The Wall Street Journal broke the news Thursday night that a “pricing glitch” is plaguing the federal health insurance exchange software … with less than two weeks to go before the exchanges are supposed to launch.
Basically, the exchange’s calculator can’t do a pretty important piece of math: How much each consumer will need to pay for his or her specific coverage.
Glitches had been somewhat expected—there had been rumblings of technical problems, despite officials’ public vows of confidence—but it doesn’t make the Journal‘s scoop less of a story. Opponents of Obamacare will use any delay to raise fresh concerns about the law’s implementation, and even the most ardent supporters of the ACA acknowledge that having working software is crucial to a working rollout on Oct. 1.
And what happens to enrollment targets if the glitches aren’t quickly resolved and would-be customers get frustrated and turn away?
There are several potential interpretations and implications here, given that this story is bound up in both politics and policy. From my perch, I’d offer these five quick reactions to the Journal‘s scoop.
1. This news is not a surprise.
When reporting on the ACA’s rollout, especially since the Supreme Court’s ruling last June, officials and analysts kept raising the same question with me: Will the exchanges be ready in time?
- Keep in mind, the exchanges are intended to combine an unprecedented mix of eligibility verification systems, subsidy calculations, and thousands of insurance products.
- Add an additional factor—the pace of ACA implementation lagged between 2010 and 2012 because of the ongoing uncertainty over whether the law was even constitutional—and the level of complexity involved in getting the exchanges off the ground really is astounding.
There have been hints that these systems might not be ready. Federal officials announced over the summer that they would scale back the exchanges’ verification requirements until 2015. And the contractors charged with designing the systems might as well be working on the Siberian insurance exchange, given how they’ve ignored media requests.
2. The federal exchange isn’t the only one with glitchy software. State exchanges are having problems, too.
Oregon has already announced that it plans to delay the formal roll-out of Cover Oregon to continue beta-testing, and California (a state that has moved exceptionally quickly to implement health reform) was weighing contingency plans for Covered California, too.
As Caroline Pearson of Avalere Health told me a few weeks ago, “if California’s talking about contingency planning, then we need to acknowledge that any number of state-run exchanges may not be fully operational by Oct. 1.”
However, the federal exchange software takes on extra importance given the sheer number of states (36) and potential customers (32 million uninsured) that will be shopping through its exchange.
I was a bit surprised by the front-page headline and accompanying article in the weekend Wall Street Journal (IBM to Move Retirees Off Its Health Rolls). The headline and subtext of the article are that IBM is ending health benefits for retirees, leaving them to fend for themselves. But as I read through the specifics that doesn’t appear to be at all what’s happening. Unfortunately, the article’s main impact is to leave an unduly negative impression of private health insurance exchanges.
Retiree health benefits are a big deal, especially for employees who retire before they reach the Medicare eligibility age of 65. A typical early retiree in his or her 50s will face high premiums in the individual market compared to a younger, and typically healthier, person. If they are among the few whose company provides generous coverage they are very lucky.
[On a side note, life is about to get easier for early retirees who have to buy their own insurance, thanks to Obamacare’s banning of medical underwriting and limits on the ratio of premiums charged to older people versus younger ones.]
When a person turns 65 life gets a lot easier on the health insurance front as the federal government takes over the vast majority of costs. As a result, a retiree on Medicare is much cheaper for an employer to provide health care benefits to, since they are essentially just paying for supplemental coverage.
“Half of primary care physicians in survey would leave medicine … if they had an alternative.” — CNN, November 2008
“Doctors are increasingly leaving the Medicare program given its unpredictable funding.” — Forbes, January 2013
Doctors, it seems, love medicine so much … that they’re always threatening to quit.
In some cases, it’s all in how the question is asked. (Because of methodology, several eye-catching surveys have since been discredited.)
But physicians’ mounting frustration is a very real problem, one that gets to the heart of how health care is delivered and paid for. Is the Affordable Care Act helping or hurting? The evidence is mixed.
Doctors’ Thoughts on Medicare: Not as Dire as Originally Reported
The Wall Street Journal last month portrayed physician unhappiness with Medicare as a burning issue, with a cover story that detailed why many more doctors are opting out of the program.
And yes, the number of doctors saying no to Medicare has proportionately risen quite a bit — from 3,700 doctors in 2009 to 9,539 in 2012. (And in some cases, Obamacare has been a convenient scapegoat.)
But that’s only part of the story.
What the Journal didn’t report is that, per CMS, the number of physicians who agreed to accept Medicare patients continues to grow year-over-year, from 705,568 in 2012 to 735,041 in 2013.
