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Tag: HHS

How Bundled Payments Just Might Save Health Care From Itself

In the 1960s, Texas Instruments developed the first handheld calculator. It could display up to 12 digits while performing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And it cost $2,200.

Since then, the calculator has come a long way. Competition forced continuous innovations, and today’s models are more lightweight, have longer battery life, are capable of performing more complex computations –all at a dramatically reduced price point.

That’s the typical cycle in virtually every sector of the American economy. Innovations are introduced, competition forces design improvements and cost reductions and products are continually improved until the next big thing comes along to start the process over again.

But that’s not the way things work in healthcare.

Like the calculator, Medicare was first created in the 1960s.

But even though the practice of medicine has changed dramatically over the last 40 years, the Medicare program has stayed largely the same. And, since most commercial insurers tend to follow the government’s lead in terms of payments and benefit design, even private markets have played a role in limiting innovations in the way we pay for healthcare.

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What HHS Might Look Like Under President Romney

The world may not be ready for a Romney presidency.

Or more specifically: world leaders may not have done enough homework.

An interesting Washington Post story this week suggested that because the foreign polls have been so bullish on President Obama — 82% of Germans in one survey expected Obama to be re-elected — lawmakers around the world may be scrambling to adjust to a new team of U.S. diplomats and set of policies.

Is the health sector better prepared?

Given the close race — as of press time on Wednesday, most polls had the presidential race neck and neck — there’s been growing scrutiny of Republican health proposals. For example, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Urban Institute on Tuesday released another report on the GOP House Budget Committee’s Medicaid plan.

But there’s been much less examination of the people who would steer Romney’s Department of Health and Human Services and the policies they’d carry out.

Possible, if Unlikely Contenders

A handful of names — all veterans of the George W. Bush administration — have been repeatedly floated as potential HHS secretaries under Romney. National Journal suggested that former HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt could return to the role. Meanwhile, ex-FDA and CMS head Mark McClellan is “the first name that comes to mind for many Republican health policy folks,” Politico’s Jennifer Haberkorn wrote earlier this year.

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Transforming Care Through Transparency


By year’s end, the Department of Health and Human Services will announce plans for making its Physician Compare website into a consumer-friendly source of information for Medicare patients about the quality of care provided by doctors and other health care providers. In doing so, Physician Compare will take its place alongside Hospital Compare and more than 250 other websites that offer information about the quality and cost of health care. More importantly, perhaps, it will send an important signal that transparency in health care is the new normal.

To look at these 250-plus online reports is to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of the public reporting aspect of the transparency movement. Some make it easy for people to make choices among physicians and hospitals, and just as notably, let providers see where they fall short and need to improve care. But others ask too much, forcing users to sort through rows and rows of eye-glazing data and jargon that requires a medical degree to fathom.

The Affordable Care Act calls for Physician Compare to offer information about the quality of care, including what physicians and their practices did and the outcome for patients, as well as care coordination; efficiency and resource use; patient experience and engagement; and safety, effectiveness, and timeliness. That’s a lot of information, and it demonstrates the tall order facing the federal government to make the reports meaningful and accessible, so that physicians and patients will both be more apt to use them.Continue reading…

The Nefarious Big Bird- Health Care Connection

The flap greeting Mitt Romney’s cheerful admission that as president he’d defund Big Bird’s nesting place on public television could turn out to be good news for a federal agency promoting safe medical care that faces a similar extinction threat. But we won’t know till after the election whether the little-known agency benefited from Big Bird’s protective presence.

The stage was set for Romney’s Big Bird boast by a bill Republicans pushed through a House Appropriations subcommittee in July that slashed or eliminated budgets for a host of programs, including public television’s parent, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A committee statement at the time said the move was meant “to encourage CPB to operate exclusively on private funds.” That same bill completely abolished the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Health policy wonks lamented that terminating the agency “would badly undermine important research on health care quality, disparities in care and patient safety,” as a member of AHRQ’s national advisory council put it. But hardly anyone else noticed.

