Monday, March 9, 2015
With the future of the Affordable Care Act in doubt after last week’s hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, Republican lawmakers are busily preparing back-up legislation. New options should not be necessary—the government should prevail against those challenging its interpretation of the Act’s premium subsidy provisions. But it is prudent to consider alternatives in the event that the Court rules against the government.
While most of the ideas being floated would do little to bring health care insurance to the uninsured, there is an option that really could expand access to coverage while also containing health care spending. And it could be attractive to Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
In announcing the federal government’s approval of Indiana’s Medicaid expansion, Governor Mike Pence invoked common sense in defending his insistence that beneficiaries shoulder a share of their health care premiums. According to Pence, “It’s just common sense that when people take greater ownership of their health care, they make better choices.”
But relying on common sense is not a good way to make health policy. Common sense leads people to incorrectly believe that they are more likely to catch a cold by going out in cold weather or to take megadoses of vitamins that provide no additional health benefit and can be toxic. Common sense also leads physicians down the wrong path. Because lowering blood sugar has been good for the health of diabetics, medical experts recommended tight control of blood sugar levels. But that resulted in an increased risk of death for many patients.
It turns out that our intuitions often lead us astray, making it important that we rely on data from scientific studies to distinguish between good and bad policies. And we know from the data to date that when the poor are required to pay for their health care, they may choose to forgo it, not only when care is not needed but also when it is needed.
Kudos to Governor Pence for bringing the Medicaid expansion to Indiana and for worrying about health care costs. It may turn out that Indiana's cost-sharing is low enough to avoid problems, but rather than trying to contain costs by discouraging patients from seeking too much care, we should try to discourage physicians from providing too much care. Physicians are better able than patients to distinguish between necessary care and unnecessary care.
[cross-posted at Bill of Health]
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
In 2012, the Supreme Court heard two important Medicaid cases, one in January of 2012 pertaining to payment rates (Douglas v. ILC), and the other in March 2012 pertaining to the ACA's Medicaid expansion (NFIB v. Sebelius). In Douglas, the Court's majority deferred to HHS, allowing the agency to exercise primary jurisdiction over California's Medicaid payment rates and punting the question regarding Supremacy Clause actions by Medicaid providers against noncompliant states. And, in NFIB, the Court decided that Medicaid's modification under the ACA was not Medicaid enough for purposes of Spending Clause doctrine but was Medicaid enough for purposes of the remedy, which was to limit HHS's authority to terminate Medicaid funding for states that refused to expand Medicaid eligibility under the terms of the ACA. Confused yet? So is the Court, and that's a potential problem.
Fast forward to 2014, and the Court is once again hearing a Medicaid reimbursement rate case and an ACA case, in the same time frame as 2012, both of which could be very disruptive. The Medicaid rate case is Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Center, and the weirdly confused oral arguments occurred today. The question the Court granted from the petition for certiorari was whether private parties can enforce the Medicaid Act's equal access provision ("30(a)") against a noncompliant state when HHS has not demanded compliance from the state through payment of adequate reimbursement rates. Armstrong may have far-reaching implications for the Medicaid program, for implied rights of action, and for federal courts' jurisdiction over Supremacy Clause actions, to name a few possible dimensions. Steve Vladeck, author of a very important amicus brief on behalf of former HHS officials, has posted about some of these issues. Rather than re-hash his fine commentary, or Will Baude's pithy overview for SCOTUSblog this morning, I will quickly share some impressions of today's oral arguments.
First, the justices had no idea how Medicaid works, which matters quite a lot when it may be the vehicle for constitutional change. Justice Breyer, for example, did not appear to understand the difference between the state describing how it would set payment rates and the state actually setting the amount of money it would pay to reimburse health care providers for their services. Here, Idaho created a methodology for rate setting that was approved by HHS, but then its legislature decided to use a different rate setting methodology tied to the state's budget. Breyer kept using the example of a doctor submitting a bill for $80 when all he could receive was $60, but the example was inapposite. Another minor example is that the prohibition against balance billing was news to the justices. Another example is Justice Alito's hypothetical about states that allow for medical marijuana being sued because feeral law does not permit possession of marijuana, which had no apparent relevance for the Medicaid preemption questions at hand.
