Category Archives: complexity

ACA Gains Reversing

The Commonwealth Fund reported today that the marked gains in health insurance coverage made since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 are beginning to reverse.

This is according to new findings from the latest Commonwealth Fund ACA Tracking Survey.

According to the survey, the coverage declines are likely the result of two major factors:

1) lack of federal legislative actions to improve specific weaknesses in the ACA and

2) actions by the current administration that have exacerbated those weaknesses. These include the administration’s deep cuts in advertising and outreach during the marketplace open-enrollment periods, a shorter open enrollment period, and other actions that collectively may have left people with a general sense of confusion about the status of the law.

Here are the key findings:

*  About 4 million working-age people have lost insurance coverage since 2016
*  The uninsured rates among lower-income adults rose from 20.9 percent in 2016 to 25.7 percent in March 2018
*  The uninsured rate among working-age adults increased to 15.5 percent
*  The uninsured rate among adults in states that did not expand Medicaid rose to 21.9 percent
*  The uninsured rate increased among adults age 35 and older
*  The uninsured rate among adults who identify as Republicans is higher compared to 2016
*  The uninsured rate remains highest in southern states
*  Five percent of insured adults plan to drop insurance because of the individual mandate repeal
What are the policy implications of this reversal?
The absence of bipartisan support for federal action has seen legislative activity shifted to the states.
Broadly, the leaving of policy innovation to states will lead to a patchwork quilt of coverage and access to health care across the country. It will fuel inequity in overall health, productivity, and well-being.
Folks, as I wrote about in What’s Really Wrong With Health Care? and Obamacare: The Last Stage of Neoliberal Health Reform, until we see a change in the consciousness of both the American people, their representatives in Congress, and in Corporate America, especially within the financial industry to radically alter the direction health care is heading, the situation will only get worse.
We need to get the money and the greed and the corporations out of health care altogether. We need a single payer system that does not proletarianize physicians, does not turn health care into a commodity, does not financialize it, commercialize it, and compromise it for the benefit of a few, and to the detriment to the many.
As this is May Day, the international workers’ day, wouldn’t it be nice if we could start moving in that direction, as so many other nations have already done?
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CMS’s Price Transparency Trick

Shoutout to Promed Costa Rica for the following article posted today on Facebook.

http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20180425/NEWS/180429939?utm_source=modernhealthcare&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20180425-NEWS-180429939&utm_campaign=am

CMS has been for decades the crux of the problem with the American health care system, Every model, program and scheme they have implemented addresses only the symptoms, but not the cause of the disease the patient is suffering from.

As I wrote yesterday, and the week before in my review of Health Care under the Knife, the real cause of the complexity, confusion, dysfunction and overall failures of the health care system is the system itself — meaning the economic system that has proletarianized physicians, commodified, corporatized, financialized, and monopolized health care in this country.

So now, this talk of price transparency, when the cost of care is already too high compared to other Western nations, is just a placebo being administered to a dying patient — the American health care system.

Remember these words:

“America’s health care system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.”

Walter Cronkite

Federal Spending Increased Due to Medicare ACO’s

Once again, a topic previously discussed here has raised its head.

This time, it is the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), Medicare’s largest alternative payment model (APM).

Readers of this blog will recall previous posts about this topic. The first, from September 2015, Shared Savings ACO Program Reaps the Most for Primary-care Physicians reported that primary-care physicians were benefiting the most from the shared savings.

The next post, Challenges Remain in Physician Payment Reform, which followed on the heels of the first, discussed the challenges that remained in reforming physician payment, after then President Barack Obama (the good ole’ days) signed the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) back in April.

MACRA repealed the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) mechanism of updating fees to the Physician Fee Schedule (PFS), and had been blamed for causing instability and uncertainty among physicians for over a decade, and that led to 17 overrides of scheduled fee cuts, at a cost of over $ 150 billion.

In Models, Models, Have We Got Models!, I suggested, rather strongly that all these models were not living up to their promise and was only creating more complexity, confusion, and dysfunction in an already dysfunctional health care system.

