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Category: Economics

The Cadillac Tax Attack

1959 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz

“You think healthcare is expensive now? Wait until it is for free…” PJ O’Rourke

In early 2011, The Boston Globe shared the findings of a 20-page report from the Boston Foundation and Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a report that somberly concluded that cities and towns must substantially increase the amounts their employees are required to pay in out-of-pocket expenses for services and to significantly increase their deductibles. Jeffrey D. Nutting,  Franklin, MA. town manager, complained his town was still facing costs that wildly outpaced declining tax revenues or even the CPI. “Every dollar we spend on health care insurance is a dollar we don’t spend on jobs,’’ he said. “This is all about saving jobs. When insurance costs go up I have cut police, firefighters, or teachers.’’

Nutting said about 10 percent of the town’s $88 million budget now goes to health care costs, and he was facing a double-digit increase for next year. That was 2011.

In 2014, the healthcare conundrum is worsening. Despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the average per capita cost to provide health benefits for public employees is averaging as much as $ 20,000 per worker. This is almost twice the national average of most health plans – even higher than private sector bargained plans. The mounting evidence is irrefutable – low co-pay plans with maximum amounts of reimbursement do little to improve health or mitigate chronic illness — and often times lead to overconsumption of services, poor consumerism and limited accountability for personal responsibility around healthcare.Continue reading…

Have Doctors Joined the Working Class?

Marx und Engels Alexsander Platz Berlin

On September 28, 1864, exactly 150 years ago this weekend, the first meeting of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) was convened at St. Martin’s Hall, London.  Among the attendees was a relatively obscure German journalist by the name of Karl Marx.  Though Marx did not speak during the meeting, he soon began playing a crucial role in the life of the organization, in part because he was assigned the task of drafting its founding documents.

The work of the IWA and Marx is increasingly relevant to the practice of medicine today, largely because of the rapidly shrinking percentage of US physicians who own their own practices.  This moves physicians into the category of what Marx and his associates called, “working people.”  According to data from the American Medical Association, in 1983 76% of physicians were self-employed, a number that had fallen in 2012 to 53%.  And the trend is accelerating.  It is estimated that in 2014, 3 in 4 newly hired physicians will go to work for hospitals and health systems.

To put this change in Marx’s terms, the rapid fall in physician self-employment means that a shrinking percentage of physicians own what he called the means of production.  In his view, this alienates workers – in this case physicians – from other physicians, themselves, the work they do, and from patients.  Whether we agree with Marx on every point, his writings on this topic provides a provocative perspective from which to survey the changing landscape of contemporary medicine.

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It’s a Trade-Off, Stupid.

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An advantage of being a foreigner, or a recent immigrant to be precise, is that it allows one to view events with a certain detachment. To analyze without the burden of love, hate or indifference for the Kennedys, the Clintons or the Bushes. To observe with both eyes open, rather than one eye looking at the events and the other looking at a utopian destination.

The most striking thing I’ve observed in the healthcare debate in the US is the absence of an honest discussion of trade-offs.

I’ve found that “trade-off” carries a sinister connotation in American healthcare parlance. Its mere utterance is a defeatist’s surrender. If optimism is the iron core of the United States, acknowledging trade-offs is her kryptonite.

I was raised in Britain. I learnt to guard optimism with pursed lips. You never knew when it would rain. I also learnt in Britain’s NHS where healthcare resources really are finite, there is a trade-off between coverage and access.

In the discussions preceding the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) two disparate truths were conjoined by a single solution. The unsustainable trajectory of healthcare spending. And the large number of uninsured population. It was scarcely acknowledged that solution of these problems are inherently oppositional.

This has led to the search for utopian payment models. Fee for service incentivizes physicians towards generously reimbursable services of marginal benefits. Capitated systems dissuade physicians from taking sicker patients.

How about we pay for outcome, value and quality?  Sounds simple enough.

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How Much Market Power Do Hospitals Really Have?

Jeff GoldsmithOrginally published June 6th 2014, back by popular demand. – The Eds

Sometimes big game hunters find frustration when their prey moves by the time they’ve lined up to blast it. That certainly appears to be the case with the health policy target de jour: whether providers, hospital systems in particular, exert too much market power. A recent cluster of papers and policy conferences this spring have targeted the question of whether hospital mergers have contributed to inflation in health costs, and what to do about them.

