Posts Tagged ‘healthcare reform’

Stories I Was Planning To Address. They’ll Have To Wait.

Thursday, March 3rd, 2022

The life and death stories coming out of Ukraine, as its people continue to exhibit fierce and inspirational resistance to Vlad the Invader’s barbaric onslaught, tend to suck the air out of any room. Somehow, Joe Biden’s approval ratings, or America’s vitriolic partisan divide, or who will prevail in the midterms or the desperate state of our infrastructure, or the future of our newest Supreme Court nominee, while important at any other time, just cannot compete with Putin’s intentional and indiscriminate killing of anyone, man, woman, child, beloved pet, anyone in the way of his rapacious army. This is causing the most momentous change on the European continent and throughout the geopolitical world in nearly 80 years. And it’s taken only a week.

So, here are some quick takes of the things I would have written about, and maybe will in the future in more depth, were it not for the blackhole-like gravity of what’s happening in Ukraine.

Tuesday night’s State of the Union

Joe Biden’s speech to the Congress and the nation came in two chapters. Chapter One: Ukraine. Chapter Two: His domestic agenda.

Chapter One was riveting, and it appeared nearly everyone sitting on the floor and in the gallery of the House of Representatives was united in support of the West’s monumental pushback to  Vlad the Villain. I thought it ironic they were all sitting in a sacred building where, just 14 months ago fellow citizens tried to steal American democracy, and nearly did. Ironic, indeed, when one considers so many who were sitting on the R side of the aisle now want to look the other way and pretend it never happened.

Chapter Two was pretty much what you’d expect from any State of the Union speech — until the heckling. Representatives Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga, put on a disgusting display of crass and boorish incivility. These two ladies have never demonstrated having had an original idea in their lives. Why should they? They’re both travelling on borrowed gas, and inferior gas, at that. Boebert, especially, raised poor taste to a new level when she screamed out accusing Biden of killing 13 soldiers during the evacuation of Afghanistan as he was describing the death of his beloved son, Beau, from cancer attributable to burn pits in wartime. These two, both of whom have about as much empathy as a New Jersey loan shark, would be rejected from Dante’s Inferno for giving the place a bad name. (Pity the poor fellow sitting between them  wishing he were anywhere else on earth — except maybe Ukraine)

Why can’t Medicare negotiate drug prices?

When you insure more than 61.2 million beneficiaries you’d think you’d have tremendous leverage to negotiate the lowest drug prices on earth. But that is not the case in the USA.

The Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) of 2003, the one that created the unfunded Part D drug program along with the infamous “doughnut hole,” specifically forbids Medicare from negotiating prices with drug companies, giving that responsibility, instead, to for-profit insurers and Pharmacy Benefit Managers. Health policy Guru John C. Goodman calls the MMA, “arguably the worst domestic policy decision in the history of the country.” At the time of enactment, the Social Security and Medicare Trustees estimated the long-term (75 years) unfunded liability of the MMA’s Part D program to be $17 trillion. The Trustees project that cost growth over the next 5 years will average 7.3 percent for Part D, significantly faster than the projected average annual GDP growth rate of 4.3 percent over the period.

And, still, Medicare cannot negotiate prices.  Result? High drug prices for Medicare and its beneficiaries.

By contrast, the VA is able to negotiate for its nine million veterans enrolled in its health care program, yours truly being one of them. Result? Low cost drugs.

Since passage of the MMA, there have been repeated attempts to introduce and pass legislation that would allow Medicare to bring the full weight of its considerable power to the price of pharmaceuticals. Two things have prevented any success in these endeavors. First, the bottomless well of pharmaceutical industry cash, and, second, members of congress who are the beneficiaries of that bottomless well of cash.

To quote that eminent American philosopher, Mark Twain, “We have the best government that money can buy.”

Federally Qualified Health Centers. Now there’s a well kept secret!

Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) are community-based health care providers that receive funds from the Health Center Program of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to provide primary care services in underserved areas. They must meet stringent requirements, including providing care on a sliding fee scale based on a patient’s ability to pay and operating under a governing board that includes patients. Specifically, at least 51% of their Boards must be patients.

By law, FQHCs must treat anyone, regardless of the ability to pay.

