RAND study

One of the chief aims of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the expansion of insurance coverage to individuals who at present either cannot afford it or choose not to purchase it. Unfortunately, many Americans lack the financial literacy needed to navigate the numerous and complex options thrust upon them by the ACA.

The ACA contains a number of mechanisms through which coverage will be expanded, including the individual mandate, the state insurance exchanges, and the expansion of Medicaid.

Yet, while many more Americans will be able to obtain health insurance under the law, the new policies present a complex new choice environment for consumers, one that contains new penalties, new subsidies, and a potentially vast number of plans to choose from.  Successfully navigating these choices requires consumers to be financially literate.

As recognized in research on related areas of financial decision-making – such as retirement planning, investing, and debt – consumers often lack the understanding, ability and confidence to make financial choices that are in their best interest.

To shed light on consumers’ ability to navigate the ACA, we recently examined the distribution of financial literacy by household income.  Our findings were recently posted on the Health Affairs Blog and in a working paper by RAND’s Bing Center for Health Economics.

Continue reading “Why Explaining the Affordable Care Act Turns Out To Be A Lot Harder Than We Thought It Would Be.”

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Last month, the Obama Administration announced that it would delay enforcement of the employer mandate component of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in part due to opposition from the business community.  Opponents of the ACA cited the delay as evidence that the law was collapsing under its own weight, while ACA proponents downplayed the importance of the employer mandate in realizing the primary objective of the law – extending affordable coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.

Will delaying the employer mandate lead to the ACA’s demise?

Using economic modeling, we have found that the primary goals of the ACA will not be impacted by the delay, but the delay may impact one of the law’s key revenue sources designed to offset the costs of the coverage provisions.

Under the ACA, only firms with 50 or more full-time employees can be assessed penalties for not offering coverage under the employer mandate; small businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt.  Furthermore, more than 95% of large firms already offer insurance, implying that only a small pool of firms would need to alter their current benefit offerings to comply with the employer mandate.  Our model estimates that less than 1% of firms, employing about 2% of the workforce, would be penalized for not offering insurance to their workers if the employer mandate is enforced.

In fact, only about 300,000 workers (approximately 0.2% of the workforce) would lose their employer’s health insurance as a result of the employer mandate delay, according to our economic analysis. And many of those losing coverage would be able to get affordable coverage through a spouse, the newly created health insurance exchanges, or Medicaid.  Hence, delaying the employer mandate will have only a nominal impact on the ability of workers and their dependents to obtain health coverage.

Continue reading “Data Points: Why Delay of the Employer Mandate May Not Actually Mean That Much”

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The long awaited federally-mandated RAND Corporation report on workplace wellness programs is finally out, after months of anticipation.  Despite an odd now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t release, both wellness proponents and critics anxiously awaited the report’s public deliverance.

Like many documents emanating from the political cauldron, the RAND report has elements in it to please both camps, although proponents will have to reach deep into the document for snippets of hope built around simulations, models, and what they term “convenience” samples of employers predisposed to support health-contingent workplace wellness programs.

For critics of health-contingent workplace wellness programs, the conclusion is much more straightforward: even using prejudicial data sources and lacking a critique of the quality of the evidence, the impact of workplace wellness on the actual health of employees and the corporate medical care cost burden, is, generously stated, negligible.

This is not worth $6BN a year, which is the purported size of the US market for health-contingent workplace wellness programs (“purported” because like everything else in wellness, the size of the industry itself is totally opaque).  There are clearly better ways to spend these funds; at the very least, it must be possible to get the same dismal results for far less money and with vastly less complexity.

With the push of the Affordable Care Act, the drive to implement health-contingent workplace wellness programs is accelerating.  The RAND report, rather than contributing propellant, ought to give responsible business leaders pause as they consider whether to step up the pressure (i.e., increase incentives and penalties) for employees to participate in these highly intrusive, clinically dubious, spendthrift programs that yield health in RAND’s hypothetical world of models and simulations, but perhaps not so much, as RAND notes, in a more earthbound reality.

The lesson for executive leaders is that the nearly hagiographic employer belief in the value of health-contingent wellness is completely undone by the fact that RAND says virtually no employer (2% of their sample) measures program impacts and, as we have written previously, it doesn’t look like any employer, benefits consulting firm, or vendor actually knows how to do so.

Continue reading “RAND Shrugged”

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“No aspect of health IT entails as much uncertainty as the magnitude of its potential benefits.”

A few years into the Meaningful Use program, it seems this quote from a 2008 Congressional Budget Office report entitled “Evidence on the Costs and Benefits of Health Information Technology” may have been written with the assistance of a crystal ball.

Fast forward to 2013.

“Just from reading a week’s worth of news, it’s obvious that we don’t really know whether healthcare IT is better or worse off than before [Meaningful Use incentives],” popular blogger and health IT observer Mr. HIStalk wrote earlier this year.

So, perhaps RAND was hypnotized by Cerner funding when they created their rosy prognosis (hearken back, if you will, to 2005 and the projected $81 billion in annual healthcare savings). Maybe they were just plain wrong and the most recent RAND report stands as a tacit mea culpa.

Either way, we’re left with hypotheses that, while not incontrovertible, are gaining traction:

  1. Health IT benefits will manifest gradually over an extended timeframe.
  2. Those benefits will not quickly morph into reduced costs, if they ever do.
  3. Because of 1 and 2, investing in a hugely expensive electronic health record system is potentially risky.