Hospitals’ market power appears to be one of those frustrating moving targets. The past eighteen months have seen a spate of hospital industry layoffs by market-leading institutions, and also a string of terrible earnings releases from some of the most powerful hospital systems and “integrated delivery networks” in the country. These mediocre operating results raise questions about how much market power big hospital systems and IDNs do, in fact, exert.

The two systems everyone points to as poster children for excessive market power-California-based Sutter Health and Boston’s Partners Healthcare, both released abysmal operating results in April. Mighty Partners reported a paltry $3 million in operating income on $2.7 billion in revenues in their second (winter) quarter of FY14. Partners cited a 4.5 percent reduction in admissions and a 1.6 percent decline in outpatient visits as main drivers. Captive health insurance losses dragged down Partners’ patient care results. Sutter did even worse, losing $22 million on operations in FY13 (ended in December), — compared to a gain of $697 million in FY11 — on more than $9.6 billion in revenues.  A 3 percent decline in admissions led to FY13 revenue growth of 0.9 percent (that is, nine-tenths of one percent), against 7.3 percent in expense growth.

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How Effective is CER?

flying cadeuciiHaving the best evidence at hand is vitally important for making health care treatment decisions. But even when the right—or best—information is available, it isn’t always put to use in clinical practice.

Why? Although we are getting better at generating evidence, we’re still not doing a great job of using it.

Our progress in creating a robust pipeline of comparative effectiveness research (CER) is clear. By 2019, the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) is expected to receive an estimated $3.5 billion from the PCOR Trust Fund to fund CER. CER is not new, but the investment in PCORI represents a national appetite for a robust and reliable queue of research to overcome one of the greatest perennial challenges in health care delivery—knowing what works, for whom it will work and under what conditions.

CER offers every provider, patient and payer the promise of better care, yet its impact on patient outcomes remains on the horizon, rather than a reality in health care settings today. Why? Research published recently in the American Journal of Managed Care suggests that changes are needed in order to see more consistent translation of research findings into clinical practice. In short, at the moment, we have a hard time using what we learn from CER.

This research examined how major CER studies have impacted care. We evaluated real-world utilization trends before and after a) publication of CER findings and b) the release of relevant clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) from four high-profile CER studies published within the last decade.

The research we examined tells the story. Under the microscope were four major studies, including: PROVE-IT, an examination of cholesterol-lowering treatment strategies from 2004; MAMMOGRAPHY WITH MAGNETIC RESONANCE IMAGING (MRI), a comparison of diagnostics to detect breast cancer from 2004; SPORT a comparison of surgical and non-operative treatments for herniated disks from 2006; and COURAGE, a comparison of percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) to optimal medical therapy (OMT) for people with coronary artery disease, from 2007.

These studies delved into pressing therapeutic questions, and the findings of each study revealed new thinking in optimizing care for patients. But, despite the shifts in care that could have—or should have—occurred, our analysis revealed no clear pattern of utilization in the first four quarters after publication. Even after the studies were incorporated into CPG, we were not able to consistently find changes in utilization or clinical practice.

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Churn and the ACA

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Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with 47 million Americans uninsured, advocates and policy experts focused on expanding health insurance coverage for those who lacked it. Now that the law has broadened access to insurance, states are turning their attention to protecting enrollees from disruptions when they transition from one type of coverage to another, movement known as churn.

Churn is typically caused by a change in eligibility status, which itself stems from fluctuations in income, loss of a job, or changes in family circumstance, such as pregnancy. Short of a system, such as single-payer, where people may stay on the same plan for most of their lives, churn is inevitable. Indeed, in our fragmented health insurance system, millions of people naturally churn over the course of a given year, moving from employer-provided insurance to private insurance, or from private insurance to Medicaid, and so on. At low income levels, employment is particularly unstable, leading to high levels of churn among that population. For example, a newly-eligible Medicaid beneficiary (in an expansion state) who experiences a change in income over the course of a year—such as picking up an extra retail job during the holiday season—may lose his or her Medicaid eligibility as a result. Switching over to the exchange for new coverage could mean a totally different network of doctors, new drug formularies, and higher premiums and cost-sharing, not to mention the complexity and burden of going through a new and different enrollment process.

Is the ACA to blame for churn?  No—in fact, the ACA directly reduces one form of churning, and offers tools to mitigate the impact of other forms. Before the ACA, millions churned off insurance coverage for all the reasons mentioned above. And after losing coverage, many people—especially those with preexisting conditions—found it hard, if not impossible, to get it back. Because the ACA makes the individual health insurance market more accessible and affordable, the law creates a new culture of coverage with a continuum of options, and actually cuts down on churning into uninsured status.

