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The Dane Difference: Why Are Dane County’s Exchange Premiums Lower?


December 18th, 2014

During the next few years, states and the federal government will likely seek solutions to control costs and improve quality in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance marketplaces. State and federal policymakers should look carefully at the decades-long success of the Wisconsin State Employee Health Plan (WSEHP) in controlling the rapid rise of health insurance costs in Dane County—where Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital, and the University of Wisconsin, are located—as they seek to improve the effectiveness of the ACA’s marketplaces and health insurance costs in general.

The WSEHP consistently obtains substantially lower health insurance premiums in Dane County than in Wisconsin’s 71 other counties. In 2013, an individual plan in the WSEHP was about $1,400 cheaper annually in Dane County, or 16 percent less than the average in the rest of the state; and a family plan was about $3,500 cheaper, also a 16 percent difference. This Dane difference has existed for at least a decade, with the gap slowly widening over that time.

Why does WSEHP get much lower premiums in Dane County than in the state’s 71 other counties, and what lessons can policymakers learn from this difference?

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Two Theologies Have Blocked Medicare-For-All


December 11th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts stemming from presentations given at “The Law of Medicare and Medicaid at Fifty,” a conference held at Yale Law School on November 6 and 7.

In the 50 years since Medicare was enacted, Congress has never seriously considered extending Medicare to all Americans, nor even lowering Medicare’s eligibility age below 65. This pattern persisted even during those periods when national health insurance was at the top of the national agenda. This is not what the original advocates of Medicare anticipated when Medicare was enacted in 1965. They saw Medicare as the cornerstone of a national system of health insurance that would eventually cover all Americans.

Two Myths that Undercut Medicare-for-All: Managed Care and Competition

In the paper we presented at the Yale conference, we reviewed short- and long-term factors affecting the debate about Medicare over its lifetime, and then turned to a discussion of two long-term factors: the rise of what came to be called the managed care movement, and the resurgence of a longstanding campaign promoting the idea that competition can right the wrongs of American medicine.

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Implementing Health Reform: Federal Exchange Reenrollment And More (Updated)


December 2nd, 2014

On December 1, 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released a Guidance for Issuers on 2015 Reenrollment in the Federally facilitated Marketplace (FFM).  This guidance sets out in great detail—with clarifying examples—the process which the FFM and insurers will use to send and receive enrollments and reenrollments for 2015, including the process that the FFM will use to communicate to an insurer when a 2014 enrollee selects a different insurer for 2015 coverage.  The guidance is primarily directed at insurers but should also be of interest to consumers and those who are assisting them.  It demonstrates, I believe, a much higher degree of planning and intentionality than was evident in the 2014 open enrollment period, when enrollment rules often seemed to be developed on the fly.

This post describes the reenrollment guidance, as well as initial enrollment figures for the FFM and other ACA-related developments.

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The Latest Health Wonk Review


November 21st, 2014

In this week’s “turkey edition” of the Health Wonk Review, David Harlow of HealthBlawg provides a veritable smorgasbord of health policy posts, including a Health Affairs Blog essay by Jordan Paradise on biosimilars and patent disclosures.

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An Emerging Consensus: Medicare Advantage Is Working And Can Deliver Meaningful Reform


November 6th, 2014

Since enactment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, much of the attention in the policy community has been on modernizing Medicare’s traditional fee-for-service (FFS) program.  Through Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), larger “bundles” of payments to fee-for-service providers for episodes of care, and tests of pay-for-performance models, the hope is that the traditional Medicare model can be remade through sheer force of bureaucratic will.  The stated intent is to find a way to pay for value, not volume.

These efforts may or may not bear much fruit, but, over the longer term, it’s not likely to matter much.  That’s because a more important transformation of Medicare is already well underway and is occurring despite more resistance than assistance from the program’s bureaucracy.  According to the 2014 Medicare Trustees’ report, enrollment in Medicare Advantage – the private plan option in Medicare — has been surging for a decade.  In 2005 there were 5.8 million Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in MA plans — 13.6 percent of total enrollment in the program.  Today, there are 16.2 million beneficiaries in MA plans, or 30 percent of program enrollment. (See Table IV.C1)  In addition, the Medicare drug benefit, which constitutes about 12 percent of total program spending, is delivered entirely through private plans. (See Table II.B1)

As MA enrollment has surged, so has recognition of its improved value.  A recent, comprehensive review of the evidence conducted by Joseph Newhouse and Thomas McGuire of Harvard University makes a compelling case that MA plans are providing higher value services at less societal cost than the traditional FFS program.  Based on their findings, Newhouse and McGuire argue for policies that would provide incentives for even more beneficiaries to enroll in MA plans in the future.

