Category: THCB

The Fall of Berwick?

When President Obama named Dr. Donald Berwick to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) last March, I wrote this:

“Most who know Berwick describe him a ‘visionary’ and a ‘healer,’ a man able to survey the fragments of a broken health care system and imagine how they could be made whole.  He’s a revolutionary, but he doesn’t rattle cages. He’s not arrogant, and he’s not advocating a government takeover of U.S. health care.”

To understand what I meant, view these clips from the film, Money-Driven Medicine, where Berwick speaks about the need for healthcare reform. Soft-spoken and charismatic, Berwick is as passionate as he is original. His style is colloquial, intimate, and ultimately absolutely riveting. He draws you into his vision, moving your mind from where it was to where it could be.

And now, it appears that we are going to lose him. Thursday, 42 Senators delivered a letter to President Obama demanding that he withdraw his support for Berwick to head CMS. The Boston pediatrician and co-founder of the Institute for Health Care Improvement (IHI) had received a temporary appointment in July while Congress was on vacation. President Obama re-nominated him in January. But Berwick still needs to be confirmed by the Senate, or he will have to leave his post at the end of this year.

With 42 out of 100 Senators firmly opposed to him, it appears that Berwick’s supporters won’t be able to muster the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate floor. Reportedly, Senate liberals already have given up. According to’s Brett Coughlin: “At a meeting with Senate staffers Friday, health care lobbyists and advocates were told that there will be no confirmation hearing and that they’ll soon be discussing ‘next steps’ for CMS.”    If this is true, Berwick is now a lame-duck CMS director without power—as of today.Continue reading…

The Urgency of Medicaid Reform

Austin Frakt has penned a reply to a recent piece I wrote on Medicaid for my health-policy blog on Forbes, The Apothecary. Austin is a guy who takes the time to address opposing points of view, to his credit, and I’ve enjoyed my back-and-forth with him over time. But while I’m grateful for Austin’s attention to an issue of high import—the degree to which Medicaid harms the poor—he didn’t respond to the core concerns I raised in my post.

For those who haven’t been following the debate on Medicaid outcomes from the beginning, let me offer a brief summary.

How Medicaid Harms the Poor: The Debate (So Far)

Last summer, on my old blog, I put up a series of posts highlighting the findings of a study published in Annals of Surgery by a group of surgeons at the University of Virginia, entitled “Primary Payer Status Affects Mortality for Major Surgical Operations.” The study evaluated 893,658 major surgical operations occurring between 2003 and 2007, stratified by primary payer status, on three outcomes endpoints: in-hospital mortality, length of stay, and total costs incurred.

Despite the fact that the authors controlled for age, gender, income, geographic region, operation, and 30 comorbid conditions, Medicaid fared poorly compared to those with private insurance, Medicare, and even the uninsured. Relative to those with private insurance, Medicare, uninsured, and Medicaid patients were 45%, 74%, and 97% more likely to die in the hospital post-operatively. The average length of stay for private, Medicare, uninsured, and Medicaid patients was 7.38, 8.77, 7.01, and 10.49 days, respectively. Total costs per patient were $63,057, $69,408, $65.667, and $79,140 respectively.

Despite Austin’s initial criticism that this was merely one study, and therefore not representative, the poor performance of Medicaid beneficiaries is well-established in a very large body of medical literature. What was striking about the UVa study was its large sample size; that it controlled for a highly validated set of background health and social factors; and its finding that Medicaid beneficiaries not only underperformed those with private insurance (and dramatically so), but also those who lacked insurance.

Given that a core feature of PPACA is its large expansion of Medicaid to those with higher incomes than current beneficiaries, I argued that it was far from clear that this expansion would improve health outcomes, and in fact was likely to harm them by crowding out the more-efficacious private sector. Furthermore, I argued for the clinical benefits of migrating Medicaid over to a premium-support or cash-assistance model, which would allow Medicaid recipients to benefit from the superior quality of care delivered by private insurance. As I’ve said all along, “There is, doubtless, a level of poverty at which Medcaid is better than nothing at all. But most people can afford to take on more responsibility for their own care, and indeed would be far better off doing so.”

Continue reading…

HIT Trends Summary for February 2011

This is a summary of the HIT Trends Report for February 2011.  You can get the current issue or subscribe here.

Innovations in provider and patient solutions. DrFirst announced that it acquired AdherenceRx to integrate e-prescribing and care management. This is an innovative combination that helps smaller practices and EMR vendors that support them.

Emdeon is repositioning as a HIE, while combining its web EMR with LabCorp, and working with AAFP on benchmarking.  It is stepping up its game with a SaaS EMR, access to de-identified clinical data and major national partners.

Epocrates completed its IPO this month banking on its future mobile EMR.  It has the opportunity to leverage its industry-leading brand and reach into its new EMR for small practices.  The company will now need to execute on its new vision to keep Wall Street satisfied.

And smartphone health apps leader, iTriage, gets appointment scheduling by acquisition. This is innovative in that it makes scheduling from the provider point of view asynchronous.  It replaces the real-time phone conversation.Continue reading…

Visualizing the Threat Posed by Antibiotic Resistance

For the first time, researchers and policymakers can visually track the rise in “superbug” infections over time and identify regions of the country with rapidly spreading rates of resistance.

Researchers at Extending the Cure, a nonprofit project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, have developed ResistanceMap—an online tool that tracks changes in resistance levels. These maps show us how the problem of antibiotic resistance has gotten worse–with some regions of the country experiencing a significant and worrying increase in drug- resistant microbes.

