What’s Going On With Health Care Costs?


Posted by Joel Wittman

Egads!  Is it truly possible?  Has the increase in health care costs been at its lowest in almost four decades?  And this in spite of the Baby Boomer generation fast approaching retirement age?  What could account for such a phenomenon and is it sustainable?  All relevant questions that have health care experts scratching their heads in search of answers and have politicians scrambling to enact programs to further the slow down in the increase in health care costs.  But, perhaps inaction at this time is the appropriate response.  Can we afford to have the fractured political process impede the progress that has been achieved?  Eduardo Porter, in an article in his Economic Scene column in the New York Times, opines on his take on the subject.  The article is shown below.  I thought this would be of interest to you.  Comments, please.

 

Economic Scene

Medicare Needs Fixing, but Not Right Now

By EDUARDO PORTER

What’s the rush? For all the white-knuckled wrangling over spending cuts set to start on Friday, the fundamental partisan argument over how to fix the government’s finances is not about the immediate future. It is about the much longer term: how will the nation pay for the care of older Americans as the vast baby boom generation retires? Will the government keep Medicare spending in check by asking older Americans to shoulder more costs? Should we raise taxes instead?

Experiments by health care providers on cheaper and more efficient ways to deliver care appear to be helping push costs down.

Health Spending Slows

It might not be a good idea to try to resolve these questions quite so urgently. Partisan bickering under the threat of automatic budget cuts is unlikely to produce a calm, thoughtful deal.

“We don’t have to solve this tomorrow; not even next year,” said Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on the design of President Obama’s health care reform.

More significantly perhaps, some economists point out that the problem may already be on the way toward largely fixing itself. The budget-busting rise in health care costs, it seems, is finally losing speed. While it would be foolhardy to assume that this alone will stabilize government’s finances, the slowdown offers hope that the challenge may not be as daunting as the frenzied declarations from Washington make it seem.

The growth of the nation’s spending slowed sharply over the last four years. This year, it is expected to increase only 3.8 percent, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the slowest pace in four decades and slower than the rate of nominal economic growth.

Medicare spending is growing faster — stretched by baby boomers stepping out of the work force and into retirement. But its pace has slowed markedly, too. Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office said that by 2020 Medicare spending would be $126 billion less than it predicted three years ago. Spending over the coming decade, it added, would be $143 billion less than it forecast just last August.

While economists acknowledge that the recession accounts for part of the decline, depressing incomes and consumption, something else also seems to be going on: insurers, doctors, hospitals and other providers are experimenting with new, cheaper and more efficient ways to deliver care.

Prodded by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which offers providers a share of savings reaped by Medicare from any efficiency gains, many doctors are dropping the costly practice of charging a fee for each service regardless of its contribution to patients’ health. Doctors are joining hundreds of so-called Accountable Care Organizations, which are paid to maintain patients in good health and are thus encouraged to seek the most effective treatments at the lowest possible cost.

This has kindled hope among some scholars that Medicare could achieve the needed savings just by cleaning out the health care system’s waste.

Elliott Fisher, who directs Dartmouth’s Atlas of Health Care, which tracks disparities in medical practices and outcomes across the country, pointed out that Medicare spending per person varies widely regardless of quality — from $7,734 a year in Minneapolis to $11,646 in Chicago — even after correcting for the different age, sex and race profiles of their populations.

He noted that if hospital stays by Medicare enrollees across the country fell to the length prevailing in Oregon and Washington, hospital use — one of the biggest drivers of costs — would fall by almost a third.

“Twenty to 30 percent of Medicare spending is pure waste,” Dr. Fisher argues. “The challenge of getting those savings is nontrivial. But those kinds of savings are not out of the question.”

We could be disappointed, of course. Similar breakthroughs before have quickly fizzled. Just think back to that brief spell in the mid-1990s when health maintenance organizations seemed to beat health care inflation — until patients rebelled against being denied services and doctors dropped out of their networks rather than accept lower fees.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services already expects spending to rebound in coming years. Without tougher cost control devices, be it vouchers to limit government spending or direct government rationing, counting on savings of the scale needed to overcome the expected increase in Medicare rolls may be hoping for pie in the sky.