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Writing the Value-Based Contract

sovaldi sovaldi

The kiss in the song from classic movie Casablanca is, at its essence, the seal of approval on a relationship.  The kiss is meant to symbolize shared reward (love, potentially) and risk (two souls who share a common set of values but now have new lives) built with other people. The recognizable phrase provides a frame for distilling the rewards (opportunities) and risks in true health care innovation.

Innovative health care solutions, such as new value-based benefit designs or emerging treatment for complex chronic diseases, often deliver tremendous value, but they take time (usually 2-3 years), do not deliver consistent benefits across populations (based upon severity of disease) or reduce total costs consistently (based on geographic influences, for example). Generics are often described as an equal substitute for branded drugs, but this is not always the case. Commercials advertise drugs that purport to make quality of life better (the contract for care), but then the rapid-fire “potential adverse effects” statement overtakes the “superiority message,” in effect reducing the value of the contract.

So when Gilead launched a new drug, Sovaldi, that promised a cure for Hepatitis C (cure = contractual promise, or “kiss”), the market place was excited. Then the spell was broken as obvious risk, the US$84,000 price tag, was revealed.

Gilead has a huge opportunity here.  It can become the true innovator that it claims to be.  It can be the value-driven company that calls for aligning the risks and rewards so that all the parties involved achieve reasonable outcomes.

Curing the highly infectious HepC is a lofty goal for care innovation.  Gilead’s new drug purports to cure HepC within 12 weeks (for certain patients) at the cost of $1000/per day in the US.  The FDA approved the drug and it launched in January 2014. CMS agreed to fund it for Medicare patients with the right profile, which tends to open the door for legitimacy to coverage in the commercial marketplace.

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Half the Cost. Half the Jobs?

flying cadeuciiHealthcare costs far too much. We can do it better for half the cost. But if we did cut the cost in half, we would cut the jobs in half, wipe out 9% of the economy and plunge the country into a depression.

Really? It’s that simple? Half the cost equals half the jobs? So we’re doomed either way?

Actually, no. It’s not that simple. We cannot of course forecast with any precision the economic consequences of doing healthcare for less. But a close examination of exactly how we get to a leaner, more effective healthcare system reveals a far more intricate and interrelated economic landscape.

In a leaner healthcare, some types of tasks will disappear, diminish, or become less profitable. That’s what “leaner” means. But other tasks will have to expand. Those most likely to wane or go “poof” are different from those that will grow. At the same time, a sizable percentage of the money that we waste in healthcare is not money that funds healthcare jobs, it is simply profit being sucked into the Schwab accounts and ski boats of high income individuals and the shareholders of profitable corporations.

Let’s take a moment to walk through this: how we get to half, what disappears, what grows and what that might mean for jobs in healthcare.

Getting to half

How would this leaner Next Healthcare be different from today’s?

Waste disappears: Studies agree that some one third of all healthcare is simple waste. We do these unnecessary procedures and tests largely because in a fee-for-service system we can get paid to do them. If we pay for healthcare differently, this waste will tend to disappear.

Prices rationalize: As healthcare becomes something more like an actual market with real buyers and real prices, prices will rationalize close to today’s 25th percentile. The lowest prices in any given market are likely to rise somewhat, while the high-side outliers will drop like iron kites.

Internal costs drop: Under these pressures, healthcare providers will engage in serious, continual cost accounting and “lean manufacturing” protocols to get their internal costs down.

The gold mine in chronic: There is a gold mine at the center of healthcare in the prevention and control of chronic disease, getting acute costs down through close, trusted relationships between patients, caregivers, and clinicians.

Tech: Using “big data” internally to drive performance and cost control; externally to segment the market and target “super users;” as well as using widgets, dongles, and apps to maintain that key trusted relationship between the clinician and the patient/consumer/caregiver.

Consolidation: Real competition on price and quality, plus the difficulty of managing hybrid risk/fee-for-service systems, means that we will see wide variations in the market success of providers. Many will stumble or fail. This will drive continued consolidation in the industry, creating large regional and national networks of healthcare providers capable of driving cost efficiency and risk efficiency through the whole organization.

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EMR Data Shows Medicaid Gap Widening Between Expansion and Non-Expansion States

In measuring the effects of health insurance coverage expansion as part of our ACAView initiative with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), an important factor to consider is state policy towards Medicaid expansion.

The intention of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was to expand coverage through two mechanisms: 1) People with moderate incomes could gain coverage through the exchanges, often encouraged by subsidies; and 2) those with lower incomes could gain coverage through an expansion of Medicaid eligibility to include groups that had not traditionally qualified for Medicaid.

