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)
Monday, March 24, 2014
Tomorrow, the D.C. Circuit will hear oral arguments in Halbig v. Sebelius. This is the litigation in which parties hostile to the ACA are challenging the IRS rule that makes tax subsidies available in federally run health insurance exchanges. Abbe Gluck has posted a deconstruction of the challengers' legislative and historical arguments at Balkinization, including a new post this morning discussing factual and historical inaccuracies in the appellants brief. I want to address one of those arguments here: the analogy that the health insurance exchanges are somehow like the Medicaid expansion ruled unconstitutionally coercive in NFIB v. Sebelius. This comparison is so far off the mark, it reveals the underlying goal, which is to test the breadth of NFIB's coercion holding at every opportunity and to challenge federal power writ large.
The ACA expanded Medicaid eligibility to everyone up to 133% of the federal poverty level, and the states challenged that expansion in NFIB on the theory that they could lose all of their funding under the terms of the Medicaid Act if states refused to expand. The Court found that the expansion of Medicaid was a change in "kind" rather than "degree" and that the funding for the "old Medicaid" program could not be jeopardized for state refusal to comply with the "new Medicaid" program as envisioned in the ACA. As I have written elsewhere, the Court's unconstitutional coercion analysis was full of holes. One of those holes was nonsensical statutory interpretation, namely that the Medicaid expansion was too different from the Medicaid Act for coercion analysis purposes, but that it was similar enough for purposes of limiting the Secretary's authority to withhold or withdraw state Medicaid funding. But, that authority was not in the ACA (contrary to popular perception), it was in the language of the original Medicaid Act. The new/old Medicaid distinction was statutorily nonsensical, and yet it led to a newly recognized coercion doctrine that limits Congress's power to influence state policy through federal spending.
The Halbig appellants want federal courts to engage in this new coercion analysis by virtue of similarly absurd statutory interpretation. They ask the D.C. Circuit to deem the federal exchange funding offered to states to be struck down as coercive; but, they argue it is coercive not because of the money offered to states to create exchanges, but rather because of the tax credits that would not be available to individuals in exchanges established by the federal government. This causal chain is too attenuated; the claim is basically that the states were influenced not by the federal offer of funds but by the unavailability of tax credits for their citizens in federal exchanges. If this indirect coercion were possible, it is hard to imagine that two-thirds of states would have rejected the option to run state exchanges. It also breaks the link between the federal funding, the condition, and the supposed coercion (which is really a germaneness problem). States do not receive insurance premium tax credits, individuals do. States were offered moderate sums to establish their exchanges, and the loss of that moderate sum did not change the state's status at all. The appellants have mischaracterized the nature of the funding and the result of state rejection of that federal funding.
In addition, this argument can easily be turned on its head. Consider, for example, the Amicus Brief for the Commonwealth of Virginia in King v. Sebelius, recently filed in the Fourth Circuit's version of this tax credit litigation. Virginia argues that it was not aware that its citizens would lose access to tax credits if it rejected the funding to create its own exchange, thereby creating the polar opposite clear notice problem because Virginia believed its citizens would still have access to affordable health insurance if they invited the federally run exchange into the state. (See Kevin Outterson's post on Virginia's brief at The Incidental Economist.)
Clearly, exchange funding is different from Medicaid conditional spending. The ACA offered money to persuade states to participate in the establishment of exchanges, but the federal government will proceed without the states in the effort to establish near-universal insurance coverage. Congress would have dismantled its own goal of near-universal insurance coverage if it denied tax credits in federally run exchanges. This is the hope of the Halbig challengers, that the D.C. Circuit will dismantle the ACA's tax credit structure for federal exchanges and gut access to health insurance. Unfortunately, if they succeed, real people will be harmed.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
I am pleased to share the Medicaid Matters symposium issue that has just been published in Volume 102, Book 2, of the Kentucky Law Journal. This special issue includes articles from Brietta Clark, Mary Crossley, John Jacobi, Elizabeth Weeks Leonard, Laura Hermer (with Merle Lenihan), Sallie Sanford, and Sidney Watson (and me). This is an excellent collection of thoughtful articles that resulted from a day-long workshop on Medicaid in the post-ACA world. Many thanks to the participants in the workshop, and I hope you will enjoy the fruits of their labors!
