Friday, October 29, 2010

qotd: More evidence of the expanding menace of high-deductible health plans

UCLA Center for Health Policy Research
October 2010
Profiling California's Health Plan Enrollees: Large Enrollment in High-Deductible Health Plans
By Dylan H. Roby, Gina L. Nicholson, and Gerald F. Kominski

Three million commercially insured Californians were enrolled in high-deductible health plans in 2007. High-deductible health plans (HDHPs) have been gaining momentum in the health insurance market as a way to encourage more rational use of health care services. However, HDHPs come with risks.  While the plans offer lower monthly premiums than typical health insurance coverage, they carry much higher deductibles for health care services. For these plans, the average annual deductible for individuals with employer-based insurance is more than $1,800. Studies have shown that significant cost sharing may create disincentives for both necessary and unnecessary care. While individuals with high-deductible plans may be less likely to utilize the emergency room for care, they may also delay necessary treatment or doctor visits.

Another mechanism for improving the affordability of health insurance is the Health Savings Account (HSA), which allows individuals with high-deductible health plans to set aside tax-deductible funds for medical expenses. However, only 23% of commercial HMO and 20% of commercial Kaiser HMO enrollees with HDHPs reported having HSAs as well. Thirty-one percent of commercial PPO enrollees reported having a Health Savings Account in addition to their HDHP.

With the recent passage of health reform, individuals and families will be mandated to have health insurance beginning in 2014. To comply with the mandate and attempt to save money, consumers may purchase plans with lower premiums. However, they could still face high deductibles and cost-sharing requirements, which would harm their ability to access health care.

Full UCLA report (35 pages):

Comment:  This large study from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research provides yet one more confirmation that the use of high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) continues to expand because of the very high cost of private health insurance, yet these high-deductible plans are causing patients to delay or decline necessary health care.

The supporters of HDHPs claim that health consumers can be protected by health savings accounts. Yet this study confirms that two-thirds to four-fifths of Californians with HDHPs do not have health saving accounts. They remain exposed to the full brunt of the deductible.

These findings are particularly applicable to the insurance exchanges which will be established in 2014. The subsidies to purchase plans within the exchanges will be targeted to the bronze and silver plans. These are plans with lower actuarial values - paying a lower percentage of the health care costs - but they will be the plans that most individuals will have to select because the more generous gold and platinum plans will be unaffordable.

How do the bronze and silver plans maintain a lower actuarial value? Primarily by requiring large deductibles. (Also they may apply greater coinsurance rates - a percentage of the health care costs for which the patient is responsible - and they may strip benefits down to the minimum permitted by government regulations.) Thus high-deductible health plans that reduce access to care will become the norm.

We can do better than that. We can improve Medicare by providing first-dollar coverage - eliminating deductibles and coinsurance - and expanding benefits to include all essential services, and then make it universal so everyone is covered. The near nominal cost of first-dollar coverage is well worth having the assurance that financial barriers to all necessary health care would be removed for everyone.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

qotd: How does the Affordable Care Act define ACOs?

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)
Office of Legislation

Medicare "Accountable Care Organizations"
Shared Savings Program – New Section 1899 of Title XVIII

Preliminary Questions & Answers

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) improves the health care delivery system through incentives to enhance quality, improve beneficiary outcomes and increase value of care. One of these key delivery system reforms is the encouragement of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). ACOs facilitate coordination and cooperation among providers to improve the quality of care for Medicare beneficiaries and reduce unnecessary costs. This document provides an overview of ACOs and the Medicare Shared Savings Program.

Q: What is an "accountable care organization"?

A: An Accountable Care Organization, also called an "ACO" for short, is an organization of health care providers that agrees to be accountable for the quality, cost, and overall care of Medicare beneficiaries who are enrolled in the traditional fee-for-service program who are assigned to it.

For ACO purposes, "assigned" means those beneficiaries for whom the professionals in the ACO provide the bulk of primary care services. Assignment will be invisible to the beneficiary, and will not affect their guaranteed benefits or choice of doctor. A beneficiary may continue to seek services from the physicians and other providers of their choice, whether or not the physician or provider is a part of an ACO.

Q: What forms of organizations may become an ACO?

A: The statute specifies the following:
1) Physicians and other professionals in group practices
2) Physicians and other professionals in networks of practices
3) Partnerships or joint venture arrangements between hospitals and physicians/professionals
4) Hospitals employing physicians/professionals
5) Other forms that the Secretary of Health and Human Services may determine appropriate.

Q: What are the types of requirements that such an organization will have to meet to

A: The statute specifies the following:
1) Have a formal legal structure to receive and distribute shared savings
2) Have a sufficient number of primary care professionals for the number of assigned beneficiaries (to be 5,000 at a minimum)
3) Agree to participate in the program for not less than a 3-year period
4) Have sufficient information regarding participating ACO health care professionals as the Secretary determines necessary to support beneficiary assignment and for the determination of payments for shared savings.
5) Have a leadership and management structure that includes clinical and administrative systems
6) Have defined processes to (a) promote evidenced-based medicine, (b) report the necessary data to evaluate quality and cost measures (this could incorporate requirements of other programs, such as the Physician Quality Reporting Initiative (PQRI), Electronic Prescribing (eRx), and Electronic Health Records (EHR), and (c) coordinate care
7) Demonstrate it meets patient-centeredness criteria, as determined by the Secretary.

Additional details will be included in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that CMS expects to publish this fall.

Q: How would such an organization qualify for shared savings?

A: For each 12-month period, participating ACOs that meet specified quality performance standards will be eligible to receive a share (a percentage, and any limits to be determined by the Secretary) of any savings if the actual per capita expenditures of their assigned Medicare beneficiaries are a sufficient percentage below their specified benchmark amount. The benchmark for each ACO will be based on the most recent available three years of per-beneficiary expenditures for Parts A and B services for Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries assigned to the ACO. The benchmark for each ACO will be adjusted for beneficiary characteristics and other factors determined appropriate by the Secretary, and updated by the projected absolute amount of growth in national per capita expenditures for Part A and B.

Q: What are the quality performance standards?

A: While the specifics will be determined by the HHS Secretary and will be promulgated with the program's regulations, they will include measures in such categories as clinical processes and outcomes of care, patient experience, and utilization (amounts and rates) of services.

Q: Will beneficiaries that receive services from a health care professional or provider that is a part of an ACO be required to receive all his/her services from the ACO?

A: No. Medicare beneficiaries will continue to be able to choose their health care professionals and other providers.

Q: Will participating ACOs be subject to payment penalties if their savings targets are not achieved?

A: No. An ACO will share in savings if program criteria are met but will not incur a payment penalty if savings targets are not achieved.

Q: When will this program begin?

A: We plan to establish the program by January 1, 2012. Agreements will begin for performance periods, to be at least three years, on or after that date.

Further details for the shared savings program will be provided in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which CMS expects to publish this fall.

Link to text of Sec. 1899 (under Sec. 3022) with a brief summary (plus text and summary of Sec. 2706 - Pediatric ACO Demonstration Project):

Comment:  Since enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) there has been considerable enthusiasm and hype over the provisions establishing accountable care organizations (ACOs). The purpose of today's message is to look past the hype to see precisely what PPACA says about ACOs.

Today's quote is the explanation of the applicable section of PPACA as provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). A link to the precise language of the section is also provided.

Sec. 3022 Of PPACA amends Title XVIII of the Social Security Act by adding Sec. 1899, the Shared Savings Program. The title alone provides a hint of what this really is about since it is not named Accountable Care Organizations.

Many entities already exist that can be called accountable care organizations. These include group practices, networks of individual practices, partnerships or joint ventures between hospitals and health care professionals, and hospitals employing health care professionals. Under PPACA, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) can include as ACOs any other group of providers and suppliers deemed appropriate.

What the law does is to add another administrative layer that is designed to reduce costs and promote quality. The existing entities plus any new ones formed have to meet certain requirements to qualify as an ACO, and then that allows them to participate in the shared savings program.

The specific requirements:

* Willing to become accountable for the quality, cost, and overall care of the Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries assigned to it

* A legal structure to receive and distribute shared savings

* A leadership and management structure that includes clinical and administrative systems

* A minimum participation of 5000 patients 

* A sufficient number of primary care professionals

* Agree to participate for a minimum of three years

* Define processes to promote evidence-based medicine and patient engagement, report on quality and cost measures, and coordinate care, such as through the use of telehealth, remote patient monitoring, and other such enabling technologies

* Demonstrate patient-centerness criteria specified by the Secretary

* Measure quality of clinical processes and outcomes, patient experience of care, and utilization

This program applies to patients in the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program. Patients do not enroll in the ACOs. They are assigned by the Secretary based on utilization of primary care services. The patients may not even know that they have been assigned, as they are free to go to any providers of their choice, in or out of the ACO.

The ACOs are still paid fee-for-service by Medicare just as they always have been. That doesn't change (though an amendment authorizes the option of a partial capitation model).

So how do ACOs achieve higher quality and lower cost?

