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Health Affairs Briefing: Advancing Global Health Policy


August 22nd, 2014

Please join us on Monday, September 8, when Health Affairs Editor-in-Chief Alan Weil will host a briefing to discuss our September 2014 thematic issue, “Advancing Global Health Policy.”  In an expansion of last year’s theme, “The ‘Triple Aim’ Goes Global,” we explore how developing and industrialized countries around the world are confronting challenges and learning from each other on three aims: cost, quality, and population health.

A highlight of the event will be a discussion of international health policy—led by Weil—featuring former CMS and FDA administrator and current Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Mark McClellan and Lord Ara Darzi, surgeon, scholar, and former UK Health Minister. Additional panels will look at how countries are transforming chronic care, lowering costs, and redesigning delivery systems.

WHEN: 
Monday, September 8, 2014
9:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

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

REGISTER NOW!

Follow Live Tweets from the briefing @HA_Events, and join in the conversation with #HA_GlobalHealth.

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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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Health Affairs Web First: Small Medical Practices Had Fewer Preventable Hospital Admissions


August 14th, 2014

The Affordable Care Act and other federal policy initiatives have created incentives for smaller practices to consolidate into larger medical groups or be acquired by hospitals. It is often assumed that larger practices provide better care. However, a new study, recently released as a Web First by Health Affairs, showed unexpected results: Practices with 1-2 physicians had 33 percent fewer preventable hospital admissions than practices with 10-19 physicians.

This study, which used data from the National Study of Small and Medium-Sized Physician Practices (NSSMPP) and surveyed 1,745 physician practices between July 2007 and March 2009, is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States. The study sample was limited to practices where at least 60 percent of the physicians were primary care providers, cardiologists, endocrinologists, and pulmonologists.

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Hospital Readmission Reduction Program Reignites Debate Over Risk Adjusting Quality Measures


August 14th, 2014

Note: In addition to Eva DuGoff, Shawn Bishop and Purva Rawal also coauthored this post. 

Do safety net hospitals categorically under perform the national average in terms of managing readmissions? Or is something else triggering higher rates of readmissions in these facilities?  These questions are essential for policymakers to answer as pay-for-performance (P4P) penalties are having a disparate impact on hospitals that serve low-income areas.

Medicare’s Hospital Readmission Reduction Program (HRRP), for example,  links risk-adjusted hospital readmission rates to financial penalties. Hospitals with risk-adjusted readmission rates that fall below the national average are penalized by having their annual Medicare payments reduced by up to 2 percent. In 2015, hospital payments are scheduled to be reduced by up to 3 percent.

But the program’s current system for measuring readmission rates may be flawed. Numerous analyses have found that safety net hospitals, which care for low-income patients, are more than twice as likely to be penalized than hospitals caring for higher-income patients.

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Better Measurement Of Maternity Care Quality


August 12th, 2014

A thought-provoking paper published this month in Health Affairs shows stunning variation in rates of obstetrical complications across U.S. hospitals. This type of research is important and necessary because focusing on averages masks potentially large differences in how patient care is provided and how clinical decisions are made.

From a policy perspective, it’s crucial to identify and learn from hospitals that are “positive deviants,” that is – hospitals with better-than-expected quality of care. From a pregnant woman’s perspective, having information on hospital rates of hemorrhage, infection, or laceration during childbirth is a high priority.

Authors Laurent Glance and colleagues add to a growing literature on variation in hospital-based maternity care. Having useful quality measurement and reporting strategies to guide policy and patient decisions is an essential next step. Indeed, Glance and colleagues conclude by urging clinicians and policymakers to “develop comprehensive quality metrics for obstetrical care and focus on improving obstetrical outcomes.”

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Health Affairs Web Firsts: Two Studies Find Mixed Results On EHR Adoption


August 11th, 2014

Since the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act was enacted in 2009, Health Affairs has published many articles about the promise of health information technology and the challenges of promoting broad adoption and “meaningful use.”