James Piotrowski, on behalf of Exceptional Child Center tried to limit the conversation to whether the state actually followed the plan that CMS approved (which it appears Idaho did not). He also tried to explain why a broad-based Supremacy Clause/Spending Clause decision would be both unnecessary and dangerous, and he advocated for a limited ruling that would allow this set of plaintiffs to seek an injunction to force the state to abide by the reimbursement plan that HHS approved.
The trouble is that the Solicitor General, as he did in 2012, promoted the view that no private rights of action should be permitted. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan quickly called out Mr. Kneedler on HHS’ deep disagreement with this position. Kneedler asserted that HHS does not want these private actions, even though HHS pointedly did not sign the SG's brief, and even though the amicus brief here and in Douglas on behalf of former HHS officials (of all political stripes) clearly explained that HHS both expects and needs private actions to occur. In both cases, the former HHS officials explained that the agency is so woefully understaffed and underfunded that it could never police all of the states' reimbursement rates on a claim by claim basis.
The four dissenters from Douglas were relatively quiet during oral arguments today. In 2012, the Chief Justice authored a dissent that would have denied private rights of action under 30(a) to force states to pay adequate payment rates for equal access to health care providers. I suspect that Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas remain in the same positions, unless they were convinced that Idaho should have just stuck to the plan and their legislature drove off the rails after CMS approved their rate setting methodology. The real question will be if Kennedy sees this action as some kind of affront to state sovereignty given his affinity for federalism resolutions. If so, then Supremacy Clause actions will be lost for 30(a) litigants, and states will run over Medicaid providers who cannot enforce the adequate payment language in the Medicaid Act. In the very moment that more and more states are negotiating Medicaid expansion under the power given to them by the Court in NFIB, this would be a dangerous precedent both theoretically and on the ground. More to come.
January 20, 2015 in Affordable Care Act, Constitutional, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Law, Health Reform, HHS, Medicaid, Policy, State Initiatives, States | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, January 8, 2015
With Harvard professors protesting their increased responsibility for health care costs, we are seeing just the most visible aspect of the recurring cycle described in “Tragic Choices.” As Guido Calabresi and Philip Bobbitt observed in that book, society tries to defuse societal conflict by hiding its rationing choices through implicit forms of rationing. Thus, for example, health care insurers relied on managed care organizations in the 1990’s to contain health care costs with the premise that managed care would preserve health care access and quality while squeezing the fat out of the health care system.
But after a time, the public realizes what’s going on and rebels against the implicit rationing policy. Hence, managed care’s effective cost containment strategies, such as limited networks of physicians or primary care gatekeeping, were dumped, and health care costs began to climb again.
What did health care insurers turn to after abandoning serious managed care? Shifting more of the costs of health care to patients through higher deductibles and higher copayments. Insurers didn’t need to identify limits on their coverage because individuals would respond to their higher out-of-pocket costs by hesitating to seek care. Costs would be contained by “market forces” rather than rationing. But the Harvard professors and other Americans are now rebelling against the shifting-of-costs policy, just as Calabresi and Bobbitt predicted in 1978. (Indeed, they even included the shifting of costs as an example of an implicit rationing strategy.)
Of course, cost shifting raises a number of concerns, including the fact that patients often do not distinguish well between necessary and unnecessary care when cutting back their doctor visits in response to cost shifting.
Where do we go from here? The Affordable Care Act includes many provisions designed to reward high quality care, and maybe we’ll see some meaningful cost containment out of them. But more likely, health care insurers will need to find another form of implicit rationing that will work for a while until the public rejects it.
For more discussion of the "Tragic Choices" cycle and the change from rationing through managed care to rationing through cost shifting, see here. For more discussion of the barriers to explicit rationing, see here.
[cross-posted at Bill of Health.]
Monday, July 21, 2014
The New York Times reports on complaints by consumers about limitations on their access to physicians and hospitals. According to the story, insurers have restricted their provider networks to contain costs, while misleading their customers about the extent of the restrictions.
Without more information, one cannot draw firm conclusions about the problems. We cannot tell the extent to which insurers are acting badly, nor can we tell how much we are seeing the same backlash as in the 1990's when managed care organizations tried to contain costs by limiting their provider networks.
But the reports are not surprising. Limiting patient choice can be an important way to reduce costs. However, it is a politically unpopular way to do so. Hence, we often are told by candidates and elected officials that their health care reform will promote the three C's--greater coverage, lower costs, and broad choice.
It will be important to see how much the public tolerates restrictions on choice. It may make a big difference on whether the health insurance exchange premiums remain favorable.