“It makes no sense,” said Eugene Steuerle, an economist at the Urban Institute, to expect the government will reap vast Medicare savings without having an impact on the quality of care.

The Affordable Care Act already contemplates fairly big cuts to Medicare. In its latest long-term projections published last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that under current law, growth in spending per beneficiary over the coming decade would be about half a percentage point slower than the rate of economic growth per person.

To understand how ambitious this is, consider that Medicare spending per beneficiary since 1985 has exceeded the growth of gross domestic product per person by about 1.5 percentage points per year. Slowing down that spending would require deep cuts in doctor reimbursements that, though written into law, Congress has never allowed to happen — repeatedly voting to cancel or postpone them.

Under a more realistic situation, the Budget Office projected that the growth of Medicare spending per capita over the next 10 years would be in fact 0.6 percentage points higher than under current law and accelerate further after that.

Yet despite the ambition of these targets, they would not be enough to stabilize future Medicare spending as a share of the economy. A report by three health care policy experts, Michael Chernew and Richard Frank of Harvard Medical School, together with Stephen Parente of the University of Minnesota, concluded that to do that would require limiting the growth of spending per beneficiary at 1.25 percentage points less than the growth of our gross domestic product per person.

“The Affordable Care Act places Medicare spending on a trajectory that is historically low,” Mr. Chernew said, noting his opinion was not an official statement as vice chairman of Medicare’s Payment Advisory Commission, which advises Congress on Medicare. “Could we do better? Of course. Will we? That requires a little more skepticism.”

Yet even if it is unrealistic to expect that newfound efficiencies will stabilize Medicare’s finances, the slowdown in health care spending suggests that politicians in Washington calm down. It offers, at the very least, more breathing room to carefully consider reforms to the system to raise revenue or trim benefits in the least damaging way.

There are many ideas out there — from changing Medicare’s premiums, deductibles and coinsurance to introducing a tax on carbon emissions to raise revenue. Some of them are not as good as others. Until recently, President Obama favored increasing the eligibility age for Medicare. Then research by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that raising the age would increase insurance premiums and cost businesses, beneficiaries and states more than the federal government would save. The nation would lose money in the deal.

“As we do this, there are smarter and dumber ways to do it,” Mr. Gruber said. “It would be a problem if we were to do things in a panic mode that set us backward.”

                                                                                                                                               

 Joel Wittman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University.  He is the proprietor of both Health Care Mergers and Acquisitions and The Wittman Group, two organizations that provide management advisory services to companies in the post-acute health care industry. He can be reached at joel.wittman@verizon.net.


Health Reform to Stay the Bumpy Course


Posted by: Joel Wittman

As this is my first post since the presidential election, I thought that this would be a good time to look at how the ACA may play out.  Fierce Healthcare published an article about this soon after the election.  I thought it would be of interest to you.

Reelected for a second term, President Barack Obama is expected to carry out the landmark Affordable Care Act of 2010–but not without some resistance from a split Congress.

Many health reform provisions that hung in the balance during election season could see implementation in 2013 and 2014. The Democratic presidential win particularly confirms the forth-coming health insurance exchanges, the phasing out of annual insurance limits and protections for those with pre-existing conditions. However, it also leaves certain controversial provisions–namely, Medicaid expansion and the Independent Payment Advisory Board–in the hands of a divided Congress that may slow reform.

According to the Healthcare.gov timeline, the healthcare industry can expect:

Higher Medicaid payments for primary care physicians – Jan. 1, 2013
Under the Affordable Care Act, primary care physicians can expect Medicaid payments that resemble reimbursements for Medicare. Family doctors, internists and pediatricians next year will see Medicaid payments increase by up to 7 percent, estimated at $11 billion, although specialists have complained they are largely left out of the increased payments.

Medicaid expansion – Jan. 1, 2014
Perhaps one the most contentious issues that could see continued partisan politics is Medicaid expansion. Individuals who earn less than 133 percent of the poverty level (approximately $14,000 for an individual and $29,000 for a family of four) will be eligible to enroll in Medicaid. Although the Obama administration envisioned Medicaid expansion would be implemented across the country, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June left it up to the states. Red, Southern states, in particular, have been particularly resistant to Medicaid expansion.

