Although healthcare reform has its supporters and detractors, healthcare IT reform – the use of technology to improve the quality, safety and efficiency of healthcare throughout the country – has broad support from all stakeholders.
The passage of last year’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill brought with it a healthcare IT modernization program that could inject about $30 billion into the economy. Since Massachusetts is a leader both in the use and the manufacturing of healthcare IT systems, this could translate into over a $1 billion for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
This isn’t a “cash for computers” program though – it’s much more than that. The stimulus bill was crafted very wisely. It’s not a field day either for the doctors and hospitals who would receive these funds, or for the vendors selling this hardware and software. That’s because in order to get these dollars, physicians and hospitals have to not only buy the new systems, they have to prove that they’re using them to improve care before they’ll qualify to get any money back from the government. What does it mean to improve care? The requirements are actually quite specific and include: improving care coordination, reducing healthcare disparities, engaging patients and their families, improving population and public health, and ensuring adequate privacy and security protections.
The health IT modernization program promotes the use of advanced tools which could significantly improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare in the country today. Massachusetts is well positioned to lead this charge.
The genius of the program is that it is carefully tailored to fit our
uniquely American economy and culture. We are a society that prizes
individual initiative and rejects “top-down” solutions, and no other
part of the economy is more reflective of that than health care
delivery. We also believe in the power of markets to allocate resources
where they’ll create the most value and to drive innovation that
improves peoples’ lives. So unlike other countries where the government
is creating its own infrastructure and dictating which systems the
medical community must use, the Obama Administration’s health IT
program uses federal dollars to give an adrenaline boost to the market.
Lately I have been watching with complete horror the events playing out in my home state of Massachusetts. A bill currently under review by the state legislature will make participation in the state and federal Medicare/Medicaid programs a condition of medical licensure, effectively making physicians employees of the state.
This is particularly alarming because Massachusetts is essentially a leading indicator of what will happen in the rest of the country. Several years ago the state passed a series of laws mandating health coverage. Like the recently passed national health reform bill, the Massachusetts law did not address any of the well known causes of runaway costs, including tort reform, drug costs, or insurance regulation.
Although the state now has one of the highest percentages of its population insured, it is grappling with exploding healthcare costs. In response, it is imposing capitation schedules, reductions in payment rates and now mandatory participation in the health programs by physicians. What most people don’t understand is that the private insurers are also free to lower their physician payments, based on the Medicare/Medicaid benchmarks. This is all the more concerning given the fact that the Federal reimbursement rate is now scheduled to be reduced 21% on April 15.
We will no doubt see the same sequence of events play out across the country as the current versions of healthcare reform are implemented. The net effect of these laws is that it will make it close to impossible for physicians to stay in private practice. Patient access to physicians will suffer as more and more physicians retire and/or move to different states. For our academic colleagues who think this turn of events can only “help” them because they won’t have to compete with physicians in private practice, just wait. 28 states are now imposing “comparability” laws that allow nurse practitioners and other allied healthcare professionals to work without the supervision of a physicians with equal pay. Few academic departments can avoid hiring “physician extenders” if they want to stay competitive. As this gains momentum, physician payments will be pushed downwards. As the “going rate” goes lower, academic salaries will also get pushed downwards. I knew this reform effort would be bad for the practice of medicine and even worse for patient care. I just had no idea things would deteriorate this fast.
Phil Musgrove, now at Health Affairs, was an editor at the World Health Organization when it compiled its international comparison of nations’ health status that ranked the U.S. 37th in the world, largely because of its poor performance on infant mortality and longevity. In a letter to the editor in today’s New England Journal of Medicine, he points out that the U.S. had no statistics for nearly half the measurements used in the rankings and that most of the national rankings were inputed from data from 30 of 191 countries in the survey who fully reported their health outcomes.
The number 37 is meaningless . . . Analyzing the failings of health systems can be valuable; making up rankings among them is not. It is long past time for this zombie number to disappear from circulation.
Fair enough. But the U.S. ranking in infant mortality and its lagging longevity are cause for alarm because they show that the U.S. lags in health status. There’s many factors well beyond the quality of the health care system that contribute to these lagging indicators: persistent poverty in certain parts of the country and among certain subpopulations; chronic un- and underemployment; high levels of income and status inequality; and high levels of social stress and insecurity, for instance.
