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Closing The Rural Health Connectivity Gap: How Broadband Funding Can Better Improve Care


April 1st, 2015

Broadband access is not usually highlighted in policy prescriptions for improving outcomes and lowering costs of health care. But it is a prerequisite for a range of technologies that can provide more cost-effective and higher-quality care, such as video consultation, remote patient monitoring, and electronic health record operability. And in many places—particularly rural areas that have the most to gain from telemedicine and connectivity—broadband remains too expensive, unreliable, or simply not available at the speeds required to enable innovations in care. This “connectivity gap” remains an important obstacle to achieving better care in rural areas.

Federal statutes and regulations provide subsidies, administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), that attempt to close the connectivity gap. But these subsidies have been underutilized because they are too hard to use; they have also not kept pace with changes in health care delivery and broadband technology. Below, we examine the connectivity gap and current federal efforts to address it, and we offer proposals to make those efforts more up-to-date and effective.

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Good And Bad News For Diabetes Prevention In The Community


March 25th, 2015

The findings from a recent synthesis of the literature about the effectiveness of prevention initiatives focused on reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes among high-risk populations (people already obese or inactive or diagnosed as having prediabetes) are largely encouraging.

The synthesis includes a comprehensive and systematic review of the medical, diabetes, and public health literature for evaluation studies of interventions published between 2002 and 2013. The search was undertaken using medical subject headings and keywords related to diabetes and its risk factors.

A number of interventions—such as the National Institutes for Health’s Diabetes Prevention Program and the Group Lifestyle Balance Program—focused on helping people eat better and become more physically active are effective in reducing the risk of diabetes onset. Robust studies show that these interventions work even better than medication to prevent diabetes.

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Physician Aid In Dying: Whither Legalization After Brittany Maynard?


March 12th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015. The conference brought together leading experts to review major developments in health law over the previous year, and preview what is to come. A full agenda and links to video recordings of the panels are here.

Brittany Maynard’s highly publicized decision to end her life under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law has given a new face to the American right to die movement. It is that of a young, attractive, athletic newlywed, who would not have considered herself as having a stake in the movement until the day she learned a brain tumor was the cause of her severe headaches. She was terminally ill and faced a future of six months of increasing pain, debilitation, and severe seizures before dying.

A video of Maynard’s story produced by the non-profit advocacy organization Compassion and Choices has reached many millions of viewers. Extended coverage of her decision-making process by People Magazine resulted in record numbers of hits to the publication’s website. During her illness, Maynard moved from California to Oregon and on November 1, 2014 took barbiturates to end her life. In her memory, her husband and mother have become prominent activists in the effort to legalize physician aid-in-dying (PAD).

Is all of this likely to advance the PAD movement and, if so, through what legal processes?

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New Health Policy Brief: Right-To-Try Laws


March 10th, 2015

A new policy brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) looks at so-called Right-to-Try laws. For patients with serious, potentially life-threatening diseases, current federal regulations offer two routes to gain access to experimental drugs not yet approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA): participation in a clinical research trial, or, if not possible, applying to the FDA for use of a drug under the expanded access (also known as compassionate use) program.

While the FDA has approved nearly all of these applications, the process is widely thought to be overly cumbersome. Since last year, five states have enacted their own Right-to-Try laws, with the aim of giving critically ill patients the treatments they seek. This health policy brief provides background on the federal regulations of expanded access and the recent involvement by many states.

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Who Authored Obamacare’s Exchanges? King v. Burwell And Justice Kagan’s Law Clerks


March 6th, 2015

Editor’s note: Watch Health Affairs Blog for more posts on King v. Burwell and the Supreme Court oral arguments in the case by Tim Jost, Grace-Marie Turner, Sara Rosenbaum, Bill Sage, and others.

Despite all the media hubbub and intense scrutiny, we didn’t learn all that much from the oral argument in King v. Burwell. The four liberal justices—Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan—clearly believe that an exchange established “for” or “in” a state by the federal government is the same as an exchange “established by the state” (or at least that it’s ambiguous and the tie goes to the IRS). Justices Scalia and Alito—and presumably the silent Thomas—equally believe that words mean what they say.

So the case, as expected, turns on the views of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, who gave very little away. Indeed, I’ve never seen John Roberts so quiet at an oral argument—holding his cards so close that they risk being permanently imprinted on his vest—while Anthony Kennedy was characteristically inscrutable. In other words, 4-3 in the government’s favor with two wild cards.

That’s exactly what everyone knew going into the argument, and 85 minutes later if anyone tried to tell you that they knew what the outcome would be, they were engaging in spin or wishful thinking. To put an even finer point on it: whichever side you thought had the better chance of winning, downgrade your expectations to 50-50.