Last week, on August 7, the journal released two new Web First studies, “More Than Half Of US Hospitals Have At Least A Basic EHR, But Stage 2 Criteria Remain Challenging For Most” and “Despite Substantial Progress In EHR Adoption, Health Information Exchange And Patient Engagement Remain Low In Office Settings.” These studies focus on the latest trends in health information technology adoption among U.S. physicians and hospitals. Both studies, which will also appear in the September issue of Health Affairs, show that while basic electronic health record (EHR) adoption plans have moved forward, more significant implementation remains a daunting challenge for many providers and institutions

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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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IOM Graduate Medical Education Report: Better Aligning GME Funding With Health Workforce Needs


July 31st, 2014

After nearly two years of deliberation, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee on the Governance and Financing of Graduate Medical Education (GME) has issued its report. It presents a strong case for the need for change and a strong case for its recommendations.

The members of the Committee and the IOM are to be commended for their hard work, vision, and a high quality report. The report presents a clear path to a system that would help produce a physician workforce better aligned with the nation’s needs and a framework for a rational and defensible expenditure of nearly 15 billion dollars in public funds each year on GME.

Issues related to GME financing have been contentious for many years. In 1965, Congress included GME financing under Medicare reimbursement in what was intended to be a temporary arrangement. Nearly 50 years later, we are still trying to find a permanent and more rational way to finance and pay for the training of physicians as an alternative to the current complex, arcane formula built on Medicare inpatient days. Despite the well-documented shortcomings of the current system and numerous studies, attempts to find agreement on how to change and improve GME financing have been unsuccessful.

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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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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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New Health Affairs July Issue: The Impact Of Big Data On Health Care


July 8th, 2014

Health Affairs explores the promise of big data in improving health care effectiveness and efficiency in its July issue. Many articles examine the potential of approaches such as predictive analytics and address the unavoidable privacy implications of collecting, storing, and interpreting massive amounts of health information.

Big data can yield big savings, if they are used in the right ways.

David W. Bates of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and coauthors analyze six use cases with strong opportunities for cost savings: high-cost patients; readmissions; triage; decompensation (when a patient’s condition worsens); adverse events; and treatment optimization when a disease affects multiple organ systems.

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Call For Papers: Care Of Older Adults


June 27th, 2014

Health Affairs encourages submissions from authors on topics surrounding the care of older adults, including new models of care and the management of multiple chronic conditions among this population. We are interested in work that spans the full range of care settings, including primary care and specialty practices, hospitals, nursing homes and other long-term care settings.

In addition to exploring topics that are directly related to the provision of care, we also welcome papers on a broad array of related dimensions that affect care, access, and affordability, such as financing models, coverage, and size and composition of the workforce. We are grateful to The John A. Hartford Foundation for providing support for our ongoing coverage of these topics.

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Behind The Numbers: Slight Rise In Health Care Spending Growth Projected


June 24th, 2014

PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) released its ninth annual Medical Cost Trend: Behind the Numbers report today. This forward-looking report is based on interviews with industry executives, health policy experts, and health plan actuaries whose companies cover a combined 93 million members. Findings from PwC’s Health and Well-being Touchstone Survey of 1,200 employers from 35 industries are also included.

HRI projects that after a five-year contraction in spending growth in the employer-sponsored market, the growth rate will rise to 6.8 percent in 2015, up from the 6.5 percent projected last year.

What are the biggest drivers of the growth in health care costs? We identify four cost inflators in this report, and I would like to highlight two. First, the economy. More than five years after the end of the Great Recession, the improved economy is finally translating into greater medical spending. Consumers are now addressing health issues they ignored or postponed previously.

Secondly, the high cost of specialty drugs. While only four percent of patients use specialty drugs, those medications account for 25 percent of total U.S. drug spending. And estimates are that U.S. specialty drug spending will quadruple by 2020

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Thoughts On The VA Scandal And The Future


June 13th, 2014

For eight years, until May 2013, I directed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical research program from its Central Office and became familiar with the operations of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). It was my only VA job and I felt honored to be part of the VA’s vital mission, as did most VA employees I met. Based on this experience, I have some ground level observations on the state of the VA and its future planning in light of the present scandal.

