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Tag: Policy

A whole lot more Medicaid, but there’s a catch

It looks like the stimulus package is going to spend a whole lot more on Medicaid AND subsidize the purchase of COBRA for laid off workers. Unlike the “let them eat cake” brigade who’ll decry this as extending welfare to the worthless, I have no problem with it. So long as it really is only a temporary measure,

But let’s be clear—Medicaid is dumb public policy. It’s divided between paying for care for the poor and paying for mostly long-term care for the elderly and chronically disabled, and also has subsidies for hospitals in poor areas thrown in. Then it has S-CHIP as its bastard relation. Furthermore, while the Federal government giveth, the states (which are broke but can’t borrow—California alone is $45 billion in the hole!) are by necessity going to have to take away.

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CEOs’ Urgent, Shared Commitment to Change

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A few weeks ago, I joined five of my peers in health care leadership throughout the country to help launch Health CEOs for Health Reform, a coalition dedicated to transforming health care and creating a more sustainable health system. 

In mission, we committed to moving past policy concepts toward a detailed blueprint that would reconcile legislative goals with operational realities of the health care system. Our goals are lofty and the challenges immense. What struck me in recent months, with the current state of the economy, is the tremendous sense of urgency we all feel and the confidence we have that now is the time to truly transform health care. 
 

I read Michael Millenson’s post The Inevitability of Health Care Reform: This Time, the Politics Have Changed with great interest and personal reflection. What is different this time around? What do I think a handful of health CEOs can really do to change a system entrenched with waste and cost that does not add value to our very customer – the patient? 

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Cats & dogs: Can we find unity on health care IT change?

Those of you paying attention for the past few days might have noticed on the one hand a sense of optimism and unity as Barrack H. Obama, somewhat somberly, began his presidency.

Meanwhile, over the past few weeks the fur has been flying among the electrons on THCB while some very knowledgeable and opinionated health care wonks and geeks have been battling it out about what exactly we should be doing in terms of federal health care IT spending.

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Five “Shovel-Ready” Health Care Reforms

Microsoft Health Vault’s leader Peter Neupert has a wonderful blog post that makes two important points really well. One message is that health care reform is about the outcomes, not the technology. We should think expansively about which technologies to invest in, based on the results we want to get.

The other message is the economic stimulus package is different than the reform effort. It is moving at hyper-speed through Congress, and it may be difficult for staffers and other advisors to sort through and incorporate what may seem like opposing Health IT views against a backdrop of traditional ideology and extremely forceful special interest lobbying.

Even so, there’s consistency among the health care professionals who worry about these issues all the time. Peter unexpectedly discovered that the messages of his fellow panelists from the Health Leadership Council, the National Quality Forum, the Permanente Federation and the General Accounting Office were remarkably in sync with his own testimony to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Congress is about to make some big moves in health care that will require immense resource expenditures but, depending on what we pay for, may or may not bear the fruits we hope for. They should move carefully. Not all health care reform has to be labyrinthine. Not all ideas must require huge cost or take years to come to fruition and gain market traction. There are relatively simple actions that are available now, and that the Obama Health Team could tackle to effect tremendously positive, immediate impacts on the system.

Of course, right now the Health IT industry is focused on the promise of a huge stimulus windfall that would be dedicated to their products. But the opportunities we describe below follow principles that have broad support among students of the health care crisis. Two would change the way we pay for health care services, tying payments to documented results. Three are based on how we pull together and make use of the data that can drive clinical and financial decisions, and they overlap, though not perfectly, in their potential. Still, if any system adjustments can be passed through policy initiatives that focus on what’s best for the common rather than the special interests, these should be among the most straightforward.

Payment
Re-Empower Primary Care
There is general agreement that primary care is in crisis, the result of years of abuse and neglect by the medical establishment and by CMS. In simple terms, the primary care/specialist ratio in the US is 30/70. In all other developed nations, its about 70/30. And our costs are roughly double theirs.