How risky? Without question, massive health IT expense and the predominant proprietary IT model are threats to a hospital or health system’s financial viability, to its solvency.

We’re seeing some examples even now.

Continue reading “For Hospitals On the Edge, HIT Is the Tipping Point”

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A recent RAND(1) study has concluded that the implementation of health information technology (HIT) has neither effected a reduction in the cost of healthcare nor an improvement in the quality of healthcare. The RAND authors confidently predicted that the widespread adoption of HIT will eventually achieve these goals if certain “conditions” were implemented. I do not believe that there is sufficient scientific data to support the authors’ conclusion nor validate the Federal Government’s decision to encourage the universal installation of “certified” electronic medical records (EMRs.)

As a “geek” physician who runs a solo, private practice and the creator of one of the older EMRs, I believe that I can provide a somewhat unique perspective on the HIT debate which will resonate with a large fraction of private practitioners.

Continue reading “A Time Out For Health IT?”

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We should have seen it coming, really. It was entirely predictable, and the most recent RAND report proves it.

We incentivized comprehensive IT adoption, making it easier to bill for every procedure, examination, aspirin, tongue depressor, kind word and gentle (or not) touch without first flipping the American healthcare paradigm on its head, if such a thing is even possible.

According to analysis by the New York Times, hospitals received $1 billion more in Medicare reimbursements in 2010 than they did five years earlier. Overall, the Times says, “hospitals that received government incentives to adopt electronic records showed a 47 percent rise in Medicare payments at higher levels from 2006 to 2010 … compared with a 32 percent rise in hospitals that have not received any government incentives …”

To paraphrase the mantra of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign: It’s the system, stupid. More specifically, it’s the business model, stupid, the fee-for-service system in which electronic health records are enabling tools.

It’s also the law of unintended consequences. You know … you take action, planning on this but instead you get that.

Like the introduction of cane toads in Australia to kill beetles (they couldn’t jump high enough). Like letting mongooses loose in Hawaii to manage the rat population (they preferred native bird eggs). Like Kudzu, the insatiable vine that’s devouring the South.

According to the authors of the RAND report, the problem is with the incentive structure that encourages more tests and procedures. Well, of course it is. Doctors and administrators have a clinic or hospital to run. They have expensive invoices from Epic and Cerner to pay. They can now track and bill for all this stuff they used to not get paid for. Are we surprised?

And meanwhile, fee-for-service leads us down a contradictory rat hole of massive healthcare costs and lousy public health. Continue reading “It’s the System, Stupid: Reversing the Law of Unintended Consequences”

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What a week last week! First the disgraced cyclist confession and later the baffling college-football-player-and-his nonexistent-(dead)-girlfriend story, with the RAND report sandwiched somewhere in between. It’s positively a scandal-palooza.

What’s that? You don’t feel like the recent RAND report, which basically says that a 2005 RAND study financed by GE and Cerner was wildly optimistic in predicting about $81 billion in potential health care cost savings through widespread adoption of electronic health records, qualifies as a genuine hoax, controversy, scandal?

Me neither.

But it does neatly frame what is arguably a unique characteristic of the healthcare industry—a trait that extends to peripheral industries as well. Basically, healthcare is an interconnected environment. Call it the systems theory of healthcare, co-dependency … or just regular dependency. Call it what you want, but there is an interconnectedness in healthcare that we ignore at the expense of national wellness.

Witness key data points provided by the RAND report:

  • Modern health IT systems are not interconnected and interoperable, functioning “less as ‘ATM cards,’ allowing a patient or provider to access needed health information anywhere at any time, than as ‘frequent flier cards’ intended to enforce brand loyalty…”
  • Neither are they widely adopted, with an estimated 27 percent of hospitals utilizing a basic electronic record. Without broad adoption, interoperability is far less relevant.
  • Improvements in quality of care / patient safety and reductions in healthcare costs (which have grown by $800 billion since 2005) are not manifesting with EHR adoption, in part because hospitals and clinics are rushing to adopt mediocre solutions and garner federal funds.
  • The provision of care is the same as it ever was, even though EHRs are frequently promoted as the optimal tool for a different kind of care.

The reasons for these disappointing stats are readily apparent and unalterably interconnected.
Continue reading “Are Healthcare and Health IT in a Dysfunctional Relationship?”

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The 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) authorized incentive payments, potentially totaling some $27 billion over ten years, to clinicians and hospitals when they implement electronic health records in such a way as to achieve “meaningful use,” in terms of advances in health care processes and outcomes.

But, are EHRs really “meaningfully useful” or are they more likely to be costly and ineffective?

The latter seems to be one possible interpretation of a recent RAND study of EHR adoption in US hospitals.

The RAND study statistics are impressive: five study authors tallied 17 “quality measures” for three medical conditions against three possible levels of EHR capability (no EHR, basic EHR, advanced EHR) for more than two thousand hospitals for each of 2003 and 2007. They then related changes in quality over the four year timeframe against changes in EHR status (for example, from no EHR to an advanced EHR).

The reported results were disappointing to EHR proponents. Among the hospitals whose EHR capability remained unchanged over the four years, there was no statistically measurable difference in quality improvement between hospitals with EHR capability and those without. For hospitals which upgraded their EHR capability, the performance improvement was generally less than for those who didn’t change, including those with no EHR at all.

So, should we forget about EHRs? Maybe defund HITECH?

Not necessarily. Continue reading “So, Are EHRs a Waste of Time and Money?”

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