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Category: OP-ED

Practicing Medicine While Black

The managed care movement thrives on misleading words and phrases. Perhaps the worst example is the incessant use of the word “quality” to characterize a problem that has multiple causes, only one of which might be inferior physician or hospital quality. [1] To illustrate with a non-medical analogy, no one would blame auto repair mechanics if 50 percent of their customers failed to bring their cars in for regular oil changes. We would attribute the underuse of mechanics’ services to forces far beyond the mechanic’s control and would not, therefore, refer to the problem as a “quality” problem.

But over the last three decades it has become acceptable among American health policy experts and policy-makers to characterize any measurement of under- or over-use of medical care, or any measurement of a medical outcome, no matter how poorly adjusted to reflect factors outside provider control, as an indication of “quality.” The widespread, inappropriate use of “quality” long ago set off a vicious cycle. It helped spread the folklore that the quality of America’s doctors and hospitals is awful, and that in turn was used to justify taking even more crude measurements of quality, and so on. [2]Continue reading…

Evaluating ACO Performance, 2016 Edition

(A review of 2015 ACO results appeared on The Health Care Blog on October 1, 2016.)

The Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), or Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), continue to be CMS’ flagship pay for performance (P4P) model delivering care via 432 MSSP ACOs located in every state to over nine million, or 16%, of Medicare beneficiaries. This year the agency did not announce 2016 performance year results. Instead, CMS posted without notice in late October a Public Use File (PUF) or spread sheet summarizing 2016 performance. What analysis CMS did provide was by CMS’ vendor, the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), several weeks ago to ACO participants via webinar. RTI’s slides are not made publicly available.

Like performance year one (2013), two (2014), and three (2015), performance year four (2016) once again produced limited positive results. As stated last year, CMS does not evaluate the ACO program, therefore, ACO participants and Medicare policy analysts are left to decipher how success was achieved, what performance results mean for the MSSP program and in context of the agency’s overall efforts to reduce Medicare spending growth.

2016 ACO Financial Performance Results

Here is a bulleted summary of 2016 financial performance based on the PUF and RTI’s slides.

  • In 2016 there were 432 ACOs that had their performance year results reconciled.
  • Of these, 410 were Track 1, six were Track 2 and 16 were Track 3.
  • Of the 432, 134 earned shared savings or 119 out of 410 Track 1s, six out of six Track 2s earned shared savings and nine out of 16 Track 3s earned shared savings. Four Track 3 ACOs owed $9.33 million in shared losses. Only 129 actually received shared savings checks because five of the 134 owed CMS for advanced ACO payments.
  • Physician only ACOs once again were more successful than ACOs that included a hospital, or 41% versus 23% respectively.
  • Also again longer tenured ACOs were more successful. Among the 2012-2013 ACO class 42% were successful compared to 18% of the 2016 starters.
  • The 134 2016 ACOs earned in sum slightly more than $700 million in shared savings. Actual savings paid out was close to $650 million because imperfect quality caused ACOs to leave money on the table and because of Medicare reimbursement or sequestration cuts required the 2011 Budget Control Act.
  • For 2016 30% of participation MSSP ACOs will receive a shared savings check compared to 29% in 2016, 26% in 2015 and 27% in 2014.
  • Earned shared savings were again highly concentrated. The 15 highest performing ACOs received $265 million total in shared savings as compared to the 15 lowest performing shared savings ACOs that received $20 million in total.   An August DHHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) report made note of this dynamic, i.e., about half of the spending reductions during the first three years of the program, or $1.7 billion, were generated by 36 ACOs and three ACOs in that group generated a quarter of the amount.
  • Of the remaining 294 2016 ACOs, 107 fell within their positive Minimum Loss Ratio (MLR) corridor, 105 fell within their negative MLR corridor and 82 fell outside their negative MLR corridor. This last group, the worst performing ACOs, was 19% of all 2016 ACOs, significantly less than the 24% of the worse performing 2015 ACOs.
  • Again, success was largely determined by an ACO’s financial benchmark. ACOs that earned shared savings in 2016 had a reconciled benchmark 10% higher than all other ACOs, or respectively $11,614 per beneficiary versus $10,563 per beneficiary, or a benchmark 7% higher than those within their positive MLR corridor and 12% higher than those that fell below their negative MLR. The OIG report reached the same conclusion. During the first three years of the program, ACOs that received shared savings had a $11,748 per beneficiary benchmark compared to a $10,284 per beneficiary for ACOs that did not receive shared savings, a 12% difference. As noted last year, because of this successful ACOs only had to comparatively spend a trivial amount less than their financial benchmark to be successful.

