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Medicare, Medicaid, And Pharmaceuticals: The Price Of Innovation


November 20th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts stemming from presentations given at “The Law of Medicare and Medicaid at Fifty,” a conference held at Yale Law School on November 6 and 7.

Through much of the last half century, Medicare and Medicaid (MM) have not for the most part supported research intended to lead to new drugs. For their role in drug development, we need to look to infrastructure and incentives. The record of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) illustrates the potential of both for pharmaceutical innovation. The current budget of NIH, the big elephant in the zoo of the federal biomedical enterprise, is $30 billion, but apart from a dozen small programs devoted to targeted drug development, most of these billions are not aimed directly at pharmaceutical innovation (See page 234).

Yet the NIH investment in biomedicine has indirectly fueled drug development in the private sector to a huge degree. It has paid for the training of biomedical scientists and clinicians, many of whom went on to staff the drug industry, especially its laboratories. NIH-sponsored research has also generated basic knowledge and technologies and it has encouraged universities to spin out their potentially useful findings into the industry by allowing for the patenting and licensing of the findings.

Like NIH, MM has helped fuel drug development indirectly by supporting selected experimental cancer treatments, medical education, and some clinical research and training. But investment in these activities has been small and their impact on drug development apparently very limited. In contrast to NIH, the MM stimulus to drug innovation has resided not in the production of new scientists or the patented uses of new knowledge, but principally in markets and pricing.

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Analysis Of Medicare Spending Slowdown Leads Health Affairs Blog October Most-Read List


November 17th, 2014

Loren Adler and Adam Rosenberg’s examination of the causes of slower Medicare spending growth was the most-read Health Affairs Blog post in October. Their post was followed by Jeff Goldsmith’s interview with former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson.

Next on the top-ten list was J. Stephen Morrison’s look at the US response to Ebola and the role of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden, followed by Tim Jost’s post on reference pricing and network adequacy.

The full list is below:

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Risk And Reform Of Long-Term Care


November 14th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts stemming from presentations given at “The Law of Medicare and Medicaid at Fifty,” a conference held at Yale Law School on November 6 and 7.

The 50th Anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid offers an opportunity to reflect on how U.S. social policy has conceived of the problem of long-term care.

Social insurance programs aim to create greater security—typically financial security—for American families (See Note 1). Programs for long-term care, however, have had mixed results. The most recent attempt at reform, which Ted Kennedy ushered through as a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), called the CLASS Act, was actuarially unsound and later repealed. Medicare and especially Medicaid, the two primary government programs to address long-term care needs, are criticized for failing to meet the needs of people with a disability or illness, who need long-term services or supports. These critiques are valid.

Even more troublesome, however, long-term care policy, especially in its most recent evolution toward home-based care, has intensified a second type of insecurity for Americans. This insecurity arises when someone becomes responsible for the long-term care of a loved one. In a longer forthcoming article, I argue that this insecurity—which I call “next-friend risk”—poses a serious threat to Americans and needs to be addressed. (I borrow the phrase next friend from a legal term for a person who in litigation represents someone with a disability who is otherwise unable to represent him or herself. Although not a legal guardian, the next friend protects the interests of an incompetent person.)

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Reforming Medicare: What Does The Public Want?


November 13th, 2014

Is Medicare adequately meeting the needs of seniors, or are there ways that its core attributes could be improved? Numerous elected officials, policymakers, and other thought leaders have offered perspectives on ways to change the program. Few efforts, however, have been directed at understanding how the public—given accurate information, a variety of options, and a valid structure for weighing the pros and cons—would change Medicare’s basic design.

The MedCHAT Project

Recently, the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution co-hosted a briefing on the results of a California project that did just that. The “MedCHAT” project, sponsored by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Healthcare Decisions, asked 800 residents—the lay public, as well as health care professionals and community leaders—to consider Medicare’s current benefits and decide if those should be changed. Respondents represented the full spectrum of age, race, ethnicity, education, and income level.

