William Tecumseh Sherman, who laid waste to the South at the end of the Civil War, famously said, “War is Hell”. So, too, is health reform. And like Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea, where he burned town after Confederate town, the Republican War on Obamacare entered its attrition phase with the introduction on Monday in the House legislation to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Except that Ryan is marching in the wrong direction; his troops are marching “north” and burning towns behind their own lines.
Ryan’s bill released Monday was greeted with a chorus of derision from the newly empowered Republican base; some conservative wags dubbed the bill “RINOCare”. Thoughtful conservative analysts savaged it. Michael Cannon, the hard core libertarian Cato Institute health analyst, called it “a trainwreck waiting to happen” and suggested that “ it will create the potential for the sort of wave election Democrats experienced in 2008” In Reason.com, Peter Sunderman wrote, “it’s not clear what problems this particular bill would actually solve.”
Ryan’s draft neither repeals nor replaces ObamaCare. Continue reading…
We all knew how this was going to go, or thought we did. Fee-for-service payment for health services was going to disappear, and be replaced by population health risk-based payment (or as some term it, “capitation”- fixed payment for each enrolled life). Hospitals and care systems invested substantial time and dollars building capacity to manage the health of populations, yet many are discovering a shortage of actual revenues for this complex new activity. Was population health a mirage, or an actual opportunity for hospitals, physicians and health systems?
The historic health reform law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in March, 2010 was widely expected to catalyze a shift in healthcare payment from “volume to value” through multiple policy changes. The Affordable Care Act’s new health exchanges were going to double or triple the individual health insurance market, channeling tens of millions of new lives into new “narrow network” insurance products expected to evolve rapidly into full risk contracts.
In addition, the Medicare Accountable Care Organization (ACO) program created by ACA would succeed in reducing costs and quickly scale up to cover the entire non-Medicare Advantage population of beneficiaries (currently about 70% of current enrollees) and transition provider payment from one-sided to global/population based risk. Finally, seeking to avoid the looming “Cadillac tax” created by ACA, larger employers would convert their group health plans to defined contribution models to cap their health cost liability, and channel tens of millions of their employees into private exchanges which would, in turn, push them into at-risk narrow networks organized around specific provider systems.
Three Surprising Developments
Well, guess what? It is entirely possible that none of these things may actually come to pass or at least not to the degree and pace predicted. At the end of 2015, a grand total of 8.8 million people had actually paid the premiums for public exchange products, far short of the expected 21 million lives for 2016. As few as half this number may have been previously uninsured. It remains to be seen how many of the 12.7 million who enrolled in 2016’s enrollment cycle will actually pay their premiums, but the likely answer is around ten million. Public exchange enrollment has been a disappointment thus far, largely because the plans have been unattractive to those not eligible for federal subsidy.
That we are experiencing a “consumer revolution” in healthcare is a durable meme in the media and in policy circles just now. When you hear the word “consumer”, it conjures images of someone with a cart and a credit card happily weaving their way through Best Buy. It is, however, a less than useful way of thinking about the patient’s experience in the health system.
A persistent critique of our country’s high cost health system is that because patients are insulated from the cost of care by health insurance, they freely “consume” it without regard to its value, and are absolved of the need to manage their own health. In effect, this view ascribes our very high health costs to moral failure on the part of patients.
Market-oriented policy advocates believe that if we “empower”patients as consumers by asking them to pay more of the bill, market forces will help us tame the ever rising cost of care. If patients have “skin in the game” when they use the health system and also “transparency” of health providers’ prices and performance, patients can deploy their own dollars more sensibly.
This concept played a major role in the otherwise “progressive” Affordable Care Act. The 13 million people who signed up for coverage this year through the Affordable Care Act’s Health Exchanges opted overwhelmingly for subsidized policies with very high deductibles and out-of-pocket cost limits. The “skin in the game” argument has also heavily influenced corporate health benefits decisions. More than 30 million workers and their families receive high deductible plans through employers.
What to do about the seemingly inexorable rise in health spending has been the central health policy challenge for two generations of health economists and policymakers. In 1965, before Medicare and Medicaid, health spending was about 5.8 percent of GDP. In 2013, it was nearly 18 percent. And GDPquadrupled during this same period.
Over the past 30 years, there are been two warring political narratives explaining health spending growth, with two different culprits and indicated remedies. At their cores, these narratives blame the main actors in the health care drama—patients and physicians—for rising costs.
The Conservative Narrative: The Patient As Culprit
The conservative thesis holds that the demand for health care is unlimited because it has been, historically, a free good for many patients. Moreover, the argument runs, much illness is driven by bad personal health choices — for example, smoking and obesity, and the heart disease and diabetes that follows. Thus, much of our cost problem is actually the patient’s fault.