Thursday, April 3, 2014
Cigarette taxes have proved to be an effective strategy to reduce smoking, so one might think (as many experts do) that soda taxes would be an effective strategy to reduce obesity. Consumption of soft drinks seems to be an important risk factor for obesity, and people are sensitive to the price of their colas.
Moreover, soda taxes reflect the lessons of behavioral economics. People often over-indulge in activities that provide short-term gratification but impose significant harm in the long-term. Imposing a tax on unhealthy drinks supplies an immediate disincentive to the consumption of those drinks and can overcome the difficulty people have in postponing gratification.
However, two new articles in Health Economics question the effectiveness of soda taxes. One study based on UK data, the other on US data, come to the same conclusion--we should not expect much of an impact from taxes on sugary soft drinks. It seems that raising taxes on some beverages simply results in consumers switching to other beverages and replacing the forgone calories with other calories. And to make things worse, beverage taxes often are regressive.
The news is disappointing and adds to a growing list of disappointing policies for weight loss. Under the Affordable Care Act, for example, restaurants must disclose calorie information to customers. With better information, diners would know which salads really are healthy and which others are not. But researchers have not found mandates for calorie disclosure by restaurants (as in New York and Seattle) to be effective.
Legislative fixes for obesity are tempting and probably necessary. But lawmakers need to take better account of medical understanding before they act.
[cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg and orentlicher.tumblr.com]
Friday, March 7, 2014
The running joke of the Disney Monsters,Inc. movies is that there really are monsters in little kids' closets, but they aren't dangerous. Too often in medical education, lawyers and law suits are used as "monsters in the closet" to scare medical students into paying attention. This, I suggest, has become very expensive. A recent post in the Harvard Bill of Health blog by former medical student Deborah Cho quite accurately describes how little accurate information medical students get about the law--and how much they come to dislike and mistrust lawyers. Although I haven't seen research tracking how often the phrase "or you will get sued" is used in instructing medical students, but based on my experience it may be among the most common phrases they hear. Without even addressing the vast literature suggesting that postive instruction is at least as instructive as negative, I contend we just can't afford the malpractice bogeyman.
The question now is what can be done about? Tort Reform won't solve this problem--because it will never eliminate the possibility of being sued. But maybe a change in medical education will. The first step towards change is to realize that words and attitudes matter--drumming in a constant fear of being sued cannot help but affect how doctors see their work.
Friday, February 28, 2014
A big part of the job of being a Health Law Prof is to help students understand the intersection of the many legal specialties that comprise the big tent of "Health Law." Wellness Programs are a good way of doing that because one of the key features of the Affordable Care Act is the flexibility it provides employers to link the cost their employees pay for health insurance with the individual employee's participation in a company sponsored "welleness program." Here's an article I wrote explaining how PPACA went about doing that. Here's a link to the Department of Labor's summary of the current rules and a good overview by the law firm Nixon-Peabody. This report from Rand is an overview of what these programs are and how companies have increasingly fallen in love with them. At this point just about every insurance company is offering to create one--here's some information from Aetna.
The problem is, there's very little evidence that these programs do anything to demonstrably improve health (whatever that may mean). And quite a bit that they may promote many different kinds of social injustice.
This article in the Harvard Business Review does a great job describing the kinds of programs that are now descending on employees and how they are creating disatsifaction without any scientifically supportable improvement in "health."
There is also a growing literature suggesting that these programs may disproportionately discourage workers who employers aren't that unhappy to see go--but might not legally be able to actually fire. Here is some very interesting testimony by Jennifer Mathis Director of Programs, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
On Behalf of the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities.
Michelle Mello at Harvard has coined the term "life-style discrimination" to describe the ways Wellness Programs may target individuals employers may perceive as undesirable because they are obese, smoke or have other non-job related characteristics.
Studying Wellness Programs--and the issues they raise--can be an accessible entry point for students who can easily be intimated by the regulatory complexity of health law and can also be a bridge to understanding how fundamentally the Affordable Care Act has affected the way health care will be paid for and delivered as our students begin their careers in advising those struggling to implement these new regulations.