A post from January 2017, Illogical!, reported on yet another asinine model introduction by CMS at the Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network (LAN) Fall Summit by Adminstrator Seema Verna.

So when I received an email today from Dr. Don McCanne, former president of the Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP) that mentioned a press release from Avalere Health indicating that Medicare ACO’s have increased federal spending despite projections that said they would produce net savings.

According to the press release, the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) has performed considerably below the financial estimates from the CBO that was made in 2010 when the MSSP was enacted as part of the ACA.

Avalere’s press release said that this has raised questions about the long-term success of Medicare’s largest alternative payment model (APM).

The MSSP has grown from 27 ACO’s in 2012 to 561 in 2016, and most of them continue to select the upside-only Track 1, the release continued, which does not require participants to repay CMS for spending above their target.

As seen in the figure below, Avalere’s research found that the actual ACO net savings have fallen short of initial CBO projectios by more than $2 billion.

However, in 2010, the CBO projected that the MSSP would produce $1.7 billion in net savings from 2013 to 2016. Yet, it actually increased federal spending by $384 million over that same period, a difference of more than $2 billion.

Josh Seidman, senior vice president at Avalere said, “The Medicare ACO program has not achieved the savings that CBO predicted because most ACO’s have chosen the bonus-only model.”

Avalere also found that while the MSSP was overall a net cost to VMS in 2016, there is evidence that individual ACO performance improves as they gain years of experience. Avalere found that MSSP ACO’s in their fourth year produce net savings to the federal budget totaling $152 million, as shown in the next figure.

Avalere’s analysis also showed that the downside-risk models in the MSSP experienced more positive financial results overall. This indicates that there is potential for greater savings over time to CMS as the number of downside-risk ACO’s increase.

The upside-only model increased federal spending by $444 million compared to the downside-risk ACO’s $60 million over 5 years.

“While data do suggest that more experienced ACO’s and those accepting two-sided risk may help the program to turn the corner in the future, the long-term sustainability of savings in the MSSP is unclear. ACO’s continue to be measured against their past performance, which makes it harder for successful ACO’s to continue to achieve savings over time,” said Avalere’s director, John Feore.

The weird part is that despite the MSSP increasing federal spending, ACO’s are still reducing spending compared to projected benchmarks.

If you are increasing spending, then how can you at the same time be reducing spending? Isn’t this a health care oxymoron?

Which brings me back to my previous posts. CMS is a clusterfudge of programs, models, rules, regulations, and schemes that have done nothing to improve the health care system in the US. In point of fact, it has only added to the confusion, complexity, dysfunction, and wastefulness of a system no other nation has.

When are we going to wake up from this nightmare and deep six the market-driven disaster that is the American health care system? There are saner alternatives, but we are so mentally ill and obsessed with profiting from people’s illnesses that nothing changes.

Einstein was right. The definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We are crazy to continue with this mess.

Illogical!

Picking up where I left off last week with my post, Regulation Strangulation, regarding too much regulation, a series of articles from earlier this week, published in various health care journals and magazines, discussed a new scheme the good folks at CMS have cooked up to make our health care “system” better. (Or worse, depending on whether you have drunk the kool-aid yet)

You may recall my post from late last year, Models, Models, Have We Got Models!, that reported that CMS was launching three new policies to continue the push toward value-based care, rewarding hospitals that work with physicians and other providers to avoid complications, prevent readmissions and speed recovery.

In that article, I mentioned the various models CMS was implementing. My view then, as it remains today, is that these models have not worked, and have only made matters worse, not better.

