Categories

Author Archives

cindywilliams

Making Sense of Health Care Prices

Take a look at the chart below. It shows representative prices for a knee replacement for different patients in different settings. The most shocking thing about the chart is that prices for essentially the same procedure are all over the map. Here are some obvious questions:

  1. Why is the price of a knee replacement for a dog — involving the same technology and the same medical skills that are needed for humans — less than 1/6th the price a typical health insurance company pays for human operations? Why is it less than 1/3 of what hospitals tell Medicare their cost of doing the procedure is?
  2. How is a Canadian able to come to the United States and get a knee replacement for less than half of what Americans are paying?
  3. How are Canadians getting knee replacements in the U.S. able to pay only a few thousand dollars more than medical tourists pay in India, Singapore and Thailand — places where the price is supposed to be a fraction of what we typically pay in this country?
  4. Why do fees U.S. employers and insurance companies are paying vary by a factor of three to one, when foreign, and even some U.S., facilities are offering a same-price-for-all package?

It’s amazing how often people cannot see the forest for the trees. Think how many volumes have been written trying (and failing) to explain why our health care costs are so high. Sometimes the answers to complex questions are more easily found by asking the simplest of questions.

Continue reading…

The Math of E/M Coding: When Does 5=1?

My typical Medicare patient expects me to deal with 5 or more problems in a single routine visit.  There are usually around 3 old ones (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia) and at least 2 new ones (e.g., low back pain, fatigue).  For those who come with handwritten lists, there may be as many as 10, including every health question that has come to mind over the past 6 months (Should I take a holiday off of Fosamax? Should I add fish oil? Do I need another colonoscopy? Is the shingles shot any good?).

Physicians who do procedures get paid for each one done to a single patient on a particular day. Medicare’s rule for this – the Multiple Procedure Payment Reduction Rule (MPPR) – says doctors should be paid 100% for the first procedure and 50% for each subsequent procedure up to 5. However, for those of us whose work is primarily cognitive rather than procedural, there is an important exclusion:  the multiple-payment rule does not apply to E/M codes.  In fact, the definitions of 99213 and 99214 unambiguously state, “Usually the presenting problem(s) are of . . . complexity.” Note the “(s)”! It clearly creates a double standard that favors doing procedures and places thoughtful solving of patients’ problems at a disadvantage.

So in my case, 5 or 10 or more separate patient problems equal one payment. The “(s)” in the AMA’s CPT book is the most outrageous injustice to primary care of this generation.  Because of it, the AMA’s CPT committee is accountable for even more damage to primary care than is their RUC!  Think how different life in primary care would be if the “(s)” were removed and you were paid 50% for each additional patient problem you addressed in a single office visit!

Continue reading…

How Obama Hits Health Providers in Deficit Plan

President Obama’s populist message on taxes was replicated on the health savings side of his deficit-reduction plan, which would cut spending on Medicare and Medicaid by $320 billion over the next decade and $1 trillion in the following decade.

The bulk of the savings would come from companies that provide goods and services to the programs. Payments to drug companies would be slashed by $135 billion by offering seniors in Medicare the same discounts currently mandated for poor people in Medicaid. An additional $42 billion in program savings would be achieved by reducing payments to nursing homes and home health care agencies.

And those are just the major hits taken by health-care providers in the plan, which is already drawing fierce opposition from lobbyists for industries that get whacked. Rural hospitals, big city teaching hospitals, biotechnology firms, and durable equipment manufacturers also would be in for payment cuts under the Obama blueprint.

Major trade associations representing provider groups immediately blasted the proposal, playing the same jobs card the president is using. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association “opposes implementing Medicaid’s failed price controls in Medicare Part D,” the group said in a prepared statement. “Such policies would fundamentally alter the competitive nature of the program, undermine its success, and potentially cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs.”

Continue reading…

Why Patient Lab Data Should Be Liberated

I am admittedly not an expert on health IT, but I am a firm believer in the empowerment of patients to be the driver of her/his health decision making. So this whole discussion about lab data being available directly to the patient is of great interest to me. But it does seem like yet another instance of the two sides coming together not to listen to each other but to be heard by the other side. And as well know, this works so well for any relationship!

Each side’s view is represented roughly thusly:

Patients These are my data and I have the right to access them as soon as they are available.
Doctors We are worried that the sheer volume, complexity and irrelevance of (much) of the data will make it confusing and unnecessarily alarm the patient

Both arguments are valid, of course. But it is important to ask what lurks below the visible portion of each iceberg.