“The surprise Medicaid ruling by the Supreme Court will put hospitals in direct conflict with Republican governors who may want to not participate in the Medicaid expansion for political reasons,” Kent Bottles , senior fellow at the Thomas Jefferson University School of Population Health in Philadelphia and FierceHealthcare editorial advisory board member, told FierceHealthcare in an interview. “States not participating will be terrible for hospitals that are depending on the increased coverage to offset the decreased revenue from the federal government contained in the PPACA,” Bottles said.

With an expected 16 million uninsured Americans to enter the Medicaid system, provider reactions have been mixed, with some saying greater coverage for all will be a welcome relief, while others worry the patient volume will tax already overburdened staffs and resources.

“The ACA will increase the number of Medicaid beneficiaries, but it does not guarantee access to primary care,” Jesse Pines, director of the Center for Health Care Quality and associate professor of emergency medicine and health policy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told FierceHealthcare. Pines, a FierceHealthcare editorial advisory board member, noted many primary care physicians are turning away Medicaid patients, opting for higher-yielding patients who have commercial insurance or are on Medicare. “So it may be difficult for people to get in to see primary care doctors. With no other option (but with insurance), many will come to the ED,” he said.

Jeremy Tucker, medical director of the emergency department at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown, Md., and FierceHealthcare advisory board member, added his area already has physician shortages that may push newly insured patients to turn to emergency departments and urgent care centers to get their care.

“We are already seeing tertiary care hospitals that we transfer patients to asking us insurance status questions, and while they do not refuse to accept the patient, they will absolutely limit what they do for the patient [by simply stabilizing and discharging].”

He also said the physician shortage, coupled with increased patient volume, will lend to a higher reliance on non-physician providers, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

Divided Congress could slow reform
With the Democratic hold on the Senate and Republicans maintaining the House, Congress will look much like the past four years–a political landscape that worries some in the industry.

“We should see more of the same–stalemates and gridlock in Washington,” Tucker told FierceHealthcare when asked the possibility of a Republican repeal.

A bitterly divided Congress could mean delays in appropriating money to fund the health law’s provisions.

The American Medical Association, while congratulating the President, also took the opportunity to point to the lingering question about the ever-present fiscal cliff–what will happen with the doc fix?

“The AMA is … committed to working with Congress and the administration to stop the nearly 27 percent cut scheduled to hit physicians who care for Medicare patients on Jan. 1, [2013],” AMA President Jeremy Lazarus said in a Wednesday statement. “It is time to transition to a plan that will move Medicare away from this broken physician payment system and toward a Medicare program that rewards physicians for providing well-coordinated, efficient, high-quality patient care while reducing healthcare costs.”

What are your thoughts about the ultimate success of the health care reform act?  Can a split Congress put aside their partisanship for the betterment of those in need of health care services who otherwise could not afford coverage?  While not perfect, the ACA is at least a start in the right direction.  Your comments are always welcome – let me hear from you.

Joel Wittman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University.  He is the proprietor of both Health Care Mergers and Acquisitions and The Wittman Group, two organizations that provide management advisory services to companies in the post-acute health care industry. He can be reached at joel.wittman@verizon.net.


Free Market Lessons from Sweden’s Single Payer System


Posted by Errol Pierre

The United States with a population of over 313 million people spends over 17% of its GDP on health expenditures while over 14% of its population lack health insurance. This has led to runaway costs, access to care issues, and in the face of recent healthcare reform efforts, worries of severe physician shortages come 2014. On the contrary, Sweden, with a much smaller, homogenous population of 9.4 million people has been able to keep health expenditures less than 10% of its GDP while covering all of its population. If efficiency of health dollars were the metric to compare health systems internationally, Sweden would lead the U.S. in this regard for the last 30 years. Despite their successes, like all developed nations, Sweden faced threats of increasing costs in the 1990’s due to an economic downturn. Additionally, Sweden also saw an aging population with a longer life expectancy from advancements in technology and modern medicine. When healthcare is government run it inevitably will succumb to rationing when tax dollars are scare. However, Sweden has been able to achieve sustainable results through policy and market reforms focused on (1) the decentralization of healthcare management, (2) cost containment measures, and (3) physician and hospital competition.

