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Transcending Obamacare? Analyzing Avik Roy’s ACA Replacement Plan


September 2nd, 2014

Avik Roy’s proposal, “Transcending Obamacare,” is the latest and most thoroughly developed conservative alternative for reforming the American health care system in the wake of the Affordable Care Act. It is a serious proposal, and it deserves to be taken seriously.

Roy’s proposal is a curious combination of conservative nostrums (limiting recoveries for victims of malpractice), progressive goals (eliminating health status underwriting, providing subsidies for low-income Americans), and common sense proposals (enacting a uniform annual deductible for Medicare).

Most importantly, however, Roy proposes that conservatives move on from a single-minded focus on repealing the ACA toward building upon the ACA to accomplish their policy goals. He supports repealing certain features of the ACA—including the individual and employer mandate—but would retain others, such as community rating and exchanges. As polling repeatedly shows that many Americans are not happy with the ACA, but that a strong majority would rather amend than repeal it, and as it is very possible that we will have a Congress next year less supportive of the ACA than the current one, Roy’s proposal is important.

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The Winding Path To Effective Bundled Payment


August 28th, 2014

Tom Williams and Jill Yegian’s excellent blog post makes a great companion to our recent paper on the evaluation of the Integrated Healthcare Association (IHA) Bundled Payment Demonstration. Williams and Yegian offer lessons from their experience implementing a demonstration project that failed to meet its original objectives. This type of analysis is essential.

It’s not unusual for a demonstration to fall short of its original objectives. Learning from such cases is part of the innovation process. This is especially worthwhile for bundled payment, which has many potential benefits for patients, providers, and payers.

None of the barriers encountered in IHA’s demonstration signal a “death sentence” for bundled payment. However, the demonstration clearly shows that bundled payment is difficult to implement.

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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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The “Failure” Of Bundled Payment: The Importance Of Consumer Incentives


August 21st, 2014

Bundled payment for orthopedic and spine surgery and other major acute interventions has many attractive features, in principle. But implementation has been difficult in practice.  The recent Health Affairs paper by Susan Ridgley and colleagues, and the Health Affairs Blog commentary by Tom Williams and Jill Yegian, list quite a few practical implementation problems, and the points raised in both these pieces are well taken.

As leaders in the Integrated Health Association (IHA) bundled payment initiative, we shared the same hopes, devoted the same energies, and share the same frustrations with the modest results.  We feel it is important to emphasize what we consider to be the initiative’s most important design failure: the lack of engagement and alignment on the part of the consumer.  No one will ever reform the U.S. health care system without bringing the consumer along and, indeed, placing consumer choice and accountability at the very center of the reform initiative.

On an optimistic note, this design failure is being addressed by the larger health care marketplace in the wake of numerous failed attempts to reform health care by focusing exclusively on provider payment and incentives.

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Key Takeaways From The Medicare Trustees’ Report


August 14th, 2014

Note: In addition to Keith Fontenot, Kavita Patel also coauthored this post. 

Depending on which article you read, either the Medicare Trustees think the program is coming to an end, or the news is great and we don’t need to do anything.

The reality is that the recent Trustees’ report contains both positive and sobering news: while costs have been flat for the last two years and growth is expected to moderate for some years to come, Medicare’s financing is still not in good shape over the long run. Current law benefits exceed financing to pay for them, and the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be unable to pay full benefits in 2030.

We cannot assume the problem will resolve itself, and action is needed to ensure the program’s stability.  Moreover, health care remains a substantial portion of the national budget – a whopping 25 percent — and addressing federal fiscal imbalances must include health programs.

Below we provide our key takeaways from this year’s Trustees’ report.

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Having A Baby: Media Confusion Over Charges, Costs, And The Benefits Of Insurance


August 6th, 2014

Note: In addition to Marc Berk, Claudia Schur also coauthored this post. 

Recent discussion about the Affordable Care Act has intensified the media’s interest in the cost of medical care. While as health services researchers we are perhaps in the best position to provide information on complex health care topics, we may need to improve our ability to distill information into one minute sound bites.

A particularly interesting example of the disconnect between media reporting and a more nuanced analysis occurred earlier this year, on March 4, when NBC ran a story about the cost of having a baby. The story confused the very different concepts of what health care providers charge, what they are actually paid, and what consumers owe, and in so doing obscured one of the key benefits for consumers of being insured.