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North Carolina Dental Board v. FTC: A Bright Line On Whiter Teeth?


October 30th, 2014

On October 14, 2014, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners vs. Federal Trade Commission.  The case does not involve the Affordable Care Act, but it goes to the heart of the professional self-regulatory paradigm that has governed the U.S. health care system for more than a century.  The specific legal question under review is the standard for determining when a state professional licensing board’s activities are subject to scrutiny for anticompetitive effect under the federal antitrust laws.

Antitrust law applies to private anticompetitive conduct.  Congress did not intend to interfere with state regulation that limits or even eliminates competitions.  As long as states do so using public agencies and officials, they are on safe ground.  If a state empowers private parties to administer such regulation, however, it not only must “clearly articulate” its intent to diminish competition, but also must “actively supervise” the conduct of the private parties.  In previous cases, the Supreme Court developed and elaborated this two-part test, which is called the “state action doctrine.”

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The 125 Percent Solution: Fixing Variations In Health Care Prices


August 26th, 2014

Summer vacation’s finally here. You’re strolling along the beach, not a care in the world when – ouch – you step on a piece of broken glass and need a few stitches at the local hospital. Such routine procedures are painless enough, but depending on where you’re treated and by whom, the real pain could occur when you’re handed the ER bill.

In some of the latest evidence on the crazy-quilt patterns of U.S. health care prices, Castlight Health found prices in Dallas TX ranging from $15 to $343 for the same cholesterol test.  What makes these price variations particularly egregious is that the highest prices are typically reserved for those least able to pay, such as the uninsured.

What’s the solution?  In the long run, we need to establish a more transparent system where consumers can choose easily based on reliable quality and price measures.  But our current measures of quality are, to put it politely, inadequate, and people with insurance are often insulated or can generally afford those higher prices.  Reference pricing, in which insurance pays only enough to reimburse providers with adequate quality and relatively lower costs, would help to restrain high prices, but distracted patients or those with strong attachments to specific doctors or hospitals could still get stung with a big bill.

Capping payments at 125 percent of Medicare rates. We suggest a short-term solution: The federal Medicare program has in place a complete system of prices for every procedure and treatment.  It’s not perfect, but it is uniform across regions, with a cost-of-living adjustment that pays more in expensive cities and less in rural areas.  If every patient and every insurance company always had the option of paying 125 percent of the Medicare price for any service, we would effectively cap the worst of the price spikes.  No longer would the tourist checked out at the ER for heat stroke be clobbered with a sky-high bill.  Nor would the uninsured single mother be charged 10 times the best price for her child’s asthma care.  This is not just another government regulation, but instead a protection plan that shields consumers from excessive market power.

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Health Affairs August Issue: Variations In Health Care


August 4th, 2014

Health AffairsAugust variety issue includes a number of studies demonstrating variations in health and health care, such as differing obstetrical complication rates and disparities in care for diabetes. Other subjects in the issue include the impact of ACA coverage on young adults’ out-of-pocket costs; and how price transparency may help lower health care costs.

For mothers-to-be, huge differences in delivery complication rates among hospitals.

Four million women give birth each year in the United States. While the reported incidence of maternal pregnancy-related mortality is low (14.5 per 100,000 live births), the rate of obstetric complications is nearly 13 percent.

Laurent Glance of the University of Rochester and coauthors analyzed data for 750,000 obstetrical deliveries in 2010 from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization’s Nationwide Inpatient Sample. They found that women delivering vaginally at low-performing hospitals had twice the rate of any major complications (22.55 percent) compared to vaginal deliveries at high-performing hospitals (10.42 percent

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Behind The Numbers: Slight Rise In Health Care Spending Growth Projected


June 24th, 2014

PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) released its ninth annual Medical Cost Trend: Behind the Numbers report today. This forward-looking report is based on interviews with industry executives, health policy experts, and health plan actuaries whose companies cover a combined 93 million members. Findings from PwC’s Health and Well-being Touchstone Survey of 1,200 employers from 35 industries are also included.