Using an interactive, computer-based system, participants were asked to respond as “social decisionmakers;” they were tasked with making Medicare more responsive to the needs of current and future generations without imposing a greater cost burden on the country. The computer-based CHAT (“Choosing All Together”) program uses actuarial estimates to show the relative costs of health care benefits, allowing participants to make trade-offs with an understanding of the fiscal impact each benefit has on the program.

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The Short-Term And Long-Term Outlook Of Drug Coupons


November 12th, 2014

In the October 2014 Health Affairs article, “Specialty Drug Coupons Lower Out-Of-Pocket Costs And May Improve Adherence At The Risk Of Increasing Premiums,” Catherine Starner and coauthors explore the relationship between drug coupons and specialty drugs. Specialty drugs, primarily injectables and biologics, are costly drugs used to treat complicated, chronic conditions that typically require special handling, administration, and monitoring. Starner et al. report that specialty drugs have an average monthly cost to patients and payers of about $3,500.

In their innovative study, Starner et al. find that nearly half of the patients in their sample who were prescribed specialty drugs used personal drug coupons to reduce their personal financial responsibilities. Coupons come in the form of maximum copay and monthly savings cards, and can be accessed from the brand-name manufacturer’s website, printed out, and cashed in at the pharmacy.

Manufacturers promote drug coupons as supplementary patient assistance programs that can fill gaps in insurance coverage by reducing individual patients’ responsibilities for out-of-pocket health care costs related to high-cost specialty drugs or other pharmaceutical products. For example, patients taking etanercept (Enbrel), an expensive biologic specialty drug indicated for rheumatoid arthritis, can receive savings via the Enbrel Support plan, which reduces the monthly co-pay to $0 for the first six months and $10 per month thereafter.

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Yes, We Can Transcend Obamacare


November 6th, 2014

In a recent  Health Affairs Blog post, Washington and Lee University law professor Timothy Jost described a new health-reform plan designed by one of us (Roy) and fiscally modeled by the other (Parente) as a “serious proposal [that] deserves to be taken seriously.” Jost praises parts of the plan. Most notably, he writes that its suggested reform of Medicaid “makes a lot of sense and is similar to proposals made earlier by progressive commentators,” and describes its aim of enacting a uniform annual deductible for Medicare as a “common sense proposal.”

But much of Jost’s review is filled with ideological pique—there are various harrumphs about “nostrums” and “talking points” and “hobby horses.” His article contains some factual and analytical inaccuracies, but also a few good points worth discussing.

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Social Insurance Is Missing A Piece: Medicare, Medicaid, And Long-term Care


November 6th, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the first of several periodic posts stemming from presentations to be given at “The Law of Medicare and Medicaid at Fifty,” a conference that will be held at Yale Law School on November 6 and 7. The issues covered in this post and in Professor Feder’s presentation at the conference will be more fully treated in Feder J. “The Missing Piece:  Medicare, Medicaid and Long-Term Care,” in Cohen AB, Colby DC, Wailoo KA, Zelizer JE, eds. Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America’s Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care. New York: Oxford, 2015.

Medicare and Medicaid are partners in providing health insurance protection to older people and people with disabilities. But when it comes to helping the very same people with long-term care—assistance with the basic tasks of daily life (like bathing, eating and toileting)—no such partnership exists.  Instead, there’s a gaping hole in protection that leaves people who need care, along with their families, at risk of catastrophe.

That hole is not an accident.  From Medicare’s inception, long-term care was explicitly excluded from its social insurance benefits, despite the close tie of many long-term care needs to medical conditions.  With some short-lived lapses, Medicare rules have restricted the program’s benefits to avoid financing long-term care, even as it has overpaid long-term care providers for medically-related “post-acute” services. Ironically, Medicare has fueled growth in expenditures on long-term care providers without actually covering long-term care.

