Tag Archives: health care

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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Criticism of the AMA’s RUC Grows

Tom Scully, the outspoken former head of Medicare, recently said that one of the biggest mistakes policymakers made when redesigning the physician payment system in the early 1990s was giving the American Medical Association control over the Relative Value Scale Update Committee or the RUC.

The RUC, which is as controversial as it is unknown, is a 29-member panel that makes recommendations on how to value of thousands of physician services under Medicare. While Medicare officials are under no obligation to accept the panel’s decisions, most of the time that’s exactly what they do.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

Mr. Scully told members of the Senate Finance Committee that the current RUC structure, as run by the AMA, isn’t objective enough. There’s a lot on the line since the RUC’s decisions impact about $80 billion in Medicare spending each year, he said. As lawmakers consider how to reform the physician payment system, he urged them to also think about ways to make the RUC less political and more independent.

The comments in the Senate hearing room were just a sampling of the criticism that the AMA and the RUC have received recently. Over the past year or so, the RUC has been under near constant attack from a small group of primary care physicians who are suing the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services with the goal of getting the agency to dump the RUC. Their contention is that the RUC is biased toward subspecialists and that the panel’s recommendations have contributed to a significant gap between primary care and specialty pay.

The AMA has continued to support the RUC process, arguing that a group of physicians is best positioned to determine the value of medical services and that the panel has often championed payment increases for primary care services.

— Mary Ellen Schneider

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A Hospitalist’s Call to Action

Dr. Patrick Conway is the Chief Medical Officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, but he also happens to be a practicing pediatric hospitalist. So when he showed up at the Society of Hospital Medicine’s annual meeting earlier this week to deliver one of the keynote addresses, he got a warm welcome from fellow hospitalists happy to see one of their own in a real position to make decisions about Medicare’s policies.

Dr. Conway gave the standard speech about what CMS officials are doing to transform the health care system. Then he turned to his hospitalist colleagues and gave them some things to do, too. Hospitalists need to partner with the hospital administration and their quality improvement teams. They need to understand their hospital’s performance data. And they need to take charge, he said, by leading multidisciplinary teams.

“We’re at a unique time in health care where we can drive change,” Dr. Conway said. “My challenge to you would be, please don’t sit on the sidelines.”

Dr. Patrick Conway

He urged the audience – hospitalists gathered in San Diego for continuing education and networking – to make an effort to lead some type of system improvement in their hospital. “I don’t actually care what it is, but work on some broader system changes in your local setting,” Dr. Conway said.

If hospitalists are looking for a reason to get out in front when it comes to system change, there are plenty of financial carrots and sticks coming very soon from the Medicare program. Dr. Conway outlined many of them, from Accountable Care Organizations to the readmission reduction program to the hospital value-based purchasing program. But the best reason to be active in changing the way the health system works is for the benefit of patients, he said. That’s the reason that Dr. Conway still works as a hospitalist nearly every weekend for free. “It’s about those families that you take care of,” he said.

– Mary Ellen Schneider

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Getting Ready for the Insurance Exchanges

There’s been a lot of talk about the state-based health insurance exchanges set to debut in 2014 as part of the Affordable Care Act. How will they work? Will all states participate? Will they be ready on time?  Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services released a series of rules that aim to answer some of those questions.

One set of federal guidance that hasn’t gotten much attention is a final rule outlining the workings of the reinsurance, risk corridors, and risk adjustment programs in the health law. The final rule will be published in the Federal Register on March 23, the 2-year anniversary of the ACA.

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.

The 127-page document isn’t exactly a quick read, but it does shed some light on how the government is trying to remove any incentives health plans might have to try to avoid enrolling people with high medical costs. The programs also are designed to make health plan costs are predictable under the exchanges so that premiums will be relatively stable.

The ACA relies on one permanent and two temporary programs to guard against the premium fluctuations that could result if some health plans were flooded with the sickest patients, while others had only healthy customers. Under the permanent risk adjustment program, HHS is seeking to spread the financial risk of the health plans by providing payments to plans that attract higher risk patients. That risk will be offset by funds from health plans that have enrolled lower risk patients. The program will apply to all non-grandfathered plans in the individual and small group markets both in and out of the exchanges.

