Category Archives: Healthcare Policy

Pre-ops for cataract surgery?

Cataract Surgery Fast And Safe, But Many On Medicare Get Costly Pre-Testing

Requiring patients to get blood work and other tests before undergoing cataract surgery hasn’t been recommended for more than a dozen years. There’s good reason for that: The eye surgery generally takes less time than watching a rerun of “Marcus Welby, MD” — just 18 minutes, on average. It’s also incredibly safe, with a less than 1 percent risk of major cardiac problems or death.

cataract surgery 570

Yet more than half of Medicare patients received at least one pre-operative test in the month before undergoing surgery to remove cataracts in 2011, a recent study found.

Some doctors were much more likely than others to order a complete blood count, urinalysis, cardiac stress test and the like. Thirty-six percent of ophthalmologists ordered pre-operative tests for more than 75 percent of their patients, according to the study, which was published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Their patients were no sicker or older,” says Catherine Chen, an anesthesiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and the lead author of the study. “It suggests that it’s habit or practice patterns.”

The study compared the prevalence and cost of pre-operative testing in the month before 440,857 Medicare beneficiaries had cataract surgery. Testing expenditures for Medicare patients during the 30 days prior to cataract surgery were 42 percent higher than the average monthly Medicare spending for testing on those patients during the previous 11 months, a difference of $4.8 million.

Cataract surgery used to take a few hours and require general anesthesia. In those days, preoperative testing made more sense, says Chen. Now people often receive only a topical anesthetic eye drop to numb the eye or sometimes a local anesthetic that may include a sedative for relaxation.

But research shows that today, pre-operative testing for cataract surgery doesn’t result in fewer adverse events or better surgical outcomes, regardless of a patient’s health, says Chen.

“It’s so low risk it’s almost like saying you’re going to get your nails done,” she says. “There’s always a chance you’ll get hit by a car or have a heart attack on the way,” but it’s unlikely to happen at the nail salon.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit national health policy news service.

“Overkill” – Is overtesting and overdiagnosing patients leading to harm?

This week Dr. Atul Gawande, professor at the department of surgery in Harvard Medical School, wrote an article in The New Yorker, “Overkill”. He discusses potential consequences with ordering too many tests that may be unnecessary and how it contributes to high cost and decreased value of health care. Interestingly, he argues that even the correct diagnosis doesn’t lead to good outcomes all the time. He discusses how “overdiagnosis” can lead to anxiety and stress on the patient’s end and even more tests, procedures, and costs. Dr. Gawande uses examples from his own personal life and colleagues that illustrate how much harm can happen when not appreciating the actual value of the care we provide. He even refers to the Texas town of McAllen and the remarkable change the hospital systems and providers have undergone in a positive way since writing his well publicized article in 2009, “The Cost Conundrum.” Thanks to Dr. Kazi for bringing this to our attention! Check out his article below by clicking on the link.

“Overkill” 

(Image is illustration by Anna Parini featured in May 11, 2015 issue of The New Yorker)

And the most prescribed drug is……

Medicare Itemizes Its $103 Billion Drug Bill

April 30, 2015

The federal government popped the cap off drug spending on Thursday, detailing doctor-by-doctor and drug-by-drug how Medicare and its beneficiaries spent $103 billion on pharmaceuticals in 2013.

The data show that 14 drugs cost the federal government and Medicare beneficiaries more than $1 billion each, accounting for nearly a quarter of Medicare prescription drug spending in 2013. Most of those drugs are used to treat chronic conditions that plague the elderly, including diabetes, depression, high cholesterol and blood pressure, dementia and asthma.

pill money 570The brand drug Nexium, used to treat heartburn, acid reflux and related stomach ailments, cost the most: $2.5 billion for 1.5 million Medicare patients, who filled 8 million prescriptions and refills. The total cost included what was paid by Medicare, beneficiaries and third party groups such as supplemental health plans. The cost covered not just the drug ingredients but also sales tax and dispensing fees. It did not, however, include sometimes substantial manufacturer rebates, and the drug makers’ trade group warned that omission distorted the actual cost.

The most frequently prescribed drug was lisinopril, a generic used to treat high blood pressure and help patients survive after heart attacks. The drug was prescribed or refilled nearly 37 million times by more than 7 million Medicare beneficiaries at a cost of $307 million.

Federal officials said they hoped that disseminating the data would lead to new revelations about the prescribing patterns of doctors and for particular drugs. The database identifies doctors by name.

Niall Brennan, the chief data officer for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said agency analysts have been examining the data for several years but that “the data is larger and diverse enough that other outside folks may develop insights that we have missed.”

Dan Mendelson, the CEO of Avalere, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, said the data could provide patients with new questions about their prescription history when they visit their physician. “It’s really important to stimulate conversations that get patients more actively engaged in their care,” he said.

However, he noted that some doctors may not take kindly to a more inquisitive patient and longer conversations. “In the shorter term, I think it will irk some physicians,” he said.

The database tracked 3,450 different drugs prescribed by a million doctors, nurse practitioners, medical students, dentists and other providers.

Medicare Drugs 1

The most expensive drug per prescription was Carbaglu, a man-made enzyme used to treat people with high ammonia levels in the blood caused by a rare disorder, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of the data. The drug was dispensed only 24 times, but at nearly $60,000 per claim it cost the government $1.4 million.

Among drugs dispensed to at least 10,000 beneficiaries, the most expensive was Revlimid, KHN found. It is used for some cancer patients. Dispensed for 24,637 patients, Revlimid cost $8,778 per claim. That totaled more than $1.3 billion.

