what had happened but found solace in knowing that while for some patients the risks of aspirin are worse than the benefits, for the general population of people like Mr. Jones, the benefits are clearly worth the side-effects.
We do risk-benefit analyses every day in clinical care, knowing that for some patients, the benefits will be outweighed by the harm. We try to be thoughtful about who might be hurt or not, but most of the time, we just can’t predict. So, when the benefits appear to outweigh the risks, we move forward and try to learn from cases like Mr. Jones.
While this kind of risk-benefit analysis is common in clinical practice, it’s unfortunately not how we discuss health policy interventions. No policy intervention is ever without risks, and it is rare that a new policy will have no side-effects at all. Yet, every time policymakers put in a new initiative, they sell it as a panacea. Critics, upon finding an unintended consequence, then declare the whole thing a failure.
An excellent example of this is health information technology, a topic that I have blogged about in the past. Proponents only talk about its benefits, allowing critics to highlight every shortcoming and failure. Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with proponents and critics like that every time I consider prescribing aspirin to my patients.
Continue reading “Risks and the Benefits: What Health Policy Can Learn from Clinical Medicine”
Filed Under: THCB
Tagged: Ashish Jha, clinical care, health policy interventions, HIT, JAMA, Karen Joynt, Patient Safety, PCI, Physicians, public reporting, risk vs. benefits, Transparency
Oct 11, 2012