Tag: Medicaid

Health Care Georgians Deserve

As a physician who works at Grady Memorial Hospital, I am regularly reminded of the implications of poor access to health care.

One of my regular patients had been suffering from diabetes and hypertension for five years. She was a single, dedicated mother who had been working long hours at a local grocery store to provide for her 15-year-old daughter. She understood that good health meant that she could perform better at work, and the earnings she received from her work would help her provide a stable home for her daughter. Therefore, she did whatever it took to keep herself healthy — monitored her diet, took her medicines diligently and visited the physician regularly.

Things changed one day when during one of her visits to my clinic she said, “Doc, I just lost my job. I don’t have insurance anymore. Medicaid denied me coverage even though they said it was OK for my daughter to have insurance. I can’t pay my co-pays to see you anymore. I may not see you next time.” I was horrified.

A mother who wanted nothing more than to be as healthy as possible for her child should be able to receive care. The health care system in our country that should be serving patients exactly like this one is preventing patients from receiving the care they need and deserve.

In many cases, access to health care coverage is not within the control of patients nor their physicians, resulting in significant consequences. That is, if they don’t obtain coverage, many of our patients will succumb to their (many preventable) illnesses if they don’t have access to their physicians or cannot pay for their medications. My patient’s future could be a testimony to this.

What further confounded me was that Medicaid denied my patient.

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If I Ruled the World

If you study previous attempts to reform healthcare delivery through the private sector, there is one common thread. These attempts all failed because of an absence of proper management information systems. We need integrated electronic health records. And not just to improve medical decision making. We need EHR that can be used for management decision making – for contracting, measuring costs, measuring and rewarding quality; I could go on and on. We are trying to solve management problems in a $2 trillion industry using management information systems that would be an embarrassment in nearly any other sector of the economy.

Of course, the industry has been pushing EHR for decades and there are places where EHR is really first rate. Kaiser is a great example but also a special case because of its thorough vertical integration and long history. And even Kaiser has been unable to replicate itself outside of its core markets. The sad fact is that most providers have little incentive to adopt EHR, and even when they do, they have little incentive to be compatible with other providers. Unfortunately, the network externalities benefit purchasers and consumers a lot more than they benefit providers, so don’t expect the compatibility problem to solve itself.

My proposal is simple. Assemble a panel consisting of medical professionals, managers, and insurers. “Lock them in a room” for 72 hours and tell them to choose from among the many fine existing EHR systems. Tell them they can combine the best features of each if they wish. Once we have settled on an EHR system, give every provider one year to adopt it. If they refuse, deny them Medicare and Medicaid payments. Combine the stick with a carrot – subsidies to providers who have limited financial resources. I believe the total one-time subsidies would be less than $50 billion, a drop in the bucket compared with the size of the system.

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The Libertarian Mind

“It is an eternal obligation toward the human being not to let him suffer from hunger when one has a chance of coming to his assistance.” –Simone Weil

Libertarianism is much in the news these days, as the political divide in the U.S. seems to widen almost before our eyes. Before providing a rough, notional definition of “libertarianism”, I should offer readers some caveats. First, I am not a political scientist, professional philosopher, or economist, though scholars in these fields have offered many pointed critiques of what is loosely called libertarianism (see references). Furthermore, as a psychiatrist, I am trained to diagnose individuals whom I have professionally examined. I am not in the habit of “diagnosing” movements, ideologies, or political groups; indeed, the idea of doing so is clearly outside the purview of medical or psychiatric practice.

Nonetheless, as a lecturer on bioethics and humanities, it is impossible for me to read the platform and proclamations of the Libertarian Party without drawing some tentative conclusions as regards the nature of this movement; its psychological underpinnings; and its ethical implications for the poorest and sickest among us—those sometimes referred to as “the destitute sick.”

I do not propose to “psychoanalyze” particular individuals, or to speculate on the motives of political figures who figure prominently in American politics. And, because the term “libertarian” has such a wide range of meanings, I will focus my attention on the official platform of the Libertarian party, which is very lucidly spelled out in a publicly-available venue ( For the most part, I will deal with the Libertarian party’s position on health care and social support systems, while offering some tentative impressions on the “psychology” of libertarian theory.Continue reading…

The Conservative Way Forward on Health Care

The landslide Republican victory, in taking the House and electing some strong conservatives to the Senate, can be interpreted as a mandate to rein in government spending, and specifically to repeal ObamaCare, as these issues were clearly behind the large turnout.  There is still a very real possibility the Supreme Court will find the “individual mandate” to buy private insurance unconstitutional.  If this provision is thrown out, it’s hard to see how the law survives, since the mandate is needed to finance it.

