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Health Policy Brief Updates


July 22nd, 2014

In the first half of 2014 Health Affairs has released seven new Health Policy Briefs and also has provided updates of five previously released briefs, in order to reflect continuously changing and evolving health policy issues and perspectives.

The following Health Policy Briefs were updated in 2014:

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The Latest Health Wonk Review


July 21st, 2014

Over at Wing of Zock, Jennifer Salopek offers some fresh thoughts in her “Polar Vortex” Health Wonk Review. Jennifer highlights Health Affairs Blog posts on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision by Tim Jost, John Kraemer, and Sara Rosenbaum and coauthors, as well as a slew of other great posts.

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The Alternative Payment Methodology In Oregon Community Health Centers: Empowering New Ways Of Providing Care


July 21st, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of a periodic Health Affairs Blog series, which will run over the next year, looking at payment and delivery reforms in Arkansas and Oregon. The posts will be based on evaluations of these reforms performed with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors of this post are part of the team evaluating the Oregon model.

The Alternative Payment Methodology (APM) demonstration project enables participating Oregon community health centers to receive a monthly payment based on the size and composition of their patient population. This payment replaces the model of earning revenue based on the number of individual patients seen, shifting the paradigm from the number of doctor visits to the provision of high-quality, team-based, patient-centered care.

So what are the real changes physicians are seeing on the ground in clinics where APM is being implemented?

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Implementing Health Reform: Hobby Lobby Response, The ACA In The Territories, And More


July 18th, 2014

July 17, 2014 was a remarkably active day in an otherwise quiet week for Affordable Care Act implementation. First, the Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services issued their first response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision —a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) guidance requiring ERISA plans to provide notice to their participants and beneficiaries if they do not intend to cover contraceptives. Second, the Department of Health and Human Services sent letters to the territories (the Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico) informing them that insurers that market individual insurance policies in the territories are no longer required to comply with the ACA’s insurance market reforms.

Third, HHS released an enrollment bulletin at its REGTAP website describing how insurers in the federally facilitated exchange should handle enrollment for 2015 for individuals whose coverage was terminated in 2014 for non-payment. This post describes these issuances, as well as the May Medicaid enrollment report released on July 11, 2014 by HHS

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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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Health Affairs Web First: More US RNs Retire Later, Causing A Larger Workforce


July 16th, 2014

The size of the registered nurse (RN) workforce has surpassed forecasts from a decade ago, growing to 2.7 million in 2012 instead of peaking at 2.2 million as predicted. One less-noticed factor in this “nursing boom” is the decision by a growing number of RNs to delay retirement.

According to a new study being released today as a Web First by Health Affairs, among registered nurses working at the age of fifty from 1991 to 2012, 24 percent continued working as of the age of sixty-nine. This compared to 9 percent of RNs still working at the age of sixty-nine in the period from 1969 to 1990.

Authors David Auerbach, Peter Buerhaus, and Douglas Staiger also found that as RNs tend to shift out of hospital settings as they age, employers may welcome the growing numbers of experienced RNs seeking employment in other settings. Auerbach is affiliated with the RAND Corp. in Boston, Massachusetts; Buerhaus with Vanderbilt University’s Institute of Medicine and Public Health in Nashville, Tennessee; and Staiger with Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

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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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Lessons Learned: Bringing Big Data Analytics To Health Care


July 14th, 2014

Big data offers breakthrough possibilities for new research and discoveries, better patient care, and greater efficiency in health and health care, as detailed in the July issue of Health Affairs. As with any new tool or technique, there is a learning curve.

Over the last few years, we, along with our colleagues at Booz Allen, have worked on over 30 big data projects with federal health agencies and other departments, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Federal Drug Administration (FDA), and the Veterans Administration (VA), along with private sector health organizations such as hospitals and delivery systems and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

While many of the lessons learned from these projects may be obvious, such as the need for disciplined project management, we also have seen organizations struggle with pitfalls and roadblocks that were unexpected in taking full advantage of big data’s potential.

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Washington Wakes Up To Socioeconomic Status


July 11th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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The Era Of Big Data And Its Implications For Big Pharma


July 10th, 2014

Editor’s note: For more on the topic of big data, check out the July issue of Health Affairs In addition to Marc Berger, Kirsten Axelsen and Prasun Subedi also coauthored this post. 

