Hospital Charges Surge for Common Ailments, Data Shows

This excellent NY Times article is based on Medicare data on over 3,000 hospitals nationwide for what they charged in 2012. The data shows that the prices that hospitals charge is highly variable and has risen across the board. The article correctly points out that these increases in charges do not necessarily affect what Medicare pays because Medicare is so large that they tell hospitals what they are going to pay them independent of what they bill.

By JULIE CRESWELL, SHERI FINK and SARAH COHEN –  JUNE 2, 2014

Charges for some of the most common inpatient procedures surged at hospitals across the country in 2012 from a year earlier, some at more than four times the national rate of inflation, according to data released by Medicare officials on Monday.

While it has long been known that hospitals bill Medicare widely varying amounts — sometimes many multiples of what Medicare typically reimburses — for the same procedure, an analysis of the data by The New York Times shows how much the price of some procedures rose in just one year’s time.

Experts in the health care world differ over the meaning of hospital charges.

While hospitals say they are unimportant — Medicare beneficiaries and those covered by commercial insurance pay significantly less through negotiated payments for treatments — others say the list prices are meaningful to the uninsured, to private insurers that have to negotiate reimbursements with hospitals or to consumers with high-deductible plans.

“You’re seeing a lot more benefit packages out there with co-insurance amounts that require the holders to pay 20 percent of a lab test or 20 percent of an X-ray. Well, 20 percent of which price?” asked Glenn Melnick, a professor who holds a Blue Cross of California endowed chair at the University of Southern California. “Some hospitals will charge 20 percent of what Blue Cross Blue Shield will pay; others will play games.”
Data released by the federal government shows that hospitals across the country charge Medicare differing amounts for the same types of cases. The data includes bills submitted in 2012 by 3,300 hospitals nationwide for the 100 most commonly performed treatments and procedures like hip replacement, heart operations and gallbladder removal, among hospitals that reported at least 11 cases.

Charges for chest pain, for instance, rose 10 percent to an average of $18,505 in 2012, from $16,815 in 2011. Average hospital charges for digestive disorders climbed 8.5 percent to nearly $22,000, from $20,278 in 2011.

In 2012, hospitals charged more for every one of 98 common ailments that could be compared to the previous year. For all but seven, the increase in charges exceeded the nation’s 2 percent inflation rate for that year, according to The Times’s analysis.

Experts say the increase in the price of some of the most common procedures may be offsetting rising technology or drug costs, declines in the number of patients being admitted to hospitals and a leveling out of reimbursements from Medicare. Between 2011 and 2012, Medicare increased payment rates by only 1 percent for most inpatient stays.

The number of patients admitted for chest pain under Medicare’s fee-for-service plans plummeted more than 28,000, to 107,224 in 2012, and inpatients with digestive disorders decreased more than 29,000, to 217,514.

Over all, the number of Medicare patients discharged from hospitals for the comparable 98 most common diagnoses dropped from 7.5 million to 7.2 million. The total amount Medicare paid for their care also declined somewhat between 2011 and 2012, from $62.8 billion to $61.9 billion.
In an effort to reduce overall health care costs, hospitals have been encouraged to admit fewer patients for conditions like asthma, for example, in favor of less expensive outpatient care.

(more…)

Read More

A Look at the Lives of American Nurses

Fantastic new book, film and website explores nurse’s critical role at the bedside working within the state of our current healthcare system. This film has received nationwide acclaim and is worth seeing.

By Nancy Szokan, Washington Post

Photographer and filmmaker Carolyn Jones created “The American Nurse” after publishing a coffee-table book on the subject two years ago, and the film builds on the same mix of powerful images with words of men and women whose lives are devoted to healing.

Over the film’s 78 minutes, viewers see Jason Short, an auto mechanic, describe how a bad motorcycle accident taught him what it was like to be helpless and in need of care; he is now a home health nurse in Appalachia. They follow Tonia Faust into her job at the Louisiana State Penitentiary: “People ask me how I can take care of people who have committed such horrific crimes,” she says.

“But when I’m at their bedside, I’m taking care of just another human being.”

The other nurses are a nun who runs a nursing home in Wisconsin, a labor and delivery nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and a former Army medic who rehabilitates wounded soldiers in San Diego.

After its premiere before an invited audience, the movie will be distributed nationwide through theaters and health-care centers. To see a trailer and a schedule of screenings go to: www.AmericanNurseProject.com.

Read More

The Hospital-Dependent Patient

By PAULINE W. CHEN, M.D.

Interesting piece about the unintended cost and consequences of hospital re-admissions.  Spectacular advances in medical science have led to a growing population of patients who are “hospital-dependent” adding great cost to the healthcare system.

“He’s back?” my colleague asked, eyes widening as she passed the patient’s room. “He’s in the hospital again?”
Slender, pale and in his late 60s, the man had first been admitted nearly a year earlier with pressure in his chest so severe he had trouble breathing. When his heart stopped, doctors and nurses revived him by injecting the latest life-saving medicines into his veins and applying the newest electrical defibrillator paddles to his chest.

Within minutes, the cardiology team arrived, but when the blockage in the arteries of his heart proved too extensive for even their state-of-the-art techniques and equipment, they handed him off to the waiting surgeons. The surgeons, in turn, cooled down his heart until it stopped beating, sewed in bypass conduits with threads finer than human hairs, restarted the heart with a few well-placed jolts of electricity and then transferred the patient to the cutting-edge intensive care unit to recover.

