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We Should Channel People Into Medicare Advantage Plans Where They Won’t Have Amputations or Go Blind (Part 2)

By GEORGE HALVORSON

Former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson has written on THCB on and off over the years, most notably with his proposal for Medicare Advantage for All post-COVID. He wrote a piece in Health Affairs last year arguing with the stance of Medicare Advantage of Don Berwick and Rick Gilfillan (Here’s their piece pt1pt2). We also published his criticism (Part 1Part 2Part 3) of Medpac’s analysis of Medicare Advantage.  Now Medpac is meeting again and George is wondering why they don’t seem to care about diabetic foot amputations. We published part one last week. This is part two– Matthew Holt

We have more amputations and we have more people going blind in our fee for service Medicare program today because we buy care so badly and because we have no quality programs or care linkages for our chronically Ill patients and our low income people in that program.

We have far better care in our Medicare Advantage programs at multiple levels today, and we should be building on that better care for everyone.

The important and invisible truth is that we have major successes in providing better care to Medicare Advantage members across the entire spectrum of that package of care. The sad truth is that MedPac actually keeps those huge differences in care performance by the plans secret from the Congress and from the American public for no discernable or legitimate reason.

We have an epidemic of amputations that are causing almost a fifth of our fee for service diabetes patients who get foot ulcers to lose limbs. The number of patients in both standard Medicare Advantage and in the Medicare Advantage Special Needs Programs who undergo amputations and who have that functional and dysfunctional care failure is a tiny fraction of that number.

MedPac pretends the program does not exist. They did a lengthy study on the overall special needs dual eligible program for Medicare a year ago without mentioning the plans or describing any of the things that the plans to do make care better for those patients.

We know that in fee for service Medicare, 20% percent of diabetes patients routinely get ulcers and 20% of those ulcers to turn into amputations. There are far fewer amputations for Medicare Advantage plan members—and we have failed our overall Medicare population badly by not sharing that information more broadly at open enrollment time.

Medicare Advantage Five Star quality plans that have created a culture of quality improvement at many care sites. Those plans compete fiercely on quality goals and take pride in attaining and celebrating the highest scores.  We started with less than 10% of plans with the highest scores for the first enrollment periods. Now more than 90% of Medicare Advantage members are able to choose between four and five star plans.

The quality measurements that are missing from the set of consumer choices are the ones that relate to the most serious issues for the consumers—and that’s where MedPac should be putting the right set of information on the table to compare the two systems of care. Large amounts of data show that amputations caused by diabetes follow very predictable patterns.  

Roughly 33% of Medicare patients will have diabetes. 20% of diabetics will have ulcers. That number goes up to 30% for some patient groups—but you can count of at least 20% overall to have ulcers.  We know that the overarching pattern in fee for service Medicare is for 20% of those ulcers to end up needing and getting amputations.

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MedPAC Got It Wrong (pt 3)

By GEORGE HALVORSON

This is the third part of former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson’s critique of Medpac’s new analysis of Medicare Advantage. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Eventually I’ll be doing a summary article about all the back and forth about what Medicare Advantage really costs!-Matthew Holt

Risk status and RAF

What is on the MedPac radar screen and what keeps their attention and what actually takes up several long portions of the annual report this year is the other factor that changes the payment levels to the plans — the risk status of their enrollees.

The capitation levels that are paid to the plans are affected very directly by the health status levels of the actual enrollees.

Risk levels for the members set and change the payment levels for the plans. The very first capitation programs didn’t factor in relative risk status for the members, and it was possible for some care sites to make major profits on capitation just by enrolling healthier than average people and by being paid an average cost level for each area for the people they enrolled.

That initial payment process has evolved very intentionally into having diagnosis-based cost factors that attempt to link the health status of the members and a fair payment level for the plans. The plans identify for the risk filing process the diagnosis levels for the members and their payment levels as plans are directly affected by the risk levels they report for their members.