Decentralization of Healthcare Management

While Sweden is a model for a single payer system, many of their reforms can be applicable to the United Stated. In Sweden the Health and Sickness Care Law of 1982 decentralized the Swedish government’s control of healthcare to keep it “accessible, efficient, and equitable.”  Counties within the country were given more autonomy to set up boards and administer health services. In turn, many of the national rules dissolved. This decentralization gave more power for regional decisions within the counties of Sweden. This is unlike America where the answer to the uninsured population in its most recent healthcare reform efforts was to use the national approach of health exchanges and essential health benefits rather than delegating the particular solutions to individual states and localities. For example the Department of Health & Human Services mandated that every state have a health benefit exchange by 2014 or the Federal government would create one within the state.

Lesson Learned: Place the burden of the uninsured into the hands of local governments to formulate strategies to address the issues that are sensitive to the local values.

For example, in the U.S. one third of the uninsured find insurance within 6 months. In Sweden, many counties pay for insurance costs for citizens up to 6 months until they find a new job. This would eliminate 15 million of the 45 million uninsured. Additionally, 50% of the uninsured work part-time. A U.S. state resolution would be a sickness fund (similar to Medicaid) that caters to individuals that work less than 40 hours a week with multiple employers, which would lower the uninsured rates to ~20 million. Lastly, 43% of the uninsured are located in only 4 states (New York, Florida, Texas and California). A focus on local initiatives to answer a national problem similar to Sweden could have potentially been a better use of resources and national funds than a Federal law impacting all 50 states.

Cost Containment

In 1984, with the passage of the Dagmar Reform of 1984, national revenues were divvied up and doled out to counties as block grants based on population size. As a result, private providers could no longer directly bill the national healthcare system for medical services rendered. This is very similar to how physicians who treat Medicare enrollees operate today. From 1984 to 1985 the count of practicing physicians went from well over 5,000 to just over 2,000 greatly controlling costs. Block grants also declined the percentage of GDP in Sweden spent on health expenditures. Sweden is one of the few countries that have been able to lower the percentage of health expenditures.

Additionally, as the economy worsened in the early 1990’s, the Swedish government froze taxes from 1991 until 1994. During this time 22% of the country’s beds for acute bed care were eliminated. Also self referrals received a higher copayment. This is very different in the U.S. where economic downturns cause private insurance enrollment decreases due to cost containments that occur in the private sector. However, since all health care cost controls are not vested in local state government, public spending and public health expenditures balloon during such times. For example, Medicaid spending increased by one third from 2000 to 2003 during the U.S. economic down turn. It grew by 10% between 2010 and 2011 representing 25% of all expenditures for states. U.S. healthcare reform efforts plan to reduce Medicare and Medicaid by 500 billion respectively which is likely to get caught up in the same political stalemate as the Medicare “doc-fix” since these decisions have not been decentralized and delegated to local governments. Since Sweden represents close to 80% of all health expenditures compared to less than 50% in the U.S., they are more sensitive to cost containment measures which lead to quicker reaction and better results.

The Federal government in the U.S. has continued to push off a fix to Medicare reimbursement reductions due to lobbying from physicians and trade groups. If these decisions were made at a local level to handle local concerns, States would have the ability to better control costs. Additionally, 50% of the Medicaid spend is handled by the states. This allows the states conversely to only handle 50% of the costs.

Lesson Learned: Medicare and Medicaid should be handled purely at the state levels since many states have balance budget amendments, cannot run deficits, and it is very costly for states to borrow funds.

Lastly, in 2002, Sweden introduced reference pricing and generic substitution for pharmacy coverage. This meant that when a drug was purchased, the health system would pick up 110% of the lowest priced drug. If a brand name drug was requested over a generic, the consumer would be responsible for the difference. From 2002 through 2005 Sweden realized $7 billion in savings which was close to 10% of total drug spend.

Lesson Learned: Adopt reference pricing and generic substitution in both Medicare and Medicaid programs across the U.S. to sharply cut pharmacy growth rates.

