Category Archives: Health Policy

ACA: Helping or Hurting Solo Practice?

It won’t surprise many to learn that the age of the solo practitioner has, for the most part, come to an end. Over the past several years, small and solo practices have closed, been sold to hospitals, or merged with larger groups. The reasons are fairly obvious. Declining payments, rising malpractice costs, increasing regulatory burdens, costly new health information technology requirements, and crushing medical school debt have made it difficult for physicians to operate the small practices that once were commonplace around the country.

Now add the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to the mix. At a July 19 hearing of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Investigations, Oversight and Regulations, lawmakers questioned whether the health reform law would help or hurt physicians looking to keep their practices small and independent. The answers from the expert panel were mixed.

Gone are the days of Marcus Welby. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain License

The emergence of accountable care organizations (ACOs) will drive more hospitals to buy up small physician practices, Mark Smith, president of the physician recruiting firm Merritt Hawkins, predicted. The health reform law heavily promotes the formation of ACOs, which call for physicians and hospitals to work more closely and to share in bundled payments for episodes of care. Mr. Smith said small practices aren’t well-positioned to enter the ACO world if they aren’t integrated with a hospital because the ACO model calls on practices to assume financial risk.

But Joseph M. Yasso, Jr., DO, a family physician in Independence, Mo., who sold his practice to a hospital group 20 years ago, said the ACA’s promotion of patient-centered medical homes could be a lifeline for small practices. Physicians are adapting to the new environment by becoming medical homes and participating in government pilots where they can share in the savings they generate by providing more efficient care, he said.

One thing everyone on the panel did agree on was the need to fix the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula used in setting physician payments under Medicare. No surprises there either.

— Mary Ellen Schneider

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Louisiana’s Medicaid Nightmare

Physicians in Louisiana may find themselves holding the short end of the stick very soon, as the state struggles to figure out how to make up a sudden $859 million shortfall in Medicaid funding.

And it comes at a time when the state’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, has said that he will not take any additional federal money to expand the Medicaid program in 2014, as offered under the Affordable Care Act. He also said he would not accept federal funds to set up health insurance exchanges under the law.

Bobby Jindal. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/dsb nola/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

If any hospital or physician wanted to know what it would feel like to go without that federal money, they now have their chance. The $859 million hole is the result of a reduction in the federal matching rate that Congress approved as part of the transportation bill that was signed by President Obama on July 6.

The provision affects only Louisiana. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the state received hundreds of millions in aid. But there was no adjustment at that time in the federal Medicaid matching rate. So Louisiana’s Medicaid program was the recipient of millions of dollars more than what it was due. (For more on this byzantine situation, see the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s story here.)

Congress fixed that error in the transportation and student loan bill by dropping the state’s current match rate. But Gov. Jindal, in creating and finalizing his fiscal 2013 budget, was, ironically, depending on that federal money.

On July 13, his administration announced cuts to make up the shortfall. The decrease in the federal matching rate meant that the state had to come up with $287 million in cuts on its own; the rest of the $859 million will come from reductions in pay from the federal government.

According to the state Dept. of Health and Human Services, $518 million will come out of the pockets of physicians and hospitals.  The state already had announced an across-the-board almost 4% cut in Medicaid provider rates for fiscal 2013.

Under the latest cuts, the Louisiana State University system is taking the biggest hit: $329 million, or a quarter of its budget, according to news reports. LSU is one of the biggest charity care providers in the state. Interestingly, DHHS commented in its press release that it “does not anticipate this reduction of [disproportionate share hospitals] and Medicaid payments to affect Medicaid recipients’ access to hospital care.”

Among the other programs absorbing blows: the Greater New Orleans Community Health Connection (GNOCHC), a pilot that expanded health coverage to uninsured adults in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Another program that provided family planning services to low-income women will have its qualifying income limit reduced from 200% to 133% of the Federal Poverty Level.

The state is also tightening its review of eligibility for all Medicaid recipients.

After the cuts were announced, the Louisiana Hospital Association said in a statement that, the total elimination of DSH payments to rural hospitals “will be critical and will lead to reductions in services and possible hospital closures.” That in turn will leave ” gaps in healthcare delivery for patients in rural areas, as well as economic losses to those communities,” said LHA.