The man survived. Sort of.

Weakened by this string of emergencies, he required a breathing machine for several days. When excess fluid in his lungs caused shortness of breath, he needed intravenous diuretics. When his heart began beating erratically, he was obliged to take a finely tuned cocktail of heart medications. And when his chest wound became infected, he had to return to the operating room.

Finally, after nearly two months in the hospital, he was discharged to a skilled nursing center. But then a urinary tract infection made him dizzy and confused, and he went right back to the hospital, beginning a cycle of discharge and re-admittance that would persist for almost a year.
To many of us who had cared for the man, it seemed as if he had spent more days in the hospital than out.

“What kind of life is that?” my colleague asked as we stood in the hallway and watched the man’s wife help him once again put on his hospital gown and pack away his street clothes. “You’ve got to wonder,” she whispered, “did we really do him a favor when we ‘saved’ him?”
I was reminded of the frail man and the many patients like him whom I have known when I read a recent Perspective piece in The New England Journal of Medicine titled “The Hospital-Dependent Patient.”

Over the last 30 years, American hospitals have become a showcase of medical progress, saving lives that not long ago would have been lost.

“Rapid response teams,” drilled in precision teamwork and the latest techniques of critical care, have become commonplace. Cardiac and respiratory monitors, once found only in intensive care units, are now standard equipment on most wards and even in many patient rooms. CAT scanners and M.R.I. machines, once rare, have become de rigueur, with some hospitals boasting duplicates and even triplicates.

But up to one-fifth of patients treated with these new medical advances and then deemed well enough to leave the hospital end up being re-admitted within 30 days of their discharge, at considerable cost. Insurers and third-party payers have begun penalizing health care systems for these quick re-admissions; and hospitals, in response, have begun significant efforts to improve the transition from hospital to home, creating clinics that remain open beyond usual working hours and marshaling teams of care coordinators, post-discharge pharmacists and “care transition coaches.”

The problem persists, though, because our spectacular advances in medical science have led to a growing population of patients who are “hospital-dependent,” according to the authors of the Perspectives article.

Hospital-dependent patients are those who, a generation ago, were doomed to die. Now they are being saved. But they are not like the so-called hot spotters, a group of patients more commonly associated with frequent re-admissions who return to the hospital because of inadequate follow-up care, failure to take prescriptions correctly or difficult socioeconomic circumstances. Instead, hospital-dependent patients come back because they are so fragile, their grasp on health so tenuous, that they easily “decompensate,” or deteriorate under stress, when not in the hospital.

Medical advances can snatch them from the clutches of death, but not necessarily free them from dependence on near-constant high-tech monitoring and treatments.

“They are like a house of cards,” said Dr. David B. Reuben, lead author of the article and chief of the division of geriatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “When one thing goes wrong, they collapse.”

Not surprisingly, hospital-dependent patients feel more secure and are happier in the hospital than at home. While clinicians and even family members may judge theirs a diminished existence, these patients find their quality of life acceptable, relishing their time with friends and family or engaged in passive hobbies like watching sports or reading the newspaper, albeit in the hospital.

Over time, however, their recurring presence can result in conflicted feelings among those who were responsible for saving them in the first place. Some clinicians even begin to resent their obligation to continue administering resource-intensive care. “Physicians are socialized to cure patients, then move on,” Dr. Reuben observed. “They want to treat patients, not adopt them.”

Dr. Reuben and his co-author offer potential solutions, such as specialized wards or facilities that would be more intensive than skilled nursing homes yet less costly than a hospital. But they are quick to add that more research must also be done. Their concept of “hospital-dependency” is a new one, so no research is available to help identify patients at risk of becoming hospital-dependent, estimate the percentage of early re-admissions they are responsible for or calculate the costs they incur.

Even without studies, it’s clear that the numbers of these patients are increasing. With every triumphant medical advance, there are patients who are cured but who remain too fragile to live beyond the immediate reach of the technology that saved them. Until we begin making different decisions regarding how we allocate our resources, their presence will be a constant reminder of which medical research and health care we consider worthy and which we do not.

Read More

When Health Costs Harm Your Credit

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL New York Times

This is an excellent article outlining the problems people can run into by allowing medical bills to go unpaid. It takes a long time to decipher what you actually owe, but providers can report you to credit agencies for late payment very quickly.  People in these types of situations have reason to worry.

LIKE most people, I am generally vigilant about paying my bills — credit cards, mortgage, cellphone and so on. But medical bills have a different trajectory. I (usually) open the envelopes and peruse the amalgam of codes and charges. I sigh or swear. And set them aside for when I have time to clarify the confusion: An out-of-network charge from a doctor I know is in-network? An un-itemized laboratory bill from a doctor I’ve never heard of? A bill for a huge charge before my insurer has paid its yet unknown portion of a hospital’s unknowable fee?

I would never countenance the phrase “60 days past due” on my Visa card statement. But medical bills? Well… with the complex negotiations that determine my ultimate payment, it often takes months to understand what I actually owe.

Unfortunately, I may be playing a dangerous game. Mounting evidence shows that chaos in medical billing is not just affecting our health care but dinging the financial reputation of many Americans: While the bills themselves frequently take months to sort out, medical debts can be reported rapidly to credit agencies, and often without notification. And even small unpaid bills can severely damage credit ratings.

