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Category: Health Policy

Medicare for All and Industry Consolidation

By KEN TERRY

Far more attention has been devoted to the ways in which industry consolidation has driven up health costs than to proposals on how to remedy the situation. But the introduction of Medicare for All and Medicare for More bills—however dim their short-term prospects are—has changed the terms of the debate. It is time to think about how we can eliminate the market power of health systems without causing harmful dislocations in health care and the economy.

Before we get to that, here are the main facts about consolidation: As a handful of health insurers have become dominant in many markets, health systems have done likewise in order to maintain or improve their negotiating positions. That has proved to be an effective strategy in many cases. Even dominant health plans cannot do without the largest hospital systems in their areas, especially when they employ many of the local physicians.

According to a Kaufman Hall report, 90 hospital and health system deals were publicly announced in 2018. This was a decline from the 115 deals unveiled in 2017, but the average size in the revenue of sellers hit a high of $409 million.

The biggest provider mergers are staggering in scale. In February 2019, for example, Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health formed a new organization called CommonSpirit Health, which has 142 hospitals, 150,000 employees and nearly $30 billion in revenues. The union of Chicago-based Advocate Health Care and Wisconsin’s Aurora Health Care in April 2018 created a giant with 27 hospitals and $11 billion in revenues. A month later, Atrium Health (formerly Carolinas Healthcare System) joined with Wake Forest Baptist Health to form a system with 49 hospitals and combined revenues of $7.5 billion.

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ONC & CMS Proposed Rules – Part 6: Payer Data Requirements

Nikki Kent
Dave Levin

By DAVE LEVIN, MD and NIKKI KENT

The Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) have proposed final rules on interoperability, data blocking, and other activities as part of implementing the 21st Century Cures Act. In this series, we will explore ideas behind the rules, why they are necessary and the expected impact. Given that these are complex and controversial topics are open to interpretation, we invite readers to respond with their own ideas, corrections and opinions.

Interventions to Address Market Failures

Many of the rules proposed by CMS and ONC are evidence-based interventions aimed at critical problems that market forces have failed to address. One example of market failure  is the long-standing inability for health care providers and insurance companies to find a way to exchange patient data. Each has critical data the other needs and would benefit from sharing. And, as CMS noted, health plans are in a “unique position to provide enrollees a complete picture of their clams and encounter data.” Despite that, technical and financial issues, as well as a general air of distrust from decades of haggling over reimbursement, have prevented robust data exchange. Remarkably, this happens in integrated delivery systems which, in theory, provide tight alignment between payers and providers in a unified organization.

With so much attention focused on requirements for health IT companies like EHR vendors and providers, it is easy to miss the huge impact that the new rules is likely to have for payers. But make no mistake, if implemented as proposed, these rules will have a profound impact on the patient’s ability to gather and direct the use of their personal health information (PHI). They will also lead to reduced fragmentation and more complete data sets for payers and providers alike.

Overview of Proposed CMS Rules on Information Sharing and Interoperability

The proposed CMS rules affect payers, providers, and patients stating that they:

  • Require payers to make patient health information available electronically through a standardized, open application programming interface (API)
  • Promote data exchange between payers and participation in health information exchange networks
  • Require payers to provide additional resources on EHR, privacy, and security
  • Require providers to comply with new electronic notification requirements
  • Require states to better coordinate care for Medicare-Medicaid dually eligible beneficiaries by submitting buy-in data to CMS daily
  • Publicly disclose when providers inappropriately restrict the flow of information to other health care providers and payers

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Is America Flourishing? A Key Question For Health Reformers.

By MIKE MAGEE, MD

Today the notion that health is a preferred state of being, rather than a set of disconnected functions or services, is increasingly being embraced. A recent JAMA article promoted a health measurement system called the “flourishing index” focused on 6 key domains: happiness and life satisfaction, physical and mental health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, close social relationships, and financial and material security. 

Dr. Gro Brundtland, former director-general of the World Health Organization, wrote in the World Health Report 2000 that “The objective of good health is twofold – goodness and fairness; goodness being the best attainable average level; and fairness, the smallest feasible differences among individuals and groups.”

In the age of Trump, with forced separation of immigrant mothers and children, criminalization of abortion, and purposeful obstruction of enhanced access to health care for vulnerable populations, it becomes impossible to ignore a significant modern-day truism. Health is profoundly political. 

Health is a collection of resources unequally distributed in society. Health’s “social determinants” such as housing, income, and employment, are critical to the accomplishment of individual, family, and community well being and are themselves politically determined. 

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NEW: HardCore Health Podcast, Episode 1

By MATTHEW HOLT

Apparently, podcasts are new, all the rage and minting billionaires every day!  So, of course, THCB had to have its own podcast, and here it is: HardCore Health

Now I’ve been doing “podcasts” (otherwise known as audio or video interviews) on THCB since before people actually had iPods (remember those, kids?). But apparently these days any punter can do an interview, call it a podcast and shove it up on Spotify. Hardcore Health is going to be a little bit different…

Hardcore Health will feature multiple guests, topics, and interludes brought to you by many co-hosts starting off with Jessica DaMassa and me. We’ll embed some (familiar) tidbits into the show including: Health in 2 Point 00, THCB Spotlights, and the WTF Health Show as well as some newer segments, including banter sessions between guests & rant sessions from health care experts. This first episode features Brian Kalis, Accenture’s “post” Digital Health expert & Niko Skievaski from Redox, and a little more.

