Medicare

Congress just had an uncharacteristically big week – with significant implications for healthcare policy. It flew by fast and furious, so here we pause to unpack the most significant developments and what they teach us about the future.

1. The Permanent Doc Fix Effort is Real. You have to hand it to the committees of jurisdiction, they have kept their heads down and plugged away all year at permanently repealing the broken Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula that dictates Medicare payments to doctors. They’ve floated new payment methodologies, added policy addressing the package of “extenders” that perennially travels with the “doc fix,” and now all three have successfully completed bipartisan mark-ups of their respective approaches. Furthermore, the three month SGR patch that was included in the budget deal is an implicit endorsement by congressional leadership that there’s actually a chance this could happen in the first quarter of next year.

The next step is to identify savings to pay the roughly $150 billion price tag, which has always of course been the biggest rub. That process is going to take center stage early next year in a “Super Committee-lite” process of negotiating various potential cuts to healthcare programs. The cynics are still betting against it, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been before to replacing the 15+ year-old SGR.

2. The Long-Term Care Hospital Sector Will Never be the Same. In a lesser-noticed component of the three month doc fix patch alluded to above, Congress eliminated the payment differential for LTCHs (pronounced el taks) and regular inpatient hospitals for patients who do not meet clinical complexity criteria. What began as an esoteric exemption for a small handful of hospitals in the early 1980′s and grew to a $6 billion Medicare benefit annually is now going to start to plateau.

The market liked the change, paradoxically, because it was gentler than some bean counters had recommended and gave plenty of time (four years) for sophisticated companies to adjust. But the hot LTCH business just got some pretty cold water poured on it.

3. The Budget Deal Helps Healthcare Programs. The Murray-Ryan agreement to set spending levels for the next two years alleviated some of the impact of the sequester on discretionary spending programs like those at the FDA, NIH and HRSA. This means that funding for new product approvals, clinical research, workforce development programs and some primary care services will be modestly improved in 2014 and 2015.

Continue reading “The Doc Fix Is Real”

As we shake off the carb-coma and make our pre-resolutions, Congress and the Administration head into a sprint to the holiday recess fraught with health policy implications. Unlike every December in recent memory, there isn’t very much Congress actually has to do. Here are the top five things you need to know to follow the fun and prepare your organization for the changes afoot. A key theme to take home is that December 2013 is a month of anti-deadlines.

  1. The Nov. 30/Dec. 1 ”fix” to Healthcare.gov was set arbitrarily and has simply teed up another pivot point for opponents to pounce. We already know the wand hasn’t tapped the electro-synapses of the site yet to make the dang thing work like it should. Expect more incremental improvements through the month and enrollment numbers to come in above current rock-bottom expectations, with a healthy chunk coming from the proud, the few … the state-based exchanges.
  2. The Dec. 13 deadline for budget conferees to produce a joint resolution is similarly fictional and self-imposed. While there are some burgeoning reports that co-chairs Murray and Ryan might be able to agree to FY14 funding levels and potentially alleviate some of the sequester, the buzz-o-sphere in Washington still has deep doubts. Even if the two negotiators come to agreement, House and Senate leadership have the bigger challenge of getting a bipartisan deal through their chambers.
  3. Jan. 15 is the real deadline for a budget agreement and the real goal is writing a check to fund the government through Sept. 30. A budget resolution is helpful to give appropriators time to write actual spending policy, but it can be bypassed if the end-game is a continuing resolution that keeps current funding allocations in place. (Congress hasn’t passed an actual budget resolution since Democrats controlled both chambers.) At the end of the day, we’ll be back to the all-too-familiar roundtable of congressional leaders and Obama reps hatching a last-minute deal to avert a shutdown.
  4. Continue reading “The Month of Anti-Deadlines”

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 ….”

After half a lifetime of following the Medicare program, on October 1, 2013, I became a Medicare beneficiary.  I turned 65 on October 31.   I’m part of the leading edge of baby boomers joining the program, ten thousand a day.   We’re going to change this program, both by how we use it and what we expect its keepers in Washington to do to improve it.

Here are some reflections upon joining Medicare.

1-Don’t Refer to Me as “Retired”, Please. I’m still working (hard) and paying Medicare as well as income taxes taxes every month.   Like most of my fellow boomers, I lack the financial cushion I want in order to stop working.  Additionally, for what it’s worth, like all too many boomers, I don’t know how not to work.   So my main goal, which is closely aligned with the country’s,  is to stay healthy enough to keep working long enough to be able to retire comfortably when I wish to do so.

