NEW @ THCB PRESS: Surviving Workplace Wellness. Spring 2014. Al Lewis and Vik Khanna. e-book edition. # LIGHTHOUSE Healthcare. Illuminated.

Brian Klepper

Recently I was asked to intervene on behalf of a patient who, trapped by circumstance, was paying off an enormous bill for a lithotripsy procedure. What I uncovered wasn’t news, but it drove home how egregious the current system can be, why it so badly needs to be fixed, and how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) helps move us in the right direction.

The patient had health insurance through her husband’s job. But it was cancelled just after the hospital validated it, because the employer failed to pay the premium. The procedure was performed, and the patient was charged as “self-pay.”

If Medicare had been the payor in this case, the hospital’s total reimbursement would have been a little less than $2,000. But the lithotripsy and associated costs were billed at $33,160, or just under 17 times the Medicare rate. After the patient applied for financial assistance, a 30% contractual adjustment was applied, reducing her bill to just under 12 times the Medicare rate.

If the health system had asked her to pay 190 percent of Medicare – typically the upper end of commercial insurance rates – her bill would have been about $3,800. By the time I was contacted, the patient and her husband – responsible people trying to make good on their debt – had already paid the health system $5,700 or 285 percent of Medicare. The hospital insisted they owed an additional $16,000.

I laid this out in a letter to the CEO and, probably because he wanted to avoid a detailed description of this unpleasantness in the local paper, he relented, zeroing out the patient’s balance. No hospital executive wants to be publicly profiled as a financial predator.

But while that resolved that patient’s problem, it did nothing to change the broader practice. Most US health systems, both for-profit and not-for-profit, exploit self-pay patients in this way. Worse, not-for-profit health systems legally pillage their communities’ most financially vulnerable patients while getting millions of dollars in tax breaks each year for providing charity care.

Aggressive collections procedures, including  home liens, are widespread.
Some states have strictly limited what hospitals can charge low income patients. In California, uninsured patients with incomes below 350 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) – $82,425 in 2013 for a family of 4 – can be charged no more than Medicare rates. In New Jersey, patients within 500 percent of the FPL cannot be charged more than 115 percent of Medicare.

Section 9007 of the ACA took effect last year and prohibits excessive pricing for self-pay patients, and would revoke a charitable hospital’s tax-exempt status if it charges them more than it charges for insured patients. The language is ambiguous, conceivably allowing health systems to circumvent the law’s intent. But the spirit is clear. To keep their not-for-profit tax status and perks, health systems must stop taking advantage of self-pay patients.

Continue reading “And Yes, The Affordable Care Act Really Does Make Care More Affordable. Here’s One Example ….”

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With the recent release of two mainstream exposes, one in the Washington Post and another in the Washington Monthly, the American Medical Association’s (AMA) medical procedure valuation franchise, the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), has been exposed to the light of public scrutiny. “Special Deal,” Haley Sweetland Edwards’ piece in the Monthly, provides by far the more detailed and lucid explanation of the mechanics of the RUC’s arrangement with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). (It is also wittier. “The RUC, like that third Margarita, seemed like a good idea at the time.

For its part, the Post contributed valuable new information by calculating the difference between the time Medicare currently credits a physician for certain procedures and actual time spent. Many readers undoubtedly were shocked to learn that, while the RUC’s time valuations are often way off, in some cases physicians are paid for more than 24 hours of procedures in a single day. It is nice work if somebody else is paying for it.

Two days after the Post ran its RUC article on the front page, it reported that the AMA is already visiting Congress in force, presumably to protect its role defining the value of medical services for Medicare. The question now is whether Congress will take steps to remedy the situation.

Continue reading “Why Congress Should Pass the Accuracy in Medicare Physician Payment Act”

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What is the path forward for physicians who want to remain in private practice, outside the constraints of health system employment? How will the environment change and what new demands will that place on practices and physicians? What follows are the observations of one industry-watcher who has worked on all sides of health care, but who now spends most his time focused on the interests of those who pay for it. No crystal ball, but several trends are clear.

There are now concrete signs that health care’s purchasers are exhausted and seeking new solutions, that a competitive marketplace is emerging and getting increasing traction. As they abandon ineffective approaches, the paradigm that has dominated the industry for the past 50 years will be upended. The financial pressure felt by buyers will transfer to the supply side health industry that has come to take ever more money for granted.

For decades, fee-for-service payment, inclusive health plan networks, and a lack of quality, safety and cost transparency have been enforced by health industry influence over policy, effectively neutralizing the power of market forces.