Physician & Hospital Controls

The United States is quickly facing a physician shortage when 20 million or more Americans will enter the insurance market in 2014 through Health Benefit Exchanges. In 1993 Sweden passed a law called The Point of Service Primary Care Reform which answered concerns of primary care shortages. The law made counties responsible for making sure every Swede had access to primary care. Additionally, it capped the amount of specialty training that occurred outside general medicine. It set ceilings and floors for the amount of patients treated by a single practice (1-3k patients per year). It provided credits and loan forgiveness to primary care doctors who started a new practice. And finally, the law allowed pay for performance measures that reduced the reimbursement to physicians who underperformed. Such controls including other initiatives has led to the use of electronic medical records for 94% of Swedish primary care physicians as compared to only 45% in the U.S. Additionally, 49% of Swedish physician practices have the capacity for advanced electronic health information compared to only 26% in the U.S. Lastly, 54% of Swedish practices will see patients after hours as compared to 29% in the U.S.

Lesson Learned: Strong controls on physicians at the local government level can greatly eliminate the potential of primary care shortages and improve the quality of care.

Conclusion

There are feasible lessons to be learned from recent healthcare reforms in Sweden particularly in the areas of decentralization, cost containment, and physician controls. In particular there are four lessons to be learned that are viable in the U.S. despite the current political climate and threat of the unconstitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Lesson 1: decentralize the burden of the uninsured to the individual states. Lesson 2: Allow individual states to budget for health care through block grants. Lesson 3: adopt reference pricing and generic alternative scripting. Lesson 4: place strong controls on physicians to eliminate shortages and increase access to care.

Despite America’s strong dislike for government run healthcare, roughly 40% of the population (125M Americans) is enrolled in a federally facilitated health program. Specifically there are 44M Medicare recipients, 62M Medicaid recipients, 10M Tricare recipients (health insurance for the U.S. military) , and 8M Federal Employee Health Benefit recipients. Sweden has been able to use free market principles within a government run system to manage care and cost. And yes, with any balance between quantity and quality, rationing of care does exist. But in a free market, when does rationing based on supply and demand not exist outside of anomalies like luxury and inferior goods?


A Systemic Approach to Containing Health Care Spending


Posted by Joel Wittman

In this election year, U.S. national spending on health care will reach $2.8 trillion, or about 18% of total spending on all goods and services. This high level of spending reduces the ability to invest in other important parts of the economy and also adds to the national debt. There is wide agreement that ways must be found to bend the health care cost curve.

National health spending is projected to continue to grow faster than the economy, increasing from 18% to about 25% of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2037.1 Federal health spending is projected to increase from 25% to approximately 40% of total federal spending by 2037. These trends could squeeze out critical investments in education and infrastructure, contribute to unsustainable debt levels, and constrain wage increases for the middle class.

Although the influx of baby boomers will increase the number of Medicare beneficiaries, growth in per capita health costs will increasingly drive growth in federal health spending over the long term. This means that health costs throughout the system drive federal health spending. Reforms that shift federal spending to individuals, employers, and states fail to address the problem. The only sustainable solution is to control overall growth in health costs.

Although the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will significantly reduce Medicare spending over the next decade, health costs remain a major challenge. To effectively contain costs, solutions must target the drivers of both the level of costs and the growth in costs — and both medical prices and the quantity of services play important roles. Solutions will need to reduce costs not only for public payers but also for private payers. Finally, solutions will need to root out administrative costs that do not improve health status and outcomes.

The Center for American Progress convened leading health-policy experts with diverse perspectives to develop bold and innovative solutions that meet these criteria.  See the following solutions below that were recommended:

Promote Payment Rates within Global Targets

Under the current fragmented payment system, providers can shift costs from public payers to private payers and from large insurers to small insurers. Since each provider negotiates payment rates with multiple insurers, administrative costs are excessive. Moreover, continued consolidation of market power among providers will increase prices over time. For all these reasons, the current system is not sustainable.

Under a model of self-regulation, public and private payers would negotiate payment rates with providers, and these rates would be binding on all payers and providers in a state. Providers could still offer rates below the negotiated rates.  The privately negotiated rates would have to adhere to a global spending target for both public and private payers in the state.