There are 1,368 FQHCs in the country. Most have a number of locations, called Service Sites, bringing the total health care locations to 14,200. They welcome people with insurance, but their main targets are poor people who could otherwise not afford health care.

In addition to FQHCs, the Health Center Program also funds Rural Health Centers (RHCs), whose mission is to increase access to primary care services for patients in rural communities.

FQHCs and RHCs are funded annually by congressional approval. Additionally, Section 330 of the Public Health Service Act provides grant awards to eligible health centers and outlines the requirements the centers must meet to be eligible .

Taken together, FQHCs and RHCs are Community Health Centers. They are ubiquitous throughout the country. For example, in my home state of Massachusetts, there are 52 community health center organizations providing high quality health care to some one million state residents through more than 300 sites statewide. For perspective, there are 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts.

Given the woeful state of our nation’s public health system, as was amply demonstrated by our response to COVID-19, it might not be a bad idea to consider the Community Health Center model as we attempt to re-engineer how we deliver health care to all of us.

Just a thought.

 

 

 

The Proven, Credible Benefits of ACA Medicaid Expansion — Part 1

Tuesday, February 1st, 2022

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), there were 48 million uninsured in 2010 when the Affordable Care Act (ACA) became law. Over the next nine years, 38 states, using ACA funding, expanded their Medicaid programs. During that time, the numbers of uninsured fell to 28 million before rising to 30 million in the first half of 2020 due to policy changes to the ACA by the Trump Administration that made it harder to qualify for coverage.

There are now twelve states left that have refused to take advantage of the ACA’s provisions to expand Medicaid, a move that would significantly lower the number of uninsured people within their borders.

The states in orange are the states that have refused to accept Medicaid expansion and the significant federal dollars that go with it. The orange states are all “red” states.

The ACA was passed in 2010. We now have 404 studies in the seven year period 2014 through 2020 producing 440  findings resulting from Medicaid expansion (A number of studies looked at more than one area).

There have been five studies concluding ACA Medicaid expansion has brought negative results in two areas ―  Provider Capacity and Positive Health Outcomes; remember that; they’re the ones in orange in the chart below (Good luck finding them). This is opposed to 435 findings of positive results in eight areas. These include 25 positive findings in Provider Capacity and Positive Health Outcomes (compare to the five mentioned above). The Kaiser Family Foundation summarized the studies in this chart:

There are three overarching benefits to Medicaid expansion nearly all experts agree on:

Expanding Medicaid helps low-income families’ health and financial well-being, especially those in which someone has lost a job.

In states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA, unemployed workers experienced large gains in coverage. Further, there are spillover benefits for economic well-being: lower debt and better credit scores. Physical health and financial health are inextricably linked. Expanding Medicaid improves both for low-income families. This has been doubly so in the time of COVID.

Expanding Medicaid reduces hospitals’ uncompensated care.

I write from experience. I was once a Director at a Massachusetts major hospital system. At one meeting, I asked our CEO what the system did when an indigent person showed up in the ER very sick or injured. By law we had to take care of them. So, given that, how did the system get paid? He replied, “We charge them the most we possibly can.” I said, “But they can’t pay.” He said, “That’s right, but the state’s Uncompensated Care Pool can.” This was a big drain on Massachusetts, eye-opening to me, and an obvious wrinkle in health care policy. Medicaid expansion dramatically reduces this burden for hospitals. In Michigan, uncompensated care was cut in half after Medicaid expansion in 2014. In 2016, Dranove, Garthwaite and Ody, publishing in Health Affairs, found uncompensated care decreased at hospitals in Medicaid expansion states but not at hospitals in non-expansion states. Moreover, in April 2021, Karpman, Coughlin and Garfied found significant reductions in uncompensated care in ACA expansion states:

Reflecting a significant decline in the share and number of people who were uninsured at any point in the year, the average annual share of nonelderly individuals who had any uncompensated care costs fell by more than a third following ACA implementation, going from 7.3 percent in 2011-2013 down to 4.8 percent in 2015-2017. This change represents a decline in the number of people with uncompensated care costs from 20.2 million to 13.1 million.