With hospitals across the state possibly delivering less care, it seems likely that physicians could expect to see more pressure on their practices.

Alicia Ault

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Counties Pursue Safer Drug Disposal

New programs to make it easier and safer for San Francisco Bay Area residents to get rid of unused medications are some of the first to try this on a large scale, and may serve as models for other cities and counties.

Since May 2012, a pilot program in San Francisco has allowed residents to drop off old medications at 13 pharmacies and 10 police stations (where controlled substances must be brought). San Francisco supervisors initially considered forcing drug companies to fund the program, and instead agreed to accept $110,000 from Genentech and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to fund the program.

(Photo by J. Troha, courtesy of National Cancer Institute)

On July 24, supervisors in Alameda County (which includes East Bay cities such as Oakland and Berkeley) are likely to approve a Safe Drug Disposal Ordinance that would require drug companies to pay for disposal of their products or face fines of up to $1,000 per day, The Bay Citizen reports. Public agencies currently fund 25 drug disposal sites there, and the cash-strapped county wants the comparatively wealthy pharmaceutical industry to take more financial responsibility for the lifecycle of its products in order to reduce overdoses, accidental poisonings, and water pollution.

As we reported earlier this year, making prescription-drug “recycling” a cultural norm is one of five emerging public policies that could help the medical system keep opioids available while reducing the risk of addiction, abuse and accidental overdose, according to Keith N. Humphreys, Ph.D. Smaller versions have met with success, such as a drug take-back day organized by sheriffs in a small town in Arkansas (population 20,000) that brought in 25,000 pills, said Dr. Humphreys, acting director of the Center for Health Care Evaluation, Veterans Health Administration, Menlo Park, Calif., and a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He reports having no financial conflicts of interest on this issue.

Not everyone is happy with the idea. Trade associations for the pharmaceutical industry and biomedical companies argue that there’s no evidence that these programs will reduce poisonings, and they haven’t ruled out the possibility of suing to block the Alameda County ordinance, The Bay Citizen reports. The compromise that San Francisco reached for voluntary instead of mandatory funding from the pharmaceutical industry may be a middle ground.

In an era when government agencies have less and less money for public programs, it’s probably inevitable that they’ll pursue alternative financing for programs like this.

If your community has a drug disposal program, let us know how it’s working. Will these programs succeed, and will they reduce abuse, addiction, and accidental overdoses? We’ll keep an eye on this topic, and keep you posted.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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Physicians Grapple With Efficiency, ‘Do No Harm’

Two new books and a news article triangulate some interesting thoughts on improving efficiency in medicine while causing less harm to patients – and what that really means.

IMNG Medical Media reporter Alicia Ault’s feature story on “Can More Be Done with Less?” describes a recent conference on “Avoiding Avoidable Care” that brought medical experts together to strategize on how to avoid unnecessary tests and treatment, which can harm patients.

Dr. Vikas Saini, an organizer of the conference, told her that patients often demand tests or procedures because they seek certainty and want to know that the physician cares. But test results often lead to false knowledge, said Dr. Saini of the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation, which cosponsored the meeting. The key for physicians, he said, is to convincingly explain to patients why the test or procedure is or is not a good idea, and to practice evidence-based medicine.

To do that, though, requires an ability to interpret medical research and help patients understand it. That’s where Dr. Marya D. Zilberberg’s new book comes in. Between the Lines: Finding the Truth in Medical Literature is a breezy 170-page primer that spends most of the first half of the book cheerleading for scientific uncertainty. She also reviews the hierarchies of quality in research and touches on heterogeneity, biases, and a few general pitfalls in interpreting studies.

The second half of Between the Lines goes a little deeper in explaining study design, validity, statistical analyses, and more, though never so deeply that a nonstatistician’s eyes will glaze over. Dr. Zilberberg, a consultant, teacher, and blogger at Healthcare, Inc., explains these dry subjects in an eminently readable fashion.

I found it a valuable refresher (especially Part Two) even though I’ve been covering medical news for over two decades, and I imagine it would be a great introduction for the uninitiated. Dr. Kenneth W. Lin, a family physician who teaches a course in evidence-based medicine at Georgetown University, posted an online review that called Between the Lines “a rare book that bridges the gulf between medical publications and the real world of practicing clinicians.” Paul D. Simmons, Ph.D., who teaches family medicine residents in Louisville, Ky., said in an online review that he hopes incorporating the book will decrease the number of residents who finish his rotation thinking that evidence-based medicine is impractical, takes too much time, requires a Ph.D. in biostatistics, and doesn’t apply to their careers.