The ACOs are not rewarded monetarily for meeting the quality standards. Their motivation to comply is to avoid being suspended from the program.

Costs are reduced by the shared savings program. A benchmark is established for each ACO "using the most recent available 3 years of per-beneficiary expenditures for parts A and B services for Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries assigned to the ACO." If the ACO can provide care for costs below the benchmark, the ACO then shares those savings with HHS. The benchmark is reset at the beginning of each 3 year agreement. 

If the costs are above the benchmark, then the fees are still paid as usual, with no adjustments.

Think about this. The incentives continue to promote greater volume. There is no penalty for running the charges up. Is the reward for reducing the volume and intensity of services enough? Since fixed costs for the ACO are relatively unchanged, the reductions in marginal overhead expenses due to reduced volume must be greater than the amount of savings that HHS shares with the ACO in order to come out ahead. Since this is the opposite of "making it up in volume," it is more likely that net income will be reduced. Further, since the benchmarks are reset every 3 years based on lower utilization, it is very unlikely that that the ACO could continue to ratchet down services to qualify for shared savings.

Some models of integrated health systems function well and should be encouraged as long as the goal is higher quality and greater value, while shunning policies that provide perverse incentives for greater profits by reducing beneficial health care services. But why would a well-functioning integrated health care system want to add an additional administrative layer, with additional quality-reporting requirements, just to be designated as an ACO, especially when the net result likely reduces the bottom line?

It is truly unfortunate that the fervor and hype over ACOs have provided yet one more distraction from the important task at hand. We need to replace our flawed health care financing system with one that works - a single payer national health program. That would include everyone of us in a quality system that we could pay for.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

qotd: Rep. Ryan's roadmap for Medicare

January 2010
A Roadmap for America's Future, Version 2.0
A plan to solve America's long-term economic and fiscal crisis
By Representative Paul D. Ryan, Ranking Member, Committee on the Budget

A Medicare Program for the 21st Century.

The entire methodology of the program must be converted away from a program that shelters providers and consumers from prices – and is therefore inefficient in restraining rising costs – into one in which beneficiaries choose the most affordable coverage that best suits their needs.

For future Medicare beneficiaries who are now under 55 or younger, the proposal creates a standard Medicare payment to be used for the purchase of private health coverage. The payment will be made directly to the health plan designated by the beneficiary (similar to the administration of the refundable health care tax credit), with the beneficiary receiving any leftover amount as a payment from the health plan, or assuming financial responsibility for any difference in the payment and the total cost of the premium.

Each Medicare beneficiary becomes eligible for the payment by enrolling in a health insurance plan. Medicare will publish an annual list of plans that are "Medicare certified." Medicare enrollees are able to use their payment to pay for one of the Medicare certified plans, or any other plan, such as those offered by former employers or available from the private market.

For affected beneficiaries, the payment replaces all components of the current Medicare Program (Medicare fee-for-service, Medicare Part B, Medicare Advantage, and Medicare Part D). Payment amounts are income-related and risk-adjusted.

For individuals now younger than 55 only, the proposal adapts Medicare's eligibility age to reflect Americans' improving lifespans, raising in gradually, and in modest steps, from the current 65 to 69 years and 6 months.

The proposal would establish a mechanism that would be activated if the Medicare trustees determined that the percentage of funding from general revenues exceeded 45 percent in the prior fiscal year. ...the mechanism would apply an automatic 1-percent reduction in payments for services provided in Medicare's fee-for-service sector.


June 30, 2010
Statement to the Commission on Deficit Reduction
by James K. Galbraith, Lloyd M. Bentsen, jr. Chair in Governnment/Business Relations, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin

You are plainly not equipped by disposition or resources to take on the true cause of deficits now and in the future: the financial crisis. Recommendations based on CBO's unrealistic budget and economic outlooks are destined to collapse in failure. Specifically, if cuts are proposed and enacted in Social Security and Medicare, they will hurt millions, weaken the economy, and the deficits will not decline. It's a lose-lose proposition, with no gainers except a few predatory funds, insurance companies and such who would profit, for some time, from a chaotic private marketplace.

Comment:  If the Republicans regain control of the House of Representatives in the election next week, as some experts predict, Rep. Paul Ryan will likely become Chairman of the Committee on the Budget. This will coincide with the release of the report from the Commission on Deficit Reduction - a report that many fear will recommend changes that would make significant cuts in the Medicare program. Clearly, Medicare is under threat.

Rep. Ryan is being touted as a brilliant wonder boy who has crafted a budget proposal, "A Roadmap for America's Future," that would return the government to solvency. Not only is the fundamental premise incorrect, he has introduced no new concepts, but rather a rehash of old proposals to privatize programs which the government is better suited to deliver.

His proposal for Medicare is to eliminate the government program as a defined benefit and substitute vouchers for private health plans as a defined contribution that shifts more risks to Medicare beneficiaries. He would also postpone eligibility until age 69 and a half (even he choked on 70).

He claims that the problem is that Medicare "shelters consumers from prices," but that isn't true. Medicare has deductibles and coinsurance that can result in considerable out-of-pocket expenses. It is the private sector plans - Medigap, retirement plans, Medicare Advantage plans - that tend to reduce the out-of-pocket spending. Most Medicare beneficiaries have such coverage, especially the Medigap plans.

Rep. Ryan is not calling for more sensitivity to health care prices; he is calling for more sensitivity to insurance premiums. By holding down the government contribution, most Medicare beneficiaries will be forced to buy plans with fewer benefits because that is all that they can afford. What a cruel and inhumane approach to financing health care. As Prof. James Galbraith says, cuts in Medicare "will hurt millions."

Almost everyone recognizes that Medicare benefits are insufficient, and that is why so many purchase Medigap plans. But are Medigap plans a reasonable approach to expand coverage? They provide one of the worst values in private insurance coverage. They are terribly overpriced considering the benefits provided. It would be far better and overall less expensive to roll over the Medigap and Part D drug benefits into the traditional Medicare program, and then eliminate Medigap, Part D, and the Medicare Advantage plans.

We need to change the national dialogue. The current discussion is about pulling back on Medicare - the wrong discussion. We need to get the word out about what a rip-off the private sector plans are. We need to get rid of them by improving Medicare and making them unnecessary. Once we've done that then we need to get the word out about how our improved Medicare would be a better program for everyone.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

qotd: Getting less care for more money

The Washington Post
October 24, 2010
The price problem that health-care reform failed to cure
By Alec MacGillis

The health-care law of 2010... sets us on the road to universal health insurance.

But the Democrats' effort to sell the law to the public may be undermined by what even some ardent supporters consider its biggest shortfall. The overhaul left virtually untouched one big element of our health-care dilemma: the price problem. Simply put, Americans pay much more for each bit of care -- tests, procedures, hospital stays, drugs, devices -- than people in other rich nations.

Health-care providers in the United States have tremendous power to set prices. There is no government "single payer" on the other side of the table, and consolidation by hospitals and doctors has left insurers and employers in weak negotiating positions.

"We spend fewer per capita days in the hospital compared with other advanced countries, we see the doctor less frequently, and we swallow fewer pills," said Jon Kingsdale, who oversaw the implementation of Massachusetts's 2006 health-care law. "We just pay a lot more for each of those units than other countries."

The 2010 law does little to address this. Its many cost-control provisions are geared toward reducing the amount of care we consume, not the price we pay. The law encourages doctors and hospitals to join "accountable care organizations" that have financial incentives to limit unnecessary care; it beefs up "comparative effectiveness research" to weed out inefficient treatments; and it will eventually tax the most expensive insurance plans to restrain consumers' superfluous use of health care.

Such measures could reduce redundant tests, emergency room visits and hospital readmissions, which would help control the costs of Medicare, where the government sets rates. But they are less likely to lower prices outside Medicare and stem the growth of private insurance rates.

The main reason for this is politics. Remember how drawn-out the health-care battle was? It started in the spring of 2009 and was waged for a full year. The bill's proponents in the White House and in Congress had some inkling of how tough the fight with the insurance companies would be. Taking on hospitals, doctors, and drug and device manufacturers as well -- the people you'd face in a showdown over prices -- might have been fatal.

So there was no price fight. It is one of those fine political ironies: The law derided as socialism may have had an easier time winning favor from a skeptical public if it was, well, a little more socialist.

Politicians wanted to avoid a confrontation over providers' prices. So a different policy argument took hold: The real reason everything cost so much was the overuse of health care, not the actual prices of treatment.

This argument came primarily from Dartmouth College researchers who had amassed data showing wide disparities in Medicare spending among different regions. Hospitals in the lower-spending areas, mostly in the Upper Midwest and the Northwest, seized on the study to argue that the key to controlling costs was to reward providers like them.

The theory caught fire at the White House. It gave President Obama and his then-budget guru Peter Orszag a way to talk about costs without taking on doctors and hospitals; instead, the White House could simply differentiate between providers that offer "value" and those that don't.

