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Vote Yes

Brian-klepper One of us was at a local diner yesterday, when a good friend and health plan broker walked up to say hello. This guy delivers premium increases every day to employers, and understands how broken things are. “I hope Congress votes yes,” he said flatly. “We’ve got to finally move beyond the status quo and try to change the system.”

As conflicted as we are over it, we agree and we hope the reforms pass. The die is now cast, so there is no point in continuing to urge a different approach. As terribly flawed as it is on cost controls, the bill represents two very important things that, in our opinion, the nation desperately needs.

First, it will significantly open access, bringing America much closer to universal coverage and making personal financial distress a much less likely outcome of sickness or injury. As Nicholas Kristof pointed out Wednesday, that alone will dramatically improve the health of the nation. Widespread uninsurance and under-insurance have been a national disgrace for decades. Passing this bill would be a commitment to move beyond that shame.

Second, we believe the President is attempting to deal with many difficult problems thoughtfully and in good faith within an extremely toxic political environment. We want to see him succeed, because we think that his approach is good for America.

The bill is not what we hoped for. We’re disappointed in the behaviors of both parties. But after a year of wrangling, it is what is possible now. There is no reason the bill’s inadequacies can’t be revisited.

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After the Failure of Reform

Brian-klepper

The stalemate in the bi-partisan health care summit was cast the moment it was announced. Republicans demanded that the reform process start anew, and Mr. Obama insisted on the Senate bill as the framework going forward. The President may now offer a more modest reform bill that can demonstrate some progress on the health care crisis, but that remains to be seen.

We hoped the White House would seize the opportunity presented by Massachusetts’ election of Scott Brown to begin again, huddling away from the lobbyists to develop a new set of provisions that would include reasonable Republican elements, like medical liability reform, as well as other meaningful cost reduction provisions excluded from the first round of bills: pricing/quality transparency, a move away from fee-for-service reimbursement, and the re-empowerment of primary care.

They took a different path. As Ezra Klein speculated in the Washington Post, Mr. Obama and his advisors may believe that, with the 2010 elections bearing down on Congress, there is too little time to begin again.

But this is a questionable political calculation. The reform process soured the American people and American business on the health care bills. A January 27 Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health (NBGH) survey found that 71% of employers believe the bills “will increase the overall cost of health care services in the United States.” A February 11 Rasmussen survey found that 61% of voters think the bills should have been scrapped and the process started over.

And no wonder. Over the past year, the legalized bribery that is special interest lobbying was fully on display, with members of both parties (but led by the Democrats) taking contributors’ money with a gusto unprecedented since the Republican feeding frenzy set off by Newt Gingrich’s K-Street Project. A new report from the Center for Public Integrity shows that “more than 1,750 companies and organizations hired about 4,525 lobbyists — eight for each member of Congress — to influence health reform bills in 2009.” Together, they spent $1.2 billion on health care, more than one-third of the $3.47 billion spent by special interests in 2009 to buy influence over policy.
And then there was the brazen political deal making. Mary Landrieu brought $300 million in federal aid home to Louisiana for voting with the Democratic Leadership, which the GOP promptly dubbed “the Louisiana Purchase.” Ben Nelson got the Feds to pay for most of Nebraska’s Medicaid expansion…in perpetuity. And, on the eve of the Massachusetts Senatorial election, the White House cut a deal that exempted unions from the tax on “Cadillac health plans” until 2018.

The resulting reform provisions – a cynical combination of expert advice, uncompromising ideology and donor quid pro quos – would have extended entitlements while rescuing the industry at the top of a financial bubble, exacerbating the cost growth problem during a recession by replacing dwindling private funding with public dollars. At the same time, the bills specifically avoided committing to approaches that could wring excessive cost from the system.

In truth, either passing or blocking such poor bills would have had little impact on the increasingly threatening crisis. Short of starting over, American health care will continue to face some very harsh realities. More individual and corporate purchasers, particularly small employers, will be priced out of coverage as health care costs explode. This erosion in mainstream coverage is translating to a reduction in total health plan premium – the engine of the health care economy – and to escalating uncompensated care cost loads throughout the system. A plummeting number of insured patients will find it harder and harder to pay for a rapidly growing number of uninsureds and under-insureds.

