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Growth And Dispersion Of Accountable Care Organizations In 2015


March 31st, 2015

Beginning this January, an additional 89 provider organizations joined the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) as accountable care organizations (ACOs). While this year’s new entrants are a smaller cohort than those that joined in 2013 and 2014, they represent a continuation of the expansion of the accountable care movement. The recent Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announcement of its goal to move fifty percent of Medicare payments to alternative payment models (including ACO-based arrangements) indicates the government’s strong backing of the model and, coupled with continuing endorsement of the approach from state Medicaid programs and commercial insurers, there is strong support for this care delivery approach to continue.

In an ACO, health care providers accept responsibility for the cost and quality of care for a defined population. Each ACO’s laudable goal is to achieve what Don Berwick has called the “triple aim” — to improve quality, increase patient satisfaction, and lower costs. The key to reaching those goals is to change how providers are paid, based on reaching certain cost and quality benchmarks. In effect, the objective is to change incentives so that it is in providers’ best interest to maximize health, rather than focus on increasing the volume of services rendered.

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The Time Is Now To Fix Medicare ACOs


March 27th, 2015

This past January 20th, the Department of Health And Human Services established national Medicare pay-for-value goals. By 2016, the Department intends to tie 30 percent of Medicare payments, and by 2018 50 percent of payments, to quality or value through alternative payment models. Medicare Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) are expected to make a significant contribution toward meeting these goals. With current ACOs accounting for 7.8 million beneficiaries and 15 percent of Medicare spending, it will be essential for the current 405 ACOs to stay in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) through 2016, and for a substantial number of new ACOs to join the program.

However, common concerns about the MSSP became apparent a year ago when stakeholders submitted comment letters in response to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ “Evolution of ACO Initiatives at CMS” RFI (Request for Information). These concerns were reinforced last July after CMS announced proposed changes to ACO quality measure set and quality performance benchmarking, and again in November when the National Association of ACOs reported survey data showing nearly two-thirds of member ACOs would leave the program unless substantial improvements were made.

Recognizing these concerns, this past December CMS published a proposed rule offering many possible improvements to the Shared Savings Program. Public comments were due February 6th. CMS now has the opportunity to use stakeholder input to redesign the program in a way that will allow ACO providers to drive payment and delivery reform and thereby enable DHHS to meet its newly established pay-for-value goals.

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Health Affairs Web First: Without CHIP, Sharply Higher Insurance Costs For Many Low-Income Families


March 26th, 2015

Funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is now set to expire after September 2015. A new study, being released by Health Affairs as a Web First, and also appearing in its April issue, examines the availability and cost of dependent coverage for children through employer-sponsored plans. Such plans would be the primary pathway to affordable coverage for more than half of all children losing CHIP eligibility, insofar as access to employer-sponsored coverage through their parents can bar children from receiving Marketplace subsidies.

According to the study, 96.9 percent of enrollees in employer-sponsored plans had access to dependent coverage. The additional cost would vary — as much as $7,252 per year for workers with one dependent child and $11,829 for those with two or more dependent children. The study also found that adding dependent coverage could cost many families more than 8.05 percent of their income, qualifying them for hardship exemptions from buying coverage.

As a result, many children once covered by CHIP would no longer be insured. This study is thought to provide the first estimates documenting variations across employers in the marginal costs to families adding children to employer-sponsored plans.

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The Final Stage Of Meaningful Use Rules: Will EHRs Finally Pay Off?


March 25th, 2015

Six years ago, President Obama signed into law the HITECH Act, which spelled out a path to a nationwide health information technology infrastructure.  The goal was simple:  every doctor, nurse, and hospital in America should use electronic health records — and do it in a way that leads to better care delivered more efficiently.  The Act provided $30 billion in incentives for providers and hospitals who met the criteria for “Meaningful Use”, which the Obama administration was given the authority to define.  The rules were set up to be rolled out in three stages, and while the first two stages have been out for a while, the criteria for the third and final stage of Meaningful Use (MU) were finally released on March 20.

David Blumenthal, the first national coordinator under HITECH, used the analogy of the Meaningful Use program as an escalator — with the first stage focused on just getting people on board and each stage requiring a higher level of use — which would focus on demonstrating better care through advanced EHR use.  Put more simply, the goal of the three stages was to first get providers to just start using EHRs, and then over time to get them to use the systems more frequently, more robustly, and ultimately, in ways that lead to better, more efficient care.

