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Category: Medicare

Your Wealth is Your Health

By KIM BELLARD

We’ve been spending a lot of time these past few years debating healthcare reform.  First the Affordable Care Act was debated, passed, implemented, and almost continuously litigated since.  Lately the concept of Medicare For All, or variations on it, has been the hot policy debate.  Other smaller but still important issues like high prescription drug prices or surprise billing have also received significant attention.

As worthy as these all are, a new study suggests that focusing on them may be missing the point.  If we’re not addressing wealth disparities, we’re unlikely to address health disparities.  

It has been well documented that there are considerable health disparities in the U.S., attributable to socioeconomic statusrace/ethnicitygender, even geography, among other factors.  Few would deny that they exist.  Many policy experts and politicians seem to believe that if we could simply increase health insurance coverage, we could go a long way to addressing these disparities, since coverage should reduce financial burdens that may be serving as barriers to care that may be contributing to them.

Universal coverage may well be a good goal for many reasons, but we should temper our expectations about what it might achieve in terms of leveling the health playing field.

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Guerilla Billing – Missing the Gorilla in the Midst

By ANISH KOKA, MD

No one likes getting bills. But there is something that stinks particularly spectacularly about bills for healthcare that arrive despite carrying health insurance. Patients pay frequently expensive monthly premiums with the expectation that their insurance company will be there for them when illness befalls them.

But the problem being experienced by an increasing number of patients is going to a covered (in-network) facility for medical care, and being seen by an out-of-network physician. This happens because not all physicians working in hospitals serve the same master, and thus may not all have agreed to the in-network rate offered by an insurance company.

This is a common occurrence in medicine. At any given time, your local tax-exempt non-profit hospital is out of network of some low paying Medicaid plan or the other.

In this complex dance involving patients, insurers and doctors, Patients want their medical bills paid through premiums that they hope to be as low as possible, Insurers seek to pay out as little of the premium dollars collected as possible, and Doctors want to be paid a wage they feel is commensurate to their training and accumulated debt.

Insurers act as proxies for patients when negotiating with the people that actually deliver healthcare – doctors. Largely, the system works to funnel patients to ‘covered’ doctors and hospitals. Patients that walk into an uncovered facility are quickly redirected. But breakdowns happen during emergencies.

There are no choices to make for patients arriving unconscious or in distress to an emergency room. It suddenly becomes very possible to be seen by an out of network physician, and depending on the fine print of the insurance plans selected, some or none of these charges may be covered.

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BetterCare for All

By ROBERT M. HERZOG

The Cure for healthcare isn’t Medicare for All, it’s establishing organizations with complete responsibility for the total care, costs, quality and outcomes for a person.

Discussions of Medicare for All substitute structure for substance. They engender a debate about the trappings of care delivery, administration, and cost, but don’t address the fundamental issue, which is how to provide genuinely better care for people of all ages and economic circumstances.

The premise of Medicare for All is that a single payer will provide better and more cost effective care. But what is really needed is single entity accountability. Whether there are one or many, whether they are public or private, is not as important as that one organization and its people become responsible for the total health and care of an individual and the costs associated with that care. With incentives for doing it well, and penalties for doing it poorly. And an ease of transition for people to move from an entity that doesn’t serve them well to one that does, to maintain the benefits of competition and varied approaches based on differing conditions.

Focusing on Medicare for All promulgate a systemic flaw baked into our health insurance and provider systems. High costs and lower quality can’t just be fixed by a single payer negotiating lower drug prices, nor would providing fewer services mean better care at lower costs. The core problem is exemplified by the invidious arbitrary split in public health insurance between Medicaid and Medicare, with each providing different services spread out among many providers, none of whom have sole responsibility for the complete health of the person.

BetterCare for All need not be a win-lose proposition, of Medicare for All or nothing. The feasibility near term of a one payer system is low, whereas the feasibility of building on existing systems and frameworks to create single system accountability is much higher.

