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Tag: Costs

And Yes, The Affordable Care Act Really Does Make Care More Affordable. Here’s One Example ….

Recently I was asked to intervene on behalf of a patient who, trapped by circumstance, was paying off an enormous bill for a lithotripsy procedure. What I uncovered wasn’t news, but it drove home how egregious the current system can be, why it so badly needs to be fixed, and how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) helps move us in the right direction.

The patient had health insurance through her husband’s job. But it was cancelled just after the hospital validated it, because the employer failed to pay the premium. The procedure was performed, and the patient was charged as “self-pay.”

If Medicare had been the payor in this case, the hospital’s total reimbursement would have been a little less than $2,000. But the lithotripsy and associated costs were billed at $33,160, or just under 17 times the Medicare rate. After the patient applied for financial assistance, a 30% contractual adjustment was applied, reducing her bill to just under 12 times the Medicare rate.

If the health system had asked her to pay 190 percent of Medicare – typically the upper end of commercial insurance rates – her bill would have been about $3,800. By the time I was contacted, the patient and her husband – responsible people trying to make good on their debt – had already paid the health system $5,700 or 285 percent of Medicare. The hospital insisted they owed an additional $16,000.

I laid this out in a letter to the CEO and, probably because he wanted to avoid a detailed description of this unpleasantness in the local paper, he relented, zeroing out the patient’s balance. No hospital executive wants to be publicly profiled as a financial predator.

But while that resolved that patient’s problem, it did nothing to change the broader practice. Most US health systems, both for-profit and not-for-profit, exploit self-pay patients in this way. Worse, not-for-profit health systems legally pillage their communities’ most financially vulnerable patients while getting millions of dollars in tax breaks each year for providing charity care.

Aggressive collections procedures, including  home liens, are widespread.
Some states have strictly limited what hospitals can charge low income patients. In California, uninsured patients with incomes below 350 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) – $82,425 in 2013 for a family of 4 – can be charged no more than Medicare rates. In New Jersey, patients within 500 percent of the FPL cannot be charged more than 115 percent of Medicare.

Section 9007 of the ACA took effect last year and prohibits excessive pricing for self-pay patients, and would revoke a charitable hospital’s tax-exempt status if it charges them more than it charges for insured patients. The language is ambiguous, conceivably allowing health systems to circumvent the law’s intent. But the spirit is clear. To keep their not-for-profit tax status and perks, health systems must stop taking advantage of self-pay patients.

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Mental Health Parity and the Affordable Care Act

The Obama administration announced on Friday that it will require parity for mental health insurance coverage. That means that health insurers must apply the same copayments, deductibles, and visit limits to mental healthcare as they do for physical health care treatment. Call it fair, call it political, but please don’t call it a good economic or health policy.

The story about how this is fair, or at least politically popular goes something like this: Health insurers are evil and powerful firms that can and will do whatever they want. On the other hand, patients with mental health problems are politically weak and must be protected from the powerful insurers that have no interest in taking care of them.

In this story, the Obama administration rides in on its white stallion and rights the wrongs being perpetrated by the villainous insurance companies. All we need is a damsel in distress, an evil step-mother, and a catchy tune and Disney will sign the movie rights.

The problem with this simplistic story line is that you can replace “mental health” with nearly any other condition and the story would sound just as plausible.

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Letting the Data Speak: Estimating County Health Care Costs In Washington State

Besides state and higher-level health care expenditures, county level HCE are useful, integral really. For example, to promote the Triple Aim (the best care for the whole population at the lowest cost) you need per capita HCE. And knowing those costs at the county level would help a lot. However, county estimates generally don’t exist. They didn’t in Washington State until a client needed cost estimates for our 39 counties. To supply those estimates I used a regression approach resulting in this model:

percaphce = +0.1*percapinc + 247*pctage65 + 0.71*percapmedaid + 10.5*pctrural – 1349

Washington State Context
Before discussing model rationale and county HCE estimation, here’s some context about Washington State and its counties. You might view Washington as a microcosm of the nation. It has mountains, forests, deserts, rivers and lakes, vast rural areas, major cities, diverse populations and industries, and a varied climate. It is distinguished by active volcanoes and a coastal border. There is a wide range of political, social and economic clusters. In 2010 King County, where Seattle is located, median annual household income was about $67 thousand (the U.S. median was roughly $50 thousand) yet there are state counties where one in three children live in poverty. The total population is approximately 7 million with half of those people living in just three of the 39 counties.1 At the other end about a third of the counties have populations of 30 thousand or less.