For decades, health policymakers considered Kaiser Permanente the lode star of delivery system reform. Yet by the end of 1999, the nation’s oldest and largest group model HMO had experienced almost three years of significant operating losses, the first in the plan’s history. It was struggling to implement a functional electronic health record, and had a reputation for inconsistent customer service. But most seriously, it faced deep divisions between management and the leadership of its powerful Permanente Federation, which represents Kaiser’s more than 17,000 physicians, over both strategic direction and operations of the plan.
Against this backdrop, Kaiser surprised the health plan community by announcing in March 2002 the selection of a non-physician, George Halvorson, as its new CEO. Halvorson had spent most of his career in the Twin Cities, most recently as CEO of HealthPartners, a successful mixed model health plan. Halvorson’s reputation was as a product innovator; he not only developed a prototype of the consumer-directed health plan in the mid-1990’s, but also population health improvement objectives for its membership, both firsts in the industry.
Judging by its nearly invisible public presence, you’d never know that this is prime time for HCA, the nation’s largest hospital chain. A former HCA regional VP, Marilyn Tavenner, runs the nation’s Medicare and Medicaid programs. Former CMS Head and Obama White House health policy chief Nancy Ann DeParle, sits on the HCA Board. Its longtime investor relations chief, Vic Campbell, is immediate past Chair of the highly effective trade group, the Federation of American Hospitals. And its Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Perlin, MD, is Chair Elect of the American Hospital Association.
This astonishing industry leadership presence is something most health systems would be trumpeting, perhaps even placing ads in Modern Healthcare. But not HCA, the bashful giant of American healthcare. Most hospital systems make a show of “branding” their hospitals with the company logo. Yet in its corporate home, Nashville, and the surrounding multi-state region, HCA’s 15 hospital network is called TriStar. Everyone in Nashville’s tight knit healthcare community knows who owns their hospitals, but you have to read TriStar’s home page closely to find the elliptical acknowledgement of HCA’s ownership.
Despite a nationwide merger and acquisition boom, HCA hasn’t done a major deal in twelve years (Health Midwest in Kansas City joined HCA in 2002). The company has not participated in the post-reform feeding frenzy, continuing a long-standing and admirable tradition of refusing to overpay for assets. For the moment, owning 160 hospitals is plenty.
At the end of March, Congress decreed a year-long postponement of the implementation of ICD-10, a remarkably detailed and arcane new coding scheme providers would have been required to use in order to get paid by any payer in the US (“bitten by orca” is but one of the sixty thousand new codes ).
The year postponement gives caregivers and managers a little more time to prepare for a further unwelcome increase in the complexity of their non-patient care activities.
In the spirit of Jonathan Swift, who famously proposed in 1729 that the Irish sell their children as a food crop to solve the country’s chronic poverty problem , I have a suggestion about how to cope with the steady rise in complexity of the medical revenue cycle.
Beginning when ICD-10 is implemented, there should be no patient care whatsoever on Fridays, permitting nurses and physicians to spend the entire day catching up on their charting and documentation, and other administrative activities.
Physicians, nurses, and others involved in patient care already spend at least a day a week of their time on this process now, but it is interspersed within the patient care workflow, constantly distracting clinicians and interrupting patient interaction.
Hospitals are solving this problem with a medieval remedy: scribes who follow physicians around and enter the required coding and “quality” information into the patient’s electronic record on tablets. Healthcare might be the only industry in economic history to see a decline in worker productivity as it automated.
Partisan gridlock in Washington regarding health policy has been so pervasive and bitter that any bipartisan co-operation on any important health issue should be applauded by a frustrated public.
That is why the emerging bipartisan compromise regarding the fifteen-year long policy embarrassment known as the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) problem needs to be taken seriously.
Remarkably similar solutions — a new hybrid physician “value-based” payment methodology — have emerged from three of the four key committees in Congress, and seemingly the only stumbling block is finding the $115-120 billion to pay for it.
Moreover, key physician interest groups, including the American Medical Association, appear to have signed off on this approach.
This makes it all the more troubling that the approach taken is unsound health policy that will damage practicing physicians in diverse settings: private practice, medical school practice plans, and hospital employment.
This is because the proposed legislation casts in concrete an almost laughably complex and expensive clinical record-keeping regime, while preserving the very volume-enhancing features of fee-for-service payment that caused the SGR problem in the first place. The cure is actually worse, and potentially more expensive, that the disease we have now.
The SGR fix would basically freeze or severely limit future physician fee updates for Medicare Part B (a serious problem for primary care), while permitting physicians to earn modest “value-based” bonuses if they can document quality measure attainment, cost reductions, participation in alternative payment schemes, practice enhancement activities, or meaningful use of EHRs.
Physicians who meet all these standards could expect to supplement their existing Part B fee by about 4 percent in 2016, going to 10 percent in 2020, with the aggregate bonuses subtracted from the pool of total Part B physician payments to preserve budget neutrality. Non-compliant physicians would see corresponding reductions in their updates.