HHS also released details on the temporary reinsurance program, which aims to stabilize premiums in the individual insurance market during the early years of the exchanges, when officials expect a lot of people with chronic or expensive medical needs to be insured for the first time. From 2014 through 2016, all health insurers and self-insurance group plans will contribute to the reinsurance program to help cover these patients.

Another temporary program is the risk corridors program. It too is designed to reduce health insurers risk of being in the exchange early on. From 2014 through 2016, exchange plans that have costs at least 3% lower than previous cost projections will pay a percentage of those savings to HHS. The government will then pass the money on to health plans whose costs were at least 3% higher than projected.

— Mary Ellen Schneider

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The Trauma of Politics in Medicine

It’s been a quick reversal for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, reinstating funding some 72 hours after cutting off Planned Parenthood because of new criteria barring grants to organizations under investigation, prompted in this case, by a Republican congressman.

“We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political,” Komen CEO and founder Nancy Brinker said in a statement issued Friday.

The uproar brought more than $3 million in donations to Planned Parenthood in just three days, but also highlights the volatile mixture of politics and medicine.

Dr. Richard Carmona recently observed that one of the most popular presentations he made during his tenure as the 17th Surgeon General of the United States did not address emerging infections, physical trauma, or national diasters, but rather the plague of politics in medicine.

“This traumatic plague of politics is more insidious and virulent than emerging infections; has potentially more morbidity and mortality than hemorrhagic shock or blunt or penetrating trauma; has virtually no diagnostic criteria; and is resistant to all therapy, especially voices of reason, substantive discussion or positions of compromise,” he said during a memorial lecture at the recent meeting of the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma.

Dr. Richard Carmona Patrice Wendling/Elsevier Global Medical News

Dr. Carmona didn’t have far to look for examples to flesh out his diagnosis.

More than a century ago, public health officials’ efforts to control the bubonic plague outbreak of 1900 in San Francisco were nearly derailed by politicians who claimed that quarantine procedures, including closing the city’s harbor to incoming ships, were an over-reaction that would impede commerce and tourism, and result in the collapse of San Francisco, and possibly California. The Surgeon General who intervened based on the scientific evidence was labeled a heretic and asked to resign.

In the 1980s, similar calls were made after former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop refused to back down from statements that HIV could be prevented. At the time, Dr. Carmona reminded the audience, senior elected officials were telling the American public that HIV was God’s way of punishing homosexuals.

In the 1990s, the tenure of Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders  was cut short after controversy erupted over a 1994 speech at the United Nations World AIDS Day that included remarks that masturbation was a normal part of sexuality and that abstinence-only education was “child abuse.”

During his own term under President George W. Bush, Dr. Carmona said, abstinence-only became the mantra of the administration, “based solely on ideological and theological concepts, and not science.

“Science had really demonstrated that abstinence alone was a failed proposition,” Dr. Carmona said. “Ironic, that an administration that was repeatedly caught up in the issue of abortion did not see the connection that comprehensive sex education was the best method to prevent STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and therefore abortions. As Surgeon General, this is a science-based position I have always held.”

Dr. Carmona, the only Surgeon General to be unanimously confirmed to the position in over 200 years, said the trauma of politics and its preventable deleterious outcomes are owned equally by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

He pointed out that over-the-counter sales of Plan B stalled under the Bush administration before gaining limited approval in December 2006, but fared no better seven years later under the more liberal Obama administration. In December 2011, HSS Secretary and Democrat Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA’s decision to make the emergency contraceptive available, without prescription, to girls of all childbearing ages. While Sebelius cited a lack of conclusive data, Dr. Carmona said it was the administration’s desire to avoid a political battle in the face of an upcoming election.

“The immunization for preventing the continued viralness of political trauma is transparency, full disclosure, accountability for elected officials, a citizenry that is informed and participatory, coupled with civil discourse of complex issues,” he said.

–Patrice Wendling

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Innovation Center Seeks to Renovate Medicare

Government officials have stood before doctors many times and talked about the need to change the perverse incentives that pay them more for caring for sick patients than for keeping people healthy to start. Dr. Richard Gilfillan, who runs the new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, had a similar pitch when he talked to more than 1,000 people who recently convened at a Washington, D.C. hotel for a day-long summit on health care innovation. The difference is, Dr. Gilfillan has some leverage.

Under the Affordable Care Act, his new center is charged with rapidly testing alternative payment and health care delivery models. If those pilot projects are proven to both improve the quality of care and bring down health care costs, the Secretary of Health and Human Services can roll out the program nationally. There’s a little more paperwork involved, but that’s the general idea.