VA’s Scope and Assets

VA has three components: a large health system (VHA), a benefit center (Veterans Benefits Administration, or VBA), and the highly regarded National Cemetery Administration. All report to the VA Secretary but have different missions, issues, and management requisites. For example VHA was a pioneer in the Electronic Health Record (EHR), while VBA has had a more recent painful conversion to information technology (IT). VHA is run by the Undersecretary for Health, on whom VA Secretaries almost totally rely given their general lack of experience in health care.

VHA is divided into 21 networks and has 8.9 million enrollees (out of the 22 million U.S. veterans). It cares for 6.4 million veterans annually at over 1,700 sites of care, including 152 hospitals, about 820 clinics, 130 long-term care facilities, 300 Vet Centers for readjustment problems, and a suicide hotline, as well as homelessness and other programs. It has partly trained two-thirds of U.S physicians and made groundbreaking medical research contributions. These assets create strong constituencies for VA both within and outside the veterans’ community.

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How Much Market Power Do Hospital Systems Have?


June 12th, 2014

Sometimes big game hunters find frustration when their prey moves by the time they’ve lined up to blast it. That certainly appears to be the case with the health policy target de jour: whether providers, hospital systems in particular, exert too much market power. A recent cluster of papers in Health Affairs and policy conferences this spring have targeted the question of whether hospital mergers have contributed to inflation in health costs, and what to do about them.

Hospitals’ market power appears to be one of those frustrating moving targets. The past eighteen months have seen a spate of hospital industry layoffs by market-leading institutions, and also a string of terrible earnings releases from some of the most powerful hospital systems and “integrated delivery networks” in the country. These mediocre operating results raise questions about how much market power big hospital systems and IDNs do, in fact, exert.

The two systems everyone points to as poster children for excessive market power-California-based Sutter Health and Boston’s Partners Healthcare, both released abysmal operating results in April. Mighty Partners reported a paltry $3 million in operating income on $2.7 billion in revenues in their second (winter) quarter of FY14. Partners cited a 4.5 percent reduction in admissions and a 1.6 percent decline in outpatient visits as main drivers. Captive health insurance losses dragged down Partners’ patient care results.

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Changing Provider Networks In Marketplace Health Plans: Balancing Affordability And Access To Quality Care


June 11th, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Sabrina Corlette, JoAnn Volk, Robert Berenson, and Judy Feder coauthored this post. 

Twelve percent of the complaints to California’s Department of Managed Health Care this year relate to access to care problems. In New Hampshire, consumers were upset to learn that their local hospital had been excluded from the network of the sole insurance company participating on the state’s health insurance marketplace. In reaction to concerns about narrowing networks, legislators in Mississippi and North Dakota considered “any willing provider” legislation this year.

But at the same time, the Congressional Budget Office expects narrow networks to help reduce marketplace costs by billions of dollars. Network configurations clearly offer consumers a cost-access trade-off. Narrowing networks is by no means a new trend – using network design to constrain providers’ price demands has long predated the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In the new marketplaces, insurers are using narrow networks to help keep premiums low for price-sensitive purchasers. But if a plan’s low premium reflects limited network access, its policyholders might not only face compromised quality care but unanticipated and potentially crippling financial liabilities.

Regulators are recognizing this trade-off and reconsidering network standards at the state and federal level. But regulators face a challenge: If they overly constrain insurers’ ability to negotiate with providers, consumers could face significant premium increases. On the other hand, if they ignore provider participation issues, consumers will lack confidence that there is a sufficient network to deliver the benefits promised without posing financial or quality risks.

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The Latest Health Wonk Review


June 10th, 2014

Joe Paduda offers the latest edition of the Health Wonk Review at Managed Care Matters. Joe is “not taking any time off” and covers the latest in health policy blogging, including a trio of Health Affairs Blog posts.

Joe features HA Blog posts by Bob Berenson and Stu Guterman on provider consolidation and market power in health care; these posts were written in response to a Health Affairs Web First package on the same topic. Joe also includes Amy Berman’s post on being diagnosed with terminal cancer and choosing palliative care, written in response to the May Narrative Matters essay by Diane Meier.