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How Many Americans Will Lose Coverage If The Supreme Court Kills The ACA Tax Credits?


March 2nd, 2015

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to hear King v. Burwell, a case that challenges the authority of the federal government to provide tax credits and other financial assistance to people who buy Affordable Care Act (ACA) coverage through the federal health insurance marketplace. The federal government runs the health insurance marketplace in 34 states where states chose not to set up a state-based exchange.

Estimates on how many people could lose tax credits in these 34 states vary widely from 4.5 million to 13 million. After talking to executives and lobbyists for health care related entities in 20 of the 34 states affected, I believe that about 6.5 million people who have tax credits in 2015 will lose them. The difference in these numbers will be important to policymakers, since politicians are likely to make decisions on how to respond to a Court ruling based on the actual number of their constituents who are receiving tax credits or other support.

In addition, the impact of a Court ruling will be affected by state action. Some observers have questioned whether states will set up exchanges if the Court eliminates tax credits from the federal exchange. These observers have said that establishing a state exchange is costly and time consuming and that most federal exchange states will not take this step. I argue in the following post that setting up a state exchange could be easy and inexpensive if the federal exchange operations are used.

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The Patient Access Imperative: A Potential Triple Win For Payors, Providers, And Patients


February 26th, 2015

Long patient wait times, frustratingly high no-show rates, lack-luster call center performance, and under-utilized physicians. Does any of this sound familiar? Although a small set of health systems have boldly declared that their physicians guarantee their outpatients same- or next-day appointments, across the United States patients more typically face long wait times to both make and get appointments, as well as poor access to care.

To succeed in the future, health systems will need to have the customer orientation of a five-star hotel and the operational discipline of a factory floor. Our experience suggests that many systems can achieve substantial improvements with their existing resources and generate a 10 to 20 percent improvement in outpatient profitability within 6 to 12 months — and improve patient satisfaction too.

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State Expectations: Setting The Record Straight In King v. Burwell


February 25th, 2015

On Wednesday, March 4th, the Supreme Court will hear the latest attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA): the case King v. Burwell. The King petitioners allege that the Internal Revenue Service overstepped its authority by issuing regulations authorizing residents of states with federally run exchanges to access premium tax credits. The petitioners claim that Congress intentionally limited access to premium tax credits to residents of state-based exchanges as a way to encourage states to run their own exchanges.

In support, some state officials claim that they interpreted the law in this manner and that it impacted their state’s decision not to operate a state-run exchange. These assertions, like their analysis of the statutory language, fall flat under any serious scrutiny, however.

Between October 2012 and March 2013, with the support of the Commonwealth Fund, the Center on Health Insurance Reforms (CHIR) conducted a comprehensive review of publicly available information in 50 states pertaining to their decisions to operate either a state or federally run exchange.

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Implementing Health Reform: Final 2016 Letter To Federal Exchange Issuers


February 22nd, 2015

Each year the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) releases a letter to issuers (insurers) in the federally facilitated marketplace (FFM) setting out the ground rules for coverage through the FFM for the coming year.  A draft letter is published for comments, followed by the final letter.  The letter addresses insurers that issue qualified health plans (QHPs) in the FFM, including stand-alone dental plans (SADPs), and covers the small business (FF-SHOP) marketplace as well as the individual marketplace.

On December 19, 2014, CMS  published the draft 2016 letter which I covered here.  On February 20, 2015, CMS published the final letter to issuers in the federally facilitated marketplace.  Not surprisingly, since it  covers the third year of operation of the marketplace, the 2016 letter is quite similar to those of preceding years.   The letter is based on previously published rules governing QHPs and the marketplaces, as well as on the final 2016 Benefit and Payment Parameters Rule, covered here (CITE) and here (CITE), from which it incorporates many provisions.

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Implementing Health Reform: 2016 Benefit And Payment Final Rule, Consumer & Provider Provisions


February 22nd, 2015

On February 20, 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) of the Department of Health and Human Services published its massive Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters (BPP rule) for 2016 Final Rule, accompanied by a fact sheet.  This rule addresses a host of issues involving the continuing implementation of the Affordable Care Act for 2016.  A few provisions, however, affect the 2015 year as well and a number of provisions will not be implemented until 2017.

The BPP rule amends and updates existing rules; thus, it must be read in tandem with rules that have been promulgated earlier, which are catalogued in the preface to the rule.

CMS released also on February 20 its Final 2016 Letter to Issuers (Insurers) in the Federally-Facilitated Marketplace (FFM).   This letter sets the ground rules for insurer participation in the FFM for 2016 and covers many of the same topics covered by the BPP rule.

