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Did We Get It Right? A Behind the Scenes Look at California’s Healthcare Strategy

Back in 2010 — before two elections, before the Supreme Court ruled, before the word “crisis” stopped following the words “California budget” — Kim Belshé settled on a guiding principle: “2014 is tomorrow.”

And now, it almost is.

The Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate takes effect in less than 100 days. The nation’s health insurance exchanges go live next week.

And for nearly a year, Belshé — secretary of the Health and Human Services Agency under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — was at the center of California’s efforts to begin implementing those Obamacare provisions and many others.

I interviewed Belshé, Schwarzenegger, and nearly a dozen other ex-officials and experts about whether California’s quest to lead the nation on ACA implementation actually paid off — and what it brought the state.

Why California? Why Not?

Every expert suggested that the ACA’s rapid implementation in California could be traced back to Schwarzenegger’s efforts in 2007 and 2008 to enact universal health care.

(And in some cases, even older efforts at reform. “We learned a lot from the 1990s,” says Belshé, noting that failed attempts to create purchasing cooperatives in California helped set the foundation for designing insurance exchanges more than a decade later.)

Although the Schwarzenegger plan ultimately failed, many of its components — from big elements like the exchanges to smaller pieces like guaranteed issue — ended up in the ACA. And because state leaders had already done much of the foundational work, they were better positioned to speedily roll out the national law.

Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of the California Endowment, says that Schwarzenegger’s efforts were a preview of the national ACA battle to come — which meant that many stakeholders in California had already made peace with the law’s key provisions by 2010.

“We’d had our big fights over the individual mandate here” in 2007 and 2008, says Zingale, a former health care aide to Schwarzenegger. “Democrats and labor groups had been through it [and] were ok with it.”

“But the nation hadn’t been through that yet.”

Still, California’s support for Obamacare was hardly assured. As late as January 2010, Schwarzenegger wavered on the ACA — but by April that year, he was the first Republican governor (and one of the first governors in the nation) to throw his support behind the law and begin crafting a framework for implementation.

“It gave us a bit of a head start,” Belshé acknowledges.

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The Exchanges Won’t Be Ready in Time. And it Probably Won’t Matter.

As states race to implement health reform, California doesn’t want to settle for second.

“We don’t want to be a pace car state” when it comes to implementing health reform, state HHS Secretary Diana Dooley told Politico back in January 2011. “We want to be the lead car.”

It’s a metaphor that California leaders have returned to time and again. And to their credit, they’ve often succeeded.

While other states waffled, Golden State officials quickly embraced key Obamacare provisions like expanding Medicaid and creating insurance pools for individuals with pre-existing conditions.

At the same time, lawmakers crafted legislation intended to conform California’s health insurance plans to new standards under the Affordable Care Act.

And Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange, also has drawn national attention for its speedy implementation. Among the 17 states that opted to run their own exchanges, California has “certainly [been] in the lead on getting their health plan information out … and getting the contracts signed,” Rachel Dolan, who monitors exchange activity for State Refor(u)m, a project of the National Academy of State Health Policy, said.

But the driving metaphor only extends so far.

“I don’t think it’s a race,” Dolan added, cautioning that each state might take unique approaches to exchange implementation — and objectively judging those individual strategies is impossible.

And a more essential issue might be getting lost, amid the growing number of questions over which state exchanges will be open for business on Oct. 1.

“Lots of people are asking about readiness,” said Caroline Pearson, who leads Avalere Health’s efforts to track health reform implementation. “But no one is asking about whether it matters.”

Where the States Stand on Readiness
The sprint to get the exchanges off the ground — which for some states didn’t really begin in earnest until after the Supreme Court’s June 2012 decision to uphold the ACA — has led to repeated delays and ongoing concerns.

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Rate Shock and Awe in California

I have to say I was surprised with the press reports last week that there wasn’t “rate shock” in California when the California exchange offered preliminary information about their new plans and rates.

At least one prominent health actuarial group had predicted a 30% baseline increase in costs for California’s new health insurance exchange plans under the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare”).

As the director of the California exchange put it, “These rates are way below the worst-case gloom-and-doom scenarios we have heard.”

But a few days later there is lots more information coming out and it would appear we have a case of apples to oranges to grapefruit. And, we have a pretty good case of rate shock.

First, the exchange officials pointed out that we have to be careful to compare apples to apples when looking at 2013 rates and comparing them to the 2014 exchange rates because the 2014 exchange plans have far more generous benefits.

Yes we do, particularly when the California exchange forces us to give up our apple and buy a more expensive orange.

