The Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), one of numerous pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes authorized by the Affordable Care Act, was sprung on the Medicare fee-for-service population on October 1, 2012 without being pre-tested and with no other evidence indicating what it is hospitals are supposed to do to reduce readmissions. Research on the impact of the HRRP conducted since 2012 is limited even at this late date , but the research suggests the HRRP has harmed patients, especially those with congestive heart failure (CHF) (CHF, heart attack, and pneumonia were the first three conditions covered by the HRRP). The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) disagrees. MedPAC would have us believe the HRRP has done what MedPAC hoped it would do when they recommended it in their June 2007 report to Congress (see discussion of that report in Part I of this two-part series). In Chapter 1 of their June 2018 report to Congress, MedPAC claimed the HRRP has reduced 30-day readmissions of targeted patients without raising the mortality rate.
MedPAC is almost certainly wrong about that. What is indisputable is that MedPAC’s defense of the HRRP in that report was inexcusably sloppy and, therefore, not credible. To illustrate what is wrong with the MedPAC study, I will compare it with an excellent study published by Ankur Gupta et al. in JAMA Cardiology in November 2017. Like MedPAC, Gupta et al. reported that 30-day CHF readmission rates dropped after the HRRP went into effect. Unlike MedPAC, Gupta et al. reported an increase in mortality rates among CHF patients. 
We will see that the study by Gupta et al. is more credible than MedPAC’s for several reasons, the most important of which are: (1) Gupta et al. separated in-patient from post-discharge mortality, while MedPAC collapsed those two measures into one, thus disguising any increase in mortality during the 30 days after discharge; (2) Gupta et al.’s method of controlling for differences in patient health was superior to MedPAC’s because they used medical records data plus claims data, while MedPAC used only claims data.
I will discuss as well research demonstrating that readmission rates have not fallen when the increase in observation stays and readmissions following observations stays are taken into account, and that some hospitals are more willing to substitute observation stays for admissions than others and thereby escape the HRRP penalties.
All this research taken together indicates the HRRP has given CHF patients the worst of all worlds: No reduction in readmissions but an increase in mortality, and possibly higher out-of-pocket costs for those who should have been admitted but were assigned to observation status instead.
Egged on by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), Congress has imposed multiple pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes on the fee-for-service Medicare program. MedPAC recommended most of these schemes between 2003 and 2008, and Congress subsequently imposed them on Medicare, primarily via the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 and the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) of 2015.
MedPAC’s five-year P4P binge began with the endorsement of the general concept of P4P at all levels – hospital, clinic, and individual physician – in a series of reports to Congress in 2003, 2004, and 2005. This was followed by endorsements of vaguely described iterations of P4P, notably the “accountable care organization” in 2006 , punishment of hospitals for “excess” readmissions in 2007 , the “medical home” in 2008 and the “bundled payment” in 2008. None of these proposals were backed up by anything resembling evidence.
Congress endorsed all these schemes without asking for evidence or further details. Congress dealt with the vagueness of, and lack of evidence supporting, MedPAC’s proposals simply by ordering CMS to figure out how to make them work. CMS staff added a few more details to these proposals in the regulations they drafted, but the details were petty and arbitrarily adopted (how many primary doctors had to be in an ACO, how many patients had to sit on the advisory committee of a “patient-centered medical home,” how many days had to expire between a discharge and an admission to constitute a “readmission,” etc.).
New rule, new culture
This process – invention of nebulous P4P schemes by MedPAC, unquestioning endorsement by Congress, and clumsy implementation by CMS – is not working. Every one of the proposals listed above has failed to cut costs (with the possible exception of bundled payments for hip and knee replacements) and may be doing more harm than good to patients. These proposals are failing for an obvious reason – MedPAC and Congress subscribe to the belief that health policies do not need to be tested for effectiveness and safety before they are implemented. In their view, mere opinion suffices.
This has to stop. In this two-part essay I argue for a new rule: MedPAC shall not propose, and Congress shall not authorize, any program that has not been shown by rigorously conducted experiments to be effective at lowering cost without harming patients, improving quality, or both. This will require a culture change at MedPAC. Since its formation in 1997, MedPAC has taken the attitude that it does not have to provide any evidence for its proposals, and it does not have think through its proposals in enough detail to be tested. Over the last two decades MedPAC has demonstrated repeatedly that it believes merely opining about a poorly described solution is sufficient to discharge its obligation to Congress, taxpayers, and Medicare enrollees. Continue reading…
According to the Democrats, their success across the country in the midterm elections has largely been due to the party running on healthcare. Indeed, surveys such as the one conducted by Health Research Incorporated indicated that health was the number one concern for voters during the midterms. In the three states where Medicaid expansion was on the ballot, voters were in favor of it. We’ve been wondering about that, so we took a look at how Iowa voted.