The new stage 3 rule reflects both the successes and the failures of the first two stages.  It moves toward making the EHR market more open and competitive, and providing more choices, in ways that I think are helpful — but possibly not helpful enough.

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Health Affairs Briefing: The Cost And Quality Of Cancer Care


March 25th, 2015

Cancer is the second leading cause of death among US adults, and cancer care now costs in excess of $125 billion each year in the United States alone. Cancer has also become the second leading cause of death worldwide, making it an increasing priority in low- and middle-income countries. The April 2015 issue of Health Affairs, “The Cost and Quality of Cancer Care,” includes a collection of papers on the cost and quality of cancer care.

You are invited to join us on Tuesday, April 7, 2015, at a forum featuring authors from the new issue at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Panels will cover valuing cancer care innovation, paying for care, and quality of cancer care.

WHEN:
Tuesday, April 7, 2015
9:00 a.m. – 11:40 a.m.

WHERE:
National Press Club
529 14th Street NW
Washington, DC, 13th Floor

Register Now!

Follow live Tweets from the briefing @Health_Affairsand join in the conversation with #HA_CancerCare.

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Unpacking The Burr-Hatch-Upton Plan


March 24th, 2015

Anticipating the upcoming Supreme Court decision on King v. Burwell, which could halt health insurance subsidies available through the federal exchange, Republican Senators Richard Burr and Orrin Hatch joined with Representative Fred Upton to propose a comprehensive replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Patient Choice, Affordability, Responsibility, and Empowerment Act, or Patient CARE Act, is modeled on a proposal of the same name offered last year by Senators Burr, Hatch, and Tom Coburn, who has retired from the Senate. The Burr-Hatch-Upton plan, like its predecessor, adopts consumer-based reforms of the insurance market, modernizes the Medicaid program, and makes other changes intended to lower cost and increase choices.

In an earlier post, we described in detail the provisions of the Burr-Coburn-Hatch bill. In this post, we discuss how the Burr-Hatch-Upton plan differs from the earlier proposal. We also discuss the impact of the new proposal on health insurance coverage, premiums, and the federal budget based on a new analysis from the Center for Health and Economy (H&E), a non-partisan think tank focused on producing informative analyses of trends in U.S. health care policy and reform ideas. We conclude by commenting on the direction Republicans are likely to take in reforming the health system in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision in the King v. Burwell case.

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A Check-Up On Dental Coverage And The ACA


March 24th, 2015

Oral health is an important but often overlooked part of health and insurance coverage. State Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are required to cover children’s dental services (and children’s access to care has been improving over the last ten years), but coverage for adults is optional. As noted in a recent Health Affairs GrantWatch Blog post, only about 15 states offer extensive coverage for adult dental services in Medicaid.

Medicare does not cover most dental services. And most private dental coverage is offered through stand-alone dental products that are separate from medical plans. Overall, this has resulted in more than 2.5 times as many Americans going without dental coverage as medical coverage.

Inadequate access to dental care is costly. Many low-income individuals turn to the emergency department as their primary and only source of care for oral health needs. The American Dental Association estimates that emergency room visits for avoidable oral health-related visits cost the U.S. health care system as much as two billion dollars per year. A recent Narrative Matters feature in Health Affairs (“Navigating Veronika”) highlighted the steep barriers that low-income individuals can face in navigating the dental safety net and finding a provider who will treat them, even when Medicaid covers the costs of care.

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What Is Behind The Post-Recession Bend In The Health Care Cost Curve?


March 23rd, 2015

It has been a while since I last had the opportunity to analyze the slowdown in health spending and the extent to which it represents a lasting bend in the cost curve, as opposed to lingering effects of the “Great Recession or other temporary changes.” (See Note 1)

Distinguishing Health Care Cost Curves

When we discuss bending the health care cost curve, two questions arise: “Which curve?” and “Short run or long run?” In this post, I focus on the curve represented by the growth rate in national health expenditures (NHE) pre- and post-recession. Other curves of interest include “excess growth” (health spending growth in excess of gross domestic product [GDP] growth) and the closely related health spending share of GDP. For analysis of all three curves over the very long run, including a provocative “big bang” theory about the origins of excess growth, see Tom Getzen’s blog. A fourth curve that has gotten my attention, through the work of Gene Steuerle, is the health spending share of the growth in real per capita GDP. (See Note 2)

I now turn to the present topic, the record low growth in NHE that began in 2009 (the year in which the recession ended) and continued through 2013 (the most recent year for which we have official data). There has been extensive discussion about whether these low rates are the result of temporary cyclical factors, such as the recession, or more permanent structural factors. As detailed below, I conclude that, to a surprisingly large extent, the answer is neither: the bulk of the decline in the health care spending growth rate resulted from lower economy-wide price inflation and some temporary factors not tied to the recession.