An Aside about Seattle Weather
You may have been told that it rains all the time in Seattle. I live in Seattle and can tell you that’s a myth. Seattle’s average annual rainfall is less than New York City’s. However, during a good part of the non-summer months Seattle, and Puget Sound generally, is grey and cloudy. I once heard a story about the original settlers who landed in November, 1851, at Alki near present-day Seattle. The story is they were there for months before the weather finally cleared and they saw Mt. Rainier for the first time. I don’t know if that story is historically true, but as a Seattleite it’s believable. Regardless, Seattle is a summer paradise. Seattle summers, like most of Puget Sound, are characterized by pleasant sunny days, cool nights and no mosquitoes.

Background for the County HCE Estimates
Last year Empire Health Foundation of Spokane, Washington, asked me to estimate HCE for the 39 counties in the state. The purpose was for an upcoming meeting of policy types such as county commissioners, members of various health organizations, and other stake holders. A theme would be Donald Berwick’s Triple Aim, so cost estimates were wanted for benchmarks and context. The CMS2 Office of the Actuary had recently developed state HCE.3 If I could build a reasonable regression model on state-level data to predict state HCE, and there were similar variables at the county level, I could use the state model to estimate county HCE. That’s the approach I took. A caveat is my understanding was that acceptance—believability and reasonableness of the estimates to a lay audience—were as important as accuracy.

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Affording the Affordable Care Act

As enrollment in the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) new health care markets, or exchanges as they are also known, begins, much of the debate over the law is focused on insurance: Who will get coverage? How much will premiums cost? Should our state expand Medicaid? Yet health insurance is not an end in itself.

The point of insurance is to help people get the health care they need at prices they can afford and, in the event of serious injury or accident, to protect them from catastrophically high medical bills. What often gets lost in the debate is how the new law will affect Americans’ ability to buy health care.

While relatively little will change for most people who already get their insurance through employers, an estimated 49 million Americans will be affected by the new law, either becoming newly insured or changing their source of coverage. How will these changes affect consumer health care spending? Will the Affordable Care Act live up to its name?

Of course, ultimately only time and experience will tell. But in the meantime, the law is being implemented, and policymakers and consumers confronting the new health care market are seeking answers about the law’s likely impact, beyond politicized charges and countercharges about whether it will succeed.

Using the COMPARE microsimulation model, my RAND colleagues and I examined how the ACA will affect spending by consumers who are insured for the first time or who change coverage as a result of the law. Specifically, we looked at out-of-pocket spending (spending at the point of sale — copays, deductibles, and coinsurance, which is the fraction of spending not covered by insurance); total spending on health care, which includes out-of-pocket spending plus insurance premiums; and consumers’ risk of high medical care costs.

The analysis focused on 2016, the first year in which penalties for not complying with the individual mandate will be fully in effect, and considered two scenarios: one in which the ACA is fully in place and another that estimates outcomes without the ACA.

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How to Cut Medicare Spending: Attack Large Claims!!

Medicare reform thus far has been focused on $79 office visits, co-payments for home health care, hospital readmissions, Miami infusion clinics, the price paid for scooters, $45 resting EKG’s, the Plan B deductible, etc. These are important areas to pursue — but they are not where the real money is.

While we are debating the ‘doc fix’, the drug companies, device companies and hospitals are backing up the truck and cleaning out the store!

Consider the following paid claims paid by Medicare in Indiana in 2011:

  • 113 Heart Transplants: average payment was $773,877 a piece
  • 96 Bone Marrow Transplants: average payout was $509,637 apiece
  • 129 Liver Transplants: average payout was $367,000 apiece
  • 2,200 Tracheostomies: average payout was $376,103 apiece
  • 1,517 Open Heart Surgeries: average payout was $185,000 apiece

Altogether, the 12,000 largest claims in one state totalled $2.4 billion in Medicare spending. If the other states are consistent, then large claims like these ate up $120 billion of Medicare’s total spending of $545 billion. And when you factor in sepsis treatments, defribillator-implants, and similar claims that cost “only” $75,000 each and so did not make the above list…….. then almost two-thirds of Medicare spending — over $300 billion a year — is focused on just ten percent of beneficiaries.

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What to Do About Futile Critical Care

Thanks to extraordinary advances in medicine, critical care providers can save lives even when the cards are stacked against their patients. However, there are times when no amount of care, however cutting-edge it is, will save a patient. In these instances, when physicians recognize that patients will not be rescued, further critical care is said to be “futile.” In a new study, my RAND and UCLA colleagues and I find that critical care therapies that physicians regard as “futile” are not uncommon in intensive care units, raising some uncomfortable questions.