February 28, 2014 in Access, Affordable Care Act, Consumers, Coverage, Disabilities, Effectiveness, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Genetics, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Law, Health Reform, HHS, Insurance, Mental Health, Obesity, Policy, Politics, PPACA, Prevention, Public Health, Quality, Reform, Workforce | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, February 17, 2014
I recently posted a new piece that uses technology as a lens for examining some of the fragmentation and coodination problems exhibited by the healthcare system. Here's the abstract.
Fragmentation and lack of coordination remain as some of the most intractable problems facing health care. Attention has often alighted on the promise of Health care Information Technology not least because IT has had such positive impact on many other personal, professional and industrial domains. For at least two decades the HIT-panacea narrative has been persistent even though the context has shifted. At various times we have been promised that patient safety technologies would solve our medical error problems, electronic transactions would simplify healthcare administration and insurance and clinical data would become interoperable courtesy of electronic medical records. Today the IoM is positioning HIT at the center of its new “continuously learning” health care model that is in large part aimed at solving our fragmentation and lack of coordination problems. While the consensus judgment that HIT can reduce fragmentation and increase coordination has intuitive force the specifics are more complicated. First, the relationship between health care and IT has been both culturally and financially complex. Second, HIT has been overhyped as a solution for all of health care’s woes; it has its own problems. Third, the HIT-fragmentation solution presents a chicken-and-egg problem — can HIT solve health care fragmentation and lack of coordination problems or must health care problems such as episodic care be solved prior to successful deployment of HIT? The article takes a critical look at both health care and HIT with those questions in mind before concluding with some admittedly difficult recommendations designed to break the chicken-and-egg deadlock.
Monday, February 10, 2014
Where does one start with AOL CEO Armstrong's ridiculous and unfeeling justifications for changes in his company’s 401(k) plan. Cable TV and Twitter came out of the blocks fast with the obvious critiques. And the outrage only increased after novelist Deanna Fei took to Slate to identify her daughter as one of the subjects of Armstrong’s implied criticism. Armstrong has now apologized and reversed his earlier decision.
As the corporate spin doctors contain the damage, Armstrong’s statements likely will recede from memory, although I am still hoping The Onion will memorialize Armstrong’s entry into the healthcare debate (suggested headline, "CEO Discovers Nation's Healthcare Crisis Caused by 25 Ounce Baby”). But supposing (just supposing) your health law students ask about the story in class this week. What sort of journey can you take them on?
February 10, 2014 in Affordable Care Act, Cost, Coverage, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Economics, Health Law, HIPAA, privacy | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Sunday, January 5, 2014
While the law has recognized for decades that death occurs when a person’s brain no longer functions, the case of Jahi McMath reminds us that people continue to disagree about the timing of death. For many people, death occurs only when a person’s heart has permanently stopped beating.
In almost all states, the absence of brain function signifies death, even if the person’s heartbeat can be maintained by medical care. New Jersey, however, permits people to reject “brain death” on the basis of their religious beliefs and insist that death be declared only upon the loss of all cardiac function.
New Jersey has it right. When people hold different and legitimate views about life and death, we should accommodate their views as much as possible. Indeed, we do so to a considerable extent at the beginning of life. In some sense, we let women decide about the legal status of their fetus, as long as they choose a point between conception and viability. For women who do not view embryos as persons, the law permits abortion until viability. And for women who view their offspring as people at the moment of conception, the law provides protection from harm to their fetuses by other people.
There are costs when people are provided intensive care after they meet brain criteria for death, but there also are costs when we don't tolerate sincerely held, minority viewpoints in society. It's often better to err on the side of toleration, especially as with cases like Ms. McMath’s, the costs of toleration are a trivial amount of what we spend on health care overall.
[cross-posted at orentlicher.tumblr.com]
Monday, December 30, 2013
As health care cost inflation has slowed markedly, some observers have cited the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a major factor—even though the moderation in health care spending began before ACA’s enactment. To be sure, some of ACA’s important cost containment provisions may be playing a role, such as its push for accountable care organizations and its emphasis on paying for quality of care rather than just quantity of care.
Or maybe cost containment is simply the result of a recession that has reduced the spending power of Americans, with a significant contribution from an important pre-ACA trend (about 20 percent of the cost slowdown according to one study). For some time, employers and insurers have been increasing the public’s “skin in the game” by increasing the individual’s share of health care costs through premiums, deductibles and copayments. We’ve known for a long time that making health care more expensive for patients can discourage them from seeking care, so it isn’t surprising that higher patient costs would help contain health care spending. But we also know that patients don’t always distinguish between unnecessary care that can be forgone and necessary care that should be sought.