Accelerate Use of Alternatives to Fee-For-Service Payment

Fee-for-service payment encourages wasteful use of high-cost tests and procedures. Instead of paying a fee for each service, payers could pay a fixed amount to physicians and hospitals for a bundle of services (bundled payments) or for all the care that a patient needs (global payments).

Use Competitive Bidding for All Commodities

Evidence suggests that prices for many products, such as medical equipment and devices, are excessive. Instead of the government setting prices, market forces should be used to allow manufacturers and suppliers to compete to offer the lowest price. In 2011, such competitive bidding reduced Medicare spending on medical equipment such as wheelchairs by more than 42%. The ACA requires Medicare to expand competitive bidding for equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies to all regions by 2016.  It is suggested that Medicare expand the current program nationwide to include all commodities and extend to all federal health programs, including the insurance exchanges that will start in 2014.

Require Exchanges to Offer Tiered Products

The market dominance of select providers often drives substantial price variation. To address this problem, insurers can offer tiered plans. These insurance products designate a high-value tier of providers with high quality and low costs and reduce cost sharing for patients who obtain services from these providers.

Require All Exchanges to Be Active Purchasers

If exchanges passively offer any insurance product that meets minimal standards, an important opportunity will be lost. As soon as reliable quality-reporting systems exist and exchanges achieve adequate scale, it is critical that federal and state exchanges engage in active purchasing — leveraging their bargaining power to secure the best premium rates and promote reforms in payment and delivery systems.

Simplify Administrative Systems for All Payers and Providers

The United States spends nearly $360 billion a year on administrative costs, accounting for 14% of excessive health spending.  It is suggested that payers and providers electronically exchange eligibility, claims, and other administrative information as soon as possible and public and private payers and providers should use a single, standardized physician credentialing system.  Electronic health records should integrate clinical and administrative functions — such as billing, prior authorization, and payments.

Require Full Transparency of Prices

Price transparency would allow consumers to plan ahead and choose lower-cost providers, which may lead high-cost providers to lower prices. Although price transparency could facilitate collusion, this risk could be addressed through aggressive enforcement of antitrust laws.

Make Better Use of Nonphysician Providers

Eliminate restrictive state scope-of-practice laws prevent non-physician providers from practicing to the full extent of their training and provide adequate reimbursement for those services.

Expand the Medicare Ban on Physician Self-Referrals

It is suggested that the Stark law should be expanded to prohibit physician self-referrals for services that are paid for by private insurers. In addition, the loopholes for in-office imaging, pathology laboratories, and radiation therapy should be closed. Physicians who use alternatives to fee-for-service payment should be exempted because these methods reduce incentives to increase volume.

Leverage the Federal Employees Program to Drive Reform

It is suggested that the FEHBP align with Medicare by requiring plans to transition to alternative payment methods, reduce payments to hospitals with high rates of readmissions and hospital-acquired conditions, and adjust payments to hospitals and physicians on the basis of their performance on quality measures. In addition, the FEHBP should require carriers to offer tiered products and conduct competitive bidding on behalf of plans for all commodities. Finally, the FEHBP should require plans to provide price information to enrollees and prohibit gag clauses in plan contracts with providers

Reduce the Costs of Defensive Medicine

Regardless of whether a claim results in liability, the risk of being sued may cause physicians to practice a type of defensive medicine that increases costs without improving the quality of care.  A promising strategy would provide a so-called safe harbor, in which physicians would be presumed to have no liability if they used qualified health-information-technology systems and adhered to evidence-based clinical practice guidelines that did not reflect defensive medicine. Physicians could use clinical-decision support systems that incorporate these guidelines.

Conclusions

Although many in the health industry perceive that it is not in their interest to contain national health spending, it is a fact that the current spending patterns cannot continue. In the absence of any meaningful change, payers could simply shift costs to individuals. As those costs become more and more unaffordable, people would severely restrict their consumption of health care and might forgo necessary care. Alternatively, governments could impose deep cuts in provider payments unrelated to value or the quality of care. Without an alternative innovative strategy, these options could become the default. They are not in the long-term interests of patients, employers, states, insurers, or providers.