People have had some concern about whether some parts of that coding process have been done badly, incorrectly or with purely avaricious intent.

There have been significant levels of concern expressed about whether the plans might be able and willing to produce and present inaccurate and distorted information in the process. That alarm was triggered in part by the fact that some of the plans made getting that information into their annual filings a high priority and some were more successful than others in that process.

It is good to have accurate diagnosis information.

We actually should as a nation and a health care macro system want to see an expansion of our data base and our medical records on basic levels of diagnostic information.

As a nation and as a macro care system we should definitely want to have full diagnosis information for each patient. Care can be better when caregivers have the right diagnosis for all of their patients.

How CMS  has changed Risk Adjustment

CMS just did a brilliant thing and completely eliminated the filing system and process for risk coding and data.

The CMS Hierarchical Conditions Categories Risk Adjustment Model was just killed. CMS just took the system that has created the vast majority of concerns and churn about the issues of coding intensity and shut it down.

It no longer is a factor for any risk scores. CMS will still look at the relative risk levels of patients but will get that information completely from patient encounter filings and direct patient information and not from any plan filings or reports.

An entire industry of organizations working to enhance risk scores just became obsolete and irrelevant.

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MedPAC Got It Wrong (pt 2)

By GEORGE HALVORSON

This is the second part of former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson’s critique of Medpac’s new analysis of Medicare Advantage.Part 1 is here. The final part will be published on THCB later this week. Eventually I’ll be doing a summary article about all the back and forth about what Medicare Advantage really costs!-Matthew Holt

We clearly do have significant levels of quality data about the MA plans because we have extensive levels of quality programs and recognitions that exist in MA . Those programs get better every year — and MedPac should be reporting and even celebrating each year how many additional plans are achieving high scores in those areas as part of their report.

MedPac should be describing and celebrating progress that is being made in that five-star space and the members of the Commission don’t seem to know that information exists.

In fact, they sink lower than that pure denial in their report this year. They actually say in this year’s report that they have deep concerns about the quality of care for MA and they say clearly that they have no useful data to use for thinking about how MA is doing relative to quality issues.

Saying that there is no quality data about the plans is another MedPac falsehood (MPF) and, as they so often are, that particular falsehood is disproved quickly and easily by their own documents. In the final section of this year’s report where they were asked by Congress to do a report on the quality of care in the Special Needs Plans. The MedPac writers achieve that explicit goal in large part by using the easily available HEDIS quality data for those patients and for the other patients in the plans and by comparing both sets of numbers to relevant populations.

So this year’s report has that set of NCQA quality data for the MA plans included in it. MedPac is using it now even though they say no data exists and that means that’s another falsehood to say it doesn’t exist.

We know what the quality data of the five-star program is and we know what the HEDIS Scores are for the MA plans, and we also know how much MA costs us in every county because the bids give us that information.

We know that the plans bid below the average county fee-for-service Medicare costs in every county and we know what the total costs are by person for each county.

We need to know what the real costs are and we need to look at how we get the very best use of the Medicare dollar. MedPac should make it a priority to figure out how to get the best use of the Medicare dollar using both bids, capitation, and various kinds of ACO-related payment processes. ACOs all create better care than traditional fee-for-service Medicare, and the people who are critical of ACOs for not saving enough money should rethink their priorities. They should be happy with any use of the Medicare dollar that gives more for the member and patient

If an ACO that has team care and patient centered data flows just breaks even on costs relative to fee-for-service Medicare, that should be celebrated and supported as being a much better use of the Medicare dollar.

We should make patients our top priority. ACOs make patients their priority. MA Plans clearly set up benefits and care practices around the patient’s the top priority. Only fee-for-service Medicare completely lets the patient down by being rigid on benefits, rigid on service, and making costs a higher priority than people’s lives and doing that badly and inefficiently. We should be working through MedPac each year to see which approach to buying care actually gives us the very best use of our Medicare dollar.