Of course, we’re fortunate to have such fantastic technology at our disposal — but we must address how to use it appropriately when the patient may not benefit from high-intensity measures. When aggressive critical care is unsuccessful at achieving an acceptable level of health for the patient, treatment should focus on palliative care.

In our study, my colleagues and I quantified the prevalence and cost of “futile” critical care in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. This can be seen as the first step toward reevaluating the status quo and better optimizing care for critical care patients.

After convening a group of critical care clinicians to determine a consensus definition of “futile treatment,” our research team analyzed nearly 7,000 daily assessments of more than 1,000 patients.

We found that 11 percent received futile treatment, while an additional 9 percent received “probably futile” treatment.

So physician-perceived futile critical care is indeed prevalent. But what about the cost?

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Diagnosing Concussions and Assessing Balance- On Your iPhone

The fall sports season is tantalizingly near; players and fans alike are gearing up for the Friday night lights and Sunday afternoon showdowns. But the season comes at a cost; every bone-jarring hit and wince-inducing header carries the risk of sustaining a concussion.

Most media coverage focuses on the National Football League’s professional players, but 65% of traumatic brain injuries are sustained by children. The majority are thought to be undiagnosed, but the Center for Disease Control estimates that 1.6 to 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur each year. This puts athletes at risk of sustaining a second concussion before their brains are fully healed, leading to longer recoveries, permanent neurological damage, and the potentially-fatal Second Impact Syndrome.

A just-released app hopes to change that. Sway Medical, founded by Chase Curtiss in 2011, aims to help health professionals objectively rate the risk of concussion at the source: on the football field or soccer pitch. On-the-spot concussion diagnosis is just the beginning, though; in the near future, the young company plans to enter the hospital space by the end of the year.

The FDA-approved app, called Sway Balance, uses proprietary software and the iPhone’s accelerometer to assess an athlete’s balance over time. In a phone interview, founder and CEO Chase Curtiss said that the app can be used by a health professional to “set up a baseline,” then “compare an athlete over the course of a season to that established norm.” Poor performance compared to baseline is indicative of a possible concussion.

Health care professionals can purchase a yearly subscription to the app for $199 – a fraction of the cost of a typical balance platform – and the patient-facing app is free to download.

Sway Medical has partnered with ImPACT Applications, an organization which Curtiss described as conducting the “gold standard of concussion testing on the market.” ImPACT uses baseline cognitive testing – verbal and visual memory, processing speed, and reaction time – and synchronous testing immediately after a hit to assess if a concussion has occurred.

“But you don’t have an element of physical control of the body,” Curtiss said – which is where Sway Balance comes in. “[ImPACT’s] interest in us is in pairing a balance test with cognitive testing.”

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Nurses Will Play a Vital Role in the Enactment of the Affordable Care Act

While in the care of a nurse, patients have a champion: a health care professional working to assure timely tests, procedures, and rehabilitative activities that foster better and faster recovery.  Prior to discharge from a health facility, it is often the nurse who assesses a patient’s self-care ability (or access to home caregivers) to provide the type of treatments and medications needed to prevent relapse or even costly return to a hospital.

Responsibility for optimal recovery is of course shared by all health team members, but the unique position of nurses at the patient’s bedside (literally and metaphorically) gives us many avenues to influence care and cure.

Though nurses already play a central role in cost containment, care quality, and patient safety, current trends in nursing education have us poised for even greater contributions. That’s because good baccalaureate and graduate programs in nursing increasingly incorporate quality improvement in care settings. Through attention to ‘microsystem’ processes, we work toward better outcomes not only for individuals but also for health systems as a whole. Nursing prepares leaders, administrators, and researchers who can improve care processes and related analytics around outcomes and cost.

The coming enactment of reforms included in the Affordable Care Act will increase the opportunities for nurses to make both individuals and care systems as healthy as they can possibly be. Patient communication, preventive care, and navigation across the vast medical landscape are well-established foci in the curriculum at major U.S. nursing schools. These areas of expertise could not be more essential now that new insurance options and Medicaid expansion are bringing millions of individuals into a national primary care system already taxed by provider shortages.

Nurse navigators and transitional care nurses are stepping up to central coordinating roles within Accountable Care Organizations—the model wherein participating health care providers are collectively responsible for their enrollees’ care, and also can share savings resulting from efficiency and improvements in that care.