I hope you enjoy our first episode below!

Matthew Holt is the founder and publisher of The Health Care Blog and still writes regularly for the site.

One Physician’s Frustrations of Practicing Amidst the CHIPHIT Complex and Implications for the Future of the U.S. Healthcare System

By HAYWARD ZWERLING, MD

The high cost, low quality and systemic inequities of the U.S. healthcare system have been the impetus for its redesign. Our healthcare system is now controlled by Consolidated Healthcare institutions, Insurance companies, Pharmaceutical companies and Health Information Technology companies (CHIPHIT complex). The CHIPHIT complex, along with the Federal Government, will create and control our future healthcare system. Ominously missing from this list are independent healthcare policy experts, independent healthcare providers and members of the general public.

Historical precedents have demonstrated that the CHIPHIT complex is incapable of creating the healthcare system we need.

Thus, if we hope to build a low cost, high quality, egalitarian healthcare system, physicians and their professional organizations must take an emphatic stand against the CHIPHIT complex today.

Consolidated Healthcare Institutions

There are innumerable mandates which make running a small medical practice very difficult. As a result, many younger physicians will no longer attempt to start a new medical practice and existing profitable practices, which are looking to off- load their regulatory burdens, are being acquired by large healthcare institutions and private equity firms.

While these consolidated healthcare institutions vocalize their desire to improve our healthcare system, many enforce a uniformity on the practice environment which belies the reality of patient care; that there is no “best” practice model, nor are there information technology tools which work well for all physicians. This imposed uniformity stifles physician innovation, which is a necessary precondition to improve our healthcare system.

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Private Health Insurance Organizations Shouldn’t Dictate Quality of Care

By LYNLY JEANLOUIS

Health insurance companies are standing in the way of many patients receiving affordable, quality healthcare. Insurance companies have been denying patient claims for medical care, all while increasing monthly premiums for most Americans. Many of the nation’s largest healthcare payers are private “for-profit” companies that are focused on generating profits through the healthcare system. Through a rigorous approval/denial system, health insurance companies can dictate the type care patients receive. In some cases, this has resulted in patients foregoing life-saving treatments or procedures.  

In 2014, Aetna, one of the nation’s leading healthcare companies, denied coverage to Oklahoma native Orrana Cunningham, who had stage 4 nasopharyngeal cancer near her brain stem.  Her doctors suggested she undergo proton beam therapy, which is a targeted form of radiation that can pinpoint tumor cells, resulting in a decrease risk of potential blindness and other radiation side effects. Aetna found the study too experimental and denied coverage, which resulted in Orrana’s death. Aetna was forced to pay the Cunningham family $25.5 million.  

In December of 2007, Cigna Healthcare, the largest healthcare payer in Philadelphia, denied coverage for Nataline Sarkisyan’s liver transplant. Natalie was diagnosed with leukemia and had recently received a bone marrow transplant from her brother, which caused complications to her liver. A specialist at UCLA requested she undergo a liver transplant, which is an expensive procedure that would result in a lengthy inpatient hospital stay for recovery. Cigna denied the procedure as they felt it was “too experimental and outside the scope of coverage”. They later reversed the decision, but Nataline passed away hours later at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center.

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ONC & CMS Proposed Rules – Part 5: Business Models

Grant Barrick
Dave Levin

By DAVE LEVIN, MD and GRANT BARRICK

The Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) have proposed final rules on interoperability, data blocking, and other activities as part of implementing the 21st Century Cures Act. In this series, we will explore the ideas behind the rules, why they are necessary and the expected impact. Given that these are complex and controversial topics open to interpretation, we invite readers to respond with their own ideas, corrections, and opinions. In part five of this series, we look at how competition unlocks innovation, and how the proposed rules may disrupt the balance between innovation, intellectual property (IP), and supporting business models.  

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The recent publication of proposed rules by ONC and CMS set off a flurry of activity. In anticipation of their implementation, the health care industry is wrestling with many questions around business models. What practices inhibit competition and innovation? How do we balance the need for competition while protecting legitimate intellectual property rights? How can vendors ensure profit growth when pricing is heavily regulated? In this article, we will examine how competition unlocks innovation and the possible disruptions the proposed rules may bring for innovation, intellectual property (IP) and supporting business models.

Unlocking Innovation via Competition

In most markets, innovation is driven forward by competition. Businesses compete on equal footing, and their investment in R&D drives innovation forward. Innovation in health care has been dramatically outpaced by other markets, leading to an urgent need for both disruptive and evolutionary innovation.