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MedPAC Got It Wrong (pt 1)

By GEORGE HALVORSON

This is the first part of former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson’s critique of Medpac’s new analysis of Medicare Advantage. The rest will be published on THCB later this week. Eventually I’ll be doing a summary article about all the back and forth about what Medicare Advantage really costs!-Matthew Holt

MedPac just did their annual report on Medicare Advantage (MA) and they were extremely wrong on several key points.

The MedPac staff has a long tradition of being critical of MA, and they also, unfortunately, have a long tradition of being inaccurate, misleading, and consistently negative on some key points for no explicable or easily understood reason.

They achieved a new low this year by spending more than 20 pages of the report warning us all in detail about the upcoming cash flow distortions and coding abuses that they say are coming from a risk adjustment model and system that actually no longer exists in 2022 as a functioning system for our Medicare program — and they are also continued their distortion about Medicare overpayment of the plans by running an artificial cost number that functions only to deceive and not to inform and by using what is essentially a fake news number several times in the report.

Coding and Risk Adjustment

CMS has now officially canceled and retired the CMS Hierarchical Conditions Categories Risk Adjustment Model that has been used for almost two decades to calculate risk for plans. It is dead and completely gone for 2022 — and MedPac explained bitterly for more than 20 pages why it was a damaging approach and they somehow did not mention that it was now gone.

CMS has some very good thinking people who brilliantly took that whole set of coding linked issues off the table by making the system that was being potentially abused simply disappear.

MedPac wrote more than 20 pages in this year’s official report about MA complaining about that exact process and system and they didn’t mention that it was gone or explain why it was important to not have that data flow create the risk level information that we will now be using to get diagnostic information into the system.

The new approach for determining patient risk levels is fraud proof. There is no way to put wrong data into the information flow that they are now going to use to see and determine which patients are diabetic and which have heart disease or who has drug abuse issues for the risk discernment processes.

The impact on low income Medicare patients & union members

MedPac also had a major content deficit in their report and managed to leave the most important aspects of the work being done now by the plans to help offset some of the damage done to too many Americans who have been damaged by social determinants of health issues for far too long in their lives. MedPac also completely failed to report and discuss the important reality of the fact that we have now reached the point where two-thirds of our lowest income Medicare beneficiaries are all voluntarily in the MA plans.

They also left out of their report the fact that a significant number of union trust funds and a significant number of employer retirement programs that had made significant promises of retirement health care benefits to their retirees over the past decades are actually having those commitments kept, met, and even enhanced with the relatively new employer-sponsored MA plans that work directly with employer settings.

Five million people who might have had their retirement health care programs bankrupt, underfunded, or at serious risk have found a very strong safety net in the MA program — and MedPac does not think that development was important to understand and probably celebrate.

Anyone looking at the future politics and funding of the MA program will find both that overwhelming support for MA from our lowest income people and from our most well-connected employer retirement funds to be good and important to understand.

MedPac missed every bit of that agenda and set of accomplishments in this year’s report.

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Medicare Advantage Is a Superior Program (Part two)

By GEORGE HALVORSON

Former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson has written on THCB on and off over the years, most notably with his proposal for Medicare Advantage for All post-COVID. He wrote a piece in Health Affairs last week arguing with the stance of Medicare Advantage of Don Berwick and Rick Gilfillan (Here’s their piece pt1, pt2). Here’s a longer exposition of his argument. We published part one last week so please read that first. This is part two – Matthew Holt

Medicare Advantage is better for the underserved

The African American and Hispanic communities who were particularly hard hit by those conditions and by the Covid death rates have been enrolling in significant numbers in Medicare Advantage plans.

The sets of people who were most damaged by Covid have chosen in disproportional numbers to be Medicare Advantage members. Currently 51 percent of the African Americans on Medicare are in Medicare Advantage plans and more than 60 percent of the Hispanic Medicare members will be on Medicare Advantage this year.

That disproportionate enrollment in Medicare Advantage surprises some people, but it really should not surprise anyone because the Plans have made special,  direct, and inclusive efforts to be attractive to people with those sets of care needs and have delivered better care and service than many of the new enrollees have ever had in their lives. 