But the Dartmouth rankings, and the concept they supported, did a "disservice" to the debate, said Robert Berenson of the Urban Institute. For one thing, he and others say, the figures overstate regional differences in Medicare spending, which shrink when socioeconomic factors are taken into account. Second, rates of Medicare spending are not necessarily representative of health-care spending for people under 65. Some of the places that do well in the Dartmouth rankings charge high prices for non-Medicare patients -- and were, not surprisingly, among those pushing hardest against a public option.

More broadly, the skeptics argue that merely providing care in smaller quantities will not sufficiently lower costs. They note that Americans already have shorter hospital stays and fewer doctors' visits than people in other advanced countries. What sets us apart is our high prices for these health-care "units" -- a finding trumpeted in a landmark 2003 paper by Princeton's Uwe Reinhardt and others titled "It's the Prices, Stupid." The price problem is only getting worse, researchers and antitrust investigators have found, because of consolidation among providers, and it could be exacerbated by goading them to form even bigger networks.

Comment:  Many have commented on the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) did little to address one of the most important drivers of the reform process - our unique problem of the outrageous costs of health care. We spend far more per capita on health care than any other nation. This article by Alec MacGillis is singled out as recommended reading on this topic, as he is one of the most credible and well-informed journalists who closely observed the reform process.

The important lesson that MacGillis provides us here is that we do not use more health care than other nations, we simply pay much more for it.

Yet reform was based on the principle that we need to cut back on health care excesses that don't even exist except to a limited extent in some of those regions identified by the Dartmouth researchers as areas of higher utilization. When you consider that we use less care per capita than other nations, it's clear that efforts to ferret out this marginal waste will have very little impact on our total national health expenditures, though eliminating any waste is certainly beneficial.

The real problem is the amount that we pay for health care, yet very little in PPACA will ameliorate that problem. What could provide relief?

Alec MacGillis provides a strong hint: "Health-care providers in the United States have tremendous power to set prices. There is no government 'single payer' on the other side of the table."

As Margaret Flowers and others have been shouting out all along: "We want a seat at the table!"

Monday, October 25, 2010

qotd: The Bredesen-Gruber dispute represents much more than a math problem

The Wall Street Journal
October 21, 2010
ObamaCare's Incentive to Drop Insurance
By Philip Bredesen

Our federal deficit is already at unsustainable levels, and most Americans understand that we can ill afford another entitlement program that adds substantially to it. But our recent health reform has created a situation where there are strong economic incentives for employers to drop health coverage altogether. The consequence will be to drive many more people than projected — and with them, much greater cost — into the reform's federally subsidized system. This will happen because the subsidies that become available to people purchasing insurance through exchanges are extraordinarily attractive.

The authors of health reform primarily targeted the uninsured and those now buying expensive individual policies. But there's a very large third group that can also enter and that may have been grossly underestimated: the 170 million Americans who currently have employer-sponsored group insurance. Because of the magnitude of the new subsidies created by Congress, the economics become compelling for many employers to simply drop coverage and help their employees obtain replacement coverage through an exchange.

(Bredesen provides calculations that allegedly demonstrate that the Tennessee government could adjust the compensation of their employees so that they would not lose by purchasing their plans in the exchange, and the cost to the state would be significantly less - a savings to the state of $146 million.)

Our thought experiment shows how the economics of dropping existing coverage is about to become very attractive to many employers, both public and private. By 2014, there will be a mini-industry of consultants knocking on employers' doors to explain the new opportunity. And in the years after 2014, the economics just keep getting better.

(Mr. Bredesen, a Democrat, is the governor of Tennessee.)


The New Republic
October 21, 2010
A Health Reform Critic Flunks Math
By Jonathan Gruber

Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen takes to the Wall Street Journal editorial page on Thursday to attack health care reform.

The gist of Bredesen's argument is pretty simple: Some firms will find it more attractive to stop offering insurance and let employees get coverage through the new insurance exchanges, where generous subsidies will be available. But the Affordable Care Act, which I've long supported, imposes strong penalties on firms that do not offer insurance, as well as sizeable tax credits for smaller firms that encourage them to offer. And in most firms, the majority of employees will make too much money to be eligible for large subsidies anyway. It is for this reason that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that PPACA will reduce employer sponsored insurance in the U.S. by only about 2.5 percent by 2019. In other words, the effect on employer sponsored coverage will likely be small.

First of all, Tennessee state employees generally make too much money to get big subsidies through the exchanges. Forty percent have incomes higher than 400 percent of the poverty lines, which means they'd be eligible for no tax credits at all; even for those with incomes below that level, the average tax credit would offset just a third of their premium cost. Second, if these individuals lost their public employee insurance and went into the exchanges, they would want to receive the same very generous benefits they get now – coverage comparable to the platinum plans offered in the exchange. Working from CBO's estimate of the cost of less generous plans in the exchange in 2016, those plans would cost about $6650 for an individual and $17,400 for a family in 2014.

Using the Governor's estimates of 40,000 state employees, and accounting for the low subsidization and high cost of the very generous benefits they would need to get in the exchange, I estimate that it would cost state employees about $425 million out of their own pockets to replicate in the exchange what they get today from the state.

(Gruber provides calculations that allegedly refute Bredesen's contention that the state could save money by shifting employees to the exchange - rather the cost to the state would increase by about $230 million.)

Bredesen ignores one other important point: Employer-sponsored insurance in the U.S. is already eroding, on its own. The share of individuals with employer-sponsored coverage has declined by almost 15 percent over the past decade. These individuals have to turn to a broken and dysfunctional non-group market, resulting in higher premiums, growing rates of uninsurance, and increased medical bankruptcy. These are exactly the individuals who will be assisted by the market reforms and tax credits put in place by Affordable Care Act.

(Jonathan Gruber is a professor of economics at MIT and member of the Massachusetts Health Connector Authority Board. He has served as a paid technical consultant to the Department of Health and Human Services and continues to advise policymakers about health care reform.)


The Washington Post
October 24, 2010
Employers looking at health insurance options
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

The new health care law wasn't supposed to undercut employer plans that have provided most people in the U.S. with coverage for generations.

"I don't think you are going to hear anybody publicly say 'We've made a decision to drop insurance,' " said Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. "What we are hearing in our meetings is, 'We don't want to be the first one to drop benefits, but we would be the fast second.' We are hearing that a lot." Deloitte is a major accounting and consulting firm.

Two provisions in the new law are leading companies to look at their plans in a different light.

One is a hefty tax on high-cost health insurance aimed at the most generous coverage. Although the "Cadillac tax" doesn't hit until 2018, companies may have to disclose their exposure to investors well before that. Karen Forte, a Boeing spokeswoman, said concerns about the tax were partly behind a 50 percent increase in insurance deductibles the company just announced.

Bigger questions loom over the new insurance markets that will be set up under the law.

They're called exchanges, and every state will have one in a few years. Consumers will be able to shop for coverage among a range of plans in the exchange. To help make premiums affordable, the law provides tax credits for households making up to four times the federal poverty level, about $88,000 for a family of four.

(Tennessee Gov. Philip) Bredesen said last week that employers could save big money by dropping their health plans and sending workers to buy coverage in the exchange. They'd face a fine of $2,000 per worker, but that's still way less than the cost of providing health insurance. Employers could even afford to give workers a raise and still come out ahead, Bredesen wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

Employers are actively looking at that. "I don't know if the intent was to find an exit strategy for providing benefits, but the bill as written provides the mechanism," said Deloitte's Keckley, the consultant.

Another wrinkle: the health insurance tax credits available through the law are keyed to relatively Spartan insurance plans, not as generous as most big employers provide. Send your workers into the insurance exchange, and valuable employees might jump to a competitor that still offers health care.

MIT economist Jon Gruber says it's impossible to create new government benefits without some unintended consequences, but he doesn't see a big drop in employer coverage.

Comment:  The disputed math of the incentives for employers to either continue offering their employees health plans or to drop the plans in favor of employees purchasing their own plans in the exchanges is an important question because it determines whether employers will continue to contribute to the premiums or if the taxpayers will assume that burden through subsidies for the exchange plans. What is not so obvious is that, in the background, there are two much more important policy considerations.

What will happen if employees continue to receive employer-sponsored coverage? Or what will happen if employees end up receiving their plans through the state exchanges?

We already know what is happening with employer-sponsored coverage. Jonathan Gruber points out that this coverage has already declined by 15 percent in the past decade. Industry surveys indicate that employers want out. As Paul Keckley of Deloitte says, many employers want to be a "fast second" to drop their coverage after one major employer leads the way.

In the meantime, employers are shifting more of the costs for care to their employees in order to slow the rate of increase in the employers' component of the premium paid. As Karen Forte of Boeing said, they also increased their deductibles partly to postpone the imposition of the hefty "Cadillac tax" on plans based on the premium paid. With health care costs continuing to escalate, this tax soon will be assessed on average plans, providing further motivation for employers to dump their programs.

