Once again, the Supreme Court was unsurprisingly surprising. The conventional wisdom was that at least part of the health reform law would be overturned, but in practice the court blessed the status quo we have known for two years: The reform law will continue to be implemented.
It’s the devil we’ve known. Washington will issue more regulations. Insurers will be buried in requirements on coverage and benefits, driving up costs. Physicians will have more oversight and report to the government. Hospitals will see Medicare cuts. Millions of individuals will either get a new federal subsidy for insurance or be enrolled in Medicaid.
States will have more interference from Washington. While the Supreme Court gave them some flexibility on whether to expand their Medicaid programs, states will still be forced to either build a new insurance exchange, like Expedia for health insurance, or have the federal government build it for them.
By upholding the law, the court also left untouched two huge problems looming on the horizon. First, as the law expands coverage there will be a tremendous increase in demand for medical services, but there will not be an increase in the number of doctors, nurses and other providers to deliver care.
Millions of people may have very generous coverage, but they will struggle to find providers to deliver it.
Second, as businesses face requirements in 2014 to offer federally approved health insurance or pay a fine, many companies will do the math and see that paying the penalty is far less expensive than continuing to provide coverage.
Don’t assume anything.
Assumptions can kill.
Assuming something regarding your own health care can cost you money, cause you pain, and yes, even kill you. Here’s my list of potentially harmful assumptions:
1. No news is good news
If you have a test done and don’t hear anything about the result, do not assume it is fine. This assumption kills people. I have too many patients with too much information flying at me every day for me to catch every important detail. Sometimes things are missed, but sometimes the results don’t come to our office. We have trained our patients to expect an email or letter with their results within a certain amount of time, so they sometimes call when the test results don’t come in. I tell them to do so in the clinical summary sheet I hand out at the end of each visit, but the assumption remains.
This house believes that society benefits when we share information online! This was the topic of debate before the Economist magazine’s Ideas Economy: Information 2012 conference here in San Francisco on Tuesday afternoon. Tom Standage, digital editor for the Economist, moderated this lively battle of wits.
Defending the motion was John Perry Barlow, former Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is a little like defending sex!” he started off by saying.
I am paraphrasing here but he went on to say, ‘The Internet is an environment where what is great about human beings can manifest itself…collectively we are much smarter than any individual. Just as my mitochondria are unaware of my thoughts, we are largely unaware of our collective genius.’
I could not agree more.
Opposing the motion was Andrew Keen, Internet entrepreneur and author of “Cult of the Amateur.”
Again, paraphrasing, ‘Repressive governments and private companies who make the 1% look poor, are also benefitting. Most of the information is being stolen,’ Keen said. ‘Today everything has to be social.’
Keen rails against our intimate selves being taken from us and traded on by bazzilionaires, with not much coming back to we, the sharers. ‘Barlow would not be who he is, if he not had his years of very aloneness,’ said Keen, paraphrased.
I’ve seen a number of responses to the news that the Medicare demonstration projects were not successful. Some have claimed that they were only demonstration projects, and the fact that some succeeded means we should look into those further. Others asserted that this once again proves that the government is incapable of making the health care system better.
As to the first point, it’s hard to get excited about this. By chance alone, a couple of programs were likely to save money. Four out of 34 reducing hospitalizations (when the best of them might have had inadequate data)? Hardly something to get excited about. Remember that two out of the 34 actually saw increased hospitalizations, too. I think it’s totally reasonable to think hard before just assuming there was something special about those four programs, and throwing more money at them.
But I think the latter point, made by Peter Suderman, is a bit of an over-reach as well. It’s important to remember that these were attempts by private hospitals and private physicians to change the way they care for patients. Granted, government was paying the insurance bills through Medicare, but this would have looked awfully similar if a private company had footed the bill. And, yes, private insurance companies have tried to use care coordination and disease management to reduce costs as well.
Last week, Don Berwick completed his 17 month tenure as administrator of Medicare and Medicaid. The nation should be grateful that such a visionary was at the helm. The nation should frustrated that he was never confirmed.
In his parting interview with the press, he noted that 20 percent to 30 percent of health spending is “waste” that yields no benefit to patients.