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)
Friday, January 17, 2014
On Wednesday, Judge Friedman (U.S. District Court, District of Columbia) granted summary judgment to Secretary Sebelius in Halbig v. Sebelius (2014 WL 129023). Individual plaintiffs and small businesses, supported by the Cato Institute, Competetive Enterprise Institute, and others, challenged the availability of tax credits in federally-run Health Insurance Exchanges as exceeding the IRS's administrative authority. The court found that the statute, Congress's intent, and the legislative history of the Affordable Care Act supported the IRS's regulations. Thus, tax credits will be available in Exchanges whether the insurance is purchased on an exchange created by a state or an exchange created by the federal government standing in the state's shoes. The opinion engaged in careful statutory analysis and found the first part of the Chevron test answered the legal questions the plaintiffs presented (though a footnote provided a quick second step analysis anyway). Professor Gluck called this decision a big win for the ACA given that Chevron deference was not necessary in the court's analysis, and the court's methodical statutory analysis is certainly persuasive. (Professor Bagley posted a similarly sanguine analysis here.) By all accounts, this decision is a win for the Obama Administration.
This solid decision ought to end this frivolous litigation, but the plaintiffs have already stated that they will file an appeal. As I discussed here and here, even though these challenges have no statutory traction, the plaintiffs are financially well supported, and they have the means to continue pressing their theories up the federal court ladder. And, the political climate inspires unhappy policy losers to pursue their desired outcome through the judicial branch when they have lost in the legislative and executive branches. Although the decision in NFIB v. Sebelius allowed the ACA to move forward, it opened the courthouse doors to litigation such as this, which pushes legal reasoning in directions that would not have been considered serious before the successes of the NFIB litigation. While I do not believe that Halbig et al. have a real case for preventing tax credits in federally-run exchanges, that will not necessarily prevent another federal court from finding a differently.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Yesterday's reports on the annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association indicated disarray over the Medicaid expansion, and an opinion piece in the NYT highlighted the common story that only half of states are expanding their Medicaid programs. If CMS is counting, then this tally is correct, as the federal agency can only account for those states that have submitted the proper documentation for expansion. But this is not the only way to consider the states' decisionmaking regarding the expansion. I have just posted a short essay preliminarily detailing research I have performed over the last several months, which reveals that many states currently counted as "not participating" are acting to expand their Medicaid programs. Here is the abstract:
November 23, 2013 in Affordable Care Act, CMS, Constitutional, Health Care Reform, Health Law, Health Reform, HHS, Medicaid, Obama Administration, PPACA, Spending | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Monday, October 7, 2013
[Cross posted today at Constitution Daily:]
The Affordable Care Act expresses many goals, but its heart is the desire to create a health insurance home for all Americans. The American healthcare system historically exists at the pleasure of a number of stakeholders and is not a coherent whole. This lack of system is reflected in the consistent tensions that underlie American healthcare, most notably federal power versus state power; the collective versus the individual; and the individual versus the state. In creating near-universal health insurance, the ACA has resolved one of those tensions, individual versus the collective, in favor of the collective. To that end, the ACA eliminated many of the practices health insurers used to cherry pick policyholders, which excluded people who need medical care from their risk pools. In so doing, the ACA represented a federal choice to make all people insurable, whatever their wealth, age, medical history, sex, race, or other distinguishing factor.
Despite the redirection this leveling of the health insurance playing field represents, the ACA did not craft a coherent whole out of the American healthcare system. Instead, the ACA remodels the preexisting, unstable healthcare system. In building on the old foundation rather than starting anew, the law retained the historic role of the states in regulating medical matters. To that end, the ACA urged the states to implement two key aspects of its insurance modifications: Health Insurance Exchanges and the expansion of the Medicaid program. The federal government has the power under the Spending Clause to create a federally-run insurance mechanism, but it chose instead to employ cooperative federalism to keep states engaged in healthcare policymaking. The trouble is that some states have not been cooperating with these central legislative goals.
The Exchanges, or Marketplaces, are an instrument through which qualified private health insurance plans can be purchased by individuals or small businesses. The states were offered federal funding to create their own state-run Exchanges, which were operative as of October 1, 2013 (Tuesday last week). Many states created Exchanges, but many rejected them as an expression of their distaste for the ACA. Predictably, many of the states that have refused to create their own Exchanges were the same states that challenged the constitutionality of the ACA. While there is value in dissent, the states that refused to create Exchanges invited more federal power into the state, because rejecting the federal offer for funding to create a state-run Exchange did not halt Exchanges from coming into existence. Instead, the ACA tasked the federal government with operating Exchanges in states that did not create their own. While expressing a desire to protect their state sovereignty, these states have invited federal authority into their borders. Though the Exchanges at both the state and federal levels have experienced some technical glitches this week, it appears that many people are eager to purchase insurance through them and that they have been successful at doing so. The states that rejected Exchanges have not stopped implementation of the law, but their actions have other notable ramifications.
