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Washington Wakes Up To Socioeconomic Status


July 11th, 2014

John Mathewson, executive vice president of Health Care Services for Children with Special Needs (HSC) – a Medicaid managed care plan in D.C. for children on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – recently spoke at the Association for Community Affiliated Plans (ACAP) CEO Summit before the July 4 Recess.

Mathewson described what he has dubbed The Kitten Paradox: When HSC examined environmental factors for children with asthma, it found that the presence of pets in the house was a common thread, not too far behind having a smoker around. Yet, it turns out the value a cat brings by protecting from mice or spawning a litter for sale outweighs any financial costs to the family associated with an ER visit, which are often free or carry a low copayment. Thus the paradox.

An awardee at the conference, Hennepin Health, catalogued the evidence showing that reliable housing can improve health outcomes, including improving mental health and lowering emergency room and inpatient hospital utilization.

The focus of these sessions was the social determinants of health, and a lot of these safety net health plan leaders’ heads were nodding throughout. The plans, which disproportionately serve Medicaid enrollees and thus ‘dual eligible’ seniors in Medicare, know something about the importance of social determinants that the health policy community – at least in Washington – is only now slowly waking up to.

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ACAView: New Findings On The Effect Of Coverage Expansion Since January 2014


July 9th, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Josh Gray, Iyue Sung also coauthored this post. 

Together, athenahealth and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) have undertaken a new joint venture called ACAView, as part of the foundation’s Reform by the Numbers project, a source for timely and unique data on the impact of health reform.

The goal of ACAView is to provide current, non-partisan measurement and analysis on how coverage expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is affecting the day-to-day practice of medicine. athenahealth provides a single-instance, cloud-based software platform to a national provider base.

Any information that our clients enter using our software is immediately aggregated into centrally hosted databases, providing us with timely visibility into patient characteristics, clinical activities, and practice economics at medical groups around the country.

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New Offices Of Minority Health At FDA And CMS: Will They Help Eliminate Disparities In Health?


June 19th, 2014

Given the rocky roll-out of healthcare.gov, the end of the open enrollment period brought surprising good news: over eight million Americans signed up for coverage through the new Health Insurance Marketplaces. Three million previously uninsured young adults are now covered through their parents’ policies and six million more are enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Minorities are disproportionately more likely to be uninsured, and continued expansions in coverage will help significantly to close gaps in care. However, the impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will not be limited to coverage. A number of provisions to address disparities were included in the ACA, relating to community health, workforce, and data collection. In addition, the ACA authorized new offices of minority health to lead and coordinate federal and national efforts to improve health and reduce disparities.

Several operating divisions at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, had existing offices dedicated to improving the health of vulnerable populations. However, this was not the case for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

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Thoughts On The VA Scandal And The Future


June 13th, 2014

For eight years, until May 2013, I directed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical research program from its Central Office and became familiar with the operations of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). It was my only VA job and I felt honored to be part of the VA’s vital mission, as did most VA employees I met. Based on this experience, I have some ground level observations on the state of the VA and its future planning in light of the present scandal.

VA’s Scope and Assets

VA has three components: a large health system (VHA), a benefit center (Veterans Benefits Administration, or VBA), and the highly regarded National Cemetery Administration. All report to the VA Secretary but have different missions, issues, and management requisites. For example VHA was a pioneer in the Electronic Health Record (EHR), while VBA has had a more recent painful conversion to information technology (IT). VHA is run by the Undersecretary for Health, on whom VA Secretaries almost totally rely given their general lack of experience in health care.

VHA is divided into 21 networks and has 8.9 million enrollees (out of the 22 million U.S. veterans). It cares for 6.4 million veterans annually at over 1,700 sites of care, including 152 hospitals, about 820 clinics, 130 long-term care facilities, 300 Vet Centers for readjustment problems, and a suicide hotline, as well as homelessness and other programs. It has partly trained two-thirds of U.S physicians and made groundbreaking medical research contributions. These assets create strong constituencies for VA both within and outside the veterans’ community.

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Exhibit Of The Month: Racial Disparities In Clinical Studies


May 27th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing “Exhibit of the Month” series. Readers who’d like to highlight other noteworthy exhibits from the same issue are encouraged to make their pitch in the comments section below.

This month’s exhibit, published in the May issue of Health Affairs, illustrates losses to follow-up among black men in clinical studies due to incarceration. Their findings, based on certain National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute cohort studies, raise concerns regarding the generalizability of clinical research.