These documents are very lengthy and will be covered in three posts over the next few days.  This first post will focus on issues in the BPP rule that directly affect consumers.  The second post will focus more on issues that affect health plans.  The third post will examine the letter to issuers.

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HHS Proposed Policy On Non-Discrimination: Does It Adequately Protect Children?


February 19th, 2015

On November 26, 2014, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a proposed 2016 Notice of Benefits and Payment Parameters, an omnibus regulation published annually that sets “rules of the road” for the administration of federally regulated insurance plans. Among other matters, this year’s Notice contained a discussion of non-discrimination in coverage.

The concept of non-discrimination in coverage is a basic tenet health plans subject to the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s “essential health benefit” requirements applicable to non-grandfathered health plans sold in the individual and small group markets (42 U.S.C. §18022, added by PPACA §1302). The non-discrimination standard is a watershed in U.S. law that extends the reach of prior federal civil rights laws and regulates the design, content, and administration of health insurance including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975.

In accordance with its provisions, the HHS Secretary is barred from “mak[ing] coverage decisions, determin[ing] reimbursement rates, establish[ing] incentive programs, or design[ing] benefits that discriminate against individuals because of their age, disability, or expected length of life,” (42 U.S.C. §18022(b)(4)(B)). The provision further requires the Secretary to “take into account” the health needs of “diverse segments of the population including women, children, persons with disabilities, and other groups,” (42 U.S.C. §18022(b)(4)(C)).

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What Ebola Teaches Us About Public Health In America


February 9th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015. The conference brought together leading experts to review major developments in health law over the previous year, and preview what is to come. A full agenda and links to video recordings of the panels are here.

2014 saw an epidemic of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, and an epidemic of fear in the US. Neither epidemic covered public health in glory. For Science, Ebola was the “breakdown of the year;” the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health called it “the most important public health story” of the year; Politfact labeled it the political “lie of the year,” and Time magazine named “the Ebola fighters” its “Person of the Year.” All of these characterizations contain some truth.

Response to the epidemic in Africa relied heavily on volunteer organizations, especially Christian charity groups like Samaritan’s Purse and SIM (Serving In Mission), and medical NGOs, most notably Doctors Without Borders (MSF). It was MSF that called out the World Health Organization (WHO) for its failure to recognize the epidemic, and then its inability to respond to it. Their International Health Regulations, it turned out, were much more like guidelines than any form of law, and the WHO had no capacity to effectively respond to a new epidemic.

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New Narrative Matters: How Access, Knowledge, And Attitudes Shaped My Sister’s Care


February 6th, 2015

Health Affairs‘ February Narrative Matters essay features a woman who helps her sister get the care she needs when a tooth infection turns into a health emergency. Elizabeth Piatt’s article is freely available to all readers, or you can listen to the podcast.

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Request For Abstracts: Health Affairs Food And Health Theme Issue


February 4th, 2015

Health Affairs is planning a theme issue on food and health in November 2015. The issue will present work that explores the relationship between the food we consume and our wellbeing on the individual, societal, and global levels. Articles will address causes and consequences of dietary excess and insufficiency, analyze policies and programs aimed at influencing these, and explore the roles of public policy, industry, and stakeholder groups in the context of dietary behavior.

We invite all interested authors to submit abstracts for consideration for this issue.

The issue will consider the implications of global food production and distribution for the health of consumers and food workers, environmental quality, and food prices, among other things. It will also examine actions taken from the community level upward to address increasingly universal concerns about food-related illness. Several papers will provide broad overviews of key issues, but we are particularly interested in empirical analyses of specific policies, programs, and practices aimed at influencing dietary behavior and clarifying our thinking about food’s role in health.

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The Puzzle Of Antibiotic Innovation


February 3rd, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015. The conference brought together leading experts to review major developments in health law over the previous year, and preview what is to come. A full agenda and links to video recordings of the panels are here.

Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer of England, warns that we are approaching an antibiotic apocalypse. A former chief economist at Goldman Sachs estimates that unless dramatic action is taken now, antimicrobial resistance could kill 50 million people a year and cause $100 trillion in cumulative economic damages.

In the US, dire warnings have issued from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and the President himself through an Executive Order on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in September 2014 (summary here). The President’s new budget asks for $1.2 billion to be spent on antibiotic resistance.

But last week, the science press breathlessly celebrated the discovery of a new antibiotic, teixobactin, cultured from soil samples collected in a grassy field in Maine (the study was published in Nature). Crisis over?

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Last Year Was A Wild One For Health Law — What’s On The Docket For 2015?