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$2 Trillion+ in New Taxes for Single Payer, or $50 Billion to Strengthen ObamaCare? Next Question, Please

By BOB HERTZ

It is not wise for Democrats to spend all their energy debating Single Payer health care solutions.

None of their single player  plans has much chance to pass in 2020, especially under the limited reconciliation process. In the words of Ezra Klein, “If Democrats don’t have a plan for the filibuster, they don’t really have a plan for ambitious health care reform.”

Yet while we debate Single Payer – or, even if it somehow passed, wait for it to be installed — millions of persons are still hurting under our current system.

We can help these people now!

Here are six practical programs to create a better ACA.

Taken all together they should not cost more than $50 billion a year. This is a tiny fraction of the new taxes that would be needed for full single payer. This is at least negotiable, especially if Democrats can take the White House and the Senate.

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How are hospitals supposed to reduce readmissions? Part III

By KIP SULLIVAN, JD

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) and other proponents of the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) justified their support for the HRRP with the claim that research had already demonstrated how hospitals could reduce readmissions for all Medicare fee-for-service patients, not just for groups of carefully selected patients. In this three-part series, I am reviewing the evidence for that claim.

We saw in Part I and Part II that the research MedPAC cited in its 2007 report to Congress (the report Congress relied on in authorizing the HRRP) contained no studies supporting that claim. We saw that the few studies MedPAC relied on that claimed to examine a successful intervention studied interventions administered to carefully selected patient populations. These populations were severely limited by two methods: The patients had to be discharged with one of a handful of diagnoses (heart failure, for example); and the patients had to have characteristics that raised the probability the intervention would work (for example, patients had to agree to a home visit, not be admitted from a nursing home, and be able to consent to the intervention).

In this final installment, I review the research cited by the Yale New Haven Health Services Corporation (hereafter the “Yale group”) in their 2011 report to CMS in which they recommended that CMS apply readmission penalties to all Medicare patients regardless of diagnosis and regardless of the patient’s interest in or ability to respond to the intervention. MedPAC at least limited its recommendation (a) to patients discharged with one of seven conditions/procedures and (b) to patients readmitted with diagnoses “related to” the index admission. The Yale group threw even those modest restrictions out the window.

The Yale group recommended what they called a “hospital-wide (all-condition) readmission measure.” Under this measure, penalties would apply to all patients regardless of the condition for which they were admitted and regardless of whether the readmission was related to the index admission (with the exception of planned admissions). “Any readmission is eligible to be counted as an outcome except those that are considered planned,” they stated. (p. 10) [1] The National Quality Forum (NQF) adopted the Yale group’s recommendation almost verbatim shortly after the Yale group presented their recommendation to CMS.

In their 2007 report, MedPAC offered these examples of related and unrelated readmissions: “Admission for angina following discharge for PTCA [angioplasty]” would be an example of a related readmission, whereas “[a]dmission for appendectomy following discharge for pneumonia” would not. (p. 109) Congress also endorsed the “related” requirement (see Section 3025 of the Affordable Care Act, the section that authorized CMS to establish the HRRP). But the Yale group dispensed with the “related” requirement with an astonishing excuse: They said they just couldn’t find a way to measure “relatedness.” “[T]here is no reliable way to determine whether a readmission is related to the previous hospitalization …,” they declared. (p. 17) Rather than conclude their “hospital-wide” readmission measure was a bad idea, they plowed ahead on the basis of this rationalization: “Our guiding principle for defining the eligible population was that the measure should capture as many unplanned readmissions as possible across a maximum number of acute care hospitals.” (p. 17) Thus, to take one of MedPAC’s examples of an unrelated admission, the Yale group decided hospitals should be punished for an admission for an appendectomy within 30 days after discharge for pneumonia. [2]

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How Are Hospitals Supposed to Reduce Readmissions? | Part I

By KIP SULLIVAN

The notion that hospital readmission rates are a “quality” measure reached the status of conventional wisdom by the late 2000s. In their 2007 and 2008 reports to Congress, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) recommended that Congress authorize a program that would punish hospitals for “excess readmissions” of Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) enrollees. In 2010, Congress accepted MedPAC’s recommendation and, in Section 3025 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (p. 328), ordered the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to start the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP). Section 3025 instructed CMS to target heart failure (HF) and other diseases MedPAC listed in their 2007 report. [1] State Medicaid programs and the insurance industry followed suit.