We should allow primary care physicians to do the jobs they were trained for, changing their roles from “gatekeepers” to “patient advocates and guides.” We should immediately start financially rewarding them for collaborating with specialists to manage patients throughout the full continuum of care. Keep in mind that, as the Dartmouth Atlas and other studies have made clear, most health care waste is concentrated in the sub-specialties and in inpatient settings, incentivized by a fee-for-service reimbursement system that rewards more procedures, independent of their utility.  One very thoughtful approach to invigorating primary care has been advanced by Norbert Goldfield MD and colleagues.

Of course, truly re-empowering primary care will require more than just paying primary care physicians more. Higher reimbursements will help them afford to spend more time with each patient, yes, but PCPs also need help acquiring tools that can help them better manage those patients. And they need the authority to work collaboratively with specialists. Challenging, but certainly doable and important!

Changing America’s current imbalance between primary and specialty care should drive significant downstream waste from the system, dramatically improving quality and reducing cost.

Increase the Incentives For Programs That Tie Payment To Outcomes
Projects like the CMS/Premier Hospital Quality Incentive Demonstration (HQID), in which 250 participating hospitals got 1-2 percent bonuses for achieving quality improvements, have clearly demonstrated that incentives work. The hospitals that pursued the incentives made greater strides in quality improvements than their peers who did not work toward the incentives.

But we need to make the financial incentives large enough to drive real paradigmatic change. Too many programs offer incentives that are trivial in the minds of providers. Does it make sense for physicians in small, busy practices to rework their office flows to try to meet the challenges associated with hitting targets in exchange for a 1 or 2 percent financial bump, tied to a fraction of their patient population?

Now that there’s no question that incentives work, we could easily give these programs teeth by raising the incentive antes to 15 or 20 percent, while also demanding commensurate levels of savings. And we should go in, understanding that the goal is to drive out unnecessary care, and create expectations that,  by managing better upfront, the total spend will be lower.

Data

Establish a National All-Payers Database
Data sets, including those comprised of health care claims, must be large to generate credibly useful information.

But health care is financed through many different payer streams and by many players within each stream.  Nearly all treat their data as proprietary, and information remains fragmented. So, for example, physicians rarely receive useful information on their complete pool of diabetic patients: instead, they get small slices of data from each payer, each analyzed using a different proprietary methodology. Or, we fail to accumulate adequate sample sizes to identify which treatments, interventions, drugs, devices, health plans, physicians or facility services provide the best value.

But merging those data across payers and making the aggregated set freely available would create the basis to identify true evidence-based best clinical and administrative results. Based on hundreds of millions or billions of records, we might be able to credibly identify which professionals, services or approaches most consistently produce the best results within value parameters. The data set would always be building, providing an always slightly-new base for answering our most difficult questions. Together with the analytical tools that are also becoming stronger and more refined, the potential is vast.

Of course, health plans, always politically formidable, might fight tooth and nail to maintain the competitive advantage they believe is inherent in their data. But health care is a special enterprise, with objectives that are ultimately rooted in the common interest, so they have no real excuse to refuse this. And health plans, like the rest of us, would gain access to much larger data sets that can be mined to advantage.

There also are precedents here. Several states have already begun to establish all-payer databases. At a June 2008 meeting, a presentation on Maine’s experience highlighted 3 fundamental, telling principles that are challenges to any effort.

1. Nobody wants to pay to develop and manage the database.
2. Nobody wants to contribute their data to the database.
3. Everyone wants the aggregated data that develops in the database.

The solution: make it a national effort, paid for by CMS, and with mandatory participation, user fees, and open access to the data.

Create Uniform Nationally Accessible Disease Registries

Many physicians have come to appreciate the value of disease registries. Registries allow clinicians to count all active patients with distinct conditions, e.g. hypertension or diabetes. They can track characteristics within a patient subset, e.g. diabetic patients on a particular medicine. They can monitor and stratify patient status and progress within each group, and generate reminders and alerts to assure guideline level care. And they can identify trends in performance and, with relative ease, get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Even so, many registries are still in silos, meaning that the sample sizes remain small and that the parameters that define the registries’ characteristics often vary between implementations.

What we need are freely available, Web-based registries with easy data entry and easy querying capabilities. The impact on our management of patients with chronic illness, who consume 70 percent of our health resources, would almost certainly be powerfully positive.

