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The Angry Physician

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I think I speak for most physicians when I say that we did not choose to go into medicine to shape health care policy.  Medicine is a calling, and I treated it as such.  I immersed myself with taking care of patients, and keeping up with the ever changing knowledge landscape that is medicine. I left the policy making to the folks I voted for the last 8 years. These were the adults, the intellectuals –  they would take care of the task of taking out the bad elements of our healthcare system and leaving the good.  I truly believed.  I eagerly began the ehr/meaningful use saga believing this would result in better care for patients.

It took me two years to realize the meaninglessness of meaningful use.  I still can’t believe how long it took me to realize that creating a workflow in my office to print out and deliver clinical summaries to patients didn’t do anything other than fill the trashbin. I still held out hope.  I thought – this was a first draft, improvements would come.  What came instead were positively giddy announcements of the success of the meaningful use roll out. The administration was actually doubling down.  There was no acknowledgment for the mess that had been created – onward and forward on the same road we must continue to march.  Except the road would no longer be paved and we would be walking uphill.

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The ACO Delusion

flying cadeuciiAccountable care organizations (ACO’s) promise to save us.  Dreamed up by Dartmouth’s Eliot Fisher in 2006, and signed into law as a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in 2010, we have been sold on the idea that this particular incarnation of the HMO/Managed Care will save the government, save physicians and save patients all at the same time.  I dare say that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva together would struggle to accomplish those lofty goals.  Regardless of the daunting task in front of them, the brave policy gods who see patients about as often as they see pink unicorns, chose to release the Kraken – I mean the ACO – onto an unsuspecting public based on the assumption that anything was better than letting those big, bad, test ordering, hospital admitting, brand name prescribing  physicians from running amuck.

I realize I am being somewhat harsh towards the creators of the ACO morass.  But, while they all may be well-meaning, hard-working folks that own a Harvard crimson sweater, their intent is to fundamentally change how health care is provided – this mandates a withering evaluation.  As Milton Friedman aptly said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their result.”  Thus, with little regard to intent, and with an eye on the end result, I say unequivocally : ACO’s do not work.Continue reading…

A Spoonful of Inequality Helps the Medicine go Down

The conventional wisdom in the circles I hang out in – pro-Hillary, morally conscious,happy bunnies who pretend to enjoy French wine and opera – is that the greatest scourgeon humanity after the bubonic plague is inequality of wealth. They worship Pope St. John Paul Piketty and canonize Archbishop Paul Krugman. Not only is inequality bad for its own sake, they say, it makes people ill, like medically ill.

Their premise always struck me as specious. I once took them through a thought experiment. Imagine, I said, you time travel to the Bengal famine. There was a lot of equality then – people were equally malnourished. Everyone’s ribs protruded equally because of muscle wasting from marasmus. The loss of protein from kwashiorkor made sure everyone’s belly popped out without prejudice. Starvation because of poverty is a great leveler. It cares little about gender, caste or religion. It is non-judgmental.

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Confessions of a Health Plan CEO

flying cadeuciiThe fact that I was once the CEO of a health insurer may cause you to read this with some skepticism.

I invite and challenge your skepticism.  And I will do my very best to keep this piece strictly factual and not stray into the ambiguities that necessarily accompany complicated matters.

So bear with me.

Health insurers are not popular.  No one wants to go to the prom with us.  We have been vilified by no less than the President of the United States.  Heady stuff.  Let us see if this vilification and what I call the cartoonization of insurers has served us well in the healthcare debate.  I think it has not, because for reasons I hope to make clearer, it has taken the focus away from the real causes of our cost and quality nightmares.

Health insurance started in the Depression with the Blues, although they were not at first called that.  They typically were formed by hospitals (the Blue Crosses) and physicians (the Blue Shields), so that some payment for services rendered might be, well, “insured.”  Provider self interest cloaked in the public interest.  Perhaps there was alignment.  And there was a Depression going on after all.

At first, the role of the health insurer was strictly financial.  The insurer financed all or a portion of covered health services, and far, far fewer services were covered then than today.  That’s all an insurer did or was expected to do.  It was not there to manage doctors or hospitals or patients or anything else.  Originally, this financing was done through “indemnity” plans, which allowed patients to see anyone they wanted, and paid a set dollar amount per service or per day of hospitalization (e.g., $50/day of hospitalization).  Thus, if you chose a more expensive provider, the difference was on you.  Insurers back in the day did not negotiate reduced fees with providers (“fee discounts”).  It was much more civil then.

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Your Drugs Are About to Get More Expensive

The Washington Post recently ran an article by Marlene Cimons, a Medicare Part D drug plan enrollee. Her late father had been a pharmacist and he had owned a drugstore while she was growing up. She thought it would be nostalgic to patronize a neighborhood drugstore rather than a big chain pharmacy. She found a neighborhood drugstore in her preferred pharmacy network and had her prescription transfer there. She was stunned, however, when a 90-day prescription that should have required only a $3 co-pay turned out to be $58.

When she inquired the drugstore claimed it stood to lose money on her particular prescription. Who knows; maybe its profit margin wasn’t as high as the pharmacy thought it should be. In order to fill her prescription the drugstore basically required her to willingly pay an extra $55 more than its contractual agreement stipulated. Of course, that violated the contract the drugstore had signed with her Medicare Part D plan. The agreement the pharmacy had signed with her drug plan did not allow it to arbitrarily charge higher prices and Ms. Cimons left without her prescription.