There are sensible opt-outs for physicians who can report in groups, virtual or real, as well as for physicians who participate in as yet unspecified “advanced payment models” (APMs).
After half a lifetime of following the Medicare program, on October 1, 2013, I became a Medicare beneficiary. I turned 65 on October 31. I’m part of the leading edge of baby boomers joining the program, ten thousand a day. We’re going to change this program, both by how we use it and what we expect its keepers in Washington to do to improve it.
Here are some reflections upon joining Medicare.
1-Don’t Refer to Me as “Retired”, Please. I’m still working (hard) and paying Medicare as well as income taxes taxes every month. Like most of my fellow boomers, I lack the financial cushion I want in order to stop working. Additionally, for what it’s worth, like all too many boomers, I don’t know how not to work. So my main goal, which is closely aligned with the country’s, is to stay healthy enough to keep working long enough to be able to retire comfortably when I wish to do so.
I plan on staying a long way away from the expensive parts of our healthcare system, if only to avoid being inadvertently harmed. Rest assured that if I know I’m dying, you won’t find me in a hospital if I have any say in the matter.
I don’t consider myself “entitled” to Medicare, or to subsidies from younger people. I’m paying more than $400 a month in Part B fees and the special assessment on Part D that got tacked on in the Affordable Care Act. After what I’ve already paid in, that’s not exactly a flaming bargain. I’ve paid Medicare enough over my working lifetime to buy a house, and will pay more Medicare taxes for years to come for each month that I work. Nothing makes me angrier than the suggestion that I’m somehow sponging off my kids by participating in Medicare.
2- The Regular Medicare Program is a Relic. There is a lot of political fog enshrouding Medicare. Personally, I could care less about the politics of this program. The big choice was fairly cut and dried: either regular Medicare plus a supplemental plan or Medicare Advantage. After logging onto Medicare.gov, I found the regular Medicare benefit completely incomprehensible- chopped up into Parts that may have made legislative sense in the 1960’s. If you included the supplemental coverage, there were just too many moving parts that didn’t seem to fit together into a unified benefit.
So I chose Medicare Advantage. It’s simple to understand and user-friendly, and looks a lot like my previous coverage. My doctor is a participating physician as is my beloved community hospital, Martha Jefferson. And the price is right: zero dollars after my Part B premium. More than 40% of boomers are picking Medicare Advantage, largely because it’s easy to use and remains a bargain. It will eventually be half the program.
On July 16, the CMS Innovation Center reported the first-year results for the Pioneer Accountable Care Organization program: 13 Pioneers, or about 40 percent of the participants, earned bonuses. The program saved Medicare a gross $87.6 million before bonus distributions, cutting the rate of growth in Medicare spending by 0.5 percent, from 0.8 percent to 0.3 percent annually.
However, nine of the 32 members dropped out and press reports hinted at a contentious relationship between the Pioneers and a well meaning but green and overtaxed CMS staff. It was not an auspicious beginning for a program whose advocates believed would eventually replace regular Medicare’s present payment model. There immediately followed a blizzard of spin control from ACO “movement” advocates stressing the need for patience and highlighting first year achievements.
What was irritating about the Pioneer spin is it treated the ACO as if it were a brand new idea with growing pains. This studiously ignores a burned out Conestoga wagon pushed to the side of the trail: the Physician Group Practice demonstration CMS conducted from 2005-2010. The PGP demo tested essentially the same idea — provider bonuses for meeting spending reduction and quality improvement targets for attributed Medicare patients. The pattern of arrow holes and burn marks on the PGP wagon closely resemble those from the Pioneer’s first year, strongly suggesting more troubles ahead for the hardy, surviving Pioneers.
The PGP Precedent. Like the Pioneers, PGP participants were not ordinary community hospitals or freshly formed physician groups or IPA’s. Rather, most were “high functioning” organized clinical enterprises, some with decades of global risk contracting or health plan operating experience. Particularly in light of the degree of clinical integration and care management experience of its participants, the PGP results were extremely disappointing; only two of the ten participants were able to generate bonuses in each of the program’s five years, and one, Marshfield Clinic, earned half the total bonuses. Managed care veterans like Geisinger Clinic and Park Nicollet earned bonuses in only three of their ten program years. Two other high-quality multi-specialty clinics had even rougher sledding, with Everett Clinic getting one year of bonus ($126,000) and Billings Clinic completely shut out.
The pattern in the first Pioneer year is remarkably similar. While thirteen of the Pioneers earned bonuses, it appears from press reports that four of them generated 2/3 of the savings. It is likely not coincidental that three of those four participants (Massachusetts General, Beth Israel Deaconess’ physician organization, and New York’s Montefiore) either run or practice at some of the most expensive hospitals in the country, in two of the country’s highest per capita Medicare spending markets. Orchards full of low hanging fruit (e.g. very high levels of previously unexamined Medicare spending) appear to be an essential precondition of ACO success.