Berwick listed five reasons for the enormous waste in health spending:
*Patients are overtreated
*There is not enough coordination of care
*US health care is burdened with an excessively complex administrative system
*The enormous burden of rules
Certainly regulatory reform is needed, but electronic health records can go far to addressing each of these issues.
You can’t believe the play that little athenahealth gets in Washington, DC… and thank goodness for it because no one has a clue about HIT.
How could they really?
I mean, there are 535 people in our federal legislature (give or take) and there are like a million different market spaces in the nation. This is why I have such a hard time with federal control of things. It’s impossible for them to know what’s going on…there are just not enough hours in the year.
As I’ve been thinking about care coordination and the complete lack of sustainable models or entrepreneurship in that space, it occurred to me that it’s currently not clear that it is legal for RECEIVERS of electronic health information to pay senders for the value of that health information. This means that the sender has no real motivation to send useful, relevant data in a timely manner (I know I’d pay the doc who sent me exactly what I needed about a patient more than I’d pay the doc who sends over a 30-page PDF) and that our industry will take a long time to understand the true health information exchange needs of providers.
I wanted to bring the concept with me to the Hill that Meaningful Use, in my opinion, is use that is meaningful to a medical care provider in the actual doing of business. In a space with such clear demand, we’ve got to let innovators develop a way to supply information that the market (providers of care) needs, if we want to improve outcomes and reduce costs.
So I flew down to Washington and it was tons of fun… me and Lauren Fifield and the lobbyist and a full dance card on Capitol Hill.
First, we met with Sally Canfield, policy director for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
She’s a true health policy veteran who likes getting—and will give you—the straight story. She’s also one of the only people on the Hill with whom I could speak at my normal (lightning) pace and know she can keep up. We talked about everything from the potential fall of hospitals (Need a hospital? Just scan the horizon for a construction crane)…to the alarming rate of physician employment…to making Meaningful Use really meaningful…to encouraging care coordination…to life in the cloud.
Medicare Advantage (MA) is stuck in a cycle in which the government wants to micromanage MA plans and cut their reimbursement to satisfy deficit hawks, while the health plan industry lobbies for exactly the opposite. The result is a negative-sum game, a stalemate that benefits nobody.
It turns out that this stalemate would be remarkably easy to overcome, in a way that makes money for the government, gives seniors a visibly better deal, reinvigorates the Medicare ACO, and entices many more members into MA. Since MA plans are held to quality standards far beyond what Medicare fee-for-service requires (remember, straight Medicare is a payment system, not an insurance plan), I am going to assert that the increasingly popular MA plan option – especially plans with high Star ratings – provides better care coordination for seniors than fee-for-service (FFS). The government recognizes this implicitly by initiating Medicare ACOs. ACOs are supposed to close that care coordination gap in FFS but it does not look like that is going to happen on a broad scale in the near future.
If one accepts the premise that more care coordination is a worthy goal, here’s a better way of addressing that care coordination gap by getting more seniors into MA, rather than by setting up a parallel universe of ACOs…and do it in a way that clearly saves money for the government and seniors.
Start with the recognition that most 64-year-olds are already in an HMO or PPO. Today’s sign-up procedure for Medicare acts as though neither innovation exists. A senior becomes eligible for Medicare and then (in competitive markets) gets deluged with offers to join one or another MA plan, which requires switching out of FFS — a model that, while called “traditional,” is totally unfamiliar to patients coming out of commercial HMOs. These enticements to seniors are quite costly for the health plans, involving brokers, salespeople, advertising etc.
How about a system in which MA becomes an opt-out instead of an opt-in for 65-year-olds, meaning people would automatically start receiving their Medicare benefit through a health plan instead of FFS? As you read what follows, assume that MA would still be totally voluntary and that people who want the old-fashioned FFS can simply opt into it.Continue reading…
Care coordination is one of the four pillars of Meaningful Use, one of the six NCQA Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH) standards and one of the main goals of Accountable Care Organizations (ACO). Care coordination, particularly for patients with multiple chronic conditions, is expected to reduce unnecessary repetition of laboratory testing or imaging and the number of avoidable admissions. Other than reducing overall costs, care coordination is also supposed to improve quality of care. According to experts like Joe Flower, “Lack of care coordination is at the core of the mess healthcare is in”, and nobody in their right mind would argue that it is best that medical care remains disorganized and uncoordinated, if it is indeed so. It seems that our fee-for-service, fragmented and fractured (lots of f-words here) health care system is not conducive to care coordination. When patients float around in a sea of hospitals, physicians, nursing homes and other facilities, each care provider gets paid, and is responsible for the piecework performed at their independent entity and nobody is minding the handoff of patients to the next provider of care, and nobody is assembling a comprehensive picture of the entire care process, let alone orchestrating, or coordinating, the progression of patients between stages of care and the overall needs of patients in transit. What would it take then, to see that the bits and pieces of health care we now have, become a safe and affordable continuum of care?