Let’s take the patient view. Why do I want immediate access to my data? Well, obviously, because it is mine, it represents the results of testing on my body, and the record should belong to me. I should be able to access it freely whenever I damned well please. I am also more than a little exasperated with having to wait sometimes days to hear from my doctor’s office about a result that has been available for a while, but was buried under the reams of paperwork on the MD’s desk or his/her assigning a low priority to my data. And I am most exasperated when my lab results get lost or otherwise never make it to me at all. Perhaps if I have direct and unfettered access, this will make thing more efficient for me as an individual.

Continue reading…

Preparing for the Exchanges

What is the biggest waste of effort in American health care today?

I’d suggest it is the hustle and bustle to establish PPACA’s Health Benefits Exchanges.  The health insurers’ trade association, AHIP, has an entire educational series on “preparing for exchanges.”  The likelihood of exchanges being up and running by January 2014 is vanishingly close to zero.  Indeed, they may not exist at all except in very few states – whether or not President Obama wins re-election.

Last January, I wrote in The Health Care Blog that states should not collaborate with the federal government in establishing exchanges.  Almost all states have taken this course.  Recent days have brought forward new evidence that exchanges are facing even bigger problems than previously understood.  The New York Times reports that Republican state senators are blocking a bill that would allow the state to establish an exchange and claim federal handouts to get it up and running. (A few weeks previously, Kansas governor Brownback actually sent a $31.5 million federal PPACA grant back to D.C.).

If they can’t get a PPACA exchange up and running in New York, of all places, where the heck will they? Only 13 states have passed pro-exchange legislation (and some of these bills don’t do much more than establish study groups).

Continue reading…

Minute Clinics Threaten Doctors: Who Wins?

All of us have been to fast food establishments. We go there because we are in a hurry and it’s cheap. We love the convenience. We expect that the quality of the cuisine will be several rungs lower than fine dining.

We now have a fast medicine option available to us. Across the country, there are over 1000 ‘minute-clinics’ that are being set up in pharmacies, supermarkets and other retail store chains. These clinics are staffed by nurse practitioners who have prescribing authority, under the loose oversight of a physician who is likely off sight. These nurses will see patients with simple medical issues and will adhere to strict guidelines so they will not treat beyond their medical knowledge. For example, if a man comes in clutching his chest and gasping, the nurse will know not to just give him some Rolaids and wish him well. At least, that’s the plan.

Primary care physicians are concerned over the metastases of ‘minute-clinics’ nationwide. Of course, they argue from a patient safety standpoint, but there are powerful parochial issues worrying physicians. They are losing business. They have a point that patients should be rightly concerned about medical errors and missed diagnoses at these medical care drive-ins. These nurses, even with their advanced training, are not doctors. It is also true serious or even life threatening conditions can masquerade as innocent medical complaints and might not be recognized by a nurse who treats colds and ankle sprains.

Continue reading…

When Health Insurance is Free

Did you know that an estimated one of every three uninsured people in this country is eligible for a government program (mainly Medicaid or a state children’s health insurance plan), but has not signed up?

Either they haven’t bothered to sign up or they did bother and found the task too daunting. It’s probably some combination of the two, and if that doesn’t knock your socks off, you must not have been paying attention to the health policy debate over the past year or so.

Put aside everything you’ve heard about ObamaCare and focus on this bottom line point: going all the way back to the Democratic presidential primary, ObamaCare was always first and foremost about insuring the uninsured. Yet at the end of the day, the new health law is only going to insure about 32 million more people out of more than 50 million uninsured. Half that goal will be achieved by new enrollment in Medicaid. But if you believe the Census Bureau surveys, we could enroll just as many people in Medicaid by merely signing up those who are already eligible!

What brought this to mind was a series of editorials by Paul Krugman and Robert Reichand blog posts by their acolytes (at the Health Affairs blog and at my blog) asserting that government is so much more efficient than private insurers. Can you imagine Aetna or UnitedHealth Care leaving one-third of its customers without a sale, just because they couldn’t fill out the paperwork properly? Well that’s what Medicaid does, day in and day out.

Put differently, half of everything ObamaCare is trying to do is necessary only because the Medicaid bureaucracy does such a poor job — not of selling insurance, but of giving it away for free!

Continue reading…

CLASS-Gate

I’ve written previously about the looming train wreck from Obamacare’s new long-term care entitlement for the elderly, called the CLASS (Community Living Assistance Services and Support) Act. Democratic Senator Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), you may recall, once described the CLASS Act as “a Ponzi scheme of the first order, the kind of thing that Bernie Madoff would have been proud of.” The Obama Administration strongly supported the CLASS Act’s inclusion in the Affordable Care Act, and Conrad ended up voting for it anyway.