I plan on staying a long way away from the expensive parts of our healthcare system, if only to avoid being inadvertently harmed.  Rest assured that if I know I’m dying, you won’t find me in a hospital if I have any say in the matter.

I don’t consider myself “entitled” to Medicare, or to subsidies from younger people.  I’m paying more than $400 a month in Part B fees and the special assessment on Part D that got tacked on in the Affordable Care Act.   After what I’ve already paid in, that’s not exactly a flaming bargain.  I’ve paid Medicare enough over my working lifetime to buy a  house, and will pay more Medicare taxes for years to come for each month that I work. Nothing makes me angrier than the suggestion that I’m somehow sponging off my kids by participating in Medicare.

2- The Regular Medicare Program is a Relic. There is a lot of political fog enshrouding Medicare.  Personally, I could care less about the politics of this program.  The big choice was fairly cut and dried:  either regular Medicare plus a supplemental plan or Medicare Advantage.   After logging onto Medicare.gov, I found the regular Medicare benefit completely incomprehensible- chopped up into Parts that may have made legislative sense in the 1960’s.  If you included the supplemental coverage,  there were just too many moving parts that didn’t seem to fit together into a unified benefit.

So I chose Medicare Advantage. It’s simple to understand and user-friendly, and looks a lot like my previous coverage.   My doctor is a participating physician as is my beloved community hospital, Martha Jefferson.   And the price is right:  zero dollars after my Part B premium. More than 40% of boomers are picking Medicare Advantage, largely because it’s easy to use and remains a bargain. It will eventually be half the program.

Continue reading “What I Expect From the Medicare Program”

Between October 1 and 17, the federal government ceased all nonessential operations because of a partisan stalemate over Obamacare. Although it is premature to declare this the greatest example of misgovernance in modern U.S. Congressional history, this impasse ranks highly.

One casualty of the showdown was any consideration of changes to lessen the impact of the across-the-board sequestration cuts that began on March 1. The cuts have caused economic and other distress across the nation, including serious impacts within the health care sector. Nearly eight months into sequestration, we can move beyond predictions and begin to quantify these effects.

Consider the following impacts of sequestration on Federal health agencies and activities:

NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH

Cuts to the FY13 budget: $1.71 billion or 5.5%

This includes:

A 5.8% cut to the National Cancer Institute, including 6% to ongoing grants, 6.5% to cancer centers, and 8.5% to existing contracts

A 5.0% cut to National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and a 21.6% drop in new grant awards

Among the effects:

  • 703 fewer new and competing research projects
  • 1,357 fewer research grants in total
  • 750 or 7% fewer patients admitted to NIH Clinical Center
  • $3 billion in lost economic activity and 20,500 lost jobs
  • Estimated lost medical and scientific funding in California, Massachusetts, and New York alone of $180, $128, and $104 million respectively.

Dr. Randy Schekman, whose first major grant was from the National Institutes of Health in 1978, said winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine made him reflect on how his original proposal might have fared in today’s depressed funding climate. “It would have been much, much more difficult to get support,” he said.  Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) noted the irony that because of sequester cuts, NIH funding was reduced for the research that resulted in Yale’s James Rothman sharing in the 2013 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Continue reading “The Sequestration Cuts That Are Harming Health Care”

I was a bit surprised by the front-page headline and accompanying article in the weekend Wall Street Journal (IBM to Move Retirees Off Its Health Rolls). The headline and subtext of the article are that IBM is ending health benefits for retirees, leaving them to fend for themselves. But as I read through the specifics that doesn’t appear to be at all what’s happening. Unfortunately, the article’s main impact is to leave an unduly negative impression of private health insurance exchanges.

Retiree health benefits are a big deal, especially for employees who retire before they reach the Medicare eligibility age of 65. A typical early retiree in his or her 50s will face high premiums in the individual market compared to a younger, and typically healthier, person. If they are among the few whose company provides generous coverage they are very lucky.

[On a side note, life is about to get easier for early retirees who have to buy their own insurance, thanks to Obamacare's banning of medical underwriting and limits on the ratio of premiums charged to older people versus younger ones.]

When a person turns 65 life gets a lot easier on the health insurance front as the federal government takes over the vast majority of costs. As a result, a retiree on Medicare is much cheaper for an employer to provide health care benefits to, since they are essentially just paying for supplemental coverage.

Continue reading “Health Exchange Confusion: Why We’re Getting the IBM Story Wrong”

If you wanted to know what doctors thought about money and medical practice, including plumber envy, you’d read American Medical News(AMN). That’s the biweekly newspaper the American Medical Association just announced it’s shutting down.