These are recipes for instability and disaster. And as health care – the nation’s largest economic sector, representing one dollar in six and one job in eleven – becomes increasingly unstable, so does the larger US economy.

Americans are increasingly aware that a government in which both parties are compromised by political ideologies and special interests will likely leave them to their own devices in dealing with health care. American business had, to a great extent, put health care benefits decisions on hold until reform was complete. Now it is resigned to continuing to cope with that burden, but with a renewed commitment to innovation. A February 22nd Towers Watson/NBGH survey found that “83% of companies have already revamped or expect to revamp their health care strategy within the next two years, up from 59% in 2009,” a clear sign that businesses now think they need to act on their own behalves. (Of course, most individual Americans don’t have that latitude.)

One thing is clear. Without reform as it was constituted and the subsidies it promised, the industry faces an onslaught of actions from the marketplace that will focus on its excesses, drive down reimbursement, and hold it more accountable. A long list of innovations – re-empowered primary care; data collaboratives that identify and then create incentives for making the best choices; new technologies like minimally invasive surgeries, point-of-care testing, and clinical decision support tools; medical tourism; clinical groupware; check lists; Health 2.0 business-to-business ventures that streamline health care processes – are now proving they can improve the quality of care while reducing cost.

The result is inescapable. No system this far out of balance can remain unchanged indefinitely. So long as it was influencing the policy process, the health care industry would never course correct in ways that are in our national interest. But as the environment continues to intensify, the market will be driven to embrace and integrate these solutions. One way or another, the health industry is in for real change over the next few years.

Meanwhile, until America meaningfully addresses cost and access through policy, proper health care will continue to be out of reach to many and will threaten many more with personal financial ruin. It will continue to sap the nation’s economic strength, and compromise our efforts to lead and compete internationally.

Which is why the President should begin again, and make achieving serious health care policy reform a dedicated goal. In the process, he could challenge special interest influence over policy, and work to refocus the political process on the common interest. We believe the American people can see how the current paradigm is corroding our nation, and would rally behind this approach. More to the point, this was the premise of Mr. Obama’s election. The American mainstream is waiting for him to assert his leadership in this way.

Health care reform has stalled and possibly failed for the moment. But the stakes are so great for America that failure cannot be an option.


Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe write together on health care reform, market dynamics, innovation and technologies.

2009: A Year of Surprises and Change for the EHR Technology Market

2009 began with a bang for legacy Electronic Health Record (EHR) vendors, promising strong sales and windfall profits on the heels of stimulus package incentive bonuses initially worth more than $19 billion to doctors and hospitals. But things changed dramatically along the way.

Here ten surprises and notable events that have impacted the EHR market:

Payment for Meaningful Use of EHR technology, not for the software and hardware itself.

The idea that using EHR technologies ought to produce improvements in quality of care, better communication with patients, enhanced safety, and better public health reporting — and that these outcomes ought to be monitored and providers held accountable for their achievement — was itself a surprising innovation in 2009.  It has to be counted among the best 10 health care ideas to come out of government in the past generation.Continue reading…

The Health Internet vs. the NHIN — A Matter of Control, Cost, and Timing

David KibbeThere is growing tension within the Obama administration’s health team over who will control health data exchange: everyone (including consumers and their doctors), or just large provider organizations. The public debate will be framed in terms of privacy, security, and the adequacy of current exchange standards. But what really matters is who gets to make decisions about where health data resides, how it can be accessed, how much exchange will cost, and how long it will take for exchange to become routine.

Now is a good time to re-visit the plans for a National Health Information Network (NHIN), since we can finally observe and compare different health data sharing and exchange models in the marketplace. NHINs represent an older model that tries to use regional health information organizations (RHIOs) to establish secure networks, privately owned and operated by large provider organizations, mostly hospitals and health systems. The idea was that, over time, each private regional network would develop a gateway to other networks, creating a “network of networks” that would allow Stanford to talk to Partners Health, or Kaiser to Mayo. This communications model was enterprise/provider-centric. Patients/consumers were relegated to depending upon each RHIO’s policies for access to their health information. It was also a massively expensive and time consuming – think decades – way to build a health data network.