Time will help us sort out the causes of health care cost containment—if indeed it persists. In the meantime, we should be careful to distinguish between what we would like to be true and what we know to be true.
[cross-posted at orentlicher.tumblr.com]
Thursday, October 17, 2013
The Dartmouth Institute has just published its Atlas of areal differences in utilization of prescription drugs by Medicare Part D recipients. The Atlas--unsurprisingly but disturbingly--details significant differences. Pharmaceutical interventions are classified as effective, discretionary (where there is diagnostic or therapeutic uncertainty), and likely to be harmful in the patient population at issue. A caveat, however, is that the report measured prescriptions filled and thus may underestimate actual provider behavior.
An initial variation involved sheer numbers of prescriptions, with a high average of 63 per year in Miami and a low average of 39 per year in Colorado (overall, the average was 49 standardized 30 day prescriptions filled per year per Part D beneficiary). In general, the Mountain West had the lowest prescription average and the Rust Belt and Appalachian states the highest. These differences could not be explained primarily by overall burden of disease but instead appear to reflect variations in provider prescribing practices. For example, the American Heart Association recommends use of beta blockers in heart attack patients for three years post-attack. However, rates of prescriptions for these drugs in the first six months ranged from highs of 94% to lows of under 68%, and persistence in the next six months was only slightly lower, ranging from highs of 92% to lows of under 68%. Variations in statin use were even greater, ranging from just over 91% in Ogden, Utah, to below 45% in Abilene, Texas. Interestingly, there was little correlation between effective use of beta blockers and effective use of statins.
The other two therapies analyzed in the Atlas were treatment of diabetes and treatment of patients with fragility fractures. Diabetic patients fared somewhat better than heart attack patients, albeit still with significant variations. Osteoporotic patients, however, fared dismally, receiving a high of 28% and a low of 7% with filled prescriptions for drug to combat osteoporosis after fragility fractures in sites other than the hip (such treatment is recommended to decrease the risk of future hip fractures).
Most interesting of all, there was no correlation between drug expenditures and measures of effective care. In other words, patients in some regions may be spending a great deal on their drugs (paid for under Part D), but receiving far less benefit that patients in other regions who spend a great deal less.
October 17, 2013 in Access, Chronic Care, CMS, Consumers, Cost, Drug and Device, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Medicare, Prescription Drugs, Quality, Spending | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Despite best efforts to prevent the exchanges, or marketplaces, from going on line, today the exchanges have begun to do the work of facilitating a health insurance home for people in the United States. If you live in a state that has declined to create its own exchange, then you should visit https://www.healthcare.gov/, the federal website for the federal health insurance marketplace. Though there were reports of the site crashing, as of 3:00 this afternoon it seems to be working. And, the site will guide you to your state's marketplace site, as necessary. No need to rush though, as open enrollment lasts through March of 2014.
Many probably saw Governor Beshear's op-ed in the New York Times last week regarding the reasons that Kentucky has created its own state-based exchange (and will accept federal funding for the Medicaid expansion), here. The commentary seems even more relevant in the wake of the House Republicans shutting down the federal government over health insurance.
Monday, September 23, 2013
Chilmark Research produces evidence-based reports of health IT and market trends in the health IT industry.
A recently issued Chilmark report, 2013 Clinical Analytics for Population Health Market Trends Report, which I have not read because it costs $4500, details the conflicting interests of clinicians and payers with respect to insights gleaned from data analytics. The hope of EHRs in combination with data analytics is better patient health, for example through alerts about needed preventive measures or care management strategies. But different payment may reimburse categories of care differently--so a diabetic covered by one type of payment structure might get reminders when her counterpart with different coverage might not. Even worse, patients whose prognosis is seen as "hopeless" through the predictive lens of analytics might get very different treatment recommendations under cost-conscious reimbursement structures.
Cora Sharma's post on the Chilmark blog details these likely conflicts with chilling precision.
September 23, 2013 in Access, Accountable Care Organizations, Chronic Care, Consumers, Cost, Coverage, Disparities, Electronic Medical Records, Health Care Costs, Insurance, Prevention, Private Insurance | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Don't miss a fascinating article in the August 30th issue of Science, "Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function." The article contends that there is a causal explanation for the correlation between poverty and disfunctional behavior, such as the failure to keep medical appointments or to employ healthy behaviors. Put crudely, the connection is that people in poverty have to think about so much just to keep going that they don't have the cognitive bandwidth to make carefully reasoned decisions.
