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Learning From Missed Opportunities To Diagnose US Ebola Patient Zero


October 30th, 2014

Over a century ago American physician Richard Cabot wrote about misdiagnoses, recognizing: “A goodly number of ‘classic’ time-honored mistakes in diagnosis are familiar to all experienced physicians because we make them again and again. Some of these we can avoid; others are almost inevitable, but all should be borne in mind and marked on medical maps by a danger-signal of some kind: ‘In this vicinity look out for hidden rocks,’ or ‘Dangerous turn here, run slow.’”

Ironically, despite the dramatic changes in the nature of medical practice over the last 100 years, Cabot’s words ring more true than ever today. This has become especially clear in the last few weeks since Ebola first touched US shores, uncovering one of the biggest ongoing vulnerabilities of outpatient medicine – misdiagnosis.

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Health Affairs Web First: Noneconomic Damage Caps Reduced Medical Malpractice Payments, With Varied Effects


October 22nd, 2014

With the 2014 election weeks away, a provision of California’s Proposition 46, raising the cap on medical malpractice payments for noneconomic damages, has been in the news. This provision would increase the payment cap from $250,000 to $1.1 million. A new study, being released today by Health Affairs as a Web First, sheds light on the potential effect of this proposition.

Study authors Seth A. Seabury, Eric Helland, and Anupam B. Jena looked at the impact of medical malpractice reforms on the average size of malpractice payments in several physician specialties and compared how the effects differed according to the size of the cap. It found that caps reduced the average payments by 15 percent compared to no cap—and a $250,000 cap reduced average payments by 20 percent.

On the other hand, a less restrictive $500,000 cap had no significant effect. The authors also found specialty variations, with the largest impact involving pediatricians and the smallest for claims of surgical subspecialties and ophthalmologists.

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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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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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Health Affairs October Issue: Specialty Drugs — Cost, Impact, And Value


October 6th, 2014

The October issue of Health Affairs, released today, includes a number of studies looking at the high costs associated with today’s increasingly prevalent specialty drugs. Other subjects covered in the issue: an assessment of whether some hospitals may be taking advantage of the 340B drug discount program; a review of how shortened residency shifts impact patient care; a study on the increasing costs associated with Hepatitis C and advanced liver disease; and more.

The new issue will be discussed at a Washington DC briefing tomorrow. This issue of Health Affairs was supported by CVS Health.

Do specialty drugs offer value that offsets their high costs?

James Chambers of Tufts Medical Center and coauthors conducted a cost-value review of specialty versus traditional drugs by analyzing incremental health gains associated with each. This first-of-its-kind analysis is timely because the majority of drugs now approved by the Food and Drug Administration are specialty drugs produced using advanced biotechnology and requiring special administration, monitoring, and handling — all of which result in higher costs.

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New Health Policy Brief: The Physician Payments Sunshine Act


October 3rd, 2014

A new Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) looks at a section of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known as the Physician Payments Sunshine Act (PPSA). The PPSA
spells out how medical product manufacturers are required to disclose to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) any payments or other transfers of value made to physicians or teaching hospitals as well as physician ownership or investment interests in certain manufacturers or group-purchasing organizations.

These data, which have been collected since August 2013, were published for the first time earlier this week in a publicly searchable database and will be updated annually. There is a long history of financial relationships between physicians and medical product manufacturers, which can include anything from free meals to consulting, speaker fees, and direct research funding. This health policy brief looks at the PPSA and its impact on physician-manufacturer relationships.

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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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The Payment Reform Landscape: Value-Oriented Payment Jumps, And Yet …


September 30th, 2014

Today, Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR) unveiled some potentially exciting news: Our 2014 National Scorecard on Payment Reform tells us 40 percent of commercial sector payments to doctors and hospitals now flow through value-oriented payment methods, defined as payment methods designed to improve quality and reduce waste.  This is a dramatic increase since 2013 when the figure was just 11 percent.

