Massachusetts

flying cadeuciiAs a result of the determined efforts by Massachusett’s politicians, businesses, health insurance companies, hospitals, individual physicians and the Massachusetts Medical Society, nearly 100% of patients in Massachusetts now have health insurance. This is something all the healthcare players in Massachusetts can be proud of, and “universal insurance” enjoys broad public support here in Massachusetts

In an attempt to improve healthcare quality and reduce cost, Massachusetts is moving away from the “fee-for-service” system and replacing it with “physician groups” which contract with insurance companies. Most of these contracts include financial incentive/disincentive clauses about “quality” and “cost.” As a result, in Massachusetts, it is now almost impossible for a solo practitioner to obtain a contract directly with one of the state’s largest insurance companies. Almost all contracts are mediated through a local physician organization, such as an IPA, PHO or ACO.

As a result, health insurance companies now have much greater influence over the Massachusetts healthcare industry. These large insurance companies define the terms of the contract and can tell the small or medium-sized hospitals/physician contracting group their contract is a “take it or leave it” proposition. Needless to say, it is impossible for any small or medium-sized hospital/physician contracting group to refuse to accept the insurance contract when their financial viability is predicated on having access to the insurance company’s patient panel.

Originally Certified EMRs and Meaningful Use policies were created so as to provide the financially incentive to encourage primary care physicians to adopt electronic medical record programs and then use these electronic medical record programs according to specified “meaningful use” mandates. It was the hope that the appropriate use of EMRs would improve the quality or reduce the cost of healthcare. Since the program’s introduction, Meaningful Use has been expanded to almost every medical specialty and subspecialty, regardless of the appropriateness/relevance.

There has now been a fair amount of data accumulated regarding the effectiveness of electronic medical record programs. Unfortunately, most of the published data is not high quality and the majority of clinical trials are now being funded by the EMR industry. As we have seen with clinical trial sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry, only an irrational person would accept the results of a vendor sponsored EMR trial on face value.

Recently, The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (HHS)  asked the RAND corporation to review all EMR data. RAND created the “Health Information Technology: An Updated Systematic Review with a Focus on Meaningful Use Functionalities

Continue reading “The Misuse of Meaningful Use, Part II”

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People in health care don’t like it when numbers emerge that are uncomfortable.  Take these, issued today by the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission in its latest report on the drivers of the high cost of care in our state.

Variation, particularly when not correlated to quality of outcome, is particularly troublesome for some incumbents.  Academic medical centers often have their answer, but as the HPC explains, it doesn’t hold water:

One oft-cited theory for the cause of this variation is that certain types of hospitals, such as those that teach physician residents and fellows, must incur additional expenses to support their mission. However, the difference in median expenses per discharge between teaching hospitals and all hospitals ($1,030) was less than the difference between individual teaching hospitals ($3,107 between the 75th percentile and 25th percentile teaching hospitals). Moreover, there were a number of teaching hospitals that incurred fewer expenses per discharge than the statewide all-hospital median of approximately $9,000 per discharge.

So perhaps the high cost ones will now revert to the usual squawking: “This isn’t fair. The data are wrong.  Our patients are sicker.”

Except here, the data are the best that could be available–all the claims for all the hospitals and all the payers in the state–even adjusted for wages.  And the acuity of patients across the spectrum of academic medical centers does not vary widely–but, just in case, the numbers are case-mix adjusted.

Continue reading “The Data Are Wrong. Our Patients Are Sicker!!!”

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“You look nice today. People don’t come to chemo in suits very often.”

The friendly and familiar receptionist mentioned as I was checking out, the always full jar of lemon flavored hard candy on the shelf between us. As I pocketed a few of the candies, I managed to swallow the nausea and metallic taste just enough to say, “Thanks. I have a job interview today.”

During my senior year in college, with medical school acceptance letter in hand, I was diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer. Initially, life became planning surgery and meeting doctors, but early in my treatment course I received a letter that my health insurance had been exhausted and I would no longer receive any health benefits. This was after my first of four chemo cycles, with a major surgery still to come. Needless to say, this was a problem. My parents were both well educated, a lawyer and a chemist-turned-teacher, but this took everyone by surprise and presented a new crisis.

We responded by dividing up tasks. My parents quickly inventoried all the assets, including the family home, and my sister called around to all the hospitals to see what could be done.  She called the local and state governments asking for advice while I simply tried to eat food and get to class to graduate on time; I couldn’t have another tuition bill on top of my health expenses. I also started to look for a job, with a job came insurance – this much I knew.

I went to the interview, a job as a management trainee in a car rental agency, with hopes that this job would be something I could get, could do during treatment, and would provide the insurance that would save my family from financial ruin at my hands – my disease. I went to a Jesuit college and learned that truth and honesty are paramount.  So, I told the recruiter that I had cancer, I was in treatment, and that I would likely be done soon – all true.