Without market pressure, physicians have felt little need to understand their own performance relative to that of their peers. The variation of physician practice patterns within specialties has been high, with some physicians’ “optimizing their revenue opportunities” by veering wildly away from evidence-based practice. Even so, until recently in this dysfunctional environment, it has been nearly impossible to identify high and low performers.

Continue reading “How Physician Practices Can Prepare for a Health Care Marketplace”

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For a large and growing number of us with meager or no coverage, health care is the ultimate “gotcha.” Events conspire, we receive care and then are on the hook for a car- or house-sized bill. There are few alternatives except going without or going broke.

Steven Brill’s recent Time cover story clearly detailed the predatory health care pricing that has been ruinous for many rank-and-file Americans. In Brill’s report, a key mechanism, the hospital chargemaster, with pricing “devoid of any calculation related to cost,” facilitated US health care’s rise to become the nation’s largest and wealthiest industry. His recommendations, like Medicare for all with price controls, seem sensible and compelling.But efforts to implement Brill’s ideas, on their own, would likely fail, just as many others have, because he does not fully acknowledge the deeper roots of health care’s power.

Continue reading “Why Only Business Can Save America From Health Care”

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On January 7, a federal appeals court rejected six Georgia primary care physicians’ (PCPs) challenge to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) 20-year, sole-source relationship with the secretive, specialist-dominated federal advisory committee that determines the relative value of medical services. The American Medical Association’s (AMA) Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) is, in the court’s view, not subject to the public interest rules that govern other federal advisory groups. Like the district court ruling before it, the decision dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims out of hand and on procedural grounds, with almost no discussion of content or merit.

Thus ends the latest attempt to dislodge what is perhaps the most blatantly corrosive mechanism of US health care finance, a star-chamber of powerful interests that, complicit with federal regulators, spins Medicare reimbursement to the industry’s advantage and facilitates payment levels that are followed by much of health care’s commercial sector. Most important, this new legal opinion affirms that the health industry’s grip on US health care policy and practice is all but unshakable and unaccountable, and it appears to have co-opted the reach of law.

The RUC exerts its influence by rolling up the collective interests of the nation’s most powerful medical specialty societies and, indirectly, the drug and device firms that support and benefit from their activity. The RUC uses questionable “methodologies,” closed to public scrutiny, to value medical services. CMS has historically accepted nearly 90 percent of the RUC’s recommendations without further due diligence. In a damning October 2010 Wall Street Journal expose, former CMS Administrator Tom Scully described the RUC’s processes as “indefensible.”

Continue reading “How the RUC Escaped a Challenge to Our Deeply-Flawed Reimbursement System”

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Last week veteran analyst Vince Kuraitis reviewed a report from the consulting firm Oliver Wyman (OW), arguing that the trend toward reconfiguring health systems to deliver more accountable care is more widespread than any of us suspect.

“The healthcare world has only gotten serious about accountable care organizations in the past two years, but it is already clear that they are well positioned to provide a serious competitive threat to traditional fee-for-service medicine. In “The ACO Surprise,” our analysis finds that 25 to 31 million Americans already receive their care through ACOs-and roughly 45 percent of the population live in regions served by at least one ACO.”

OW provides a well-reasoned analysis and conclusions, but I’m skeptical. In discussions with health system executives around the country, I hear some movement toward change, but relatively few organizations are materially turning their operations in a different direction. The specter of policy change is looming, but it is still abstract. As I’ve described before, market forces are intensifying, but they’re mostly still scattered and immature.

Fee-for-service remains the prevailing paradigm, and there is no palpable threat to the health care excess that is business-as-usual. Several health system CFOs have told me: “Why should we take less money until we have to?”

There’s no question that Medicare’s ACO programs have the bulls-eye on reimbursement for health systems, which are a convergence point for a large percentage of appropriate and inappropriate health care costs. But there is a silver lining. American health care is so replete with waste – on the order of half or more of all health care expenditures – that any system that tries could deliver dramatically lower costs and improved outcomes.

Continue reading “ACOs: We’re NOT There Yet”

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At our first meeting years ago, Tom Emerick, Walmart’s then VP of Global Benefits, told me,

“No industry can grow indefinitely at a multiple of general inflation. It will eventually become so expensive that purchasers will simply abandon it.”

He said it casually, as though it was obvious and indisputable.