We were startled to hear that, according to NBC, the cost of having a baby has increased more than 300 percent in the past 10 years. According to the report, the cost of a vaginal delivery went from $7,700 to $32,000, while the cost of a cesarean birth went from $11,000 to $51,000. A small heading in the table presented by NBC cited Truven Analytics as the source of these data.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Accountable Care Organizations


August 5th, 2014

Note: In addition to Suzanne Delbanco, this post is also coauthored by David Lansky.

“The accountable care organization is like a unicorn, a fantastic creature that is vested with mythical powers. But no one has actually seen one,” said former California HealthCare Foundation CEO, Mark Smith, MD, in 2010. Over the last four years, we’ve certainly seen a proliferation of unicorns and we’re now reaching the point where fantasy—at least in a handful of cases—is becoming a reality.

A growing number of large employers are piloting accountable care organizations (ACOs), working through their health plan; in some cases they are doing so directly with provider systems, such as the new Boeing arrangement with Providence Health and Services, Swedish Health Services, and University of Washington Medicine and Intel’s contracting efforts in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon. The large employers and other health care purchasers with whom we work — eager, if not desperate, for solutions to contain the costs of health care and improve its quality — are watching these first movers carefully to see if ACOs prove to be a viable strategy for improving population health and bending the cost trend.

These leading purchasers intend to set the bar high. They cannot make the investment to pursue these ACO relationships if they are not assured that their populations will see meaningful, measurable gains in their health care and its affordability, as well as their health. That often means contractual commitments to lowering total costs of care and showing improved patient outcomes for targeted populations — like high risk, medically complex patients. Our purchaser colleagues who have been among the early adopters of ACO arrangements have begun to identify the features critical to successful ACOs; these are the elements other purchasers will look for when deciding if it’s worth proceeding.

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Bundled Payment: Learning From Our Failures


August 5th, 2014

Note: In addition to Tom Williams, Jill Yegian also coauthored this post. 

Seeing “IHA” and “Fails” together in the title of an article in the nation’s premier health policy journal was not an outcome that we anticipated when the bundled payment initiative described by M. Susan Ridgely et. al in the August issue of Health Affairs was launched.

The key objective of the Integrated Healthcare Association (IHA)’s initiative was to implement over 20 payer-provider bundled payment contracts, resulting in completion of more than 500 bundled cases within the first two years of the project. During the third year of the project, researchers were to conduct both a clinical and an economic evaluation to test how bundled payments affect the quality and cost of care, in conjunction with an implementation evaluation to determine the scalability of this approach.

Looking back, these targets seem highly optimistic; but at the pilot’s launch, both IHA and its stakeholders had a number of reasons to be confident. The pilot was well funded by a three-year grant from the Agency for Health Research and Quality (AHRQ), building on two rounds of planning and feasibility work over four years funded by the Blue Shield of California Foundation and the California HealthCare Foundation. In addition, there was a high level of interest and enthusiasm among a core group of providers and health plans that had a prior history of collaboration in a California physician pay for performance program.

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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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Decoding 2015 Health Insurance Rate Increase Requests


August 4th, 2014

Note: In addition to Christopher Koller, Sabrina Corlette coauthored this post.

The rates are coming, the rates are coming.

While there seem to be fewer “latest verdicts on the ACA,” breathlessly reported in the popular press, as we move through the second half of 2014, the filing of 2015 rate requests for individual and small group products on the health insurance exchanges offer one more piece of catnip for pundits.

Who is up? Who is down? How much? Is this the dreaded death spiral for the ACA? Or its vindication?

As discussions and analysis of these increases are disseminated, it is important to remember the following points

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Revisiting Primary Care Workforce Data: A Future Without Barriers For Nurse Practitioners And Physicians


July 28th, 2014

Editor’s note: Debra Barksdale and Kitty Werner also coauthored this post. 

With the full implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), there have been major concerns about the looming primary care provider shortage. The National Center for Health Workforce Analysis predicts shortages as high as 20,400 physicians by 2020, and increases in medical school graduates entering primary care residencies have been anemic.

Physician shortages can be addressed by the rapid growth of nurse practitioners (NPs), trained in primary care, along with the redesign of primary care to include teams that can be led by both physicians and NPs. But our nation’s primary care needs can only be met if states allow NPs to practice to the fullest extent of their training without unnecessary requirements for physician supervision.

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Examining Medicare’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program


July 24th, 2014

New financial incentives and penalties in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) designed to optimize health care system performance are proving difficult to manage, but they are also providing new opportunities for leaders to foster collaboration between acute and post-acute health care providers.