January 22nd, 2015

Everywhere we look, we see the tremendous impact of new legal developments—whether regulatory or statutory, federal or state—on health and health care. These topics range from insurance to intellectual property to religion to professionalism to civil rights. They remain among the most important questions facing Americans today.

This post is the first in a series that will stem from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event to be held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015. The conference, which is free and open to the public, brings together leading experts to review major developments in health law over the previous year, and preview what is to come.

The event is sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the New England Journal of Medicine, and co-sponsored by Health Affairs, The Hastings Center, and the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School. Below, we will highlight a few themes that have emerged so far. The conference’s speakers will author a series of posts that follow on more specific topics.

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How Community Health Workers Can Reinvent Health Care Delivery In The US


January 16th, 2015

As health policy, research and practice are becoming increasingly focused on improving the health of populations and addressing social determinants of health, Community Health Workers (CHWs) may be just what the doctor ordered. As part of the public health workforce with ties to the local community, CHWs can now be reimbursed by Medicaid for providing preventive services if recommended by a physician or other licensed practitioner.

This groundbreaking CMS regulatory change, along with policy support from the Affordable Care Act, holds the promise of bridging the gap between mainstream health care and community health through expanding the CHW profession and its impact on clinical care. Much like other disruptive changes in health care, however, fulfilling this potential will require a new way of thinking among state policymakers and the health care system at large.

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Investing In The Health And Well-Being Of Young Adults


December 15th, 2014

Young adulthood — ages approximately 18 to 26 — is a critical time in life. What happens during these years has profound and long-lasting implications for young adults, and — because many are parents — for the next generation.  Healthy, productive, and skilled young adults are critical for the nation’s workforce, global competitiveness, public safety, and national security.

Although young adults are resilient and adaptable, they are surprisingly unhealthy, showing a worse health profile than both adolescents and adults in their late 20s and 30s. Recent national attention on young adults has focused primarily on enrolling them in health care insurance to offset the higher costs associated with care for older adults under the Affordable Care Act 2010 provisions — mistakenly implying that it is not in their own interest to have health insurance. Unfortunately, too little attention has been paid to young adults’ specific health needs and the transitions they face once they are in the health care delivery system.

The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council recently released a new report titled Investing in the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults, which reviews what is known about the health, safety, and well-being of young adults and offers recommendations for policy and research. It was prepared by a committee with expertise in multiple disciplines, including public health, health care, behavioral health, sociology, social services, human development, neuroscience, economics, business, occupational health, media, and communications. We served as chair and a member of the committee, respectively.

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What To Watch For During This Year’s Open Enrollment Period: Lessons From The Health Reform Monitoring Survey


December 10th, 2014

The Obama Administration recently lowered its expectations on the number of individuals that are likely to enroll in health insurance plans through the Marketplace by the end of 2015—suggesting that it might be more difficult than expected to find and enroll remaining uninsured residents while retaining people who signed up during the first open enrollment period (New York Times; Wall Street Journal; Washington Post’s “Wonkblog”).

One potential barrier to enrollment is low levels of Marketplace awareness among the uninsured: September 2014 estimates from the Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey (HRMS) indicate that only 52 percent of uninsured adults reported hearing some or a lot about the health insurance Marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Despite this large knowledge gap, awareness of the Marketplace has improved since last September, when only 30 percent of the uninsured reported hearing some or a lot about the Marketplace prior to the first open enrollment period.

While increasing awareness of the Marketplace will continue to be important as the second open enrollment period unfolds, there are two additional issues that may determine how many more uninsured people actually gain coverage this year. First, will the remaining uninsured be reluctant to seek coverage and enroll during the current open enrollment period, and if so, why? Second, for people seeking information on health plans, what sources of information are they likely to turn to, and will those sources be adequate to meet the demand?

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The Family Glitch, Other Thorny Children’s Coverage Policy Issues, And The Future Of CHIP


December 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: For more on the topic of children’s health, stay tuned for the December issue of Health Affairs, set to be released next week.

Health Affairs’ recent policy brief on the family glitch highlights one of the key issues affecting how well children will be served in the new post Affordable Care Act (ACA) coverage landscape. Many observers thought that with the creation of health insurance marketplaces and subsidies for low-income families, there would no longer be a need for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which was created in 1997 to provide health coverage for uninsured low-income children.

Together with its larger sister program, Medicaid, CHIP has been quite successful in achieving this legislative goal. From 1997 to 2012, the national rate of uninsured children was cut in half from 14 to 7 percent. Yet, 7 million children still remain uninsured. The ACA, meanwhile,  was aimed primarily at reducing numbers of uninsured adults. The question now is, what policies and systems are needed to sustain and further the progress that has been made to increase rates of children’s insurance?

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