Correspondingly, the aggregate annual cost of uncompensated care provided to uninsured individuals dropped by a third following implementation of the ACA’s coverage provisions, from an average of $62.8 billion per year in 2011-2013 to $42.4 billion in 2015-2017. The cost of implicitly subsidized uncompensated care—or care that had no payment source, including a non-health insurance source—dropped from $21.6 billion to $15.1 billion per year on average before and after the ACA, respectively.

Expanding Medicaid is a highly effective form of economic stimulus.

An often-overlooked benefit of Medicaid expansion is that it creates jobs. During a recession, the infusion of federal spending gives a boost to a state’s economy. Evidence from the Great Recession shows that Medicaid spending is a highly effective form of stimulus: for every $100 000 of additional federal Medicaid spending, two workers gained a year of employment.

There are other intangible benefits, but we won’t go into them here, because they’re fuzzy, and it will give naysayers a hook, albeit a painted one, on which to hang their negative opinions. Let’s just say that being able to provide health care for your family, not having to forgo necessary care for you or your child because you need that money to eat, is psychologically significant. Contrast this with a recent statement from Senator Ron Johnson (R, WI): “People decide to have families and become parents. That’s something they need to consider when they make that choice. I’ve never really felt it was society’s responsibility to take care of other people’s children.” Compassion like that is disgustingly reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge before the spirits arrived.

Tomorrow, we’ll dive into the reasons governors and legislatures give for rejecting ACA funding to expand Medicaid in the remaining 12 non-expansion states. Hint: There are three reasons most often cited. They are opinions only without any credible supporting data, but in those orange collared states in the map at the beginning of this column, that doesn’t seem to matter.

COVID-19 Update

Friday, September 18th, 2020

To close out your week we offer a few items that may have flown nap-of-the-earth under your radar.

The AstraZenica/Oxford vaccine bump in the road

On 8 September AstraZenica (AZ) halted its Phase 3 study, because one of its study participants came down with Transverse Myelitis, a neurological condition affecting the spine and caused by infection, immune system disorders or other disorders that can damage or destroy myelin, the fatty tissue that protects nerve cell fibers.

The UK has allowed AZ to restart its study there (AZ is a UK-based company), but as of this writing, the U.S. has not. In fact, in an interview with Kaiser Health News, the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Avindra Nath said “the highest levels of NIH are very concerned.” According to Nath, the NIH has yet to access tissue or blood samples from the patient, who was part of the U.K. portion of AZ’s Phase 3 study. NIH believes AZ is being far too coy with its data. Nath called for the company “to be more forthcoming,” adding that “we would like to see how we can help, but the lack of information makes it difficult to do so.”

Given this halt in the U.S. study, it is not inconceivable that, if the AZ vaccine, known as AZD1222, proves efficacious and safe in the UK, regulators there could approve it for general use well before the U.S. does. This would not make our Commandeer in Chief happy.

The Mask versus Vaccine dust up

Speaking of the Commander in Chief, he recently took CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield for a quick walk to the woodshed for suggesting during testimony to a Senate subcommittee, “Masks are more guaranteed to protect me against COVID-19 than a vaccine.”

President Trump, who is not a doctor, but repeatedly plays one on TV, took exception to this. He publicly chastised Redfield for his comments and said a vaccine could be available in weeks and go “immediately” to the general public. Diminishing the usefulness of masks, despite a wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary, he said his CDC chief was “confused.”

Well, no, he wasn’t. Redfield told subcommittee members that if everyone in the U.S. would wear masks in public the pandemic could be under control within 12 weeks. His issue with a vaccine lies in its degree of immunogenicity, which he suggested would be in the area of 70%, meaning if 100 vaccinated people are exposed to the virus, 30 of them will have insufficient protection to ward it off. Those 30 will probably be comprised of groups who are most susceptible to the vaccine now, like the elderly.

People, masks will be with us for a long time.

Health insurance losses

Before the pandemic, 49% of Americans got health insurance through employer sponsored insurance (ESI). COVID-19 has reduced that percentage, because 6.2 million of our neighbors have lost their jobs and, consequently, their health insurance. When you factor in spouses and children, the number of people who have been shoved out the door into the COVID cold becomes 12 million.

Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) have recently documented the losses in a new study. Researchers Josh Bivens and Ben Zipperer write:

  • Extreme churn after February 2020 has led to very large losses in ESI coverage. In March and April, for example, new hiring led to 2.4 million workers gaining ESI coverage each month, but historically large layoffs led to 5.6 million workers losing coverage each month. This rate of lost coverage—over 3 million workers—dwarfs a similar calculation for the number of workers losing coverage each month during the biggest job-losing period of the Great Recession (September 2008–March 2009). Our analysis using the monthly, high-quality measure of the total number of jobs in the economy from the Current Employment Statistics (CES) program of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is consistent with 9 million workers having lost access to ESI in March and April 2020 but 2.9 million workers having gained coverage between April and July 2020.

Bivens and Zipperer say about 85% of those who lost ESI coverage were able to gain at least some coverage either through a spouse’s plan, the Affordable Care Act or state Medicaid programs, but that still leaves about a million laid off workers and their familes with nothing. Bivens, Zipperer and others argue the job losses have only worsened the public health crisis created by COVID-19.

Of course, recognizing that millions of people losing employer sponsored health insurance is a public health crisis is not the same as fixing the system to prevent it from happening again. However, as I have written before, having exposed gross inadequacies in the nation’s health care system, COVID-19 also provides opportunities for improvement. What is needed now is the determined motivation and will to make that happen. That is a Herculean task about which I wish I were more optimistic.

Quo Vadis, Kentucky?

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

June 29, 2018. Thirteen days ago. I’m sitting in the Grand Ballroom of the Capital Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, soaking in the presentations at the Annual Conference and CEO Summit of the Association for Community Affiliated Plans (ACAP). ACAP has grown to be quite the force for Medicare Advantage and Medicaid health plans around the country. So, the conference is an important event for Medicare and Medicaid professionals.

I’m looking forward to the 3:30 p.m. session, Plans Involvement in the New World of Work Requirements, because Mark Carter and Carl Felix, CEO and COO, respectively, of Kentucky’s Passport Health Plan, are going to describe their efforts to implement the Bluegrass State’s Medicaid work requirements.

In early January, 2018, Kentucky became the first state to win CMS approval to institute work requirements for its Medicaid beneficiaries. As I sit in the Hilton’s ballroom, its new  Medicaid work requirement program, Kentucky HEALTH, is slated to go live in two days (state government is only outdone by the US Army in its genius-like ability to create acronyms; this one stands for Helping to Engage and Achieve Long Term Health; catchy, eh?). There’s a pesky lawsuit lurking in the wings aimed at getting the Court to declare the program unconstitutional, but on June 29 Kentucky bureaucrats are ready to drop the hammer.

So, I am really interested in learning about the looming work requirement program, because three other states have won approval and are putting their programs together, and more are waiting in the wings.

Unfortunately, at the last minute, Mark and Carl (remember them?) have to cancel, because in the mad dash to the finish line for Kentucky HEALTH’s launch, they actually can’t leave the office. But, not to worry. Kentucky HEALTH’s Chief Marketing Officer is here to fill us in.

As she takes us through Kentucky HEALTH’s creation, I have to say that I, and the three or four hundred other people in the room are absolutely astonished at the time, money, manpower and all-around effort involved in giving birth to this behemoth. In terms of planning and implementation preparation, Kentucky HEALTH may perhaps only be exceeded by Operation Overlord (look it up). Some highlights:

  • For the first time EVER, Kentucky’s Medicaid beneficiaries will have to pay premiums. The premiums aren’t a lot (to you and me), ranging from $1 to $15 per month. Pregnant women and children are exempt.
  • Individuals with income above the poverty level ($12,060) who do not pay their premiums in 60 days will be kicked out of coverage for six months. Enrollees can return to the program earlier if they pay two months of missed premiums and make one new premium payment. They also must complete a financial or health literacy course.
  • Individuals must either work, volunteer, be enrolled in schooling or do some kind of “qualified community engagement” for at least 80 hours per month.
  • Beneficiaries must report their work activity each month; failure to do so will cause Medicaid disenrollment for six months.
  • Healthcare providers will have to certify to the Commonwealth the health status of those individuals they deem physically unable to work.

Regarding that last bullet – Kentucky HEALTH created a seven page form providers must complete. Knowing how busy healthcare providers are, I ask, “What’s been the feedback from your providers about this seven page form, and, by the way, are you paying them to do it?” Answer: “We haven’t communicated with the providers about this. We consider it all part of an office visit.”

