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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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Exhibit of the Month: Improving Pharmaceutical Innovation


February 27th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing “Exhibit of the Monthseries. Readers who’d like to highlight other noteworthy exhibits from the same issue are encouraged to make their pitch in the comments section below.

This month’s exhibits, published in the February issue of Health Affairs, illustrate annual new drug approvals by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), industry spending on research and development, and more specifically, the number of drugs approved per $1 billion spent on research and development.

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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: Beginning The Cadillac Tax Regulatory Conversation And Other ACA News (Updated)


February 24th, 2015

The Cadillac high-cost health plan excise tax, which goes into effect in 2018, is one of the last-to-be-implemented provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It was one of the most controversial provisions of the ACA, which contributed to its delayed effective date. But 2018 is now getting closer, and the Internal Revenue Services (IRS) is beginning a discussion about implementation of the Cadillac plan tax.

The Cadillac plan provision of the ACA will impose a 40 percent excise tax on the cost of employer-sponsored health plans when that cost exceeds certain thresholds. It is projected to be one of the biggest sources of revenue under the ACA; the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in its 2015 Budget and Economic Outlook Report estimated that it would account for $149 billion in revenue between 2018 and 2225. Of this, however, only one quarter will come from the tax itself, while three quarters will come from increases in taxes on income as employers shift compensation from health benefits to taxable wages.

While the tax will affect few plans initially, it is likely to affect many more plans over time as the cost of health care continues to grow faster than inflation generally. The tax is expected to reduce health care expenditures by individuals, as it will drive employers to increase employee cost sharing as they cut the cost of coverage, and employees are likely to spend less on health care if they have to purchase it out-of-pocket rather than drawing on insurance coverage.

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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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In The Debate About Cost And Efficacy, PCSK9 Inhibitors May Be The Biggest Challenge Yet


February 17th, 2015

The American health care system is far and away the most costly in the world. Health care reform is intended to lower costs, but they are still rising, albeit less steeply than in the past. Moderation is not however the case in the area of specialty pharmacy. The medications to treat Hepatitis C are the most cited examples of a general inflationary trend, but the pipeline of expensive medications is extensive.

Yet, policymakers and payers appear unwilling to undertake significant cost controls on medication pricing. Indeed the controversy over the $84,000 price tag for Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) has largely faded, suggesting a certain resiliency in our system’s ability to absorb costs.

We believe that resiliency is about to be challenged in a manner unlike we have seen in the past, at least in the area of pharmaceuticals. A number of pharmaceutical manufacturers are developing a new class of medication to manage high cholesterol — the PCSK9 (proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin 9) enzyme inhibitors.

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Implementing Health Reform: Enrollment Figures, Tax Forms, And More


February 13th, 2015

We are rapidly reaching the end of the 2015 open enrollment period, and the pace of enrollment seems to be picking up a bit. On February 11, 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released their enrollment snapshot for week twelve, covering the federally facilitated marketplace from January 31 to February 6.

During that time period, 275,676 individuals selected plans, bringing of enrollees in the federal exchange up to 7,749,375. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reportedly announced on a press call on February 11, however, that 200,000 individuals will be dropped from enrollment in February for failure to satisfactorily document compliance with citizenship or residency requirements.

Enrollment is expected to continue to pick up during the final ten days of open enrollment, as it did last year. CMS has said that if an individual cannot get through at the call center or online on February 15, CMS will make sure that he or she can apply for coverage, but the agency has not announced any further relief nor any new special enrollment periods for 2015. I continue to urge CMS to provide a special enrollment period for people who were subject to the individual responsibility penalty for 2014 to allow them to avoid the penalty for 2015.

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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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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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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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CMS Spending Report Leads Health Affairs 2014 Top-Ten List


January 13th, 2015

A report on 2012 health spending by analysts at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Office of the Actuary was the most-read Health Affairs article in 2014. To celebrate the New Year, Health Affairs is making this piece and all the articles on the journal’s 2014 top-ten list freely available to all readers for two weeks.