Drug prescribing varied considerably among states, KHN found. Rhode Island and Nebraska had the most claims per Medicare beneficiary, averaging 4.6 per patient. Delaware had the lowest number, with the average number of claims per beneficiary at 3.3.

The CMS data is likely to be used in conjunction with other datasets the government has previously released, including what procedures individual doctors billed to Medicare and how much those cost. Analysts are also sure to look for relationships between drugs commonly prescribed by doctors and another Medicare database showing payments physicians received from drug companies for research, gifts, speaking fees, meals or travel.

Medicare Drugs by cost

Pro Publica, a nonprofit news site, obtained similar data for earlier years through the Freedom of Information Act and has already published analyses.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America called the data misleading. “Significant price negotiation exists in Part D and results in rebates of as high as 20 to 30 percent for branded medicines,” the association’s president, John Castellani, said in a written statement. “These savings are not reflected in the data. Rebates have been a significant factor in keeping Part D program costs hundreds of billions of dollars below original estimates, while still offering beneficiaries steady premiums and a robust choice of plans.”

The American Medical Association also cautioned that the data could be misinterpreted.

“The data does not account for varying strengths or dosage levels of the medications or varying patient needs,” the association said in a written statement. “For example, a physician could prescribe a low dose of a medication and at a later time need to prescribe another, stronger dosage for the same patient if the low dose isn’t meeting their need or if the patient has an adverse react.”

The government noted that the top 10 most commonly prescribed drugs were generic and the 10 most expensive drugs were all brand name. The finding is not surprising since some brand name drugs are protected from competition by their patents.

An analysis Medicare released with the data found that in some parts of the country brand drugs were dispensed much more frequently than generics. Doctors in the western part of the country, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Nevada, and parts of in the Midwest leaned heavily toward generics, which tended to be dispensed between 78 percent and 81 percent of times. Brand drugs were favored in much of Texas and Alaska, where generics were dispensed in between 65 percent and 75 percent of cases.

Federal officials also calculated how prescription patterns varied among medical specialties. Family practice doctors prescribed the most drugs, followed by internal medicine doctors. Among the biggest medical specialties, psychiatrists prescribed the most expensive drugs, averaging $104 for a prescription or refill. While hematologists and oncologists were not among the top prescribers, their drugs averaged $550 per claim. The average cost of all prescriptions or refills was $75.

The data does not present a complete picture of physician prescribing. Most notably, it includes only those drugs for 36 million beneficiaries that were billed to Medicare’s Part D program, which make up 68 percent of all the people on Medicare. It does not reflect the prescriptions doctors wrote for privately insured patients or those on other government programs such as Medicaid. It also reveals nothing about the quality of these treatments or what kind of patients each doctor saw. The data also omit drugs administered in doctors’ offices and billed to Medicare’s Part B program.

To ensure that people could not identify beneficiaries, Medicare omitted prescriptions that were based on 10 or fewer claims per drug. That excluded 13 percent of claims.

Major Changes in Medicare!

This week the U.S. Senate approved a bill that President Obama signed yesterday which will change how physicians receive payments from Medicare. The purpose of the bill is to have physicians paid based on quality of care rather than strictly the volume of services (i.e. number of patients seen, procedures performed). If this bill wasn’t passed and signed by President Obama, 21% cuts in Medicare payments would have gone into effect this past week. However, many physicians and government officials see this as a temporary solution and not a permanent fix to rising costs and spending on healthcare. Below is an article from The New York Times about this bill and how some physicians have responded, both in favor and skeptical of this legislation. In addition, below is a Q&A article from Kaiser Health News (KHN) which is a nonprofit national health policy news service.

Doctors Sees Benefits and Risks in Medicare Changes

(Photo from AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

FAQ: Congress Passes A Bill To Fix Medicare’s Doctor Payments. What’s In It?

April 15, 2015

Medicare’s troubled physician payment formula will soon be history.

As expected, the Senate Tuesday night easily passed legislation to scrap the formula, accepting a bipartisan plan muscled through the House last month by Speaker John Boehner and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. The Senate vote came just hours before doctors faced a 21 percent Medicare pay cut.

Under the bill, the current reimbursement schedule would be replaced with payment increases for doctors for the next five years as Medicare transitions to a new system focused “on quality, value and accountability.” Existing payment incentive programs would be combined into a new “Merit-Based Incentive Payment System” while other alternative payment models would also be created.

“Passage of this historic legislation finally brings an end to an era of uncertainty for Medicare beneficiaries and their physicians — facilitating the implementation of innovative care models that will improve care quality and lower costs,” said Dr. James L. Madara, chief executive officer of the American Medical Association. “Patients will be able to get the care they need and deserve.”

The Senate voted 92 to 8 to approve the legislation, which the House passed 392-37.

It now moves to President Barack Obama, who — shortly after the Senate vote — said he would sign the bill, calling it “a milestone for physicians, and for the seniors and people with disabilities who rely on Medicare for their health care needs.”

There’s enough in the wide-ranging measure for both sides to love or hate. “Like any large bill it’s a mixed bag in some respects, but I think on the whole it’s a bill well worth supporting,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday.

The bill includes two years of funding for an unrelated program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. GOP conservatives and Democrats are unhappy that the package isn’t fully paid for, with policy changes governing Medicare beneficiaries and providers paying for only about $70 billion of the approximately $210 billion package. The Congressional Budget Office has said the bill would add $141 billion to the federal deficit.