One of the reasons health insurance in the exchange will cost a lot more in most states is because the new health law outlaws many of the existing plans now being offered and requires only those much richer plans to be sold.

Are people going to get more coverage for their money? Yes. Do they want more coverage if the premium costs for those plans is a lot higher? Likely yes if taxpayers are paying for most of it. If not, clearly they didn’t want to pay for it before. Come January, lots of California consumers in the small group and individual market are going to get a letter from their existing insurer telling them their current plan is no longer available and the cost of the new required plans will be a lot more.

Simply, the new law is taking plan design choices away instead of letting the consumer decide what is good for them. Does that matter in California?

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Obamacare’s Other Benefit

If it is done right, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) may well promise uninsured Americans a lot more than cheap, reliable medical care. It can also open the door to the democratic empowerment of millions of poor people, who are often alienated from much of the nation’s civic life, by strengthening the organizations that give them a voice.

This year more than 30 million uninsured Americans are to begin signing up for Obamacare, but the vast majority of those eligible for either the expanded Medicaid program, or for subsidized private health insurance through state health exchanges, have no idea how to enroll. Surveys and focus groups have found that up to three-quarters of Americans who might directly benefit from the program are skeptical that the law can provide high-quality insurance coverage at a price they can afford.

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A $910 Million Price Tag For California Exchange: A Dark Omen of Things to Come

So far California has received $910 million in federal grants to launch its new health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

The California exchange, “Covered California,” has so far awarded a $183 million contract to Accenture to build the website, enrollment, and eligibility system and another $174 million to operate the exchange for four years.

The state will also spend $250 million on a two-year marketing campaign. By comparison California Senator Barbara Boxer spent $28 million on her 2010 statewide reelection campaign while her challenger spent another $22 million.

The most recent installment of the $910 million in federal money was a $674 million grant. The exchange’s executive director noted that was less than the $706 million he had asked for. “The feds reduced the 2014 potential payment for outreach and enrollment by about $30 million,” he said. “But we think we have enough resources on hand to do the biggest outreach that I have ever seen.”

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Employee Benefits Gone Wild

Say “employee benefits” and pensions and health care will jump to most people’s minds. Maybe life and disability insurance will pop up as well. But employers in Silicon Valley are going way beyond that. They’re providing housekeeping, cooking, babysitting and a host of other services as perks for their employees. According to The New York Times, here is what some California companies are doing:

At Evernote, a software company, 250 employees — every full-time worker, from receptionist to top executive — have their homes cleaned twice a month, free.
Stanford School of Medicine is piloting a project to provide doctors with housecleaning and in-home dinner delivery.
Genentech offers take-home dinners and helps employees find last-minute babysitters when a child is too sick to go to school.

To hear the employer representatives tell it, companies are providing their workers with services that make it easier to balance home and family life in an age when there are few stay-at-home spouses and work is stressful.

But a more likely explanation is economics.

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The Gold Plated Health Care System: What the New Numbers Tell Us about the State of the Economy

For the third year in a row, national health spending in 2011 grew less than 4 percent, according to the CMS Office of the Actuary.  However, the report said modest rebounds in pharmaceutical spending and physician visits pointed toward an acceleration of costs in 2012 and beyond.  CMS’s analysts make much of the cyclical character of health spending’s relationship to economic growth and also forecast a doubling of cost growth in 2014 to coincide with the implementation of health reform.

This non-economist respectfully disagrees and believes the pause could be more durable, even after 2014.   Something deeper and more troublesome than the recession is at work here.  As observed last year, the health spending curve actually bent downward a decade ago, four years before the economic crisis. Health cost growth has now spent three years at a pre-Medicare (indeed, a pre-Kennedy Administration) low.

More Than The Recession Is At Work

Hospital inpatient admissions have been flat for nine years, and down for the past two, despite compelling incentives for hospitals to admit more patients. Even hospital outpatient volumes flat-lined in 2010 and 2011, after, seemingly, decades of near double-digit growth.  Physician office visits peaked eight years ago, in 2005, and fell 10 percent from 2009 to 2011 before a modest rebound late in 2011 — all this despite the irresistible power of fee-for-service incentives to induce demand.

The modest rebound in pharmaceutical spending (2.9 percent growth) in 2011 appears to have been a blip.  IMS Health reports that US pharmaceutical sales actually shrank in 2012, for the first time in recorded history, and that generic drugs vaulted to the high 70s as a percent of prescriptions!