A mortgage initiator in Texas, Rodney Anderson of Supreme Lending, recently looked at the credit records of 5,000 applicants and found that 40 percent had medical debt in collection, with the average around $400; even worse, most applicants were unaware of their debt. Richard Cordray, director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has noted that half of all accounts reported by collection agencies now come from medical bills, and the credit record of one in five Americans is affected.

A single medical bill reported to a credit agency can easily become a “millstone around your neck” said Mark Rukavina, principal at Community Health Advisors, a health care advisory service. He added: “It will take a long time to make that right, even once the bill is paid. I’ve had mortgage brokers call me and say ‘I have these people with great credit. They’ve refinanced before, but now they’ve got this medical bill and even though they’ve paid it off, I can’t get them a good rate.’ ”

Part of the problem is that there are few standards governing medical debts: One billing office might give you — or your insurer — 60 days to pay before pursuing collection. Another might allow you to pay off a bill slowly over a year. Many will sell the debt to collection companies, which typically take a cut of the proceeds and decide when or whether to report unpaid debt to credit agencies.

The problem is accelerating for several reasons. Charges are rising. Insurance policies are requiring more patient outlays in the form of higher deductibles and co-payments. More important, perhaps, is that while doctors’ practices traditionally worked out deals for patients who had trouble paying, today many doctors work for large professionally managed groups and hospital systems whose bills are generated far away, by computer.

Both Congress and the protection bureau have been trying to better insulate patient credit scores from the inefficiencies of our market-based medical system. Various proposals have been considered to differentiate medical debt from other forms; it could be erased once it has been paid off or not reported to credit agencies at all, for example. So far, the credit industry has fought successfully against such efforts, noting that they could allow some genuine scofflaws to evade legitimate charges. But it’s also good business, since health care bills are now the largest source of business for collection companies, according to consumer protection agency officials.

Having spent the last year reporting a series on American health costs, I’ve heard plenty about credit casualties.

Gene Cavallo, 61, a New Mexico businessman who put his children through college, had always paid his bills promptly and had an excellent credit rating, until he required surgical excision of a melanoma on his shin two years ago. The more than 60 bills generated for the surgery and six months of follow-up visits — arriving sporadically and ranging from 18 cents to $17,000 — came to $110,000; his insurance covered about $70,000.

When various providers asked him to pay the remaining $40,000, he requested itemized bills and balked at some of the “ridiculously inflated prices,” such as $85 for tweezers and $20 for a box of tissues. He argued the bills point by point, and ultimately agreed to pay $25,000.
But during the negotiations some of the debt was sent to collection. Two years later, he no longer answers the daily robocalls from collection agencies and has had a couple of credit cards canceled because his score has fallen. “It was a scary thing to do because I own a business and dabble in real estate, so the ability to borrow has always been important to me. And now I have no ability, I assume, to borrow for any reason.”
Michael S., who declined to give his full name so as to protect his reputation with business clients, had to declare bankruptcy in Wisconsin more than five years ago after a fraught year in which his toddler was evaluated for what proved to be a benign neurological condition that required no treatment: “You’d get bills for several different doctors’ groups and for tests and M.R.I.s and you don’t know what they are. I was having trouble figuring out who we owed what. And then, if it goes to collection, then suddenly they’re saying we need this paid now.”

With medical expenses, unlike most other purchases, you generally don’t know the price the hospital will charge in advance. And the subsequent bills and insurance statements — so-called explanations of benefits — are often layered in obfuscation and pressure tactics.

Consider Chris Sullivan of Pennsylvania, whose $2,770 bill for an echocardiogram offered a “prompt payment” discount of 20 percent if he wrote a check within 21 days — meaning a discount for not asking questions on a bill for a test he was told would be under $300.

Another “explanation of benefits” statement notified Joe Cotugno of New York City that his two-day hospital stay for a hip replacement was billed at $99,469.70 (doctors’ fees not included). Cigna paid $68,420.53 after knocking off some $28,000 and requiring Mr. Cotugno to pay $3,018.41. So, it informed him, “You saved 96 percent.” Huh?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been studying the impact of medical billing on credit scores since 2012, acknowledging that unpaid medical bills in collection “frequently end up on consumer credit reports,” as an outgrowth of “very complex and confusing systems of figuring out who owes what after a medical procedure.” Mr. Cordray, the bureau’s director, said it would take appropriate action if harmful practices were identified.

Bills in Congress that would regulate the practices have been stalled for years. The Medical Debt Relief Act was passed by the House in 2010, but never made it to a Senate vote. After a modified version of the bill failed to pass again last year, another act was recently introduced in the Senate and House.

Meanwhile, patients are right to worry. When Matt Meyer, who owns a saddle-fitting company in New Hampshire, set up a monthly payment plan after some surgery, he was distressed to notice that the invoices came from a debt collector. “I had no idea this was considered debt,” he said, and wondered: “Are they reporting that” to a credit agency?

Good question.