I didn’t get the job. I still didn’t have insurance and my next chemo session, with its massive bill, was coming very quickly.
My sister learned that this would not be fun. One hospital said to her that they would treat me and then take us to court to get paid. Thankfully, I went to school in Massachusetts where a law was on the books that allowed me to enroll in health insurance without a pre-existing condition exclusion because my insurance being exhausted counted as a special qualifying event. I enrolled in an individual insurance plan, my care went uninterrupted, and I graduated on time. To this day, my sister and I remain grateful to Massachusetts for that single law, which is as much a part of my success as cisplatin and etoposide, the chemotherapy agents I received.

The bills still mounted, but were manageable. I survived, personally and financially. I pushed off medical school for a few years to get my life back in order, and moved on. I had many scary moments during my treatment, from the plastic surgeon telling me my arm might need amputation to my neutropenic fever to being discharged just in time for my college graduation.  However, what bothers me the most was, and stillis, the sense of abandonment from my society when my insurance ended.

Continue reading “N = 1 My Experience with the New Health Care System”

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… and a call to action. This case study is based on my meeting with the Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA) in my home state. CHIA is an all payers claims database, a massive collection of diagnoses, locations, dates and prices for all of your health services across all of your providers and insurers. Whether it’s claims or health records, almost every state and many private clearing houses are setting up to monitor you.

Your information can be used by business to manipulate prices for maximum profit, or by you to inform your choice of health insurance plans and health care providers.

Unfortunately, business can get your information but you can’t. This reflects an industry strategy to obstruct the market-based features of the Affordable Care Act. I hope you will take this case study, edit it, and file it with the Attorney General and Governor in your state to ask for your data as a consumer protection issue. That’s what I’m about to do.

My state is #1! Go Massachusetts! My state is #1 in health care costs. It’s also #1 in implementing a health insurance exchange (Romneycare 2006) and a leader in state surveillance with the 2012 cost containment law known as Chapter 224. Chapter 224 mandates various state surveillance mechanisms including a health information exchange that monitors encounters and an all payer claims database called “the center”.

The cost containment law also includes some consumer protections. Line 1909 states:

“To the maximum extent feasible, the center shall also make data available to health care consumers, on a timely basis and in an easily readable and understandable format, data on health care services they have personally received.”

Although the state surveillance is in place, and the price fixing that keeps us #1 is ongoing, the consumer protection part of the law is not implemented. So, I took the opportunity to meet with the executive director of CHIA and their chief legal counsel and get the scoop on why the state is not following the law. To paraphrase their explanation: “It’s too hard.”

Continue reading “State Surveillance Endangers the Affordable Care Act: A Case Study”

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How did it go? Unavoidably, that will be the big question come Tuesday.

But there will be much more to it than that.

A 180-Day Open Enrollment––Not a One-Day Open Enrollment

What happens on the first day, for good or bad, will constitute only a tiny percentage of the open enrollment period. Consumers will likely visit the new websites many times before they make any decisions, and that is exactly as it should be.

Many of the health plans touted as being low-cost plans are going to be very limited access plans. It won’t be easy for consumers to compare one plan’s provider network to the other. In the best of circumstances, consumers will be confused by what is being offered for some time and will have to make a major effort to make sense of it for themselves.

Let’s not forget, they will be buying something that will cost thousands of dollars––their money or the government’s––and that kind of purchase will never be as simple as going to Amazon and buying a book.

I will suggest that if the local press wants to be helpful they will waste less time asking how things went the first day and more time doing stories on the quality of the various health plans in their local communities––particularly over provider access, which will be the only major product differentiator between health insurance companies.

Will There Be Administrative Problems With the Exchanges?

There already are. And, there will be lots more.

During the last 24-hours I have been told that the information technology testing between insurance companies and the federal government, particularly around the government telling insurance companies who they will be covering, continues to be a real mess.

But whatever obvious problems there are at launch, there will likely be more problems and more serious problems behind the scenes in the lead-up to January 1, the initial problems will be worked out in a few days or a few weeks. Operational expectations are now so low for Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges a small disaster will be considered a political victory.

Continue reading “Will Obamacare Survive? Nine Key Questions”

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Putting aside a lengthy discussion over the merits of and cost saving potential of EMRs for a minute, comes this gem from the land of not so well thought out policy making…

In 2010, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law requiring that, as a condition of licensure starting in 2015, Massachusetts physicians must demonstrate proficiency in the use of electronic health records, computerized order entry, e-prescribing, and other forms of health information technology.

Last year [ in chapter 224], the Legislature amended that statute to state that physicians must “demonstrate the skills to comply with the ‘meaningful use’ requirements.” There was no further language to explain the intent or scope of that amendment.

