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Health Affairs’ March Issue: The Benefits And Limitations Of Information


March 2nd, 2015

The March issue of Health Affairs contains papers focusing on the benefits—and the limitations—of information-gathering processes as a way to solve health system problems. Studies in this variety issue examine US hospital rating systems, disclaimers on dietary supplements, state prescription drug monitoring programs, the value of US versus Western European cancer care and other topics.

National hospital rating systems show little agreement — what’s a consumer to do?

Matt Austin of Johns Hopkins Medicine and coauthors compared four well-known national hospital rating systems designed for use by US consumers: U.S. News & World Report’s Best Hospitals; HealthGrades’ America’s 100 Best Hospitals; Leapfrog’s Hospital Safety Score; and Consumer Reports’ Health Safety Score. They analyzed ratings covering the time period from July 2012 to July 2013.

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Health Affairs Web First: Assessing Health And Health Care Perceptions In sub-Saharan Africa


February 27th, 2015

A large share of Western aid to developing countries goes to sub-Saharan Africa, a region where spending on health care is around $100 per person in 2005 price-adjusted terms. This region, which experienced large gains in life expectancy in the years following World War II, suffered health-related setbacks in the closing years of the twentieth century as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The authors of a February 25 Health Affairs Web First study used data from the Gallup Organization’s 2012 World Poll to investigate health and health care perceptions in sub-Saharan Africa compared to other regions of the world. The poll found that sub-Saharan Africans’ overall evaluation of their well-being was lower than that of any other population in the world. Additionally, only 42.4 percent of residents in that region were satisfied with the availability of high-quality health care in their community, also the lowest level in the world. Even so, when sub-Saharan Africans were asked to name the issues that should be the highest priorities for their government, health care was not seen as the most pressing issue.

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The Patient Access Imperative: A Potential Triple Win For Payors, Providers, And Patients


February 26th, 2015

Long patient wait times, frustratingly high no-show rates, lack-luster call center performance, and under-utilized physicians. Does any of this sound familiar? Although a small set of health systems have boldly declared that their physicians guarantee their outpatients same- or next-day appointments, across the United States patients more typically face long wait times to both make and get appointments, as well as poor access to care.

To succeed in the future, health systems will need to have the customer orientation of a five-star hotel and the operational discipline of a factory floor. Our experience suggests that many systems can achieve substantial improvements with their existing resources and generate a 10 to 20 percent improvement in outpatient profitability within 6 to 12 months — and improve patient satisfaction too.

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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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Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again: Consolidating Regulatory Authority Over Food Safety


February 23rd, 2015

The fragmented nature of regulatory authority over food in the United States is well known. More than a dozen federal agencies are responsible for the safety of the nation’s food supply. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) have the lion’s share of responsibility, together overseeing over 80 percent of the nation’s food safety.

Generally, the USDA regulates meat, and the FDA regulates everything else, but overlaps, exceptions, gaps, and therefore examples of resulting absurdities abound: the FDA regulates frozen pizza, unless it has pepperoni. The FDA regulates seafood, unless it’s catfish. The USDA has jurisdiction over packaged open-face meat sandwiches, but if the sandwiches are closed, authority shifts to the FDA.

This division in regulatory authority is neither planned nor rational. It is instead a historical accident, originating in the early twentieth century. When the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act were passed on the same day in 1906, both targeting the adulteration of the food supply, their oversight was assigned to different departments within the USDA. The fissure widened when the FDA was moved out of the USDA in 1940. This divided regulatory framework is not the only reason for the fragmentation of regulatory authority over food in the US, but it is a main driver.

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Oregon Bridges The Gap Between Health Care And Community-Based Health


February 12th, 2015

It is now commonly accepted that to achieve health, the U.S. health system must address the social determinants of health. While the integration of health care with social services and public health is happening relatively infrequently across the country, one bright spot can be found in Oregon, where an innovative Medicaid health system model, referred to as the coordinated care model, is showing early signs of success in bridging the gap between the community and the health care system.

Under Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s leadership, newly created coordinated care organizations (CCOs)—partnerships between physical, behavioral, and oral health providers—have over the past two years adopted Oregon’s coordinated care model, which was created as the foundation for Oregon’s health system reform efforts to ensure care is coordinated, performance is measured, positive outcomes are rewarded, and that there is a shared responsibility for health, sustainable rate of growth, and transparency in price and quality—all with the goal of promoting positive health outcomes.

