How Not to Debate Health Care Reform

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on May 12 with portions of the essay missing. The corrected text is below.

By Ted Marmor

Presidential campaigns in the United States are not typically fought over competing manifestos, with policy details set out in reasonably clear language. Rather they are disputes among candidates about the state of the country and what values—or aspirational visions—they endorse.  And, for at least a century, most American debates about health care reform have been dominated by ideological slogans, misleading claims about financing, and mystifying labels. Republicans have exemplified the mystification this year, repeatedly mislabeling Obamacare as socialized medicine and falsely claiming it a “takeover of American medicine.”

In fairness, the Democratic primaries have generated their own version of mystification. The two candidates do agree on the goals of universal health insurance. But clarity ends there. The Clinton campaign has emphasized incremental reform possibilities and criticized Senator Sanders’ proposal of Medicare for All as unrealistic. Sanders, by contrast, has offered a compelling conception of a fairer and less expensive version of what Americans want, but no incremental steps to get to it.

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When Global Health Norms Meet Medicaid

Special guest post by Nicholas J. Diamond

Medicaid is currently facing a timely, although largely underappreciated, challenge: rebalancing Medicaid long-term services and supports (LTSS). For context, LTSS refer to a broad range of paid and unpaid medical and personal care assistance for individuals who experience difficulty completing self-care tasks due to aging, chronic illness, or disability. According to 2013 estimates, there are approximately 12 million individuals in the U.S. who rely on LTSS, mostly paid for through Medicaid, with a projected increase to approximately 27 million individuals by 2050.

Medicaid has a historical structural bias toward institutional care, such as nursing homes, as opposed to home and community-based services (HCBS), such as home health aides, personal care, chore services, supported employment, rent and food for live-in caregiver, and nonmedical transportation, among many others. Medicaid LTSS rebalancing, therefore, shifts spending away from institutional settings and toward HCBS, which is less expensive and generally preferred by beneficiaries. States may provide HCBS through a complex panoply of federal statutory authorities, including waiver authorities, which afford states wide latitude in designing programs. As you might imagine, with flexibility comes significant variations in how states provide HCBS, which specific types of HCBS they provide, and whether, for instance, cost containment strategies available under certain authorities negatively impact access to needed services. Continue reading

Prior Authorization Policies for Pediatric ADHD Medication Prescriptions

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 6.4 million US children 4-17 years old have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The percentage of US children diagnosed with ADHD has increased by 3-5 percent per year since the 1990s. Relatedly, the percentage of children in this age group taking ADHD medication also has increased by about 7 percent per year from 2007-2008 to 2011-2012.

In response, some state Medicaid programs have implemented policies to manage the use of ADHD medications and guide physicians toward best practices for ADHD treatment in children. These policies include prescription medication prior authorization requirements that restrict approvals to patients above a certain age, or require additional provider involvement before approval for payment is granted.

In a new article published this afternoon in MMWR, CDC researchers compared Medicaid and employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) claims for “psychological services” (the procedure code category that includes behavior therapy) and ADHD medication among children aged 2–5 years receiving clinical care for ADHD.

The article references a newly released LawAtlas map that examines features of state Medicaid prior authorization policies that pertain to pediatric ADHD medication treatment, including applicable ages, medication types, and criteria for approval.

States with Medicaid programs that have a policy that requires prior authorization for ADHD medications prescribed to children younger than 28 years old.

States with Medicaid programs that have a policy that requires prior authorization for ADHD medications prescribed to children younger than 28 years old.

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CPC+: Opportunities and Challenges for Primary Care Transformation

In recent days there has been a lot of action around CMS’ Comprehensive Primary Care Initiative (CPCI). First, the next phase of the program was announced, expanding the program in size and scope. Several days later, an evaluation of the first two years of the initiative was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The original CPCI demonstration began in October 2012 and included 502 practices in seven regions (states or smaller areas within states). The regions were determined largely by payer interest, as commercial and state health insurance plans are essential partners in this multi-payer model. The CPCI involves risk-stratified care management fees for participating practices and the possibility of sharing in net savings to Medicare (if any). In turn, the practices must invest in practice redesign around: access and continuity, chronic disease management, risk-stratified care management, patient and caregiver engagement, and care coordination across a patient’s providers, e.g., managing care transitions and ensuring close communication and collaboration.