Read More

Americans don’t know what’s in Obamacare, do know they don’t like it

By Sarah Kliff, Washington Post

Fifty percent of Americans now say they oppose the Affordable Care Act. This is the highest number that Kaiser Family Foundation’s poll has seen since October 2011, when Republicans were in the midst of a primary cycle and lots of anti-Obamacare rhetoric was in the air. The easiest explanation for the recent upswing in negative sentiment would be that lots of Americans tried, but failed, to buy insurance through HealthCare.gov. They ran into technical barriers that plagued the site in October and November. But Kaiser’s data don’t really bear out that thesis. There’s actually only been a tiny uptick in the number of Americans who say the health-care law has affected their lives over the past three months. A full 59 percent of Americans still report no personal experience with the law. 

Most Americans don’t know that Obamacare has, at this point, pretty much fully taken effect. When surveyed in January, after the insurance expansion began, 18 percent said they thought “all” or “most” provisions of the Affordable Care Act had been put into place.

There’s lots of confusion, too, about what policies are and aren’t part of the health-care law. Most Americans know there’s a mandate to purchase health insurance. A lot fewer are aware that the law provides financial help for low- to middle-income Americans (the tax subsidies) or gives states the option of expanding Medicaid.

For many Americans – particularly the 68 percent who get coverage through their work, Medicare and Medicaid — the launch of the exchanges probably doesn’t affect their coverage situation. They’ll continue getting insurance in 2014 just the same way they did in 2013. For them, an expansion of Medicaid or an end to the denial of coverage for people with pre-existing conditions isn’t a big change (unless, of course, they lose their current coverage).

So what’s driving the negative opinions of Obamacare? The Kaiser survey does point to one potential culprit: negative news coverage. More Americans say they’ve seen stories about people having bad experiences with the Affordable Care Act than good ones.

Politico’s David Nather had a great line on this recently, in a story about the very high bar for success stories about the Affordable Care Act.

“Here’s the challenge the White House faces in telling Obamacare success stories: Try to picture a headline that says, ‘Obamacare does what it’s supposed to do,’ ” Nather writes. “Somehow, the Obama administration and its allies will have to convince news outlets to run those kinds of stories — and to give the happy newly insured the same kind of attention as the outraged complainers whose health plans were canceled because of the law.”

We don’t have a great sense yet of what type of experience Obamacare’s new enrollees are having — whether they’re disproportionately bad or if the bad stories are just more interesting to cover. But the more negative news coverage does seem to have played some role in the recent uptick in negative opinions about the new law.

Read More

The battle of the anecdotes: Gird yourself for Obamacare’s newest fight

By Sarah Kliff

Below is an interesting piece by Sarah Kliff on how the Affordable Care Act is changing the American health-care system — and being changed by it. At this stage, the report card for the program depends largely on who you ask.

Fliers promoting the Get Covered Illinois health insurance marketplace sit in a box at the Bureau County Health Department offices in Princeton, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. Today’s deadline for Americans to sign up for Obamacare health coverage effective Jan. 1 was extended until midnight tomorrow as heavy traffic to the online enrollment system caused a queuing system to be activated.

If you want to believe Obamacare is going great, you should call up Linda Browne. She’s a 62-year-old retired accountant from California who already has an appointment to see her new primary-care doctor at Kaiser Permanente, the new health insurer she signed up with through Covered California.

“I thought I would have to wait a long time,” Browne says. “But when I called, they said she had an appointment Wednesday for a physical.”
If you’d prefer to believe Obamacare is going terribly, then Michael D. Scott has got a story for you. He’s a 36-year-old Texan who turned up at a pharmacy last week trying to fill a $700 prescription for anti-seizure medication — only to find the technicians had no record of his enrollment.
“I’m stuck,” says Scott, who takes the prescription to treat a genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. “I’m going to have to start buying a couple days’ worth on my own if they can’t figure things out. It’s disappointing.”

Both Browne and Scott signed up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Browne has had the law work pretty well; Scott has spent hours on the phone with customer service representatives (actually, he spent one hour and 37 minutes on his last call — yes, he timed it). And stories like theirs are about to become central to the next Obamacare fight, what I like to think of as the battle of the anecdotes.

The battle of the anecdotes is all-but-guaranteed because access to health care is really difficult to measure, even more so than the number of people who have enrolled or how well HealthCare.gov is functioning. With enrollment, for example, HealthCare.gov can track all the people who pick a private insurance plan, as can the 14-state based insurance exchanges. That’s how we know 2.1 million people have selected private insurance plans (although we don’t know how many have paid their first month’s premium, which is due, for January coverage, by this Friday).

The federal government can gauge how well HealthCare.gov is working by tracking how long it takes pages to load, or how many enrollment files — known as ‘834s’ — contain errors. And the call centers know, too, how long customers have to wait to get a person on the line.

But when it comes to access to health care, there’s no analogous metric. Our health-care system is really fragmented. Since HealthCare.gov shoppers are buying private coverage, and not a government plan, we have no central clearing house to understand whether more shoppers are having an experience like Scott in Texas — or like Browne in California.

Nonprofit institutions do study these types of questions. The Commonwealth Fund, for example, regularly looks at how long patients in different countries have to wait to see a primary-care doctor or a particular surgeon. But these surveys take months to conduct and analyze, meaning that we will probably have to wait until late 2014 or early 2015 to get a sense of what access looks like under the Affordable Care Act.