Joel Wittman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University.  He is the proprietor of both Health Care Mergers and Acquisitions and The Wittman Group, two organizations that provide management advisory services to companies in the post-acute health care industry. He can be reached at joel.wittman@verizon.net.

 


What Can Be Done About Hospital Readmissions? – Is Home Care Part of the Solution


posted by Joel Wittman

A comprehensive analysis of Medicare claims data demonstrates that Medicare payments more than double when the beneficiary’s care contains at least one hospital visit.  A report by the Alliance for Home Health Quality and Innovation examined the effects of hospital admissions and readmissions on Medicare expenditures.

Hospital readmissions play a key role in the amount Medicare spends per patient per episode.  The research aims to more fully explain how hospital readmissions affect the Medicare episode payment and to provide guidance on the Medicare home health benefit.  The data will provide information on to lawmakers as they look to revamp the Medicare fee-for-service payment system and eliminate unnecessary spending on avoidable hospitalizations.

In post-acute care episodes, patients whose episodes contained at least one readmission cost Medicare twice as much – roughly $33,000 compared to $15,000.  When the number of chronic conditions per patient increases, so does the average number of readmissions, suggesting that a more complex patient is more likely to be readmitted.  Services such as home health may be able to reduce the number of unplanned readmissions for some clinically appropriate patients by caring for them in home health and improving coordination and continuity of care.

There are interesting trends when an episode contains an admission.  With regard to chronic conditions, the severity of the primary chronic condition, rather than the number of conditions, plays a more significant role in the impact on Medicare payment for the episode.  For example, an episode with a primary chronic condition of diabetes and a prior admission generates a Medicare episode payment nearly three times that of a diabetes episode without a prior admission.  This suggest that better management of low-severity chronic conditions (as well as high-severity conditions), which can be provided by home health care, may limit prior admissions for pre-acute episodes or even prevent some hospital admissions and subsequent post-acute care.  As the severity of a chronic condition increases, so does the proportion of episodes in non post-acute care episodes.  However, when patient with low-severity chronic conditions require a hospital admission, the payment per episode nearly quadruples since the cost of caring for these patients is relatively low without the readmission.

The data suggest that better management of chronic disease through home health intervention could enable more patients to remain out of the hospital following an initial admission.  With clinically appropriate and effective care, patients have the potential to avoid some unnecessary admissions altogether, ultimately saving Medicare and taxpayers a significant amount.  Home health care combines the right mix of care management, prevention training, and close observation to significantly reduce hospital admissions.

A program conducted in upstate New York generated some positive results.  See below:

A group of hospitals in upstate New York have been able to cut inpatient readmissions by 25 percent as the result of a home visit program, reported the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

The collaboration between Rochester General Hospital and three other area facilities not only cut readmissions over 30 days but also cut down readmissions over a 60-day period, the article noted.

Reduction of readmissions is critical particularly for hospitals as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services intends to cut payments for excess numbers of patients readmitted within 30 days of discharge for congestive heart failure, heart attacks and pneumonia. According to research, up to 75 percent of hospital readmissions may be avoidable, Consumer Reports magazine noted.  Specific cost savings from the initiative were not immediately disclosed but could be as much as $100 saved for every dollar invested. “The cost of the intervention is measured in hundreds of dollars,” said Martin Lustick, corporate medical director for Excellus BlueCross Blue Shield. “The cost of a readmission is upward of $10,000.”

The program, known as Care Transitions Intervention, was conducted in coordination with the hospitals, local home health agencies, Excellus and the Monroe Plan for Medical Care, a Medicaid managed care program, according to the article. State and federal grants will allow the initiative to expand.

Joel Wittman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University.  He is the proprietor of both Health Care Mergers and Acquisitions and The Wittman Group, two organizations that provide management advisory services to companies in the post-acute health care industry. He can be reached at joel.wittman@verizon.net.