The Medicare Advantage plans have language proficiency support competencies, and language requirements and capabilities that clearly do not exist anywhere for fee-for-service Medicare care sites. A combination of team care,  language proficiency, and significantly lower direct health care costs for each member has encouraged that pattern of enrollment as well.

The $1600 savings per person has been a highly relevant factor as more than twice as many of the lowest income Medicare members — people who make less than $30,000 a year — are now enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans.

Medicare Advantage’s critics tend to explicitly avoid discussing those enrollment patterns, and some of the most basic critics actually shamelessly say, with what must be at least unconscious malicious intent in various publications and settings, that the Medicare Advantage demographics for both ethnicity and income levels are a clone for standard Medicare membership. Those critics have said that  there is nothing for us to learn or see from any enrollment patterns or care practices based on those sets of issues.

Many people who discuss Medicare Advantage in media and policy settings generally do not focus on or even mention the people in our population who most need Medicare Advantage — the 4 million people who are now enrolled in the Special Needs Plans.

Special Needs Plans for Dual Eligibles

The Special Needs Plans take care of low-income people who have problematic levels of care needs and who very much need better care.

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Medicare Advantage Is a Superior Program (Part one)

By GEORGE HALVORSON

Former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson has written on THCB on and off over the years, most notably with his proposal for Medicare Advantage for All post-COVID. He wrote a piece in Health Affairs last week arguing with the stance of Medicare Advantage of Don Berwick and Rick Gilfillan (Here’s their piece pt1, pt2). Here’s a longer exposition of his argument. We are publishing part one today with part two coming soon – Matthew Holt

The evidence for Medicare Advantage being a superior program compared to standard fee-for-service Medicare is so overwhelming that anyone who cares about actual Medicare Patients or who cares about the financial future of Medicare should be strongly supporting having as many people as possible enrolled in that program as soon as we can effectively make that happen.

Compared to fee-for-service Medicare, Medicare Advantage has better benefits.

Compared to fee-for-service Medicare, Medicare Advantage has a better tool kit at multiple levels.

Medicare Advantage has team care, connected care, and electronically supported care processes — and we know beyond any debate or dispute that those advantages exist for Medicare Advantage over standard fee-for-service Medicare because fee-for-service Medicare does not pay for those sets of services and literally labels it billing fraud if a caregiver who provides team care in a patients home to prevent a congestive heart failure crisis or to keep a life threatening and function impairing asthma attack from happening sends a bill to standard Medicare for those services.

The superiority of Medicare Advantage is beyond question.

Standard fee-for-service Medicare has no quality care processes, no quality reports and no quality standards or expectations at all. Standard Medicare actually has absolutely no quality data and does not hold any provider accountable for the quality of the care they deliver.

Medicare Advantage has an extensive quality agenda and tracks more than 40 categories of quality and service at the plan level. Medicare Advantage plans build continuously improving programs around those Five-Star priorities and measures, and we know from our current reporting that even during Covid, the percentage of Medicare Advantage patients with cardiovascular disease who are currently on statin therapy went up from 80.86% of patients a year ago to 83.36% this year.

The ratings by the Medicare Advantage members for customer service by their plans went from 90.56% a year ago to 90.87% this year.

That is not a big improvement but having satisfaction numbers that start out that high actually go up during Covid days is an accomplishment and it is one of the reasons why we should be encouraging people to join the plans and its why fee-for-service Medicare is a measurably inferior approach for so many people.

Standard Medicare does not have a clue about who is getting their statin Medications and they officially don’t care.

In fact, some of the fee-for-service Medicare doctors and care sites who are paid only by the piece for care from the standard Medicare program actually often make more money when care fails, because when a patient has a major asthma crisis or a congestive heart failure crisis, that negative outcome for a patient can generate multiple medical fees and it can too often trigger a $10,000–$20,000 total additional cash flow to the caregivers whose care sites failed that patient by not helping improve the health of the patient before the crisis was triggered.