Someone should update the rankings and stress that they measure health status, not the quality of health care systems. If not WHO, who?
Lobbyists representing the many who profit from our $2.6 trillion health care industry spent millions in the war over healthcare reform. Yet National Journal Contributing Editor Eliza Newlin Carney suggests that “it’s unclear whether all that lobbying, advertising and check-writing yielded much.”
No question, the reform legislation that finally passed falls short of many reformers’ hopes. The public option is gone. Private sector insurers will scoop up all of the new business. Meanwhile, by agreeing to support reform—and make some financial concessions—Pharma bought protection from generic competition, plus a promise that it can continue to set prices, without worrying about Medicare trying to bargain for discounts.
Nevertheless, as I argued in part one of this post, Carney has a point. Lobbyists lost on many issues. Under the legislation, insurers who offer Medicare Advantage are going to lose their windfall payments. Some relied on that corporate welfare to stay in the black. In addition, insurers who cover large groups will have to pay out 85% of premiums to physicians, hospitals and patients, keeping only 15%. This rule kicks in next year, and makes raising premiums far less attractive. If an insurer lifts premiums by 10%, it will have to increase pay-outs by 8 ½%. Meanwhile a 10% hike means that it the company likely to lose market share, particularly in the more transparent new exchanges that open up in 2014.
Insurers will gain millions of new customers, but the majority will be expensive. Some patients suffering from pre-existing condition will need extensive care, and many others will come from low-income families who, as a rule, are not as healthy as more affluent Americans. Moreover, between now and 2014, it’s likely that Congress will bring back the public option.
Immediately after passage of health care reform, over a dozen state A.G.s sued to declare it unconstitutional, as violating states’ rights. The Florida complaint is here, and Virginia’s here. Reminiscent of southern governors in the 1960s blocking their state universities’ gates, these legal officers in effect are saying “not on our sovereign soil.” Since the constitutional issues have already been hashed through so thoroughly, what’s new to talk about?
First, the Florida complaint, which a dozen other states joined (AL, CO, ID, LA, MI, NE, PA,SC, SD, TX, UT, WA), focuses mainly on the financial burdens of expanding Medicaid. This is challenged under the “commandeering” principle, as requiring states to devote sovereign resources to achieve federal aims. But, as we know, states are free to withdraw from Medicaid, so the argument seems to fall entirely flat. The complaint makes a bait-and-switch type of estoppel argument , that states got into Medicaid without any expectation of this expansion, and now it’s too damaging for them to withdraw. So, in effect, states argue that the Constitution allows them to keep the federal carrot but refuse the federal stick. Good luck selling that to an appellate court.Continue reading…
The rumors that I wrote about Friday are, in fact, true. President Obama will name Dr. Donald Berwick, president of the Institute for Health Care Improvement (IHI), to run Medicare and Medicaid. Berwick, who is a professor of pediatrics and healthcare policy at the Harvard Medical School and a professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health, will have to be confirmed by the Senate Finance Committee.
Just how tough will the confirmation hearing be? I’m not worried. Berwick can handle himself.
Granted, yesterday the New York Timescalled Berwick “iconoclastic,” i.e., someone who “smashes sacred religious images” or “attacks cherished beliefs.” But most who know him describe him a “visionary” and a “healer,” a man able to survey the fragments of a broken health care system and imagine how they could be made whole. He’s a revolutionary, but he doesn’t rattle cages. He’s not arrogant, and he’s not advocating a government takeover of U.S. healthcare.
Berwick stands at the center of a healthcare movement that would reform the system from within. In 2005, Modern Healthcare, a leading industry publication, named him the third most powerful person in American health care. In contrast to others on the list, Berwick is “not powerful because of the position he holds,” Boston surgeon Atul Gawande noted at the time. (Former Secretary of Health and Human Services ranked no. 1, while Thomas Scully, the head of Medicare and Medicaid services captured the second slot.) “Berwick is powerful,” Gawande explained, “because of how he thinks.”
Listen to some of the clips below, from the film Money-Driven Medicine, produced by Alex Gibney, and based on my book, and you’ll understand what Gawande means. Soft-spoken, and charismatic Berwick is as passionate as he is original. His style is colloquial, intimate, and ultimately absolutely riveting. He draws you into his vision, moving your mind from where it was to where it could be.