Continue reading…

The Health Internet vs. the NHIN

There is growing tension within the Obama administration’s health team over who will control health data exchange: everyone (including consumers and their doctors), or just large provider organizations. The public debate will be framed in terms of privacy, security, and the adequacy of current exchange standards. But what really matters is who gets to make decisions about where health data resides, how it can be accessed, how much exchange will cost, and how long it will take for exchange to become routine.

Now is a good time to re-visit the plans for a National Health Information Network (NHIN), since we can finally observe and compare different health data sharing and exchange models in the marketplace. NHINs represent an older model that tries to use regional health information organizations (RHIOs) to establish secure networks, privately owned and operated by large provider organizations, mostly hospitals and health systems. The idea was that, over time, each private regional network would develop a gateway to other networks, creating a “network of networks” that would allow Stanford to talk to Partners Health, or Kaiser to Mayo. This communications model was enterprise/provider-centric. Patients/consumers were relegated to depending upon each RHIO’s policies for access to their health information. It was also a massively expensive and time consuming – think decades – way to build a health data network.Continue reading…

Will Business Force Reform Back To The Drawing Board?

Brian KlepperUntil now, non-health care business has been noticeably absent from the health care reform proceedings , and quiet about the bills’ impacts on their management of employee benefits, on cost, and on the larger issues of global competitiveness. Where have the voices been of the powerful business leaders who will pick up much of the tab?

They’ve finally surfaced, and now we’ll see whether they have the will to bring reform back on track. They certainly have the strength. The question is whether this salvo by the business mainstream could force Democrats to reconsider and revise the content and structure of their proposals.

On October 29th, a powerful collaborative of major employer organizations sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi and Republican Leader Boehner asserting that the House legislation “falls short of the bipartisan goal of controlling costs and jeopardizes employer-sponsored coverage which now serves more than 160 million Americans.” The same group sent a similar letter to Senate President Reid earlier that week.

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Why Standards Matter 2: Health IT Enters a New Era of Regulatory Control

David KibbeThe recent history of electronic medical records in ambulatory care, or what we now call EHR (electronic health record) technology, can be divided roughly into three phases. Phase I, which lasted approximately 20 years, from about 1980 to the early 2000’s, was an era of exploration and early adaptation of computers to outpatient medicine. It coincided with the availability of PCs that were cheap enough to be owned by many doctors, and with the increased capacity of off-the-shelf software programs, mainly spreadsheet and database management systems such as Lotus, Excel, Access, and Microsoft’s SQL, to lend themselves to computerized capture of health data and information. Phase II coincided roughly with the American Academy of Family Physician’s (AAFP’s) commitment to health IT as a core competency of the organization, and with its support/promotion of the early commercial vendors in the Partners for Patients program, a national educational campaign inaugurated in 2002 which involved joint venturing with vendors that included Practice Partners, MedicaLogic, eClinicalWorks, and eMDs, among others. Several other physician membership organizations joined this effort to popularize EMRs, or crafted their own education programs for their members based on the AAFP’s model. The most popular Phase II products were, and still are for the most part, client-server software applications that run on local networks and PCs within the four walls of a practice, and tend to use very similar programming development tools, back-end databases, and support for peripherals such as printers. The industry grew, albeit sluggishly, from roughly 2002-present in an unregulated environment, with increasing support from quasi-official industry groups like HIMSS and CCHIT, and with the blessing of many professional organizations, including the AAFP, ACP, AOA, and the AAP. Best estimates are that the numbers of physicians using EHR technology from a commercial vendor roughly tripled during this period, from about 5% of physicians to about 15%. The Bush administration gave moral support to the industry, but did not provide funding or payment incentives, and mostly left the industry to itself to sort out the rules, including certification. The industry is now entering a new phase, one we predict will significantly depart from the previous two eras.Continue reading…

Will Republicans Be Spoilers Or Problem Solvers on Health Care Reform?