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Traditional Budgeting Fails To Account For The Changing Face Of America


May 23rd, 2014

The United States has been undergoing a major demographic shift over the past four decades, and by 2042, the various “minority” communities will in the aggregate make up the majority of our country.  That has real implications not only for things like immigration policy, but also – and critically – for population health considerations.  And it’s time that Congress started thinking about its health policy decisions in ways that recognize this coming demographic reality.

In 2012, there were more than 53 million Latinos living in the United States – up 50 percent from 2000, and up 600 percent from 1970.  This trajectory is even starker when we note that, in the United States as a whole, the population grew just 12 percent from 2000 to 2012.  Today, meanwhile, African Americans are about 13 percent of the population, and that population grew 15 percent from 2000 to 2010.

If current trends continue, there will be 133 million Latinos and nearly 66 million African Americans in the U.S. by 2050, meaning nearly one in two Americans in 2050 will be African American or Latino.

Why does this matter to health policy and the federal budget?  Because these ethnic groups have different health challenges and realities, and those, in turn, have very real economic consequences.

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Health Policy Research And Disparities: A Health Affairs Conversation With Lisa Simpson And Darrell Gaskin


May 22nd, 2014

Earlier this year, AcademyHealth held its 2014 National Health Policy Conference; Health Affairs was a media partner for the NHPC. In a new installment of our Health Affairs Conversations Podcast series, we talk about the conference, as well as the challenges and opportunities facing the health services and health policy research communities, with AcademyHealth president and CEO Lisa Simpson. Before taking the helm of AcademyHealth, Dr. Simpson was director of the Child Policy Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and professor of pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics, University of Cincinnati. She served as the Deputy Director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality from 1996 to 2002.

We also take a close look at one of the NHPC sessions: “Community Health and Disparity: Moving Beyond Description.” (The disparities session is freely available to all readers.) Darrel Gaskin, who led the panel discussion, joins us as well. He is Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions and Vice Chair of AcademyHealth’s Board of Directors

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Immigration And The ACA: Will Differing State Systems Offer A Controlled Experiment In Extending Coverage To Immigrants?


May 7th, 2014

Immigration and health care reform remain controversial issues, and their intersection remains fraught with complexities. Immigration reform that would provide a pathway to legalization for the 11-12 million unauthorized immigrants in the country is stalled in Congress.  Some of the fundamental controversies surrounding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have, however, been settled, and the law is well into implementation. Now is a good time to focus on how the ACA is affecting and might affect health coverage, costs, and outcomes for various populations, including immigrants.

In addition to federal support for health coverage, the ACA is also ushering in an era of increased state experimentation. The law allows states to open their own insurance marketplaces or participate in the federal marketplace, and with last year’s Supreme Court decision, to decide whether or not to expand Medicaid for low-income childless adults. The law may also open opportunities for states to experiment with coverage options for the one major group excluded from the ACA: unauthorized immigrants.

Unauthorized Immigrants and the Affordable Care Act

ACA excludes the unauthorized from the marketplaces and eligibility for federal subsidies to purchase health insurance. According to the Migration Policy institute, an estimated 7-8 million unauthorized immigrants are currently uninsured, due to low employer coverage and ineligibility for Medicaid and other public programs; the unauthorized represent between one-fifth and one-sixth of the total 40-45 million uninsured. Their uninsurance rate ranges widely from state to state, peaking at over 70 percent in a number of Southeastern and Southwestern states.

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What Lies Ahead For US Hospitals? May Health Affairs Explores Post-Recession And ACA Environments


May 5th, 2014

Health Affairs’ May issue examines a number of concerns facing US hospitals in the wake of the recession and implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Several papers also analyze trends in US health care spending. Several of the authors of articles addressing hospital concerns will present their work at a National Press Club briefing on Wednesday, May 7.

Per capita health care spending growth for males outpaced females, while the oldest continued to spend the most from 2002–2010. David Lassman of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and colleagues examined personal health care spending in the United States for selected years from 2002–2010 and found that the average elderly person spent $18,424—three times more than working-age adults and five times more than children.

Yet the annual growth in spending for people ages sixty-five and older increased at the slowest annual rate (4.1 percent) and for children it was the fastest (5.5 percent). Growth in spending for males outpaced females, driven by a closing of the gender gap across most payers and goods and services, but most dramatically for prescription drug spending. The researchers also discussed the impacts of aging baby boomers, the recession, and the implementation of Medicare Part D during this period.