Why is Medicare Advantage’s purchasing system better?

Medicare Advantage plans are paid by Medicare by the month for each patient and they are not by the piece for each item of care.

Because Medicare Advantage plans are paid by the month for each patient, and must, by contract, provide complete care to each patient, it makes extremely good sense for the plans to help patients in ways that prevent asthma attacks and that prevent congestive heart failure crisis, and that avoid and help reduce the levels of blindness and amputations for their diabetic patients that can too easily happen to those patients if you don’t manage and guide that care.

The Medicare Advantage approach for all of those categories of care is obviously far better for the patients than the fee-for-service Medicare inadequacies in care.

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George Halvorson HIMSS Changemaker Lifetime Achievement Award Acceptance Speech, Part 2

Former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson has written on THCB on and off over the years, most notably last year with his proposal for Medicare Advantage for All post-COVID. This month he was given a lifetime achievement award by HIMSS and we are running his acceptance speech in two parts. We ran part one last week, and here’s part two– Matthew Holt

We also initially have an important and continuously improving sense of the epigenetic processes that exist in all of us to develop our own responses to the world we are in at a biological level, and we should be able to use that information to improve our health and our care.

That is extremely relevant to you because it is very much a systems and coding issue to bring epigenetics into care delivery and care systems.

The magnificent, wonderful, and extremely powerful new CRISPR tool kit actually used computer like coding approaches and created a vaccine for Covid that explicitly triggered our body’s immune responses exactly as our epigenetics are naturally programmed and coded to do for other vaccine approaches.

We will be able to use that set of tools to improve our responses to cancer and multiple other diseases in a growing variety of important ways. We actually now can choose to evolve as a species because that particular tool actually allows us to change our genetic code in very channeled and intentional ways. That capability and reality is hugely important — and we will now be able to use those new tools in a growing range of ways.

We should be able to stabilize or reduce the amount of money we spend on care when we put these full sets of tools in place.

However — we also do need to become better and smarter buyers of care to make that full set of enhancements happen.

Every economic system on the planet does what it is paid to do. Care is not an exception to that reality.

That full connectivity level and organized team care for patients will only happen if we decide as a nation to stop buying all care by the piece — and if we move to paying for total care for our patients to teams of appropriately supported caregivers who are rewarded financially for continuous improvement.

Care sites everywhere in the world do what they are paid to do. They also do not do things they are not paid to do. They function as businesses everywhere, so they do what every business does in every industry and they give their customer exactly what the customer pays for.

No business in any industry uses any other model.

With that reality in mind — we all need to understand the fact that we Americans buy care very badly.

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George Halvorson HIMSS Changemaker Lifetime Achievement Award Acceptance Speech, Part 1

Former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson has written on THCB on and off over the years, most notably last year with his proposal for Medicare Advantage for All post-COVID. This month he was given a lifetime achievement award by HIMSS and we are running his acceptance speech in two parts. Here’s part one — Matthew Holt

Thank you for giving me this first ever HIMSS Changemaker In Health Care Lifetime Achievement Award.

You are honoring an extremely impressive set of other current changemakers at this particular national meeting for 2021 and I am very honored and pleased to be the first person to be given the Lifetime Achievement version of this Changemaker award.

Changemaking is a good thing.

Changemaking is actually happening at a massive level for health care systems right now and that is good for health care and it is good for health care patients.

We are actually at the dawn of a golden age for health care systems, and I deeply appreciate being recognized for having done several fun, useful, and interesting things over time to help get us to where we are now.

As you pointed out, I have personally had a chance to work very directly on rolling out full electronic medical record systems in a couple of real and functional care systems to tens of millions of people.

It worked well.

We ended up with care sites in those settings that literally had no internal paper flows and that had and still have instantly available medical information for thousands of caregivers about their patients.

That tool kit worked extremely well.

