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.


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.


Medicaid Health Homes – The New York Story – Part 1


Posted by Professor John Billings

New York, like most states, is moving rapidly to implement a new initiative to provide care coordination/management to high risk Medicaid patients.  Stimulated by the 90-10 federal match rate that was established in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the New York Health Home Initiative is initially targeted at more than 700,000 Medicaid recipients who have at least two chronic conditions or a serious and persistent mental health condition.  In 2009, New York spent more than $8.7 billion for these patients, and the goal of the initiative is to improve health outcomes and reduce costs through improved care management and coordination that lowers rates of hospitalization and emergency department use.

In New York, the Medicaid program will pay a monthly fee to a “Health Home” to manage and coordinate care for each qualifying patient.  The fee is expected to range from about $50-$350 per patient per month depending on the level of risk as determined by the patient’s CRG acuity score and predictive modeling on the risk of a hospital admission in the next 12 months.  As currently envisioned, for patients enrolled in managed care, the fee will paid to the managed care plan where the patient is enrolled, and the plan will determine where the “Health Home” will be located and how the care coordination fee will be distributed.  For fee-for-service patients, the state has asked for submission applications from providers interested in qualifying as a Health Home, and the state will assign patients to a Health Home based on prior outpatient utilization patterns (based on a “loyalty” analysis), or based ED/inpatient use or geographically for patients with no recent outpatient utilization.  The program will be implemented in three phases beginning with 12 counties (including Brooklyn and the Bronx) in January, 2012, with an additional 14 counties expected in April, 2012, and the remaining 35 counties expected in June, 2012.  For further information on New York’s plans, see:  http://www.health.ny.gov/health_care/medicaid/program/medicaid_health_homes/.

From a policy perspective, this initiative and its roll-out are of significance along multiple dimensions.  First the level of interest among providers has been enormous – the State received more than 200 letters of intent for applications to become a Health Home, with more than 90 in New York City alone.  Of course, with new money on the table in a time of Medicaid cutbacks, perhaps that’s not all that surprising.  But of more policy import is the extent to which the letter of intent process generated an unprecedented level of dialogue among medical, behavioral health, and social service providers, many of whom had no prior history of interaction.  Again, perhaps this is not so surprising – these are complex patients, with multiple conditions, often with a history of substance abuse or mental illness, many with housing problems, and many isolated with little or no social support structure.  Some potential applicants went solo or brought and handful of providers and community based organizations together.  But most applicants listed scores of medical provider organizations, behavioral health providers, social service providers, and other community based organizations, with four from New York City listing more than 100 organizations coming together for a potential Health Home application.

On one level, watching this diverse group of providers crawl out of their silos and begin to talk about what would be needed to coordinate the health and social needs was quite exciting.  But it also demonstrates the extent to which the current “system” is fragmented, with little integration within the medical care sector, but also little existing coordination (forget integration) between and among medical care providers, behavioral health providers, and community based organizations interested in the health and welfare of this vulnerable population.

This response also illustrates some of the challenges facing prospective Medicaid Health Homes (and the rest of health care services for that matter).  What will it take to be successful?  Optimally Health Homes would have the following capabilities and characteristics:

  1. A multidisciplinary approach for individualized needs assessment and care planning for participating patients;
  2. Integrated/organized/coordinated health and social service delivery system;
  3. Some sort of care/service-coordinators/arrangers, with a reasonable caseload size, a clear mission (to improve health and to reduce costs), an ability to engage and build trust with the patient, and a capability of respond to non-medical issues/needs
  4. Core IT and care coordination support capacity to track patient utilization in close to real time and to mine administrative data to help target interventions/outreach, provide feed-back to participating providers, and to examine utilization patterns that will allow continuous improvement and re-design intervention strategies;
  5. Ability to provide real time support at critical junctures, including ED visits (to help prevent “social admissions”, hospital discharge (to help develop effective community support/management planning), and or patient initiated contact for help for an emerging crisis; and
  6. Incentives/reimbursement policies to encourage and reward “effective and cost efficient care”, most notably to reduce hospital admissions and ED visits.