Enter the anecdote, which can be great to understand how new policy programs are impacting the way that Americans receive health care. But they can also be a really terrible way to gauge whether Obamacare is going great — or is a complete disaster. One or two stories don’t do a great job of capturing the experience of the millions of Americans who have signed up for health plans.

And even the anecdotes themselves can be nuanced, portrayed in different ways to make Obamacare seem great, or horrible. Take Browne: She called for an appointment in her new network the morning of Jan. 2. But she couldn’t get through to a real, live person until that afternoon; she kept getting a message that said “all circuits are busy.”

(more…)

Read More

HealthCare.gov is clearly working better. But is it actually working?

by Ezra Klein, Washington Post

Interesting report on the improvements in the consumer experience of healthcare.gov and what that is likely to mean for the next election cycle.

A report released by the Obama administration this weekend shows the consumer experience is clearly improved. More than 400 of the 600 fixes on the administration’s “punchcard” of repairs have been made. System response time has fallen from eight seconds to less than one second. The administration believes HealthCare.gov can now handle 50,000 concurrent users. The site, which was down 55 percent of the time in early November, is now functional more than 90 percent of the time.

Of course, that means the site still suffers a disastrous outage rate judged by the standards of major retail Web sites — and that’s not counting the time it spends down for scheduled maintenance. We have no idea whether the 200 fixes left on the list are the really important ones, or the really difficult ones. We don’t know what percentage of people who begin an application suffer some failure before completion. The administration hasn’t released information on the error rate in the eligibility determinations or the transmissions to insurers, so it’s impossible to judge whether the site’s critical back-end functions are reliable. And there are important pieces of the site, like the payment mechanisms, that have yet to be built.

So there remains reason for concern. But here’s what’s indisputable: HealthCare.gov is improving, and fast. Or, to put it differently, HealthCare.gov will be fixed. In fact, for most people, it is probably fixed now, or will be fixed quite soon.

The repair job is likely proceeding quickly enough to protect Obamacare from the most severe threat to its launch: Democrat-backed legislation unwinding the individual mandate or other crucial portions of the law. So long as people can actually purchase insurance through the federal exchanges, congressional Democrats are likely to support the basic architecture of the legislation they passed in 2010.

Republicans realize the Web site is quickly improving, and are planning a multi-phase attack on the law’s other disruptions. There are the insurance cancellations, of course, but there also going to be people who happily buy new insurance only to find their doctor isn’t covered, and there will be people who end up paying higher premiums in the new market, and there will be employers who raise deductibles to keep from paying the 2018 tax on high-value insurance plans, and so on.

Unlike HealthCare.gov’s technical problems, most of these issues will be part of the law working as it’s supposed to work rather than the law failing to work as it’s supposed to work. Tighter care networks, for instance, are part of how insurers will cut costs and increase quality in a more competitive market. As Dan Diamond writes, “insurers say that limiting the size of the network allows them to steer patients to high-quality facilities and doctors; participating providers, meanwhile, may agree to price cuts in exchange for new volumes.” It’s exactly what Republicans hoped would happen in health-insurance exchanges — an idea they thought of, and still support for Medicare.

Change hurts, particularly in health-care insurance, and it may well hurt Democrats in 2014. But Obamacare is now moving from unexpected problems that threaten the law to predictable disruptions that are, in many cases, intended by the law. And the Obama administration will have three full years to create millions, and perhaps tens of millions, of winners who are getting insurance or protection through the law. As in 2010, they may well lose on the politics in the midterm election even as they win on the policy in the long term.

Read More

Driving a New Bargain in Health Care

By TYLER COWEN, professor of economics at George Mason University

Interesting piece on possible compromises that both political parties could agree to in improving the health care law.

The Affordable Care Act has gotten off to a rocky start. Federal and state online health insurance exchanges, which opened for business at the beginning of the month, have been bedeviled by technical snags. And opposition to the law from some House Republicans blocked funding for the entire federal government, leading to its partial shutdown.

In fact, with all the conflict and vituperation over Obamacare, it sometimes seems that one of the few things Democrats and Republicans agree on is that the law is imperfect at best. And they also agree that it could be improved. Even if a bipartisan deal to create a better health care system seems far off today, it’s not too soon to start imagining what a future bargain might look like.

Just to get started, I will assume that, at some point, Democrats will be willing to acknowledge that not everything has worked out as planned with the legislation, and that they would consider a rewrite that would expand coverage. I’ll also assume that Republicans will acknowledge that a feasible rewrite of the bill cannot give the Democrats nothing. And Republicans will need to recognize that repeal of Obamacare should not be their obsession, because they would then be leaving the nation with a dysfunctional yet still highly government-oriented health care system, not some lost conservative paradise. Both sides have a lot to gain, and, at some point, they should realize it.

Let’s look at some of the current problems in the health care system and see whether they might be patched up.

Even under Obamacare, many people will not have health insurance coverage, including two-thirds of poor blacks and single mothers and more than half the low-wage workers who lacked coverage before the law was enacted. That is largely because of the unwillingness of 26 governors to expand Medicaid coverage as the original bill had intended. The Supreme Court struck down that portion of the Affordable Care Act, however, giving states a choice.

Will many red-state governors eventually accept the act’s Medicaid extension, which is sometimes portrayed as a financial free lunch, since federal aid covers most of the coverage expansion? It’s not clear that they will. If the Republicans win the White House in 2016 and perhaps the House and Senate as well, they may cut off federal funds for that Medicaid expansion. In the meantime, many states don’t want to extend their Medicaid rolls, because such benefits are hard to withdraw once granted.