Release Medicare’s Physician Data
Nearly a year and a half ago, the consumer advocacy organization Consumer Checkbook sued the US. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for the Medicare physician data in four states and DC. HHS argued that physicians have a right to privacy, even though, in the case of Medicare and Medicaid, they are vendors taking public dollars, and even though hospitals do not enjoy the same protection from scrutiny. In August 2007, the court held with Checkbook, and on the AMA’s “advice,” HHS promptly appealed, locking up the data for the duration of the Bush Administration.

The large commercial health plans have traditionally considered their claims data proprietary and so have not made their data sets publicly available. Self-funded health plans, administered by Third Party Administrators (TPAs), develop sizable data sets but have resisted collaborating, and have also not expressed an interest in making their data available.

So for those outside the health plan community, there are few, if any, data sources with sample sizes large enough to accurately evaluate and profile physician performance. This is significant, since studies have shown that there can be profound differences, 6x-8x, in resource consumption (i.e., cost) between the least and most expensive physician (within a specialty and market) to obtain the identical outcome.

In other words, not all doctors perform equally. While more patients are paying out-of-pocket for a larger portion of care, there is still virtually no credible information to guide their physician choices.

The American people could quickly learn which physicians within a specialty and a market consistently get the best outcomes at the lowest costs if Medicare physician data were made publicly available. Releasing these data would also put pressure on physicians everywhere to understand their own numbers, and to improve if their performance values are lacking.  We see this as beneficial to the great majority of physicians who seek excellence in their work.

Smoothing the Way

American health care is a vast enterprise in which millions of professionals and hundreds of thousands of organizations vie for an ever larger portion of what has historically been an always growing resource pool. The chaos and dysfunction that has developed in health care is largely due to two system characteristics. One is the fee-for-service reimbursement system that has rewarded more rather than the right care. The other is a lack of transparency that prevents us from knowing and understanding performance, even when that performance is dangerous: what works and what does not, which approaches are high and low value, who does a good job and who does not.

The five action steps outlined above would allow us to better identify the problems and opportunities in our health system, as well as the strongest solutions to drive decision-making. Then they would leverage that information to create strong incentives for the right care, organically changing the dynamics of care and reimbursement and, to the degree possible, smoothing the transition required to heal the way we supply, deliver and finance care in America.

OP-ED: The MRI Safety Gap

In health care, particularly in patient safety, there is a cultural predisposition towards excellence. There’s a fundamental desire to create better, safer environments in support of care. That applies to staff qualifications, policies & procedures, medical technology, and—usually—standards for accreditation.

I say ‘usually’ because there is a glaring hole, more than two decades old, in patient safety accreditation standards: MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

Approximately 1 in 10 Americans—or roughly 30,000,000 people—had an MRI last year. Most if not all of them went through some type of screening and passed signs with cryptic warnings as they entered locked doors to the MRI suite. The screening and warnings are intended to prevent serious accidents and injuries. Ferromagnetic materials (such as oxygen tanks, wheelchairs, cleaning equipment) must be kept outside the MRI suite lest they become magnet-homing missiles, which have killed patients in the past. Patients with contraindicated implants may experience potentially fatal adverse interactions with the MRI’s magnetic field or RF energies, and facilities must prevent MRI devices, which can cost in excess of $2 million, from accidental damage.

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Health 2.0 Will Benefit from Obama’s HIT Stimulus

The Obama team is talking very seriously about including health information technology in his “main street” stimulus package. While I generally agree with the predictions of doom and gloom for providers saddled with the burden of data entry, this creates a potentially huge opportunity for Health 2.0.

As very publicly warned in this forum and others, a stimulus package focused entirely on existing EMR/HER technology would not only offer no proven health benefits (Linder, et al. Arch Intern Med. 2007) but also would financially harm clinical practice. Kaiser Permanente’s Hawaiian experiment with EMR added approximately an hour a day of data entry work per physician (Scott et al., BMJ 2005).

This impact will fall disproportionately on primary care.

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Tone deaf git of the month award

I’m always amused to see Ivy league professors with tenured appointments and gold-plated group health insurance explaining how the individual market for health insurance works pretty well for, well, quite a few of the well people in it. But this award is not for Mark Pauly.