For a moment, put aside why Kentucky is going to all this trouble. The bottom line question is: What does it get for going to all this trouble? In its need to get freeloaders off Medicaid rolls, just how many people would Kentucky’s work requirements actually put to work?

The nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation provides some answers. Let’s check the numbers. Nationally:

  • About 10% of Medicaid recipients are elderly, age 65 and older, and many of them are in nursing homes.
  • About 48% are children, age 18 and younger.
  • That leaves about 42% who are of working age and potentially subject to the requirements.
  • Of that 42% who could be subject to the rules, 42% of them are already working full-time, and 18% are working part-time.
  • Another 14% are not working due to illness or disability.
  • Six percent are in school.
  • Twelve percent are caregivers for family members.
  • All of the above would be exempt from Kentucky’s rules.

That leaves about 1% of all Medicaid beneficiaries who would qualify for a work requirement program like Kentucky’s. That’s about 740,000 people nationally and around 12,000 in Kentucky (Since 2014, when Kentucky accepted Medicaid expansion, its Medicaid population has about doubled, rising from around 650,000 to 1.2 million) .

Kentucky HEALTH’s CMO wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say how much the state has spent on putting the program together or how many people have been devoted to it. But its best case scenario is that out of 1.2 million current beneficiaries about 95,000 may be off the rolls in five years, because either they no longer qualify for Medicaid because they either make too much money due to full-time work or they fail to comply with work requirements.

The day after the Kentucky HEALTH presentation at the ACAP conference District court Judge James Boasberg ruled Kentucky’s plan unlawful, because the federal government is obligated under federal law to consider whether a Medicaid proposal advances the program’s objectives, the judge wrote, and the Trump administration failed to meet that standard before approving Kentucky’s plan.

One final thought. When he announced the Trump administration’s approval of Kentucky’s work requirement plan, Governor Matt Bevin said, “I was raised by a father who said, ‘Don’t take something that is not earned.’” So, here’s the question: Unlike the entirety of the rest of the developed world, in America is basic health care something that has to be “earned?”

 

 

This Cat Is Dead. Let It Stay That Way.

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

“Seriously. This is BANANAS” – Senator Chris Murphy, (D-CT), on Graham-Cassidy.

When I was in college I was part of a pretty successful folk group. We played all over, cut a few LPs. It was a great time. On college campuses we would sing a simple, little, nearly childish song that somehow actually became a bit of a hit. It was called The Cat Came Back.

Oh, the cat came back.
She didn’t want to stay.
She was sittin’ on the back porch
The very next day.

Well, there’s a new cat sittin’ on the porch, and it’s called Graham-Cassidy.

Every time we stick a fork in it and call it dead, a new zombie repeal and replace Obamacare horrendoma springs to life.

The selling point of this one, at least according to Senators Graham and Cassidy (and Vice President Pence yesterday morning on CBS), seems to be centered on the idea that passage of this bill will finally allow the states to plot their own health care futures.

That was also the position argued yesterday in a New York Times Op-Ed by Philip Klein, the Managing Editor of the Washington Examiner (Is this a coordinated effort?). In Graham Cassidy has One Great Idea Klein claims the different states have different healthcare needs and, consequently, should be able to address those needs through their own creativity rather than arbitrary requirements of  Washington.

A more flexible system would give states latitude to pursue healthcare programs that are a better fit for their populations’ ideological sensibilities. And there are practical reasons to think of healthcare as a state-based issue: Every one has its own demographics, health challenges and other unique characteristics.

“Ideological sensibilities?” Excuse me? Oh, well.

One thing that strikes me square in the jaw about the states rights argument is this: For the last 26 years, states have been able, with federal waiver approval, to craft their own Medicaid programs as long as the results are revenue neutral and comply with minimum requirements.

By way of explanation, Medicaid has been with us since 30 July 1965 when President Johnson signed it and Medicare into law. Medicaid has been a lifeline for the poor who, prior to the Affordable Care Act, were mostly uninsured for health care. The ER was their primary care physician. The Act had a number of goals, one of which was to lower the number of uninsured and underinsured Americans. Since these people were nearly all of the lower income variety, the Act provided federal funding for states to expand Medicaid. Thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia did that. And the numbers of uninsured dropped significantly in those states.