Dr. Richard Gilfillan (R), with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Dr. Don Berwick, in November. HHS Photo by Chris Smith.

What that means is that in a relatively short amount of time, Medicare could fundamentally change the way it pays doctors. That is, if the pilot projects sponsored by the Innovation Center are successful.

Dr. Gilfillan offered an example: Let’s say the Innovation Center launches a project where it pays primary care physicians an extra $10 per patient per month to coordinate care. If officials at the Innovation Center can prove that the project improves outcomes and reduces costs, HHS can publish regulations to roll it out to primary care physicians around the country. “As you can see, this is a powerful tool for changing the way we deliver care,” Dr. Gilfillan said at the summit.

The Innovation Center has been around for about a year and officials there have been busy putting together a set of pilot projects that look at new ways to deliver primary care and home-based care. They are also testing other concepts like bundled payments and accountable care organizations. Check out the Innovation Center’s report on its first year for descriptions of all the projects.

One thing they are trying to do in each of the projects, Dr. Gilfillan said, is to work closely with private payers. The goal, he said, is to make life a little simpler for doctors by ensuring that when they find new payment mechanisms that work, all the payers, both public and private, will adopt it in the same way.

— Mary Ellen Schneider (on Twitter @MaryEllenNY)

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Experts Call on Docs to Lead Cost Control

Doctors must play an integral role in reducing health care costs, health policy experts say. At the annual conference of consumer group Families USA, Dr. Atul Gawande and Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel said that doctors participating in reducing costs will have a greater affect than the health care law itself.

Dr. Atul Gawande / Frances Correa/ Elsevier Global Medical News

“Washington will not be able to save the costs. They’ll provide the framework, but in your communities, that’s where you’ll do it,” said Dr. Gawande, a health policy researcher and endocrine surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Dr. Gawande said that the Affordable Care Act will provide the data for doctors to identify where to trim costs. Both Dr. Gawande and Dr. Emanuel said doctors can take a leading role in cost control by focusing on the sickest 5% of patients. According to a 2009 report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the sickest 5% of patients account for 50% of national health care expenditures.

Dr. Gawande cited the work of Dr. Jeffrey Brenner. By analyzing medical billing data from practices in Camden, N.J., Dr. Brenner, a primary care physician, was able to map out the most impoverished areas with the highest health care costs. With a focused approach that included home visits and the help of social workers, Dr. Brenner decreased one patient’s inpatient hospital time from 7 months in one year to 3 weeks. While under his care, the patient lost 200 pounds, and quit smoking, drinking, and using cocaine. At the same time, the patient’s hospital costs decreased by 60%. Dr. Gawande wrote about Dr. Brenner’s strategy in a January 2011 article in the New Yorker.

Dr. Emanuel, a recognized expert on health and chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, said rising health care costs threaten many aspects of American society, particularly education, workers’ wages, and the nation’s position in the world, as well as by putting an economic squeeze on middle class. Dr. Emanuel also served as special adviser for health policy to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget from January 2009 to January 2011, where he helped craft the Affordable Care Act.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel / Frances Correa/Elsevier Global Medical News

“If you care about how our kids are going to educated in the future, you have to care about heath care costs,” Dr. Emanuel said, adding that increased health care costs directly affect tuition rates. For example, from 2001 to 2011, employer contributions to health insurance increased by 113%, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Meanwhile, tuition for public universities increased 72% over the past decade, according to the College Board. Dr. Emanuel projected that, as health care costs continue to rise, states will be forced to take the money from other programs, leaving education and health care at the greatest risk.

“We can reduce costs without sacrificing access … [doctors] have to be committed to doing that,” Dr. Emanuel said.

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HHS Cries Foul on Insurance Hikes

Nowhere in the thousands of pages of the Affordable Care Act does it give the federal government the power to stop insurance companies from charging excessive premiums. But the controversial health reform law does grant the Department of the Health and Human Services the right review some large rate increases and to tell consumers when they think health plans are charging too much.

