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Supreme Court Turns Back Payment Suit By Medicaid Providers


March 31st, 2015

While all eyes in the health policy community have been fixed on the Supreme Court, awaiting its decision in King v. Burwell regarding the legality of premium tax credits granted through the federally facilitated marketplaces, a case of arguably equal importance has been quietly awaiting a decision.  On March 31, 2015, a closely divided Supreme Court decided in Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, Inc. that health care providers cannot sue state Medicaid programs in federal court to enforce  42 U. S. C. §1396a(a)(30)(A) which requires states to “assure that payments are consistent with efficiency, economy, and quality of care” while “safeguard[ing] against unnecessary utilization of . . .care and services.”

Justice Scalia’s majority opinion, written for himself, Chief Justice Roberts, and justices Thomas and Alito, would have arguably swept away nearly a half century of Medicaid law and hold that lawsuits could not be brought by providers in federal court to enforce the requirements of the Medicaid program.  A dissenting opinion, written by Justice Sotomayor for herself and Justices Kennedy, Kagan, and Ginsburg would have held that providers could have a cause of action under some circumstances to enforce the Medicaid law’s provider payment requirements against the states.  Justice Breyer, the deciding vote for the majority, wrote a narrow opinion, joining Justice Scalia’s opinion only in part, leaving the law somewhat unsettled as to rights under the Medicaid program going forward.

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The Time Is Now To Fix Medicare ACOs


March 27th, 2015

This past January 20th, the Department of Health And Human Services established national Medicare pay-for-value goals. By 2016, the Department intends to tie 30 percent of Medicare payments, and by 2018 50 percent of payments, to quality or value through alternative payment models. Medicare Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) are expected to make a significant contribution toward meeting these goals. With current ACOs accounting for 7.8 million beneficiaries and 15 percent of Medicare spending, it will be essential for the current 405 ACOs to stay in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) through 2016, and for a substantial number of new ACOs to join the program.

However, common concerns about the MSSP became apparent a year ago when stakeholders submitted comment letters in response to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ “Evolution of ACO Initiatives at CMS” RFI (Request for Information). These concerns were reinforced last July after CMS announced proposed changes to ACO quality measure set and quality performance benchmarking, and again in November when the National Association of ACOs reported survey data showing nearly two-thirds of member ACOs would leave the program unless substantial improvements were made.

Recognizing these concerns, this past December CMS published a proposed rule offering many possible improvements to the Shared Savings Program. Public comments were due February 6th. CMS now has the opportunity to use stakeholder input to redesign the program in a way that will allow ACO providers to drive payment and delivery reform and thereby enable DHHS to meet its newly established pay-for-value goals.

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


March 11th, 2015

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

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

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Price Transparency: Removing The Blindfold


March 11th, 2015

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

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

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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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Go Slow On Reference Pricing: Not Ready For Prime Time


March 9th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Everyone Has A Goal


March 6th, 2015

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

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

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

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New On GrantWatch Blog


March 4th, 2015

Health Affairs GrantWatch Blog brings you news and views of what foundations are funding in health policy and health care.

Here are the most recent posts:

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Open Payments: Early Impact And The Next Wave Of Reform


March 3rd, 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.

The Physician Payments Sunshine Act, a provision in the Affordable Care Act, seeks to increase the transparency of the financial relationships between medical device and drug manufacturers, physicians, and teaching hospitals. Launched on September 30, 2014 by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the Open Payments database collects information about these financial relationships and makes that information available to the public.

As of early February, the Open Payments database includes documentation of 4.45 million payments valued at nearly $3.7 billion made from medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers to 546,000 doctors and 1,360 teaching hospitals between August 2013 and December 2013. This included 1.7 million records (totaling $2.2 billion) without the names of physicians or teaching hospitals who received the payments.

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New Health Policy Brief: Risk Corridors (Updated)


February 26th, 2015

The latest Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) provides an update to an earlier brief on the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s risk corridor program, which allows the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to collect and make payments to qualified health plans. As the brief explains, a recent amendment to federal appropriations raises questions as to whether insurers will receive their full risk corridor payments for 2014.

While the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015, which funded the government for the 2015 fiscal year, did give HHS the authority to collect user fees, an amendment was included that specifically prohibited HHS from transferring money from either trust fund.

The amendment did not eliminate the risk corridor program, nor did it prevent HHS from using payments received from insurers to pay out claims under the program (that is, user fees), but it effectively made the risk corridor program budget neutral unless HHS can find another source of funding. As a result, insurers expecting payments from HHS may not receive the full amount due.

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Top 5 Health Care Trends to Watch in 2015


February 25th, 2015

With a new Congress, health care is once again an issue of tremendous scrutiny and debate. Many of the federal policy debates in 2015 will be largely symbolic, resulting in little more than tweaks to existing law.

However, health care policy is not just a matter for Congress to consider. A range of issues will play out in the states and the private sector, effectively shaping the future. Below are the top trends we’re watching this year.

The Year of Living Interoperably

From electronic health records (EHRs) to clinical measures and decision support tools, providers are inundated with new technologies that automate processes and capture new types of data. However, these systems are limited in their potential because they don’t all “talk” to one another. They’re locked away within proprietary technologies that render them the equivalent of an email account that only sends messages to people in your company, or a phone that only makes calls in your house.

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Implementing Health Reform: New Enrollment Opportunity For Those Subject To 2014 Penalty


February 20th, 2015

In our Health Affairs Blog post of November 7, 2014, Brian Haile and I recommended that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) create a special enrollment period to allow individuals who had to pay the individual responsibility penalty for being uninsured for 2014 to enroll in coverage for 2015 so that they would not have to pay a higher penalty for being uninsured for 2015. Other advocates subsequently joined in this call. On February 20, 2015, HHS announced that it is creating such a special enrollment period.