Consumer and aging organizations also have expressed concerns that beneficiaries will face greater out-of-pocket expenses on top of higher Part B premiums to help finance the way Medicare pays physicians.

But lawmakers said they had struck a good balance in their quest to get rid of the old system. “I think tonight is a milestone for the Medicare program, a lifeline for millions of older people,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “That’s because tonight the Senate is voting to retire the outdated, inefficiency rewarding, common sense-defying Medicare reimbursement system.”

For doctors, the passage is an end to a familiar but frustrating rite. Lawmakers have invariably deferred the cuts prescribed by a 1997 reimbursement formula, which everyone agreed was broken beyond repair. But the deferrals have always been temporary because Congress has not agreed to offsetting cuts to pay for a permanent fix. In 2010, Congress delayed scheduled cuts five times.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the legislation and the congressional ritual known as the doc fix. 

Q: How would the bill change the way Medicare pays doctors?

The House package would scrap the old Medicare physician payment rates, which were set through a formula based on economic growth, known as the “sustainable growth rate” (SGR). Instead, it would give doctors an 0.5 percent bump in each of the next five years as Medicare transitions to a payment system designed to reward physicians based on the quality of care provided, rather than the quantity of procedures performed, as the current payment formula does. That transition follows similar efforts in the federal health law to link Medicare reimbursements to quality metrics.

The measure, which builds upon last year’s legislation from the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees and the Senate Finance Committee, would encourage better care coordination and chronic care management, ideas that experts have said are needed in the Medicare program. It would reward providers who receive a “significant portion” of their revenue from an “alternative payment model” or patient-centered medical home with a 5 percent payment bonus. It would also allow broader use of Medicare data for “transparency and quality improvement” purposes.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., one of the bill’s drafters, has called it a “historic opportunity to finally move to a system that promotes quality over quantity and begins the important work of addressing Medicare’s structural issues.”

A “technical advisory committee” will review and recommend how to develop alternative payment models. Measures will be developed to judge the quality of care provided and how physicians will be rewarded or penalized based on their performance.  While the law lays out a structure on how to move to these new payment models, much of their development will be left to future administrations and federal regulators.  Expect heavy lobbying from the physician community on every element of implementation.

Q. Will seniors have to help pay for the plan?

Starting in 2018, wealthier Medicare beneficiaries (individuals with incomes above $133,500, with thresholds higher for couples), would pay more for their Medicare coverage, a provision expected to impact 2 percent of beneficiaries.

In addition, starting in 2020,  “first-dollar” supplemental Medicare insurance known as “Medigap” policies would not be able to cover the Part B deductible for new beneficiaries, which is currently $147 per year but has increased in past years. If the policy had been implemented in 2010, it would have affected Medigap coverage for roughly 10 percent of all 65-year-olds on Medicare, according to an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Based on declining Medigap enrollment trends among 65-year-olds, expect this policy to impact a smaller share of new Medicare beneficiaries in the future, according to the study.(KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Experts contend that the “first-dollar” plans, which cover nearly all deductibles and co-payments, keep beneficiaries from being judicious when making medical decisions because they are not paying anything out-of-pocket and those decisions can help drive up costs for Medicare.

The bill also includes other health measures — known as extenders — that Congress has renewed each year during the SGR debate. The list includes funding for therapy services, ambulance services and rural hospitals, as well as continuing a program that allows low-income people to keep their Medicaid coverage as they transition into employment and earn more money. The deal also would permanently extend the Qualifying Individual, or QI program, which helps low-income seniors pay their Medicare premiums.

AARP, a seniors’ lobby group, sought to repeal a cap on the amount of therapy services Medicare beneficiaries could receive, telling senators that it would be a “key vote” for the organization.

“Similar to the SGR debate, an extension of the therapy cap — rather than full repeal — is short-sighted and puts beneficiaries in a dire situation when the extension expires,” AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond wrote in a letter to senators.  “This amendment is important to the overall success of the Medicare program and the health and well-being of Medicare’s beneficiaries.” The amendment failed.

Q. What about other facilities that provide care to Medicare beneficiaries?

Post-acute providers, such as long-term care and inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and home health and hospice organizations, would help finance the repeal, receiving base pay increases of 1 percent in 2018, about half of what was previously expected.

Other changes include phasing in a one-time 3.2 percentage-point boost in the base payment rate for hospitals currently scheduled to take effect in fiscal 2018.

Scheduled reductions in Medicaid “disproportionate share” payments to hospitals that care for large numbers of people who are uninsured or covered by Medicaid would be delayed by one year to fiscal 2018, but extended for an additional year to fiscal 2025.

Q. What is the plan for CHIP?

The bill adds two years of funding for CHIP, a federal-state program that provides insurance for low-income children whose families earned too much money to qualify for Medicaid. While the health law continues CHIP authorization through 2019, funding for the program had not been extended beyond the end of September.

The length of the proposed extension was problematic for Democrats, especially in the Senate. In February, the Senate Democratic caucus signed on to legislation from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, calling for a four-year extension of the current CHIP program. A Senate amendment to extend CHIP funding for four years failed.

Q. What else is in the SGR deal?

The package, which Boehner, R-Ohio, and Pelosi, D-Calif., began negotiating in March, also includes an additional $7.2 billion for community health centers over the next two years.  NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood have criticized the provision because the health center funding would be subject to the Hyde Amendment, a common legislative provision that says federal money can be used for abortions only when a pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

In a letter to Democratic colleagues before the House vote, Pelosi has said that the funding would occur “under the same terms that Members have previously supported and voted on almost every year since 1979.” In a statement, the National Association of Community Health Centers said the proposal “represents no change in current policy for Health Centers, and would not change anything about how Health Centers operate today.”

