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Paying For The ‘Doc Fix’


March 26th, 2015

For years now it has become apparent that the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) system is not sustainable.  However, fixing the SGR will require increases in budgeted costs, and so one of the major barriers to replacing the SGR is figuring out how to pay for the fix. Towards this end, it is important to understand the appropriate cost-comparison.

Federal scorekeepers (appropriately) assess the cost of the SGR fix relative to current law, which assumes that fees will follow a trajectory defined by current policy. But as near as I can tell, few advocate for that path or believe it will occur; rather the current system will continue to require regular “patches”.  Therefore, the appropriate measure of the cost of the doc fix is spending with the fix relative to spending without it.  The latter includes the costs of future “patches” necessary to ensure continued operation (as well as any savings that can be achieved because of continued SGR related negotiations).  Substituting this realistic alternative into the cost calculus likely substantially lowers the incremental cost of any SGR fix.

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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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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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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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Implementing Health Reform: Medicaid & CHIP Enrollment; Tax Forms; And Special Enrollment Period (Update)


March 22nd, 2015

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released a number of items to close out the week on March 20, 2015.  First, CMS released the January 2015 Medicaid and CHIP Monthly Applications, Eligibility Determinations, and Enrollment Report.  (CMS blog post,  one pager)  The 50 states and the District of Columbia reported nearly 70 million enrollees in comprehensive Medicaid and CHIP programs as of the last day of the month.

Second, CMS and the Internal Revenue Service released updates regarding the issuance of corrected 1095-A forms.  The 1095-As are the forms that exchanges are providing to individuals who received premium tax credits for 2014; they are supposed to help individuals reconcile the advance premium tax credits they received for 2014 with the tax credits they should have received.

Finally, CMS has further clarified eligibility requirements for the special enrollment period (SEP) for people who owe an individual responsibility fee for 2014.

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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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The Latest Health Wonk Review


March 17th, 2015

Check out Wright on Health, where Brad Wright has a Spring Forward edition of the Health Wonk Review. Brad’s Review, which more than makes up for the lost hour of sleep, cites Health Affairs Blog’s set of posts on the King v. Burwell oral arguments. Brad links to Tim Jost’s post, which in turn links to posts by Sara Rosenbaum, Ilya Shapiro, Bill Sage, and Grace-Marie Turner.

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Implementing Health Reform: Wraparound Benefits Final Rule; Coverage Report (Revised)


March 17th, 2015

With open enrollment closed for 2015 and the Departments having finalized the Benefit and Payment Parameters Rule and Letter to Issuers for 2016, we have entered the Spring Affordable Care Act regulatory doldrums.  Reports, minor regulations, guidances, and court decisions continue to appear, however.  Two appeared on March 16.  This post addresses the final wraparound coverage excepted benefits rule, and a report on health insurance coverage and the ACA (technical appendix here), both released on March 16, 2015.

The wraparound coverage rule creates a new category of excepted benefits.  The concept of excepted benefits was created by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and is carried forward in the ACA.  Excepted benefits plans provide benefits that resemble in some way the health benefits that have been regulated by HIPAA and are now regulated by the ACA, but are more limited or are more tangential to medical care.  These include benefits that are not generally medical benefits but do afford some medical coverage (auto liability, workers’ compensation); health coverage that is not medical coverage (dental, vision, long-term care); benefits that are not coordinated with medical benefits (specific disease coverage, fixed dollar indemnity coverage); and coverage that is supplemental to medical coverage (such as Medicare supplement policies).  Additional specific conditions must be met for some of these benefits to qualify as excepted benefits.

Excepted benefits are generally not subject to Affordable Care Act requirements, such as the ban on dollar coverage limits or preexisting conditions clauses.  But excepted benefit coverage explicitly does not qualify as minimum essential coverage.  An individual who has only excepted benefit coverage and does not qualify for a shared responsibility requirement exception must still pay the individual mandate penalty.  Large employers that offer only excepted benefits may have to pay the employer responsibility penalty, but individuals offered only excepted benefits by their employers are not disqualified from receiving premium tax credits to purchase individual coverage through the marketplaces.

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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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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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Implementing Health Reform: March Enrollment Report Provides Income Data (Updated)


March 11th, 2015

On March 10, 2015, the HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) released the Health Insurance Marketplaces 2015 Open Enrollment Period March Enrollment Report.  The report covers open enrollment activity through February 22, 2015; it contains a wealth of data on 2015 marketplace enrollment, including for the first time enrollee income data that provides some useful insights (discussed in more detail below).

The headlines of the report are old news.  Nearly 11.7 million Americans selected or were automatically enrolled in health plans through the marketplaces during the 2015 open enrollment period, including 8.84 million through the exchanges that use healthcare.gov.  Of these, 4.6 million were new consumers, 2.2 million actively reenrolled , and nearly 2 million were automatically reenrolled.  Nearly 2.85 million people selected plans or were automatically enrolled through state exchanges that used their own marketplace platforms.

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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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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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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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Go Slow On Reference Pricing: Why The Federal Agencies Have It Wrong On Regulations


March 9th, 2015

Despite concerns outlined in our previous post on reference pricing, federal oversight agencies essentially have taken a hands-off approach. First, they announced that for large group and self-insured plans, the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) annual maximum limits on out-of-pocket costs do not apply to charges above the reference price.

These limits are already high: $6,600 for an individual and $13,200 for family coverage in 2015. Without any discussion the agencies asserted that non-designated providers are out-of-network, and therefore cost sharing falls within the ACA’s exclusion of out-of-network cost from the maximum limits.

This ruling is inconsistent with the ACA and harmful to patients, effectively allowing plans to circumvent the Act’s crucial out-of-pocket cost limits. The ACA’s annual out-of-pocket maximums are meant to apply to in-network care. If plan members receive care inside this provider network, the Act mandates that they are to be protected by these maximums.

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