Lost in the weeds of President Obama’s budget proposal is a 10-year, $11 billion reduction in Medicare funding for graduate medical education (GME). GME is the “residency” part of medical training, in which medical school graduates (newly minted MDs and DOs) spend 3-7 years learning the ropes of their specialties in teaching hospitals across the country.
Medicare currently spends almost $10 billion annually on GME. One-third of that is for “Direct Medical Education” (DME), which pays teaching hospitals so that they in turn can provide salaries and benefits to residents (current salaries average around $50,000/year, regardless of specialty; there are variances by region). No problem there.
The proposed cuts come from the Medicare portion known as “Indirect Medical Education” (IME) payments. Though IME accounts for two-thirds of the Medicare GME pie, it’s not easy for hospitals to itemize what exactly it is they provide for this significant amount of funding. Instead, hospitals bill Medicare based on a complex algorithm that includes the ‘resident-to-bed’ ratio, among other variables.
A 2009 Rand Corporation study commissioned by Medicare to evaluate aspects of residency training called on the government to tie IME payments directly to improvements in educational and hospital quality, lest the money be perceived to be going down a series of non-specific sinkholes. That idea has caught on, and legislators in both parties now see the healthy IME slice of Medicare education funding as a plum target for cost-cutting, as the direct benefits are difficult to enumerate, let alone quantify.
This has medical educators very worried that we will have to do more with much less (disclosure: I am one).
We’re all aware of the past criticisms of “disease management.” According to the critics, these for-profit vendors were in collusion with commercial insurers, relying robo-calls to blanket unsuspecting patients with dubious advice. Their claims of “outcomes” were based on flawed research that was never intended to be science; it was really intended to market their wares.
But suppose this correspondent alerted you to:
1. A company that had developed a patient registry to identify at-risk patients who had not received an evidence-based care recommendation? Software created mailings to those patients that not only informed them of the recommendation but offered them a toll-free number to call if there were questions. Patients who remained non-compliant were then called by coordinators, who made three attempts to contact the patient and assist in any scheduling needs. If necessary, a nurse was available to telephonically engage patients and develop alternative care options.
If you think that sounds like typical vendor-driven telephonic disease management, you’d be right. You’d also be describing an approach to care that was studied by Group Health Cooperative using their electronic record, medical assistants and nurses. When it was applied to colon cancer screening, a randomized study revealed each additional level of support progressively resulted in statistically significant screening rates.
In November 2008, the New England Journal of Medicine convened a small roundtable to discuss “Redesigning Primary Care.”
U.S. primary care is in crisis, the roundtable’s description reads. As a result … [the] ranks are thinning, with practicing physicians burning out and trainees shunning primary care fields.
Nearly five years out — and dozens of reforms and pilots later — the primary care system’s condition may still be acute. But policymakers, health care leaders and other innovators are more determined than ever: After decades where primary care’s problems were largely ignored, they’re not letting this crisis go to waste.
Ongoing Shortage Forcing Decisions
The NEJM roundtable summarized the primary care problem thusly: Too few primary care doctors are trying to care for too many patients, who have a rising number of chronic conditions, and receive relatively little compensation for their efforts.
The Affordable Care Act contains a number of provisions intended to incent “personal responsibility,” or the notion that health care isn’t just a right — it’s an obligation. None of these measures is more prominent than the law’s individual mandate, designed to ensure that every American obtains health coverage or pays a fine for choosing to go uninsured.
But one provision that’s gotten much less attention — until recently — relates to smoking; specifically, the ACA allows payers to treat tobacco users very differently by opening the door to much higher premiums for this population.
That measure has some health policy analysts cheering, suggesting that higher premiums are necessary to raise revenue for the law and (hopefully) deter smokers’ bad habits. But other observers have warned that the ACA takes a heavy-handed stick to smokers who may be unhappily addicted to tobacco, rather than enticing them with a carrot to quit.