It’s one thing for voters to support healthcare on its own. It’s another for an issue to outweigh all others. Did healthcare really beat every other concern a voter thinks about when picking a candidate during the midterms?
Congressional and Statewide Races
Democrats took 3 of the Iowa’s 4 seats, unseating 2 Republican incumbents. They had a sizeable majority of the votes cast, so things looked good for the Democrats. If the theory holds up, the focus the Democrats kept on healthcare throughout the race would pay off. And it would seem it worked, right?
There’s a big problem here. If Democrats had made gains in Iowa because of healthcare issues, we should expect them to have a pretty resounding victory in the gubernatorial race and in the statehouse.
Former President George H.W. Bush may have been every inch the caring individual portrayed in the eulogies of those who knew him, but when it came to health care reform, two words characterized his attitude: Don’t care.
However, compared to Congressional Republicans, Bush was a profile in conservative courage – a lesson with unfortunate parallels to now.
I covered health policy as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune during the Bush years. One strong memory, confirmed by checking original sources, was the presidential debate on Sept. 25, 1988 between Bush and his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. When Bush was asked what he’d do for the 37 million people without health insurance – about one in seven Americans – he answered that he would “permit people to buy into Medicaid.”
I remember turning from the TV to my wife and saying, “I have no idea what he’s talking about.” Neither, apparently, did anyone else. A Washington Post story that followed, headlined, “Bush’s Mysterious Medicaid Plan” noted that seeking details from the Bush campaign yielded “answers [that] are contradictory.” The story added that “Bush had never publicly mentioned the idea” until the debate.
In a recent essay, VIVIO Health’s CEO Pramod John guides us through four sensible drug policy changes and supporting rationales that could make drug pricing much fairer. Reading through it, one is struck by the magnitude of the drug manufacturing industry’s influence over policy, profoundly benefiting that sector at the deep expense of American purchasers. As Mr. John points out, the U.S. has the world’s only unregulated market for drug pricing. We have created a safe harbor provision that allows and protects unnecessary intermediaries like pharmacy benefit managers. We have created mechanisms that use taxpayer dollars to fund drug discovery, but then funnel the financial benefit exclusively to commercial interests. And we have tolerated distorted definitions of value – defined in terms that most benefit the drug manufacturers – that now dominate our pricing discussions.
The power of this maneuvering is clear in statistics on health industry revenues and earnings. An Axios analysis of financial documents from 112 publicly traded health care companies during the 3rd quarter of 2018 showed global profits of $50 billion on revenues of $636 billion. Half of that profit was controlled by 10 companies, 9 of which were pharmaceutical firms. Drug companies collected 23% of the total revenues during that quarter, but retained an astounding 63% of the profits, meaning that the drug sector accounts for nearly two-thirds of the entire health care industry’s profitability. Said another way, the drug industry reaps twice the profits of the rest of the industry combined.
This month, we saw historic turnout at the polls for midterm elections with over 114 million ballots cast. One noteworthy observation regarding voter turnout is record rates of participation by younger voters aged between 18 to 29 years old. Around 31 percent of people aged 18 to 29 voted in the midterms this year, an increase from 21 percent in 2014, according to a day-after exit poll by Tufts University.
Surely their political engagement counters the criticism that millennials are disengaged and disconnected with society and demonstrates that millennials are fully engaged when issues are relevant to them, their friends, and their families. Why, then, do we not see the same level of passion, engagement and commitment when young adults are asked to consider their health and well-being?
I have had the privilege of being a member of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute-funded Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study research team. In over 5,000 black and white adults who were initially enrolled when they were 18 to 30 years old and have now been followed for nearly 35 years, we have described the decades-long process by which heart disease develops. We were able to do this because, in the 1980s when these studies began, young adults could be reached at their home telephone numbers. When a university researcher called claiming to be funded by the government, there was a greater degree of trust.
Unfortunately, that openness and that trust has eroded, particularly in younger adults and those who may feel marginalized from our society for any number of valid reasons. However, the results—unanswered phone calls from researchers, no-shows at the research clinic and the absence of an entire group of adults today from research studies, looks like disengagement. Disengagement is a very real public health crisis with consequences that are as dire as any political crisis. Continue reading…
THCB readers may recall last year in early June when the Trump administration announced it would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord and earlier this January when the World Economic Forum met to discuss its global risk report that included the chapter, “Our Planet on the Brink,” I discussed in part (here and here) the health care industry’s indifference to global warming (See also my related 3 Quarks Daily essay.) Now comes the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate and Change’s (IPCC’s ) latest report. Once again overwhelming scientific evidence that confirms life as we know it on this planet will soon cease to exist is received with apathetic insouciance.