Q. How did the doctor payment formula become an issue?

Today’s problem is a result of efforts years ago to control federal spending — a 1997 deficit reduction law that set the SGR formula. For the first few years, Medicare expenditures did not exceed the target and doctors received modest pay increases. But in 2002, doctors were furious when their payments were reduced by 4.8 percent. Every year since, Congress has staved off the scheduled cuts. But each deferral just increased the size of the fix needed the next time.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), which advises Congress, says the SGR is “fundamentally flawed” and has called for its repeal. The SGR provides “no incentive for providers to restrain volume,” the agency said.

Q. Why haven’t lawmakers simply eliminated the formula before?

Money was the biggest problem. An earlier bipartisan, bicameral SGR overhaul plan produced jointly by three key congressional committees would cost $175 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and lawmakers could not agree on how to pay for the plan.

This time Congress took a different path. The measure both chambers approved is not fully paid for. That is a major departure from the GOP’s mantra that all legislation must be financed. Tired of the yearly SGR battle, veteran members in both chambers appeared willing to repeal the SGR on the basis that it’s a budget gimmick – the cuts are never made – and therefore financing is unnecessary.

But some senators objected. In remarks on the Senate floor, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said any repeal of the SGR “should be done in a way that should be financially sound.”

Most lawmakers felt full financing for the Medicare extenders, the CHIP extension and any increase in physician payments over the current pay schedule was needed. Those items account for about $70 billion of financing in the approximately $210 billion package.

Conservative groups urged Republicans to fully finance any SGR repeal and said they would be watching senators’ actions closely. For example, the group Heritage Action for America promised to “key vote” an amendment that the measure be fully financed. That amendment failed.

Some members of Congress seemed pleased to have this recurring debate behind them. “Stick a fork in it,” said Rep. Upton. “It’s finally done.”

This article was updated to include Senate floor action.

Antibiotic Resistance – National Action Plan

On the heels of recent concern for carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae, President Obama announced the National Action Plan to reduce antibiotic resistance by 2020. The plan hopes to accomplish this goal through the following means:

National Strategy on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria 

The National Strategy provides detailed actions for five interrelated national goals to be achieved by 2020 in collaboration with partners in healthcare, public health, veterinary medicine, agriculture, and food safety, as well as in academic, Federal, and industrial research and development.  The goals are:

  1. Slow the emergence and prevent the spread of resistant bacteria.
  2. Strengthen National efforts to identify and report cases of antibiotic resistance.
  3. Advance the development and use of rapid diagnostic tests for the identification and characterization of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  4. Accelerate basic and applied research and development for new antibiotics as well as other therapeutics and vaccines.
  5. Improve international collaboration, capacities for antibiotic-resistance prevention, surveillance, control, and antibiotic research and development.

(Fact Sheet: Obama Administration Takes Actions to Combat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. http://www.whitehouse.gov, accessed March, 2015)

Through an executive order, the plan calls for collaboration between physicians, hospitals, and the federal government to establish a task force for combating multi-drug resistant (MDR) bacteria, improve antibiotic stewardship, strengthen national surveillance efforts for resistant bacteria, promote the development of new and next-generation antibiotics and diagnostics, and strengthen international cooperation.  Interestingly, similar efforts have been adopted in India and China, with some degree of success. Finally, the administration hopes to launch of a $20 million prize for new, rapid, point-of-care diagnostic tests.

 

 

FAQ: The House Passes A Bill To Fix Medicare’s Doctor Payments. What’s In It?

By Mary Agnes Carey

The troubled payment formula for Medicare physicians is one step closer to repeal.

The House Thursday overwhelmingly passed legislation to scrap Medicare’s troubled physician payment formula, just days before a March 31 deadline when doctors who treat Medicare patients will see a 21 percent payment cut. Senate action could come this week as well, but probably not until the chamber completes a lengthy series of votes on the GOP’s fiscal 2016 budget package.

According to a summary of the bill, unveiled by Republican and Democratic committee leaders earlier this week, the current system would be scrapped and replaced with payment increases for doctors for the next five years as Medicare transitions to a new system focused “on quality, value and accountability.”

There’s enough in the wide-ranging deal for both sides to love or hate.

Senate Democrats have pressed to add to the proposal four years of funding for an unrelated program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. The House package extends CHIP for two years. In a statement Saturday, Senate Finance Democrats said they were “united by the necessity of extending CHIP funding for another four years” but others have suggested they may support the package.

Some senators have also raised concerns about asking Medicare beneficiaries to pay for more of their medical care, the impact of the package on women’s health services and cuts to Medicare providers.

In a letter to House members before Thursday’s vote, the seniors group AARP said the legislation places “unfair burdens on beneficiaries. AARP and other consumer and aging organizations remain concerned that beneficiaries account for the largest portion of budget offsets (roughly $35 billion) through greater out-of-pocket expenses” on top of higher Part B premiums that beneficiaries will pay to prevent the scheduled cut in Medicare physician payments.

Some Democratic allies said the CHIP disagreement should not undermine the proposal. After the House approved the SGR package by a vote of 392-37, Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumers group Families USA, urged the Senate to “adopt a CHIP funding bill as soon as possible. Families USA believes that a four-year extension is preferable to two years. We also know that time is of the essence, and it is crucial that the Senate act quickly.”