HRI projects that after a five-year contraction in spending growth in the employer-sponsored market, the growth rate will rise to 6.8 percent in 2015, up from the 6.5 percent projected last year.

What are the biggest drivers of the growth in health care costs? We identify four cost inflators in this report, and I would like to highlight two. First, the economy. More than five years after the end of the Great Recession, the improved economy is finally translating into greater medical spending. Consumers are now addressing health issues they ignored or postponed previously.

Secondly, the high cost of specialty drugs. While only four percent of patients use specialty drugs, those medications account for 25 percent of total U.S. drug spending. And estimates are that U.S. specialty drug spending will quadruple by 2020

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Implementing Health Reform: Premiums And Choice In The 2014 Health Insurance Marketplace (Updated)


June 18th, 2014

In the fall of 2013 the headlines were full of stories of individuals facing steep premium increases as the Affordable Care Act’s market reforms went into effect. The question was raised repeatedly whether Affordable Care Act premiums were really affordable. Commentators observed that major national commercial insurers were avoiding the exchanges and that in some states the ACA marketplace offered few choices and little competition.

On June 17, 2014, the Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) released a report surveying Premium Affordability, Competition, and Choice in the Health Insurance Marketplace, 2014. ASPE examined over 19,000 2014 marketplace plans within the four bronze, silver, gold, and platinum metal levels in each of the 501 geographic rating areas in the 50 states and the District of Columbia; the office analyzed premium levels, available choices, and market variables that might affect cost. It is always possible to find negative anecdotes (particularly if one is not too careful in checking their veracity), but when we look beyond anecdotes at the actual data, it is clear that the ACA was largely successful in achieving many of its goals for 2014.

One of the primary goals of the ACA is to make health insurance affordable to lower-income Americans. During the 2014 open enrollment period, 5.4 million individuals selected a plan in the 36 states served by the federal exchange (which are the states primarily covered by the report since state exchange data is still being assembled and analyzed). According to the report, 87 percent of these individuals qualified for a premium tax credit. They paid a premium that was, on average, 76 percent less than the full premium that they would have owed before the premium tax credit was applied.

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How Much Market Power Do Hospital Systems Have?


June 12th, 2014

Sometimes big game hunters find frustration when their prey moves by the time they’ve lined up to blast it. That certainly appears to be the case with the health policy target de jour: whether providers, hospital systems in particular, exert too much market power. A recent cluster of papers in Health Affairs and policy conferences this spring have targeted the question of whether hospital mergers have contributed to inflation in health costs, and what to do about them.

Hospitals’ market power appears to be one of those frustrating moving targets. The past eighteen months have seen a spate of hospital industry layoffs by market-leading institutions, and also a string of terrible earnings releases from some of the most powerful hospital systems and “integrated delivery networks” in the country. These mediocre operating results raise questions about how much market power big hospital systems and IDNs do, in fact, exert.

The two systems everyone points to as poster children for excessive market power-California-based Sutter Health and Boston’s Partners Healthcare, both released abysmal operating results in April. Mighty Partners reported a paltry $3 million in operating income on $2.7 billion in revenues in their second (winter) quarter of FY14. Partners cited a 4.5 percent reduction in admissions and a 1.6 percent decline in outpatient visits as main drivers. Captive health insurance losses dragged down Partners’ patient care results.

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The Latest Health Wonk Review


June 10th, 2014

Joe Paduda offers the latest edition of the Health Wonk Review at Managed Care Matters. Joe is “not taking any time off” and covers the latest in health policy blogging, including a trio of Health Affairs Blog posts.

Joe features HA Blog posts by Bob Berenson and Stu Guterman on provider consolidation and market power in health care; these posts were written in response to a Health Affairs Web First package on the same topic. Joe also includes Amy Berman’s post on being diagnosed with terminal cancer and choosing palliative care, written in response to the May Narrative Matters essay by Diane Meier.

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Making Markets Work In Health Care: What Does That Mean?


June 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: See Robert Berenson’s post on consolidation and market power in health care, also published today, and watch for more on these subjects in Health Affairs Blog.

Health Affairs last week posted a set of papers that represent several perspectives on Provider Consolidation in Health Care: Challenges and Solutions. To provide a context for these papers and for the broader discussion of how to make markets work in health care, I suggest a couple of thoughts.

There are two types of markets in health care: the market for health services and the market for health coverage—these markets are interrelated, and both of them are broken.