Today there’s a long piece in the Wash. Post (essentially paid for and scripted by Kaiser Family Foundation—which may be the future model of health care journalism). In it, we see this paragraph:

Experts define the underinsured as those forced to spend at least 10 percent of their income on health care, excluding premiums. But the nonprofit Center for Studying Health System Change found recently that financial pressures on families increase sharply when out-of-pocket spending on medical bills exceeds 2.5 percent of family income. New York’s Commonwealth Fund has reported that 72 million adults under age 65 had problems paying medical bills or were paying off medical debt in 2007, up from 58 million in 2005. Many had insurance, and 39 percent said they had exhausted their savings paying for health care.

Yup, even people with insurance are in real trouble. Two days ago I met a woman in her early 20s who faces 3 more years paying off extra bills from emergency ankle surgery 2 years ago. And yes she had insurance–just not very good insurance.

And so we have around 25% of adults having problems paying medical debts. And of course that’s a 2007 number—in other words pre-recession. So in order to be “balanced,” they get a quote from a resident member of the loony right. And for our tone deaf git of the month award we select this wonderful piece of empathy.

Economist Thomas P. Miller of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, said he believes the problem of medical debt has been exaggerated and is a symptom of the broader economic crisis. The solution, he said, should not be "to kill people with kindness" by requiring an overly expansive and expensive benefits package that could "preempt the use of resources for other purposes."

In other words, screw you poor people, you’re on your own and the system works fine.

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New NRC Report Finds “Health Care IT Chasm,” Seeks New Course Toward Quality Improvement and Cost Savings

Like the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) 2001 counterpart report, “Crossing the Quality Chasm,” a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies is complex, full of new ideas assembled from multiple disciplines, and is likely to have seminal importance in framing public policy from now on. “Computational Technology for Effective Health Care:  Immediate Steps and Strategic Directions” was released last Friday, January 9, 2009 in draft, but there is so much to comment on that I think it’s wise to begin with a quote from the committee that sums up the central conclusion:

In short, the nation faces a health care IT chasm that is analogous to the quality chasm highlighted by the IOM over the past decade. In the quality domain, various improvement efforts have failed to improve health care outcomes, and sometimes even done more harm than good. Similarly, based on an examination of the multiple sources of evidence described above and viewing them through the lens of the committee’s judgment, the committee believes that the nation faces the same risk with health care IT—that current efforts aimed at the nationwide deployment of health care IT will not be sufficient to achieve the vision of 21st century health care, and may even set back the cause if these efforts continue wholly without change from their present course. Success in this regard will require greater emphasis on the goal of improving health care by providing cognitive support for health care providers and even for patients and family caregivers on the part of computer science and health/biomedical informatics researchers. Vendors, health care organizations, and government, too, will also have to pay greater attention to cognitive support. This point is the central conclusion articulated in this report. (emphasis added)

It would be difficult to find a more sober indictment of US health care IT policy and implementation over the past decade than what is contained here.

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Eric Novack has a few questions….

1. In California, where the SEIU is attempting to forcefully merge with the United Healthcare Workers, I can’t seem to find the focus on, you know, health care. “What it does is allows them to have the strongest voice possible in Sacramento,” said Mary Kay Henry, SEIU executive vice president.

2. Should the new administration be looking at Massachusetts as model to follow for health reform, or as a model of what must, at all costs (and they are extremely high), be avoided?3. How can we reconcile the fact that on Thursday the President-elect spoke about the importance of spending more on healthcare while on Sunday explaining that he intends to recommend spending less?4. In 2005, the association health plan bill (aka small business health plan) was killed, in large part, because advocates for specific disease conditions believed that state mandates and state lobbying efforts would be hampered if more people were covered under ERISA (i.e. national mandates—which are much harder to pass)— how will the administration propose to address this issue of state mandates in sweeping health care reform? 5. If health and health care are ultimately the most personal part of our lives, is it possible that more nationalization of health care will result in a greater role of lobbying bureaucrats and elected officials to seek and obtain care?6. How much would Medicare taxes be, and Part B and D premiums be, if the system actually needed to be self supporting, and the government had to keep adequate financial reserves like private insurers?

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