Some GOP conservatives and Democrats are unhappy that the package isn’t fully paid for, with policy changes governing Medicare beneficiaries and providers paying for only about $70 billion of the approximately $200 billion package. The Congressional Budget Office Wednesday said the bill would add $141 billion to the federal deficit.

For doctors, the package offers an end to a familiar but frustrating rite. Lawmakers have invariably deferred the cuts prescribed by a 1997 reimbursement formula, which everyone agrees is broken beyond repair. But the deferrals have always been temporary because Congress has not agreed to offsetting cuts to pay for a permanent fix. In 2010, Congress delayed scheduled cuts five times. In a statement Sunday, the American Medical Association urged Congress “to seize the moment” to enact the changes.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the proposal and the congressional ritual known as the doc fix.

Q: How did this become an issue?

Today’s problem is a result of efforts years ago to control federal spending – a 1997 deficit reduction law that called for setting Medicare physician payment rates through a formula based on economic growth, known as the “sustainable growth rate” (SGR). For the first few years, Medicare expenditures did not exceed the target and doctors received modest pay increases. But in 2002, doctors were furious when their payments were reduced 4.8 percent. Every year since, Congress has staved off the scheduled cuts. But each deferral just increased the size of the fix needed the next time.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), which advises Congress, says the SGR is “fundamentally flawed” and has called for its repeal. The SGR provides “no incentive for providers to restrain volume,” the agency said.

Q. Why haven’t lawmakers simply eliminated the formula before?

Money is the biggest problem. An earlier bipartisan, bicameral SGR overhaul plan produced jointly by three key congressional committees would cost $175 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. While that’s far less than previous estimates for SGR repeal, it is difficult to find consensus on how to finance a fix.

For physicians, the prospect of facing big payment cuts is a source of mounting frustration. Some say the uncertainty has led them to quit the program, while others are threatening to do so. Still, defections have not been significant to date, according to MedPAC.

In a March 2014 report, the panel stated that beneficiaries’ access to physician services is “stable and similar to (or better than) access among privately insured individuals ages 50 to 64.” Those findings could change, however, if the full force of SGR cuts were ever implemented.

“The flawed Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula and the cycle of patches to keep it from going into effect have created an unstable environment that hinders physicians’ ability to implement new models of care delivery that could improve care for patients,” said Dr. Robert M. Wah, president of the American Medical Association. “We support the policy to permanently eliminate the SGR and call on Congress to seize the moment and finally put in place reforms that will foster innovation and put us on a path towards a more sustainable Medicare program.”

Q: What are the options that Congress is looking at?

The House package would scrap the SGR and give doctors a 0.5 percent bump for each of the next five years as Medicare transitions to a payment system designed to reward physicians based on the quality of care provided, rather than the quantity of procedures performed, as the current payment formula does.

The measure, which builds upon last year’s legislation from the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees and the Senate Finance Committee, would encourage better care coordination and chronic care management, ideas that experts have said are needed in the Medicare program. It would give a 5 percent payment bonus to providers who receive a “significant portion” of their revenue from an “alternative payment model” or patient-centered medical home. It would also allow broader use of Medicare data for “transparency and quality improvement” purposes.

“The SGR has generated repeated crises for nearly two decades,” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., one of the bill’s drafters, said in a statement. “We have a historic opportunity to finally move to a system that promotes quality over quantity and begins the important work of addressing Medicare’s structural issues.”

The package, which House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., began negotiating weeks ago, also includes an additional $7.2 billion for community health centers over the next two years. NARAL Pro-Choice America denounced the deal because the health center funding would be subject to the Hyde Amendment, a common legislative provision that says federal money can be used for abortions only when a pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

In a letter to Democratic colleagues, Pelosi said the funding would occur “under the same terms that Members have previously supported and voted on almost every year since 1979.” In a statement, the National Association of Community Health Centers said the proposal “represents no change in current policy for Health Centers, and would not change anything about how Health Centers operate today.”

A summary of the House plan says the package also includes other health measures – known as extenders – that Congress has renewed each year during the SGR debate. The list includes funding for therapy services, ambulance services and rural hospitals, as well as continuing a program that allows low-income people to keep their Medicaid coverage as they transition into employment and earn more money. The deal also would permanently extend the Qualifying Individual, or QI program, which helps low-income seniors pay their Medicare premiums.

Q. What is the plan for CHIP?

The House plan would add two years of funding for CHIP, a federal-state program that provides insurance for low-income children whose families earned too much money to qualify for Medicaid. While the health law continues CHIP authorization through 2019, funding for the program has not been extended beyond the end of September.

The length of the proposed extension could cause strains with Senate Democrats beyond those on the Finance panel who have raised objections to the House package. Last month, the Senate Democratic caucus signed on to legislation from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, calling for a four-year extension of the current CHIP program.

Q: How would Congress pay for all of that?

The measure the House passed does not. That is a major departure from the GOP’s mantra that all legislation must be financed. Tired of the yearly SGR battle, veteran members in both chambers may be willing to repeal the SGR on the basis that it’s a budget gimmick – the cuts are never made – and therefore financing is unnecessary. But that strategy could run into stiff opposition from Republican lawmakers and some Democrats.

Most lawmakers feel the need to find financing for the Medicare extenders, the CHIP extension and any increase in physician payments over the current pay schedule. Those items account for about $70 billion of financing in the approximately $200 billion package.