The authors of the article, Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainanthan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao, present two studies in support of their claim. The first study involved four experiments in which shoppers at a New Jersey mall were paid participants. The income level of the shoppers varied, from the bottom quartile of US income to over $70,000. In the first experiment, participants were asked to think about a decision about how to pay for car repairs, and were randomized to inexpensive ($150) or expensive ($1500) costs of the repair. They were then asked to perform simple cognitive tests on a computer. Among those asked to think about the inexpensive repair, there were no significant differences by income level in performance of the cognitive task. By contrast, there were significant differences in performance by income among those confronted with the more expensive repair. Variations on this experiment involved problems where sums of money were not involved (to control for math anxiety), incentives in the form of getting paid for getting the right answers on the cognitive tests, and situations in which participants came to a decision about the financial problem, engaged in intervening activities, and then were asked to perform the cognitive tests. Each of these variations produced results similar to the initial experiment: the performance of people in poverty on the cognitive tests was significantly associated with the expensive repair, but the performance of those in higher income groups was not.
In the authors' second study, participants were a random sample of sugar cane farmers in Tamil Nadu in southern India. They were interviewed before and after the cane harvest. Pre-harvest the farmers faced more significant financial pressures (as measured by criteria such as numbers of pawned items, numbers of loans, and the like) than post-harvest. Performance on cognitive function tests was significantly higher post-harvest than pre-harvest. Because the cane harvest extends over a considerable time period, the authors were able to control for calendar effects; the difference was similar early or later in the 5 month period of the harvest. The authors conclude that poverty has about the same cognitive consequences as the loss of a night's sleep.
To be sure, other variables might explain the authors' findings. They are careful to discuss many of these such as physical exertion, stress, nutrition, or training effects. If the authors are right, however, their findings have some impressive implications for health policy. One, which they note, is that it may just be more difficult for people who are poor to perform complex tasks needed to apply for eligibility for programs such as Medicaid (why are we surprised that so many who are eligible don't sign up?). Another is that programs designed to incentivize healthy behaviors may just not work very well if they ignore cognitive loads.
September 5, 2013 in Access, Affordable Care Act, Consumers, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Economics, Health Reform, Medicaid, Obesity, Prevention, Public Health, Uninsured | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, August 26, 2013
Challenges designed to spur innovative uses of data are springing up frequently. These are contests, sponsored by a mix of government agencies, industry, foundations, a variety of not-for-profit groups, or even individuals. They offer prize money or other incentives for people or teams to come up with solutions to a wide range of problems. In addition to grand prizes, they often offer many smaller prizes or networking opportunities. The latest such challenge to come to my attention was announced August 19 by the Knight Foundation: $2 million for answers to the question "how can we harnass data and information for the health of communities?" Companion prizes, of up to $200,000, are also being offered by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the California Healthcare Foundation.
Such challenges are also a favorite of the Obama administration. From promoting Obamacare among younger Americans (over 100 prizes of up to $30,000)--now entered by Karl Rove's Crossroads group--to arms control and identification of sewer overflows, the federal government has gone in for challenges big time. Check out challenge.gov to see the impressive list. Use of information and technological innovation feature prominently in the challenges, but there is also a challenge for "innovative communications strategies to target individuals who experience high levels of involuntary breaks ("churn") in health insurance coverage" (from SAMHSA), a challenge to design posters to educate kids about concussions (from CDC), a challenge to develop a robot that can retrieve samples (from NASA), and a challenge to use technology for atrocity prevention (from USAID and Humanity United). All in all, some 285 challenges sponsored by the federal government are currently active, although for some the submission period has closed.
These challenges are entertaining, call on crowdsourcing for knowledge production, find new sources of expertise way beyond the Beltway or even US borders, encourage private sector groups rather than government to bear costs and risks of development (or failure), and may bring novel and highly useful ideas to light. So what's not to like? I may be just grumpy today, but I have some serious worries about the rush to challenges as a way to solve persistent or apparently intractable problems.
Challenges may be more hype than achievement, more heat than ultimate light. They may emphasize the quick and clever--the nifty over the difficult or profound. They may substitute the excitement of awarding and winning a prize for making real progress on a problem. Most troubling to me, however, is the challenge strategy's potential to skew what government finds interesting and what it is willing to do. Many challenges have private partners in industry, appear likely to result in for-profit products, or set aside values that may be more difficult to quantify or instantiate.