Infections like those caused by MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) kill an estimated 100,000 people in the United States each year. Progress toward solving this emerging public health crisis has been slow, an important reason why the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has funded this research through its Pioneer Portfolio. We share a common view that the best way to prevent an epidemic from occurring may lie in dramatically reframing how we approach the problem.

This is exactly what Extending the Cure has done with ResistanceMap, a web tool that presents scientific data in a user-friendly way, allowing policymakers and researchers to quickly identify regions in urgent need of better infection control, enhanced surveillance, more vigilant antibiotic stewardship, and comprehensive methods to curtail the spread of resistant microbes.Continue reading…

Medicaid and Health Outcomes (again)

Avik Roy has read and posted about the papers I reviewed as part of my Medicaid-IV series. If you’ve forgotten, the purpose of that series of posts was to examine studies that use proven, sound methods to infer the causal effect of (as opposed to a correlation between) Medicaid enrollment on health outcomes. From that series, I concluded that there is no credible evidence that Medicaid is worse for health than being uninsured. Considering only studies that show correlations (not causation), Avik disagrees.

Avik’s post is long, but you can save yourself some trouble by skipping the gratuitous attack on economists in general, and Jon Gruber in particular, as well as the troubled description of instrumental variables (IV).* About halfway down is his actual review of the papers; look for the bold text.

The point I want to drive home in this post is why an IV approach is necessary in studying Medicaid outcomes. People enrolling in Medicaid differ from those who don’t. They differ for reasons we can observe and for those we can’t. An ideal study would be a randomized controlled trial (RTC) that randomizes people into Medicaid and uninsured status. Thats neither practical nor ethical. So we’re stuck, unless we can be more clever.

The next best thing we can do is look for natural experiments. That’s what IV exploits. In this case, the studies I examined use the state-level variation in Medicaid eligibility (and related programs). That variation obviously affects enrollment into Medicaid (you can’t enroll unless you’re eligible), though it is not determinative. Importantly, state-level variation in Medicaid eligibility rules does not itself affect individual-level health. Other than figuratively, do you suddenly take ill when a law is passed or a regulation is changed? Do you see how Medicaid eligibility rules are somewhat like the randomization that governs an RTC, affecting “treatment” (Medicaid enrollment) but not outcomes directly? (If this is unclear, go here.)Continue reading…

Realizing Value from Health IT: A BCG Response to the PCAST report

If we are to achieve the aims of health insurance reform/PPACA, let alone eventual health delivery reform, the US needs coherent, comprehensive federal health IT policy.  In late December, PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, issued its perspective on how HITECH has (and hasn’t) moved the needle and where we need to go from here.  PCAST is an influential group.  It is chaired by Eric Lander, President, Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.  The council includes heavy hitters from the technology and business worlds including Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, Craig Mundie, Chief Research and Strategy Officer of Microsoft, and Christine Cassel, President and CEO of the American Board of Internal Medicine.  PCAST’s report, entitled “Realizing the Full Potential of Health Information Technology to Improve Healthcare for Americans: The Path Forward” makes several important additions to the health IT policy conversation, but fails to hit the mark in two critical areas.

On the positive side, we agree with PCAST that IT can contribute to lower costs and higher quality in health care, and that current national HCIT programs, while an enormous improvement over the last forty years of neglect and disincentives, are insufficiently radical to fully realize that value.

We agree that separation of data from applications, liberating the data from the proprietary databases and applications that typically imprison it today is core to unleashing the power of healthcare information (think: free-text patient note vs. reportable and trend-able lab results).  Doing so creates value by allowing the right information to be delivered to the right individuals, at the right time, in the right format for the relevant context (e.g. trending of A1c values over time for population health management).   Furthermore, freeing data from specific applications would enable greater innovation than is available today and is critical to certain types of data uses such as population-level research, comparative effectiveness research, and biosurveillance.Continue reading…

Health 2.0 News Bites are up

Over on our sister site, the Health 2.0 News Blog, MEDecision, Human Health Project and many more are on this week’s extensive list of news bites–with cool new icons!

Xerox Blog Talk Radio: Personal Health Information

Check out Xerox Blog Talk Radio to learn about protecting personal health information. This morning, Mark Tripodi, chief innovation officer, government healthcare solutions group for ACS, A Xerox Company, explained why data can easily be put at risk and what can be done to ensure organizations meet privacy standards. You can access the recording here: For more on Xerox:

Fixing America’s Health Care Reimbursement System

A tempest is brewing in physician circles over how doctors are paid. But calming it will require more than just the action of physicians. It will demand the attention and influence of businesses and patient advocates who, outside the health industrial complex, bear the brunt of the nation’s skyrocketing health care costs.

Much responsibility for America’s inequitable health care payment system and its cost crisis is embedded in the informal but symbiotic relationship between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the American Medical Association’s Relative Value System Update Committee — also known as the RUC. For two decades, the RUC, a specialist-dominated panel, has encouraged national health care reimbursement policy that financially undervalues the challenges associated with primary care’s management of complicated patients, while favoring often unnecessarily complex, costly and excessive medical services. For its part, CMS has provided mostly rubber-stamp acceptance of the RUC’s recommendations. If America’s primary care societies noisily left the RUC, they would de-legitimize the panel’s role in driving the American health system’s immense waste and pave the way for a more fair and enlightened approach to reimbursement.

As it is, though, unnecessary health care costs are sucking the life out of the American economy. Over the past 11 years, health care premium inflation has risen nearly four times as fast as the rest of the economy. Health care costs nearly double those in other developed nations have put U.S. corporations at a severe competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace.Continue reading…


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