So when CMS unveiled their latest scheme recently when Administrator Seema Verma spoke at the Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network (LAN) Fall Summit, this is what she said:

The LAN offers a unique and important opportunity for payors, providers, and other stakeholders to work with CMS , in partnership, to develop innovative approaches to improving our health care system. Since 2015, the LAN has focused on working to shift away from a fee-for-service system that rewards volume instead of quality…We all agree that quality measures are a critical component of paying for value. But we also understand that there is a financial cost as well as an opportunity cost to reporting measures…That’s why we’re revising current quality measures across all programs to ensure that measure sets are streamlined, outcomes-based, and meaningful to doctors and patients…And, we’re announcing today our new comprehensive initiative, “Meaningful Measures.”

Let’s dissect her comments so we can understand just how complicated this so-called system has become.

  1. Develop innovative approaches? How’s that working for you?
  2. Improving our health care system? Really? What planet are you living on?
  3. Financial cost? Yeah, for those who can afford it.
  4. Revising current quality measures? Haven’t you done that already after all these years?
  5. “Meaningful Measures”. Now there’s a catchy phrase if I ever heard one. You mean they weren’t meaningful before?

You have to wonder what they are doing in Washington if this is the level of insanity and inanity coming out of the bureaucracy on top of our health care system.

In an article in Health Data Management, Jeff Smith, vice president of public policy for the American Medical Informatics Association stated the following regarding the new CMS initiative.

According to Smith, “the goals are laudable, but the talking points have been with us for several years’ now…measurement depends on agreed-upon definitions of quality, and in an electronic environment, it requires access to and use of computable data. If CMS is going to turn these talking points into reality, it will need to put forth far more resources and commit additional experts to a complete overhaul of electronic quality measures for value-based payments.”

Mr. Smith’s comments are at least an indication that not everyone goes along with CMS every time they unveil some new initiative, model, or program, but again we see the words associated with the consuming of health care being used in discussing the current state of affairs. Terms like “value-based payments”, and “quality measures”, and “financial/opportunity cost”, etc., only obscure the real problem with our health care system. It is a profit-driven system and not a patient-driven system.

Let’s push on.

A report mentioned Monday in Markets Insider showed that 29% of total US health care payments were tied to alternative payment models (APMs) in 2016, compared to 23% in 2015, an increase of six percentage points. These APMs were discussed previously in Models, Models, Have We Got Models!,

The report was issued by the LAN, and is the second year of the LAN APM Measurement Effort (try saying that three times fast). They captured actual health care spending in 2016 from four data sources, the LAN, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA), and CMS across all segments, and categorized them to four categories of the original LAN APM Framework. (Boy, you must be tired trying to remember all these acronyms and titles!)

Here are their results:

  • 43% of health care dollars in Category 1 (traditional FFS or other legacy payments)
  • 28 % of health care dollars in Category 2 (pay-for-performance or care coordination fees)
  • 29% of health care dollars in a composite of Categories 3 and 4 (shared savings, shared risk, bundled payments, or population-based)

Speaking of shared savings, an article in Modern Healthcare reported that CMS’ Medicare shared savings program paid out more in bonuses to ACO’s than the savings those participants generated.

As per the report, about 56% of the 432 Medicare ACOs generated a total of $652 million in savings in 2016. CMS paid $691 million in bonuses to ACOs, resulting in a loss of $39 million from the program.

Chief Research Officer at Leavitt Partners, David Muhlestein said, “Medicare isn’t saving money.”

This is attributed to the fact that 95% of the Medicare ACOs (410) participated in Track 1 of the Medicare Shared Savings Program. Only 22% participated in tracks 2 and 3.

Two more articles go on to discuss a Medicare bundled-pay initiative and the Medicare Merit-based Payment System (MIPS) .

What does this all mean?

It has been long apparent to this observer that the American health care system is a failure through and through. Sure, there are great strides being made daily in new technology and therapies. A member of my family just benefited from one such innovation in cardiac care. But luckily, they have insurance from Medicare and a secondary payor.

But many do not, and not many can afford the second level of insurance. From my studies and my writing, I have seen a system that is totally out of whack due to the commercialization and commodification of health care services.

And knowing a little of other Western nations’ health care systems, I find it hard to believe that they are like this as well. We must change this and change this now.