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An Emerging Consensus: Medicare Advantage Is Working And Can Deliver Meaningful Reform


November 6th, 2014

Since enactment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, much of the attention in the policy community has been on modernizing Medicare’s traditional fee-for-service (FFS) program.  Through Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), larger “bundles” of payments to fee-for-service providers for episodes of care, and tests of pay-for-performance models, the hope is that the traditional Medicare model can be remade through sheer force of bureaucratic will.  The stated intent is to find a way to pay for value, not volume.

These efforts may or may not bear much fruit, but, over the longer term, it’s not likely to matter much.  That’s because a more important transformation of Medicare is already well underway and is occurring despite more resistance than assistance from the program’s bureaucracy.  According to the 2014 Medicare Trustees’ report, enrollment in Medicare Advantage – the private plan option in Medicare — has been surging for a decade.  In 2005 there were 5.8 million Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in MA plans — 13.6 percent of total enrollment in the program.  Today, there are 16.2 million beneficiaries in MA plans, or 30 percent of program enrollment. (See Table IV.C1)  In addition, the Medicare drug benefit, which constitutes about 12 percent of total program spending, is delivered entirely through private plans. (See Table II.B1)

As MA enrollment has surged, so has recognition of its improved value.  A recent, comprehensive review of the evidence conducted by Joseph Newhouse and Thomas McGuire of Harvard University makes a compelling case that MA plans are providing higher value services at less societal cost than the traditional FFS program.  Based on their findings, Newhouse and McGuire argue for policies that would provide incentives for even more beneficiaries to enroll in MA plans in the future.

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The Law Of Medicare And Medicaid At Fifty


November 4th, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the first of several periodic posts stemming from presentations to be given at “The Law of Medicare and Medicaid at Fifty,” a conference to be held at Yale Law School on November 6 and 7.

This post introduces an online symposium in connection with The Law of Medicare and Medicaid at 50, an upcoming interdisciplinary conference at Yale Law School.  Many thanks to Health Affairs for its co-sponsorship of the conference and for this opportunity to preview some of the work to be presented.

Why focus on the law of Medicare and Medicaid?  These two programs are almost always analyzed from a policy perspective, but one of the most significant changes that the 1965 legislation wrought was bringing two major federal statutes—and, with them,  the three branches of the federal government—squarely into the center of  health care and regulation.  To be sure, Congress had passed laws related to health prior to 1965, but until Medicare and Medicaid, most health policy was made at the local level, by state courts and state governments, and by the medical profession itself.

Medicare and Medicaid brought not only Congress, but the Supreme Court and the rest of the lower federal courts into the picture. It also made the federal administrative apparatus—federal agencies ranging from Health and Human Services, to Treasury, to the Department of Justice—central players in the world of health policy and enforcement.  Nevertheless, amidst the thousands of pages that have been written about the two programs, there has been relatively little reflection on how the distinct features of law—and federal law in particular—have affected the programs’ development and successes.

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The $500 Billion Medicare Slowdown: A Story About Part D


October 21st, 2014

A great deal of analysis has been published on the causes of the health care spending slowdown system-wide — including in the pages of Health Affairs. Much attention in particular has focused on the remarkable slowdown in Medicare spending over the past few years, and rightfully so: Spending per beneficiary actually shrank (!) by one percent this year (or grew only one percent if one removes the effects of temporary policy changes).

Yet the disproportionate role played by prescription drug spending (or Part D) has seemingly escaped notice. Despite constituting barely more than 10 percent of Medicare spending, our analysis shows that Part D has accounted for over 60 percent of the slowdown in Medicare benefits since 2011 (beyond the sequestration contained in the 2011 Budget Control Act).

Through April of this year, the last time the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released detailed estimates of Medicare spending, CBO has lowered its projections of total spending on Medicare benefits from 2012 through 2021 by $370 billion, excluding sequestration savings. The $225 billion of that decline accounted for by Part D represents an astounding 24 percent of Part D spending. (By starting in 2011, this analysis excludes the direct impact of various spending reductions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), although it could still reflect some ACA savings to the extent that the Medicare reforms have controlled costs better than originally anticipated.) Additionally, sequestration is responsible for $75 billion of reduced spending, and increased recoveries of improper payments amount to $85 billion, bringing the total ten-year Medicare savings to $530 billion.