Nursing as a profession actively engages in leading efforts to improve patient care and reduce costs; this is integral to our professional values, knowledge base, and skills. We have earned the trust of Americans (we’re voted most ethical and honest in Gallup polls), and will use that trust, along with our health promotion expertise, to communicate with patients about the best prevention, timely care, and most efficient ways to get needed help as they navigate together through America’s evolving system of care.

Kathleen Potempa, PhD, RN, FAAN, is the Dean of the University of Michigan School of Nursing and a national leader in health promotion, nursing education, and research. Dr. Potempa is the immediate past president of the American Associate of Colleges of Nursing and recently concluded a four-year term on the NIH’s National Institute of Nursing Research Council.

Enabling the Health Care Locavore

Three juicy lemons came through my inbox this week. The NY Times published an expose of why hip replacement surgery costs 5-10 times as much in the US as in Belgium even though it’s the same implant. JAMA published research and a superb editorial on the Views of US Physicians About Controlling Health Care Costs and CMS put out a request for public comment on whether physicians’ Medicare pay should be made public. Bear with me while I try to make lemonade, locally, from these three sour economic perspectives.

Here’s a super-concentrated summary of the three articles: The hip surgery is more expensive because, in the US, as many as 10 intermediaries mark-up the price of that same hip prosthesis. Then, Tilburt et al said in JAMA that “physicians report that almost everyone but physicians bears responsibility for controlling health care costs.” The physicians reported that lawyers (60%), insurance companies (59%), drug and device manufacturers (56%), even hospitals (56%) and patients (52%) bear a major responsibility to control health care costs. Finally, CMS is trying to balance the privacy interests of physicians with the market failure that my other two lemons illustrate.

Can we apply local movement principles to health reform? How much of our money can we keep with our neighbors? What policies and technologies would enable the health care locavore? The locavore health system couldn’t possibly be more expensive than what we have now and, as with food and crafts, more of the money we spend would benefit our neighbors and improve our community.

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Beyond the Affordable Care Act: A Framework for Getting Health Care Reform Right

The following was drafted quite a few months ago, and had its genesis in a list of recommendations for improving the health care system that David Dranove solicited from a number of academics for an issue of Health Management, Policy and Innovation. I’ve dawdled in finishing and polishing it up, but seeing the stimulating reform proposal posted  recently by Jay Bhattacharya, Amitabh Chandra, Mike Chernew, Dana Goldman, Anupam Jena, Darius Lakdawalla, Anup Malani and Tom Philipson motivated me to return and finish it; so here it is finally.

Introduction

One can hardly say that there’s been too little discussion of health reform recently. However, much of the discussion is focused on the ACA and its details. That’s fine, but we’ve gotten very far away from thinking about overarching principles that we think should guide the design of a health system, and what that implies for what it would look like [1]. What follows are some thoughts on what such a health reform might look like. They are informed by my read of the research evidence, and my observations of the U.S. health care system over a long period of time, but should be understood as representing only my personal opinions.

This is not intended as a criticism of the ACA. While the ACA certainly isn’t perfect, in my opinion we’re better off as a country with it than without it. However, there will be modifications to the ACA and other changes to the health system as we move forward, so having a framework to structure our thinking will be useful as we consider these inevitable changes.

Guiding Principles

What I propose below is guided by the following. First, economic efficiency is a goal. This simply means avoiding waste, i.e, trying to generate the maximum benefits net of costs. The second goal is that no American is exposed to excessive risk to their health or finances due to medical expenses. Last, the overarching design principle is to create basic ground rules for the system and then let the system run, avoiding heavy handed regulation or micro management. The key objective of these ground rules is to give participants the right incentives insofar as possible, while achieving insurance objectives. With that in mind, compassionate, efficient health reform would do the following.

Health Insurance Reform

First, eliminate the tax exclusion of employer sponsored health insurance. The exclusion of employer sponsored health insurance from income taxation distorts the demand for insurance. This leads to people with employer sponsored health insurance holding excessive coverage, which drives up medical spending and thus insurance premiums. Ironically, not taxing health insurance ends up making both health care and health insurance less affordable. Eliminating the tax exclusion of employer sponsored health insurance will eliminate a major distortion in health insurance, health care, and labor markets. It can generate substantial tax revenues (it’s estimated that the value of the state and federal income tax exclusion for 2009 was $260 billion[2]), while potentially allowing for lower income tax rates. It’s also worth pointing out that the subsidy is biggest for those who face the highest marginal tax rates, i.e., it’s regressive.

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