CMS is taking the lead, as it should, in an all-out effort to encourage health care coordination through various carrot-stick initiatives, aligned to ultimately base payment for medical care on value to the patient, as measured on a population level, instead of fee-for-service and no accountability for outcomes. These initiatives fall into three general categories:
- Health Information Technology to assist with documentation, information exchange and measurements as required in any coordination effort.
- Incentives and penalties for providers based on measures thought to be influenced by care coordination (e.g. preventable hospitalizations, readmission rates, etc.)
- Financial and structural encouragement for vertical integration of the delivery system (e.g. ACOs, consolidation, employed physicians, etc.)Continue reading…
Under the headline, “Medicare Plan for Payments Irks Hospitals,” today’s New York Times details the opposition stirred up by the government’s “value-based purchasing” initiative. If you’re buying anything (and the US federal government is the largest purchaser of healthcare in the world), on what basis other than value would you want to buy?
The measure at issue is “Medicare spending per beneficiary” during hospitalization, and in the 3 days before and 90 days after. The hospitals and hospital associations that are complaining have, mostly, two beefs: “Our patients are sicker,” and “We can’t be responsible for what happens, and what tests and procedures doctors order, outside our walls.”
The government’s response to the first is that the system will be adjusted for older populations, more acuity, and other variables. The response to the second is more complex, but it amounts to: “Work it out.”
And there is good reason for this. In studies going back two decades, the Dartmouth Group has shown wide disparities in Medicare payments per beneficiary between regions and between hospitals. A recent Institute of Medicine study took the Dartmouth stats and, in response to all the talk from hospitals that “our patients are sicker,” or “but we have to pay for teaching and research,” re-worked them to back out all those confounding factors. The Dartmouth Group’s study showed that the most expensive areas spent three times as much as the least expensive. After the IOM backed out the confounding factors, the data still showed that the more expensive areas spent twice as much. And the expense does not vary so much with inner-city status or number of illegal aliens as it does with whether health care in a given area is well-organized and coordinated or unorganized and fractured. It’s a really easy pattern to see if you stare at the maps of expense long enough, and know a lot about different healthcare markets.Continue reading…
Last month The American College of Physicians (ACP) released a well-reasoned and thorough position paper, The Patient-Centered Medical Home Neighbor: The Interface of the Patient-Centered Medical Home with Specialty/Subspecialty Practices.
As I’ve written before, the Big Idea behind ACOs (Accountable Care Organizations) is the notion of accountability, not the specifics of organizational structure.
The purpose of the ACP position paper is to address the gaps that exist in care coordination when a physician refers a patient to a specialist. The obvious and logical answer proposed is to develop “Care Coordination Agreements” between primary care physicians and referring specialists, and the position paper takes 35 pages to explain why and how.
A simplified way of thinking about Care Coordination Agreements is that they recognize that coordination of care is a team sport, that specialists are part of the team, and that this paper proposes rules of the game about how primary care physicians and specialists should play together on behalf of their common patients.
However, there’s a great big CAVEAT buried in the position paper. I don’t doubt the earnestness of the authors, but I do take this caveat as a Freudian slip recognition that not all specialists will be eager to play on the team and to play by the rules:
At this time, implementation of the above principles within care coordination agreements represents an aspiration goal…
The care coordination agreements should be viewed solely as a means of specifying a set of expected working procedures agreed upon by the collaborating practices toward the goals of improved communication and care coordination — they are not legally enforceable agreements between the practices. [emphasis of “solely” is in the original document, not added]
Don’t expect to hold us accountable….and don’t expect to be able to sue us if we don’t get it right
Vince Kuraitis, JD, MBA is a health care consultant and primary author of the e-CareManagement blog where this post first appeared.