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Teaching Health Centers: An Attainable, Near-Term Pathway To Expand Graduate Medical Education


October 17th, 2014

Stakeholders in Graduate Medical Education (GME) and members of Congress eagerly anticipated the long delayed but recently released Institute of Medicine (IOM) GME report. While perceptively characterizing the defects in our GME system, recommendations of the report generated substantial controversy among participants at a recent GME forum hosted by Health Affairs. The IOM proposed limited and gradual changes in Medicare GME financing, but the lack of support for GME expansion was not well received by some.

At present there are multiple legislative GME proposals, but none has gained broad support among the various stakeholders. Congressional committees responsible for GME funding view this lack of consensus among GME stakeholders as a major obstacle.

We describe a near-term and attainable pathway to expand GME that could gain consensus among these stakeholders. This approach would sustain and expand Teaching Health Centers (THCs), a recent initiative that directly funds community-based GME sponsoring institutions to train residents in primary care specialties, dentistry and psychiatry. We further propose selectively expanding GME to meet primary care and other demonstrable specialty needs within communities, and building in evaluations to measure effectiveness of innovative training models.

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A Patient Advocate’s Perspective On Paying For Value


October 9th, 2014

When patient-centered outcomes research “is used well, it can be a powerful tool in making medical care better informed, without limiting patients’ and providers’ choices.” That was the promise that I, and many others, held out with creation of the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) in 2010. Will PCORI achieve this goal? It is increasingly clear that evolving “value-based” payment models in health care, accelerated via the Affordable Care Act (ACA), will play a central role in how that question gets answered.

The movement to place greater financial risk on providers in an effort to pay for value rather than volume will have the effect of fundamentally changing the way health care providers interact with patients. But the question in value-based payment remains: value to whom? The answer should be, of course, value to the patient. And the answer will be, intrinsically, shaped by application of evidence.

While I applaud efforts to improve and advance our health care system through payment and delivery reforms, I am also mindful that such value-based payment systems must be built upon the foundation of “patient-centeredness.” Indeed, lawmakers and policy experts have long agreed that a “patient-centered healthcare system” is the Holy Grail of bipartisan health care reform. Yet despite significant progress in advancing patient-centeredness in our health system, much more work remains to be done.

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Drug Discount Analysis Misses The Mark


October 8th, 2014

Rena Conti and Peter Bach’s analysis of disproportionate share (DSH) hospitals in the 340B drug discount program — published in the October issue of Health Affairs — neglects an essential point: compared to non-340B DSH hospitals, 340B DSH hospitals provide over twice as much care to Medicaid and low-income Medicare patients, and almost twice as much uncompensated care. 340B DSH hospitals across the board provide high levels of uncompensated care. For these and other reasons enumerated below, the article does not support the criticism that 340B DSH hospitals are no longer serving vulnerable patients.

First, Conti and Bach misconstrue the 340B program’s intent. 340B is not – and never was – a direct assistance program for the poor. According to the Government Accountability Office, “The 340B program allows certain providers within the U.S. health care safety-net to stretch federal resources to reach more eligible patients and provide more comprehensive services, and we found that the covered entities we interviewed reported using it for these purposes.”

For example, 340B savings help The Henry Ford Hospital fund four oncology clinics and related services in Detroit and surrounding townships. The program is also enabling Henry Ford to hire pharmacists and nurses to follow up with their patients to ensure they are taking their medicines properly and that the treatment is effective.

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The Need For A Comprehensive, Current, And Market-Representative Health Care Cost Benchmark


October 7th, 2014

A recent post from Jonathan Skinner and colleagues on Health Affairs Blog posited an interesting solution to ever-increasing health care costs, suggesting that imposing price caps on all medical services, equal to 125 percent of the Medicare payment, would serve to eliminate wide variations in quoted prices for health care services.