What coverage can we anticipate in the exchanges? Gruber says that employees will want the platinum plans in the exchanges that are comparable to the more traditional employer-sponsored plans, but is that what they would get? Because the extra cost of the platinum plans would be paid in full by the employee, it is much more likely that they would select the relatively Spartan bronze and silver insurance plans for which the subsidies are targeted. These are UNDER-insurance plans with inadequate subsidies which inevitably will cause financial hardship for those actually in need of health care.

Though the question of whether financing will be through employer-provided benefits or through taxpayer subsidies for the exchanges is an important question, it dodges the real issue: Will the workforce continue to forgo wage increases to receive plans from their employers - plans with diminishing actuarial value (under-insurance), or will employers finally jettison their plans, turning their employees over to exchanges to purchase low actuarial value bronze or silver plans (since only the wealthy will be able to afford the gold or platinum plans).

Whether we should use employer-provided benefit funds or taxpayer funds is an easy question. It is far more equitable and efficient to use the tax system to finance health care. For employers, it would be much better for them to pay their equitable share in taxes than to continue struggling with the management and expenses of their health benefit programs.

Whether we should adopt policies that favor employer-sponsored plans versus exchange plans isn't a question that we should be asking at all. In either instance we would perpetuate the wasteful, inefficient, and grossly inadequate financing system with which we are now burdened. Mandating under-insurance for everyone, except the wealthy, is a terribly flawed policy.

What we need instead is first-dollar coverage of all necessary health care for everyone - a single payer national health program - an improved Medicare for all. Now that we can all afford.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

qotd: Low-Cost Lessons from Grand Junction, Colorado

The New England Journal of Medicine
October 7, 2010
Low-Cost Lessons from Grand Junction, Colorado 
By Thomas Bodenheimer, M.D., M.P.H., and David West, M.D.

According to the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, average per capita Medicare spending in Grand Junction was $6,599 in 2007 - 24% lower than the national average and 60% below high-cost Miami.

Moreover, Grand Junction scored above the national average on a number of measurements of preventive care, diabetes, asthma, and other quality metrics.

We believe that seven interrelated features of the health care system that may explain the relatively low health care costs could be adopted elsewhere. These are leadership by the primary care community; a payment system involving risk sharing by physicians; equalization of physician payment for the care of Medicare, Medicaid, and privately insured patients; regionalization of services into an orderly system of primary, secondary, and tertiary care; limits on the supply of expensive resources, including specialists, beds, and equipment; payment of primary care physicians for hospital visits; and robust end-of-life care. These features could be replicated in other markets - though generally not without political battles.

Comment:  Although I am taking a break this week and won't provide a comment here, an excellent commentary on the Bodenheimer and West article has been posted by Joshua Freeman, Professor and Chair of the Department of Family Medicine for the University of Kansas School of Medicine. He states, "Grand Junction, Colorado may not have all the answers to our health care system, any more than Canada or Britain or Switzerland do. But it is doing a lot of things right, it is saving money, and it is improving the health of the community, and that's a lot more than most areas in the US are doing."

For Josh Freeman's full commentary:

Friday, October 15, 2010

qotd: Reimbursing based on process and outcomes?

The New York Times
October 15, 2010
Basing Pay-for-Performance on Outcomes
By Uwe E. Reinhardt

In last week's post I presented the flow chart (at link below), exhibiting the path from the production of health care proper to human well-being, and I asked where in this process one should monitor the performance that we might seek to encourage through financial incentives.

I noted that adherence to what is thought to be best clinical practice for given medical conditions is the most widely used approach to measuring performance, even though it is generally agreed that a better way is to measure performance by clinical outcomes — that is, changes in the health status of patients (Box B in the chart). Much work is now under way to move in that direction.

Unfortunately, measuring performance by clinical outcome is easier said than done.

All of these experiments (mentioned in the article) with pay-for-performance are fledgling efforts, because the science of outcome measurement has yet to scale many methodological hurdles. Furthermore, in practice the approach will work only if the providers of health care find them sufficiently accurate and fair to sign on. And economic theory tells us that to make the approach effective, it must be backed with significant financial incentives. So far, in many instances, the sums of money at stake have been rather small.

Several readers of last week's post saw in my enumeration of the difficulties of measuring performance a rejection of the idea. Not at all. The task is indeed daunting, but that does not mean we should back away from it. Rather, we must be patient and not expect too much too soon.

Basing Pay-for-Performance on Outcomes (Oct. 15):

The Uncertainties of Pay-for-Performance (Oct. 8):

Two published responses to Professor Reinhardt:

2. Don McCanne
San Juan Capistrano, CA
October 15th, 2010

Where are the science and art of medicine headed? Is the health care professional's role to asses the needs of the patient and try to meet those needs? That alone is a daunting task when you consider studies that show that patients are receiving only about half of the care that they should be receiving.

Will the guidelines for medical care become a complex algorithm of process and outcomes, with the health care professional understanding that the goal and rewards will be found in mastering and optimally executing the measurement junctures within that massive maze? Will these measurements be samplings, or will almost everything be measured (a not so far-fetched concept in this day of computerization)? What burden in time and effort will this entail?

How about the real world? When the child with diabetes who you have been caring for comes in because of being depressed over the fact that her parents just split up, are you going to ignore her immediate overwhelming concern because you are too busy checking to see that you are complying with the glycohemoglobin and whatever other process and outcome junctures on which you will be rewarded?

When the goal is to do our best to see that everyone has the highest quality care that we can manage to pay for, it would be sad to see us caught up in the science of measurements when the greater need is in the art of medicine.

9. Dr. Robert Centor
October 15th, 2010

We must thank Dr. Reinhardt for 2 stimulating posts on P4P. He has pointed out the problems of P4P. But I fear he still believes that P4P could work, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Physicians have multidimensional tasks with each patient. We must make accurate diagnoses; we must treat diagnoses and symptoms; we must communicate with patients and help them make diagnostic and treatment decisions. We must balance the treatment of multiple diseases and weigh the risks and benefits each potential treatment decision.

Implementing a P4P scheme focuses attention on the measurables and decreases attention to those things that are not measured. The NHS P4P project demonstrates that very well. Focusing on prompt visits led to a decrease in physician-patient continuity. Focusing on some parameters led to a degradation in other parameters.

P4P sounds like it should work, but many physicians believe that it cannot work, because no metric can evaluate the extent of our professional responsibilities.

We could look at preventable errors (such as central line infections) and penalize hospitals for unacceptable rates. But we should only do that when we can establish that we have a proven method to achieve the goal. I picked this example because of Dr. Peter Provonost's excellent work on this particular issue.

Dr. Reinhardt suggests that we use outcomes, but what outcomes should we measure. How do we place a metric on accurate diagnosis? We can study the reasons for diagnostic error, but measuring diagnostic errors represents a most complex and perhaps unsolvable problem?

How do we measure the physician patient interaction? This interaction includes history taking, patient education and patient motivation. Some suggest we use patient satisfaction scores, but those have major flaws and suffer from intense grade inflation.

How do we measure an appropriate balancing for the management of 5 (or more) diseases? How do we assess the appropriate prioritization of medications? How do we value decreasing polypharmacy by not treating every performance indicator to its fullest?

How do we value appropriate referrals to palliative care? How do we put a number on excellent comfort care?

I thank Dr. Reinhardt for shining a light on this problem. While I disagree with his belief that P4P is a solvable problem, I agree that we have not yet solved the problem.

Comment:  As part of the current fervor over implementing reform, considerable attention has been directed to controlling spending and improving quality by changing reimbursement methods from those based on volume and complexity of services to models based on measurements of clinical practices and health care outcomes.

Professor Reinhardt suggests that we must not expect too much out of these efforts in the immediate future; I indicate that the science and art of medicine provide far greater benefits than those measurements of process and outcomes could ever adequately assess; and Dr. Centor provides a precise explanation of why current concepts of P4P (pay for performance) miss the target.

The magic of the highly touted accountable care organizations seems to be based on these same principles. It is likely that the magic will turn out to be only sleight-of-hand, at best.

Our policymakers would be much more productive if they would shift their attention from dinking around with P4P to crafting a financing system that would ensure that everyone would have affordable access to an efficient health care delivery system with a robust primary care infrastructure. PNHP can help our policymakers define that system, if only they will finally listen.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

qotd: PPACA isn't protecting UC Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Sentinel
October 13, 2010
UCSC employees face tough health care decisions as popular plan changes
By Tovin Lapan

UC Santa Cruz employees think they have been unfairly burdened by the systemwide changes to health care coverage made for 2011.

Faculty, staff and unions representing UCSC workers have all raised concerns that one of the most popular plans on the Santa Cruz campus is no longer offered at a discounted rate and is in some cases 150 percent more expensive than the other alternative being offered, which would require switching physicians.

When the details of the new coverage options were released earlier this week UCSC employees immediately noticed that in many cases it would be difficult to maintain their current doctors at a similar cost to years past. The plan that is no longer discounted covered physicians under the Sutter Health Network, which includes the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Santa Cruz Medical Clinic. Approximately 60 percent of UCSC employees are affiliated with Sutter Health Network, according to UCSC spokesman Jim Burns.

Open enrollment for UCSC employees will begin Oct. 25, at which point many people will have to choose between paying higher premiums or leaving their doctor.