Berwick isn’t just another ivory-tower philosopher. He’s “an extraordinary leader when it comes to inspiring people and creating the will to move forward,” Dartmouth’s Dr. Elliot Fisher told me in a phone conversation Friday. “And he can teach people how to do it. He has demonstrated his ability to teach people how to implement change in a complex system.”Continue reading…
Is it unconstitutional to mandate health insurance? It seems unprecedented to require citizens to purchase insurance simply because they live in the U.S. (rather than as a condition of driving a car or owning a business, for instance). Therefore, several credentialed, conservative lawyers think that compulsory health insurance is unconstitutional. See here and here and here. Their reasoning is unconvincing and deeply flawed. Since I’m writing in part for a non-legal audience, I’ll start with some basics and provide a lay explanation. (Go here for a fuller account).
Constitutional attacks fall into two basic categories: (1) lack of federal power (Congress simply lacks any power to do this under the main body of the Constitution); and (2) violation of individual rights protected by the “Bill of Rights.” Considering (1), Congress has ample power and precedent through the Constitution’s “Commerce Clause” to regulate just about any aspect of the national economy. Health insurance is quintessentially an economic good. The only possible objection is that mandating its purchase is not the same as “regulating” its purchase, but a mandate is just a stronger form of regulation. When Congressional power exists, nothing in law says that stronger actions are less supported than weaker ones.
An insurance mandate would be enforced through income tax laws, so even if a simple mandate were not a valid “regulation,” it still could fall easily within Congress’s plenary power to tax or not tax income. For instance, anyone purchasing insurance could be given an income tax credit, and those not purchasing could be assessed an income tax penalty. The only possible constitutional restriction is an archaic provision saying that if Congress imposes anything that amounts to a “head tax” or “poll tax” (that is, taxing people simply as people rather than taxing their income), then it must do so uniformly (that is, the same amount per person). This technical restriction is easily avoided by using income tax laws. Purists complain that taxes should be proportional to actual income and should not be used mainly to regulate economic behavior, but our tax code, for better or worse, is riddled with such regulatory provisions and so they are clearly constitutional.
Arguments about federal authority deal mainly with states’ rights and sovereign power, but the real basis for opposition is motivated more by sentiments about individual rights – the notion that government should not use its recognized authority to tell people how to spend their money. This notion of economic liberty had much greater traction in a prior era, but it has little basis in modern constitutional law. Eighty years ago, the Supreme Court used the concept of “substantive due process” to protect individual economic liberties, but the Court has thoroughly and repeatedly repudiated this body of law since the 1930s. Today, even Justice Scalia regards substantive due process as an “oxymoron.”
Under both liberal and conservative jurisprudence, the Constitution protects individual autonomy strongly only when “fundamental rights” are involved. There may be fundamental rights to decide about medical treatments, but having insurance does not require anyone to undergo treatment. It only requires them to have a means to pay for any treatment they might choose to receive. The liberty in question is purely economic and has none of the strong elements of personal or bodily integrity that invoke Constitutional protection. In short, there is no fundamental right to be uninsured, and so various arguments based on the Bill of Rights fall flat. The closest plausible argument is one based on a federal statute protecting religious liberty, but Congress is Constitutionally free to override one statute with another.
If Constitutional concerns still remain, the simplest fix (ironically) would be simply to enact social insurance (as we currently do for Medicare and social security retirement) but allow people to opt out if they purchase private insurance. Politically, of course, this is not in the cards, but the fact that social insurance faces none of the alleged Constitutional infirmities of mandating private insurance points to this basic realization: Congress is on solid Constitutional ground in expanding health insurance coverage in essentially any fashion that is politically and socially feasible.
Mark A. Hall, J.D., is the Fred D. & Elizabeth L. Turnage Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law. He is one of the nation’s leading scholars in the areas of health care law and policy and medical and bioethics and a frequent contributor to Health Reform Watch. The author or editor of fifteen books, including Making Medical Spending Decisions (Oxford University Press), and Health Care Law and Ethics (Aspen), he is currently engaged in research in the areas of consumer-driven health care, doctor/patient trust, insurance regulation, and genetics. He has published scholarship in the law reviews at Berkeley, Chicago, Duke, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Stanford, and his articles have been reprinted in a dozen casebooks and anthologies.