And how much of this currently exists?  How much is achievable in the short run?  Well, items 1 and 3 seem do-able.  The care coordination fee can help support the needs assessment and the costs of care coordinators.  The rest, not so much.  The biggest challenge will be coping with the fragmented medical, behavioral health, and social service delivery non-system.  It’s fine to come together on a letter of intent (talk remains fairly cheap) – it’s another matter to actually function as at least a quasi-organized, coordinated “system”.  The challenges of exchanging data among the non-integrated Health Home participants will be also daunting – just sharing and updating a patient care plan is likely to be difficult for some orgnaizations.  Assuring that the care coordinator knows in real time that a patient is in the ED or about to be discharged from the hospital present much bigger challenges, especially for the 30% or more Health Home patients not currently enrolled in managed care.  Of course, when the Medicaid card is swiped, Albany knows, but getting that information to the Health Home and its care coordinator is not currently including in the planning.

And what about incentives?  Clearly hospitals have the most to lose here, since the goal is to knock out hospital and ED visits.  In a managed care world where the hospital is included in some global capitation arrangement, incentives are somewhat aligned since the hospital can share in the savings.  But that sort of arrangement is relatively rare for most of managed care, and for fee-for-service patients, it is not existent.  Some form of shared savings arrangement for the Health Home Initiative is contemplated by the State, but currently it is just that:  contemplated.  Progress here will be critical to success of the initiative.

And as to success, what do we know about similar initiatives?  Well, another important policy issue related to Health Homes is that once again we are embarking on a major initiative without much evidence that it is likely to work.  It certainly sounds good on paper – care coordination makes sense and there is plenty of evidence that a lot of hospitalizations and ED visits are preventable/avoidable.  But less is known about how to do the preventing and avoiding.  This faith-based approach to policy making is actually pretty typical for Medicaid and most of health care.  Think back over the last 10-15 years for the last great Medicaid initiative:  enrollment of massive numbers of Medicaid patients in managed care.  What did we know about the effectiveness of managed care in improving outcomes and reducing costs then?  About as much as we know now for Health Homes.  And what do we know about how Medicaid managed care has worked so far:  shockingly little on some dimensions.

What is a bit frustrating on Heath Homes is that New York currently has an initiative that looks and smells a lot like Health Homes:  the Chronic Illness Demonstration Project (CIPD).  A monthly fee is paid to six demonstration sites to coordinate and manage care for fee-for-service patients at high risk of future hospitalization.  There is even a shared savings pool for projects that actually reduce costs (after including the costs of the intervention care coordination fee).  Unfortunately, the federal funding for Health Homes came along before we know how well and for whom CIDP is working.  We are going from a demonstration with a couple thousand patients to a ramp-up that ultimately may involve more than 700,000 patients.  Pretty classic.

This is not to say moving ahead with the Health Home Initiative is a bad idea.  The State has moved forward in a refreshingly open and transparent way, trying to keep the health community well-informed and trying to respond where possible to concerns of those likely affected as it rolls out the initiative.  And new federal money is new federal money.  And more coordination can’t be a bad thing.  And getting a broad range of medical, behavioral health, and community based social services providers to work together is fabulous, and it may stimulate more lasting and broader integration or at least coordination among these providers.  Perhaps even the first baby steps toward something that feels like an Accountable Care Organization?  One can only hope.  But what is fairly certain is that things are likely to get a bit messy along the way.  With the magnitude of change required to make Health Homes work, no one will get it all right the first time.  The goal should be to learn as much as possible along the way.  And it is important the State remain flexible and make necessary adjustments as the initiative is rolled out – the speed at which the initiative is being implemented should not be allowed to foreclose opportunities to encourage more lasting and fundamental change.  But stay tuned, it will be an interesting ride.

John Billings is an Associate Professor of Health Policy and Public Service, and the director of Wagner’s Health Policy and Management Program.  His research focuses on understanding  the nature and extent of barriers to optimal health for vulnerable populations.  He can be reached at john.billings@nyu.edu.