Now is an excellent time to construct a conservative alternative vision for true reform of our health care delivery system.  Since most current problems with the health care system stem from government, a conservative plan should seek to reduce its role.

It goes without saying that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act must be repealed since, like all the laws passed by this administration, it does precisely the opposite of what its name suggests.   By massively increasing the health care bureaucracy at the expense of actual providers of care, it will make care harder to access and more expensive.   Many physicians will take early retirement and the already great physician shortage will be exacerbated.

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The Ryan/Rivlin Plan

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Alice Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), have proposed an entitlement spending reform plan that is striking both for its boldness and its left-right-coming-together origins. There are a number of interesting parts, but I want to focus on the three most important:

  • Medicare would, for the first time, be transformed into rational insurance. Beginning in 2013, all enrollees would be protected by a $6,000 cap on out-of-pocket expenses; in return they would pay for more small expenses on their own.
  • After a decade, people newly eligible for Medicare would receive a voucher to purchase private insurance instead. The value of the voucher would grow at the rate of growth of GDP plus 1% (note: for the past four decades, health care spending per capita nationwide has been growing at about GDP growth plus 2%).
  • Medicaid would be turned into annual block grants to the states. The value of the block grants would also grow at GDP growth plus 1%.

Bottom line verdict: This is a good proposal that deserves serious attention. To guarantee its success, however, more needs to be done to (1) allow the private sector to control costs through economic incentives, competition and entrepreneurship and (2) allow young people to save for the growing share of expenses they will be expected to bear.

How Does This Plan Compare with the Affordable Care Act (ACA)? Given that Ryan has been previously attacked by Paul Krugman and others on the left because of his ideas about voucherizing Medicare, a natural question arises. How does the Ryan/Rivlin slowdown in Medicare spending compare to the health reform bill Congress passed last spring a bill supported by some of the very people attacking Ryan?

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“Don’t Litigate, Innovate.”

What if a Republican governor and a Republican legislature had the ability to implement their version of health insurance reform and the federal government would have to pay for it? It’s a great idea. And I’m thrilled to say that a bi-partisan bill has already been introduced in the Senate by Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., that would help facilitate exactly this end.

First, let’s review section 1332 of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to realize how states are already — at least eventually — given the ability to innovate in this manner. Here is a simplified summary:

  • A state may apply to the Health and Human Services secretary for a waiver of all or any requirements with respect to the insurance exchanges, mandates, and subsidies with respect to health insurance coverage within that state for plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2017.
  • The secretary has to provide for an alternative means by which the aggregate amount of the tax credits and subsidies, which would have been paid on behalf of participants in the exchanges, would instead be paid to the state for purposes of implementing their own version of the law.
  • The secretary may grant a request for a waiver only if the secretary determines that the state plan will provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as the coverage defined under the new law and offered through similar exchanges established by the states.

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The Penguin Problem

Remember the penguin problem described by economists?

No one moves unless everyone moves, so no one moves.

Overcoming the penguin problem has a lot to do with creating expectations. A recent writing by Dr. James O’Connor in Physician Practice expresses a voice from the physician community that I’ve never heard before.  His essay is entitled “Meaningful Use — Doctors Have No Choice”.

Physicians Have No Choice Other Than to Adopt EHRs?

Dr. O’Connor argues that physicians are effectively being forced into adopting EHRs.  He cites facts and reaches a powerful conclusion:

1. CMS penalties begin in 2015.
2. What if you won’t or don’t accept Medicare/Medicaid patients (13 percent of practices in 2009, up from 6 percent in 2004? In August, four major insurers (Aetna, Highmark, United Health Group, and Wellpoint) announced that, at a minimum, they will link their pay-for-performance programs to federal meaningful use criteria. Other insurers are likely to follow.
3. Do you run one of the increasing number of “boutique” or VIP practices that work on a cash-only basis? The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) released a statement in August saying that they intend to link meaningful use of health information technology into the ABMS Maintenance of Certification© program.
4. You don’t care about being board certified? (Sound of crickets chirping.) The Final Rule gives states the authority to impose additional requirements that promote compliance with meaningful use. As reported in Physicians Practice, the state of Massachusetts may take away your license to practice medicine in 2015 unless you demonstrate meaningful use of an EHR system. In Maryland, private insurers will be required to build incentives for acquisition of EHRs and penalties for not adopting them into their payment structure.