While the overall idea of controlling costs through the establishment of a mutually agreed-upon and accessible benchmark is a sound one, the use of Medicare reimbursement levels as a ceiling for this purpose would present a number of challenges. For example, Medicare does not assign a value to all codes; a separate system would be needed to price services not addressed by Medicare’s fee schedule.

Also, Medicare’s reimbursement levels can be influenced by governmental imperatives and therefore may not be truly representative of market costs. And the establishment of a 125 percent of Medicare cap—a standard used by some health plans for in-network care where providers are guaranteed a high volume of patients—might not be adequate reimbursement for one-off, out-of-network services that lack a network’s compensatory volume economics.

We at FAIR Health suggest an alternative approach using measures that are acceptable to all stakeholders as reference points for out-of network charges to help achieve the proposal’s laudable goal: to provide quality health care at transparent prices that are reasonable for consumers and fair to providers.

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Establishing Vouchers For Veteran Health Care


October 2nd, 2014

Editor’s note: For more on this topic, stay tuned for additional Health Affairs Blog posts today from Jonathan Bush and Joel Kupersmith. 

Recent disclosures of long wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities that are presumed to lead to adverse patient outcomes have led to calls for reorganization. Possible reorganization approaches include privatization and the provision of vouchers to enrolled veterans. However, this discussion must recognize that Medicare already provides comprehensive services to the majority of VA patients.

Provider care coordination accompanied by financial incentives such as subsidized co-pays and deductibles, or purchased MEDIGAP policies, could induce veterans who use relatively little VA care to choose most, if not all, of their health care from Medicare providers. This would affect budget allocations under current VA funding and the new funding under the PL 113-146 (Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014), potentially freeing up VA resources to deal with increasingly complex patients, without creating another bureaucracy or insurance program. Combined with VA management reforms which should include provider productivity requirements and more intense quality reviews, financial incentives to focus VA care have the potential to help VA return to performing its core mission successfully.

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An Interview With George Halvorson: The Kaiser Permanente Renaissance, And Health Reform’s Unfinished Business


September 30th, 2014

For decades, health policymakers considered Kaiser Permanente the lode star of delivery system reform.  Yet by the end of 1999, the nation’s oldest and largest group model HMO had experienced almost three years of significant operating losses, the first in the plan’s history. It was struggling to implement a functional electronic health record, and had a reputation for inconsistent customer service.  But most seriously, it faced deep divisions between management and the leadership of its powerful Permanente Federation, which represents Kaiser’s more than 17,000 physicians, over both strategic direction and operations of the plan.

Against this backdrop, Kaiser surprised the health plan community by announcing in March 2002 the selection of a non-physician, George Halvorson, as its new CEO.  Halvorson had spent most of his career in the Twin Cities, most recently as CEO of HealthPartners, a successful mixed model health plan.  Halvorson’s reputation was as a product innovator; he not only developed a prototype of the consumer-directed health plan in the mid-1990’s, but also population health improvement objectives for its membership, both firsts in the industry.

During his twelve year tenure as CEO, Halvorson not only guided the plan to solid profitability, but added a million members in California, its largest market, despite a devastating recession and a national retreat of commercial HMO membership.  He invested over $6 billion in computerized patient care systems and population health management infrastructure, healed the breach with Kaiser’s physicians, and markedly increased its consumer satisfaction scores, earning 5 STAR ratings under Medicare Advantage.  He left the organization at the end of 2013 with more than $53 billion in revenues and more than $19 billion in reserves and investments.

This interview covers Halvorson’s time at Kaiser, his views of health reform, including the unfinished reform agenda, and his public health activism.  It was conducted by Jeff Goldsmith, a veteran health industry analyst, and Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia.  Jeff is a member of the editorial board of Health Affairs.

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Medicare Advantage: Stars System’s Disproportionate Impact On MA Plans Focusing On Low-Income Populations


September 22nd, 2014

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) evaluates Medicare Advantage (MA) health plan performance through a five Star Rating System. A close analysis of the Star System finds compelling evidence that organizations focusing on low-income individuals encounter systematic challenges due to the characteristics of the populations they serve.