Traditional fee-for-service, where we pay for every test and procedure regardless of its value, may rapidly be becoming a relic.  While the Scorecard findings are not wholly representative of health plans across the United States, they are directionally sound and allow us to measure progress toward value-oriented payment in the commercial sector.  (Scorecard findings are based on data representing almost 65 percent of commercial health plans across the country.)

On the face of it, this is thrilling news for CPR, especially since our organizational goal is that at least 20 percent of payments to doctors and hospitals will flow through methods proven to improve value by the year 2020.  But we are not closing up shop just yet.  The proliferation of value-based payment arrangements only matters if they succeed at reducing costs and improving the quality of care. And for many value-oriented payment models, we still don’t have the evidence.

We also remain a bit circumspect because only about half of the value-oriented payments (out of that 40 percent figure) put providers at some financial risk if they fail to improve care or spend over budget.  To employers and others helping to foot the bill for health care, many new payment methods often feel like “cost plus arrangements.”  Instead, purchasers would like to see risk sharing across payers and providers.

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Is There A Doctor In The House? Survey Sheds Light On Physician Capacity, Morale, Shortages, And Patient Access


September 17th, 2014

There is ongoing debate over whether there are enough physicians to care for millions of new patients. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States currently faces a shortage of 20,000 physicians – a shortfall that could exceed 130,000 physicians by 2025. In addressing these challenges, it is critical to take into consideration the shifting patterns in medical practice configurations, changing dynamics inherent within physician workforce trends, and the potential impact on patient access to care.

The Physicians Foundation’s new survey of more than 20,000 physicians examines these issues and provides insight into physician capacity and morale, changing medical practice configurations, and shifting physician workforce trends and demographics.

Physician Capacity and Morale – What Does This Mean for Patient Access?

According to the new survey results, eight out of ten (81 percent) physicians describe themselves as either over-extended or at full capacity, while only 19 percent indicate they have time to see more patients. In fact, 13 percent of physicians no longer accept Medicare patients – this is up 49 percent in 2014 from 2012.

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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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Projected Slow Growth In 2013 Health Spending Ahead Of Future Increases


September 3rd, 2014

Insurance Coverage, Population Aging, and Economic Growth Are Main Drivers of Projected Future Health Spending Increases

New estimates released today from the Office of the Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services project a slow 3.6 percent rate of health spending growth for 2013 but also project a 5.6 percent increase in health spending for 2014 and an average 6.0 percent increase for 2015–23. The average rate of projected growth for 2013–23 is 5.7 percent, exceeding the expected average growth in gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.1 percentage points.

Increased insurance coverage via the Affordable Care Act (ACA), projected economic growth, and population aging will be the main contributors of this growth, ultimately leading to an expected 19.3 percent health share of nominal GDP in 2023, up from 17.2 percent in 2012.  This compares to the Office of the Actuary’s 2013  report, published in Health Affairs, predicting an average growth rate of 5.8 percent for 2012–22.

Every year, the Office of the Actuary releases an analysis of how Americans are likely to spend their health care dollars in the coming decade. The new findings appear as a Health Affairs Web First article and will also appear in the journal’s October issue.

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Health Affairs Forum: Graduate Medical Education Governance And Financing


August 29th, 2014

Please join us on Wednesday, September 10, for a Health Affairs forum to discuss, Graduate Medical Education That Meets the Nation’s Health Needs, a recent report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee on the Governance and Financing of Graduate Medical Education (GME). Health Affairs Founding Editor John Iglehart will host the event.

For the past two years, the committee – co-chaired by former CMS and HCFA administrators Donald Berwick and Gail Wilensky – conducted an independent review of the governing and financing of the GME system, and the report is a roadmap for policymakers for repairing and improving its deficiencies. The Health Affairs forum is one of the first opportunities interested parties will have to gather in a public setting to discuss and debate the committee’s proposals.

WHEN
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

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

REGISTER NOW

Follow Live Tweets from the briefing @Health_Affairs, and join in the conversation with #HA_GME.

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The 125 Percent Solution: Fixing Variations In Health Care Prices


August 26th, 2014

Summer vacation’s finally here. You’re strolling along the beach, not a care in the world when – ouch – you step on a piece of broken glass and need a few stitches at the local hospital. Such routine procedures are painless enough, but depending on where you’re treated and by whom, the real pain could occur when you’re handed the ER bill.