There is a deeper problem with relying heavily on Medicaid as the backbone of health care for the poor. The fact that so many governors have found political gain in opposing a nearly fully-funded Medicaid expansion suggests that long-term support for Medicaid is weaker than it appeared just a few years ago. Furthermore, in cyclical downturns, the increase in Medicaid coverage after a climb in unemployment puts much strain on state budgets.

A separate issue concerns employers who are shedding insurance coverage, whether by dropping retirees, moving more workers to part-time status, withholding coverage and paying fines mandated by law, or simply not hiring more workers in the first place. The magnitude of these effects is not yet clear, but over time we can expect that new businesses and new hiring will be structured to minimize costly insurance obligations. It’s no accident that the Obama administration handed out more than 1,000 exemptions from the employer coverage mandate, and postponed the employer mandate until 2015: both actions reflected underlying problems in the legislation. Ideally, the health care law should minimize what is essentially an implicit tax on hiring.

One way forward would look like this: Federalize Medicaid, remove its obligations from state budgets altogether and gradually shift people from Medicaid into the health care exchanges and the network of federal insurance subsidies. One benefit would be that private insurance coverage brings better care access than Medicaid, which many doctors are reluctant to accept.

To help pay for such a major shift, the federal government would cut back on revenue sharing with the states and repeal the deductibility of state income taxes. The states should be able to afford these changes because a big financial obligation would be removed from their budgets.

By moving people from Medicaid to Obamacare, the Democrats could claim a major coverage expansion, an improvement in the quality of care and access for the poor, and a stabilization of President Obama’s legacy — even if the result isn’t exactly the Affordable Care Act as it was enacted. The Republicans could claim that they did away with Medicaid, expanded the private insurance market, and moved the nation closer to a flat-tax system by eliminating some deductions, namely those for state income taxes paid.

At the same time, I’d recommend narrowing the scope of required insurance to focus on catastrophic expenses. If insurance picks up too many small expenses, it encourages abuse and overuse of scarce resources.

In sum, poorer Americans would get a guarantee of coverage and, with private but federally subsidized insurance, gain better access to quality care for significant expenses than they have now with Medicaid. Private insurance pays more and is accepted by many more doctors. But on the downside, the insured care would be less comprehensive than under current definitions of Obamacare’s mandate.

With a cheaper and more modest insurance package mandated under a retooled law, employers would be less intent on dropping coverage. That would help in job creation. It also would lower the federal cost of the subsidies through the exchanges, both because employers would cover more workers and because the insurance policies would be cheaper.

This wouldn’t be an ideal health care system, but it may be the best we can do, considering where we stand today.

Read More

No Easy Answers on Financing Long – Term Care

By JUDITH GRAHAM, NY Times

This article points out the difficulty in financing long term care for the elderly.  Experts believe more focus should be on finding ways to provide affordable care within the efforts to reform Medicare and Medicaid.  For now, families continue to bear the brunt of the cost associated with caring for the elderly.

The federal Long-Term Care Commission published its full report on Wednesday, but it did little to change the perception that substantial relief for caregivers will be a long time coming.

The commission had endorsed a package of 28 recommendations late last week, prior to the release of the full report. Among other measures, the recommendations call for recognizing caregivers as members of “care teams,” including information about caregivers in patient records, assessing caregivers’ need for support, and making services like respite care more widely available.

But this group of 15 experts couldn’t agree on how to pay for long-term care services needed by frail older adults or people with disabilities. The full report doesn’t change that.

Currently, only those who are impoverished and qualify for Medicaid get significant assistance from the government for long-term care. For the most part, middle-class families are left to bear the burdensome expenses: $18 an hour on average for homemaker services, $19 an hour for home healthcare aids, $3,405 a month for assisted living, $230 a day for a private nursing home room, according to the latest report from Genworth Financial.

How to ease this financial burden was the most important issue facing the commission. In the end, the report proposed two alternatives: some kind of government insurance program for long-term care, or some kind of private insurance option. Then commission members essentially threw up their hands, admitting they couldn’t agree.

When my colleague Paula Span wrote about the commission earlier this year, she asked whether its work would elicit a yawn or a cheer. For many, the answer is neither. Even some commission members feel a sharp sense of frustration and disappointment.

One is Judy Feder, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, who voted against the commission’s final recommendations on the grounds that they didn’t fulfill Congress’s charge to come up with a comprehensive solution. I asked her about a statement from six of her fellow commissioners insisting that any new long-term care program not enlarge public budgets.

“The current system has a budgetary implication,” Dr. Feder said. “It sticks it to families.”

Another disappointed member is Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “The vision in the majority report is not much more than we have now,” she said. “It is, ‘Plan, understand, think about savings and insurance, and provide for those who are impoverished.’ That kind of approach doesn’t meet our long-term care needs now, and it won’t meet them in the future.”

While several of the commission’s recommendations are welcome, they will make a difference only “around the margins,” Ms. Stein said.
Families will bear the consequences, said Ms. Stein and other experts. Elderly spouses will continue to struggle to care for each other, and adult children will strain to balance jobs and the needs of frail parents and their own children. Untold numbers of aging Americans won’t get enough care, and caregivers will suffer from stress and depression, endangering their own health.