These challenges result in lower ratings in the Star System, even for MA plans that are effectively serving low-income beneficiaries, threatening the viability of these plans and endangering the health of the most vulnerable. Starting in 2012, pursuant to provisions in the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA), performance on the Star System also affects plan viability due to new payment incentives provided by the law for high performance.

We looked at trends in the Star Ratings from 2011-2014 and individual measure scores for each MA health plan contract to determine if plans focusing on low-income populations (contracts with 50 percent or more Dual Eligible Special Needs (D-SNP) enrollment or 50 percent or more of Part D Low Income Subsidy (LIS) eligible individuals) and the beneficiaries they serve are adversely affected by the Star Ratings System.

Dual eligible beneficiaries are individuals who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. Beneficiaries who qualify for the Part D Low-Income Subsidy are individuals with incomes below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

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Pediatric Asthma: An Opportunity In Payment Reform And Public Health


September 18th, 2014

Editor’s note: The post is informed by a case study, the third in a series made possible through the Merkin Initiative on Physician Payment Reform and Clinical Leadership, a special project to develop clinician leadership in health care delivery and financing reform. The case study will be presented on Wednesday, September 24 using a “MEDTalk” format featuring live story-telling and knowledge-sharing from patients, providers, and policymakers. 

The Clinical Challenge: A Chronic, but Manageable Illness

Asthma affects 7 million children – more than 10 percent of kids in the U.S. – and is the most common chronic childhood disease. Yet even with high levels of insurance coverage, 46 percent of pediatric patients have uncontrolled asthma. There are substantial gaps in appropriate prescribing and adherence to effective medications. In addition, a multitude of non-medical issues influence a child’s ability to control their asthma: low parental health literacy, poor quality housing, and environmental triggers such as pests, mold, and cleaning chemicals. As a result 800,000 kids visit the emergency department (ED) for asthma each year.

In 2007 (the latest year which data are available) the U.S. spent over $56 billion on asthma care, of which nearly $27 billion was spent on pediatric asthma. Medicaid is the primary payer for pediatric asthma related hospitalizations with 55 percent of the market. Better control may also mean lower medical costs, due to reductions in ED visits, admissions, and other health care utilization – patients with poorly controlled severe asthma cost nearly $5,000 more per patient per year compared to average pediatric asthmatic costs.

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The Latest Health Wonk Review


September 12th, 2014

At Health Business Blog, David Williams is not ashamed to be a wonk in his September 11 edition of the Health Wonk Review. David highlights many great posts, including “The 125 Percent Solution,” suggested by Jonathan Skinner, Elliott Fisher, and James Weinstein on Health Affairs Blog, which would give consumers and insurers the option of paying 125 percent of the Medicare price for any health care service.

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Rethinking Graduate Medical Education Funding: An Interview With Gail Wilensky


September 9th, 2014

A recent Institute of Medicine report has stirred controversy by proposing to significantly reshape the way Medicare graduate medical education funding is distributed. However, before the panel that wrote the report grappled with how the federal government should fund GME, it had to decide whether the federal government should be involved in the area at all.

“We struggled with the rationale [for a federal role] from the first meeting to the last time we convened,” Gail Wilenksy, who co-chaired the panel with Don Berwick, said in a recent interview with Health Affairs Blog.  After all, she said, the federal government “is not in the business of funding undergraduate medical education or other health care professions in any similar way, or funding other professions that are believed to be important to society and in shortage,” such as engineers, mathematicians, or scientists.

GME funding has been discussed at length in the pages of Health Affairs and will be the subject of a briefing sponsored by the journal tomorrow, Wednesday September 10. (Live and archived webcasts will be available for those who cannot attend in person.) Wilensky will offer opening remarks at the briefing. A summary of the GME report is provided in an earlier Health Affairs Blog post by Edward Salsberg, who will also participate in the briefing.

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