The Sickest Of The Sick, The Poorest Of The Poor

April 5th, 2016 by Tom Lynch

They comprise less than 4% of the nation’s population, yet consume nearly 34% of health care dollars. Sixty percent are age 65 or older. About 40% are younger people with ADL-qualifying disabilities. More than half fall below the federal poverty level. Almost half never graduated high school. Nearly two-thirds are female. Fifty-eight percent are white/non-hispanics.

They are America’s “Dual Eligibles,” our fellow citizens who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid benefits. Technically, because they’re Duals, they are not the “uninsured.” Still, they sit smack dab in Obamacare’s bulls eye.

In 2003, here in Massachusetts, a pioneering visionary decided to create a non-profit HMO that would offer as its sole product a Senior Care Option plan aimed at the over-65 Dual population. As a former head of the Long-Term Care Division within the Commonwealth’s Medicaid Program, Mass Health, Dr. Bob Master knew a lot about the Duals and the many challenges they presented. Somehow, he convinced a few academics and business people to join his brand new Board of Directors for his Quixotic quest. I was one of them.

In the early days, the hunt for funding was all-consuming, but against considerable odds, funding was found, and, with the support of CMS and Mass Health, an incubator for the nation was born – Commonwealth Care Alliance.

Bob immediately set out to prove that Duals could achieve significantly better health and well-being at lower cost if they were cared for in a home-based regimen by highly trained teams of providers. And between 2003 and 2014, CCA produced eye-popping proof of concept results. For example, thirty-day hospital readmission rates for these sickest of the sick and poorest of the poor consistently beat Medicare’s overall rate. CCA achieved annual Medicare star ratings of 4.5 or better (Because of Senior Care Option demographics, it is statistically impossible for the company to achieve a higher rating).

CMS took note. And when medical, academic and political luminaries were crafting the Affordable Care Act, Bob was instrumental in convincing them Duals were a target not to be missed.

Consequently, the Affordable Care Act created demonstration projects in nine states from California to Massachusetts to see whether it’s possible to improve the health of all Duals, those over the age of 65 as well as under it, while reducing their health care costs. A tall order, indeed, because it had never been done before.

CMS and Mass Medicaid issued a humongously big RFP. Commonwealth Care Alliance answered it and won the right to play in the new sandbox, called One Care. The year 2014 was spent in preparing. For example, in order to be ready, the company had to double the size of staff (there are now more than 800) and train the newbies to successfully manage CCA’s unique model of care. That was not easy.

In early 2015, we opened the floodgates to the state’s thousands of Duals under the age of 65. Since then, it’s been a thrilling ride, because throughout 2015 CCA had a few near-death-experiences. But with the help of both CMS and Medicaid we were able to negotiate the potholes and speed-bumps, and now, after more than a few sleepless nights, the company cares for more than 17,000 Duals with Medicare and Medicaid premium of more than $850 million. In essence, CCA is beginning (barely) to do well by doing good. To my mind, if the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, does nothing more than significantly improve the lot in life of the nation’s Duals while lowering their cost of care, it will be a success of the first order.

Now, it’s time to turn the reins over to a new era of leadership. Last Friday, we had a retirement party for Bob Master where CCA employees who could free themselves from work for a couple of hours came to Boston to say hail and farewell. Many came on their own time. There was a great big cake and a lake-full of diet soda and coffee, but no dignitaries, just current staff and a number of Directors. The Chair of the Board said nice things about Bob and the ride we’d all been on. I described how, after all this time, Bob and I had discovered less than a year ago over lunch that, in addition to growing up in the next town to each other, we had been comrades in arms back in the late-60s in Vietnam; in the same Division, even, at the same time. Funny, that.

Many employees read stories they’d prepared for the occasion. Honest tears were shed. Bob gave an extemporaneous speech that was heartfelt and touching. He thanked all who had joined in the noble quest, many by name. Then he rode off into the sunset.

But the work goes on.





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