The special enrollment period will run from March 15 to April 30, 2015 and will allow individuals who live in states served by the federally facilitated marketplace website, Healthcare.gov, to enroll in coverage for 2015 if they:

  • Are not currently enrolled in coverage through the Federally Facilitated Marketplace (FFM) for 2015;
  • Attest that when they filed their 2014 tax return they paid the fee for not having coverage in 2014; and
  • Attest that “they first became aware of, or understood the implications of, the Shared Responsibility Payment after the end of open enrollment (February 15, 2014) in connection with preparing their 2014 taxes.”

Coverage will be effective on the first day of May for those who enroll by April 15 and the first day of June for those who enroll thereafter. Individuals who apply will have to pay the penalty for months they were uninsured in 2015 unless they otherwise qualify for an exemption. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has also launched a new online tool to help consumers determine who might otherwise be subject to the penalty to see if they are covered by another exemption.

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How Open Data Can Reveal—And Correct—The Faults In Our Health System


February 18th, 2015

In April 2014, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) released millions of lines of Medicare Part B physician payment data, that led many researchers, analysts, journalists, and the general public to use the data to answer a number of pressing health care questions. And while the dataset does not include patient-level information, it does offer provider identifiers, which can facilitate data aggregation, highlight practice patterns, and cost trends (i.e. specialties with disproportionately higher payments and individual providers as “outliers”).

Our goal here, like many before us, is to highlight striking disparities in this dataset (despite its limitations); attempt to understand why they occur; and provide opportunities to address them.We examine three major issues: geographic variation; individual provider variation; and variation across care settings. Finally, we outline recommendations for future data releases to encourage more practical analyses.

Geographic Variation in Practice Patterns

A popular example highlighted by the CMS data was the rate of use of Lucentis — a drug prescribed for patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Although a clinical study demonstrated similar outcomes for Lucentis ($2,000 per dose) versus Avastin ($50 per dose), the CMS data revealed total Lucentis spending of $1 billion.

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Health Affairs Web First: Recent US Hospital Productivity Growth


February 11th, 2015

Between 2002 and 2011, US hospitals increased their productivity in treating Medicare patients for several serious illnesses, refuting fears about a “cost disease” in health care and potentially mitigating concerns about provider payment under the Affordable Care Act.

The study, released today by Health Affairs as a Web First, addresses the quality of care and the severity of patient illness (considerations not fully taken into account by previous studies on this topic) found that during those years, the annual rates of productivity growth were 0.78 percent for heart attacks, 0.62 percent for heart failure, and 1.90 percent for pneumonia.

When the authors John Romley, Dana Goldman, and Neeraj Sood calculated productivity growth rates without factoring in trends in the severity of patient conditions or outcomes achieved after hospitalization, the annual productivity rates were different: -0.64 percent for heart attacks, -0.91 percent for heart failure, and -0.39 percent for pneumonia.

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How To Restore The Innovation Ecosystem For Medical Technology


February 10th, 2015

The recent February issue of Health Affairswhich features a series of articles on innovation, provides us with an opportunity to examine the state of America’s innovation ecosystem for medical technology. This ecosystem has produced a myriad of medical advances, ranging from advanced imaging to molecular diagnostics, minimally invasive surgical tools, and incredibly sophisticated implants. These technologies have shortened hospital stays, reduced the economic burden of disease, and saved and improved millions of lives.

But the system is severely stressed. Policy improvements are essential if America is to remain a world leader in medical devices and diagnostics and fulfill its potential for medical progress in this century of the life sciences. In the following blog post, we will look at the current state of the medical technology industry and make some policy recommendations covering regulatory approval processes, payment and coverage policies, and tax policy.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Price Transparency Tools Better But Not Good Enough


February 6th, 2015

Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR) will spend significant time in 2015 looking at the features payment reform programs must have to be workable for purchasers and sustainable for providers. We look forward to sharing in this space what we learn, as we have done each month for over a year. But this month, we’ll take a slight detour to devote some “ink” to an issue near and dear to our heart—price transparency, a critical building block for payment reform.

Across the board, price transparency tools from vendors and plans are improving, but are the price estimates tools give consumers accurate? Unfortunately, the answer is often no. In general, as we discovered in work with our colleagues from HCI3, many price transparency tools suffer from one or more common methodological flaws. Below, we examine these flaws and their remedies.

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How Hepatitis C Is Shining A Light On Critical Gaps In Payment Reform


February 3rd, 2015

Since December 2013, regulatory approval of new treatments for hepatitis C have brought long simmering debates on drug pricing and value to full boil. The drugs—Gilead’s Sovaldi and successor combination treatment Harvoni, AbbVie’s Viekira Pak—represent significant steps forward for treatment in hepatitis C, demonstrating cure rates well above 90 percent in the clinical trial setting as well as greater tolerability for patients.

This unprecedented effectiveness, however, has come at a high cost, with treatment ranging from $63,000 for an eight-week course of Harvoni on the low end to above $150,000 for Sovaldi in combination with other products on the high end. This is likely to be representative of a wave of similar products coming through the drug development pipeline: highly targeted, highly effective, and highly priced.

Also indicative of things to come are the steps some groups are taking to blunt the impact of increased spending on hepatitis C treatments, such as formulary adjustments or prioritized coverage for particular subsets of the hepatitis C patient community. Days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved AbbVie’s Viekira Pak in December 2014, for example, the largest pharmacy benefit management company in the United States, Express Scripts, announced that the drug regimen would be the only hepatitis C treatment on its preferred list of covered drugs.

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