Conservative groups are urging Republicans to fully finance any SGR repeal. “Americans didn’t hand Republicans a historic House majority to engage in more deficit spending and budget gimmickry,” Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action for America, said earlier this month.

Q. Will seniors and Medicare providers have to help pay for the plan?

Starting in 2018, wealthier Medicare beneficiaries (individuals with incomes between $133,500 to $214,000, with thresholds likely higher for couples) would pay more for their Medicare coverage, a provision impacting just 2 percent of beneficiaries, according to the summary.

Starting in 2020, “first-dollar” supplemental Medicare insurance known as “Medigap” would not be able to cover the Part B deductible for new beneficiaries, which is currently $147 per year but has increased in past years.

But the effect of that change may be mitigated, according to one analysis.

“Because Medigap policies would no longer pay the Part B deductible, Medigap premiums for the affected policies would go down. Most affected beneficiaries would come out ahead — the drop in their Medigap premiums would exceed the increase in their cost sharing for health services,” according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “Some others would come out behind. In both cases, the effect would be small — generally no more than $100 a year.”

Experts contend that the “first-dollar” plans, which cover nearly all deductibles and co-payments, keep beneficiaries from being judicious when making medical decisions. According to lobbyists and aides, an earlier version of the “doc fix” legislation that negotiators considered would have prohibited “first dollar” plans from covering the first $250 in costs for new beneficiaries.

Post-acute providers, such as long-term care and inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and home health and hospice organizations, would help finance the repeal, receiving base pay increases of 1 percent in 2018, about half of what was previously expected.

Other changes include phasing in a one-time 3.2 percentage-point boost in the base payment rate for hospitals currently scheduled to take effect in fiscal 2018. The number of years of the phase-in isn’t specified in the bill summary.

Scheduled reductions in Medicaid “disproportionate share” payments to hospitals that care for large numbers of people who are uninsured or covered by Medicaid would be delayed by one year to fiscal 2018 but extended for an additional year to fiscal 2025.

Q. How quickly could the Senate act?

The wide margin of passage in the House, plus the Obama administration’s support of the measure, may put pressure on senators to pass the bill once they conclude work on the chamber’s fiscal 2016 budget resolution later Thursday or early Friday morning. But Senate Democrats and Republicans may want to offer amendments to the House bill, which could mean that the chamber does not resolve the SGR issue before the Senate’s two-week break, which is scheduled to begin March 30.

If the SGR issue can’t be resolved by March 31, Congress could pass a temporary patch as negotiations continue or ask the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Medicare, to hold the claims in order to avoid physicians seeing their payments cut 21 percent. However, Speaker Boehner has said the House will not consider a temporary patch before leaving for its break Thursday.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit national health policy news service. Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license.

How vaccines change the way we think about disease

Elena Conis, Emory University

The news on the current measles outbreak contains plenty of reminders that measles causes brain damage, pneumonia, hearing loss and death. A few lone voices have spoken up to say measles isn’t that serious, including an Arizona doctor who said it’s “really just a fever and a rash” – and soon found himself under investigation by his state’s medical board.

Back in the 1960s, it wasn’t controversial to call measles benign. Though the disease killed about 400-500 Americans a year, it was considered a normal part of childhood. It was so common, in fact, that to this day, people born in the pre-measles vaccine era are considered immune. But the introduction of the measles vaccine, and efforts to promote it, fundamentally changed things. In the five decades since we’ve been immunizing against it, measles has become increasingly known as a deadly killer.

This transformation in perception, from relatively benign to a serious disease, isn’t unique to measles. As I have discovered in my research, it’s a pattern that’s been repeated over and over again in the modern history of immunization. This is not to say that measles is now considered a mild infection, or to suggest that risk from the virus, or other vaccine-preventable diseases, is overestimated. The point I want to argue is that the introduction of a vaccine reframes our perception of the disease it prevents.

Vaccines change our perception of risk

How does this happen? New vaccines simultaneously drive down the number of people getting the disease and increase our awareness of the risks of the disease.

Vaccines shine a spotlight on their target infections and, in time, those infections — no matter how “common” or relatively unimportant they may have seemed before — become known for their rare and serious complications and defined by the urgency of their prevention.

A spotted vaccine delivery van labeled ‘Measles must go.’
CDC

This certainly happened to measles, whose first vaccine was uneventfully released in 1963.

At the time, many parents saw measles as a common and relatively harmless part of childhood – even though it infected three to four million people a year and caused roughly 48,000 hospitalizations annually. Many doctors felt as parents did, especially when comparing measles to such worrisome disease threats as smallpox and polio. Even the head of the Centers for Disease Control described measles as a disease “of only mild severity” which caused “infrequent complications.”

But the very development of the vaccine focused new scientific attention on the disease. Within a few years, scientists had compared measles to polio — the previous decade’s public health priority — and found it a much more serious threat to children’s health. Inspired by this finding, and frustrated by the public’s lack of enthusiasm for the vaccine, federal health officials launched a national campaign to publicize measles’ dangers.

The campaign officially spread the word, for the first time, that measles was “a serious disease that sometimes causes pneumonia, deafness, encephalitis and even death.” Public figures ranging from the Surgeon General to Ann Landers announced that measles could leave children blind, deaf and mentally impaired. And the campaign employed a poster child — disabled ten-year-old Kim Fisher — to illustrate the idea that measles immunization was necessary because “one death, one brain-damaged child, or even one child who needs hospitalization is one too many,” as one campaign supporter put it.