In some of the latest evidence on the crazy-quilt patterns of U.S. health care prices, Castlight Health found prices in Dallas TX ranging from $15 to $343 for the same cholesterol test.  What makes these price variations particularly egregious is that the highest prices are typically reserved for those least able to pay, such as the uninsured.

What’s the solution?  In the long run, we need to establish a more transparent system where consumers can choose easily based on reliable quality and price measures.  But our current measures of quality are, to put it politely, inadequate, and people with insurance are often insulated or can generally afford those higher prices.  Reference pricing, in which insurance pays only enough to reimburse providers with adequate quality and relatively lower costs, would help to restrain high prices, but distracted patients or those with strong attachments to specific doctors or hospitals could still get stung with a big bill.

Capping payments at 125 percent of Medicare rates. We suggest a short-term solution: The federal Medicare program has in place a complete system of prices for every procedure and treatment.  It’s not perfect, but it is uniform across regions, with a cost-of-living adjustment that pays more in expensive cities and less in rural areas.  If every patient and every insurance company always had the option of paying 125 percent of the Medicare price for any service, we would effectively cap the worst of the price spikes.  No longer would the tourist checked out at the ER for heat stroke be clobbered with a sky-high bill.  Nor would the uninsured single mother be charged 10 times the best price for her child’s asthma care.  This is not just another government regulation, but instead a protection plan that shields consumers from excessive market power.

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Key Success Factors For the Medicare Shared Savings Program


August 21st, 2014

In January 2012 the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) officially launched the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) for the formation of national Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). Early participants were charged with bringing the theory of accountable care into practice.

Premier, a national healthcare improvement alliance of hospitals and health systems, created a population health collaborative in 2010 designed to assist providers with developing and implementing successful ACOs both in the public and private sectors.

Thus far, the Premier collaborative has advised nearly 30 MSSP applicants, and is working with another 30 more, on how to structure and manage an effective ACO. Through benchmarking tools, financial models, the sharing of best (and worst) practices, etc., members of the Premier PACT Collaborative have outperformed the national MSSP cohort.

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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

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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Key Takeaways From The Medicare Trustees’ Report


August 14th, 2014

Depending on which article you read, either the Medicare Trustees think the program is coming to an end, or the news is great and we don’t need to do anything.

The reality is that the recent Trustees’ report contains both positive and sobering news: while costs have been flat for the last two years and growth is expected to moderate for some years to come, Medicare’s financing is still not in good shape over the long run. Current law benefits exceed financing to pay for them, and the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be unable to pay full benefits in 2030.

We cannot assume the problem will resolve itself, and action is needed to ensure the program’s stability.  Moreover, health care remains a substantial portion of the national budget – a whopping 25 percent — and addressing federal fiscal imbalances must include health programs.

Below we provide our key takeaways from this year’s Trustees’ report.

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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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Seeing Clinician Slack As A Strategic Investment


August 1st, 2014

The French filmmaker Jean Renoir said, “the foundation of all civilization is loitering,” expressing the view that transformative value is created when people have time to step back and imagine a better way. Most businesses today seem to take a contrary position. Organizations in health care and beyond have spent a generation attacking slack, removing inefficiencies within processes and budgets. The narrow operating margins of health systems have led many to turn to companies such as Toyota or General Electric (GE) to learn about lean or Six Sigma techniques.

Subsequently, frontline clinicians are easy targets for attacks on slack. They are among the most expensive personnel within health systems and their productivity drives profitability. Working at the top of one’s license is set as a goal — reflecting the view that anything that can be delegated to a less expensive resource should be, and that everyone should be adding directly measurable peak value at all times.

A problem in translating lessons derived from general management experience is that even when conceptually appealing, they rarely meet medicine’s evidentiary standards defined by randomized trials or carefully controlled observations with homogenous populations, standardized interventions, and explicit outcomes. Instead, management lessons often take the form of stories – and perhaps only those selected to support a particular point.

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