Under proposed rules, HHS would allow insurers to charge a smoker seeking health coverage in the individual market as much as 50% more in premiums than a non-smoker.
That difference in premiums may rapidly add up for smokers, given the expectation that Obamacare’s new medical-loss ratios already will lead to major cost hikes in the individual market. “For many people, in the years after the law, premiums aren’t just going to [go] up a little,” Peter Suderman predicts at Reason. “They’re going to rise a lot.”
Meanwhile, Ann Marie Marciarille, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, adds that insurers have “considerable flexibility” in how to set up a potential surcharge for tobacco use. For example, insurers could apply a high surcharge for tobacco use in older smokers — perhaps several hundred dollars per month — further hitting a population that tends to be poorer.
Is this cost-shifting fair? The average American tends to think so.
It has become accepted economic wisdom, uttered with deadpan certainty by policy pundits and budget scolds on both sides of the aisle, that the only way to get control over America’s looming deficits is to “reform entitlements.”
But the accepted wisdom is wrong.
Start with the statistics Republicans trot out at the slightest provocation — federal budget data showing a huge spike in direct payments to individuals since the start of 2009, shooting up by almost $600 billion, a 32 percent increase.
And Census data showing 49 percent of Americans living in homes where at least one person is collecting a federal benefit – food stamps, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, or subsidized housing — up from 44 percent in 2008.
But these expenditures aren’t driving the federal budget deficit in future years. They’re temporary. The reason for the spike is Americans got clobbered in 2008 with the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. They and their families have needed whatever helping hands they could get.
If anything, America’s safety nets have been too small and shot through with holes. That’s why the number and percentage of Americans in poverty has increased dramatically, including 22 percent of our children.
What about Social Security and Medicare (along with Medicare’s poor step-child, Medicaid)?
At a conference for America’s Health Insurance Plans, Gladwell argued that patients or consumers have been unable to be more empowered because doctors, as the intermediary, held the power of knowledge much the same way chauffeurs did for the early days of the automobile and Xerox technicians did in the early days of photocopying. A person was needed to guide and assist the individual to get the job done. At some point, however, the technology became simpler. People began to drive their own cars and make their own photocopies. The mystique of the chauffeur and technician was lifted. Now everyone could drive. Everyone could make photocopies.
Is it possible that for health care and the health care system, which for many people is a system they interact with rarely and in an area (health / illness) where the uncertainty and stakes many be too “high”, that individuals willingly defer the responsibility to someone else? Gladwell hints that might be a possibility:
“A key step in any kind of technological transition is the acceptance of a temporary deficit in performance at the beginning in exchange for something else,” said Gladwell. That something else can eventually include increased convenience and lower cost. He offered a number of examples, including the shift to digital cameras where early pictures were not as good as film and the advent of the digital compression of music, which he contends has made the quality of music worse….
The Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will likely be handed down on the last day of this year’s term. If the Court finds that the ACA—either in whole or in part—violates the Constitution, the health care industry will be shaken to its core. And, no matter what legal justification the Court uses to invalidate the ACA, the structure of constitutional law will be severely undercut. The resulting medical and legal chaos will be expensive, divisive, and completely unnecessary. Nothing in the text, history or structure of the Constitution warrants the Court overturning Congress’s effort to address our national health care problems.
For the health care industry, a decision striking down the entire ACA would be an absolute disaster. Physicians, hospitals, and private companies have been shifting how they practice medicine in anticipation of the ACA’s implementation. They’ve been creating accountable care organizations, envisioning a significant reduction in uncompensated care, and enjoying increased Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement in primary care settings. That will all vanish if the ACA is struck down. Moreover, seniors will pay more for prescription drugs and young adults will be taken off their parents’ insurance. The private insurance industry, which has seen its market shrink significantly over the last decade, will see a real chance to reverse that trend disappear. According to one estimate, if the ACA is overturned, insurers may lose over $1 trillion in revenues between 2013 and 2020.