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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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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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Achieving Shared Decision-Making In Women’s Health


January 28th, 2015

The frustrating labor and delivery experience shared by physician and ethicist Carla Keirns in her Narrative Matters essay, “Watching The Clock: A Mother’s Hope For A Natural Birth In A Cesarean Culture,” published in the January issue of  Health Affairs, was unfortunate. That is not debatable. That her outcome was favorable – a healthy baby ultimately delivered in the way that Keirns had hoped – does not excuse the less-than-ideal coordination, and communication, of care that she received.

Fortunately, Keirns had the tools at her disposal—such as medical training and solid relationships throughout the provider community—to help ensure that she was able to have the birth that she had planned. But few women have those tools. It is time for us to work harder to ensure that the voice of the mother is factored into the birth experience — both before labor and during delivery.

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Finding And Supporting A Workforce With The Right Skill Mix


January 27th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts related to the 4th European Forum on Health Policy and Management: Innovation & Implementation, to be held in Berlin, Germany on January 29 and 30, 2015. For more information or to request your personal invitation contact info@centerforhealthcaremanagement.org or follow @HCMatColumbia.

Many health systems are experiencing shortages of health care workers. Policymakers and practitioners have tried for a long time to figure out how to assess workforce productivity, skills and roles, in order to achieve the best mix of professionals needed to deliver high quality care while preserving sustainability.

Unfortunately, many obstacles have slowed progress toward this goal. Open questions still concern not only how many doctors or nurses are needed in any given system or organization level, but also over what roles and responsibilities fall to different health professionals and specialists.

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Early Evidence On Medicare ACOs And Next Steps For The Medicare ACO Program (Updated)


January 22nd, 2015

Note: Pratyusha Katikaneni and Carmen Diaz also contributed to this post. They are both research assistants at the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform, The Brookings Institution.

On December 1, CMS released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), which requests feedback for changes CMS is considering for the Medicare accountable care organization (ACO) programs in 2016 and beyond. The proposal suggests significant potential alterations to the program, many of which we recently reviewed, that would address major issues that ACOs and others have raised: uncertainty and inexperience at transitioning to increasing levels of risk, lack of timely and accurate data, changes in attributed patient populations from year-to-year, and financial benchmarks that fail to account for regional variations and continue to reward high ACO performance over time.

The proposed rule raises more issues than it settles, but it clearly indicates that CMS is open to meaningful public comments and will make important revisions in the MSSP. However, the proposal also illustrates the challenges of resolving these issues in a way that both assures substantial ACO participation and improvement, as well as Medicare savings.

Ideally, big changes in key features in a major program like the MSSP would be based on extensive empirical evidence on what determines success in the program. Unfortunately, only limited evidence, including case studies and some comparative data, is available on the determinants of success for Medicare ACOs, and thus on the MSSP. Data released by CMS in September, which we previously reviewed, showed that the MSSP has generated over $700 million in savings to date relative to the spending benchmarks in the program. This is around 1 percent of the costs of care for beneficiaries affected by Medicare ACO initiatives.

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Unpacking The Medicare Shared Savings Proposed Rule: Geography And Policy


January 22nd, 2015

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). The rulemaking contains several proposals that if enacted, would fundamentally change the underlying incentives for providers to participate in the program. These proposed reforms address issues such as data sharing, renewals of participation agreements, beneficiary attribution, incentives to move to two-sided risk, and lastly, reforms to the benchmark calculations against which ACOs compete to earn savings.

The NPRM comes on the heels of a September 16, 2014 release of performance results for MSSP ACOs that began their performance years by 2013. Under the current program rules, ACOs that successfully reported quality performance data and whose savings exceeded their “minimum savings rate” were eligible to share in savings with Medicare. The MSSP program allows ACOs to choose either one-sided risk (Track 1, only upside potential to earn savings) or two-sided risk (Track 2, both upside and downside potential to earn savings/incur losses) with the final sharing amount based on achieving quality targets (up to 50 percent for Track 1 and 60 percent for Track 2). A vast majority of ACOs enrolled in Track 1, the one-sided risk option. Of the 220 ACOs in the program that participated in the first performance year, 53 earned shared savings, 52 saved money but not enough to meet the required “minimum savings rates,” and the other 115 did not accrue savings (spending on patients assigned to the ACO was greater than projected).