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What we know about how the structure of Marketplaces and Medicaid expansion affect enrollment

By Emma Sandoe

It is fairly obvious that states that expanded Medicaid saw greater enrollment in Medicaid after the opening of the Health Insurance Marketplaces in October 2013 than states that did not expand. CMS has been releasing monthly reports that indicate just that.

This also corresponds to the reductions in uninsurance. States that expanded Medicaid clearly have seen greater reductions in uninsurance than states that elected not to expand. The US Census Bureau recently posted the maps below in their blog “Research Matters.” Here is a map of the uninsurance reductions:

With the exceptions of states like Massachusetts that have already high levels of Medicaid expansion, it’s clear which states have chosen to expand Medicaid and which ones have not, but if you need the context, here is a map of states that have expanded Medicaid:

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Additional Troubles for Theranos

By Katherine Kwong

The onslaught of bad news for Theranos, the start-up laboratory services company plagued with troubles since last October, continued this week with a new round of reports and press coverage. First, on March 28, the Journal of Clinical Investigation published an article that found that Theranos’ tests tended to produce more irregular results than those of two other laboratory services companies. Then, on March 31, an inspection report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was released, revealing numerous problems at Theranos that led to quality control problems, possibly leading to inaccurate test results for patients. The article and report both raise additional questions about Theranos’ claims and long-term viability – a steep letdown from early hype about the company, which promised to revolutionize the laboratory testing industry. The story of Theranos’ troubles highlights how scientific flaws and regulatory mishaps can lead to serious problems for companies seeking to innovate in the health sciences space.

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The Unintended Uninsured: The Affordable Care Act’s Coverage Gap

[Cross posted from the Harvard Law and Policy Review]

By Julian Polaris

This is a golden age for access to healthcare in America. In 2015, over 90% of Americans had health coverage, the highest insurance ratein the 50 years the federal government has collected insurance data. This astonishing progress is due in large part to the Affordable Care Act (ACA): President Obama recently announced that 20 million people are covered thanks to the ACA. The victory is bittersweet, however: had the ACA been implemented as designed, an additional three million people would have insurance today. This is the story of the “coverage gap,” a crack in the ACA created by the Supreme Court and left unrepaired in nineteen states. A crack so wide that three million low-income people have fallen through it.

The ACA, as originally passed, aimed to increase access to health coverage in two main ways. First, the Act expanded Medicaid, the public health plan for people with low income. Previously, most states had limited Medicaid eligibility to specific groups like children and pregnant women. The ACA enlarged and standardized the Medicaid program to cover all people who earn up to 138% of the federal poverty level (FPL). The federal government picks up 90% of the cost of healthcare services for newly eligible beneficiaries, whereas costs in traditional Medicaid are split closer to 50-50.

Second, the ACA established the health insurance “exchanges,” portals in each state where consumers can shop for standardized plans that aren’t tied to a particular employer. Federal tax credits are available to subsidize exchange coverage for those earning 100 to 400% of the FPL. Continue reading

Medicare’s Coming Battle Over Drug Reimbursement

By Zack Buck

Following months of news coverage highlighting how American drug prices are “out of control,” the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) seems to have been spurred into action. Last week, CMS proposed a new reimbursement regime for drugs paid for by Medicare Part B (drugs administered on an outpatient basis).

Addressing the concerns that the existing reimbursement formula may encourage physicians to rely on more expensive drugs, the proposal calls for testing new payment models designed to save money. The most striking of these changes calls for altering the “average sales price plus 6 percent” reimbursement formula (the amount Medicare pays doctors to reimburse them for drugs) to a formula which would pay doctors the average sales price plus 2.5 percent, plus a fee of $16.80 per drug per day. Further, the proposal also calls for testing indications-based and reference pricing. If implemented, all of these tools would be likely to produce cost savings for Medicare Part B, which spends $20 billion annually on drugs.

According to the New York Times, the proposal “touched off a tempest,” as physicians, politicians, and drug manufacturers criticized  the proposed changes. The American Society of Clinical Oncologists decried the “heavy-handed” government intervention that would adversely affect seniors’ quality of care. Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) implied that the change would allow “unelected bureaucrats” to usurp medical judgment, with negative effects on access to care. And a statement from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) noted that the proposal “puts Medicare patients who rely on these medicines at risk.”

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The Economics Of Paying For Value

This new post by Nancy Beaulieu, Michael Chernew, Soren Kristensen, and Meredith Rosenthal appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 29, 2016.