The historical correlation between provider concentration and both higher prices and lower quality is well-documented. With the increased focus under health reform on collaboration across providers and settings, and the increase in physician and hospital consolidation and the purchase of physician practices by hospitals, the concern is that this trend may lead to adverse consequences for the health system.

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Acknowledging The Elephant: Moving Market Power And Prices To The Center Of Health Policy


June 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: See Stuart Guterman’s post on consolidation and market power in health care, also published today, and watch for more on these subjects in Health Affairs Blog.

Health Affairs recently published a set of papers addressing the problem of provider consolidation and consequent increased prices. Perhaps even more striking than the specific arguments made in these papers is the very fact that smart and busy people other than antitrust economists and lawyers now are actually spending a great deal of their professional time thinking about this problem. High prices and the distortions in markets resulting from differential pricing power have been the unacknowledged elephant in the policy room for decades, even as the policy community and policy makers have wrung their hands over what to do about rising health care costs. More than 40 years ago, President Nixon declared that health care spending increases were “unsustainable.” And here we still are grappling with health care spending.

Over the decades I have been told by smart health economists that the main culprit behind increasing health spending is technology, although the definition of technology turns out to be pretty flexible — new ways of providing care are considered new technology, not just machines and drugs. And nominees for the reason our baseline spending exceeds other countries’ by so much have included administrative complexity in our multi-payer, crazy quilt organization of health care; defensive medicine caused by malpractice concerns; and fraud and abuse. Jack Wennberg and colleagues at Dartmouth have argued that variations in service use that do not increase quality explain spending variations, at least in Medicare where payment (price) variations are not permitted other than to reflect differences in input costs.

All of these explanations have merit, but for non-government payers, prices have actually been the main source of high spending and variations in spending, at least in the recent past and probably for much longer. Prices for commercial and self-funded insurance products result from market negotiations between insurers and providers; the balance of power in these negotiations has sometimes shifted, most recently toward many providers, but certainly not all of them — the relatively few remaining independent hospitals and the solo and small physician practices have become “price takers,” even as other providers are able to negotiate payment rates far higher than Medicare benchmarks.

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Is Public Policy Changing The Practice of Medicine?


May 21st, 2014

The quick answer to the title question is yes, but not in the way the architects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) intended. Indeed, the most significant unintended consequence of the ACA may be the way poorly designed regulations are inadvertently opening the door to improved medical practice.

But first things, first. At the time the ACA was enacted, the belief that health care delivery in the United States was about to be radically transformed was widespread. “We’re going to find out what works and then go do it,” said Barrack Obama. Doctors will learn to practice medicine like engineers, predicted Atul Gawande. The profession will be dominated by Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), said Karen Davis, and doctors will be rewarded for lowering costs and raising the quality of care. Only through ACOs can we achieve low-cost, high-quality care, said Elliott Fisher. Fee-for-service medicine is the problem, we were told, and the solution is bundled care. The idea that we should buy on value, not on volume, was a sentiment often heard.

Four years on, these predictions have been far from the mark — to put it charitably. We have spent tens of millions of dollars on demonstration programs and pilot projects investigating coordinated care, integrated care, managed care, pay-for-performance medicine, electronic medical records systems, etc. The result? Three separate Congressional Budget office reports have concluded that none of this is working, or at least not working very well. (See here, here and here.) The experience of the pilot ACO projects has been dismal. A total of 5.3 million Medicare beneficiaries are now in Medicare ACOs. Yet in their first year, only 29 percent of the physician-led ACOs and only 20 percent of the hospital-sponsored ACOs turned a “profit.” And among those that did so, the results were fairly mediocre.

The response of the advocates: double down and do more of the same. But before we throw good money after bad, perhaps we should stop and take stock.

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Health Affairs Web Firsts: Provider Consolidation In Health Care


May 19th, 2014

The clinical and economic virtues of provider consolidation have long been recognized by policy experts, but in recent years, research has shown that large provider organizations may use market power to obtain relatively high prices from payers without necessarily delivering superior quality. Four articles, being released as Web Firsts by Health Affairs, examine the issue from diverse perspectives.

A study from Paul Ginsburg and Gregory Pawlson serves as an issue overview. With continued consolidation likely, the article examines strategies that purchasers and payers can pursue to combat the rising prices that may result from growing provider leverage.