EDs are already money makers for hospitals, and the ACA could push profits even higher. Michael Wilson of Harvard Medical School and David Cutler of Harvard University examined 2009 hospital financial reports and patient claims data and found a 7.8 percent profit margin that year in emergency department (ED) revenue over costs, or $6.1 billion. They found that the profits stemmed largely from privately insured patients, compensating for underpayments from other groups.

Of the 120 million ED visits analyzed, 35 percent of patients were privately insured, 26 percent were covered by Medicaid, 21 percent by Medicare, and 18 percent were uninsured. As more Americans gain insurance through the ACA, hospital-based EDs stand to increase their profit margins with a changing insurance payer mix. Policy makers looking to reduce health care costs, say the authors, should be cognizant of the dependence of ED profitability on payer mix and its implications for hospital-based accountable care organizations with varied patient populations.

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Beyond Access: High Quality Care For All


April 30th, 2014

In medical school, I had an epiphany about my role as a doctor during my obstetrics-gynecology rotation at the county safety-net hospital in Fresno, California. I loved the thrill and satisfaction of delivering babies, but after about 10 births, it hit me that virtually all the women for whom I had delivered babies were teenage girls, as young as 13. They and their children would face uphill battles. As a clinician, I was too often a cog in a machine, fixing immediate needs but not addressing underlying problems to prevent poor health outcomes.

The Affordable Care Act tears down a fundamental barrier preventing vulnerable populations from accessing care by reducing the number of uninsured and underinsured Americans. But expanded access to coverage will not, by itself, guarantee high quality care for all. It would be a serious mistake to assume that insurance will eliminate disparities in health outcomes. In Chicago, a person with diabetes living in an African American neighborhood is five times more likely to have his or her leg amputated than a person living in a white neighborhood. Insurance alone won’t close that gap. Indeed, many who needlessly lose limbs are already insured.

I have spent a great deal of my career caring for inner city patients and working with other professionals to research the health of the public. If we really want to end disparities in the health care system, here are some things we should be doing:

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Narrative Matters: Lost In Translation: To Our Chinese Patient, Alzheimer’s Meant ‘Crazy And Catatonic’


April 28th, 2014

In the April Health Affairs Narrative Matters essay, when cultural perceptions get in the way, a Chinese geriatrician and his colleagues find a way to care for a patient newly diagnosed with dementia. Xinqi Dong and E-Shien Chang’s article is freely available to all readers, or you can listen to the podcast.

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Connected Health Opportunities For Medicaid’s Most Vulnerable Patients


April 22nd, 2014

The February issue of Health Affairs features a series of articles on connected health and highlights the potential for telehealth and telemedicine to reshape how health care is delivered, consumed, tracked, and even paid for.

With funding support from Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit, the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS) recently conducted a series of focus groups that showed how one key Medicaid population — medically and socially complex, low-income individuals — stands to gain from these advances.

The four focus groups were designed to better understand the issues driving these individuals’ health care utilization, their current level of comfort with technology, and how technology might be able to help them better manage their challenges. Participants were actively receiving services from of one of four case management/care coordination programs in New York City, Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and Philadelphia, and all were Medicaid beneficiaries with multiple medical and/or behavioral health conditions.

According to a recent Health Affairs article by John Billings and Maria Raven, these individuals frequent emergency departments and have a high incidence of chronic disease. They typically have chaotic, unstable, and socially isolated lives, and many lack permanent housing, live on the street, or in homeless shelters.

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Health Reform And Criminal Justice: Advancing New Opportunities


April 1st, 2014

Community Oriented Correctional Health Services (COCHS) and Health Affairs invite you to join thought leaders from public safety, health care, philanthropy, and all levels of government to further explore the intersection of health reform and criminal justice. As implementation of the Affordable Care Act continues, it is time to take stock of how far we have come in addressing the needs of the jail population through policy and planning, and to set our direction for the future.

This national event will take place on Thursday, April 3, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., at the Columbus Club in Union Station, Washington, D.C. It is being organized with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation, and Public Welfare Foundation. Registration for in-person attendance is closed, but a live webcast is available.

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Mental Illness In America’s Jails And Prisons: Toward A Public Safety/Public Health Model


April 1st, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is published in conjunction with the March issue of Health Affairs, which features a cluster of articles on jails and health. 

Mental Illness in America’s Jails and Prisons

The United States continues to have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with 5 percent of the world population, but nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Inmates are spending more time behind bars as states adopt “truth in sentencing laws,” which requires inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence behind bars.