Picture 19 In theory Congress’ return from recess next week could offer a new beginning to the health care reform process, giving everyone a chance to take a deep breath and recalibrate the components of change.

Nine months into the wrangling around a new Administration, the talk-show right has seemingly hijacked the discussion on health
care, Democrats’ signature issue, with the standard tools that demagogues have always used: leveraging popular prejudices with oversimplification, hyperbole, and distortion. The die-hard GOP faithful’s leaders – Gingrich, Palin and others (see this off-the-deep-end speech by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich)) – are of course playing spoilers, independent of the cost. They hope to goad centrist voters into abandoning the Democrats so they can retake power. Witness South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint’s comment, “If we’re able to defeat Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

The problem with this approach is that we’re still early on in our national discussion about change and about health care. An increasing number of Americans may be frustrated with Democrats, but after 10 years of Republican rule, few Americans see them as a party of fresh ideas or having an interest in helping anyone but the wealthy and powerful. Americans may have short memories, but they likely still recall that Republicans were just thrown out for a multitude of significant sins. So if everyone you know sends around Obama-as-Hitler arguments, heckling and hoping the Dems will quickly self-destruct may seem like a reasonable strategy. It is doubtful, however, that the other 75 percent of us buy that thinking.

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“Meaningful Use” Criteria as a Unifying Force

Vince-20kuraitis09-small

Over the past several years, many diverse initiatives have arisen offering partial solutions to systemic problems in the U.S. health care non-system.

We see Meaningful Use Criteria recommended by the HIT Policy Committee as a unifying force for these previously disparate initiatives. These initiatives have included:

  • Patient Centered Medical Homes (PCMHs)
  • Regional Health Information Organizations (RHIOs)/Health Information Exchanges (HIEs)
  • Payer Disease/Care Management Programs
  • Personal Health Record Platforms — Google Health, Microsoft HealthVault, Dossia, health banks, more to come
  • State/Regional Chronic Care Programs (e.g., Colorado, Pennsylvania, Improving Performance in Practice)
  • Accountable Care Organizations — the newest model being proposed as part of national reform efforts

Today

While there are some commonalities and overlap, to-date these initiatives have mostly arisen in isolation and are highly fragmented — they’re all over the map. Here’s a graphic representation of the fragmentation that exists today:

MU1

Tomorrow

The HIT Policy Committee recently recommended highly detailed Meaningful Use criteria for certified EHRs.  Doctors and hospitals who hope to receive HITECH Act stimulus funds will have to demonstrate that they are meeting these criteria; the criteria are not yet finalized.

The Committee website describes the central role of the Meaningful Use criteria:

The focus on meaningful use is a recognition that better health care does not come solely from the adoption of technology itself, but through the exchange and use of health information to best inform clinical decisions at the point of care.

The HIT Policy Committee also is recognizing that there are multiple routes to achieving Meaningful Use beyond the traditional EMR 1.0, e.g., modular Clinical Groupware software.

While some might view the Meaningful Use criteria as limited to the world of health IT — something happening “over there” — we see much more going on. We believe the Meaningful Use criteria are becoming a powerful unifying force across the health system, with potential to converge previously disparate initiatives.  Here’s our conceptual representation:

MU2

Let’s consider a couple examples to demonstrate how convergence is occurring.

RHIOs were formed primarily with a mission of developing health IT infrastructure for local data exchange; they had little need to think about how care providers, health plans and others would actually use the data.

Patient Centered Medical Homes have been built around seven principles (e.g., physician directed medical practice, care coordination) — none of which directly relate to a need to develop health IT infrastructure; the fact that IT infrastructure is necessary to implement these principles has been assumed but not defined.

RHIOs focused on health IT with little thought about objectives, while PCMHs had grand objectives with little thought about needs for health IT.

All this is changing.

RHIOs are recognizing that achieving meaningful use of data is essential; PCMH initiatives are recognizing the need for a robust IT infrastructure and the need to match their efforts to Meaningful Use criteria.

