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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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Good And Bad News For Diabetes Prevention In The Community


March 25th, 2015

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

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

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

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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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Ensuring Timely Approval Of Generic Drugs


March 24th, 2015

Having saved US consumers over $1.5 trillion in the past decade, generic drugs are one of the most cost-effective interventions in our entire health care system. Using generic drugs instead of brand-name drugs, when a generic is available, has been shown to increase medication adherence and improve health outcomes for chronic conditions.

Importantly, generic drugs offer these advantages without sacrificing quality; the Food and Drug Administration’s bioequivalency standards are met and often exceeded by generic-name manufacturers, and no randomized controlled trials—the gold standard of medical evidence—have identified clinically significant variations in outcomes between brand-name and FDA-approved interchangeable generic drugs.

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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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Physician Aid In Dying: Whither Legalization After Brittany Maynard?


March 12th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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Reconciling Prevention And Value In The Health Care System


March 11th, 2015

The term ‘value’ (commonly defined as health improvements attained per dollar spent) has become ubiquitous in discussions around improving the health care system. Increasingly, payers are adopting value-based purchasing programs (paying more for higher value care) and providing benefits that follow the principles of value-based insurance design (aligning patient cost-sharing with the value of the service). These programs typically focus on services widely regarded as relatively low-cost and clinically effective, such as beta-blockers prescribed for patients following a myocardial infarction (i.e. heart attack).

Simultaneously, there is widespread enthusiasm for the increased use of preventive services. The Patient Protection and Affordable Act (ACA) mandates the elimination of consumer cost sharing for selected preventive services in marketplace plans and many other individual health plans. A particular subset of plans, High-Deductible Health Plans with Health Savings Accounts (HSA-HDHPs) can cover certain preventive services—but not other services—before the deductible, a minimum of $1,250 for an individual and $2,500 for a family, is met.

Generally, policies supporting prevention and value are consistent. Many (not all) preventive services do provide considerable value. Yet as with value, there are nuances in the definition of prevention that can lead to suboptimal policy choices. Specifically, most policy related to prevention defines preventive services as those delivered to asymptomatic individuals.

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Health Affairs Web First: Assessing Efforts To ‘Solve The Sustainable Growth Rate Formula Conundrum’


March 11th, 2015

On April 1, unless Congress acts to prevent it, the current Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) fee cut will take effect, dictating a 21.2 percent reduction in Medicare physician fees. A new commentary, released today by Health Affairs as a Web First, assesses last year’s bipartisan and bicameral legislative model for how to repeal the SGR, a model likely to be used in similar efforts this year.

The 2014 legislation contained many useful steps to replace the SGR but had a major omission, authors James Reschovsky, Larisa Converse, and Eugene Rich of Mathematica Policy Research argue: It did not adequately address overhauling the current Medicare fee schedule.

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Price Transparency: Removing The Blindfold


March 11th, 2015

Shopping for health care is like shopping blindfolded in Macy’s, says noted health care economist Uwe Reinhardt — consumers don’t know what they are buying or how much it will cost until they have paid and gone home. Moreover, consumers are not the only ones affected by the lack of information; employers as purchasers of insurance, government policy makers, and insurers are all frustrated by the lack of price and quality information that would allow consumers to shop for value in their care.

We hope that 2015 will be the year of transparency and the first year in an era of higher value health care. This blog post discusses our observations from the Health Care Cost Institute’s (HCCI) perspective of developing guroo.com, a transparency website: the impetus for transparency, the magnitude of the data needed, the challenges in summarizing and presenting the data, and finally realistic expectations for transparency tools.

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Implementing Health Reform: Supreme Court Remands Contraceptive Case; ACA Cost Estimates Go Lower


March 10th, 2015

On March 9, 2015, the Supreme Court waded once again into the waters of the Affordable Care Act, or at least got its toes wet.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Notre Dame v. Burwell, vacated the decision of the federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of Hobby Lobby v. Burwell.  Both Hobby Lobby and Notre Dame, of course, involve the regulations that require health plans and insurers to provide contraceptive services to female employees and students.

Also on March 9, 2015, the Congressional Budget Office issued its March, 2015 baseline report.  The CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) now project that the major insurance provisions of the ACA will cost $1.2 trillion over the period 2016-2025, $144 billion less than it projected in January, 2015.  Current projections for the years 2015-2019 are over $200 billion less than costs projected in 2010 when the law was adopted, while projected costs for 2019 are $56 billion, or 33 percent, lower.  The CBO also projects, however, that the ACA will reduce the number of uninsured by 25 million by 2025 rather than the 27 million it had projected in January.

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Go Slow On Reference Pricing: Not Ready For Prime Time


March 9th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part one of two on reference pricing. 

The use of reference pricing by health insurers and employee health benefit plans stands high on the policy and regulatory agenda because it is gaining popularity, particularly now that federal agencies have blessed its use by large group insurers and self-insured plans, while imposing only relatively lax requirements. The purpose of reference pricing is to enable patients to “shop” for care and to spur provider competition by creating a group of “designated” in-network providers that agree to abide by the reference price while others do not (“non-designated providers”).

Patients who select more expensive non-designated providers must pay extra, letting them decide whether the extra out-of-pocket cost is worth it. Providers compete, either by agreeing to the reference price or by lowering their prices to approach it. Prices are driven downward.

Reference pricing is superficially appealing because it invokes powers that consumers exercise every day, as they weigh cost and value for items ranging from cold cereal to new cars. But it also raises significant issues regarding quality and access to care and has the potential to discriminate against sick and vulnerable patients. The strategy may also prove costly in relation to the benefits it confers. We urge a go-slow approach and more careful regulation.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Everyone Has A Goal


March 6th, 2015

It seems these days everyone is setting ambitious goals for making changes to how we pay for health care, including my organization Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR).

Initially, our goal at CPR was to ensure that 20 percent of health care payments be value-oriented (seeking to improve quality and reduce costs) by the year 2020. But to reflect our desire for greater assurance that good would come of it, we recently refined that goal.

It’s great that commercial health plans report a significant increase in value-oriented payments. But, to avoid wasting valuable time and resources, there needs to be quantifiable evidence that new payment methods actually lead to improved health care while containing costs. as we’ve emphasized in our posts here. The “proof is in the pudding” as they say.

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