Those care sites ended up with the highest ratings in the country for both quality of care and service and that high level of performance happened because the sites had both a culture of continuous improvement in their care settings and the highest levels of continuously available data for the caregivers in those sites about the patients they served.

“All-All-All.”

That was a mantra, a goal, and a strategy — and it became an actual functional capability.

Having All of the information about All the patients All the time — All-All-All is a good mantra, an extremely practical goal, an extremely functional strategy, and a very solid working practice for the delivery of care — and that data strategy worked even better than we had hoped it would work when we started down that path.

Having full electronic data on every patient improved diabetic care, chronic heart disease care, and stroke and heart damage prevention — and it created major reductions in the complications of care for chronic care patients in every category of care in all of those settings.

The data about patients was expanded at Kaiser Permanente to be the first major site and system in the world to add race and ethnicity to the care data for millions of patients.

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We Need to Fix COVID-Damaged Care Sites and Give the Country Better Care and Universal Coverage in the Process

By GEORGE HALVORSON

The COVID crisis has shown us clearly that major portions of the American care system are extremely dysfunctional and some are now badly broken. We need to put in place a cash flow for American health care that can help our care sites survive and ultimately thrive, and we need to put that approach to save the sites in place now because a vast majority of hospitals and medical practices are badly damaged and some are financially crippled and even destroyed by their response to the crisis.

We have learned a lot in the COVID crisis that we need to use now in building our next steps and our collective response to the crisis.

The COVID crisis has shown us all that our care sites do not have good patient data, do not have good patient linkages, usually do not have team care of any kind in place, and most are so dependent on current piecework fee volumes from patients that they quickly collapse financially when that volume is interrupted.

We should be on the cusp of a golden age of care delivery that uses all of the best patient support tools to deliver continuously improved care — and we now know that the piecework way we buy almost all of our care today will keep that golden age from happening for the vast majority of American patients for the foreseeable future until we change the way we buy care.

We need to buy care in a way that both requires the use of those tools and rewards caregivers and care teams when they use them.

We need a dependable cash flow for care to anchor that process.

We are unlike most of the rest of the industrialized world in not having a dependable cash flow now to buy care. We rely on a hodgepodge and mishmash of unlinked, unaligned and uncoordinated payment sources now and that lack of coordination in payment creates a vast and damaging lack of coordination in the delivery of care.

We can make a huge improvement in that entire process and we can give our health care system a stable and functionally useful future cash flow by becoming a much more highly skilled purchaser of coverage and care. We need a flow of money to make that happen.

We actually can create that flow relatively quickly and fairly easily by imposing a payroll tax on every employee that exactly copies the approach we use now for our Social Security payroll tax process and then using that money in a health care purchasing pool to buy health coverage for every person who is not on Medicaid.

The numbers work.

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We Should Use Both Medicare Advantage for All and Medicaid As A Package to Cover Everyone And We Should Do It Now

A growing number of people want to set aside all of our current health care financing approaches as a country and set up Medicare For All as a Canadian like single payer system to cover every American and pay for our care.

When we spend three trillion dollars a year on health care and still have thirty million people without insurance, the possibility of covering everyone using the most direct and simple approach has some obvious appeal.

That Medicare for All approach being proposed to Congress today would be funded with a half dozen taxes that would include making income tax more progressive and inheritance tax levels significantly higher than they are now.

If we do have enough political momentum and enough alignment as a nation to actually replace everything in our health coverage world with a national Medicare for All system that is financed by those new taxes, then we should seriously consider going even further and spend the same amount of money buying better coverage and better care for everyone by setting up a Medicare Advantage program for Everyone and using that approach and program to cover all Americans.

Medicare Advantage has better benefits, better care coordination, better quality reporting, and a higher level of focus on better care outcomes and better care connectivity than standard Medicare.

Standard Medicare buys care entirely by the piece.   Buying care entirely by the piece rewards bad care, bad care outcomes, bad health, and inefficient care connectivity.

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