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Reducing Opioid Abuse, A Quick Guide to Internet Resources

The opioid crisis has been upon us for years now, and we are now seeing the problem become more pervasive, with more than 90 deaths per day in the U.S. due to this scourge. The president recently said he would be declaring a public health emergency (which would free up some funds) but has not done so as of this writing. The public health threat is so persistent that it calls for responses on many levels, and those responses are coming. Some have been in place for a while, some are more recent. These responses may be broken down into a number of different categories:

The overarching goal is to eliminate the use of opiates for all but the most critical short-term needs (limiting prescriptions to a seven-day supply) and medically-appropriate chronic and palliative pain management. There are alternative pain relief drugs — and a wide variety of other treatments for pain, ranging from TENS to meditation to VR.  Taken together, the initiatives highlighted and linked to above represent a good start. Of course, we need more than a good start, as the US consumes a wildly disproportionate share of opiates compared to other countries — follow link for some facts and figures — for predictable reasons of economics, politics and culture, and we are paying a staggering price in excess morbidity and mortality and in secondary effects (the effects on family and community).

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Why the Potential CVS Acquisition of Aetna is Brilliant, The Law of Unintended Consequences

Many people have been surprised by the announcement that CVS is interested in purchasing Aetna.  Why would a PBM want to own a health plan?  There has been speculation that the move by Amazon to get into the pharmacy space may be a reason.  But there is another more rationale reason and its based upon a flaw in the Affordable Care Act.

The flaw is known as the Medical Loss Ratio requirement and it reads like this from the CMS website

The Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to spend at least 80% or 85% of premium dollars on medical care, with the rate review provisions imposing tighter limits on health insurance rate increases. If an issuer fails to meet the applicable MLR standard in any given year, as of 2012, the issuer is required to provide a rebate to its customers.

This requirement was put in place as a way to ensure that health plans did not make money by underutilizing medical care.  But it had the unintended consequence of insuring that costs never went down and here’s why.

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Is Obamacare Dead?

“It’s dead. It’s gone. There’s no such thing as Obamacare anymore. It’s no longer – you shouldn’t even mention.”

— President Donald J. Trump  October 17, 2017

Not so fast, President Great-Again. First off, this is an obviously and flatly false statement. But also, don’t look now but Congress and the Trump administration itself are haltingly and chaotically moving to enact bipartisan legislation to stabilize the ACA exchange marketplaces for 2018 and 2019.

Importantly, passage of such a measure would get the ACA through the 2018 mid-term elections, although it’s unlikely that any legislation will tamp down the long-running and fierce debate about the fate and future of the law.

The primary aim of the bipartisan effort is to get funding for cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments on the budget books. The payments, which go to health insurance companies, lower deductibles and co-pays for millions of low-income people.

They are the subject of a long-running legal dispute, which entered a new phase on Oct. 25 when a federal judge in California rejected an urgent appeal by 18 states to compel the Trump administration to continue making the payments as litigation continues. Trump announced earlier this month he would cease reimbursing insurers for the assistance, which insurers are required to deliver.

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My 14 Year Old Cancer Patient May Be Addicted to Opioids. What Do I Do?

I’m a pediatric oncologist, but cancer is not always the most serious problem my young patients face. Currently one of them, a 14-year-old boy, his mother, or both may be opioid addicts. I may be enabling their addiction.

Tragically, their situation is not unique. Adolescent patients are at risk for addiction from opioid pain medications just as adult patients are. But pediatric patients are overlooked in this war against opioid addiction. No policies protect them or those caring for them.

Usually pain is short-term, and only limited opioids are needed. Most providers, including those caring for children, are trained in acute pain management. Patients and providers are also protected by policies limiting the prescribed amount of opioids for acute pain.

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Do Doctors Deserve Mercy?

This past week a video went viral when a woman complained about the lengthy wait time at a clinic.  On video, we see the physician asks if the patient still wants to be seen.  The patient declines to be seen, yet complains patients should be informed they will not be seen in a timely manner.  The frustrated physician replies, “Then fine…Get the hell out. Get your money and get the hell out.”  While we do not witness events leading up to the argument between doctor and patient, we do know staff at the front desk called the police due to threats made by the patient to others. 

Based on the statement released by Peter Gallogly, MD, he is a humble, thoughtful, and compassionate physician who was very concerned for the safety of his staff, which he considers “family.”  Physicians like Dr. Gallogly do their best to serve patients, ease their suffering, and avoid losing ourselves to burnout at the same time. Every human being deserves our compassion, kindness, and clemency.  Patients and physicians must accommodate each other when possible.