Today, twelve years after MedPAC recommended the HRRP and seven years after CMS implemented it, it is still not clear how hospitals are supposed to reduce the readmissions targeted by the HRRP, which are all unplanned readmissions that follow discharges within 30 days of patients diagnosed with HF and five other conditions. It is not even clear that hospitals have reduced return visits to hospitals within 30 days of discharge. The ten highly respected organizations that participated in CMS’s first “accountable care organization” (ACO) demonstration, the Physician Group Practice (PGP) Demonstration (which ran from 2005 to 2010), were unable to reduce readmissions (see Table 9.3 p. 147 of the final evaluation) The research consistently shows, however, that at some point in the 2000s many hospitals began to cut 30-day readmissions of Medicare FFS patients. But research also suggests that this decline in readmissions was achieved in part by diverting patients to emergency rooms and observation units, and that the rising rate of ER visits and observation stays may be putting sicker patients at risk [2] Responses like this to incentives imposed by regulators, employers, etc. are often called “unintended consequences” and “gaming.”

To determine whether hospitals are gaming the HRRP, it would help to know, first of all, whether it’s possible for hospitals to reduce readmissions, as the HRRP defines them, without gaming. If there are few or no proven methods of reducing readmissions by improving quality of care (as opposed to gaming), it is reasonable to assume the HRRP has induced gaming. If, on the other hand, (a) proven interventions exist that reduce readmissions as the HRRP defines them, and (b) those interventions cost less than, or no more than, the savings hospitals would reap from the intervention (in the form of avoided penalties or shared savings), then we should expect much less gaming. (As long as risk-adjustment of readmission rates remains crude, we cannot expect gaming to disappear completely even if both conditions are met.)

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The Efficiency Mandate: To Achieve Coverage, the U.S. Must Address Cost

By MIKE MAGEE, MD

It is now well established that Americans, in large majorities, favor universal health coverage. As witnessed in the first two Democratic debates, how we get there (Single Payer vs. extension of Obamacare) is another matter altogether.

295 million Americans have some form of health coverage (though increasing numbers are under-insured and vulnerable to the crushing effects of medical debt). That leaves 28 million uninsured, an issue easily resolved, according to former Obama staffer, Ezekiel Emanuel MD, through auto-enrollment, that is changing some existing policies to “enable the government agencies, hospitals, insurers and other organizations to enroll people in health insurance automatically when they show up for care or other benefits like food stamps.”

If one accepts it’s as easy as that, does that really bring to heel a Medical-Industrial Complex that has systematically focused on profitability over planning, and cures over care, while expending twice as much as all other developed nations? In other words, can America successfully expand health care as a right to all of its citizens without focusing on cost efficiency? 

The simple answer is “no”, for two reasons. First, excess profitability = greed = waste = inequity = unacceptable variability and poor outcomes. Second, equitable expansion of universal, high quality access to care requires capturing and carefully reapplying existing resources.

 It is estimated that concrete policy changes could capture between $100 billion and $200 billion in waste in the short term primarily through three sources.

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Why Medicare for All Will Not Cure What Ails the Hahnemann

By ASEEM R. SHUKLA, MD

The impending closure of Hahnemann University Hospital is a local tragedy.  Eliminating a 170-year old institution is certain to exaggerate the daily travails of the economically disadvantaged inner-city population that Hahnemann serves as a safety-net hospital.  The closure is also a national tragedy. Hospitals are the towering, visible monuments of our healthcare system, and closings imply that something insidious ails that very system—that all is not well.  