Ginsburg is the Norman Topping/National Medical Enterprises Chair in Medicine and Public Policy at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, University of Southern California in Los Angeles; Pawlson is a senior medical consultant at the law firm Stevens and Lee in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“The success of the private- and public-sector initiatives,” they conclude, “will determine whether governments shift from supporting competition to directly regulating payment rates.”

Looking broadly at the drivers of competitive outcomes, a study from William Sage, the James R. Dougherty Chair for Faculty Excellence, School of Law at the University of Texas at Austin suggests that the health care system’s long history of regulation and subsidy has not only distorted prices but has also altered the nature of the products that the system buys and sells.

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Reminder: Health Affairs May 19 Event On Provider Consolidation In Health Care


May 15th, 2014

The clinical and economic virtues of provider consolidation have long been recognized by policy experts, but in recent years, research has shown that large provider organizations may use market power to obtain relatively high prices from payers without necessarily delivering superior quality. On May 19, Health Affairs will release a package of “Web First” papers examining questions regarding provider consolidation.

We invite you to a Health Affairs Briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, where the authors will discuss their findings and engage in a discussion with a panel of expert responders and the audience. The papers and the briefing are supported by a generous grant from The Commonwealth Fund.

When:
Monday, May 19, 2014
9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.

Where:
National Press Club
529 14th Street NW
Washington, DC 13th Floor (Metro Center)

REGISTER NOW!

Follow live Tweets from the briefing at @HA_Events, and join in the conversation with #HA_ProviderConsolidation.

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Managed Competition 2014: Rescued By The Private Sector?


May 12th, 2014

Managed Competition (MC) among health care financing and delivery systems was first conceived as a proposed public policy to drive delivery system change in the private sector by assuring consumers that they have choices, as well as rewards for choosing high-value providers. Many legislative proposals have used MC ideas in whole or in part. The Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) exchanges reflect the MC idea, but the three percent of the population they cover is too small to drive large scale change.

The new private corporate exchanges are also based on MC. While they cover few people now, private exchanges have the potential to change the incentives for tens of millions of consumers, and — if done right — to drive large scale delivery system reform. The combination of both kinds of exchanges could be powerful.

This post puts the idea of managed competition in a historical context, then describes how private exchanges are operationalizing the concept. I conclude with a brief look at how managed competition may develop going forward, and how MC may change the health care system.

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Health Affairs May 19 Event: Provider Consolidation In Health Care


May 8th, 2014

The clinical and economic virtues of provider consolidation have long been recognized by policy experts, but in recent years, research has shown that large provider organizations may use market power to obtain relatively high prices from payers without necessarily delivering superior quality. On May 19, Health Affairs will release a package of “Web First” papers examining the issue from various perspectives.

We invite you to a Health Affairs Briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, at which we will release the papers and where the authors will discuss their findings and  engage in a high-level discussion of the issues with a panel of expert responders and the audience.  The papers and the briefing are supported by a generous grant from The Commonwealth Fund.

When:
Monday, May 19, 2014
9:00 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.

Where:
National Press Club
529 14th Street NW
Washington, DC 13th Floor (Metro Center)

REGISTER NOW!

Follow live Tweets from the briefing at @HA_Events, and join in the conversation with #HA_Hospital_Consolidation.

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Medicare Part D Proposed Rule: Where Did Things Go Wrong?


March 6th, 2014

It’s worth sitting up and taking notice when everyone seems to hate what you are doing. Last week, 20 of the 24 members of the sometimes fractious Senate Finance Committee wrote Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner about a Medicare Part D proposed rule CMS published on January 10. They told her that they were “perplexed as to why CMS would propose to fundamentally restructure Part D …” and urged her to scrap the plan.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing, also last week, with the hardly neutral title of “Messing with Success: How CMS’ Attack on the Part D Program Will Increase Costs and Reduce Choices for Seniors.” At the hearing, Medicare Chief Jon Blum, one of the most well-liked federal health officials there is, was subjected to a bipartisan, first class, grilling.

These Congressional complaints followed on the heels of Feb. 28 letter slamming the proposed rule from 277 organizations (with more organizations continuing to sign on) including patient advocates, insurance companies, health plans, pharmacists, employers, and both brand and generic drug companies.

In fairness to CMS, this is only a proposed rule and comment is what they are seeking. Well, it is comment that they are getting. What has led to this firestorm of criticism?

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