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Category: Health Policy

The Arc of Justice in Healthcare

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We all fear that phone call.  A medical report turns out the wrong way and life may never be the same.  When that call arrives we all have the same needs:  A doctor who cares, a place to go for treatment and the finances to afford what’s needed.  Starting on January 20th, some of my patients will join the 20 million whose lifeline to those fundamental needs becomes jeopardized.  

One of my patients facing this threat lost his job and health insurance during the 2008 recession.   Because he’s a diabetic and has a special needs son, no insurance company would sell his family a policy.   Why would they?   Diabetics and others with serious illnesses pose high risks for future health expenses.  Insurance companies make money by avoiding such risk.   After exhausting all the options, he sweated out 18 months with no coverage.   Finally, the roll-out of the California Exchange, funded by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), allowed him to buy an Anthem Blue Cross policy for his family.  

Do we really want millions of our fellow Americans to relive those nightmares?  We all benefit from the ACA’s fundamental commitment: That everyone deserves access to healthcare regardless of their ability to pay.  The policies guided by this principle moved us toward the achievement of universal coverage without changing the existing care of the majority of working families with employer based plans nor those with self-funded coverage.   

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America’s Health and The 2016 Election: An Unexpected Connection

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Donald Trump’s stunning upset victory has occasioned a lot of searching among political analysts for an underlying explanation for the unexpected turn in voter sentiment. Many point to Trump’s galvanizing support among white working class and middle income Americans in economically depressed regions of the US- particularly Appalachia and the upper middle west “Rust Belt” – as the main factor that put him in office.

While the Democrats concentrated on the so-called “coalition of the ascendant”- voter groups like Hispanics and Millennials that are growing, Trump rode to victory on a “coalition of the forgotten”- working class Americans in economically depressed regions of the U.S. who had been left behind by the economic expansion of the past seven years.

When the Economist searched for a more powerful predictor of the Trump victory than white non-college status, they found a surprise winner: a composite measure of poor health (comprised of diabetes prevalence, heavy alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, obesity and life expectancy). Believe it or not. this measure of health status predicted a remarkable 43% of the improvement of Trump’s vote percentage compared with the 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney, compared to 41% for white/non-college.

A month after the election, the Centers for Disease Control released its 2015 morbidity and mortality trends in the US.  The CDC Report showed that  Americans’ life expectancy actually declined for the first time in 22 years. Except for cancer where we saw continued progress, death rates rose for eight out of the ten leading causes of death, most sharply for Alzheimer’s Disease.  The decline in life expectancy was confined entirely to the under 65 population!Continue reading…

It Begins

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For the second time in a decade, a president and Congress will undertake a large-scale effort to re-engineer the health care system.   

Politics and debate over policy are not the primary cause of this continued upheaval.  It is our patchwork, Rube Goldberg-like system, developed ad hoc over 50 years.      

As THCB readers know, we have an insurance and care delivery system that works less well—in terms of public health, coverage, patient outcomes, and cost—than health care in most of the rest of the developed world. 

And, things are getting worse.  To wit: rising death rates among middle-aged, low- and middle-income white Americans; the unchecked rise in obesity and preventable chronic diseases and opioid addiction; and woefully slow progress to reduce medical errors and improve patient safety.    

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Here’s What Won’t Happen in 2017
(And What Will)

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In the political drama surrounding the new administration, healthcare is certain to take center stage as the 115th Congress convenes tomorrow and Donald Trump is sworn in as our 45th President and Chief Executive January 20. As it turns out, healthcare was a major issue in Campaign 2016, especially with Clinton-Sanders followers who wished expansion of coverage and a vocal minority of GOP voters who liked the promise of Repeal and Replace. Now it’s time to govern.

For the new Congress and administration, governing healthcare will play out against a testy backdrop: it will not be easy.

The Nation is Divided about the Affordable Care Act (HR3590): Only one in four Americans and one in two Republicans surveyed after the election wants the ACA repealed. By contrast, 30% want it expanded and 19% want it to remain as is, (Kaiser Family Foundation Poll December 28, 2016). Elements of the law are popular, like protections against denial of coverage due to pre-existing condition and continuation of coverage for young adults under 26 on their parents’ policy. But the individual mandate became a rallying cry for opponents who labeled it “government run healthcare” and partisans who tagged it ‘Obamacare’ voting to repeal it more than 60 times in the House. Objectively, for the past four years, the ACA has been shorthand for a debate about health insurance coverage and premium costs. The law imposed restrictions on how insurers operate and expanded coverage via Medicaid expansion and subsidies for those between 100 and 400% of the federal poverty level. Access increased–20 million are now covered that weren’t before—and premiums went up for everyone because the law imposed restrictions on how plans were required operate. Ironically, the insurance reforms are in Title I of the ACA “Quality, Affordable Health Care for all Americans”; delivery system reforms that address gaps in quality, care coordination, healthcare workforce innovation and unnecessary care are covered in the other 9 titles that got little attention from media, political pundits and politicians. Nonetheless, the ACA divides America though most know little about what’s in it.

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The Art of the Deal: Coming
to Rx Prices Soon

screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-2-21-40-pmDuring the campaign, President-elect Trump said “(w)hen it comes time to negotiate the cost of drugs, we are going to negotiate like crazy.”

While the President-elect’s pronouncements can’t always be taken at face value, this one should be.

In its December 7, 2016 prescription drug report to Congress, HHS reported Medicare (Parts B and D) and Medicaid Rx expenditures equaled $165.5 billion in 2014. Total 2014 retail and non-retail Rx spending was $424 billion.

HHS also reported that Rx spending “has been rising more quickly than overall health care spending . . . [and in] recent years, growth in prescription drug spending has accelerated considerably”.