Hospitals are complex entities with varied financial drivers, and the solution is never simple.  And the moment is too rich for politicians who see Hahnemann’s failure as the culmination of their dystopian predictions.  Bernie Sanders, most prominently, stood on the hospital’s doorstep and pitched his deceptively simple solution—Medicare for All.  Medicare for All, Sanders said, would ensure that every patient carries the same coverage, hospitals are paid a predictable rate, and voila, no hospitals need to close.  Private insurance would disappear, and no one would be without coverage.  

Even physicians have jumped on the Medicare for All bandwagon.  Some doctors insist that once profit is removed as a motive for hospital bottom lines, and government bodies decide which hospitals can buy a surgical robot, build a new wing or offer proton beam treatment cancer treatment centers, then all hospitals will do better.  

But these arguments miss a fundamental point: why pitch government insurance for all, like Medicare and Medicaid (a federal and state insurance plan to cover low income adult and children) as a remedy, when it is precisely government-run insurance that is killing Hahnemann and other hospitals in distress? 

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Is “Medicare For All (Who Want it)” Enough?

By MIKE MAGEE

In the 2nd night of the Democratic Primary debate on June 27, 2019, Pete Buttigieg was asked whether he supported Medicare-For-All. He responded, “I support Medicare for all who want it.” 

In doing so, he side-stepped the controversial debate over shifts of power from states to the federal government, and trusted that logic would eventually prevail over a collusive Medical-Industrial Complex with an iron lock grip on a system that deals everyone imaginable in on the sickness profitability curve – except the patient.

On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law “Medicare,” a national insurance plan for all Americans over 65. He did so in front of former President Truman, who 20 years earlier had proposed a national health plan for all Americans, and for his trouble was labeled by the AMA as the future father of “socialized medicine.”

For Truman, there was a double irony that day in 1965. First of all, the signing was occurring at around the same time as our neighbor to the north was signing their own national health plan, also called “Medicare”, but their’s covered all Canadian citizens, not just the elderly.

The second incongruity was that Truman was fully aware that in 1945, as he was being tarred and feathered as unpatriotic by taxpayers for having the gall to suggest that health care was a human right, those very same citizens were unknowingly funding the creation of national health plans as democracy stabilizers in our two primary vanquished enemies – Germany and Japan – as part of the US taxpayer funded Marshall Plan.

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DANGER! COURSE CORRECTION ALERT!

By JOE FLOWER

A hot take on healthcare in the Democratic debate: They’re doing it wrong.

Healthcare is not a reason to choose between the Democratic candidates. 

They are all for greater access and in some way to cover everyone, which is great. 

None of their plans will become law, but if they are elected those plans will become the starting point of a long discussion and legislative fight. The difference in their plans (between, say, Buttigieg or Biden and Warren or Sanders) is more of an indication of their general attitude toward governance rather than an outline of where we will end up.

Democrats are focused on coverage, Trump is on cost. 

Around 90% of Americans already have coverage of some sort. Polls show that healthcare is voters’ #1 priority. Read the polls more closely, and you’ll see that it’s healthcare cost specifically that they are worried about.

Democrats seem to assume that extending more government control will result in lower costs. This is highly debatable, the devil’s in the details, and our past history on this is good but not great. 

The President, on the other hand, can make flashy pronouncements and issue Executive Orders that seem intended to bring down costs and might actually. It’s highly questionable whether they will be effective, or effective any time soon. Still, they make good headlines and they especially make for good applause lines at a rally and good talking points on Fox.

But, Ms. and Mr. Average Voter will hear that Trump is very concerned about bringing down their actual costs. The Democratic plans all sound to the untutored ear (which is pretty much everyone but policy wonks like you and me) like they will actually increase costs while taking away the insurance that 90% already have in one way or another.

It is important to take care of everyone. But it is a mistake for the Democrats to allow this to become a battle of perception between cost and coverage. Voters’ real #1 concern is about cost, not coverage.

Joe Flower has 40 years of experience in the healthcare world and has emerged as a thought leader on the deep forces changing the system in the United States and around the world.

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