In February 2014, the CMS asked stakeholders for input as to how to improve its ACO programs, feedback which they used to generate the NPRM. Many ACOs and other stakeholders argued that failures to achieve savings over and above minimum savings rates were a partial result of residing in low spending areas. In this post, we examine the merits of this contention and consider the policy implications of our results and their bearing on some of the modifications of the MSSP program that CMS has proposed. We also discuss other strategies for improving the program CMS did not mention in the NPRM.

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Academic Medical Centers Should Lead The Charge On Price Transparency


January 21st, 2015

A bipartisan campaign to increase price transparency in the medical world has been reverberating through the press, government, and hospitals. Recent examples include CMS’ release of datasets for inpatient and outpatient charges and North Carolina’s House Bill 834, which was signed into law on August 21, 2013 and mandates that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services publish hospital charges. In Time Magazine, Steven Brill’s article, “Bitter Pill,” provided stunning real world examples of how the lack of price transparency can create enormous uncertainty and confusion among both patients and providers.

The momentum will only continue as Section 2718(e) of the Affordable Care Act is implemented. The provision, which took effect on October 1, 2014, mandates that each hospital establish, update, and publicize a list of standard charges for items and services provided. At this critical moment, there is one set of institutions that are uniquely positioned to ensure that price transparency is implemented deliberately and successfully: Academic Medical Centers.

For good reason, there is excitement about the potential of the price transparency movement. A recent Health Affairs study by Wu et al. suggests that when patients have access to health care prices for an intervention such as an MRI, a significant number select the lower-price option. This proof of concept shows that price transparency has the potential to lead to competition between hospitals, thus reducing costs to the patient and health care system.

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Moving From Mandate To Reality: A Roadmap For Patient And Family Engagement


January 20th, 2015

The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) moved patient and family engagement to center stage in health care reform. The law mentions “patient-centered care” at least 40 times, with explicit references to patient engagement, patient experience, health literacy and shared decision making. Evidence is growing that meaningful patient and family engagement can help achieve the triple aim of better quality, better outcomes and lower health care costs and substantially reduce preventable harm.

Yet, despite these advances, the full promise of engagement remains mostly untapped, and much confusion remains about what constitutes meaningful patient and family engagement, and importantly, how to translate this evidence broadly into routine health care practice.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Drilling Down


January 15th, 2015

Catalyst for Payment Reform’s 2014 National Scorecard on Payment Reform revealed a dramatic jump in the percent of commercial health care payments that is value-oriented, meaning the payments are tied to the quality of care in some way. In last year’s Scorecard, commercial health plans reported 40 percent of payments were value-oriented, up from just 11 percent in 2013. So on the face of it, as the “health care payment reform arms race” continues among commercial health plans, we’re well on our way to a reformed approach to payment.

But we can’t jump for joy or shout from the rooftops just yet. As I shared in my December blog, we’ve learned not all payment reform models are created equal, and a lot of the jump can be explained by an increase in pay-for-performance — not the most ambitious model when it comes to reining in costs. Meanwhile, there was a very sluggish uptick in the use of models that place providers at financial risk (such as shared risk payment arrangements for ACOs). Moreover, while the National Scorecard tells us how plans are paying for care, it cannot answer other lingering questions: Which models should purchasers adopt if they want the best savings and improvements in care? Which models are spreadable and scalable so a broader swath of the population can reap their benefits?

Since Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR) works on behalf of large employers and other big health care purchasers, we field these kinds of questions frequently. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. And we often find ourselves stuck at a crossroads. Purchasers say they want payment reform, and they attempt to spell out what they want and need. Health plans work to build it, but often the purchasers don’t come, saying it’s not what they asked for, or citing concerns about return on investment and scalability. Plan leaders, who think they understood the “specs” and tried to deliver, become frustrated. Over time they can become reluctant to get creative. Purchasers can become jaded and start to wonder if the plans just don’t understand their needs.