The Medicaid expansion was designed to catch childless adults under age 65 and below 133% of the federal poverty level in Medicaid’s safety net. As with other modifications to the Medicaid program over the years, the expansion added a new element to the Medicaid Act that states could reject, but they could lose all of their funding if they made that choice. The day the ACA was signed into law, states challenged the expansion of the Medicaid program as unconstitutionally coercive. They succeeded on this claim in NFIB v. Sebelius, and the Court rendered the expansion optional for states. Immediately pundits began to question whether the states would participate in the Medicaid expansion.
Though national media tallies make it appear that just over half of the states are participating in the Medicaid expansion, in reality the number is and will be much higher. In almost every state reported as “leaning toward not participating,” and in many states reported as “not participating,” some significant act has occurred to explore implementation of the Medicaid expansion. Some states have special commissions or task forces researching expansion; some state governors have indicated a desire to participate and have included the expansion in the budget; some legislatures have held debate or scheduled it for the next session; and so on. Though some states will not have their Medicaid expansions running by January 1, 2014, it seems very likely that most if not all states will participate in the expansion in the relatively near future.
In the meantime, state non-cooperation will have a direct effect on some of the nation’s poorest citizens. People from 100% to 400% of the federal poverty level are eligible to receive tax credits for purchasing insurance in the Exchanges. In states with no expansion, people above 100% of the federal poverty level who would have qualified for Medicaid will still be able to obtain insurance through federal subsidies in the Exchanges. But, people who are below 100% of the federal poverty level will be too poor for tax-credits and living in states that have not yet expanded their Medicaid programs, therefore they will not be able to enroll in Medicaid either. These very low income people will not be penalized for failing to carry health insurance, but they will not have health insurance either. These individuals will get caught in a health insurance black hole that exists in part because the Court allowed states to refuse Medicaid expansion and in part because of state resistance to partnering in the implementation of the ACA.
State cooperation in the Medicaid expansion is even more important than state participation in the Exchanges, because many thousands of people may not get the access to health insurance that is the promise of the ACA. The debate over the meaning of federalism that swirls around political and academic circles will have a direct and important effect on the people who can least afford it. The good news for them is that Medicaid’s history indicates that all states eventually participate in the program and its amendments, but this week’s implementation of the Exchanges keeps access to medical care through health insurance tantalizingly out of reach.
October 7, 2013 in Affordable Care Act, Constitutional, Health Care, Health Care Reform, Health Law, Health Reform, Medicaid, Obama Administration, PPACA, Private Insurance, Spending, State Initiatives | 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.
Friday, September 27, 2013
Big news in the world of ACA implementation: CMS approved Arkansas' proposed waiver for an alternative mechanism for Medicaid expansion, which is to be called the Arkansas Health Care Independence Program. Arkansas proposed a premium assistance program, wherein newly eligible Medicaid beneficiaries will obtain insurance through the Arkansas health insurance exchange by receiving financial assistance for premium costs. This will place the new Medicaid population in qualified health insurance plans, i.e. private health insurance, which is administratively more expensive than government-sponsored insurance, but it may help to deal with the problem of "churn" between Medicaid and Marketplace-based private insurance.
CMS's approval of Arkansas' Medicaid demonstration program is significant for a number of reasons, but here I'd like to focus on what I think is one of the biggest: this waiver approval will pave the way for other states that are "undecided" to finally declare their intent to expand their Medicaid programs. I believe this will happen relatively quickly, because most states are already working on expansion. You would not think this is true from the national media's reporting on the Medicaid expansion. If you have been following any of the many color-coded maps depicting the five possible categories of expansion (expanding, not expanding, leaning toward expanding, leaning toward not expanding, and alternative model), you would think that just over half of the states are participating in the Medicaid expansion. The national media has gotten this story wrong, because they do not pick up on the negotiations, investigations, committees, special commissions, and other ways in which the "leanging toward not participating" states are actually exploring how they can expand their Medicaid programs. To understand how dynamic the state decision making is, you have to track the local newspapers that follow every move of the state legislatures and their conversations with their governors (which I have been doing all summer).
After NFIB v. Sebelius was decided, I wrote that most states would still expand their Medicaid programs. It appears that most states are now working toward Medicaid expansion in some form. In future posts, I will explain this dynamic federalism story in more detail. For today, I will emphasize that CMS has opened the door to more state waivers, which will lead to more states expanding their Medicaid programs. Though I am not necessarily on board with federalism by waiver, espcially given states' history of waiver mistakes and failures, I do think that in this instance, alternative expansion is better than no expansion. Otherwise, many of our poorest citizens will be left out of the attempt at national insurance coverage, not paying a penalty, but not having access to much-needed healthcare either.
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)