Take the HHS Datapalooza, for example. Now entering its fifth year, the Datapalooza is an annual celebration of innovations designed to make use of health data available from a wide variety of sources, including government health data. "Data liberation" is the watchword, with periodic but limited references to data protection, security and privacy. A look at the 2013 agenda reveals a planning committee representing start-ups and venture capital. It also reveals a $500,000 prize awarded by Heritage Provider Network, a managed care organization originally located in Southern California but now expanding in markets in Arizona and New York and serving many Medicare Advantage patients. The prize was for a model to predict hospitalizations accurately and in advance--so that they could be avoided. The winning team, powerdot, didn't reach the benchmark needed to win the full $3m prize. So . . . Heritage is continuing the competition, making more (and apparently no longer deidentified) data available to a select set of leading competitors in the original competition in order to improve the accuracy of the modeling. (A description of deidentification methods for the data made available to all entrants in the original competition is available here.) There are of course real advantages in developing a good predictive model--for patients in avoiding hospitalizations, and for Heritage in saving money in patient care. This is potentially a "win win"--as Mark Wagar, the executive awarding the prize stated, "it's not just about the money; it's personal." But "it's not just about the money" is telling: the risk of these challenges is that they are about the money, and that the money will come to dominate personal or other values unless we are careful.
Solutions, if my concerns are well-founded? Trying to turn back the disruptive clock and fight the appeal of challenges is probably futile--although perhaps some of the initial enthusiasm may wane. One solution is to join in--after all, challenges are infectious and potentially innovative--encouraging more challenges aimed at different problems--say, challenges for privacy or security protection alongside challenges for data liberation and use. Or, challenges for improving patient understanding of their health conditions and informed consent to strategies for managing them--as some of the challenges aimed at patients with diabetes illustrate. Another solution is to watch very carefully what challenges are offered, who funds them, who wins them, and what is ultimately achieved by them.
August 26, 2013 in Bioethics, Biotech, Competition, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health IT, Health Reform, Obama Administration, privacy, Reform, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Saturday, August 17, 2013
This past week, the New York Times published a story about yet another delay in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Earlier this summer, NPR also reported the delay, which concerns total limits on out of pocket costs that consumers can be required to pay. Under ACA, beginning in 2014 consumers were supposed to have to meet only one out of pocket limit--$6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family--including all deductibles and co-payments. But the Times story reports that insurers have been granted a year's grace in implementing this requirement and quotes an administration official as attributing this decision to the inability of insurance plans to communicate with each other in determining out of pocket costs.
Both stories emphasize the plight of patients who are covered under separate medical and pharmacy benefit plans. Pharmacy plans in particular may have very high copayments, without annual limits. Patients with expensive drug needs for diseases such as multiple sclerosis are especially hard hit by these benefit structures.
As I ruminated on this delay, it occurred to me that the problem of the plans' inability to communicate with one another is the plan's problem, not the patient's. To say the least, it does seem rather unfair to have patients bear all of the costs of the delay.
Moreover, there is a model that could have been used to implement the single limit: submission of claims for out-of-network care. Patients do this all the time and receive reimbursement to the extent covered by their plans. The payer has a record of the claim and can credit it against the patient's deductible. Why couldn't this model have been applied to the problem of multiple plans for patients? It would be simple. These are primarily patients with employer-provided plans. All that would be needed would be to stipulate which plan is primary for the purpose of maintaining the single out of pocket total. Medical plans are used to maintaining such totals. If the medical plan were stipulated to be the primary plan, all the patient would need to do would be to submit records of out of pocket payments under their pharmacy plans. When patients meet the out of pocket total for the year, they would no longer be responsible for copays or deductibles from the primary plan. How would other plans know about this? Patients will receive records from their primary plans that they have met their deductible for the year. They would then be responsible for submitting these records to their other plans--after which the other plans would no longer be able to charge copays or deductibles.
This approach, to be sure, puts the burden on patients to solve the communication problem. But I'm surprised notbody seems to have entertained this suggestion, in a health care climate that heralds patient responsibility. Perhaps the difficulty instead is that the multiple-plan structure emerged as a way to limit health care costs for payers by shifting costs to consumers.