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Mortality Versus Survival In International Comparisons Of Cancer Care


March 20th, 2015

In a recent paper, Soneji and Yang revisit a topic we first explored in the April 2012 issue of Health Affairs — namely, whether the U.S. gets value for its cancer care. We found that life expectancy after cancer diagnosis rose more quickly for patients in the U.S. than for patients in Europe. Moreover, while spending per patient also rose more quickly in the U.S., Americans still received good value from the health care system. Compared to the gains seen in Europe, for example, each additional life-year gained in the U.S. cost roughly $20,000 in additional U.S. spending.

Soneji and Yang re-examine trends in cancer deaths in the U.S. and Europe and draw different conclusions. While we welcome the attention paid to this important issue, Soneji and Yang’s conclusions rest on fundamental flaws in their own approach and a misunderstanding of the methods we use in our study.

To understand the value of U.S. cancer care, one must ask whether the health care system performs better for U.S. cancer patients than those of other countries and at what cost. In attempting to answer this question, Soneji and Yang ask whether more people die from cancer in the U.S. or in Europe. This isn’t the right question. The total number of people dying from cancer is a misleading indicator of health system performance. Factors like poverty, pollution, smoking, diet, and exercise all contribute to the number of people acquiring cancer and dying from it, and confound the effects of cancer treatments. The bottom line is that mortality reflects treatment, but it also reflects the number of people who get cancer.

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What Kind Of Advance Care Planning Should CMS Pay For?


March 19th, 2015

Currently, Medicare does not offer a paid benefit for advance care planning (ACP). As a result, health care providers who want to assist Medicare enrollees with ACP do so voluntarily and neither they, nor their institutions, are compensated for their time and efforts. This is not only an unfair expectation on individual practitioners or health institutions, it is also medically and ethically unsound. Fortunately, two recent events have the potential to reshape the landscape of advance care planning in the U.S.

Cultural And Policy Evolution In Advance Care Planning

On September 17, 2014, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published Dying in America: Improving Quality and Honoring Individual Preferences Near the End of Life. The report is built on two basic premises:

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When It Comes To The Value Of Wellness, Ask About Fairness Not Just About Effectiveness


March 18th, 2015

After a short truce, the wellness wars are raging again on this blog, with some voices hailing workplace wellness programs as cost effective means to better public health and others questioning their value.

Our own data show that both have a point. We have found that program participation is associated with statistically significant improvements in biometric markers, like BMI, and health-related behavior, like smoking and exercise. But we also find that those changes are not large enough, and the relationship between health risks and spending too weak, to result in reduction of health care cost, let alone in return of investment.

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Moving In Reverse? Potential Coverage Impacts For Children Of King v. Burwell, Medicaid And CHIP Eligibility Changes


March 17th, 2015

Over the last three decades, the US has taken important steps to reduce financial barriers to health insurance coverage for low and moderate-income children. These steps began with the Medicaid expansions for children in the 1980s and early 1990s, which were followed by the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in 1997. Most recently, Congress reauthorized CHIP in 2009 and enacted the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010.

This commitment to children has resulted in substantial increases in coverage. The uninsured rate among children decreased from 15.0 percent in 1989 to 6.6 percent in 2012 (Exhibit 1).

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Can Safety-Net Hospital Systems Redesign Themselves To Achieve Financial Viability?


March 16th, 2015

Safety-net hospital systems have long played a special role in the nation’s health care system by serving low-income, medically, and socially vulnerable patients regardless of their ability to pay. Beyond caring for people regardless of insurance coverage, safety-net systems provide comprehensive care to meet the needs of their diverse, complex patient populations, including culturally-responsive health and social services that other hospital systems do not.

As providers of last resort, some safety-net systems, especially public hospitals, are expected by their communities and by state and local governments to offer needed but unprofitable services, regardless of whether adequate revenue streams exist to support these services.