"The staff members I've talked to are pretty furious, and that frustration comes from lack of representation at the level of the office of the president," UCSC Graduate Program Coordinator Marissa Maciel said. "In order for my premium not to go way up I have to leave my doctor of the last 10 years and change my child's pediatrician."

UCSC Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway called the increases in health care costs "disappointing" and expressed that the UCSC administration has pointed out the difficult situation its employees face to the Office of the President.

"I'm particularly concerned about our many employees who are currently enrolled in the HealthNet HMO plan," Galloway wrote in an e-mail. "While an alternative version of that plan is being made available, it apparently will offer fewer providers. A sizable number of employees will face the prospect of finding new doctors. We've expressed our concerns about these issues - more than once - to UC leaders."

Comment:  When Congress wrote the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), they did not want to disturb the very large sector of health insurance coverage that seemed to be working well - the employer-sponsored health plans. It was decided that high-quality plans, such as that of the employees of the University of California at Santa Cruz, should be protected so that the plans would always be there when the employees needed them, that is if they wouldn't mind choosing between paying much higher premiums or losing their established physicians.

Jerking around provider lists, dramatically increasing premiums, pumping up deductibles and other forms of cost sharing, and manipulating benefits are all market tools used liberally by the private insurers. They are used to benefit the insurers, even if at the expense of the insured.

Compare that to our public insurance program - Medicare. Medicare doesn't even have provider lists. You can go anywhere and see any physician who is willing to see you. Adjustments in premiums are very modest, unlike the double digit increases typical of the private insurers. Medicare cost-sharing adjustments are also very modest, unlike the financial barriers to care being erected by the private insurers. Medicare benefits do not diminish but have actually increased through the years. Medicare needs further improvement, but at least it's not headed downward in the same direction as the private plans are.

It's interesting to note that more recent releases from the Department of Health & Human Services and other public agencies have shortened the name of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) to simply Affordable Care Act (ACA). Just as they gave up on insuring everyone, it looks like they also have given up on patient protection. If we had an improved Medicare for all, everyone would be covered and patients actually would receive the protection they need. It's not too late to change.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

qotd: Sen. Coburn and Prof. Feldstein predict single payer

Tulsa World
October 12, 2010
Coburn: Private health insurance may end soon
By Randy Krehbiel

"There will be no insurance industry left in three years," Coburn told the Republican Women's Club of Tulsa County. 

"That is by design. You're going to make insurance unaffordable for everyone -- which is what they want. Because if there's no private insurance left, what's left? Government-centered, government-run, single-payer health care." 

Senator Tom Coburn, M.D.


Medscape Family Medicine
October 13, 2010
Nursing Economics
Is U.S. Health Care Evolving Toward a Single-Payer System? An Interview with Health Care Economist Paul Feldstein, PhD
Interview by Peter I. Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN

Peter Buerhaus: Looking to the future, do you think the passage of health reform legislation and its implementation could eventually lead to the adoption of a single-payer system?

Paul Feldstein: It is hard to say where we are going, particularly because the legislation creates health insurance exchanges which will be overseen by an insurance regulator. The insurance regulator will have the authority to set the benefit package and influence whether a state approves or denies rate hikes by insurance companies. I can see a scenario where there is very little cost containment and little pressure to keep insurance premiums from rising substantially. And, if there is a weak mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance, then the resulting adverse selection is likely to cause insurers to increase their premiums. People will become dissatisfied with the premium increases and some may become more supportive of a government-funded public insurance option. By heavily subsidizing government-provided health insurance and undercutting private insurers, many people will switch to lower-cost public insurers because studies show that people are willing to switch insurers for not much of a price difference. Eventually, if many individuals purchase public insurance, we could end up with a single-payer system or something close to one.

Paul J. Feldstein, Ph.D.

Comment:  The majority of progressives predict that a single payer system is inevitable because the nation will no longer tolerate the increasing costs of health care. On the other side, many conservatives and libertarians predict that a single payer system may be inevitable because health plans will no longer be affordable in a regulated insurance market. Senator Tom Coburn and Professor Paul Feldstein represent the latter view.

Senator Coburn has been nicknamed "Dr. No" because of his conservative, anti-government, obstructionist approach to legislation. His views can be dismissed as those of a right-wing ideologue.

Prof. Feldstein, on the other hand, presents a more intellectual discourse of his position on health care financing. In a conversation we had during a forum at which we both appeared (Eighth Tamkin Symposium at the University of California at Irvine), Prof. Feldstein indicated to me that he was a dedicated follower of the teachings of his mentor at the University of Chicago - Milton Friedman. I probably need not say more.

The full interview of Prof. Feldstein (link above) is worth reading if you wish to better understand the sincere framing of single payer concepts from the perspective of a free-market intellectual. Although I say that his framing is sincere, it is distorted by what I believe to be exaggerated potential adverse consequences of single payer and by his failure to include certain inescapable benefits of single payer which, specifically, more than offset the deficiencies. He also repeats many of the trite criticisms of single payer that are based more on ideology and less on solid policy science, supposedly proving points by citing what are actually exceptions.

So while those on the right threaten us with the inevitability of single payer, the supporters of health care justice preach the inevitability of single payer. It looks like it's not if we'll have single payer, but when. But it won't happen until we all understand that the financing mechanism of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is not an avenue to reform, but a barrier that must be displaced. What we put in its place is where we totally disagree.

I might add that my conversation with Prof. Feldstein was in 2006, long before the recent reform process was underway, and at that time he told me that he believed that eventually we would have a single payer system, as much as he lamented the prospect. He is a very bright individual.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

qotd: Prescription abandonment

Wolters Kluwer Pharma Solutions
Pharma Insight 2009

Sample represents more than 80% of the dispensing activity within the United States for retail prescriptions, inclusive of largest retail chains.

While payers still greatly influence patient access to treatment, increasingly, patients are weighing treatment cost and benefit, especially of new prescriptions.

2009: Commercial Rx Claims - New Rx

85.59% - Dispensed to patient
8.08% - Denied by health plans
6.33% - Abandoned by patients
  Brand Rx - 9.30% abandoned
  Generic Rx - 5.50% abandoned

Comment:  This study covered 80 percent of the retail dispensing activity within the United States. It included patients for whom our health care system is working, at least theoretically. These individuals gained access to a physician, received one or more prescriptions, and then attempted to have the prescription filled by a retail pharmacy.

Private health plans that should be assisting patients in receiving the care that they should have, denied over 8 percent of the new prescriptions recommended by physicians.

Of all new prescriptions, over 6 percent were prepared but then abandoned by patients, primarily because of the high out-of-pocket costs of the prescription.

We need a health care system that ensures that all of us receive the health care that we need, including prescription drugs. A single payer national health program - an improved Medicare for all - would do just that. No one would walk away from a pharmacy empty handed.

Monday, October 11, 2010

qotd: Lessons from Bangladesh

World Health Organization
Health System in Bangladesh
(Accessed October 11, 2010)

Bangladesh has made significant progress in recent times in many of its social development indicators particularly in health. This country has made important gains in providing primary health care since the Alma Ata Declaration in 1978. All health indicators show steady gains and the health status of the population has improved. Infant, maternal and under-five mortality rates have all decreased over the last decades, with a marked increase in life expectancy at birth.

Like most transitional societies, a wide range of therapeutic choices are available in Bangladesh, ranging from self care to traditional and western medicine. The public sector is largely used for in-patient and preventive care while the private sector is used mainly for outpatient curative care.

The Public Sector

The primary care in the public sector is organized around the Upazila Health Complex (UHC) at sub-district level which works as a health-care hub. These Units have both in- and out-patient services and care facilities. Most commonly, they have in-patient care support with 31 beds, while some UHC have over 50 beds. Many UHC Units have a package service called "comprehensive emergency obstetric care services" (EOC) available, with an expert gynaecologist, an anaesthetist and skilled support nurses on duty round-the-clock, and basic laboratory facilities. At a lower tier, the Union Health and Family Welfare Centre (UHFWC) are operational, constituted with two or three sub centers at the lowest administrative level, and a network of field-based functionaries. The public sector field-level personnel are comprised of Health Assistants (HAs) in each union who supposedly make home visits every two months for preventive healthcare services, and Family Welfare Assistants (FWAs) who supply condoms and contraceptives pills during home visits. Recently some of the female HAs and FWAs have been trained as birth attendants (skilled birth attendants – SBAs), to provide skilled services within a household setting.

The Private Sector

In the private sector, there are traditional healers (Kabiraj, totka, and faith healers like pir / fakirs), homeopathic practitioners, village doctors (rural medical practitioners RMPs/ Palli Chikitsoks-PCs), community health workers (CHWs) and finally, retail drugstores that sell allopathic medicine on demand. In addition to dispensing medicine, sellers at these mostly unlicensed and unregulated retail outlets also diagnose and treat illnesses despite having no formal professional training.