HHS did just that today when it held a press conference to protest what it said were “unreasonable” rate hikes by Trustmark Life Insurance Company in five states. The company recently proposed premiums hikes of 13% or more for its plan members inAlabama, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wyoming.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/FBI Buffalo Field Office/Public Domain

Gary Cohen, the Acting Director of Oversight at the HHS Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, said it wasn’t just that the increases were so high. HHS officials, after consulting with a team of outside analysts, concluded the rates were unreasonably high because the health insurance company was spending only a small percentage of its premium dollars on medical care and quality improvements. Trustmark also based its increases on “unreasonable assumptions,” HHS said. You can read more about HHS rate review authority here.

In its challenge to Trustmark, HHS called on the company to immediately rescind the rates, issue refunds to consumers, or publicly explain why they are standing by such a large rate hike.

It looks like Trustmark is going to stand by its rate increase. Following the HHS press conference, Trustmark issued its own statement saying that they disagreed with the federal government’s assumptions and conclusions. “Our premiums are driven by the rising cost and increased utilization of medical services,” the company wrote. “As a smaller carrier, our loss ratios can vary significantly from year to year, and we take that volatility into consideration.” As for spending too little of its premium dollars on medical care, the company said it has been in compliance with the federal Medical Loss Ratio requirements in that area. However, if they should fail to meet the federal standards, they will offer rebates to consumers.

So is this an effective strategy for bringing down health insurance rates? Share your thoughts on whether rate review by HHS and public disclosure will be powerful enough to force companies to keep premiums low or if you think insurers will be willing to ride out some bad press.

— Mary Ellen Schneider

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Moving Beyond the Hospital

Recently, officials at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, a regional health care system in Orange County, Calif., decided to rebrand their 60-year-old institution. The not-for-profit health care system is now known simply as Hoag. They weren’t just going for brevity. They specifically wanted to drop the word “hospital.”

Dr. Richard Afable, Hoag’s president and CEO, recently spoke to a small meeting of hospitalists in Las Vegas and explained that the name change reflects a shift toward providing more services outside of the hospital. Hoag’s hospitals do a great job treating the acutely ill, he said, but the leadership wanted to reach out to people in the community before they got sick enough to make it to the hospital.

Dr. Richard Afable. Photo by Mary Ellen Schneider/ Elsevier Global Medical News.

So officials at Hoag have been working to offer more services related to conditions that either slightly touch the hospital or don’t touch it at all, Dr. Afable said. For example, the system has beefed up its offerings around diabetes care and now provides counseling on how to manage the disease and prevent complications. In the old days, they would have waited for someone to have a heart attack or lose a limb before taking care of them, Dr. Afable said. They also are developing community-based programs for breast cancer, a condition that today is treated primarily outside of the hospital.

And Dr. Afable advised hospitalists to consider following Hoag’s lead and look how they can be involved in care outside of the hospital. He noted the example of CareMore, a medical group and health plan based in California, which is being acquired by the health insurer Wellpoint, Inc. Under CareMore’s model, hospitalists not only care for patients while they are in the hospital, but also after they leave. Once a patient is stable, they are sent back to receive the rest of their care from their primary care physician. Since CareMore uses a capitation payment model, there aren’t concerns about which physician gets the payment for the post-discharge care. The model is food for thought for hospitalists as care becomes increasingly less hospital centric, Dr. Afable said.

— Mary Ellen Schneider

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Filed under Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism, Family Medicine, Geriatric Medicine, Health Policy, Hospital and Critical Care Medicine, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Oncology, Physician Reimbursement, Practice Trends, Primary care

Lawmakers Agree on Debt Plan: The Policy & Practice Podcast

After weeks of contentious debate, lawmakers have finally reached an agreement to raise the nation’s borrowing limit. The plan includes cuts to lower the deficit by about $1 trillion over 10 years and creation of a committee to determine future cuts. The plan did not address the Sustainable Growth Rate formula and the committee could potentially reduce physician pay under Medicare and Medicaid. Congress is expected to vote on the plan today or tomorrow.

Photo courtesy of iStock

While the details of further cuts remains unclear, federal economists released their predictions on the growth of U.S. health care spending. Not surprisingly, health spending growth was low last year, due to the impact of the recession. And even in 2014, when many Affordable Care Act provisions kick in, the rate of spending growth is predicted to be just 2%  over the average annual growth rate for the rest of the decade.

In related news, a repeal to the unpopular Independent Payment Advisory board has gained bipartisan support. For details on that and more, listen to this week’s Policy & Practice podcast.

Check back next week for more on the fallout from the debt agreement and health reform implementation.

—Frances Correa (@FMCReporting on Twitter)

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