There is no question that the recession’s 7-million increase in the uninsured depressed cost growth.  But the main reason health cost growth has been slowing for ten years is the steadily growing number of Americans — insured or otherwise — that cannot afford to use the health system.  The cost of health care may have played an unscripted role in the 2008 economic collapse.  A 2011 analysis published in Health Affairs found that after accounting for increased health premium contributions, out-of-pocket spending growth and general inflation, families had a princely $95 more a month to spend on non-health items in 2009 than a decade earlier.  To maintain their living standards, families doubled their household debt in just five years (2003-2008), a debt load that proved unsustainable.  When consumers began defaulting on their mortgages, credit cards and car loans, the resultant chain reaction brought down our financial markets, and nearly resulted in a depression.

By sucking up consumers’ income since 2008, the rising cost of health benefits has weighed heavily upon the recovery.  According to the 2012 Milliman Cost Index, the cost of health coverage rose by 32.8 percent from 2008 to 2012, while family income did not grow at all in real terms.  The total cost (employer and employee contributions plus OOP spending) of a standard PPO policy for a US family of four was $20,700, almost 42 percent of the US household median income in 2012.

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Inside Three ACOs: Why California Providers Are Opting for the Model

Visit SDIndyACO.com, and you’re greeted by a Hawaiian shirt hanging in an otherwise empty closet. “Future home of something quite cool,” the page’s headline reads.

Forget unicorns, camels and all the other metaphors used to describe accountable care organizations these past few years.

The website — the homepage of the newly formed San Diego Independent ACO, which was one of 106 organizations named last week to Medicare’s Shared Savings Program — could sum up where we stand now on ACOs.

While we’re close enough to see their outline, some ACOs are still just teasing their promise. Many organizations have yet to launch a Web presence (or in San Diego Independent ACO’s case, are waiting to get CMS approval). And more health care providers are rushing to build the ACO structure in hopes of winning federal contracts — and filling out the details later.

Understanding the Medicare ACO Model

The ACO model is loosely defined as having integrated teams of providers share responsibility for caring for a select population of patients. (That isn’t a new idea — and based on that definition, California’s had dozens of physician-led groups and integrated networks essentially operating as ACOs for years.)

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Roundup of State Ballot Initiatives on Health Issues

This November, voters weighed in on an array of state ballot initiatives on health issues from medical marijuana to health care reform. Ballot outcomes by state are listed below (more after the jump).

Voters in Alabama, Montana, and Wyoming passed initiatives expressing disapproval of the Affordable Care Act, while a similar initiative in Florida garnered a majority of the vote but failed to pass under the state’s supermajority voting requirement. Missouri voters passed a ballot initiative prohibiting the state executive branch from establishing a health insurance exchange, leaving this task to the federal government or state legislature.

Florida voters defeated a measure that would have prohibited the use of state funds for abortions, while Montana voters passed a parental notification requirement for minors seeking abortions (with a judicial waiver provision).

Perhaps surprisingly, California voters failed to pass a law requiring mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food. Several states legalized medical marijuana, while Arkansas voters struck down a medical marijuana initiative and Montana voters made existing medical marijuana laws more restrictive.

Colorado and Washington legalized all marijuana use, while a similar measure failed in Oregon.

Physician-assisted suicide was barely defeated in Massachusetts (51% to 49%), while North Dakotans banned smoking in indoor workplaces. Michigan voters failed to pass an initiative increasing the regulation of home health workers, while Louisiana voters prohibited the appropriation of state Medicaid trust funds for other purposes.

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Health Care Purchasers, Consumers Need Price Data if We Are Ever Going to Get to a System of Value-Based Care

In a world where health care costs are rising and consumers are taking on a growing share, it is critical they have easy access to understandable information about the quality and cost of their care.  While we have made decent strides in making quality data available, consumers still have little to no information about health care prices, making it difficult if not impossible for them to seek higher-value care.  Numerous studies and articles have explored this problem, such as a recent UCSF study, highlighted in JAMA, which found routine appendectomies can cost as little as $1,529 or as much as $183,000.  As PBGH Medical Director Dr. Arnie Milstein so eloquently stated in the Wall Street Journal, “Fantasy baseball managers have more information evaluating players for their teams than patients and referring physicians have in matters of life and death.”

Now Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR), an independent, non-profit corporation working on behalf of large employers and other health care purchasers to catalyze improvements in how we pay for health services, has just released a suite of tools to catalyze price transparency.  The suite includes a first-of-its-kind Statement by CPR Purchasers on Quality and Price Transparency in Health Care, endorsed by several partner organizations, that takes plans and providers to task: give us price data by January 2014.

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