A new picture of measles emerges

As the campaign wore on, scientists continued to study the disease more closely than ever. Doctors began to report measles cases to health departments at unprecedented rates. And together, doctors and scientists began to pay more attention to the disease’s risks than even before. As a result, a new picture of the disease began to form: it appeared to cause more deaths than previously thought, brain damage in even mild cases, even harm to fetuses.

As the public continued to respond to the national campaign with “general apathy,” however, health officials redoubled their efforts to publicize measles’ “dramatic aspects,” and states began passing laws requiring the vaccine for schoolchildren. Within just over a decade, the country saw an all-time low of measles cases — and the disease had solidly acquired its new reputation as a deadly infection worthy of prevention at any cost.

A measles immunization campaign poster display at the Eradicate Measles Exhibit in 1972.
CDC/Don Lovell

We used to think mumps and chickenpox were ‘mild’ too

In the decades that followed the introduction of the measles vaccine, vaccine makers and health officials duplicated this approach with one new vaccine after another.

Mumps, often the butt of jokes in its pre-vaccine days, was no laughing matter within a decade of its vaccine’s introduction in 1967. Hepatitis B was considered an obscure infection of little import to most Americans when its vaccine first came out in 1981, but soon after it evolved into a “cousin” of AIDS known for lurking in nail salons, piercing parlors and playgrounds.

Since the development of the chickenpox vaccine in the 1990s, the virus has been transformed in the public imagination from an innocuous if uncomfortable rite of childhood to a highly contagious infection that can cause pneumonia, sepsis and sometimes death. And in just the last decade, human papillomavirus (HPV) has morphed from a little-known sexually transmitted infection to a widely known cause of multiple forms of cancer. Each of these transformations in perception was triggered by a new vaccine.

Each new vaccine invited deliberation on how it should be used. That, in turn, focused increased scientific attention on the disease. Often, as federal health officials and other scientists accumulated new information about the disease’s risks and complications, the vaccine maker did its part to market its vaccine. As talk of each disease and its more dramatic aspects spread, public and scientific perception of the disease gradually transformed.

In this country, high vaccination rates rest on a consensus about the diseases prevented by vaccines. When doctors, health officials and, in particular, parents view a disease as serious, they view its vaccine as one worth getting.

The recent increase in the number of philosophical objectors to measles vaccine shows that historical consensus about the disease itself has eroded in recent years. But history also shows that one surefire route to consensus about a disease is fear of that disease. And fear often spreads like wildfire during disease outbreaks, much like what is happening once again now with measles.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The Myth of the Demanding Patient

Healthcare spending projectio(Image from the Commonwealth Fund)

You’ve heard it before – the cost of healthcare is too high, and it keeps on rising! Some physicians tend to place responsibility for high medical costs more on “demanding patients” than themselves. However, new research in JAMA Oncology suggests otherwise, noting that patient “demands” directly account for a negligible change in physician behavior and thus expenditure. Take a look at the original article, or, for a more colorful read, the editorial “The Myth of the Demanding Patient.”

Prices For Health Care Procedures Now Online

Buying health care in America is like shopping blindfolded at Macy’s and getting the bill months after you leave the store, economist Uwe Reinhardt likes to say.

A tool that went online Wednesday is supposed to give patients a small peek at the products and prices before they open their wallets.

Got a sore knee? Having a baby? Need a primary-care doctor? Shopping for an MRI scan?

Guroo.com shows the average local cost for 70 common diagnoses and medical tests in most states. That’s the real cost — not “charges” that often get marked down — based on a giant database of what insurance companies actually pay.

guroo 570

 

 

 

 

 

OK, this isn’t like Priceline.com for knee replacements. What Guroo hopes to do for consumers is limited so far.

It won’t reflect costs for particular hospitals or doctors, although officials say that’s coming for some. And it doesn’t have much to say initially about the quality of care.

Still, Guroo should shed new light on the country’s opaque, complex and maddening medical bazaar, say consumer advocates.

“This has the potential to be a game-changer,” said Katherine Hempstead, who analyzes health insurance for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “It’s good for uninsured people. It’s good for people with high deductibles. It’s good for any person that’s kind of wondering: If I go to see the doctor for such-and-such, what might happen next?”

Guroo is produced by the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) working with three big insurance companies: UnitedHealthcare, Aetna and Humana, soon to be joined by a fourth, Assurant. The idea is to eventually let members of these plans use a companion site to see how differing provider prices affect their co-payments.

A nonprofit known for its cost and utilization reports, HCCI receives some industry funding but is governed by an independent board. This is its first tool for consumers.

Consumer advocates praised Guroo but cautioned that the movement toward “transparency” in medical prices is still in its very early stages. Data on insurer, employer or government Web sites are often limited or inaccurate. Consumer information from Fair Health, which manages another huge commercial insurance database, is organized by procedure code.

Even on Guroo, “the average user may not have a good sense of what they’re looking at and what they’re supposed to do with the resulting price,” said Lynn Quincy, a health care specialist at Consumers Union.

HCCI says its prices are what insurers pay for about 70 tests and “bundles” of services described in understandable terms so patients don’t need a medical textbook to figure out what they are. Users get the average as well as a range for local and national prices.

It plans to add more procedures later — all for “shoppable” services that can be scheduled, not emergency treatment of a heart attack.

“This at least arms consumers with information about the range of prices in their community [for] one of these care bundles,” said David Newman, HCCI’s executive director.