What is inhibiting health care innovation? The rules identify a combination of tactics employed in health care that restrict the free flow of clinical data, such as:

  • NDAs
  • Confidentiality Clauses
  • Hold-harmless Agreements
  • Licensing Language

These tactics slow innovation by contributing to an environment where stakeholders resist pushing the boundaries — often because they are contractually obligated not to. The legislation and proposed rules are designed to address the ongoing failure of the market to resolve these conflicts.

As the rules are finalized, we will continue to monitor whether the ONC defines these practices as innovation stifling and how they will implement regulations — both carrot and stick — to move the industry forward.

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The “Back Story” of the JAMA Wellness Smackdown (Part 2)

By AL LEWIS

Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off, as coincidence would have it.


Soeren Mattke (as mentioned in the last installment) and I were quite relentless in trying, quixotically, to get Professor Baicker to explain her results. Its popularity could have landed her many profitable speaking and consulting gigs, but she evinced no interest in cashing in, or even in defending her position. Indeed, the four times she spoke publicly on the topic, she didn’t do herself, or her legions of sycophants in the wellness industry, any favors. In each interview, she distanced herself more and more from her previous conclusion. Here are her four takeaways from her own study “proving” wellness has precisely a 3.27-to-1 ROI:

  1. It’s too early to tell (um, after 30 years of workplace wellness?)
  2. She has no interest in wellness anymore
  3. People aren’t reading her paper right (Shame on us readers! We’re only reading the headline, the data, the findings and the conclusion, apparently)
  4. “There are few studies with reliable data on the costs and the benefits”(um, then how were you able to reach a conclusion with two significant digits?)

Individually or in total, these comments sounded an awful lot like retractions, but she (and her co-author and instigator, David Cutler) claimed those comments didn’t constitute retractions. Whatever they were, she wasn’t exactly doubling down on this 3.27-to-1 conclusion.

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The “Back Story” of the JAMA Wellness Smackdown (Part 1)

By AL LEWIS

Let’s climb into the WABAC Machine (and, yes, that’s the way it’s spelled) and set the dial for 2008.

Then-candidate Barack Obama, campaigning on the promise of universal health coverage, enlisted Harvard professor David Cutler as his key adviser on that topic. Business lobbying associations were not thrilled about their members having to cover all their full-time employees and incorrectly assumed, then as now, that the major drivers of healthcare cost were employees smoking, overeating, and not exercising. Prof. Cutler suggested, quite correctly, that one way to assuage that concern would be to allow employers to spend less money covering employees with those three health habits.

Fast-forward to 2009, when it appeared that — with enough concessions to enough vested interests — the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could become a reality. Business lobbying groups were, then as now, powerful entities. Using Prof. Cutler’s suggestion, they were pacified by allowing businesses to tie up to 30% of total premium dollars to employee health (in practice, largely employee weight). Generally, the business lobbying groups engineered this withhold in the shadows. It wasn’t until 2015 that one of those business groups, the Business Roundtable, publicly admitted that the 30% withholdwas the main reason they bought into the ACA.

Since this 30% was basically a giveaway to corporations, the Obama Administration needed to justify it as a cost-savings measure. On the one hand, they had the Safeway experience “proving” that wellness could save money in practice. This alleged proof was met with open arms by both parties. Safeway’s CEO became a “rock star” on Capitol Hill.  (Of course, Safeway’s wellness program, like virtually every other great-sounding success in wellness, turned out to be a scam. In retrospect, just reading the Safeway CEO’s Wall Street Journal op-ed* announcing these results, it’s amazing how the mind-blowingly fallacious statistics didn’t get called out back then, by me or anyone else.)

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Now More Than Ever, the Case for Medicaid Expansion

Sam Aptekar
Phuoc Le

By PHUOC LE, MD and SAM APTEKAR

A friend of mine told me the other day, “We’ve seen our insured patient population go from 15% to 70% in the few years since Obamacare.” As a primary care physician in the Midwest, he’s worked for years in an inner-city clinic that serves a poor community, many of whom also suffer from mental illness. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the clinic constantly struggled to stay afloat financially. Too often patients would be sent to an emergency room because the clinic couldn’t afford to provide some of the simplest medical tests, like an x-ray. Now, with most of his patients insured through the Medicaid expansion program, the clinic has beefed up its staffing and ancillary services, allowing them to provide better preventive care, and in turn, reduce costly ER visits.

From the time Medicaid was established in 1965 as the country’s first federally-funded health insurance plan for low-income individuals, state governments have only been required to cover the poorest of their citizens. Before the ACA, some 47 million Americans were uninsured because their incomes exceeded state-determined benchmarks for Medicaid eligibility and they earned far too little to buy insurance through the private marketplace.

The ACA reduced the number of uninsured Americans by mandating that states increase their income requirement for Medicaid to 138% of the federal poverty line (about $1,330 per month for a single individual), and promising that the federal government would cover the cost to do so. However, in a 2012 decision, the Supreme Court left it to the states to decide if they wanted to increase their Medicaid eligibility. If they agreed to adopt Medicaid expansion, the federal government offered to cover 100% of the increased cost in 2014 and 90% by 2021.

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