We are in strange days, and they
are only going to get stranger as COVID-19 works its way further through our
society. It makes me think of Benjamin Franklin’s response when asked
what kind of nation the U.S. was going to be: “A Republic, if you
can keep it.”
The versions of that response that COVID-19 have me wondering about are: “A federal system, if we can keep it,” and, more specifically, “a healthcare system, if we can keep it.” I’ll talk about each of those in the context of the pandemic.
In times of national emergencies — think 9/11, think World Wars — we usually look to the federal government to lead. The COVID-19 pandemic has been declared a national emergency, but we’re still looking for strong federal leadership. We have the Centers for Disease Control, infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, and a White House coronavirus task force. But real national leadership is lacking.
In April 2019, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the Primary Cares Initiative, which is expected to reduce administrative burdens and improve patient care while decreasing health care costs. Learn more about the Primary Cares Initiative and its proposed value-based payment models in part one of this two-part blog series.
While the health care landscape has never been static,
rarely has it seen such radical changes as it has within recent decades. The
population of the United States continues to age, and the prevalence of chronic
conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and anxiety or depression contribute
to a substantially increased demand for care. These factors are pushing a shift
from a provider-centric model toward more efficient outcome-based models that
put the patient at the center and heavily rely on primary care as the steward
of patient care.
Primary care is a vital resource in dealing with the many factors altering the health care landscape. A 2019 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that for every 10 additional primary care physicians (PCPs) per 100,000 people, patients saw a 51.5-day increased life expectancy.
To promote further adoption of primary care-based models, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced a set of payment models meant to further transform primary care through value-based options under the new Primary Cares Initiative. This voluntary initiative will test financial risk and payment arrangements for primary care physicians (PCPs) based on performance and efficiency, including five new payment models under two paths: Primary Care First (PCF) and Direct Contracting (DC). These models, slated to hit 20 states in 2020, seek to address the many difficulties in paying for, and incentivizing, valuable primary care within current payment models.
By JOHN JAMES, ROBERT R. SCULLY, CASEY QUINLAN, BILL ADAMS, HELEN HASKELL, and POPPY ARFORD
Political forces trying to shape and reshape American healthcare without hearing the voice of patients provided the rationale for this work. Our experiences as patients, caregivers, and users of media sources cause us to worry. The Patient Council of the Right Care Alliance developed 6 questions to form a national survey of Americans to guide policy makers. The questions and our rationale were as follows:
3) I will get an infection while receiving treatment. Healthcare-associated infections have dropped somewhat in the past decade, yet there are still about 720,000 infections and 75,000 deaths per year from healthcare-associated infections. Many of these are becoming nearly impossible to effectively treat. The improper use of ordinary antibiotics continues to be a problem in clinical settings.
Super Bowl Week ended with the San Francisco 49ers and 161 U.S. hospitals having something in common.
Both were publicly penalized, both lost money as a result and both passionately believed the process was unfair. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to decide whether their objections were sensible or sour grapes and, in the case of hospitals, the real-life consequences are not a game.
The penalty that pained the 49ers occurred shortly before halftime of Super Bowl LIV, when offensive pass interference was called on tight end George Kittle. The call negated a big gain that might have enabled the 49ers to take the lead.
Replays showed that the referees – nicknamed “zebras” for their black-and-white striped shirts – were technically correct in their decision. Nonetheless, controversy erupted over whether given other possible penalties called or overlooked, this one deserved a yellow flag.
Hospitals call that kind of context “risk adjustment.” A few days before the Super Bowl, the Medicare program blew the whistle on a group of hospitals having high rates of infection and other patient injuries. The hospitals who are outliers in what are blandly labeled “hospital-acquired conditions” (HACs) suffer a cut of one percent in their Medicare payments over next fiscal year.
A seasoned health policy expert, his article cross-references the opinions and work of a range of health commentators including Atul Gawande, Steven Brill, Sarah Kliff, Elizabeth Rosenthal, Zack Cooper, and Canadian health economist Robert Evans. But his major companion is Princeton health economist, Uwe Reinhardt, whose posthumous book, Priced Out: The Economic and Ethical Costs of American Health Care, was recently published by Princeton University Press.
Gaffney’s affection for Reinhardt is evident as he recounts his desperate upbringing in post-war Germany, challenged by poor living conditions, but made whole by access to health care. Quoting a 1992 JAMA interview, Reinhardt states, “When we needed medical care, we got it at the local hospital, no questions asked. When you were sick, society was there for you.”
That acknowledgment is not only personal but historically significant, as I outline in my recent book, Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex. The services Reinhardt received were part of a new national health care system funded fully by American taxpayers as part of the Marshall Plan. At the very same time, American citizens were denied a national health plan of their own as Truman was effectively branded a supporter of “socialized medicine” by the AMA and a cabal of corporate partners.
It is not wise for Democrats to spend all their energy
debating Single Payer health care solutions.
None of their single player
plans has much chance to pass in 2020, especially under the limited
reconciliation process. In the words of Ezra Klein, “If Democrats don’t have a
plan for the filibuster, they don’t really have a plan for ambitious health
Yet while we debate Single Payer – or, even if it somehow
passed, wait for it to be installed — millions of persons are still hurting
under our current system.
We can help these people now!
Here are six practical programs to create a better ACA.
Taken all together they should not cost more than $50
billion a year. This is a tiny fraction of the new taxes that would be needed
for full single payer. This is at least negotiable, especially if Democrats can
take the White House and the Senate.