OK, so technically, we do have a choice. We could stop taking Medicare and Medicaid patients, accept cash only, give up our board certification (and thus usually hospital privileges), and move to a state (or country) that doesn’t impose EHR requirements. But is that really a choice? No.

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Health Reform Won’t Fix the Real Problem: Unemployment

While the effects of persistently high unemployment have surfaced in the shape of reduced consumer spending, shrunken tax rolls and a host of social problems, there is yet another harsh reality lurking in the shadows. Hospitals, already in precarious financial positions, are seeing their most profitable source of revenue fade away. Should the situation continue, even darker days for hospitals will surely be in store.

More than 150 million people in the U.S. rely on employer-sponsored health insurance to pay for the bulk of their medical costs. One of the more credible criticisms of health reform is the potential backlash against the employer pay-or-play provisions in the legislation, which could throw millions of today’s insured off their employer plans and into the streets with the chronically uninsured. Even if this did not occur, or at least not to a market-moving degree, it would be small recompense, literally, for hospitals relative to the boogeyman that no political party can legislate or filibuster in or out of existence at will: unemployment. Hospitals in our country rely on the privately insured and better-paying patients for approximately 35 percent of net revenue. Given the already compressed profit margins in the hospital industry, any deterioration in the supply of its best customers could seriously threaten the financial solvency and operational viability of many hospitals across the country. Health reform will not prevent this from happening. Reform targets the un- and under-insured and provides only a base level of coverage (Medicaid), coverage that traditionally add nothing to hospital margins and in many cases erode them.

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Unhealthy Skepticism

There remains an unhealthy level of skepticism in the market as to whether or not consumers will use a personal health record (PHR). While a certain level of skepticism is healthy in any market, the level to which it is laid towards PHRs is unwarranted and likely more a function of ignorance then malicious intent. Following is a brief PHR case study that provides validity to the mantra that a patient who is provided access to their personal health information (PHI) via a PHR can become a more engaged patient in self-managing their health. What is particularly striking about this story is that it is does not take place in middle-class America, where many have targeted their PHR initiatives, but rather among the urban poor.

Last week, I met with Dr. Nunlee-Bland, Director of  Howard University Hospital’s (HUH) Diabetes Treatment Center, who graciously provided the context and content for this remarkable story.

Empowering the Urban Poor to Self-Manage Their Diabetes:

In 2008, HUH received a grant from the Dept of Health, DC to launch a diabetes treatment program primarily targeting urban poor. As part of this grant, HUH launched a PHR initiative creating a patient portal using NoMoreClipboard (NMC), linking NMC to their clinical diabetes EHR, CliniPro from NuMedics. The PHR provides patients with access to their problem list, vitals (height, weight, blood pressure, BMI), medication lists, basic lab results, A1C results (can be charted for track and trend) and basic demographic information. While Dr. Nunlee-Bland stated that HUH has no reason not to provide patients with full access to all PHI, they have purposely kept the PHR simple and focused on the treatment of diabetes.

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The War Between the States

Christmas is the time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it.  Deficits are when adults tell government what they want and their kids pay for it.  ~Richard Lamm

The day after a mid-term tidal wave of anti-incumbency sentiment swept through Congress resulting in the GOP reclaiming a controlling majority in the House and closer parity in the Senate, a seemingly contrite President Obama took personal responsibility for his party’s dismal showing at the polls. In a carefully worded conciliatory message, the President shared that, “the American people have made it very clear that they want Congress to work together and focus their entire energies on fixing the economy.”

Newly minted House Majority leader, John Boehner, subsequently reconfirmed that the GOP would not rest until Congress had reined in government spending.  This would be partly achieved by deconstructing the highly unpopular and “flawed” Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – a “misguided” piece of legislation that would actually increase costs for employers thereby reducing the nation’s ability to jump-start an economy that relies on job creation and consumer spending. In Boehner’s mind, government is not unlike the average American, overweight – it’s budget deficits bloated by the cost of financial bailouts, Keynesian stimulus spending and failure to discuss the growing burden of fee for service Medicare.

The President’s failure to acknowledge healthcare reform in his speech was interpreted by many as deliberate and only served to cement the perception that in Washington, it will impossible to have constructive dialogue around the imperfections and potential unintended consequences of PPACA. The White House’s resolve to defend its hard-fought healthcare legislation is likely to extend the polarizing partisanship that has come to characterize Congress. The impasse may very well spark a two-year period of bruising, bellicose finger-pointing over how to fix rising healthcare costs.

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