By LOGAN CHO
The COVID-19 pandemic has been harsher and lasted longer than many of us would have predicted. While our media has been inundated with updates on death tolls and economic depression, there has been little conversation of healthcare beyond the era of COVID-19. The first question that we ask when we hear of deaths: was it COVID? We have grown to expect the primary cause of death to be of coronavirus. But the impact of COVID-19 will extend beyond the individual, effecting fundamental and long-lasting change to our healthcare system.
By this point, it is clear that the public health ramifications are reaching well beyond the physical impacts of the virus. Social isolation, economic depression, soaring unemployment, and mandated closures all contribute to the adversity that we have had to face – notwithstanding the explosive, ever-present sociopolitical climate of a pandemic that is killing Black Americans at a rate almost three times that of whites. This hardship will likely last for months more.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation publication found that half of the public have skipped or postponed medical care due to the pandemic, with one-fourth reporting worse health as a result. Many of these people do not plan to receive the care they need within the next three months. The public is simultaneously reporting declines in mental health. Furthermore, over 30% say they have had difficulty paying for household expenses, like food, rent, and medications. The figures are disproportionately damning among Black and Hispanic populations.
Taken together, the inaccessibility of medical care, deteriorating mental health, increasing poverty, worsening access to nutrition, and host of other challenges present a dark, impending storm. Cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases will all be rearing their untreated heads post-pandemic. Communities and policymakers must therefore act quickly and decisively to heal not only a sick population, but a fraying social fabric.
By MATTHEW HOLT
Sometimes you wonder where the line is in health care. And perhaps more importantly, whether anyone in the system cares.
The last few months have been dominated by the issue of costs in health care, particularly the costs paid by consumers who thought they had coverage. It turns out that “surprise billing” isn’t that much of a surprise. Over the past few years several large medical groups, notably Team Health owned by Blackstone, have been aggressively opting out of insurers networks. They’ve figured out, probably by reading Elizabeth Rosenthal’s great story about the 2013 $117,000 assistant surgery bill that Aetna actually paid, that if they stay out of network and bill away, the chances are they’ll make more money.
On the surface this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Wouldn’t it be in the interests of the insurers to clamp down on this stuff and never pay up? Well not really. Veteran health insurance observer Robert Laszewski recently wrote that profits in health insurance and hospitals have never been better. Instead, the insurer, which is usually just handling the claims on behalf of the actual buyer, makes more money over time as the cost goes up.
The data is clear. Health care costs overall are going up because the speed at which providers, pharma et al. are increasing prices exceeds the reduction in volume that’s being seen in the use of most health services. Lots more on that is available from HCCI or any random tweet you read about the price of insulin. But the overall message is that as 90% of American health care is still a fee-for-service game, as the CEO of BCBS Arizona said at last year’s HLTH conference, the point of the game is generating as much revenue as possible. My old boss Ian Morrison used to joke about every hospital being in the race for the $1m hysterectomy, but in a world of falling volumes, it isn’t such a joke any more.
By MICHAEL MILLENSON
Super Bowl Week ended with the San Francisco 49ers and 161 U.S. hospitals having something in common.
Both were publicly penalized, both lost money as a result and both passionately believed the process was unfair. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to decide whether their objections were sensible or sour grapes and, in the case of hospitals, the real-life consequences are not a game.
The penalty that pained the 49ers occurred shortly before halftime of Super Bowl LIV, when offensive pass interference was called on tight end George Kittle. The call negated a big gain that might have enabled the 49ers to take the lead.
Replays showed that the referees – nicknamed “zebras” for their black-and-white striped shirts – were technically correct in their decision. Nonetheless, controversy erupted over whether given other possible penalties called or overlooked, this one deserved a yellow flag.
Hospitals call that kind of context “risk adjustment.” A few days before the Super Bowl, the Medicare program blew the whistle on a group of hospitals having high rates of infection and other patient injuries. The hospitals who are outliers in what are blandly labeled “hospital-acquired conditions” (HACs) suffer a cut of one percent in their Medicare payments over next fiscal year.
By ANDY MYCHKOVSKY
Would it blow your mind if only five startup health plans interested in Medicare Advantage (MA) have collectively raised over $3.9 billion in private funding to-date? Well, readers, that is the reality. Now I know there are some skeptics out in the healthcare ecosystem, so I’m here to break down some of the investment thesis. Not going to necessarily defend, but explain some reasons why you should love and hate these investments. Let’s start with who raised these mind-boggling sums of money. The five startups are Oscar Health, Bright Health, Clover Health, Devoted Health, and Alignment Healthcare.
- Oscar Health has raised $1.3 billion
- Bright Health has raised $1.1 billion
- Clover Health has raised $925 million
- Devoted Health has raised $362 million
- Alignment Healthcare has raised $240 million
I think it’s safe to say that the MA insurance market (also known as Medicare Part C) has captured the imagination of the venture capital and private equity community. The changing demographic trends of an aging baby boomer population, the increased selection of MA plans versus traditional Medicare fee-for-service (FFS), and the opportunity of technology-first MA startup plans to better reduce administrative fees (“Administrative Loss Ratio” or “ALR”) and control medical spend (“Medical Loss Ratio” or “MLR”) seems too good to pass up. If you were going to start a health plan, of all the lines of business you could be focused on, MA has highest profit margins, growing population, and better potential to impact patient spend and manage chronic diseases. It is certainly harder than writing the previous statement, but there are some real benefits versus the traditional commercial or Medicaid managed care.
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 status, race/ethnicity, gender, 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
By KIP SULLIVAN, JD
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)  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. 
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.  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  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.)