Here are some broader implications about Meaningful Use criteria becoming a unifying force:

  • These diverse initiatives will have more commonalities and will look more and more alike
  • Expect previously disconnected regional initiatives to start talking to one another about collaboration.
  • A common phrase we are hearing is “We need to do a crosswalk of Meaningful Use criteria with our initiative/organization/application functionality.”
  • Vendors must ask: “What are we doing to contribute to Meaningful Use of EHRs”
  • Care providers (doctors and hospitals) must ask: “How are vendor offerings helping us to achieve Meaningful Use of EHRs?”

These are positive developments.  Meaningful Use criteria are becoming a powerful unifying force toward integrating our fragmented health system.

Vince Kuraitis JD, MBA is a health care consultant and primary author of the e-CareManagement blog where this post first appeared. David C. Kibbe MD MBA is a Family Physician and Senior Advisor to the American Academy of Family Physicians who consults on healthcare professional and consumer technologies.  Steve Adams is Founder and CEO of RMD Networks, a Denver, Colorado based company.

Health Care Reform’s Deeper Problems

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Congress’ health care reform debate has highlighted how American governance is broken and the difficulty of addressing our national problems.

Take, for example, whether health care is in crisis at all. Conservative commentators argue that America’s health system is fine, that our excellent care simply costs more than other countries’ poorer quality, and that most uninsureds can afford coverage. They ask why we should revamp a great system for the two or three percent of Americans who get less.

This misrepresents reality, though. Care and outcomes are often superior in other developed nations. In America, the ranks of the uninsured and under-insured have skyrocketed, from insurance costs that have grown four times general inflation for a decade. Health coverage is employers’ most unpredictable major cost, a threat to their businesses’ competitiveness, and they have increasingly offloaded costs onto employees. So while  the marginalized uninsured are an important problem, declining coverage for the mainstream is the greater worry. Most know that, even with insurance, any major health problem can spell financial ruin.

As businesses and individuals have been priced out of health coverage over the last four years, commercial health plan enrollment has plummeted by as much as 20 percent, or about 36 million people. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 40 percent who lose group health coverage probably become uninsured.

Fewer people buying coverage means less money to pay for health care products and services, so the industry is experiencing an unprecedented financial decline. With reforms looming, it has fiercely advocated for universal coverage, which would provide stable funding for a larger patient population. Meanwhile, the industry has opposed changing business mechanisms that encourage waste, even though experts agree that one-third or more of all health care cost is unnecessary or inappropriate. But this raises an important question. Why not spend less by recovering wasted dollars, and then improve access?

The industry has pressed its goals through lobbying, which lets special interests exchange campaign contributions for policy influence. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reports that, between January and June, the industry gave Congress more than $260 million. One lobbyist commented, “A person can reach no other conclusion than this is a quid pro quo [this for that] activity.”

The funds have gone mostly to Democrats, the party in power now, and are producing their contributors’ desired results. The current proposals expand coverage, but do little to reduce cost, failing to heed any of health care’s management lessons from the last 25 years. For example, they won’t re-empower primary care, which other nations have found will maintain a healthy populace for half the cost of our specialist-dominated approach. They fail to make care quality and cost transparent, which would let health care finally work as a market, and help identify the best health care vendors. They continue to favor fee-for-service reimbursement, which rewards delivering more products and services rather than rewarding results. And they all but ignore our capricious medical malpractice system, which most doctors say encourages defensive practice.

These problems and their solutions are structural, and are well understood within the industry. If reform does not pursue these structural approaches, health care will continue to drag down the larger economy. Our current problems will remain and intensify, at enormous cost.

Out of this experience, the American people should become aware of a couple of harsh truths.

First, so long as Congress willingly exchanges money for influence, American policy will favor special interests rather than the public interest. We’ll be unable to meaningfully address our national problems: energy, the environment, education, and so on.

Second, so long as partisans distort the truth to discredit their opponents, rather than focusing on our very real problems, America’s future will continue to be compromised.

Which is to say that we have deeper problems than an inability to fix health care.

Brian Klepper, PhD is a health care analyst based in Atlantic Beach. David C. Kibbe MD MBA is a physician and Senior Advisor to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

David C. Kibbe MD MBA is a Family Physician and Senior Advisor to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Brian Klepper PhD is a health care analyst.

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