The New Nation - Bangladesh's Independent News Source
October 10, 2010
Physician's obligations to patients
By Dr. Delwar Hossain

Doctors of medical background are usually brilliant and talented groups of people of our country. They are the cream of the society and pride of this country.

High moral values and strict ethical practice should be observed in the physicians simply because they are considered next to Allah by the sick people. In true sense they are the deputy of almighty Allah in this world. Unfortunately with the few exceptions they are indulged in immoral activities and unethical practices of all sorts. I think it is not too late to rectify ourselves now. 

Malpractices of all sorts have engulfed the physicians of all categories and money appears as the single most important driving factor. Money is an important factor but should not be the only factor for our profession.

Cesarean operation is a life saving method for mother and baby. It was invented only for selective and complicated labor. It is still used as such in the West. But quite different picture is seen in our country. When this facility was first available in our country several decades ago hardly 10% labor was done by it. It was used only in cases of its valid indications. But now around 50% (varies 40% to 95%) labors are done by it across the country and in majority cases injudiciously. It becomes the easiest method of earning a lot of money within shortest possible time! If we become an exploiter instead of a perfect technical person how can we be able to protect the interest of a patient?

Cases of gross negligence on the part of physicians are being reported in paper now and then. These are nothing but the tip of the ice-burg only. One of my known persons decided to deliver their baby by Cesarean section. He managed to get the best anesthesiologist and gynecologist. Patient started muscle twitching on the operation table during later part of operation. On inquiry it was found that Oxygen cylinder ran out of oxygen! And the anesthetist was found upstairs in computer game! By this time patient incurred irreparable brain damage. Then she was transferred to Dhaka to Singapore and attended by both the British and the American specialists. But did not get any benefit. Now she is deeply unconscious, has been bed-ridden for last one and a half decades, on life saving measures. She and her family life had gone to hell.

Comment:  Can a health care system in a transitional society such as Bangladesh provide lessons for a modern industrialized nation like the United States? Well, yes. See how many lessons you can find here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

qotd: Robert Reich: Aftershock

By Robert B. Reich
Published 2010 by Alfred A. Knopf


In September 2009... Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, assessing what had happened to the United States in the years leading up to the Great Recession, repeated the conventional view that "for too long, Americans were buying too much and saving too little."

The problem was not that Americans spent beyond their means but that their means had not kept up with what the larger economy could and should have been able to provide them.

Part I - The Broken Bargain 
Chapter 2 - Parallels

Economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have examined tax records extending back to 1913. They discovered an interesting pattern. The share of total income going to the richest 1 percent of Americans peaked in both 1928 and in 2007, at over 23 percent.

Between the two peaks is a long, deep valley. After 1928, the share of national income going to the top 1 percent steadily declined... to 9 to 11 percent in the 1950s and 1960s, finally reaching the valley floor of 8 to 9 percent in the 1970s. After this, the share going to the richest 1 percent began to climb again... reaching its next peak of more than 23 percent in 2007.

Part III - The Bargain Restored
Chapter 1 - What Should Be Done: A New Deal for the Middle Class

Medicare for all. The passage of health care legislation in 2010 represents only the first step toward reform. The next stage should be Medicare for all. The most efficient way to provide all Americans with high-quality health care is to allow everyone to sign up for Medicare and to subsidize the costs for middle-class and lower-income families.

Emmanuel Saez - Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States

Comment:  The landmark study by Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty has been cited by many in helping to explain what went wrong with our economy. The productivity gains of American workers were not shared with the workers but were transferred to the wealthiest Americans. Robert Reich explains that the economy falters when the masses to not have the funds to purchase the products and services made possible by their own productivity.

What should be done is intuitive. In restoring the bargain by creating a New Deal for the middle class, one of the most obvious and effective measures would be to establish a Medicare program for everyone and fund it publicly through progressive tax policies.

So simple and so right. Yes, Reich is right.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

qotd: Our bad habits? Or our health care system?

Health Affairs
October 7, 2010
What Changes In Survival Rates Tell Us About US Health Care
By Peter A. Muennig and Sherry A. Glied

Many advocates of US health reform point to the nation's relatively low life-expectancy rankings as evidence that the health care system is performing poorly. Others say that poor US health outcomes are largely due not to health care but to high rates of smoking, obesity, traffic fatalities, and homicides. We used cross-national data on the fifteen-year survival of men and women over three decades to examine the validity of these arguments. We found that the risk profiles of Americans generally improved relative to those for citizens of many other nations, but Americans' relative fifteen-year survival has nevertheless been declining. For example, by 2005, fifteen-year survival rates for forty-five-year-old US white women were lower than in twelve comparison countries with populations of at least seven million and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of at least 60 percent of US per capita GDP in 1975. The findings undercut critics who might argue that the US health care system is not in need of major changes.

We speculate that the nature of our health care system — specifically, its reliance on unregulated fee-for-service and specialty care — may explain both the increased spending and the relative deterioration in survival that we observed. If so, meaningful reform may not only save money over the long term, it may also save lives.

Comment:  This study provides credible evidence that lower life expectancy in the United States, when compared to twelve other nations, is not due to smoking, obesity, traffic accidents nor homicides. Thus this study can be used to refute those who contend that we have the greatest health care system on earth, but it is the bad habits of those unworthy of health care that result in our lower life-expectancy ratings.

The authors speculate, "It is possible that rising US health spending is itself responsible for the observed relative decline in survival." Specifically they suggest that "reliance on unregulated fee-for-service and specialty care may explain both the increased spending and the relative deterioration in survival." They seem to dismiss the lack of health insurance as not having been found to have "substantial impacts," though there is "uncertainty on this point."

This opinion meshes well with a prevalent view expounded during the reform process that our costs are high because of an excess of health services that often impair outcomes. With almost no substantial evidence, the Dartmouth variations often were blamed for impaired outcomes, while largely ignoring a plethora of data that show that insufficient care, especially related to being uninsured or under-insured, greatly impairs outcomes.

One of the authors of this study, Sherry Glied, is taking this spending-causes-decline-in-survival theory with her to the Department of Health and Human Services where she is assistant secretary for planning and evaluation. These "neo-theorists" preach that we can improve quality and decrease spending through economic tools such as accountable care organizations and bundling of services. Come on.

It's time to bring in the old school European-style theorists who have already shown that universal social insurance programs with well established primary care infrastructures do control costs and improve outcomes. Many Europeans engage in the same bad habits as found here in the United States, yet none of them are unworthy of health care.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

qotd: HHS rushes into reform... with expedited waivers!

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
September 30, 2010
Statement on the application of medical loss ratio standards to certain health plans under the Affordable Care Act

Jay Angoff, director of the Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the following statement today, regarding the application of medical loss ratio standards to certain health plans under the Affordable Care Act:

"As many employers and insurers consider health insurance options for 2011, one question that has been raised is the applicability of provisions of the Affordable Care Act to health plans and coverage with special circumstances. HHS remains committed to implementing the law in a way that minimizes disruption to coverage that is available today while also ensuring that consumers receive the benefits the Act provides.

"For example, pursuant to the Affordable Care Act and our regulations, HHS recently announced an expedited process for plans to apply for a waiver from the requirement in the Affordable Care Act establishing minimum annual limits where such limits would result in decreased access or increased premiums. HHS has approved dozens of these waiver requests, most often filed by so-called "mini-med" plans, and in doing so, has ensured the continuation of health coverage for workers and their families. Complete waiver applications were generally processed in 48 hours.

"More recently, the issue of the applicability of the medical loss ratio requirements to plans such as mini-med plans has come up. HHS has not yet issued regulations implementing the medical loss ratio requirements because the Affordable Care Act tasks the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) with first making recommendations to the Secretary.

"Although the NAIC is close to completing its work, we understand that some employers must soon make decisions regarding coverage options for 2011. As such, we fully intend to exercise her discretion under the new law to address the special circumstances of mini-med plans in the medical loss ratio calculations.  According to the Affordable Care Act, medical loss ratio "methodologies shall be designed to take into account the special circumstance of smaller plans, different types of plans, and newer plans."  We recognize that mini-med plans are often characterized by a relatively high expense structure relative to the lower premiums charged for these types of policies. We intend to address these and other special circumstances in forthcoming regulations." 

Comment:  So the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) didn't extend health care coverage to everyone and didn't enact significant cost containment measures, but at least it did establish regulations that would end insurance abuses such as low annual dollar caps on coverage and administrative excesses that waste dollars that should be going to health care. Or did it?

Next year plans are required to provide a minimum of $750,000 in coverage, phasing to unlimited coverage in 2014. Also group plans are required to pay out at least 85 percent of premium revenues for health benefits (medical loss ratio). These regulatory changes are essential if health plans are going to benefit the insured, even though that would require plan redesign by employers such as McDonald's and Jack in the Box that currently offer limited-benefit plans (mini-med plans) to their employees.

These plans offer as little as $2,000 a year in benefits. This could be perceived as a practical joke, but it certainly isn't funny. This isn't under-insurance; it's virtually no insurance at all. Also, with so few benefits paid out, these plans cannot possibly meet the required medical loss ratios. Though ACA will not insure everyone and will not control costs, the new regulatory rules were supposed to bring an end to these abusive un-insurance programs.