If a public insurance program is unaffordable, as several commission members claimed, might the private market supply a solution to the aging population’s need for affordable long-term care? That seems unlikely. Premiums for private long-term care insurance have been rising dramatically, policies are becoming more restrictive, insurers have been exiting the market, and bureaucratic red tape makes it difficult for many individual and families to receive expected benefits.

Financially, the only way to make private insurance work is to spread risk over a wide base of policy holders. But the cost of long-term care coverage makes it unlikely that millions of healthy people will purchase policies. This was the economic calculus that doomed the Class Act, the voluntary long-term care insurance program that was originally part of the Affordable Care Act.

Is there a way forward? The long-term care commission recommended two options: convening a White House conference on aging to consider long-term care policies, and establishing yet another advisory committee to continue its work. But, said Dr. Joanne Lynn, a geriatrician who directs the Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness at the Altarum Institute, “The administration has shown no interest in having that happen, and here we are on the cusp of the largest generation in history growing old.”

She believes that it’s a mistake to separate long-term care from broader reforms of Medicare and the health care delivery system. The two systems of caring for people with disabilities and older adults need to be much more tightly integrated, Dr. Lynn said. Savings from eliminating inappropriate medical care — by some estimates, as much as one-third of all care — could be used to finance the expansion of long-term care services, she suggested.

As for another commission, is there any reason to hope it will be more successful in tackling critical issues when advocates of smaller government are committed to standing against a new federal insurance program for long-term care that might rely, at least in part, on public financing?

“I think this will be a hard discussion, but it is one that we as a country will have to grapple with,” said Dr. Bruce Chernof, the commission’s chairman and president of the SCAN Foundation in California. He sees the seeds of a potential compromise embedded in the commission’s report. The two primary financing options considered by the commission share “some commonalities,” he said, including agreement on the need for strong public programs and a role for the private sector.

“If you look carefully at these two perspectives, you can begin to see a way forward.”

Read More

How to Charge $546 for Six Liters of Saltwater

This article exposes some of the ways medical product suppliers and hospitals mark up products, sometimes 1,000 times, to capture profitable revenue from sick patients and their insurance companies.  Another example of all of the players getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  Will it ever change?

By NINA BERNSTEIN for the NY TImes
It is one of the most common components of emergency medicine: an intravenous bag of sterile saltwater.

Luckily for anyone who has ever needed an IV bag to replenish lost fluids or to receive medication, it is also one of the least expensive. The average manufacturer’s price, according to government data, has fluctuated in recent years from 44 cents to $1.

Yet there is nothing either cheap or simple about its ultimate cost, as I learned when I tried to trace the commercial path of IV bags from the factory to the veins of more than 100 patients struck by a May 2012 outbreak of food poisoning in upstate New York.

 Some of the patients’ bills would later include markups of 100 to 200 times the manufacturer’s price, not counting separate charges for “IV administration.” And on other bills, a bundled charge for “IV therapy” was almost 1,000 times the official cost of the solution.

It is no secret that medical care in the United States is overpriced. But as the tale of the humble IV bag shows all too clearly, it is secrecy that helps keep prices high: hidden in the underbrush of transactions among multiple buyers and sellers, and in the hieroglyphics of hospital bills.
At every step from manufacturer to patient, there are confidential deals among the major players, including drug companies, purchasing organizations and distributors, and insurers. These deals so obscure prices and profits that even participants cannot say what the simplest component of care actually costs, let alone what it should cost.

And that leaves taxpayers and patients alike with an inflated bottom line and little or no way to challenge it.

A Price in Flux

In the food-poisoning case, some of the stricken were affluent, and others barely made ends meet. Some had private insurance; some were covered by government programs like Medicare and Medicaid; and some were uninsured.

In the end, those factors strongly (and sometimes perversely) affected overall charges for treatment, including how much patients were expected to pay out of pocket. But at the beginning, there was the cost of an IV bag of normal saline, one of more than a billion units used in the United States each year.

“People are shocked when they hear that a bag of saline solution costs far less than their cup of coffee in the morning,” said Deborah Spak, a spokeswoman for Baxter International, one of three global pharmaceutical companies that make nearly all the IV solutions used in the United States.

It was a rare unguarded comment. Ms. Spak — like a spokesman for Hospira, another giant in the field — later insisted that all information about saline solution prices was private.

In fact, manufacturers are required to report such prices annually to the federal government, which bases Medicare payments on the average national price plus 6 percent. The limit for one liter of normal saline (a little more than a quart) went to $1.07 this year from 46 cents in 2010, an increase manufacturers linked to the cost of raw materials, fuel and transportation. That would seem to make it the rare medical item that is cheaper in the United States than in France, where the price at a typical hospital in Paris last year was 3.62 euros, or $4.73.

Middlemen at the Fore

One-liter IV bags normally contain nine grams of salt, less than two teaspoons. Much of it comes from a major Morton Salt operation in Rittman, Ohio, which uses a subterranean salt deposit formed millions of years ago. The water is local to places like Round Lake, Ill., or Rocky Mount, N.C., where Baxter and Hospira, respectively, run their biggest automated production plants under sterility standards set by the Food and Drug Administration.