Health care research is on the cusp of an era of “Big Data” — one that promises to transform the way in which we understand and practice medicine.

The Big Data paradigm has developed from two different points of origin. First, significant efforts to digitize and synthesize existing data sources (e.g., electronic health records) have been driven by policy and practice economics. Second, a wide range of novel ways to capture both clinical and biological data points (e.g., wearable health devices, genomics) have emerged.

The era of Big Data holds great possibility to improve our ability to predict which health care interventions are most effective, for which patients, and at what cost.

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


July 9th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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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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After Hobby Lobby: How Might Policymakers Mitigate The Decision’s Impact On Women And Families?


July 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Sara Rosenbaum, Adam Sonfield and Rachel Benson Gold also coauthored this post. 

On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that has the potential to undermine an important provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that establishes for women a federal guarantee of coverage for their full range of contraceptive methods, services, and counseling without any out-of-pocket costs. This guarantee is administered through private health plans, whether purchased in the individual market or made available through the insurers and plan administrators that provide group coverage.

The 5-4 ruling in Burrell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, written by Justice Samuel Alito on behalf of the Court’s conservative bloc, held that closely held for-profit corporations that assert a religious objection to some or all forms of contraception cannot be required to include such coverage in the health plans they sponsor for employees and their families. As emphasized by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissent (joined in whole by Justice Sotomayor and in part by Justices Kagan and Breyer), the Court’s decision could have serious and widespread consequences.

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Family Caregiving And Palliative Care: Closing The Policy Gap


July 2nd, 2014

Editor’s note: Carol O’Shaughnessy also coauthored this post. 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 an upcoming 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.

Family caregivers — what would we do without them?  So why can’t we do more for and with them?

Many studies have demonstrated that family caregivers provide a wide range of essential care to people with serious chronic illnesses or disabilities — the same people who can benefit from palliative care applied as an ongoing approach to care, not just a hospital-based intervention.

It is family caregivers who are responsible for much of the complex care at home, including managing pain and other medications, monitoring equipment, and communicating with the palliative care team.  To say that most family caregivers are not prepared to take on this demanding role is an understatement.

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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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The Supreme Court And The Contraception Mandate: A Temporary Setback For Contraception Coverage


June 30th, 2014

Editor’s note: See Health Affairs Blog for more coverage of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision.

Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled that for-profit companies may avoid providing contraception coverage to employees if the companies sincerely object on religious grounds. At its narrowest interpretation, this decision is a significant but remediable setback for women’s reproductive health. At its broadest (but least likely interpretation), the decision has the potential to wreak havoc on public health regulation.

The legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) contraception mandate have been well described in three previous Health Affairs Blog posts. To briefly recap, though, the ACA requires preventive services to be covered without copayments or other cost sharing in most employer-supported health plans. To implement this requirement, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued regulations that include all FDA-approved contraceptives, and a company that does not provide no-cost coverage of contraception is subject to substantial penalties.

Three groups of employers are exempt from the mandate: small businesses with less than 50 employees, purely religious employers, and “grandfathered” plans that have not changed meaningfully since the ACA was passed. Additionally, religiously affiliated non-profits (such as universities and hospitals) received a special accommodation from HHS by which women can receive contraception from third-party insurers at no extra cost to employees or the organization if the organization objects to covering contraception and identifies an alternate insurer.

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Implementing Health Reform: The Supreme Court Rules on Contraception Coverage (Updated)


June 30th, 2014

On June 40, 2014, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell and Conestoga Wood Products v. Burwell. The Court’s decision has very important ramifications for religious liberty in the United States, for women’s access to health care, for employers’ and employees’ rights, even for corporate law. Its importance justifies its being released on the final day of the term, an honor usually reserved for only the most notable cases. But unlike the Court’s decision in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius on the last day of its term two years ago, Hobby Lobby does not pose a serious threat — indeed any threat at all — to the Affordable Care Act.

From the perspective of the ACA, the case involves only the application of one particular provision of a regulation to one particular group of employers. The Court’s decision does not invalidate any provision of the ACA. It does not even fully invalidate any regulatory requirement. It simply says that the Department of Health and Human Services must extend to one group of employers an accommodation HHS has already extended to another group.

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