Under ACA the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was given an expanded role in regulatory oversight, so what is their response to these plans? They have established an expedited process for these plans to be granted waivers exempting them from the new requirements!

What will happen in 2014? What changes will take place in the interim that will cause HHS to terminate the waiver program and require removal of dollar caps on coverage along with compliance with medical loss ratios? If the employers need the waivers now, they'll certainly need them in 2014 when premiums are much higher because of the new regulatory requirements.

Is HHS really that sympathetic to employers while being so uncaring about the needs of their employees? I mean waivers... not just waivers... but expedited waivers! Just what was reform supposed to have accomplished?

As with so many of these daily messages, this would not even be a topic if Congress had enacted a single payer national health program - an improved Medicare for all.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

qotd: Who will design and operate the accountable care organizations?

Kaiser Health News
October 5, 2010
Health Care Providers, Insurers: Accountable Care Organizations Bring Legal Worries
By Jenny Gold and Phil Galewitz

Doctors and hospitals eager to pursue a new model of health care being promoted by the Obama administration are raising concerns that they could run afoul of antitrust and anti-fraud laws, while insurers are warning that the new arrangements could lead to higher prices for medical care.

A key part of the health overhaul law encourages the development of "accountable care organizations" that would allow doctors to team up with each other and hospitals in new ways to provide medical services. Health care providers want to make sure their ACOs won't be accused of stifling competition or trying to fix prices when they bargain with insurance companies. Insurers, meanwhile, are expressing concern that providers could use the leverage of ACOs to demand higher prices.

Whether ACOs – which are just a concept for now – can be made to work could determine whether the health care law ultimately succeeds in lowering costs and improving care for consumers.

The federal health program for the elderly and disabled is due to start trying out ACOs in 2012, and some providers are scrambling to figure out how to apply the idea to privately insured patients as well. The antitrust rules mostly concern the  private insurance market; in Medicare, the government sets the payment rates.

But America's Health Insurance Plans, the insurers' trade group, warned government officials against being too accommodating. It said in a recent letter  that ACOs won't help consumers "if they are mere vehicles for price fixing or aggregating market power, and the antitrust agencies must continue their efforts in this area, using enforcement, guidance, and other tools."

Cory Capps, an economist at Bates White Economic Consulting, said, "We could end up in the worst world," one in which the delivery of care isn't made more efficient but providers accumulate "greater pricing power."

Susan DeSanti, director of policy planning at the FTC, said that the agency is working with CMS on the issues, and that guidance on ACOs will be issued to reduce uncertainty. "The antitrust laws are actually consistent with the goals of ACOs," she said. "The antitrust laws encourage collaborations when they are going to produce good things for consumers, like improved health care, and the only caveat is that the creation of market power shouldn't go along with that. But antitrust is not a barrier here."

Humana Medical Director Dr. Tom James said the insurer wants to show that "health plans have a role with ACOs," adding that it's important that ACOs be seen as more than cost-cutters. "If not done right, it could give the whole movement a bad name," he said. "We learned that with HMOs in the 1990s."

Comment:  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) promises us greater affordability through the establishment of accountable care organizations (ACOs). By adopting an as-yet-to-be-defined team approach to health care, the organizations purportedly would improve quality while controlling costs, theoretically by eliminating the excess services demonstrated by the Dartmouth Atlas (even though our much greater problem is under-utilization as demonstrated by Commonwealth, RAND, and others).

Who will be making the decisions on the structure and then the operations of these teams? Will it be altruistic members of the medical, hospital, and policy communities? Very unlikely, based on the history of the HMOs. Although the original HMOs were designed with the intent of providing optimal patient care (through a team approach!), the enabling legislation that brought a surge in managed care also brought out the entrepreneurial minds that replaced health care altruism with a business ethic of health care.

There is absolutely no doubt that the same will occur now, and actually has already begun. The entrepreneurs will be in control before the altruists can develop a process to fulfill the vision for a health care utopia. Although the teams will be designed along business lines, purportedly to control costs, the motivation of those in control will be to make money. Even if the teams are not owned by passive investors, the physicians and hospital administrators will still be manipulating the structure and operations to serve their own interests first.

The vision of various teams competing with each other by offering higher quality and lower costs is a fantasy. These teams will use their oligopolistic and monopolistic powers to drive costs up. Markets do work very well for those who are able to pervert them. Just look at the perversions of the private insurance industry that has helped to orchestrate the most expensive health system in the world, while squandering the opportunities to bring some measure of quality to our system.

Congress and the Obama administration have brought us ACOs, and you would think that they would feel some obligation as government stewards to provide guidance and oversight. But what has been their response? Susan DeSanti of the Federal Trade Commission said that "the antitrust laws encourage collaborations," and that "antitrust is not a barrier here."

As Cory Capps of Bates White Economic Consulting stated, "We could end up in the worst world," one in which the delivery of care isn't made more efficient but providers accumulate "greater pricing power."

The tragedy is that all of the attention that has been diverted to these ill-defined and perversely-incentivized ACOs has distracted our nation's policy makers from seriously considering reform that actually would achieve our goal of quality, affordable care for everyone - an improved Medicare for all. Focus, folks.

Monday, October 4, 2010

qotd: Why are the insurers supporting the Republicans?

Chicago Tribune
October 4, 2010
Insurance firms infuse GOP with big doses of cash
By Noam N. Levey

Faced with wide-ranging new requirements in the health care law, the insurance industry is pouring money into Republican campaign coffers in hopes of scaling back regulations while preserving the mandate that Americans buy coverage.

Since January, the nation's five largest insurers and the industry's Washington-based lobbying arm have given three times more money to Republican lawmakers and political action committees than to Democrats.

That is a marked change from 2009, when the industry largely split its political donations between the two parties, according to federal election filings.

The largest insurers also are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobbyists with close ties to key Republican lawmakers who could be shaping health policy in January, records show.

Cigna's head lobbyist, G. William Hoagland, a former senior Republican Senate aide, said the company hopes to get a more receptive hearing next year. "This is all political now," he said.

"We generally support candidates whose views align with our business and health care interests," said Aetna spokeswoman Anjie Coplin.

And Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc., which was vilified by Democrats this year for proposing huge rate hikes in California, has given nearly nine times as much to Republicans this year.

Karen Ignagni, America's Health Insurance Plans president, said she wouldn't speculate about what Republicans would do if they retake the House and Senate in November.

But she acknowledged the industry's interest in the GOP. America's Health Insurance Plans has given the party twice as much as it has given Democrats this year.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Ignagni said.

Comment:  Well, that didn't last long. The insurance industry supported the Democrats just long enough to get passed into law their one policy proposal made in insurance heaven: a mandate for everyone to purchase their private insurance products. Now that we have to buy their plans, they want Republican-style market reforms to make sure that their insurance products are not priced totally out of the market, even if that leaves health care itself unaffordable.

What are these measures that Republicans support and that Democrats don't?

* Insurers want to be able to sell their plans across state lines. By opening up markets in the less regulated states, insurers can sell more competitively priced products, even if they provide patients less protection against loss.

* They want to sell less expensive, high-deductible plans linked to health savings accounts that attract their favored healthier and wealthier clientele, even if it harms the sick by pushing them into more expensive, higher-risk insurance pools.

* They want to increase wasteful taxpayer subsidies of their private Medicare Advantage plans in order to create incentives to shift more patients from our government Medicare program into their own industry plans.

* They want relief from having to insure high-needs, high-cost patients. They would do this by shifting the burden to taxpayer-financed high-risk insurance pools or reinsurance programs.

* They don't want to be exposed to some of the transitional programs such as requiring coverage of children with preexisting disorders.

* They want to be sure that required "standard benefits" are defined as loosely as possible to protect their market of low cost products, even if those products fail to provide adequate protection.

* They want to be sure that rules for waivers will be applied liberally so that they can continue to offer innovative products such as the mini-med plans for McDonald's employees that have basic benefits paying a maximum of $2,000 per year, or up to $10,000 maximum per year for the deluxe plan. (These plans are a cruel hoax.)

* They want to be sure that overall regulatory oversight will be relaxed as much as possible so that the free market can offer the highest quality insurance products at the very best prices (sic). 

Right now Sandy and I have the pleasure and honor of hosting some of the Mad as Hell Doctors at our home during their current California tour in support of single payer. At dinner last night, one of them asked me if, when I'm writing the Quote of the Day, aren't there times that I want to say... like... Bullshit!!... or something like that.

Yes! Right now. Bullshit!! Today I'm also a Mad as Hell Doctor!

We have to get this uncaring, thieving industry out of our health care and out of our lives. The Republicans won't do that, but don't ever forget that it was the Democrats who set up the framework that will keep them there forever - unless we start exercising more effectively our responsibilities to participate in a citizen-run democracy.

Friday, October 1, 2010

qotd: How can a family with $50, 000 in income pay $18, 000 in medical expenses?