But even before the finished product is sold by the case or the truckload, the real cost of a bag of normal saline, like the true cost of medical supplies from gauze to heart implants, disappears into an opaque realm of byzantine contracts, confidential rebates and fees that would be considered illegal kickbacks in many other industries.

IV bags can function like cheap milk and eggs in a high-priced grocery store, or like the one-cent cellphone locked into an expensive service contract. They serve as loss leaders in exclusive contracts with “preferred manufacturers” that bundle together expensive drugs and basics, or throw in “free” medical equipment with costly consequences.

Few hospitals negotiate these deals themselves. Instead, they rely on two formidable sets of middlemen: a few giant group-purchasing organizations that negotiate high-volume contracts, and a few giant distributors that buy and store medical supplies and deliver them to hospitals.

Proponents of this system say it saves hospitals billions in economies of scale. Critics say the middlemen not only take their cut, but they have a strong interest in keeping most prices high and competition minimal.

The top three group-purchasing organizations now handle contracts for more than half of all institutional medical supplies sold in the United States, including the IVs used in the food-poisoning case, which were bought and taken by truck to regional warehouses by big distributors.
These contracts proved to be another black box. Debbie Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Cardinal Health, one of the three largest distributors, said she could not discuss costs or prices under “disclosure rules relative to our investor relations.”

Distributors match different confidential prices for the same product with each hospital’s contract, she said, and sell information on the buyers back to manufacturers.

A huge Cardinal distribution center is in Montgomery, N.Y. — only 30 miles, as it happens, from the landscaped grounds of the Buddhist monastery in Carmel, N.Y., where many of the food-poisoning victims fell ill on Mother’s Day 2012.

Among them were families on 10 tour buses that had left Chinatown in Manhattan that morning to watch dragon dances at the monastery. After eating lunch from food stalls there, some traveled on to the designer outlet stores at Woodbury Common, about 30 miles away, before falling sick.

The symptoms were vicious. “Within two hours of eating that rice that I had bought, I was lying on the ground barely conscious,” said Dr. Elizabeth Frost, 73, an anesthesiologist from Purchase in Westchester County who was visiting the monastery gardens with two friends. “I can’t believe no one died.”

About 100 people were taken to hospitals in the region by ambulance; five were admitted and the rest released the same day. The New York State Department of Health later found the cause was a common bacterium, Staphylococcus aureus, from improperly cooked or stored food sold in the stalls.

Mysterious Charges

The sick entered a health care ecosystem under strain, swept by consolidation and past efforts at cost containment.
For more than a decade, hospitals in the Hudson Valley, like those across the country, have scrambled for mergers and alliances to offset economic pressures from all sides. The five hospitals where most of the victims were treated are all part of merged entities jockeying for bargaining power and market share — or worrying that other players will leave them struggling to survive.

The Affordable Care Act encourages these developments as it drives toward a reimbursement system that strives to keep people out of hospitals through more coordinated, cost-efficient care paid on the basis of results, not services. But the billing mysteries in the food poisoning case show how easily cost-cutting can turn into cost-shifting.

A Chinese-American toddler from Brooklyn and her 56-year-old grandmother, treated and released within hours from the emergency room at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital, ran up charges of more than $4,000 and were billed for $1,400 — the hospital’s rate for the uninsured, even though the family is covered by a health maintenance organization under Medicaid, the federal-state program for poor people.
The charges included “IV therapy,” billed at $787 for the adult and $393 for the child, which suggests that the difference in the amount of saline infused, typically less than a liter, could alone account for several hundred dollars.

Tricia O’Malley, a spokeswoman for the hospital, would not disclose the price it pays per IV bag or break down the therapy charge, which she called the hospital’s “private pay rate,” or the sticker price charged to people without insurance. She said she could not explain why patients covered by Medicaid were billed at all.

Eventually the head of the family, an electrician’s helper who speaks little English, complained to HealthFirst, the Medicaid H.M.O. It paid $119 to settle the grandmother’s $2,168 bill, without specifying how much of the payment was for the IV. It paid $66.50 to the doctor, who had billed $606.

At White Plains Hospital, a patient with private insurance from Aetna was charged $91 for one unit of Hospira IV that cost the hospital 86 cents, according to a hospital spokeswoman, Eliza O’Neill.

Ms. O’Neill defended the markup as “consistent with industry standards.” She said it reflected “not only the cost of the solution but a variety of related services and processes,” like procurement, biomedical handling and storage, apparently not included in a charge of $127 for administering the IV and $893 for emergency-room services.

The patient, a financial services professional in her 50s, ended up paying $100 for her visit. “Honestly, I don’t understand the system at all,” said the woman, who shared the information on the condition that she not be named.

Dr. Frost, the anesthesiologist, spent three days in the same hospital and owed only $8, thanks to insurance coverage by United HealthCare. Still, she was baffled by the charges: $6,844, including $546 for six liters of saline that cost the hospital $5.16.
“It’s just absolutely absurd.” she said. “That’s saltwater.”

Last fall, I appealed to the New York State Department of Health for help in mapping the charges for rehydrating patients in the food poisoning episode. Deploying software normally used to detect Medicaid fraud, a team compiled a chart of what Medicaid and Medicare were billed in six of the cases.

But the department has yet to release the chart. It is under indefinite review, Bill Schwarz, a department spokesman, said, “to ensure confidential information is not compromised.”

Read More