The end of AHRQ didn’t even rate a separate mention in the committee’s lengthy press release. And while Politico reported that a Democratic subcommittee member called it “the only federal agency whose sole mission is to improve the quality, safety and cost efficiency of health care,” the subcommittee’s GOP chairman said, in effect, the death sentence was nothing personal. It was just a budget-balancing action and “not a reflection on anything.”

That’s where Big Bird waddles into the picture.

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Will the Rollout Of the Exchanges Be Delayed?

While the Governor’s Mansion in Pennsylvania is currently under the control of the Republicans. I know the state’s Insurance Department is relatively apolitical. That’s why this September statement by Pennsylvania Commissioner Consedine before the U.S. House Ways and Means’ Subcommittee on Health is quite telling.

In it, Mr. Consedine describes how the Keystone state is encountering difficulties implementing an health insurance exchange. As readers will recall, exchanges are a key feature of the Affordable Care Act, because they’ll provide an online market that will enable individuals to obtain coverage.

According to Mr Consedine, CMS is failing to support a good law with the many regulatory details that turn a vague idea into a functioning reality. These failings include:

1. “Interim,” not “final” rules on eligibility, tax credit calculations, cost sharing and the role of brokers

2. Little formal guidance on the determination of the essential health benefit.

3. Delays in issuance of regulations on how states and Uncle Sam will split or mutually indemnify the myriad costs of the exchange and the Federal Data Hub.

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Health Insurance Exchanges Work

The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board recently used strong words to criticize the Utah Health Exchange. Its perspective ran afoul of our firm’s recent experience with the Utah exchange, which has been overwhelmingly positive.

Like many small businesses, the triggering event for our involvement in the Utah Health Exchange was the appearance of our insurance broker who laid out a spreadsheet presenting a 22 percent increase in next year’s premium costs. Disappointed, we asked our broker to review other options.

The conventional market yielded quotes ranging from a 22 percent to a 134 percent increase. Ask any small business and you will learn that these increases come right out of employee compensation and, in many cases, new hires. Containing these costs, particularly in small businesses with small risk pools, has eluded the best minds in health care policy for decades.

We asked our broker to explore the Utah Health Exchange with vigor. We considered it last year, but the deadlines proved to be an obstacle for us. Our experience this year was remarkable and is instructive for states that object to state-created health insurance exchanges on the flimsy basis of their association with federal health reform.

The Utah Health Exchange started in August 2009 with the primary target of helping small businesses obtain health insurance for their employees. It was named an exchange before the fury over Obamacare tainted the concept.

The word “exchange” connotes the market freedom that is associated with activities like the New York Stock Exchange. The Utah Health Exchange is organized by state government, but driven by the market. What we found was a transparent system that created options for every individual employed by us and exemplified market principles, states’ rights and federalism.

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App-Happy Health Care Full of Optimism, Money


There is a corner of the health care industry where rancor is rare, the chance to banish illness beckons just a few mouse clicks away and talk revolves around venture deals, not voluminous budget deficits.

Welcome to the realm of Internet-enabled health apps. Politicians and profit-seeking entrepreneurs alike enthuse about the benefits of “liberating data” – the catch-phrase of U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park – to enable it to move from government databases to consumer-friendly uses. The potential for better information to promote better care is clear. The question that remains unanswered, however, is what role these consumer applications can play in prompting fundamental health system change.

Michael W. Painter, a physician, attorney and senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is optimistic. “We think that by harnessing this data and getting it into the hands of developers, entrepreneurs, established businesses, consumers and academia, we will unleash tremendous creativity,” Painter said. “The result will be improved and more cost efficient care, more engaged patients and discoveries that can help drive the next generation of care.”

The foundation is backing up that belief with an open checkbook. RWJF recently awarded $100,000 to Symcat, a multi-functional symptom checker for web and mobile platforms. Developed by two Johns Hopkins University medical students, the app determines a possible diagnosis far more precisely than is possible by just typing in symptoms as a list of words to be searched by “Dr. Google.” Symcat also links to quality information on different providers and can even direct users to nearby emergency care and provide an estimate of the cost.