Health care is playing out this way. From 1999 to 2011, health care premium inflation grew steadily at 4 times the general inflation rate. During that same period, the percentage of non-elderly Americans with employer-sponsored health coverage fell from 69.2 to 58.6 percent, a 15.3 percent erosion rate.

Health care’s boosters like to argue that it has buttressed the economy, and that it means more jobs and economic prosperity within a community. A February 2011 Altarum Institute report estimated that private sector health care jobs now account for nearly 11 percent of total employment. Since the recession began in December 2007, health care employment has risen by 6.3 percent while employment in other industry sectors fell by 6.8 percent.

But there’s a darker side. Health care’s ever-increasing revenue growth has come at the expense of individuals and firms that pay its bills, directly through health plan premiums, and through taxes, often instead of buying other goods and services. It transfers wealth to health care from everyone else. Like the finance services industry, health care has become a disproportionate “taker” industry, sapping economic vitality from America’s communities.

Continue reading “Irresistible Forces”

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Walmart’s sheer size makes almost any of their initiatives newsworthy. That said, despite being a lightning rod for criticism on employee benefits and health care, they have introduced initiatives with far-reaching impacts. Their generic drug program began in September 2006 – more than 300 prescription drugs for $4/month or $10 for a 90-day supply – and was widely emulated, disrupting retail drug markets and generating immense social benefit. Imagine the difference it made to a lower middle class diabetic who had been paying more than $120 per month for medications, and suddenly could get them for about $24.

Yesterday Walmart announced that “enrolled associates” – covered workers and their family members – needing heart, spine or transplant surgeries could receive care with no out-of-pocket cost at 6 prominent health systems around the country: Mayo Clinics (Rochester, MN and Jacksonville, FL); Cleveland Clinic (Cleveland, OH); Geisinger Clinic (Danville, PA); Mercy Hospital Springfield (Springfield, MO); Scott & White Memorial Hospital (Temple, TX); and Virginia Mason Medical Center (Seattle, WA).

Walmart’s Center of Excellence (COE) program builds on its own and other organizations’ pioneering efforts with similar programs. Walmart developed a relationship with Mayo Clinics in 2007 for transplant and lung volume reduction surgeries. In March 2010, Lowes reached a similar arrangement with Cleveland Clinic for heart surgeries and, last December, Pepsico announced a global pricing deal with Johns Hopkins for cardiac and joint replacement surgeries.

Continue reading “Walmart Moves Health Care Forward Again”

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Three months ago a post argued that America’s primary care associations, societies and membership groups have splintered into narrowly-focused specialties. Individually and together, they have proved unable to resist decades of assault on primary care by other health care interests. The article concluded that primary care needs a new, more inclusive organization focused on accumulating and leveraging the power required to influence policy in favor of primary care.

The intention was to strengthen rather than displace the 6 different societies – The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the American College of Physicians (ACP), the Society for General Internal Medicine (SGIM), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) – that currently divide primary care’s physician membership and dilute its influence. Instead, a new organization would convene and galvanize primary care physicians in ways that enhance their power. It would also reach out and embrace other primary care groups – e.g., mid-level clinicians and primary care practice organizations – adding heft and resources, and reflecting the fact that primary care is increasingly a team-based endeavor.

We came to believe that a single organization would not be serviceable. Feedback on the article suggested that several entities were necessary to achieve a workable design.
Continue reading “Strengthening Primary Care With A New Professional Congress”

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This week the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) issued a new report describing its vision of primary care’s future. Not surprisingly, the report talks about medical homes, with patient-centered, team-based care.

More surprisingly, though, it makes a point to insist that physicians, not nurse practitioners, should lead primary care practices. The important questions are whether nurse practitioners are qualified to independently practice primary care, and whether they can compensate for the primary care physician shortage. On both counts the AAFP thinks the answer is “no.”

AAFP marshals an important argument to bolster its position. Family physicians have four times as much education and training, accumulating an average of 21,700 hours, while nurse practitioners receive 5,350 hours.

It is unclear how this plays out in the real world but, intuitively, we all want physicians in a pinch. Researchers with the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews reviewed studies in 2004 and 2009 comparing the relative efficacy of primary care physicians and nurse practitioners. They wrote “appropriately trained nurses can produce as high quality care as primary care doctors and achieve as good health outcomes for patients.” But they also acknowledged that the research was limited.

There is no question that nurse practitioners can provide excellent routine care. For identifying and managing complexity, though, physicians’ far deeper training is a big advantage. In other words, difficult, expensive cases are likely to fare better from a physician’s care.

Continue reading “The Wrong Battles”

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