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The Mess That is MACRA

MACRA (the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act) is a mess. It is extremely difficult to comprehend, it is based on assumptions that defy commonsense and research, and it may raise costs.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) would never say what I have just said, but MedPAC definitely understands MACRA’s defects. The transcripts of MedPAC’s October 8, 2015 and January 15, 2016 meetings indicate that members and staff perceive daunting impediments to the implementation of MACRA. But those transcripts also suggest that MedPAC won’t tell Congress to rewrite or repeal MACRA. Rather, the evidence suggests MedPAC will mince words. It appears MedPAC will send CMS and Congress a few wishes dressed up as “principles” and wait for MACRA’s inevitable failure before offering more useful advice.

Before I attempt to explain MACRA, let me first convey to you MACRA’s mind-numbing complexity by quoting four commissioners. Each statement below is followed by the last name of the commissioner who made it, the date the statement was made, and the page number of the transcript where the statement appears.

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Is Pornography Creating a Public Health Crisis?

flying cadeuciiWell, it’s not Zika and it won’t kill you, but pornography is being discussed—seriously—as a public health problem, even a “crisis.”

The path to this claim is a long one, with a slow burn over many years.  It was kicked into higher gear in recent months with:(a) legislative action in one state;(b) a coverstory in TIME magazine (April 11 issue);(c) a Washington Post op-ed piece by anti-porn advocate Gail Dines; (d) a response to that in Atlantic Monthly; and (e) the publication of two books that discuss at length the effect of porn and the new sexual culture on teen girls—American Girls-Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Mary Jo Sales and Girls & Sex-Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein.

The legislative action took place in Utah.  The Republican-led House of Representatives in that state became the first legislative body in the nation to pass a resolution declaring pornography “a public health hazard leading to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms.” Dines and her fellow anti-porn crusaders want to carry that fight to other states.

This is going to be fun to watch! (Pun intended.)

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Making Medicine Great Again

The annual Lown Institute Conference advocates for the “right” kind of patient care, as in “the correct course of action.” But the political meanings of “right” and “left” also echo, sounding like a healthcare version of the recover-lost-glory demands of Donald Trump and the moral crusade of Bernie Sanders.

The program for this year’s meeting, held in Chicago, urged attendees to “take back health [care];” you could almost hear a Trumpian, “Make medicine great again!” In an opening address, the institute’s senior vice president, Shannon Brownlee, proclaimed, “We are gathered out of a shared sense of moral purpose and a shared sense of outrage at the state of American healthcare.” The targets of that outrage that “we” need to take back healthcare from comprised a Sanders-type litany of the “pharma, biotech and device companies…[who] have illegally marketed products.”

There was one more villain, very carefully defined. That would be “a culture of overtesting and overtreatment…[that] harms patients, clinicians and communities.” Got that? While Brownlee’s acclaimed 2007 book, Overtreated, repeatedly highlights the abuses of fee-for-service medicine, the Lown Institute’s namesake founder and its president are academic physicians. And so, the doctors and hospitals responsible for and often profiting from overtreatment magically become just one more set of victims of the “culture.”

Ideological blinders notwithstanding, the institute’s work celebrates and highlights an impressive array of individuals working diligently for every conceivable kind of “right care.” There was Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, a Camden, NJ family physician whose description of his dogged, data-driven efforts on behalf of the poor and sick brought a standing ovation. And Dr. Joanne Lynn, a long-time advocate for the frail elderly, explaining why a MediCaring community model that mixed medical and social services was what the vulnerable old and their families really needed.

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Don Quixote and the Health Professional’s Endless Quest

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April 22 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the greatest novelist who ever lived, Miguel de Cervantes. Though the day will pace unnoticed by most physicians, it is in fact one many should note. Why? Because both his life and work can serve as vital sources of inspiration and resilience for health professionals everywhere.

In a 2002 Nobel Institute survey, 100 of the world’s most highly regarded writers named his Don Quixote the greatest novel of all time, outscoring its nearest rivals –works by Dickens, Tolstoy, and Joyce – by more than 50%. Said the head judge who announced the results, “If there is one novel you should read before you die, it is Don Quixote.”

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Preparing Your Organization for MACRA 1.0

flying cadeuciiWhat does the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), signed into law in 2015, mean for healthcare organizations and providers? At HIMSS 2016, the CMS Center for Clinical Standards and Quality Director, Kate Goodrich, MD, stated MACRA’s goal: “to have a single, unified program with flexibility. The new Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) will offer that flexibility and not be a one-size fits all program. The new rule will reimburse physicians based on four factors.”

Health systems are still waiting for additional details about the “four factors” Goodrich mentioned (listed in this article under “MIPS”) or how CMS will reward providers for delivering better care. We’re aware of MACRA’s general structure, but still waiting for clearly defined rules and regulations. Until then, it will be difficult to evaluate this new law.

Even though health systems are currently in a waiting period for clarifying details about the proposed MACRA regulations (with major impacts in 2019), MACRA’s base year will likely be 2017—and 2017 is just around the corner. This article provides an overview of MACRA and guidance about what health systems should do to prepare for MACRA now.

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