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Medicaid Expansion Post Leads Health Affairs Blog 2014 Top-Fifteen List


January 8th, 2015

As we begin 2015, we present the fifteen most-read Health Affairs Blog posts from 2014. Topping the list is “Opting Out Of Medicaid Expansion: The Health And Financial Impacts,” by Sam Dickman, David Himmelstein, Danny McCormick, and Steffie Woolhander. “Low-income adults in states that have opted out of Medicaid expansion will forego gains in access to care, financial well-being, physical and mental health, and longevity that would be expected with expanded Medicaid coverage,” the authors write, and they offer a state-by-state projection of these consequences.

Next on the list is Susan DeVore‘s overview of health care trends to watch in 2014, followed by David Muhlestein‘s look at the likely growth of accountable care and an examination of declining inpatient hospital utilization by Robert York, Kenneth Kaufman, and Mark Grube. The list also includes two posts from Tim Jost’s comprehensive series on implementing the Affordable Care Act, on waiting periods for employer-sponsored health insurance and Medicaid asset rules.

Stay tuned for the 2014 most-read lists for Health Affairs journal and GrantWatch Blog.

The full top-fifteen list is below:

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Implementing Value-Based Payment In Practice


January 7th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of several posts related to the 4th European Forum on Health Policy and Management: Innovation & Implementation, to be held in Berlin, Germany on January 29 and 30, 2015. For more information or to request your personal invitation contact info@centerforhealthcaremanagement.org.

Meeting the objectives of a value-based care model requires hospitals and health systems to realign operational processes, invest in targeted resources (such as physician extenders, educational initiatives and care coordination structures), educate physicians and staff, change organizational culture, and invest in capital (such as physical locations and information technology).

Within hospitals, quality measures have been evolving from purely structural-based outcomes (such as the existence of attributes or features like a hospitalist program or an electronic medical record) to process-based (the percent of surgical patients who received prophylactic antibiotics or acute myocardial infarction patients who received aspirin within 24 hours of arrival) to patient-centered outcomes (return of a patient’s functional status post-surgically or measurement of post-surgical pain).

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Health Affairs’ January Issue: Aging And Health


January 5th, 2015

The January issue of Health Affairs includes a number of studies examining issues pertaining to aging and health or health care. Other subjects covered include: the effect of Medicare’s Hospital Compare quality reports on hospital prices; how the Affordable Care Act’s provisions impact Americans shouldering high medical cost burdens; and whether California’s Hospital Fair Pricing Act has benefited uninsured patients.

Content on aging and health was supported by the John A. Hartford Foundation.

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Implementing A Care Planning System: How To Fix The Most Pervasive Errors In Health Care


January 2nd, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of a periodic Health Affairs Blog series on palliative care, health policy, and health reform. The series features essays adapted from and drawing on a recent volume, Meeting the Needs of Older Adults with Serious Illness: Challenges and Opportunities in the Age of Health Care Reform, in which clinicians, researchers and policy leaders address 16 key areas where real-world policy options to improve access to quality palliative care could have a substantial role in improving value.

In the course of a single life time, medical science has made unprecedented strides in managing advanced illness. As good as the United States health care system is, it is nonetheless prone to serious error. In 2000, the Institute of Medicine estimated that as many as 268 patients die each day due to preventable hospital errors.

Although many safety issues are being addressed successfully, a significant safety concern remains. We know that many of the sickest patients suffer needlessly in their final weeks and months of life because they receive treatments that offer little benefit but great burden — treatments that are not aligned with patients’ values and goals. Although the vast majority of health care professionals are well trained and compassionate, they often work in systems organized for productivity — systems that simply do not provide sufficient opportunity for health professionals to get to know a patient and develop relationship-based perspectives. Even when patients’ perspectives become known, few mechanisms exist to document and communicate them across settings of care and over time.

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The Challenge Of Financing Sustainable Community-Based Palliative Care Programs


December 29th, 2014

Since its publication in September 2014, there has been widespread praise for the Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, Dying in America: Improving Quality and Honoring Individual Preferences Near the End of Life. It is a masterful piece of scholarship that summarizes the spectrum of issues facing palliative care.

We hope the report will influence key decision-makers in medicine and various legislatures to promote the many changes outlined in the document, enabling palliative care to further improve the quality of life for those with advanced illness.

Yet, despite the encyclopedic scope of Dying in America, the report did not make suggestions about how to achieve sustainable funding for community-based palliative care. Freestanding programs provide special value to some of the sickest members of the population who struggle with their serious illness while living in the community, outside any facility or hospice program.

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