If Medicare is losing money now, with the limited pool of beneficiaries, perhaps a larger pool, with little or no over-regulation and so many initiatives, models, and programs, can do a better job. Because what has been tried before isn’t working, and is getting worse.

The logical thing to do is to make a clean break with the past. Medicare for All, or something like it.

 

 

CMS Proposes to Allow States to Define Health Benefits

A connection of mine today posted a link to a CMS Fact Sheet in which they propose to allow states to define essential health benefits beginning January 1, 2019.

According to the fact sheet, this rule is intended to increase flexibility in the individual market, improve program integrity, and reduce regulatory burdens associated with the PPACA in the individual and small group markets. (See my post, “Regulation Strangulation“)

The rule also includes proposals that would provide states with more options in how the essential health benefits (EHBs) are defined for their state, it would also enhance the role of states related to qualified health plan (QHP) certification, and to provide states with additional flexibility in the operation and establishment of Exchanges, particularly the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) Exchanges.

Finally, they propose to permit states to reduce the magnitude of risk adjustment transfers in the small group market to minimize unnecessary burden, and proposes other changes that would streamline the Exchange consumer experience and the individual and small group markets.

What does this really mean?

Anytime the federal government attempts to allow the individual states to determine or define certain social benefits, we end up with a hodgepodge of rules, regulations, costs of impairment, etc.

We know that in certain states, the loss of a body part in one state has an impairment value different from the same body part in another state, according to the ProPublica report .

So when I see that CMS wants to allow states to define what essential health benefits are,  we have to ask ourselves, what do they mean by essential, and is one state’s essential health benefits, another state’s burden?

I understand that certain states, particularly so-called “Red” states with conservative governors and legislatures, will be free to decide that certain treatments and procedures are just too expensive for them to cover, or that they violate the ethical or moral sentiments of the community in the state, i.e., abortion, birth control, sexual reassignment surgery, etc.

Allowing states to define and decide what is essential and what is not, may be harmful to the health of many of their citizens, even if it saves the state money.

And I am rather leery of CMS’s desire to “strengthen” the individual or small group markets, because who decides what constitutes strengthening, and who makes those decisions and under what circumstances.

Rather than allowing legislators and governors to decide what medical care their citizens can receive in their state, rather than trying to shore up a market, whether it is the individual market or the group market, we should move to provide all Americans with the same health care and the same medical benefits, coast to coast, under a Medicare for All plan.

Anything less would be worse than what we have now, and would be more costly and more complex and confusing. This rule should be scraped.

Regulation Strangulation

The American Hospital Association (AHA) released a report that stated that there is too much regulation that is impacting patient care.

The report, Regulatory Overload Assessing the Regulatory Burden on Health Systems, Hospitals, and Post-acute Care Providers, concludes with the following assessment:

Health systems, hospitals and PAC providers are besieged by federal regulatory requirements promulgated by CMS, OIG, OCR and ONC, many of which are duplicative and cumbersome and do not improve patient care. In addition to the regulatory burden put forth by those agencies, health systems, hospitals and PAC providers are subject to regulation by additional federal agencies, such as the Department of Labor, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and by state licensing and regulatory agencies. They also operate under stringent contract requirements imposed by payers, such as Medicare Advantage, Medicaid Managed Care plans and commercial payers, which also require reporting data in different ways through different systems. States and payers contribute to burden through, for example, documentation, quality reporting and billing procedures layered on top of the federal requirements.
Regulatory reform aimed at reducing administrative burden must not approach the regulatory environment in a vacuum — evaluating the impact of a single regulation or requirements of a single program — but instead must look at the larger picture of the regulatory framework and identify where requirements can be streamlined or eliminated to release resources to be allocated to patient care.
In a previous post, Models, Models, Have We Got Models!, I said that from the beginning of my foray into the health administration world, I noticed that there were too many models, programs, and schemes dedicated to lowering costs and improving quality of care, that only raised the cost of health care and did not improve quality of care.
This is what I said then about all the models, programs, and rules promulgated by CMS over decades that have not made things better:
The answer was simple. Too many models, programs, rules, and so on that only gum up the works and make real reform not only impossible, but even more remote a possibility as more of these inane models are added to what is already a broken system.
So it seems that I was right even then, and now the AHA has proved it so. Why not scrap these models, programs, and rules and institute real reform…Medicare for All and be done with it?