October 1, 2010
How can a family with $50,000 in income pay $18,000 in medical expenses?
By Don McCanne

In the Quote of the Day for September 28, 2010, I wrote, "The $18,000 in average health care costs for a family of four is already over one-third of the median household income of $50,000." Understandably, some readers perceived that I was implying that the average family with an income of $50,000 was paying an average of $18,000 out of that income for health care. That wasn't my intent. I was trying to make the point that our current level of spending on health care is already far beyond the capability of the members of a typical household to pay their equally allocated share.

Also I should have refined the numbers a little bit more. The median household income is now $50,221, but the Census Bureau does not include the value of the employer contribution to the insurance premium in that number. According to the Hewitt report in my September 28 message, employers contribute $7612 per employee (including dependents if covered). So the median income with the employer insurance contribution added would be $57,833. The population with a median household income is not identical to the family of four described by the Milliman Medical Index (the average amount spent on actual health care for a family of four covered by an employer-sponsored PPO), but there is considerable overlap.

For purposes of describing how high health care spending is in relation to income, dividing the the Milliman Index of $18,074 by the adjusted median household income of $57,833 does provide a rough approximation of how much that is. It is still over 31 percent, though short of the "over one-third" I reported previously. Again, I can't overemphasize that $18,074 is not the average amount that each family of four is paying directly out of its income, but it is the average amount that is being spent on health care on its behalf.

Even these numbers seem unbelievable. How could we possibly be spending that much when incomes are so low comparatively?

A very good friend of mine responded in appropriate disbelief. He wrote, "The information on the average health care costs that a family pays is difficult to determine, but the link here shows an average about $6,000 which is about 14% of the median household income."

The link to an article on the cost of heath insurance:

Because it has been so difficult for many of us (including me) to grasp just how much we are spending on health care, I decided to provide a more detailed response. Since this reality check is so important, I decided to share my comments with others by making this the Quote of the Day for today (and you may wish to share it with others):

Response to a Dear Friend:

I knew that you would have a problem with these numbers. It doesn't seem reasonable that the average health care costs for a family of four with employer-sponsored insurance is $18,000 when the median household income is $50,000. These numbers don't seem to compute, but they are very real.

Let me start with the $6,000 (actually $6,328) for family insurance as cited in the article you sent. That number came from a report by AHIP (America's Health Insurance Plans - the lobby organization that helped to orchestrate the reform bill).

AHIP - Individual Health Insurance 2009:

From page 4 of the report: "Nationwide, annual premiums averaged $2,985 for single coverage and $6,328 for family plans in mid-2009."

That $6,328 is not health care costs, but rather it is the premium paid for family coverage in the individual insurance market. It is not the premium paid for an employer-sponsored family plan. That's a very important distinction and here's why.

The individual insurance market is highly dysfunctional, and was one of the primary motivators for the regulatory changes in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). About 30 percent of individuals who apply for individual plans are denied coverage. The private insurers will cover only individuals with an unblemished health record. Most health care costs for those individuals are very low and often below the deductible. This is why the insurers can sell an individual family policy for only $6,328 - these are healthy people who rarely file significant claims. In fact, when they do file larger claims, the private insurers routinely look to see if they could find an omission in the application such as a prior yeast infection not reported, and then they would reject all claims and rescind the coverage.  Both of these practices are illegal for employer-sponsored group coverage, which is partly why group coverage is more expensive, but they were very effective in limiting claims losses in the individual market. The new law requires guaranteed issue (all applicants accepted) and prohibits rescission (retroactive revocation of insurance). These two changes will wipe out the individual insurance market as we know it, and will result in skyrocketing insurance premiums.

Another reason that individual plans are so cheap (if you call $6,328 cheap) is that they do not provide nearly as good coverage - both in benefits and cost sharing. Individual plans frequently omit pharmaceuticals, mental health services, maternity benefits, etc. Also they tend to have larger deductibles ($1,000 to $25,000) and high coinsurance (a percentage of fees which is usually much higher than co-pays would be). The bankruptcy studies have shown that medical debt contributes to about 60 percent of personal bankruptcies, and three-fourths of those with medical debt had health insurance. Individual plans have deteriorated to a degree that they don't keep people out of bankruptcy when they develop significant medical problems. The new law will establish a standard benefit package which will also drive premiums up, though it will still permit excessive cost sharing (at an actuarial value of 60 to 70 percent).

Another study done for AHIP by PriceWaterhouseCoopers:

From page 5: "This analysis shows that the cost of the average family coverage is approximately $12,300 today."

Once again, this is not the costs of health care, but it is the average of family premiums paid by those in both the individual and employer-sponsored group market. Already you can see that group coverage is going to be higher when you remove the individual plans from the calculations.

Okay, now the Milliman Medical Index does not represent premiums paid, but rather it represents the average amount paid for health care for a family of four with an employer-sponsored PPO plan (Blue Cross, Blue Shield, etc.). It does not include the administrative costs and profits for the insurer; it includes only the average amount that was paid for actual health care for the family. It is an important number for business entities because it shows what health care actually costs. You should read the first couple of pages of their report since it really brings home what we are paying in health care. (Note that Milliman is an actuarial consulting firm for industry - so these are not numbers that we concocted.)

Milliman Medical Index:

From page 1 (3rd page of document): "The total 2010 medical cost for a typical American family of four is $18,074."

But it's even worse. This is what businesses and their employers are paying for health care. Keep in mind that this sector is the relatively healthy workforce and their young healthy families. 

When you think about it, the private insurance industry has skimmed off the largest and healthiest sector of our society and is selling insurance to them - America's workforce. The private insurers are having great difficulties selling affordable plans to employers because these costs even for the healthy are so high. They have been shifting more costs to patients through higher deductibles and other cost sharing, but they still can't keep their premiums affordable. This is why Karen Ignagni of AHIP said over and over again during the debate on reform that this is not going to work unless the GOVERNMENT does something to control costs - a tacit admission that the insurers are incapable of controlling costs.

But think about this. If $18,074 is the average amount that health care costs for a relatively healthy family of four, then what is average cost if you include everyone in the calculation? That is, what is the cost per capita if you add up all health care spending in the nation and divide that by our population of 310,000,000? That number is available from the Office of the Actuary, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Health Spending Projections:

From the table on page 523:
Projected National Health Expenditures (NHE) for 2010: $2,589.6 billion
NHE as percent of GDP: 17.3%
NHE per capita: $8,289.9

So if we put all of our health spending dollars into one giant insurance fund, we would be paying out an average of $8,290 for each man, woman and child in this nation. For that family of four, their share is $33,160. Think about what that means when the median household income is $50,000.

These numbers are very accurate, yet how could that be? How could we be spending so much per capita and yet the average family does not see health bills of that magnitude?

First of all, we fragment our insurance risks into multiple pools. The less healthy 20 percent of people consume 80 percent of our health care. Workers fall into the 80 percent of people who use only 20 percent of the care. Thus isolating the healthy workers and their families into employer-sponsored pools dramatically reduces the per person insurance premiums because of the much lower per person costs of these healthy individuals.

Let's see what that would be for this healthy family of four. Milliman shows that their average health care costs are about $18,000. The new health care bill says that the plans should have an actuarial value of 60 or 70 percent, but let's use 70 percent (the insurance pays an average of 70 percent of health care costs and the family pays an average of 30 percent out of pocket). Thus the insurer pays an average of $12,600, and the family pays an average of $5,400. The law also allows the insurer to keep 15 percent of the premium to pay the bills and the administrative costs, so the premium for the family would be $14,824 ($12,600 divided by .85). Thus the family pays, under the new law, an average of $20,223 (the premium plus the out-of-pocket expenses). Again, with a median household income of $50,000 no middle income family could afford that. That is why the law provides subsidies for both the premiums and for the out of pocket expenses. However these subsidies will not be adequate for most, so, under the new law, financial hardship is an almost inevitable consequence for those who face significant medical problems.

There is a much more important reason why families are not paying an average of $33,000. Although they receive their health care financing through risk pools for the healthy, most higher cost patients have their care financed through expensive risk pools for the sick. Some examples include Medicare, Medicaid, the VA system, state high risk health pools, safety-net institutions for the uninsured, and so forth. What do these have in common? They are financed by us - the taxpayers! In fact, if you add those together, and include the tax subsidies we are providing for employer-sponsored coverage, and include the private health insurance that tax payers purchase for federal, state and local government employees, we are already paying 60 percent of our entire national health expenditures through the tax system. That is largely invisible to most of us. Also, it shows that our health care financing is much more progressive than most realize. The wealthy are paying much more than average-income families.

If that's already true, then why don't we leave it like it is? The reason is that this fragmented system of financing health care wastes hundreds of billions of dollars each year - money that could be going to pay for health care. Perhaps worst of all, from our perspective, is that the current law will leave tens of millions uninsured; it will establish underinsurance as the norm (60 to 70 percent actuarial value); and it will do very little to slow the outrageous escalation in health care costs. A single payer national health program - an improved Medicare that covers everyone - would control costs and cover everyone. How that works is another story.