A separate book approaches these themes in ways that question medicine’s sometimes heavy-handed emphasis on “evidence” and “efficiency.” In God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, Dr. Victoria Sweet eloquently recounts her 20 years of working at a chronic-care hospital for the ill and indigent (considered the “last almshouse in America”) as it morphs into a “modern healthcare treatment facility.”

Dr. Sweet’s scathing depictions of “efficiency” at the expense of time with patients bolster her call for “slow medicine” and the (missing) research to compare the two.

Disclosure: I’ve known Dr. Sweet for many years and even consider her a friend. I esteemed the book on its merits, and so did neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose book-jacket blurb called it, “A most important book, which raises fundamental questions about the nature of medicine in our time. It should be required reading.”

Dr. Abigail Zuger’s review in The New York Times began, “It is probably pointless to suggest that all the individuals presently shaping our health care future spend a quiet weekend with ‘God’s Hotel,’ Dr. Victoria Sweet’s transcendent testament to health care past. Who interrupts cowboys in the midst of a stampede? But if you’re one of the millions of doctors and patients out there choking on their dust, this is the book for you. Its compulsively readable chapters go down like restorative sips of cool water, and its hard-core subversion cheers like a shot of gin.”

The synchronicity of these three works is a sign of the times. As physicians are asked to do more with less, these writings help us understand what you’ve got to work with.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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Summer Doldrums for the SGR

The question of what to do about Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate formula, which governs physician pay, likely got its final serious look on Capitol Hill on July 11–that is, before Congress heads out the door for a protracted summer recess and then gets caught up in the fall campaign season. And it wasn’t much of a look.

Sen. John Kyl takes notes as physicians talk about SGR. Alicia Ault/IMNG Medical Media

The Senate Finance Committee held its third and final “roundtable” discussion on the SGR, this time allowing physicians to weigh in.  Representatives from the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Surgeons, American College of Cardiology, and American Society of Clinical Oncology politely answered questions from committee members who showed up. Most of the Democrats on the committee sat in,  at least for a portion of the almost two-hour meeting, while only two Republicans attended–John Kyl (Ariz.) and John Thune (S.D.), who came for only the last half hour.

The discussion meandered quite a bit and quite often, with physicians talking about the need for aligning incentives, creating medical homes, and rewarding quality. Dr. W. Douglas Weaver, a past president of the ACC and current Vice President and Systems Medical Director of Heart and Vascular Services, Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, said that the instability caused by the ever-fluctuating SGR situation was thwarting efforts to create new delivery systems.

But there was little concrete discussion of what to do to avert the 27% cut mandated by the SGR that will take effect January 1, 2013.

Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who chairs the Finance Committee and led the

Sen. Max Baucus and Sen. Orrin Hatch listen to physicians. Alicia Ault/IMNG Medical Media

roundtable, at one point said that while he was hearing great ideas, he wanted to know what action could be taken quickly.  Senator Kyl also tried to steer the discussion back to the practical. He also reminded physicians that Congress is driven by 10-year budget-setting imperatives; thus, any suggestions for the SGR proposed for the short term must also work over the long haul, he said.

The elephant in the room: how to pay for an SGR fix or replacement, now clocking in at about $300 billion and rising. Physicians have steered clear of suggesting any financial solutions.

The committee broke with no promises. In an interview afterwards, Dr. Glen Stream, AAFP president, said that any SGR tinkering would likely be put off until at least after the November election. That puts the onus on a lame duck Congress.

Do you think they will make a short term fix or come up with some kind of permanent solution?

Alicia Ault (@aliciaault on twitter)

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“Turning the Tide” on HIV/AIDS

In advance of the upcoming XIX International AIDS Conference, the International AIDS Society and the University of California, San Francisco, have issued the “Washington D.C. Declaration,” a nine-point action plan aimed at broadening global support for “Turning the Tide” of the AIDS epidemic.

Everyone is urged to sign the Declaration.