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

Winston Churchill

“Our policy is to create a national health service in order to ensure that everybody in the country irrespective of means, age, sex or occupation shall have equal opportunities to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available.

Winston Churchill

 

Veering away from the usual topics covered in this blog, I thought about some recent articles I saw about the attempt to repeal and replace, or to simply repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which the current political regime wants to do.

The first article, in yesterday’s [failing] New York Times, warned that repealing the ACA would make it harder for people to retire early. Those who retire early, before reaching 65, can get retiree coverage from their former employers, but not many companies offer that coverage.

Those early retirees poor enough could turn to Medicaid, and everyone else would have to go to the individual market. Without the ACA, health care coverage would be more difficult to get, cost consumers more where available, and provide fewer benefits.

According to the article, if the ACA is repealed, retiring early would become less feasible for many Americans. This is called job-lock, or the need to maintain a job to get health insurance.

This is one of the concerns the ACA was supposed to address, in that it would reduce or eliminate job lock. Repealing the law could, according to the article, affect employment and retirement decisions.

The second article, from Joe Paduda, also from yesterday, reported that improving healthcare will hurt the economy, and Joe lays out the arguments for doing something or doing nothing to improve health care and what effect they would have on economic growth.

For example, Joe states that healthcare employs 15.5 million full time workers, or 1 out of every 9 job. In two years, this will surpass retail employment. As Joe rightly points out, those jobs are funded by employers and taxpayers. He suggests that some experts argue that healthcare is “crowding out” economic expansion in other sectors, thereby hurting growth overall.

But Joe also points out that by controlling health care costs, employment will be cut, and stock prices for pharmaceutical companies, margins for medical device firms, and bonuses at health plans will also be affected.

So, if cost control and increasing efficiency works, these lost jobs, reduced profits, and lower margins, Joe says, will hurt the economy. The economy will suffer if the health care sector is more efficient, and since healthcare is also a huge employment generator and an inefficient industry, fixing that inefficiency will reduce employment and growth.

Thus, the title of this article, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

But wait, there’s more.

Yesterday, a certain quote has been making the rounds through the media. It was uttered by Number 45. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

Yes, it is complicated and complex, but does it have to be so? If we consider the second Churchill quote above, and realize that the UK, France, Germany, Canada, and many other Western countries have some form of single payer, then one must conclude that it is only the US that has complicated and made too complex, the providing of health care to all of its citizens.

There are many reasons for this, which is beyond the scope of this article or blog, but there is one overriding reason for this complexity…GREED. Not the greed of wanting more of one thing, but the greed of profit, as one executive from an insurance company stated recently.

This brings me to the last of the articles I ran across yesterday. It was posted on LinkedIn by Dave Chase, founder of the Health Rosetta Institute. He cited a segment on the Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson program, in which Carlson interviewed a former hospital president who said that pricing was the main problem with the US healthcare system.

Mr. Chase does not solely rely on Carlson’s guest in his article, but cites other experts in the field as evidence that pricing failure is to blame.

If we are to except this as true, then it buttresses my point that the overriding problem is greed, for what else is the failure to control prices but a symptom of greed inherent in the American health care system, and something that does not exist elsewhere in the Western world.

Which brings me to Churchill’s first quote above. Since we Americans have tried the free market system of health care wanting, and have tried a reformed free market system, perhaps it is time to go all the way to a government-sponsored, Medicare for All, single payer system.

The bottom line is: we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. The question is, which is the lesser of two evils.

UPDATE: Here is Joe’s take on what will happen to the ACA in the next two years. I agree with his assessment.