With each passing year, the Affordable Care Act becomes
further entrenched in the American health care system. There are dreams on both
the far left and far right to repeal and replace it with something they see as
better, but the reality is that the ACA is a remarkable achievement which will
likely outlast the political lifetimes of those opposing it. Future
improvements are more likely to tweak the ACA than to start over from scratch.
A critical part of making the ACA work is for it to support
healthy, competitive and fair health insurance markets, since it relies on them
to provide health care benefits and improve access to care. This is
particularly true for insurance purchased by individuals and small employers,
where the ACA’s mandates on benefits, premiums and market structure have the
most impact. One policy affecting this dynamic that deserves closer attention
is risk adjustment, which made real improvements in the fairness of these
markets, but has come in for accusations that it has undermined competition.
Risk adjustment in the ACA works by compensating plans with
sicker than average members using payments from plans with healthier members.
The goal is to remove an insurer’s ability to gain an unfair advantage by
simply enrolling healthier people (who cost less). Risk adjustment leads insurers
to focus on managing their members’ health and appropriate services, rather
than on avoiding the unhealthy. The program has succeeded enormously in bringing
insurers to embrace enrolling and retaining those with serious health
This is something to celebrate, and we should not go back to
the old days in which individuals or small groups would be turned down for
health insurance or charged much higher prices because they had a history of
health issues. However, the program has also had an undesired effect in many states:
it further tilted the playing field in favor of market dominant incumbents.
Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) and other proponents of the
Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) justified their support for the
HRRP with the claim that research had already demonstrated how hospitals could
reduce readmissions for all Medicare fee-for-service patients, not just
for groups of carefully selected patients. In this three-part series, I am
reviewing the evidence for that claim.
We saw in Part I and Part II that the research MedPAC cited in its 2007 report to Congress (the report Congress relied on in authorizing the HRRP) contained no studies supporting that claim. We saw that the few studies MedPAC relied on that claimed to examine a successful intervention studied interventions administered to carefully selected patient populations. These populations were severely limited by two methods: The patients had to be discharged with one of a handful of diagnoses (heart failure, for example); and the patients had to have characteristics that raised the probability the intervention would work (for example, patients had to agree to a home visit, not be admitted from a nursing home, and be able to consent to the intervention).
In this final installment, I review the research cited by the Yale New Haven Health Services Corporation (hereafter the “Yale group”) in their 2011 report to CMS in which they recommended that CMS apply readmission penalties to all Medicare patients regardless of diagnosis and regardless of the patient’s interest in or ability to respond to the intervention. MedPAC at least limited its recommendation (a) to patients discharged with one of seven conditions/procedures and (b) to patients readmitted with diagnoses “related to” the index admission. The Yale group threw even those modest restrictions out the window.
The Yale group recommended what they called a “hospital-wide (all-condition) readmission measure.” Under this measure, penalties would apply to all patients regardless of the condition for which they were admitted and regardless of whether the readmission was related to the index admission (with the exception of planned admissions). “Any readmission is eligible to be counted as an outcome except those that are considered planned,” they stated. (p. 10)  The National Quality Forum (NQF) adopted the Yale group’s recommendation almost verbatim shortly after the Yale group presented their recommendation to CMS.
In their 2007 report, MedPAC offered these examples of related and unrelated readmissions: “Admission for angina following discharge for PTCA [angioplasty]” would be an example of a related readmission, whereas “[a]dmission for appendectomy following discharge for pneumonia” would not. (p. 109) Congress also endorsed the “related” requirement (see Section 3025 of the Affordable Care Act, the section that authorized CMS to establish the HRRP). But the Yale group dispensed with the “related” requirement with an astonishing excuse: They said they just couldn’t find a way to measure “relatedness.” “[T]here is no reliable way to determine whether a readmission is related to the previous hospitalization …,” they declared. (p. 17) Rather than conclude their “hospital-wide” readmission measure was a bad idea, they plowed ahead on the basis of this rationalization: “Our guiding principle for defining the eligible population was that the measure should capture as many unplanned readmissions as possible across a maximum number of acute care hospitals.” (p. 17) Thus, to take one of MedPAC’s examples of an unrelated admission, the Yale group decided hospitals should be punished for an admission for an appendectomy within 30 days after discharge for pneumonia. 
Sharing a hotel room, however, does not a marriage make. In order to get better digital health interventions to market faster, we need what I’m calling a Partnership for Innovators, Policymakers and Evidence-generators (PIPE). As someone who functions variously in the policy, tech and academic worlds, I believe PIPE needn’t be a dream.
It is now well established that Americans, in large majorities, favor universal health coverage. As witnessed in the first two Democratic debates, how we get there (Single Payer vs. extension of Obamacare) is another matter altogether.
295 million Americans have some form of health coverage (though increasing numbers are under-insured and vulnerable to the crushing effects of medical debt). That leaves 28 million uninsured, an issue easily resolved, according to former Obama staffer, Ezekiel Emanuel MD, through auto-enrollment, that is changing some existing policies to “enable the government agencies, hospitals, insurers and other organizations to enroll people in health insurance automatically when they show up for care or other benefits like food stamps.”
If one accepts it’s as easy as that, does that really bring to heel a Medical-Industrial Complex that has systematically focused on profitability over planning, and cures over care, while expending twice as much as all other developed nations? In other words, can America successfully expand health care as a right to all of its citizens without focusing on cost efficiency?
The simple answer is “no”, for two reasons. First, excess profitability = greed = waste = inequity = unacceptable variability and poor outcomes. Second, equitable expansion of universal, high quality access to care requires capturing and carefully reapplying existing resources.
It is estimated that concrete policy changes could capture between $100 billion and $200 billion in waste in the short term primarily through three sources.