The latest news story to examine the issue of patient access to implantable cardiac defibrillator data (a variation on the theme of “gimme my damn data”) is an in-depth, Page One Wall Street Journal story featuring Society for Participatory Medicine members Amanda Hubbard and Hugo Campos. They have garnered attention in the past – one example is another piece on Hugo on the NPR Shots blog about six months back. The question posed by these individuals is simple — May I have access to the data collected and/or generated by the medical device implanted in my body? — but the responses to the question have been anything but. It is important to note that not every patient in Amanda’s or Hugo’s shoes would want the data in as detailed a format as they are seeking to obtain, and we should not impose the values of a data-hungry Quantified Self devotee on every similarly-situated patient. Different strokes for different folks.
The point is that if a patient wants access to this data he or she should be able to get it. What can a patient do with this data? For one thing: correlate activities with effects (one example given by Hugo is his correlation of having a drink of scotch with the onset of an arrhythmia — correlated through manual recordkeeping — which led him to give up scotch) and thereby have the ability to manage one’s condition more proactively.
We can get copies of our medical records from health care professionals and facilities within 30 days under HIPAA — and within a just a few days if our providers are meaningful users of certified electronic health records (it ought to be quicker than that … some day). In some states now, and in all states sometime soon (we hope), we can get copies of our lab results as soon as they are available to our clinicians.
The human connection is threatened by medicine’s increasingly reductive focus on data collection, algorithms, and information transaction.
If you follow digital health, Rachel King’s recent Wall Street Journal piece on Stanford physician Abraham Verghese should be required reading, as it succinctly captures the way compassionate, informed physicians wrestle with emerging technologies — especially the electronic medical record.
For starters, Verghese understands its appeal: “The electronic medical record is a wonderful thing, in general, a huge improvement on finding paper charts and finding the old records and trying to put them all together.”
At the same, he accurately captures the problem: “The downside is that we’re spending too much time on the electronic medical record and not enough at the bedside.”
This tension is not unique to digital health, and reflects a more general struggle between technologists who emphasize the efficient communication of discrete data, and others (humanists? Luddites?) who worry that in the reduction of complexity to data, something vital may be lost.
Technologists, it seems, tend to view activities like reading and medicine as fundamentally data transactions. So it makes sense to receive reading information electronically on your Kindle — what could be more efficient?
In a world where health care costs are rising and consumers are taking on a growing share, it is critical they have easy access to understandable information about the quality and cost of their care. While we have made decent strides in making quality data available, consumers still have little to no information about health care prices, making it difficult if not impossible for them to seek higher-value care. Numerous studies and articles have explored this problem, such as a recent UCSF study, highlighted in JAMA, which found routine appendectomies can cost as little as $1,529 or as much as $183,000. As PBGH Medical Director Dr. Arnie Milstein so eloquently stated in the Wall Street Journal, “Fantasy baseball managers have more information evaluating players for their teams than patients and referring physicians have in matters of life and death.”
Now Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR), an independent, non-profit corporation working on behalf of large employers and other health care purchasers to catalyze improvements in how we pay for health services, has just released a suite of tools to catalyze price transparency. The suite includes a first-of-its-kind Statement by CPR Purchasers on Quality and Price Transparency in Health Care, endorsed by several partner organizations, that takes plans and providers to task: give us price data by January 2014.
2012 has been a challenging year for me.
On the personal side, my wife had cancer. Together we moved two households, relocated her studio, and closed her gallery. This week my mother broke her hip in Los Angeles and I’m writing from her hospital room as we finalize her discharge and home care plan before I fly back to Boston.
On the business side, the IT community around me has worked hard on Meaningful Use Stage 2, the Massachusetts State Health Information Exchange, improvements in data security, groundbreaking new applications, and complex projects like ICD10 with enormous scope.
We did all this with boundless energy and optimism, knowing that every day we’re creating a foundation that will improve the future for our country, communities, and families.
My personal life has never been better – Kathy’s cancer is in remission, our farm is thriving, and our daughter is maturing into a fine young woman at Tufts University.
My business life has never been better – Meaningful Use Stage 2 provides new rigorous standards for content/vocabulary/transport at a time when EHR use has doubled since 2008, the State HIE goes live in one week, and BIDMC was voted the number #1 IT organization the country.
It’s clear that many have discounted the amazing accomplishments that we’ve all made, overcoming technology and political barriers with questions such as “how can we?” and “why not?” rather than “why is it taking so long?” They would rather pursue their own goals – be they election year politics, academic recognition, or readership traffic on a website.
As many have seen, this letter from the Ways and Means Committee makes comments about standards that clearly have no other purpose than election year politics. These House members are very smart people and I have great respect for their staff. I’m happy to walk them through the Standards and Certification Regulations (MU stage 1 and stage 2) so they understand that the majority of their letter is simply not true – it ignores the work of hundreds of people over thousands of hours to close the standards gaps via open, transparent, and bipartisan harmonization in both the Bush and Obama administrations.