In 1991, the Social Security Act was amended to create federal waiver programs. States were given the authority, through what are known as Section 1115 waivers, to tailor their own Medicaid programs to their own population needs. As of September 2017, there are 33 states with 41 approved waivers and 18 states with 21 pending waivers. A subset of state waivers are aimed at healthcare delivery system reforms. They are known by the catchy title Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment waiversDSRIP waivers allow states to create innovative programs that reform how care is delivered and paid for. These are demonstration projects and come with federal funding. Lots of it. For example, one of Texas’s two DSRIP waivers, just concluded, provided $11.5 billion over five years. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has applied for an extension and in May, 2017, submitted to the CMS its positive evaluation of the program’s results (Despite this deep drink at the federal trough, you might remember Texas’s very public, Alamo-like  rejection of federal money to expand Medicaid).

Personally, I think there are many reasons to bury the Graham-Cassidy cat so deep it never sees the sun again. Others have written and catalogued them (see America’s newest health care expert Jimmy Kimmel). But not much has been said to refute this ridiculous let-the-states-have-a-chance claim. The states already have, and have had for 26 years, autonomy to innovate and create programs, with the help of federal funding, that zero in on the needs of their particular populations within sensible federal limits. Graham-Cassidy would do away with those limits, significantly lower funding, force millions of our fellow citizens to become uninsured (again), drop the states down a deep well of chaos and put us all back in the wild west of health care.

Yesterday, in a highly unusual move, the Board of Directors of the National Association of Medicaid Directors (NAMD) issued a statement highly critical of Graham-Cassidy, saying it would place a massive burden on the states.

“Taken together, the per-capita caps and the envisioned block grants would constitute the largest intergovernmental transfer of financial risk from the federal government to the states in our country’s history.”

And last night, after learning of NAMD’s statement, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted, “You can’t get ALL 50 state Medicaid Directors to agree on anything else in health care. Seriously. This is BANANAS.”

America’s health care system is complicated (“Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated!”) and full of inside baseball stuff. But it does allow states to chart their own destinies. So, here’s a question for Lindsay, Bill and Mike: What’s the real reason you’re trying so hard to resurrect this dead cat?

 

 

WCRI – Day One, Session One

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Here we are in Boston again for yet another year of swimming the Australian Crawl through the mother of all data dumps from the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute’s annual conference.

WCRI’s first year President, John Ruser, led off the day with a sneak peak at the Institute’s new website, which seems clean and easy to navigate.

Then the fun began. Former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who happens to be a medical doctor and a Republican, and former Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, looked into their crystal balls to discuss the future, of lack of it, of the Affordable Care Act.

Not surprisingly, the two former legislators had differing opinions, and I’ll bet you can bet what they were.

Coburn opined that we no longer have three equal branches of government, because the congress has ceded its authority to the Executive branch. Waxman bemoaned the lack of bi-partisanship.

John Ruser asked each about “repeal and replace,” opening a ballroom size can of worms. If you’ve been watching Sunday morning television, you know how that went. Predictably, Waxman, the Democrat, and Coburn, the Republican, argued from opposite ends of the spectrum. Each of these intelligent and seemingly reasonable people sincerely believe their position is the right one.

One thing they did agree about was whether the federal government would do anything about workers’ compensation. The answer: No.  That discussion morphed into social security disability, with Senator Coburn saying 27 million people are now on the rolls. This is not true. According to the Social Security Administration, less than 16 million people now receive social security disability benefits.

Coburn and Waxman, two rational people, are not going to agree on what to do about the Affordable Care Act. Not even close, and that is a shame.

Colleague Joe Paduda has an excellent summary of this session here.

 

 

 

What Is The Meaning Of “Life?”

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…” – The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America

“People with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin every day to stay alive.” – The National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)

““I must pay my mortgage.” If it’s a choice between the mortgage and the insulin, “It’s going to be the mortgage.” – 74-year-old Kathleen Washington. Some months, her insulin runs over $300 a month – more than she can afford.” – CBS This Morning, Anna Werner, 22 February 2017

As politicians and high-paid lobbyists dance around the Washington DC Tower of Babel debating the future of health care in America, here are three questions that, as far as I can tell, have yet to be asked:

  1. In the phrase, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” what did the Founders mean by the word “Life?”
  2. Is good health care an “unalienable” right?
  3. Should Ms. Washington have to choose between paying her mortgage and buying her insulin?