It calls for:

1) An increase in targeted new investments;
2) Evidence-based HIV prevention, treatment, and care in accord with the human rights of those at greatest risk and in greatest need;
3) An end to stigma, discrimination, legal sanctions, and human rights abuses against those living with and at risk for HIV;
4) Marked increases in HIV testing, counseling, and linkages to services;
5) Treatment for all pregnant and nursing women living with HIV and an end to perinatal transmission;
6) Expanded access to antiretroviral treatment for all in need;
7) Identification, diagnosis, and treatment of tuberculosis;
8) Accelerated research on new tools for HIV prevention, treatment, vaccines, and a cure;
9) Mobilization and meaningful involvement of affected communities.

Turning the Tide is the theme of this year’s biennial conference, which will take place July 22-27 in Washington.  It is expected to draw 25,000 attendees, including HIV professionals, activists, politicians, and celebrities. Sir Elton John will open the conference and Bill Clinton will close it. A large delegation of U.S. members of Congress will participate, and Bill Gates will moderate a session. An enormous “Global Village” outside the D.C. Convention Center will be open to the public. “If you haven’t been, it’s a conference like no other,” conference cochair Dr. Diane V. Havlir said at a press briefing.

The recent optimism regarding HIV/AIDS stems from major advances in knowledge regarding prevention of partner transmission with early patient treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis, and male circumcision as HIV infection prevention (new data will be released at the meeting), all of which are viewed as breakthroughs  in the fight against HIV/AIDS. “So we have now in our hands the tools. The question is how do we combine those tools together, and how do we roll them out,” said Dr. Havlir, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and chief of the HIV/AIDS division at San Francisco General Hospital.

Dr. Diane V. Havlir / Photo by Miriam E. Tucker

Monday’s plenary session will include an address from Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on “Ending the HIV Epidemic: From Scientific Advances to Public Health Implementation.” Other plenary topics during the week will include viral eradication, vaccines, TB and HIV, and HIV/AIDS in specific populations including minorities, women, youth, and men who have sex with men. On Friday, there will be a plenary talk that may be of particular interest to the primary care community, “The Intersection of Noncommunicable Diseases and Aging in HIV.”

Plenaries and other conference sessions will be webcast at http://globalhealth.kff.org/aids2012.

-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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Annual Meeting Focuses on Echocardiography and Its Future

©Ekko/Wikimedia Commons

Multimodality imaging is among the highlights of this year’s American Society of Echocardiography meeting, which starts on June 30 at the National Harbor, Maryland.

The society is pushing forward the concept, looking at different diseases and integrating different kinds of imaging such as echo plus nuclear, Cardiac CT, or Cardiac MR, in order to get the best diagnoses, said Dr. Melissa Wood, co-director of Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center Women’s Heart Health Program, Boston, and the chair of ASE Public Relations Committee.

“This isn’t just about echo, it’s also about all the other imaging techniques that are out there and how we can work together and deliver the highest quality of care,” said Dr. Wood in an interview. “It’s also about what’s superfluous, and what we don’t need to do.”

On the policy front, Accountable Care Organizations will be in the forefront during the meeting. Dr. Wood said that the speakers will address how “ACOs affect those of us who read echos and do them, and how they affect practices.”

Echocardiography will also leave this planet for a bit during a symposium. ASE president Dr. James Thomas has been in the past actively involved in doing research with the space station and helping pick the right echo machine to go up there, said Dr. Wood. “There’s substantial interest in microgravity and the heart, and how heart changes its function in space. It’s something that’s very unique, and there are lessons that can be learned from that, and that experience will be somehow useful in our clinical practices, whether it’s specific type of research techniques or specific types of information that are gained in that environment.”

Echocardiography is the second most commonly ordered test after EKG, according to Dr. Wood, and with the aging population, the use of the test is likely to increase.

“I see echo take off more because of this concern about heart failure being an epidemic. Echo as a way to diagnose heart failure before it becomes profound,” she said. And given the appropriate use criteria, “we’re tying to moderate the reasons echos are ordered, so they’ll continue to be fairly reimbursed by third parties and CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services),” said Dr. Wood.

You can find the meeting’s program here. And be sure to check our coverage on ecardiologynews.com.

By Naseem S. Miller (@NaseemSMiller)

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