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The Case For the Exchanges


The Federal government will push forward to establish health insurance exchanges regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the Affordable Care Act in the weeks to come, argues THCB contributor Maggie Mahar.  The only sensible conclusion?  The states should accept Washington’s help and open up the market for insurance online.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) calls on the states to create health insurance exchanges – marketplaces where individuals and small businesses can shop for and compare health insurance plans. Beginning in 2014, insurers peddling policies on an exchange will have to meet the ACA’s standards by covering “essential benefits,” capping out-of-pocket expenses for individuals, and offering more transparent information about costs and benefits.

Best of all, insurers will not be able to turn down customers suffering from chronic diseases, or charge them higher premiums.

So far so good.

But some states are attempting to derail “Obamacare.” Florida, Louisiana and Alaska have openly declared that they will have nothing to do with setting up exchanges. Last week, Politico.com reported that many others are stalling. The post quoted one consultant predicting that “between five and 10 states” will meet the 2014 deadline. The American Prospect confirmed the news, adding that some states that had begun making plans “have slowed down while awaiting the Supreme Court ruling on the health law.”

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How The Affordable Care Act Will Affect Doctors


Just over two years ago, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a law purported to increase access to health care and to “bend down” the health care cost curve. A great debate over the implications of that law, especially in the areas of coverage, affordability, and quality of care, has arisen. Furthermore, a series of political and legal challenges have generated uncertainty about the law’s prospects within the health industry and at the state level. Despite this, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has already issued over 12,000 pages of regulations elaborating on the original 2,700-page law, leading to more uncertainty regarding how appointed and career federal officials will determine the exact shape of the law’s final requirements. All of this uncertainty raises real concerns about how the new law will impact the most crucial actors in any health care reform effort: doctors.

Doctors are demonstrably nervous about the new law and how it will affect their incomes, their access to technologies, and their professional autonomy. According to a survey by the Doctors Company, 60 percent of physicians are concerned that the new law will negatively impact patient care. Only 22 percent are optimistic about the law’s impact on patient care. Fifty-one percent feel that the law will negatively impact their relationships with patients. These statistics raise questions about how and whether doctors will participate in the new system.

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What The Emergence of an EMR Giant Means For the Future of Healthcare Innovation

(Note: the following commentary was co-authored with Tory Wolff, a founding partner of Recon Strategy, a healthcare strategy consulting firm in Boston; Tory and I gratefully acknowledge the insightful feedback provided by Jay Chyung of Recon Strategy.)

Medicine has been notoriously slow to embrace the electronic medical record (EMR), but, spurred by tax incentives and the prospect of cost and outcomes accountability, the use of electronic medical records (EMRs) is finally catching on.

There are a large number of EMR vendors, who offer systems that are either the traditional client server model (where the medical center hosts the system) or a product which can be delivered via Software as a Service (SaaS) architecture, similar to what salesforce.com did for customer relationship management (CRM).

Historically, the lack of extensive standards have allowed hospital idiosyncrasies to be hard-coded into systems.  Any one company’s EMR system isn’t particularly compatible with the EMR system from another company, resulting in – or, more fairly, perpetuating – the Tower of Babel that effectively exists as medical practices often lack the ability to share basic information easily with one another.

There’s widespread recognition that information exchange must improve – the challenge is how to get there.

One much-discussed approach are health information exchanges (HIE’s), defined by the Department of Health and Human Services as “Efforts to rapidly build capacity for exchanging health information across the health care system both within and across states.”

With some public funding and local contributions, public HIE’s can point to some successes (the Indiana Health Information Exchange, IHIE, is a leading example, as described here).  The Direct Project – a national effort to coordinate health information exchange spearheaded by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT – also seems to be making progress.  But the public HIEs are a long way from providing robust, rich and sustainable data exchange.

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