In 2012, about 1 in every 35 adults in the United States, or 2.9 percent of adult residents, was on probation or parole or incarcerated in prison or jail, the same rate observed in 1997.  If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 out of every 20 persons will spend time behind bars during their lifetime; and many of those caught in the net that is cast to catch the criminal offender will be suffering with mental illness.

Nearly a decade ago, I wrote an article with Patrick Brown titled “Crisis in Corrections: The Mentally Ill in America’s Prisons.”  It was about the alarming growth in the number of mentally ill individuals behind bars.  Since then, it has been shown that about 20 percent of prison inmates have a serious mental illness, 30 to 60 percent have substance abuse problems and, when including broad-based mental illnesses, the percentages increase significantly. For example, 50 percent of males and 75 percent of female inmates in state prisons, and 75 percent of females and 63 percent of male inmates in jails, will experience a mental health problem requiring mental health services in any given year.

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Embarking On A New Journey With Health Affairs


March 31st, 2014

I am delighted to be taking on the role of editor-in-chief of Health Affairs. This is a dynamic time in all aspects of health and health care: insurance coverage expansions, delivery system changes, and growing attention to population health.  Building upon thirty-three years of peer-reviewed scholarship, Health Affairs will continue to serve as the nation’s primary resource for the health policy community.

My goals for Health Affairs coalesce around a single theme: broadening the reach of the journal.

Health Affairs is strong in the core health policy community, but our scholarship is relevant to myriad actors in the one-sixth of the United States economy represented by health care.  My goal is to broaden our engagement with the worlds of law, finance, design, and many others.

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Should Provider Performance Measures Be Risk-Adjusted For Sociodemographic Factors?


March 27th, 2014

The National Quality Forum released draft recommendations on March 18 to change the way we assess the care that doctors and hospitals provide, and they are sure to cause a buzz in and beyond the health care community. That’s a good thing, because reflection and conversation are vital pieces of ‘getting it right’ when determining how measures can be used to gauge healthcare performance.

The recommendations come from a panel of 26 national experts convened by NQF at the request of the federal government. The question before them: Should the measures we use to assess providers’ performance be risk-adjusted to account for patients who are poor, homeless, illiterate, uneducated, or have other indicators of lower socioeconomic status? The panel’s recommendations are discussed below, and we encourage you to register your views by commenting on the report by April 16 and on this post.

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The Health Workforce: A Critical Component Of The Health Care Infrastructure


March 24th, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the first in a periodic series of Health Affairs Blog posts on health workforce issues by Edward Salsberg. Mr. Salsberg has spent over 30 years studying the health workforce, including nearly 20 years establishing and directing three centers dedicated to workforce data collection, analysis and research. The first center, at the University at Albany, was focused on state health workforce data collection and issues. The second, at the Association of American Medical Colleges, was focused on the physician workforce across the nation. The third, the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, was authorized by the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Salsberg has now joined the faculty at George Washington University where they are establishing a new Center for Health Workforce Research and Policy.

In the post below, Mr. Salsberg provides an overview of workforce issues. Future posts will discuss more specific health workforce questions and developments.

It could be argued that the health workforce — the people who provide direct patient care, as well as the staff that support caregivers and health care institutions — is the most significant component of the infrastructure of the health care system. Yet as a nation we have invested very little in collecting and analyzing health workforce data or in supporting the necessary research to inform effective public and private decision making. The results of this lack of investment are surpluses and shortages, significant mal-distribution, and less efficient and effective care than would be possible with better intelligence on our workforce needs.

For many health care professions, it takes years to build education and training capacity to increase, supply, or to change curriculum and modify the profession’s skill set. For these professions, we need to not only assess today’s needs but to project our future needs.

What the nation needs is a system to provide data, research findings, and information to thousands of individual stakeholders. This includes individuals considering a health career; colleges, universities and training programs that will educate and prepare them; the health organizations who will employ them; policy makers who need to decide what, if any, programs and policies to support; and the private sector that needs to decide whether to invest in workforce development. The responsibility for assuring an adequate supply and a well prepared health workforce is shared between the public and private sectors at both the national and the state and local level. Regardless of who is making the decisions related to health professions education and training capacity and health professions preparation, accurate and timely data is extremely important to support informed decisions.

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Health Information Exchange In NYC Jails: Early Policy Challenges


March 20th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is published in conjunction with the March issue of Health Affairs, which features a cluster of articles on jails and health. For more on jails and health information technology in particular, see here, here, and here.