However, the case for the CLASS Act has been rapidly unraveling. In February, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the Senate Finance Committee, admitting for the first time that CLASS is “totally unsustainable.” Under questioning by Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), she pointedly refused to rule out an individual mandate that would force everyone to join the program. Though Sebelius assured Thune that she had broad authority to fix CLASS’ structural problems, I obtained a Congressional Research Service report that stated the opposite. In the July/August issue ofForeign Affairs, former White House budget director Peter Orszag proposed an individual mandate as one of “the only solutions” to CLASS’ unsustainability.

So, we’re all in agreement that CLASS is a mess that could cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. So why was it included in our new health law in the first place?

The reason is simple: budget gimmickry. CLASS will rake in $86 billion in premiums from 2012-2021, but pay out substantially more than that over the long-term, rapidly generating deficits and bankruptcy. However, the Congressional Budget Office can only score the law’s impact over the next ten years, a period in which CLASS “reduces” the deficit. The claim that Obamacare was budget-neutral was critical to winning the approval of skittish moderate Democrats.

And now, today, a new Congressional investigation led by John Thune reveals that the Obama Administration knew all along that CLASS was unsustainable. “As a result of this investigation,” the authors write, “it is now clear that some officials inside HHS warned for months before passage that the CLASS program would be a fiscal disaster. Within HHS the program was repeatedly referred to as ‘a recipe for disaster’ with ‘terminal problems.’”

Continue reading…

Maryland Regulators Holding Hospital Costs in Check

President Obama’s health care reform bill is filled with experiments on how to hold down health care costs.  There will be bundled payments for episodes of care and extra payments for raising quality standards. It calls for the reorganization of hospitals and physician practices into “accountable care organizations,”  which will share in savings if their costs fall below previous levels.

What’s not in the legislation is old-fashioned hospital rate regulation, which only one state in the nation uses. The latest results from Maryland suggest rate regulation works.

The state’s Health Services Cost Review Commission (HSCRC) announced earlier this week that average costs per stay at Maryland’s 51 hospitals rose just 2 percent in 2010, significantly less than the 3 percent national average. Since 1977, when rate regulation went into effect, hospitals costs in Maryland have experienced the lowest cumulative growth rate of any state in the nation, going from 26 percent above the national average to almost exactly average, according to data contained in HSCRC’s latest annual report .

Maryland, which had the sixth highest hospitalization costs among 50 states and the District of Columbia in the mid-1970s, today ranks squarely in the middle of the pack. Its $10,983 in average costs per equivalent admission in 2010 was slightly less than the $10,996 national average.

Continue reading…

5 Ways You Can Avoid Being Misdiagnosed

Billionaire Teddy Forstmann has apparently been diagnosed with a serious form of brain cancer.  There’s a tragic twist to the story: according to Fox Business News, Forstmann believes that for more than a year, he had been misdiagnosed with meningitis.

ABC News wonders:

How could such a misfortune befall a billionaire —- a man able to afford the best doctors, best technology and the most sophisticated diagnostic tests?

They’re missing the point.  Misdiagnosis happens with shocking regularity – as much as 44% of the time, depending on the illness.

I’m sure that, as with most things, being a billionaire is better.  But as a neurosurgeon quoted by ABC News points out, even for a billionaire, getting the right care is “still a bit of a crap shoot.”

So how can you improve your odds?  Here are 5 tips that work.

1.  Know your family history – and remind your doctor of it. Don’t assume your doctor remembers that time you told him that two of your aunts died of breast cancer, or that your grandfather and father have a history of malformed blood vessels in their brains.  Research studies have shown that a family history may be a better predictor of disease than even genetic testing.  Find out about your family’s medical history, write it down (the Surgeon General has a good on-line tool to help you do this), and make sure your doctor knows about it – especially if you’re sick and they’re trying to decide what’s wrong.

2.  Ask questions.  The typical doctor sees as a many as 40 patients a day, spending 15 minutes or less with each one.  It’s all too easy to be referred to a specialist and start treatment without having all of your questions answered.  But asking questions won’t just make you feel more comfortable – it can disrupt your doctor’s thought process and make him think about your case in a way that may save your life.  Dr. Jerome Groopman, one of the world’s foremost researchers on how doctors think (he’s written the definitive book on it) agrees:

“Doctors desperately need patients and their families and friends to help them think. Without their help, physicians are denied key clues to what is really wrong. I learned this not as a doctor but when I was sick, when I was the patient.”

You can find some useful tips on how to do this at the U.S. government’s web site, called “Questions are the Answer.”

Continue reading…

Registration

Forgotten Password?