Four Recommendations to Achieve Health Care Savings


Posted by Joel Wittman

The now-defunct so-called congressional “super committee” that was charged with the task of identifying deficit reductions received several recommendations that would create significant health care savings over a ten year period.  Despite the failure of the committee to successfully achieve its mandate, it is well worth exploring the cost reduction suggestions the committee received from health care executives.  These chief executives of both for-profit and not-for-profit health care companies, members of the Healthcare Leadership Council (HLC), presented a set of reform proposals that would not only generate $410 billion in savings over 10 years, but would also strengthen Medicare’s long-term sustainability.  In fact, according to Mary R. Grealy, president of HLC, “the reform recommendations will contribute to deficit reduction without placing an unfair or disproportionate burden on patients, healthcare consumers, or our most vulnerable citizens.”

HLC’s recommendations to the “super committee” included:

Create a new “Medicare Exchange” in which private insurance plans would compete on the basis of cost, quality, and value.  

While acknowledging that this recommendation would be compared to the Medicare reform concept contained in Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, the HLC indicated that the differences include the fact that there Medicare beneficiaries would have the option of staying in traditional fee-for-service Medicare and there would be a more generous inflation factor – growth in GDP plus one percent – for premium subsidies.

The thought behind this proposal is that Medicare beneficiaries should have the same freedom of choice as Medicare Part D prescription drug program participants, federal employees and members of Congress participating in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, and those who will utilize the new state-level insurance exchanges created as part of the Affordable Care Act.  The competitive environment will require healthcare providers, plans, manufacturers, and distributors to achieve greater cost-efficiencies while still offering quality and value to beneficiaries.

As Ms. Grealy stated: “ If given the choice between deeper provider cuts, which will reduce patient access to care, and reducing costs by using consumer choice to incentivize  cost-effective innovation, it doesn’t seem like a difficult decision.”  However, does it seem similar to the public option plan that was vigorously opposed when being considered as part of the ACA?  And, can competition be the driver of health care cost reductions in an imperfect market place?

Gradually increase the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.

As more Americans remain healthy over a longer period of time, this transition would mirror the increase in the Social Security retirement age and reflect today’s longer average lifespans.  The increase would be implemented over roughly a decade, raising the eligibility age by two months annually.  The shrinking ratio of active workers to Medicare beneficiaries makes this change inevitable.  The Affordable Care Act makes such a change possible in that Americans in their mid-60s not yet eligible for Medicare would be able to purchase health insurance on the new state exchanges without their health status affecting their ability to acquire coverage.  But at what cost?  More than the price of Medicare Part B premium coverage?

Reform Medicare’s cost-sharing structure.

This reform would involve making the Medicare Part A and B beneficiary cost-sharing uniform, with a reasonable deductible and co-pays as well as a cap on annual out-of-pocket costs.  This would make Medicare costs more predictable and consistent for beneficiaries while also ensuring that seniors wouldn’t be devastated by catastrophic care costs or faced with limits on hospital stays.  Another part of this proposal would be a requirement that individuals with incomes of $150,000 and greater pay their full premium costs for Medicare Parts B and D.  Supposedly, this would affect less than 3% of Medicare beneficiaries and would generate budget savings while protecting financially vulnerable beneficiaries.  Uh-oh.  Is this an “us against them” issue?

Implement medical liability reform.

HLC members recommended liability reform measures including a cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, a one-year statute of limitations from the point of injury to the filing of litigation, and a “fair share” rule to have defendants pay damages commensurate with their responsibility for the injury involved.  Acknowledging the partisan difficulty in advancing tort reform legislation, alternative approaches including linking liability protections to healthcare providers’ use of health information technology and practice of evidence-based medicine should be considered.

The above four recommendations would generate just over $410 billion in budget savings over a ten-year period, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates and other published budget projections.  Alas, the “super committee” wasn’t so super after all and could not generate a program acceptable to the partisan participants. But, should that mean that some worthwhile recommendations not be explored further with the thought of strengthening our healthcare system?  Or do we slowly move along and be subject to on-going sequestration reimbursement rate reductions?

Joel Wittman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wagner School of Public service of New York University.  He is the proprietor of both Health Care Mergers and Acquisitions and The Wittman Group, two organizations that provide management advisory services to companies in the post-acute health care industry. He can be reached at joel.wittman@verizon.net.