Created in 1988 the IPCC is considered the world’s definitive scientific body on climate change and co-winner with Al Gore of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, finalized in early October its report, “Global Warming of 1.5°C.” The 2015 Paris accord called for the report. It was prepared by nearly one hundred scientists who analyzed thousands of the most recent scientific evidence. The report’s summary was accepted by over 180 countries including the American and Saudi Arabia delegation during the IPCC’s meeting recently concluded in South Korea.
What is newsworthy about the IPCC report is its conclusion that keeping or holding temperature increases below 2°C, the goal of the Paris agreement, would not avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. At 1.5°C life on this planet would suffer serious or dire harm, at 2°C catastrophic harm. Specifically, the report compared the impact between a 1.5°C (2.7°F) increase in temperature with a 2°C (3.6°F) increase (The earth has already warmed by 1°C since the pre-industrial era). Among numerous other findings, should temperatures increase to 1.5°C, the report found of 105,000 species studied, four percent of vertebrates (that include us), eight percent of plants and six percent of insects would lose half of their climatically-determined geographic range. At 2°C, the percents double to triple. Global crop yields will decline significantly. At 1.5°C we will lose 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs, at 2°C there will be a 99 percent loss. At 1.5°C Marine fishery losses or the global annual catch loss would be 1.5 million tons, at 2°C they double.
While women make up more than half of the U.S. population, an imbalance remains between who we are as a nation and who represents us in Congress. The gender disparity is no different for physicians: more than one third of doctors in the U.S. are women, yet 100 percent of physicians in Congress are men. To date, there have only been two female physicians elected to Congress.
However, in the coming midterm election, there are six races with a chance at making history. It’s these battles which could make 2018 “The Year of the Female Physician.”
I remember being a first-time voter in 1992, labeled at the time “The Year of the Woman.” I was a sophomore at Michigan State University and turned 18 just three days before the election. Following the contentious Supreme Court hearings involving Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, an unprecedented number of female candidates were vying for office that election year.
President George H. W. Bush was vilified for an appalling answer to the question of when his party might nominate a woman for President. “This is supposed to be the year of the women in the Senate,” he quipped. “Let’s see how they do. I hope a lot of them lose.” Frustrated about the state of gender inequality in politics, a little-known “mom in tennis shoes,” Patty Murray, decided to run for the U.S. Senate to represent Washington. She won, paving the way for an unprecedented number of women to enter national politics over the next 30 years. Still, very few of them have come with a background in medicine.
By CHRISTINE EIBNER PhD, SARAH NOWAK PhD, MS, PREETHI RAO PhD
Although signed into law in 2010, the Affordable Care Act has been in constant flux, with key aspects changing due to time-dependent provisions, Supreme Court decisions and shifts in U.S. policy. The effects of changes to the ACA on health insurance enrollment and premiums often depend on state regulatory decisions and other state-specific factors. The elimination of the individual mandate penalty is a prime example of this when applied to New York state, which has unusual rules in its individual insurance market.
In 2019, consumers will no longer face financial penalties stemming from the ACA’s individual mandate, which requires most people to secure health insurance. Without pressure from the individual mandate to enroll, younger and healthier people might drop coverage, leading to premium increases. New York’s health insurance regulations and expansive safety-net programs could make the state’s insurance market particularly susceptible to premium increases after the penalty’s elimination.
New York uses what is known as “full community rating” in its individual health insurance market, which means that all adult enrollees, regardless of age or whether they use tobacco, are charged the same premium. In most states, the youngest adults in the market pay one-third of what older adults do, and tobacco users are charged 1.5 times as much as non-users. New York’s flat premium structure raises costs for younger enrollees and nonsmokers, making them more likely drop coverage when the penalty goes away.
The original sin of health records interoperability was the loss of consent in HIPAA. In 2000, when HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) first became law, the Internet was hardly a thing in healthcare. The Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN) was not a thing until 2004. 2009 brought us the HITECH Act and Meaningful Use and 2016 brought the 21st Century Cures Act with “information blocking” as clear evidence of bipartisan frustration. Cures, in 2018, begat TEFCA, the draft Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement. The next update to the draft TEFCA is expected before 2019 which is also the year that Meaningful Use Stage 3 goes into effect.
Over nearly two decades of intense computing growth, the one thing that has remained constant in healthcare interoperability is a strategy built on keeping patient consent out of the solution space. The 2018 TEFCA draft is still designed around HIPAA and ongoing legislative activity in Washington seeks further erosion of patient consent through the elimination of the 42CFR Part 2 protections that currently apply to sensitive health data like behavioral health.
The futility of patient matching without consent parallels the futility of large-scale interoperability without consent. The lack of progress in patient matching was most recently chronicled by Pew through a survey and a Pew-funded RAND report. The Pew survey was extensive and the references cite the significant prior efforts including a 100-expert review by ONC in 2014 and the $1 million CHIME challenge in 2017 that was suspended – clear evidence of futility.