If the reported annual rate of growth in 2014 (12%) holds for 2015 and 2016, Medicare/Medicaid’s Rx spending and total Rx costs in 2016 will exceed $200 billion and $500 billion, respectively.

As fiscal pressures to control healthcare costs build, Rx prices may be the ripest big ticket item on the table.

As the Trump Administration looks for bipartisan support for an ACA replacement, Rx prices could also provide some glue.

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Whether They Like It Or Not, The GOP Must Repair Obamacare

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It’s very possible that the pejorative “Obamacare” could become the even more pejorative “Trumpcare” in a very short period of time. That is because Trump’s and the GOP’s promise to repeal Obamacare — the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — has already hit a snag called reality.

Reports are now circulating that the much-promised repeal of the health care law (60 plus House and Senate votes since 2010) won’t take effect until at least 2019, after the mid-term elections. The excuse is that it’ll take that long to figure out an alternative and get it into place. But congressional calendars and political expedience have nothing to do with the health care market. And without action early in 2017, the health insurance exchanges could collapse in 2018 or sooner — leaving millions without insurance, millions more without protections from pre-existing conditions, and possibly millions more cursing Trumpcare. The only constructive solution is to repair the ACA before, ironically, repealing it and then replacing it with a brand new, untested experiment in 2019.

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Making the Physician-Patient Relationship Great Again

21st Century Cures is now law. Aside from its touted research and mental health provisions, it’s the most significant health information technology regulation since HITECH, now 8 years ago. A decent summary of the health IT provisions of the bill by John Halamka concludes with “That is just not realistic.” He’s almost certainly right to the extent your perspective is the hospital-centered mega-EHR model. You can’t get there from here.

Halamka and others who think that consolidated institutions will drive interoperability are in denial of the gap between financial integration and clinical integration. This recent post by Kip Sullivan describes some of the wishful thinking. But there’s another reason why HITECH’s institutional EHRs cannot get us to the Triple Aim, and it’s mostly about liability.

Halamka ignored one of the items in 21st Century Cures that could lead to clinical integration around a patient: a longitudinal health record. Section 4006 on page 149 includes:

“(1) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary shall use existing authorities to encourage partnerships between health information exchange organizations and networks and health care providers, health plans, and other appropriate entities with the goal of offering patients access to their electronic health information in a single, longitudinal format that is easy to understand, secure, and may be updated automatically.”

Useful longitudinal health records require curation and, almost by definition, the curators are not going to be affiliated with any single hospital or other institution operating a traditional EHR. Allowing licensed physicians, family caregivers, and the patient themselves to edit an institutional EHR is risky to the point of impossible. That’s why the current initiatives to introduce modern APIs into EHRs like SMART and Sync for Science are read-only.

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Unpacking the 21st Century Cures Act

President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act into law this week.  It’s the largest piece of health legislation since the Affordable Care Act.   No doubt you’ve heard or read that—and it’s true. 

But while the legislation was three years in the making and much hyped, it became the best recent example of that old saying that passing federal laws is akin to sausage making:  You don’t really want to watch what goes into it.

(An aside:  I made venison and bacon sausages from scratch for the first time this year and can attest to the “visceral” nature of that exercise.) 

There’s something for almost everybody in this new law.   That’s one reason it was the most lobbied health bill since the ACA.  In particular, the pharmaceutical and medical device industries were big winners.  Fifty-eight drug companies, 24 device companies and 26 biotech companies lobbied the bill, spending close to $200 million altogether, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of lobbying data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

What they got:  a big nudge to the FDA to find ways to approve drugs and devices faster.

For example, one change in the law allows FDA to accept as proof of safety and effectiveness less rigorous clinical trials, as well as other types of studies and data—both for the initial approval of drugs and to authorize new uses for drugs already on the market. 

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Could Price Be Right?

If confirmed as Secretary of HHS, Tom Price will oversee a $1 trillion budget – roughly one-third of all health expenditures.  His proposed legislation “Empowering Patients First” seeks to control costs by giving patients more choices and providing the information required to make them. He calls for publicly available standardized information on the price and quality of physicians, hospitals and other health care institutions.

It sounds like Dr. Price is prescribing a single data system. 

Medicare has had a single data system on the over-65 population for decades.  Since 2005, these data have informed Hospital Compare, a consumer oriented website comparing the quality of over 4000 hospitals.  And while prices in Medicare are relatively fixed, these same data have shown substantial variation in costs because the quantity of service – the number of hospital admissions, procedures and physician visits – varies substantially from place to place.

But Medicare is only one piece of the data puzzle.  A National Bureau of Economic Research report[nber.org] added another piece last year with data from large insurance companies like Aetna and United.  For the under-65 commercially insured population, it’s not just the quantity of services that are all over the map – it’s also the prices. 

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Letter from Washington:
Don’t Jump … Yet

Washington, D.C. hardly seems like a town on suicide watch.

As November turned to December, from the venerable Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House, to Charlie Palmer Steak at 101 Constitution and over to The Capital Grille at 601 Pennsylvania, revelers abounded, in both food and drink.

At the Capitol Hyatt on New Jersey Avenue though, some contrasts were evident. While contestants from the Miss World 2016 pageant moved in and out of the upper lobby to awaiting buses, in the lower-level meeting rooms, also from November 30 to December 2, the mood was hopeful optimism meets whistling past the graveyard.

There the Jefferson College of Population Health summit brought forth Andy Slavitt, Michael Leavitt, Farzad Mostashari, NCQA President Peggy O’Kane, former advisors from the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, officials from Johns Hopkins, the Henry Ford Health System, Brookings, Deloitte, AMA, AHA and the American College of Physicians and many more to dissect MACRA and ponder “population health strategy under the new administration.”

The consensus on where value-based care (VBC) is heading?

Wait and see.

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