The notion that the American health care system should transition from paying for volume to paying for value has become nearly ubiquitous. There is a broad consensus that health care providers should be paid more if they deliver higher value care (i.e. care that results in substantial health gains per dollar spent).

These beliefs have led to a proliferation of value-based payment programs in both public and private sectors. For example, at the beginning of 2015, Sylvia Burwell announced the federal government’s commitment to tie 90 percent of fee-for-service Medicare payments to quality or value measures by 2018. In January of 2015, a newly formed alliance of health care providers, insurers, and employers called the Health Care Transformation Task Force committed to shifting 75 percent of their business to contracts that provide incentives for quality and efficiency by 2020.

The details of existing value or quality-based payment programs vary enormously and without regard to any conceptual framework. For example, they vary in the size of incentives and the measures used. They also vary in whether quality payments are contingent on financial savings and whether the value-based payment model is budget neutral. Even the term value is inconsistently defined. […]

Read the full post here.

Medicaid Expansion Through Section 1115 Waivers: Evaluating The Tradeoffs

This new post by Rachel Sachs appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 29, 2016.

Nearly six years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), health law and policy experts continue to painstakingly track the progress of the Act’s Medicaid expansion. The original intention of the ACA was to expand Medicaid in every state, leading to gains in coverage by all individuals below a certain income.

However, the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius(NFIB) invalidated the original expansion as unconstitutionally coercive, effectively making the Medicaid expansion voluntary for states. As of this blog post, just 32 states including DC have expanded Medicaid pursuant to the ACA.

Most of the states that have expanded Medicaid thus far have done so through the standard procedure, following the statutory guidelines set forth by the ACA and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and incorporating the newly eligible enrollees into their existing programs as a new beneficiary group. But some states have successfully negotiated customized expansions with CMS through the use of the Section 1115 waiver process, seeking to expand Medicaid only on their terms. […]

Read the full post here.

What is the IMD Exclusion that everyone is talking about?

By Emma Sandoe

A less covered provision of Medicaid law that has been in existence since the establishment of the program in 1965 and has been making some news over the past several months, the IMD exclusion is a provision that restricts Medicaid payments for certain institutions, potentially reducing the access to available services for low-income individuals with mental illnesses. If you haven’t been hearing everyone talking about it… well, I guess you talk with fewer health policy nerds than I do.

What is the IMD exclusion?

According to the good people at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the IMD exclusion can be defined as: Institutions for Mental Disease (IMDs) are inpatient facilities of more than 16 beds whose patient roster is more than 51% people with severe mental illness. Federal Medicaid matching payments are prohibited for IMDs with a population between the ages of 22 and 64. IMDs for persons under age 22 or over age 64 are permitted, at state option, to draw federal Medicaid matching funds.

Why does Medicaid have this provision?

This is because when Medicaid first started, states were responsible for the care of people with severe mental illness. States cared for many people with mental illnesses in a custodial setting; essentially states often were providing people a place to sleep but no mental health services. When drafting the Medicaid bill, the federal government did not want to supplant this existing state program with federal Medicaid funding. Additionally, while President Johnson was notorious for not spending a large amount of time on the cost of Medicare, the addition of these services would add $1.8 billion to the Medicaid budget, nearly doubling the first year price tag.

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NHPC 2016: Provider Engagement Can Unify Diverse Payment Reform Efforts

By Cornelia Hall, Master of Public Policy Candidate, Harvard Kennedy School, Class of 2017

This is the first entry in a three-part series on the AcademyHealth National Health Policy Conference, held in Washington, DC, on February 1-2, 2016. 

At AcademyHealth’s 2016 National Health Policy Conference earlier this month, payment reform was a pervasive theme.  Its prominence was not surprising.  Indeed, in early 2015, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced the agency’s goal to have 30% of traditional, fee-for-service Medicare payments tied to quality or value through alternative payment models by the end of 2016, and 50% by the end of 2018.  As the current sea change in health care moves the system towards these goals, the conference’s panelists explored various aspects of the transition to value-based payment. Speakers who discussed the issue included leaders in government, clinical practice, and private insurance.  They sent an overarching message that payment reform efforts will continue to take a variety of forms — on parallel tracks with cross-cutting themes — rather than a single approach.  Representatives from provider organizations particularly stressed the necessary groundwork for these efforts to be effective.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) under the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is operating dozens of payment- and quality-focused models and demonstrations across the country.  The breadth of payment models and their varying degrees of success represent different approaches to health care reform, such as population- and episode-based payment.  On his panel, CMMI Deputy Director Dr. Rahul Rajkumar noted that this breadth is designed to appeal to diverse providers that differ in type and readiness for payment reform.  Indeed, a health care system that has operated for decades with multiple payers, little care coordination, fragmented use of technology, and inconsistent definitions of quality care is undergoing monumental transformation.  The transition from fee-for-service to value-based payment thus involves some experimentation to identify the most effective approach. Continue reading

Update: Another Wave of ICD Settlements

By Zack Buck

There has been an update to a story I recently blogged about here.