Perhaps one of the most promising, albeit controversial, programs has been Medicare’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), which penalizes hospitals with excess 30-day readmissions for health conditions such as pneumonia, myocardial infarction, and heart failure. Although not all hospital readmissions are preventable, many could be avoided with improved post-discharge planning and care coordination.

The HHRP was designed to penalize hospitals with excess 30-day readmissions regardless of whether the patient was readmitted to the same hospital or another hospital. Although there are some exceptions (for example, readmissions due to hospital transfers or planned readmissions), most readmissions of patients with health conditions targeted by the HHRP will count against a hospital.

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The Medicaid Boom And State Budgets: How Federal Waivers Are Advancing State Flexibility


July 18th, 2014

Note: The authors would like to thank Erica Socker, Senior Research Associate, and Michelle Shaljian, Associate Director of Communications, for their review and editorial assistance.

According to data released by the Department of Health and Human Services, one in five Americans now receive their health insurance through a state Medicaid program. Despite this increase in enrollment, it is estimated that 6 million Americans will likely remain uninsured because 20 states have decided not to expand Medicaid as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) envisioned. There are at least four states that are considering expanding Medicaid but have yet to do so.

Medicaid expansion continues to be one of the most politically charged directives of the health care law, mainly because the Supreme Court decision left the choice to states. This decision has generated an ongoing debate about whether and how states should expand their Medicaid programs. For example, an intense debate has been underway in Virginia, over the decision to include Medicaid expansion in the state budget; putting Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe at odds with the Republican State Legislature. Similar debates are occurring in states across the country, and are further complicated by states’ option to pursue alternative expansion approaches under a Medicaid waiver. For states that have not yet expanded the program, the success of these alternative expansion models may influence whether they can find a politically feasible path forward.

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ACO Results And Treating Hepatitis C Most-Read Health Affairs Blog Posts For June


July 15th, 2014

In June, Matthew Petersen and David Muhlestein’s post on the cost and quality implications of the accountable care organization (ACO) model on the health care system was the most-read Health Affairs Blog post. Not too far behind was a post on Medicare’s role in treating Hepatitis C from Tricia Neuman, Jack Hoadley, and Juliette Cubanski.

Next was Tim Jost’s examination of the employer mandate and why it should be repealed and replaced, followed by Jon Gabel’s response to a Health Affairs Web First on cancelled non-group plans.

Here’s the full list:

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Income Verification On The Exchanges: The Broader Policy Picture


July 14th, 2014

The Affordable Care Act scandal de jour (or at least one of them) is the difficulty the exchanges have faced in verifying the eligibility of many premium tax credit applicants. Two Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General Reports in early July documented the existence of these problems. One reported that as of the first quarter of 2014, the federal exchange alone had been unable to resolve 2.6 or 2.9 million data inconsistencies. Another reported that internal controls at the federal and two state exchanges were not fully effective in ensuring that individuals enrolled in exchanges were in fact eligible.

House Republicans claim that in fact there are 4 million data inconsistencies affecting half of all enrollments. In House Energy and Commerce hearings on June 10, 2014, Republican Representative Charles Bustany Jr. claimed that $44 billion in improper payments would be made over the next 10 years. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Bush Administration official, who testified at the hearings claims that improper payments may equal $152 billion. The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee is holding further hearings on data inconsistencies on July 16.

The seriousness of verification issues should not be overestimated. The administration has been put in place procedures to verify carefully premium tax credit applications. Many of the discrepancies CMS is attempting to resolve do not relate to income eligibility, and those that do may result ultimately in a finding of eligibility for increased, rather than decreased, premium tax credits. A discrepancy that could result in the need for additional documentation may be as trivial as a hyphen left out of a name or a digit transposed on a Social Security number.

Unfortunately, programs proposed by Republicans and other ACA opponents that in fact make a serious attempt to cover the uninsured will require income reporting and face similar difficulties. Current reform proposals that avoid coverage eligibility determinations will not in fact cover the uninsured. While the administration could have perhaps done a better job in making eligibility determinations, any means-tested program faces a similar challenge. It is possible to design a system that does not rely on means testing and could cover low-income and high-cost uninsured Americans, as I describe below. But it would be a very different system than the ACA or alternatives currently being proposed.

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A Health Reform Framework: Breaking Out Of The Medicaid Model


July 10th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is coauthored by Joseph Antos and James Capretta.