Professor Hall also teaches in the MBA program at the Babcock School and is on the research faculty at Wake Forest’s Medical School. He regularly consults with government officials, foundations and think tanks about health care public policy issues, and was recently awarded the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics distinguished teaching award.
“This gets back to the fundamental lesson of political survival that Bill Clinton taught me, which is if you make it about the American people’s lives instead of your life, you’re going to be okay.” — Paul Begala
It’s March, 2015. Healthcare reform has now been active for over five years with the majority of reforms kicking in as of January 1, 2014. Several amendments have been proposed and passed in the interim period including the All-Payer Act normalizing reimbursement rates for hospitals between Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance.
The American Family Practice Reimbursement Act promulgated minimum reimbursement levels for primary care providers acting as part of accountable care organizations and included a package of incentives for medical graduates and nurse practitioners to practice primary care. A particular emphasis was paid to establishing federally qualified health centers in urban and rural areas where Medicaid statistics reveal high rates of chronic illness and minimal levels of compliance with requisite preventive care to arrest the erosion of chronically unstable patients into catastrophic illness.Continue reading…
“If you think healthcare is expensive now, wait until it is for free.” – PJ O’Rourke
On the eve of sweeping health reform legislation, it is hard not to notice the glowing skyline in Washington as policymakers ignite their torches, grab their pitch forks and race as a mob toward for-profit stakeholders who many feel have created, perpetuated and benefited from our highly uneven, inflationary and inconsistent system of healthcare in America.
Over a quarter century, I have consulted with and led employers, consumers, hospitals, physician groups, attorneys, pharmacuetical manufacturers and insurers. My personal epiphany prompting me to become more vocal about America’s need for systemic change did not spark in the middle of an inflammatory contract negotiation with a major hospital or flash during a heated employee meeting as we announced yet another deductible, co-pay and contribution increase. My burning bush occurred on a gurney in the hallway of British National Health Service (NHS) hospital where I lay for 20 hours deathly ill with pneumococcal pneumonia.
After moving to London with my young family, we decided to opt for public care. After all, I was curious to experience the NHS and with three kids under eight, we were constantly under siege with myriad colds, earaches and symptomless fevers. Best of all, it was free. Our neighborhood NHS family practice clinic was always crowded but convenient. Other than the occasional drug co-pay, we never received a bill. Yet, something was not quite right. My doctor always looked as if wild dogs or the Inland Revenue Service was pursuing him. I broke down during one examination and asked him how much he received from the National Trust for each patient to provide basic care. ” Not nearly enough, Mr. Turpin. Not nearly enough” He said absently while peering into my ear with a pen light.
In the bleak midwinter of our first English February, one of my kids came home with a nasty flu that raged through the house, flattening even my indefatigable wife who I considered indestructible. I was travelling on the Continent and needed to return early to play Florence Nightingale to the family influenza ward. As everyone slowly recovered, rising like Lazarus from the dead, I took ill and within one day, was coughing up blood and bedridden with a raging fever. After a brief visit with my GP, he called an ambulance and I was taken to casualty (Emergency) in a local NHS hospital. I was admitted and deposited on a gurney in a hallway alcove as I waited to be transferred to a hospital room. There was one problem. There were no beds available.
The ER was utter chaos with sick elderly and acute care victims in every conceivable location. The doctors were tireless and clearly dedicated but overwhelmed. Through the haze of illness, I watched the trauma triage go on for hours. My wife briefly appeared with the kids to visit.Continue reading…
While concepts for health care reform volley back and forth in Washington, D.C., and around the nation, Johns Hopkins has quietly but meaningfully injected itself into the debate.
Johns Hopkins Medicine has been working with a group of 12 academic medical centers to explain the key role of these institutions in the delivery of health care to millions of Americans.
The group —which includes Emory University, Mount Sinai Medical Center, UCSF Medical Center, the University of Pennsylvania and others—is focusing on a number of issues, including a proposal to create “Health Care Innovation Zones” that would offer support for providers working with stakeholders in their regions to redesign a more patient-centered delivery of health care.