Do physicians actually deserve our mercy when necessary?  Yes, they do.  I should know.  The kindness shown to me by my patients over the past month has been unparalleled, leaving this physician thankful beyond words. 

My father has been a practicing pediatrician in our community for 47 years.  As I type these words, he is dying in a hospital bed.  We have worked side by side for the last 16 years.  It is difficult to make it through the day, desperately hoping to hear his voice one last time in the clinic hallway.  He was carrying a full patient load before an unexpected cardiac arrest ended his career.  The patient load doubled overnight; it is a burden I am carrying alone.

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Could OpenNotes Transform the Analytics Marketplace?

Could OpenNotes help push predictive analytics from paternalism to partnership?

As new payment incentives make it profitable to prevent illness as well as treat it, new technology is offering the tantalizing prospect of accurately targeting pre-emptive interventions.

At the recent Health 2.0 Annual Fall Conference, for example, companies like Cardinal Analytx Solutions and Base Health spoke of using machine learning to find those individuals among a client’s population who haven’t yet been expensively sick, but are likely to be so soon. Companies seeking to make that information actionable touted their use of behavioral theory to “optimize patient motivation and engagement” via bots, texting and other technological tools.

Being able to stave off a significant amount of sickness would constitute extraordinary medical progress. Along the way, however, there’s a danger that an allegiance to algorithms will reinforce a paternalism we’ve only recently begun to shed. A thin line can separate engagement from enforcement, motivation from manipulation, and, sometimes, “This is for your own good” from “This is for my bottom line.” It is here where OpenNotes could play a critical role.

In a recent article for The BMJ, I proposed a concept called “collaborative health” to describe a shifting constellation of relationships for maintaining wellbeing and for sickness care. Shaped by each individual’s life circumstances, these will sometimes involve the traditional care system, as “patient-centered care” does, but not always.

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EHR-Driven Medical Error: The Unknown and the Unknowable

Politico’s Arthur Allen has written a useful report on recent findings about EHR-related errors. We must keep in mind, however, that almost all EHR-related errors are unknown, and often unknowable. Why?

  1. The most common errors involved with EHRs are medication prescribing errors. But we seldom find those errors because those type of errors seldom manifest themselves because so many hospitalized patients are old and sick, have several co-morbidities and are taking many other medications. Key organs, like the liver, kidney and heart, are compromised. Bad things can happen to these patients even when we do everything right; conversely, good things can happen even when we do much wrong. We usually miss the results of, say, a wrongly prescribed medication. (Note: these types of ‘missed’ medication errors contrast to leaving a pair of hemostats in the gut or to wrong-site surgery—where most errors soon become obvious).
  2. As the experts referenced (Dr. Bob Wachter, Dean Sittig and Hardeep Singh) noted, very, very few cases make it to litigation, further reducing the numbers examined in the study discussed.
  3. Perhaps worse, few clinicians want to report problems even if they know about them. This is a litigious society and few medical professionals want to spend time in court. Also, as the authors Allen interviewed (all of them my friends and respected colleagues): some of the errors that were known did not result in harm and many were caught by others or by the professional involved in the error before they harmed.

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Six Assertions on Knowing the Unknowable Future of Healthcare

Some things never change. Joe Flower is one of those things. Pay attention. Joe was the keynote speaker at Health 2.0 Silicon Valley earlier this month. We’re excited to feature the text of his remarks as a post on the blog today.  If you have questions for Joe, you can leave them the comment section. You’ll find a link to a complimentary copy of his report Healthcare 2027: at the end of this post. You should absolutely download and read it. And take notes.

The future. The Future of healthcare. 
Here are the seven words at the core. If you take nothing else away from this, take these:

Everything changes.
Everything is connected.
Pay attention.

— Jane Hirshfield 

We are gathered here on holy ground, in Silicon Valley, the home of the startup, the temple of everything new, of the Brave New World.

And healthcare? Healthcare is changing — consolidation, new technologies, political chaos, a vast and growing IT overburden, shifting rules, ever-rising costs, new solutions, business model experiments.

So when I say, “The Future of Healthcare,”
what are the pictures in your head? Catastrophic system failure? The dawn of a bright new day of better, stronger, cheaper healthcare for everyone, led by tech? Do we have all the confidence of a little girl screaming down a slide? Do we just say in denial about the future and end up in a kind of chaotic muddling along?

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