A primary aim of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is to expand insurance coverage, especially among households with lower incomes. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that about one-third of the additional insurance coverage expected to occur because of the law will come from expansion of the existing, unreformed Medicaid program. The rest of the coverage expansion will come from enrolling millions of people into subsidized insurance offerings on the ACA exchanges — offerings that have strong similarities to Medicaid insurance.

Unfortunately, ample evidence demonstrates that this kind of insurance model leaves the poor and lower-income households with inadequate access to health care. The networks of physicians and hospitals willing to serve large numbers of Medicaid patients have been very constrained for many years, meaning access problems will only worsen when more people enroll and begin using the same overburdened networks of clinics and physician practices.

It does not have to be this way. It is possible to expand insurance coverage for the poor and lower-income households without reliance on the flawed Medicaid insurance model. Opponents of the ACA should embrace plans to replace the current law with reforms that would give the poor real choices among a variety of competing insurance offerings, including the same insurance plans that middle-class families enroll in today. Specifically, we propose a three-part plan that includes a flexible, uniform tax credit for all those who lack employer-based coverage; deregulation of Medicaid; and improved safety-net primary and preventive care.

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Investing In The Social Safety Net: Health Care’s Next Frontier


July 7th, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Jennifer DeCubellis, Leon Evans also coauthored this post. 

The United States spends 250 percent more than any other developed country on health care services, yet we are ranked below 16 other countries in overall life expectancy. A less frequently discussed statistic, however, is the degree to which the U.S. under-invests in social services: for every dollar spent on health care, only 50 cents is invested in social services. In comparison, other developed countries spend roughly $2 on social services for every dollar spent on health care. The U.S. is 10th among developed countries in its combined investment in health care and social services.

This imbalance has ramifications for the nation’s Medicaid program, where just five percent of beneficiaries with complex health and social problems drive more than 50 percent of all program costs. Many individuals in this high-cost group have chronic complex medical, behavioral health, and/or supportive service needs, and in the absence of coordinated intervention, they tend to be frequent visitors to emergency rooms and have high rates of avoidable hospital admissions.

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Payment And Delivery Reform Case Study: Cancer Care


July 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Darshak Sanghavi, Mark McClellan, and Kavita Patel, this post is also authored by Kate Samuels, project manager at Brookings. It is adapted from a forthcoming full-length case study, the second in a series from the Engelberg Center’s Merkin Initiative on Physician Payment Reform and Clinical Leadership designed to support clinician leadership of health care delivery, payment, and financing reform. The case study will be presented during the Merkin Initiative’s “MEDTalk” event on July 9 from 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM EDT, featuring live story-telling and knowledge-sharing from patients, providers, and policymakers.

Oncology practices and hospitals across the nation struggle with providing sustainable, comprehensive, and coordinated cancer care. Clinical leaders with strategies and models to improve the quality and value of health care often don’t know how to navigate the landscape of payment and delivery reform options to sustain their innovations.

We use a case study approach to investigate and tell the story of the New Mexico Cancer Center (NMCC), an independent cancer center that is experimenting with innovative ways to improve patient-centered oncology care. We identify challenges for creating sustainable and supportive payments models, and we share the broader strategic and policy lessons for adopting alternative payment models.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Bundled Payment


July 2nd, 2014

Getting a good deal for a package price is something we’re all familiar with as consumers.  In health care, that might mean creating incentives for health care providers to improve the continuity and coordination of care, leading to better patient outcomes and lower costs. Paying for a set of services, not “per unit of care delivered’ under the fee-for-service model, is typically called bundled or episode- based payment.

Bundled payment is a single payment to providers or health care facilities (or jointly to both) for all services to treat a given condition or provide a given treatment. Unlike some of the other payment reform models I’ve discussed on Health Affairs Blog, such as pay-for-performance, bundled payment asks providers to assume financial risk for the cost of services for a particular treatment or condition, as well as costs associated with preventable complications.

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Happy Birthday HCPF


July 1st, 2014

Today marks the 20th birthday of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.  The story of its creation provides an important reminder of how our thinking about health care has evolved over the past few decades – and how it continues to evolve today.

Back in the bad old days, Medicaid was just another social service.  Housed within a broader social services agency, Colorado Medicaid – as was the case in most states – grew up with a typical welfare mentality.  Program enrollees were beneficiaries.  If they did not enroll, we assumed it meant they did not need or want our services.  Eligibility was a cumbersome, rule-bound process with inscrutable results and unintelligible notices to applicants of what was missing from their file.

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