Let’s begin by considering the phrase, “To secure these Rights, Governments are instituted.” Then, consider, “Pursuit of Happiness.” Those two phrases suggest that one of the prime responsibilities of Government is to insure nothing prohibits citizens from being able to seek Happiness. Everyone must have the opportunity to find Happiness for themselves, the key word being “opportunity.” Government doesn’t guarantee Happiness, just that we have the chance to land on it. It’s up to us, but Government must do all in its power to see that unreasonable impediments are not placed in our way.

But what about Life and Liberty? The Founders did not choose to put the word “pursuit” in front of Life and Liberty. What does that mean? If Life and Liberty are unalienable rights that Governments are instituted to secure, what must Governments do to accomplish the mission?

Consider Liberty. Government has created a national defense system to defend our country and, by extension, our Liberty. The Founders recognized taxation as the most equitable means of paying for this, and so every year each of us kicks in our share (although this might be debatable) to guarantee our unalienable right of Liberty.

Now, think about Life.  Some may say Life is what national defense is all about, but, as I have shown, Liberty is more closely aligned with national defense. If the Founders wanted to make Life and Liberty go together, they would have written, Life and Liberty, not Life comma Liberty.

Then what does “Life” mean? For the answer to that center of the bull’s eye question, I turn to those great English philosophers, the Bee Gees: Life means Stayin’ alive. What should Government be doing to secure this first of the three unalienable rights for us? If Type 1 diabetics require insulin every day to stay alive, to continue Life, should Government guarantee they are only able to pursue it, as in the “pursuit of insulin?” Or, to secure the unalienable right of Life, must Government provide the insulin, paid for by taxation of all citizens, as it provides a national defense system?

It is unfortunate that these most basic of questions are not front and center in our nation’s capital. But to truly “secure” our “unalienable Right” to “Life” requires the goring of too many oxen (or, an unlucky Matador), as Joe Paduda writes in his blog today.

Pity the Republicans. They’ve caught Obamacare, like that dog that caught the bus, a trite phrase, but, in this situation, apt. They need to do something, but whatever they do, a large swath of America is going to pour fire and brimstone on their heads. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Too bad. It didn’t have to be like this.

 

 

Barack Obama, I Have A Bone To Pick With You

Monday, February 13th, 2017

Dear Mr. Former President,

I’m writing about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which you signed into law six years, ten months and twenty-one days ago. That’s 2,519 days. Nearly seven years. Didn’t take but about two hours to become ObamaCare.

The law has saved lives and money, a lot of both. It’s allowed nearly 20 million people to become insured, most of them poor. Those people were able to get that insurance because the law helped them pay for it. The Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, which in the year before the law’s passage was projected to run out of money right about NOW, is good for another 12 years as of today, according to Medicare’s actuaries as reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

No lifetime caps, no pre-existing condition denials, kids on the plan until age 26, free preventive care, donut hole gone, I could go on.

But you, sir, and your administration made a mess of what came after. Consider:

  • You did such a wonderful job of selling the ACA to the American public, that you got waxed in the 2010 mid-term elections. You lost the House big time, 63 seats, and also the super-majority in the Senate, six seats;
  • You had three and a half years to get Healthcare.gov ready, and what happened on 1 October 2013? A system crash that took months to fix. You were warned 18 times prior to scheduled launch that the project was mismanaged and in deep doo-doo, but your team did nothing;
  • You let a clever-as-a-fox, but dumb-as-a-doorpost former Governor of Alaska, of all places, get away with introducing Death Panels into the conversation, and to this day 29% of Americans still believe that lie;
  • You sat by and watched the House of Representatives vote 54 times to defund, delay or outright repeal the law you signed;
  • I could go on.

But it’s your failure to educate the American people and your failure to get down and fight for your signature legislation that bothers me the most. Maybe you should have demanded to get your cell phone back and taken to Twitter like the two-year-old who now sleeps in your used-to-be bedroom. Anything would have been better than the cerebral, thoughtful argument you brought to the battle. Right up there with the old knife to a gunfight thing.