Health Affairs publishes annual retrospective analyses of National Health Expenditures by the CMS analysts, as well as their health spending projections for the coming decade. In the latest installment in this series — which also made our 2014 top ten — the analysts reported on 2013 health spending and discussed their findings at a Washington DC briefing. The two reports documented continued slow growth in health spending; the 2013 report featured the slowest rate of health spending growth since CMS began tracking NHE in 1960.

Next on the 2014 Health Affairs most-read list was an article on PepsiCo’s workplace wellnesss program. John Caloyeras and coauthors at RAND and PepsiCo found that the diseases management component of the program saved money, but the lifestyle management component did not. This was followed by two Narrative Matters essays by Charlotte Yeh and Diane Meier; another Narrative Matters piece, by Janice Lynn Schuster, rounded out the list at number ten.

The full top-ten list is below. And check out the 2014 most-read Health Affairs Blog posts and GrantWatch Blog posts.

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Reconsidering Pauly And Coauthors’ ‘Economic Framework For Preventive Care Advice’


January 12th, 2015

In the November issue of Health Affairs, Mark Pauly and coauthors criticize the lack of cost-effectiveness considerations in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which mandates that health plans include preventive care free at the point of use. The bodies critiqued, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, convene health experts to develop recommendations for immunizations and other preventive services.

According to the authors, the task entrusted to these bodies by the ACA, of offering sound advice on preventive care without considering its cost-effectiveness, is “impossible to do well.” They propose instead an “economic framework” under which only services with “substantial external benefits” (e.g. a vaccination for contagious disease) would be mandated for coverage. We believe this position is misguided.

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Exhibit Of The Month: Federal Health Spending On Children


January 5th, 2015

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing Exhibit of the Month series.

As we begin the new year and look forward to the release of our January issue later today, we also take a look back at the “exhibit of the month” from our December thematic issue on children’s health. The exhibit, from the article, “The Scheduled Squeeze On Children’s Programs: Tracking The Implications Of Projected Federal Spending Patterns,” looks at health spending on children as a percentage of total federal spending on children from 1960 to 2013.

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Rethinking The Gruber Controversy: Americans Aren’t Stupid, But They’re Often Ignorant — And Why


December 29th, 2014

M.I.T. economist Jonathan Gruber, whom his colleagues in the profession hold in very high esteem for his prowess in economic analysis, recently appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Gruber was called to explain several caustic remarks he had offered on tortured language and provisions in the Affordable Care Act (the ACA) that allegedly were designed to fool American voters into accepting the ACA.

Many of these linguistic contortions, however, were designed not so much to fool voters, but to force the Congressional Budget Office into scoring taxes as something else. But Gruber did call the American public “stupid” enough to be misled by such linguistic tricks and by other measures in the ACA — for example, taxing health insurers knowing full well that insurers would pass the tax on to the insured.

During the hearing, Gruber apologized profusely and on multiple occasions for his remarks. Although at least some economists apparently see no warrant for such an apology, I believe it was appropriate, as in hindsight Gruber does as well. “Stupid” is entirely the wrong word in this context; Gruber should have said “ignorant” instead.

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New Findings About The ACA’s Impact On Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance


December 19th, 2014

Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed into law, some of its critics have predicted that businesses would discontinue offering employer-sponsored health insurance, moving employees into the individual Marketplaces. If widespread dropping of employer-sponsored health insurance were to occur, government costs could increase since many low-wage workers would qualify for federal subsidies in the Marketplaces.

A new study, released today as a Web First by Health Affairs, examined data from the Health Reform Monitoring Survey for June 2013 through September 2014, assessing any early changes of employer-sponsored insurance under the ACA. Authors Fredric Blavin, Adele Shartzer, Sharon Long, and John Holahan report that the percentage of workers with employer offers for health insurance was basically unchanged between June 2013 and September 2014: 82.7 percent versus 82.2 percent. The authors are all affiliated with the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute, in Washington, D.C. 