Given that even the most optimistic forecast holds that only 12,000 eligible providers in Massachusetts would achieve Meaningful Use certification by 2015 (more than 30,000 physicians hold a Massachusetts license), the MMS is committed to ensuring that the statute is interpreted broadly, and does not unintentionally disenfranchise thousands of physicians, thereby creating an extreme health care access issue.

-Massachusetts Medical Society

So 60% of doctors are projected to be non-compliant?!? I guess a doctor shortage will take on a whole new meaning in the state.

This is what happens when you pass major policy bills in  14 hours without anyone reading the whole thing first, but I digress…

This issue prompted a recent call to action from a local doctor in North Chelmsford, Dr. Hayward Zwerling.

Josh Archambault is director of health care policy at the Pioneer Institute in Boston (www.pioneerinstitute.org), publisher of “The Great Experiment: The States, The Feds and Your Health Care.”

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Last summer, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted legislation that will fundamentally alter the physician-patient relationship by giving politicians the right to specify the processes that must occur during an office visit. The relevant law is Section 108 of Chapter 224 of the Acts of 2012, which reads as follows:

The first paragraph of section 2 of chapter 112 of the General Laws … is hereby amended by inserting (the following)… The board (of Registration in Medicine) shall require, as a standard of eligibility for (medical) licensure, that applicants demonstrate proficiency in the use of computerized physician order entry, e- prescribing, electronic health records and other forms of health information technology, as determined by the board. As used in this section, proficiency, at a minimum shall mean that applicants demonstrate the skills to comply with the “meaningful use” requirements (1).

Thus, any Massachusetts physician who does not use a Federally certified EMR AND meet the contemporary Meaningful Use requirements will be denied a license to practice medicine effective 2015. Most unfortunately, the Meaningful Use mandates will continue to become every more onerous in Stages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

As we all know, the practice of medicine has become increasingly difficult as a result of external mandates. These mandates specify which medicines we may prescribe, which radiology tests we can order, how many days our patients are allowed to remain in the hospital, which CME classes we must take, etc. And now, the politicians intend to tell physicians which software they must use in their office and which EMR options must be utilized during the office visit.

The Government’s decision to foist “certified” EMRs on the medical profession is predicated on the hypothesis that the widespread adoption of EMRs will eventually reduce the cost of healthcare. Unfortunately, data published to-date does not support this hypothesis (2). Thus, the continued imposition of the EMR mandates will only delay the implementation of a truly effective solution that could reduce the cost of healthcare.

As the developer of an EMR, I sincerely believe that a well designed EMR is a useful tool for many practices. However, the Federal and State Government’s misguided obsession to stipulate which features must be in the EMRs, and how the physician should use the EMRs in the exam room places the politicians in the middle of the exam room between the patient and the physician, and seriously disrupts the physician-patient relationship.It is past time that physicians reclaim control of their offices, if not the practice of medicine.

Continue reading “The EMR Use Rule: An Open Letter to Massachusetts Physicians”

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American consumers know more about the quality and prices of restaurants, cars, and household appliances than they do about their health care options, which can be a matter of life and death. While we have made some progress in getting consumers reliable quality information thanks to organizations like Bridges to Excellence and The Leapfrog Group, for most Americans, shockingly little information still exists about health care prices, even for the most basic services. And several studies have shown us that the price for an identical procedure can vary as much as 700 percent with no difference in quality. Moreover, with health care comprising 18 percent of the US economy and costs rising every day, it is extremely troubling that most health care prices are still shrouded in mystery.

Our organizations have been steadily pushing health plans and providers to share price information more freely, and we are seeing progress. But public policy—or even just pending legislation—can provide a powerful motivator as well.
Unfortunately, our new Report Card on State Price Transparency Laws shows most states are not doing their part to help consumers be informed and empowered to shop for higher value care. In the Report Card released Monday, 72 percent of states failed, receiving a “D” or an “F.” Just two, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, received an “A.” The Report Card based grades on criteria including: sharing information about the price of both inpatient and outpatient services; sharing price information for both doctors and hospitals; sharing data on a public website and in public reports; and allowing patients to request pricing information prior to a hospital admission.

Continue reading “States Must Step Up to Help Consumers Gain Access to Health Care Prices”

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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?”

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A recent article in Time magazine by Steven Brill, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” is a brilliantly written expose of the excesses and outrages of health care pricing. In reaction to the story, some have suggested the price controls are the appropriate (or the only) way to rectify the situation. A recent story in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, “Steven Brill’s 26,000-word health-care story, in one sentence,” suggests that US health care costs and cost growth are so high because we do not use rate setting, i.e., price controls.

In fact, I think it’s not easy to establish whether that is indeed the case. We don’t get to use randomized controlled trials for health policies or systems, so it’s difficult to figure out how effective a policy like rate setting is. Let me start with some simple examinations of patterns in data to see if something jumps out that strongly supports (or contradicts) the assertion that price controls reduce health care costs.

Continue reading “Are Price Controls the Answer?”

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