And that is such a shame, because, sure, the law has flaws, but you could have fixed them if you’d been willing to approach the job like Lyndon Johnson, or even Harry Truman. But perhaps that kind of street fighting was beyond the Constitutional Lawyer, the Editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Obamacare had the potential, with a few tweaks here and there, to be a monumental achievement. Instead, it has had a tortured existence and may yet prove to be the only death panel victim.

But, wait. Hold on. Here’s a thought: It is looking more and more as if the Republicans, who now control all three branches of government (well, maybe not the Executive, after all) have become the dog that caught the bus. They do not appear to have a clue. For example, last Thursday the highly-respected Bob Laszewski wrote in his blog, “the repeal part is still on track to occur this spring, … likely in March.” But just the day before, the two-year-old with the Twitter account, who thrasonically said he’d repeal Obamacare on Day 1, told Bill O’Reilly we may not see any changes until sometime in 2018 (but they’ll be beautiful when they happen, really beautiful).

Here’s another thought: Maybe when the public actually begins to realize what it’s about to lose things will begin to change. Maybe when the 35% of Americans who still think Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are different laws realize they are in danger of losing the Obamacare they hate as well as the Affordable Care Act they love, things will begin to change.

One can only “hope.”

Sincerely,

Tom

P.S. We miss you.

2016 White Paper Evaluates Commonwealth Care Alliance

Monday, July 18th, 2016

In April, 2016, I authored a post about Commonwealth Care Alliance (CCA), a Massachusetts HMO dedicated to serving the Dual Eligible population. Duals qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid, and CCA has been the nation’s incubator for how to do that. The Boston-based HMO operates a Senior Care Option plan for Duals over the age of 65 and an Affordable Care Act demonstration project, called One Care, for Duals younger than 65. I’ve been a CCA Director since its inception in late 2003.

Now, with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, JSI Research & Training, Inc., has published an extensive evaluation of CCA’s visionary and groundbreaking efforts to treat the nation’s sickest of the sick and poorest of the poor.

In JSI’s words:

The provisions in the ACA were designed to achieve the Institute of Health Improvement’s Triple Aim of improving patient experience of care and the health of populations while reducing the overall cost of health care.

The 22-page White Paper’s thrust centers around CCA’s “Social ACO” model of care. JSI describes the Social ACO approach this way:

These approaches are based on the idea that improving health and cost outcomes of vulnerable populations will necessitate incorporating health, behavioral health, and social services into the ACO model. Social ACOs serve populations with complex and often unmet social and economic needs that impact health outcomes and health system utilization, including needs related to housing, food security and nutrition, legal assistance, employment support, and/or enrollment assistance.

As I noted in April, Duals represent only 4% of the nation’s population, but consume 34% of its health care dollars. They present a societal problem begging for a solution. The Affordable Care Act offers revolutionary innovators like CCA the chance to prove their worth. So far, as the JSI paper suggests, CCA’s approach is spot on. Here’s JSI’s conclusion:

As a pioneer of the social ACO approach, its (CCA’s) story offers insights into the factors and processes that promote successful realization of the Triple Aim for other emerging ACOs focused on complex patient populations.

Payment and delivery reform promises to transform care for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. This is needed more than ever given rising healthcare costs and continued fragmentation of the care system. CCA’s social ACO model represents one approach to caring for some of the highest risk populations, though even this approach has had to be adapted extensively for the dual-eligible population under 65. Given its longevity of refining a care model, a global capitation payment model and a culture of innovation to care for high-risk, vulnerable populations, CCA’s experience is relevant to any provider organization seeking to transform care for high-risk populations.

Achieving the Triple Aim of improving the health of America’s dual population while lowering the cost of doing so is a rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick of the first order, but, at least to this point, Commonwealth Care Alliance seems to be onto something that will do just that.

One final thought: On the eve of our two presidential conventions, it would be nice if, at some point in all the bloviation, a cogent discussion regarding health care were to be had. And I’m talking about something other than, “On Day 1 we’re going to repeal Obamacare.”

But I wouldn’t bet on that happening. Would you?

The Sickest Of The Sick, The Poorest Of The Poor

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

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.