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When ICD-10 Implementation Becomes A Game


June 9th, 2014

Editor’s note: For more on this topic, stay tuned for the upcoming Health Policy Brief update on transitioning to ICD-10. 

The on again, off again plans for ICD-10 code set implementation leaves many organizations at a crossroads. In a previous blog post, we discussed the details of ICD-10 and assessed the industry’s readiness for implementation.  This assessment assumed the improbability of a further delay.  In February, CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner had seemingly given the green light, declaring, “There are no more delays and the system will go live on October 1.”

However, at the end of March 2014 Congress passed another temporary delay of Medicare physician reimbursement rate cuts that also included language unexpected to many — including CMS — that ICD-10 would be delayed until October of 2015.  Given this latest development, ICD-10 implementation has begun to feel like a high stakes game of the childhood pastime, “Red Light, Green Light,”  in which players must run forward at full speed, until the words ‘red light’ are called out with no warning, forcing them to stop on a dime.  In this case, countless organizations and institutions may be feeling a little disoriented by the latest change.

Some entities are grateful. Congress’s “red light” gives them extra time to prepare.  A February 2014 survey of over 570 physician group practices conducted by the Medical Group Management Association revealed that a large number of providers aren’t ready for the transition to ICD-10.  The survey showed that:

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Making Markets Work In Health Care: What Does That Mean?


June 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: See Robert Berenson’s post on consolidation and market power in health care, also published today, and watch for more on these subjects in Health Affairs Blog.

Health Affairs last week posted a set of papers that represent several perspectives on Provider Consolidation in Health Care: Challenges and Solutions. To provide a context for these papers and for the broader discussion of how to make markets work in health care, I suggest a couple of thoughts.

There are two types of markets in health care: the market for health services and the market for health coverage—these markets are interrelated, and both of them are broken.

The historical correlation between provider concentration and both higher prices and lower quality is well-documented. With the increased focus under health reform on collaboration across providers and settings, and the increase in physician and hospital consolidation and the purchase of physician practices by hospitals, the concern is that this trend may lead to adverse consequences for the health system.

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Acknowledging The Elephant: Moving Market Power And Prices To The Center Of Health Policy


June 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: See Stuart Guterman’s post on consolidation and market power in health care, also published today, and watch for more on these subjects in Health Affairs Blog.

Health Affairs recently published a set of papers addressing the problem of provider consolidation and consequent increased prices. Perhaps even more striking than the specific arguments made in these papers is the very fact that smart and busy people other than antitrust economists and lawyers now are actually spending a great deal of their professional time thinking about this problem. High prices and the distortions in markets resulting from differential pricing power have been the unacknowledged elephant in the policy room for decades, even as the policy community and policy makers have wrung their hands over what to do about rising health care costs. More than 40 years ago, President Nixon declared that health care spending increases were “unsustainable.” And here we still are grappling with health care spending.

Over the decades I have been told by smart health economists that the main culprit behind increasing health spending is technology, although the definition of technology turns out to be pretty flexible — new ways of providing care are considered new technology, not just machines and drugs. And nominees for the reason our baseline spending exceeds other countries’ by so much have included administrative complexity in our multi-payer, crazy quilt organization of health care; defensive medicine caused by malpractice concerns; and fraud and abuse. Jack Wennberg and colleagues at Dartmouth have argued that variations in service use that do not increase quality explain spending variations, at least in Medicare where payment (price) variations are not permitted other than to reflect differences in input costs.

All of these explanations have merit, but for non-government payers, prices have actually been the main source of high spending and variations in spending, at least in the recent past and probably for much longer. Prices for commercial and self-funded insurance products result from market negotiations between insurers and providers; the balance of power in these negotiations has sometimes shifted, most recently toward many providers, but certainly not all of them — the relatively few remaining independent hospitals and the solo and small physician practices have become “price takers,” even as other providers are able to negotiate payment rates far higher than Medicare benchmarks.

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