Take a look at the chart below. It shows representative prices for a knee replacement for different patients in different settings. The most shocking thing about the chart is that prices for essentially the same procedure are all over the map. Here are some obvious questions:
- Why is the price of a knee replacement for a dog — involving the same technology and the same medical skills that are needed for humans — less than 1/6th the price a typical health insurance company pays for human operations? Why is it less than 1/3 of what hospitals tell Medicare their cost of doing the procedure is?
- How is a Canadian able to come to the United States and get a knee replacement for less than half of what Americans are paying?
- How are Canadians getting knee replacements in the U.S. able to pay only a few thousand dollars more than medical tourists pay in India, Singapore and Thailand — places where the price is supposed to be a fraction of what we typically pay in this country?
- Why do fees U.S. employers and insurance companies are paying vary by a factor of three to one, when foreign, and even some U.S., facilities are offering a same-price-for-all package?
It’s amazing how often people cannot see the forest for the trees. Think how many volumes have been written trying (and failing) to explain why our health care costs are so high. Sometimes the answers to complex questions are more easily found by asking the simplest of questions.
As the health reform effort moves into the final stages, everyone seems to be taking a whack at health insurers. Some of the insurers’ wounds are self-inflicted, such as WellPoint’s announcement of 39% premium increase for individual policies in California. Some of the attacks are calculated to build public support for health reform, since every good crusade needs a good enemy. Some of the criticism has even suggested that we don’t need private health insurers. Michael Hiltzik asked the question in a recent column “What do we need health insurers for anyway?” James Surowiecki – usually a careful and thoughtful observer of business and economic issues – said the following in a recent article in the New Yorker:
Congress [in its health reform bills] is effectively making private insurers unnecessary, yet continuing to insist that we can’t do without them. The truth is that we could do just fine without them: an insurance system with community rating and universal access has no need of private insurers.
Surowiecki goes on to comment on what the world would look like without private health insurers:
In fact, the U.S. already has such a system: it’s known as Medicare. In most areas, it’s true, private companies do a better job of managing costs and providing services than the government does. But not when it comes to health care: over the past decade, Medicare’s spending has risen more slowly than that of private insurers. A single-payer system also has the advantage of spreading risk across the biggest patient pool possible. So if you want to make health insurance available to everyone, regardless of risk, the most sensible solution would be to expand Medicare to everyone.
Not so fast. I would feel more optimistic that this would work if we had a different political system. One of the limitations of this approach is that Medicare’s spending is ultimately determined through the political process. The U.S. political system – for better or worse — allows the health care industry (or any other well-funded interest group) to use its financial resources and lobbying power to increase the flow of government funds into the health sector. The idea that Medicare has a “hammer” to force providers to accept lower payment rates is largely an illusion. In the current system, Medicare can do this only because there is a safety valve, i.e., a large private insurance segment that pays much higher rates to providers. If Medicare gets larger or replaces private insurance altogether, there will be less opportunity to use the safety valve, so providers will step up their efforts to use political pressure to increase payment rates in Medicare. I simply don’t see a strong countervailing political force that would exert sufficient political pressure to hold down costs.Continue reading…
People from other states would be wise to watch the sequence of events happening here in Massachusetts with regard to health insurance rates. As I described below:
Things are playing out just as one might predict in the Massachusetts small business and individual insurance market. The Insurance Commissioner turned downproposed rate increases, the state’s insurers appealed to the courts, and now they can’t write policies.
Now, Rob Weisman at the Boston Globe reports on yesterday’s hearing in Suffolk Superior Court. The insurers argue that the action by the Insurance Commissioner is arbitrary and capricious, the traditional standard used to overturn a decision by a regulatory agency. The Division of Insurance argues, in part, that the insurers have not used up their administrative remedies before the agency, another traditional argument. A ruling is expected on Monday.Continue reading…