August 17, 2013 in Accountable Care Organizations, Affordable Care Act, Consumers, Cost, Employer-Sponsored Insurance, Health Care Costs, Insurance, Payment, Reform, Spending | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, July 8, 2013
In yesterday's New York Times, Ross Douthat joined the chorus that criticizes employer-sponsored health care insurance. According to Douthat, this "unsustainable relic" is a "burden on businesses, a source of perverse incentives for the health care market and an obstacle to more efficient, affordable and universal coverage."
In fact, the United States is not unusual in the extent to which it relies on companies to fund health care coverage. Indeed, employers in France, Germany and Japan shoulder a higher percentage of their countries' national health spending than do U.S. employers. Government-run systems must find sources of funding for their programs, and employers are an obvious place to look.
To be sure, there are problems with employer-sponsored coverage, but the Affordable Care Act (ACA) takes care of a very important one. Employer-sponsored coverage has promoted "job lock" in the United States. Many would-be entrepreneurs have been reluctant to start their own companies because they would lose their employer-sponsored coverage and have to pay for insurance out of their own pocket. For people with pre-existing medical conditions, insurance might not be available. Under ACA, the new entrepreneur will be able to find an affordable health care plan on an insurance exchange.
The abandonment of employer-sponsored coverage would reduce the burden on businesses only if health care costs overall were lower under the replacement system. Many health care policy experts observe that costs are lower in government-run systems overseas because the governments can exercise greater negotiating leverage with doctors and hospitals than can insurance companies in the United States. In short, the high cost of U.S. health care and its burden on business seems to be not so much a problem of relying on employers rather than individuals to purchase coverage but a problem of relying on private insurers rather than government to operate the system.
Saturday, May 25, 2013
It's no secret that the night staff of a hospital are both over-worked and over-tired. Nor is it any secret that many medical errors occur at night. But until we look at the totality of the human factors making up medical error, we are unlikely to make significant headway in addressing it. A review of the literature suggests that the reason isn't a lack of understanding about the factors which cause human errors, it's concern about the cost of addressing them.
The authors of a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled, Relationship Between Occurrence of Surgical Complications and Hospital Finances conclude that not only aren’t hospitals doing all they can to reduce medical errors, they actually have no financial incentives to do so.
I'd suggest that financial incentives are behind ineffective efforts to address the issues of staff over-work and the inherent dangers of intermittent shift work.
It's no surprise that another widely reported recent study has found that reductions in the hours medical residents work has not resulted in increased patient safety. The study authors conclude that this is because although residents worked less hours, they did not have a reduced work load. So, like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, the trying to cram more work in the same amount of time increased resident error.
The findings of that study need to be seen in combination with the vast amount of scientific research on the increase in errors caused during night shifts. A recent study of nurses working night shifts showed that “on average, the error rate increase 6% after the second night shift in a row, 17% after the third successive night shift and an astounding 35% higher on the fourth night shift.” See also this and this article by the Joint Commission. Although no one disputes the reality that human beings perform best in the day time, every hospital must be fully staffed 24 hours a day. The information is both anecdotal and research based. But no one seems to be listening.
An article in Nursing World does an excellent job of using available research to describe the scope of the problem, but implies that it can be effectively addressed by nurses proactively paying more attention to their sleep patterns. It advises nurses working the night shift to “take control of sleep.” In fact the NSF “recommends that nurses wear wrap around sunglasses when driving home so the body is less aware that it is daylight.” This advice ignores the scientific reality that humans are not as effective or alert at night as they are in the day time. Nor does it consider the human reality that medical shift workers do not have the luxury of using their days to sleep. Like everyone else living in a diurnal world, they must cope with the tasks of family and daily living.
Techniques like wearing dark glasses may work in making a shift to a new rhythm--like travelling to another time zone. But given the unlikeliness of medical staff to convert to a permanent change in their circadian rhthyms, as if they were working in a submarine (and that doesn’t work very well either) the answer is to address the reality that humans are less effective at recognizing problems and completing complex tasks at night. But that’s not where the problem solving is going.
May 25, 2013 in Cost, Effectiveness, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Economics, Health Law, Hospital Finances, Hospitals, Insurance, Medical Malpractice, Nurses, Patient Safety, Payment, Physicians, Policy, Public Health, Quality, Quality Improvement, Reform, Research, Science and Health, Substance Abuse | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)