Unlike JAMA, in which doctors appear as white-coated scientists, AMN focused on practical and political issues, not least of which was the bottom line. For outsiders, that’s provided a fascinating window into the House of Medicine.

Take, for instance, the sensitive topic of plumber envy. A 1955 AMA report I discovered during research on a book I wrote some years ago lamented physicians’ “consistent preoccupation with their economic insecurity,” including envious comparisons to “what plumbers make for house calls.”

Flash forward to 1967. Thanks to most patients now enjoying private or public health insurance, doctors’ incomes have improved substantially. The pages of AMN include advertisements for Cadillacs and convention hotels (Miami Beach is “Vacationland USA”). However, one man’s income is another man’s expenses, and complaints about rising medical costs have surged. When AFL-CIO president George Meany joins the chorus of carping, an AMN headline asks, “How about plumbing?”

If today’s doctors have finally piped down about plumbers ­– an electronic search of AMN archives back to 2004 produced no plumbing references – it may be because the average plumber earned about $51,830 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the average general internist earned $183,170. Meanwhile, the AMN ads for cars ­were long ago replaced by ads for drugs, where influencing a doctor’s choice can drive millions or billions in revenue.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of rising medical costs and its causes has been a persistent theme in AMN since its launch in 1958. (For my book research, I pored through its indexes and old issues.) While AMN ran articles with titles like, “Medicine Called ‘Best Bargain Ever,’” the AMA leadership knew health cost unhappiness was not a psychosomatic disorder.

Continue reading “What the Death of American Medical News Says About the Future of American Medicine”

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”

“Half of primary care physicians in survey would leave medicine … if they had an alternative.” — CNN, November 2008

“Doctors are increasingly leaving the Medicare program given its unpredictable funding.” – ForbesJanuary 2013

Doctors, it seems, love medicine so much … that they’re always threatening to quit.

In some cases, it’s all in how the question is asked. (Because of methodology, several eye-catching surveys have since been discredited.)

But physicians’ mounting frustration is a very real problem, one that gets to the heart of how health care is delivered and paid for. Is the Affordable Care Act helping or hurting? The evidence is mixed.

Doctors’ Thoughts on Medicare: Not as Dire as Originally Reported

The Wall Street Journal last month portrayed physician unhappiness with Medicare as a burning issue, with a cover story that detailed why many more doctors are opting out of the program.

And yes, the number of doctors saying no to Medicare has proportionately risen quite a bit — from 3,700 doctors in 2009 to 9,539 in 2012. (And in some cases, Obamacare has been a convenient scapegoat.)

But that’s only part of the story.

What the Journal didn’t report is that, per CMS, the number of physicians who agreed to accept Medicare patients continues to grow year-over-year, from 705,568 in 2012 to 735,041 in 2013.

Continue reading “Why Reports of the Death of Physician Participation in Medicare May Be Greatly Exaggerated”

For Medicare, this has been a summer of good and bad news. On one hand, the program’s costs continue to rise remarkably slowly. So far this fiscal year, they have gone up by only 2.7 percent in nominal terms, the Congressional Budget Office reports.

On the other hand, opposition to the Independent Payment Advisory Board — created as part of the Affordable Care Act — continues to mount. And opponents continue to mischaracterize the whole point of the board.

What they seem not to understand is that the board is needed mostly so that that Medicare can continue to encourage slower growth in costs.

One reason costs have been rising so slowly is that systems for paying hospitals and doctors are changing. We’re moving away from the old fee-for-service plan and toward paying for value in health care — and we’re making the shift more rapidly than expected.

Redesigning the payment system is a fundamentally different approach to containing costs. The old way was to simply slash the amounts that Medicare pays for services. And here is where the criticism of the Independent Payment Advisory Board becomes somewhat Orwellian.

The point of having such a board — and here I can perhaps speak with some authority, as I was present at the creation — is to create a process for tweaking our evolving payment system in response to incoming data and experience, a process that is more facile and dynamic than turning to Congress for legislation.

Medicare Experiments
In particular, as Medicare experiments with accountable care organizations, bundled payments and other new strategies, the agency will inevitably need to make adjustments. Questions will come up, such as: How should the payments to doctors, hospitals and other providers be changed to reflect what is learned about the quality of care they provide? How much should the penalties or bonuses be? Is it better to have hospitals face all the costs associated with patient (as in an accountable care organization) or only the costs incurred during a specific episode of care (as in bundled payments)?

Continue reading “The Critics Are Wrong About IPAB”

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