 In recognition of that role, national, state, and local government agencies historically have provided supplemental funding to these systems to offset unreimbursed and under-reimbursed care. Under the Affordable Care Act, however, that is changing. With the expectation that most people will be insured under the new law, policy makers have planned to reduce much of this supplemental funding. In this view, safety-net systems will either become financially independent or close.

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New Narrative Matters: How Health Care Fails Older Patients, And How It Can Be Done Better


March 13th, 2015

Health Affairs‘ March Narrative Matters essay features a chance meeting between an octogenarian and a geriatrician that shows how the US health system focuses on medical care at the expense of older adults’ well-being. Louise Aronson’s article is freely available to all readers, or you can listen to the podcast.

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Effective Public Engagement To Improve Palliative Care For Serious Illness


March 10th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a periodic Health Affairs Blog series on palliative care, health policy, and health reform. The series features essays adapted from and drawing on a recent volume, Meeting the Needs of Older Adults with Serious Illness: Challenges and Opportunities in the Age of Health Care Reform, in which clinicians, researchers and policy leaders address 16 key areas where real-world policy options to improve access to quality palliative care could have a substantial role in improving value.

Public engagement is necessary to improve care for individuals suffering with serious illness. Fortunately, several drivers of potential change exist for advocacy. In the following blog post, we outline some areas for change and specify advocacy efforts we can undertake to improve the overall face of palliative care.

First, palliative care here is defined as being a type of specialized medical care for people with serious illness. Its goal is to improve quality of life for both person and family. It is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, and other specialists who work with the patient’s other providers to provide an extra layer of support. Although some people think palliative care is only for those at the end of life, it is actually appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness and can be provided together with curative or disease-modifying treatment.

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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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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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Vaccinating Against Iron-Deficiency Anemia: A New Technology For Maternal And Child Health


February 19th, 2015

When we think of killer diseases of global health importance, iron-deficiency anemia (IDA) is not something that immediately comes to mind. Yet the December 2014 publication of leading causes of death by the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 reveals that IDA kills an estimated 183,400 people annually. To put this number in perspective, in the year 2013, IDA killed more people worldwide than ovarian cancer. In terms of years of life lost, IDA ranked higher than cervical cancer.

The fact that we compared IDA to two other well-known threats to the health of women is no accident. Because women of child-bearing age have low underlying iron reserves, they are at great risk of becoming deficient in iron and progressing to IDA. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to IDA because of the high iron demands of the growing fetus. Growing children represent another important group who develop IDA.

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In The Debate About Cost And Efficacy, PCSK9 Inhibitors May Be The Biggest Challenge Yet


February 17th, 2015

The American health care system is far and away the most costly in the world. Health care reform is intended to lower costs, but they are still rising, albeit less steeply than in the past. Moderation is not however the case in the area of specialty pharmacy. The medications to treat Hepatitis C are the most cited examples of a general inflationary trend, but the pipeline of expensive medications is extensive.

Yet, policymakers and payers appear unwilling to undertake significant cost controls on medication pricing. Indeed the controversy over the $84,000 price tag for Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) has largely faded, suggesting a certain resiliency in our system’s ability to absorb costs.

We believe that resiliency is about to be challenged in a manner unlike we have seen in the past, at least in the area of pharmaceuticals. A number of pharmaceutical manufacturers are developing a new class of medication to manage high cholesterol — the PCSK9 (proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin 9) enzyme inhibitors.

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Implementing Health Reform: Enrollment Figures, Tax Forms, And More


February 13th, 2015

We are rapidly reaching the end of the 2015 open enrollment period, and the pace of enrollment seems to be picking up a bit. On February 11, 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released their enrollment snapshot for week twelve, covering the federally facilitated marketplace from January 31 to February 6.

During that time period, 275,676 individuals selected plans, bringing of enrollees in the federal exchange up to 7,749,375. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reportedly announced on a press call on February 11, however, that 200,000 individuals will be dropped from enrollment in February for failure to satisfactorily document compliance with citizenship or residency requirements.

Enrollment is expected to continue to pick up during the final ten days of open enrollment, as it did last year. CMS has said that if an individual cannot get through at the call center or online on February 15, CMS will make sure that he or she can apply for coverage, but the agency has not announced any further relief nor any new special enrollment periods for 2015. I continue to urge CMS to provide a special enrollment period for people who were subject to the individual responsibility penalty for 2014 to allow them to avoid the penalty for 2015.

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