For many years, states had widely varying Medicaid eligibility rules, with some states covering only women and their children in need of public aid and low-income people with disabilities. Other states had expanded eligibility to include people at income levels higher than the federal poverty level.

Given the differing Medicaid expansion decisions among states, we examined our data on visits to primary care physicians (PCPs) separately for states with and without Medicaid expansion.

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Figure 1 shows proportions of visits between January 2012 and May 2014 for four groups of adults (18-64): uninsured individuals in Medicaid-expansion states; uninsured individuals in non-Medicaid expansion states; Medicaid beneficiaries in expansion states; and Medicaid beneficiaries in non-expansion states.

Two observations are worth noting:

    1. ACA coverage expansion appears to be widening a pre-existing gap between states that have elected to pursue Medicaid expansion and those that have not. Providers in the Medicaid-expansion states were already seeing higher proportions of Medicaid beneficiaries in 2013. For example, in December of 2013, 12.3% of 18-64 year- old visits to PCPs in expansion states were from Medicaid beneficiaries, compared with 5.9% in non-expansions states, a 6.4 percentage point differential. By May 2013, that difference had expanded to a 9.3 percentage point differential, as the percent of Medicaid visits increased in Medicaid expansion states but held constant in non-expansion states.
    2. The proportion of uninsured fell in both categories, from 4.5% to 3.3% in expansion states and 7.0% to 5.8% in non-expansion states (figures for January through May for both years, respectively).

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Figure 2 expands the Medicaid payer mix analysis to other specialties.

In Medicaid expansion states, all four specialty types showed a substantial increase in the proportion of visits by Medicaid beneficiaries. In contrast, in non-Medicaid expansion states, the proportion of visits by Medicaid beneficiaries decreased for all four specialty groups.

As a result of these changes, by early 2014 PCPs, surgeons, and other specialists in expansion states saw two to three times more adult Medicaid patients (in proportional terms) than in non-expansion states (for example, 15.6% versus 6.3% for PCPs; 11.6% versus 3.1% for surgeons).

For OB-GYN, the ratio between the proportion of visits by Medicaid beneficiaries in the expansion and non-expansion states is much smaller, 19.4% versus 13.4%. This may reflect more generous Medicaid eligibility in non-expansion states for pregnant women compared to other adults.

As we monitor these metrics, a few questions will be of particular interest:

  • Where will the increase in Medicaid volumes in expansion states level off?
  • To what extent is the increase in Medicaid visits driven by established patients who were previously uninsured?
  • What are the effects of increased Medicaid volumes on medical practices?

We will attempt to address these (and other) complex issues throughout the year.

For a better understanding of our goals, methodology, data sample size, and full findings since the inception of the ACAView series, please read our first report, “First Observations Around the Affordable Care Act.”

The Cost-Response Curve

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 11.04.35 AM“Drugs don’t work in people who don’t take them.” C. Everett Koop, former US Surgeon General

Cost-based non-adherence, like any lack of medication adherence, leads to further complications and hospitalizations that could have been prevented. CMS appears to have recognized this when they announced that a new ACO measures on whether “providers have educated patients about the cost of medications” in the 2015 fee schedule.  Cost and quality conversations between doctors and patients are becoming a cornerstone to value-based care.

The most expensive drugs are the ones that the patient never takes.  Nearly one third of prescriptions go unfilled. When patients cannot afford a medication, and only discover the price or out-of-pocket cost at the prescription counter, it’s a big risk to long-term outcomes.

“It has been well established that a lack of affordability can drive a lack of adherence to a course of medications.  Patients who do not take their medications cost the U.S. healthcare system an estimated $300 billion in avoidable medical spending annually due to poorer health, more frequent hospitalizations and a higher risk of mortality”, according to The Center for Health Value Innovation and the Network for Health Value in Innovation.

A lack of medication adherence drives further costs for the system and suffering for patients. Estimates are that more than a third of medicine-related hospitalizations happen because people did not take medicine as directed, leading to over 125,000 deaths.

Medication non-adherence, of course, can have many reasons: side effects, difficulty in administering the drug, and others, but there is clear evidence that cost is a factor driving non-adherence. 27% of Americans did not fulfill a prescription due to financial hardship in 2012 according to a Kaiser Family Survey. As copays, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses go up, so, likely, will non-adherence, and value-based care, and value-based benefits must understand the costs related to non-adherence.

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