If you have a high deductible, for example, you might use Guroo as a starting point for checking prices from medical providers if your insurance company doesn’t provide such a tool.

That’s not the same as seeing provider-specific prices online, of course. But within a year, HCCI expects to let members of UnitedHealthcare, Aetna, Assurant and Humana track spending on a companion site and check how switching caregivers could lower their out-of-pocket costs.

Initially Guroo doesn’t have much information about quality of care, either, which is essential to help patients to make smart choices. Newman says that is coming, too. It’s also missing information for Alabama, Michigan and several other states.

BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina set a high standard for disclosure recently by posting prices — doctor by doctor and hospital by hospital — based on its reimbursement rates, Quincy said. Guroo doesn’t do that.

Still, she said, it’s an important step.

Given its size, influence and openness, Guroo could become a dominant portal for health care prices, said Hempstead.

“Their stance as a neutral broker and the amount of data that they have and the amount of data that they’re going to have really puts them in a difference place,” she said.

Jay Hancock Kaiser Health News. KHN is a nonprofit national health policy news service. 

5 Things To Know About The Supreme Court Case Challenging The Health Law

The Affordable Care Act is once again before the Supreme Court.

On March 4, the justices will hear oral arguments in King v. Burwell, a case challenging the validity of tax subsidies helping millions of Americans buy health insurance if they don’t get it through an employer or the government. If the court rules against the Obama administration, those subsidies could be cut off for everyone in the three dozen states using healthcare.gov, the federal exchange website. A decision is expected by the end of June.

Here are five things you should know about the case and its potential consequences:

1: This case does NOT challenge the constitutionality of the health law.

The Supreme Court has already found the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. That was settled in 2012’s NFIB v. Sebelius.

At issue in this case is a line in the law stipulating that subsidies are available to those who sign up for coverage “through an exchange established by the state.” In issuing regulations to implement the subsidies in 2012, however, the IRS said that subsidies would also be available to those enrolling through the federal health insurance exchange. The agency noted Congress had never discussed limiting the subsidies to state-run exchanges and that making subsidies available to all “is consistent with the language, purpose and structure” of the law as a whole.

Last summer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond ruled that the regulations were a permissible interpretation of the law. While the three-judge panel agreed that the language in the law is “ambiguous,” they relied on so-called “Chevron deference,” a legal principle that takes its name from a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that held that courts must defer to a federal agency’s interpretation as long as that interpretation is not unreasonable.

Those challenging the law, however, insist that Congress intended to limit the subsidies to state exchanges. “As an inducement to state officials, the Act authorizes tax credits and subsidies for certain households that purchase health insurance through an Exchange, but restricts those entitlements to Exchanges created by states,” wrote Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, two of the fiercest critics of the IRS interpretation, in an article in the Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine.

In any case, a ruling in favor of the challengers would affect only the subsidies available in the states using the federal exchange. Those in the 13 states operating their own exchanges would be unaffected. The rest of the health law, including its expansion of Medicaid and requirements for coverage of those with pre-existing conditions, would remain in effect.

2: If the court rules against the Obama administration, millions of people could be forced to give up their insurance.

A study by the Urban Institute found that if subsidies in the federal health exchange are disallowed, 9.3 million people could lose $28.8 billion of federal help paying for their insurance in just the first year. Since many of those people would not be able to afford insurance without government help, the number of uninsured could rise by 8.2 million people.

A separate study from the Urban Institute looked at those in danger of losing their coverage and found that most are low and moderate-income white, working adults who live in the South.

3: A ruling against the Obama administration could have other effects, too.

Experts say disallowing the subsidies in the federal exchange states could destabilize the entire individual insurance market, not just the exchanges in those states. Anticipating that only those most likely to need medical services will hold onto their plans, insurers would likely increase premiums for everyone in the state who buys their own insurance, no matter where they buy it from.

“If subsidies [in the federal exchange] are eliminated, premiums would increase by about 47 percent,” said Christine Eibner of the RAND Corporation, who co-authored a study projecting a 70 percent drop in enrollment.

Eliminating tax subsidies for individuals would also impact the law’s requirement that most larger employers provide health insurance. That’s because the penalty for not providing coverage only kicks in if a worker goes to the state health exchange and receives a subsidy. If there are no subsidies, there are also no employer penalties.

4: Consumers could lose subsidies almost immediately.

Supreme Court decisions generally take effect 25 days after they are issued. That could mean that subsidies would stop flowing as soon as July or August, assuming a decision in late June. Insurers can’t drop people for non-payment of their premiums for 90 days, although they have to continue to pay claims only for the first 30.

Although the law’s requirement that individuals have health insurance would remain in effect, no one is required to purchase coverage if the lowest-priced plan in their area costs more than eight percent of their income. So without the subsidies, and with projected premium increases, many if not most people would become exempt.

5: Congress could make the entire issue go away by passing a one-page bill. But it won’t.

All Congress would have to do to restore the subsidies is pass a bill striking the line about subsidies being available through exchanges “established by the state.” But given how many Republicans oppose the law, leaders have already said they will not act to fix it. Republicans are still working to come up with a contingency plan should the ruling go against the subsidies. Even that will be difficult given their continuing ideological divides over health care.

States could solve the problem by setting up their own exchanges, but that is a lengthy and complicated process and in most cases requires the consent of state legislatures. And the Obama administration has no power to step in and fix things either, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a letter to members of Congress.

 

 

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit national health policy news service. This KHN story also ran on NPR’s Shots blog., Kaiser Health News

 

UTSW Internal Medicine

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