New York City has the second largest jail system in the United States, with an average daily census of approximately 12,000 and 80,000 annual admissions. It is well documented that the population that cycles in and out of US jails each year is statistically sicker than the general population and therefore would benefit from greater care coordination between correctional and community settings. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Bureau of Correctional Health Services (CHS) is responsible for the care delivered in all 12 NYC jail facilities. The mission of CHS is to provide a community standard of care based on three core frameworks; patient safety, population health and human rights.

As part of this mission, CHS implemented a full electronic health record (EHR) system starting in 2008, completing the implementation of the final facility in 2011. One of the most promising features of EHRs is the ability to share information electronically to facilitate care coordination, referred to as Health Information Exchange (HIE).  Preliminary research of the use of HIE in community based settings is encouraging, with the use of HIE in the Emergency Department resulting in 30 percent fewer admissions and use in ambulatory settings resulting in 56 percent fewer readmissions within 30 days of hospital discharge. (Results pending review; presented 11/14/13 at NYeC Digital Health Conference by Center for Healthcare Informatics and Policy (CHiP).) In the hopes of realizing the full benefits of its EHR system, CHS recently launched an HIE pilot in its women’s facility.

The goals of integrating HIE into jail-based health care are to inform the care patients receive while incarcerated and to coordinate care upon release.  Currently, CHS has access to two external sources of information: BHIX, a Regional Health Information Organization (RHIO) that recently merged with Healthix and now includes patient data from some major hospital systems and community providers in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island; and PSYCKES, a Medicaid claims-based data warehouse that includes claims information (both medical and mental health) on patients who have had a substance abuse or mental health diagnosis and/or substance abuse or mental health treatment within the last five years.

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Why Are Hispanics Slow To Enroll In ACA Coverage? Insights From The Health Reform Monitoring Survey


March 18th, 2014

As the end of the ACA’s first open enrollment period approaches, there is a big push to get as many uninsured people signed up for coverage as possible. As of March 1, 2014, more than 4.2 million people had enrolled in a plan through a federal or state health insurance Marketplace, with 2.1 million having enrolled since January 1 alone. An additional 2.4 to 3.5 million people have enrolled in Medicaid through January 2014 as a result of the ACA.

However, recent media reports indicate that one group with historically high rates of uninsurance—Hispanics—have been slow to sign up for coverage so far, particularly in California. Low levels of Marketplace participation among this group and a delayed and poorly translated Spanish-language version of HealthCare.gov could explain, in part, why President Obama appeared at a town-hall-style event last week hosted by Univision and Telemundo, the nation’s two largest Spanish-language television networks.

Estimates from the Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey (HRMS) shed some light on why Hispanics might have low levels of Marketplace participation so far, and what policies may be needed to increase their enrollment in health plans or Medicaid.

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Incarceration And Release From Jail: Improving Re-integration Into Society Using A Health Information Exchange


March 17th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is coauthored by Mary Darby, vice president for health policy at Burness Communications, working on issues related to health care and jails.

In the Narrative Matters essay, “To Improve Public Health And Safety, One Sheriff Looks Beyond The Jail Walls,” published in the March issue of Health Affairs, Michael Ashe, sheriff of Hampden County in Massachusetts, describes the county’s efforts to help break the cycle of reincarceration by ensuring inmates get quality health care in and out of jail. Here, Jeffrey Brenner reflects on efforts to bring jails in Camden, N.J., into a health information exchange.   

Camden, N.J., is one of the nation’s poorest cities, with 38.6 percent of the population below the poverty line in 2010, according to Census Data.  With profound poverty comes a host of other problems, including high levels of crime, violence, pollution, and illness.  People here struggle to maintain decent health, and often it is a losing battle.

One day in 2002, at the family medicine practice in Camden where I worked, I opened an envelope from the Camden County jail.  It contained a letter from a patient, “James,” who told me he’d wound up in jail, a result of some bad choices on his part.  I knew James and his family quite well.  I’d seen his wife for prenatal care when she was pregnant and given his kids their routine well-child checkups.  James himself was a poorly controlled asthmatic with seizure disorder, so I had seen him pretty regularly in the clinic.

James’ letter distressed me.  He said that his asthma and allergies, already severe, were getting worse.  In addition to being sick, he felt overwhelmed, depressed, and afraid.  After reading his letter, I called the jail to find out what was happening.

Although the staff people with whom I spoke were very nice, I found it difficult to get the information I needed – and to share the important information I had concerning James’ medical history with the appropriate personnel.  After all, James had two potentially serious chronic conditions, and he took several medications.  The health care providers in the jail didn’t know James’ medical history and they didn’t know what medications he was taking.  They also had no connection to the primary care provider who knew him best: me.

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