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The Medicare Shared Savings Program: CMS Turns To Stakeholders On Incentivizing ACO Risk


December 19th, 2014

On December 1, 2014, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) released its long awaited Proposed Rule to update regulation and operation of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (“MSSP”). In response to concerns raised by participating accountable care organizations, CMS proposes to revise the MSSP program in several ways to provide greater flexibility for ACOs.

However, in important areas CMS may not have gone far enough. This post describes the framework CMS has set forth and then suggests several ways in which the proposal could, in our view, be improved to achieve the CMS objective of encouraging ACOs to bear more risk. In particular, CMS should consider using its waiver authority more robustly; allowing Medicare beneficiaries to designate their primary care providers, and by extension their ACO; and revising the MSSP risk-adjustment methodology to better reflect the changing risk profiles of ACOs.

CMS is actively seeking stakeholder input, which may indicate agency recognition that further changes beyond those in the propose rule are needed. By all indications, stakeholder input will be seriously considered; more than any time in recent memory, stakeholder comments will make a difference in the shape of the Final Rule. This presents a unique opportunity for stakeholders and we urge concerned parties to share their perspectives through comments – the deadline for submitting comments is February 6, 2015.

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The Dane Difference: Why Are Dane County’s Exchange Premiums Lower?


December 18th, 2014

During the next few years, states and the federal government will likely seek solutions to control costs and improve quality in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance marketplaces. State and federal policymakers should look carefully at the decades-long success of the Wisconsin State Employee Health Plan (WSEHP) in controlling the rapid rise of health insurance costs in Dane County—where Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital, and the University of Wisconsin, are located—as they seek to improve the effectiveness of the ACA’s marketplaces and health insurance costs in general.

The WSEHP consistently obtains substantially lower health insurance premiums in Dane County than in Wisconsin’s 71 other counties. In 2013, an individual plan in the WSEHP was about $1,400 cheaper annually in Dane County, or 16 percent less than the average in the rest of the state; and a family plan was about $3,500 cheaper, also a 16 percent difference. This Dane difference has existed for at least a decade, with the gap slowly widening over that time.

Why does WSEHP get much lower premiums in Dane County than in the state’s 71 other counties, and what lessons can policymakers learn from this difference?

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Implementing Health Reform: Beneath The Hood Of The ‘Cromnibus’


December 12th, 2014

The “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015” or “Cromnibus” legislation moving through Congress contains a number of provisions that relate to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Risk Corridors

The provision that has been most widely noted so far requires the risk corridor program to be budget neutral for 2014. The risk corridor program moves funds from qualified health plans (QHPs) that have lower than anticipated allowable costs to those with higher than anticipated allowable costs. Section 1342 of the ACA, which creates the risk corridor program, contains no explicit appropriation.

A report issued earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is the final authority on the legitimacy of government expenditures, determined that the continuing resolution for 2014 permitted the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to fund the risk corridor program for 2014 both from payments collected from plans with lower than anticipated costs, which were properly characterized as user fees, and from funds transferred from other CMS accounts. No risk corridor payments were in fact payable in 2014, however, as risk corridor payments will first be made in 2015 for 2014.

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Why I Oppose Payment Reform


December 12th, 2014

I recently gave the keynote address at the New York State Health Foundation Conference “Payment Reform: Expanding the Playing Field.” This blog post is adapted from those remarks (you can watch the half-hour speech beginning around the eight-minute mark).

I had my epiphany shortly after I announced my departure from the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) about nine months ago. In an effort to help find my successor, I contacted some executive search firms. One firm quoted what they referred to as the “market price.” When I pressed them to tell me how much effort this price represented, they declined to do so. Ultimately, I recommended that NASHP contract with a search firm that charged by the hour.

It was then that I realized that, given the choice between capitation (a fixed fee for the outcome I desired) and fee-for-service (an hourly rate with no accountability for the outcome), I, as a purchaser, chose fee-for-service. Only a hypocrite would go around talking about the importance of payment reform, while secretly conducting business the old way!

Having given the matter some further thought, I present my five reasons for opposing payment reform:

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