As announced by the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday, another 51 hospitals have settled allegations that the hospitals placed implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) in the chests of patients without complying with Medicare’s mandatory waiting periods.  These 51 settlements amount to $23 million, meaning that the DOJ’s ICD review has now has resulted in settlements with more than 500 hospitals totaling more than $280 million.

According to the DOJ, this is the final stage of the investigation, concluding an initiative that has highlighted the tension that exists between fraud enforcement, medical necessity, and reimbursement standards (recent articles here, here, and here).

President Obama Introduces Evidence Generation Strategy to Reduce High Drug Costs

By Elizabeth Guo

Addressing the high cost of drugs was at the top of President Obama’s list in his fiscal year 2017 budget, released last week. Many of his proposals were familiar. The President hoped to increase manufacturer contributions to prescription drug coverage under Medicare Part D and wanted to shorten the length of biologic market exclusivity from twelve to seven years. These proposals were also in the President’s fiscal year 2016 budget but were not put into place.

However, the budget also included a number of surprising, new proposals that underscore how post-market evidence might play an increasing role in controlling drug prices in coming years. Rachel Sachs has written about the role that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) can play in keeping down drug prices, and it seems like some of these ideas are gaining traction:

Modify reimbursement of Part B drugs. The White House estimates that changes to Medicare Part B payments could save the country $7.75 billion over ten years. Medicare Part B covers drugs and services dispensed in an outpatient setting. Many of the most expensive biologic drugs are currently covered under Medicare Part B. The budget proposal did not elaborate on how the White House hopes to change Part B payments, but the proposal likely refers to recommendations released by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) last June. MedPAC’s 2015 report recommended that Congress link Part B payments to clinical effectiveness evidence. For example, the government could group drugs with similar health effects and pay all drugs in each group the rate of least costly product in the group. This approach relies on having reliable clinical effectiveness data so that researchers can easily compare the relative effectiveness of two or more drugs. Continue reading

Zika Messes with Texas

Photo: Texas + Fence

Flickr Creative Commons—Adam Simmons

By Gregory M. Lipper

For an ambitious, aggressive disease like Zika, Texas is an ideal home. Earlier this week we learned that Zika—a nasty virus that has spread to over 25 countries—was transmitted by sex to a resident of Dallas. Six more cases of Zika have also been confirmed in Harris County, Texas. The appearance of Zika in Texas may be happenstance, but Texas’s health policies will make it easier for Zika to spread. Among other problems, Texas (1) fails to teach students about safe sex and reduces access to affordable, effective contraceptives; (2) has blocked access to Medicaid for up to 2 million low-income residents; and (3) is trying to restrict if not eliminate access to safe abortion. Not a bad place for a communicable disease that can spread through sex and cause birth defects.

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Why Asset Tests Need Reform

The penalty for Bostonian jaywalkers can take dollars out of repeat offenders wallets. The $1 fine for jaywalking in the Massachusetts metropolis may be a ridiculous example of statutory dollar figures losing their significance, but the statutory dollar figures associated with Medicaid eligibility are anything but a laughing matter for millions of families.

The eligibility requirements around Medicaid expansion have ended the decades old practice of limiting assets for Medicaid coverage for children and parents. However, in order to qualify for many existing Medicaid programs, the elderly and people with disabilities in many states must still verify that their assets fall below a certain dollar figure. Oftentimes, this dollar figure is statutory and requires state legislatures to act in order to have the figure rise with inflation.

Asset tests were first incorporated into Medicaid law under the original legislation because welfare benefits required strict means and asset tests. These levels were determined at the state level. As eligibility was separated from welfare eligibility, specific dollar figures on assets were added to eligibility criteria and were meant to curb enrollment by “welfare queens” or people that qualify for social assistance fraudulently or with significant assets. President Reagan first campaigned on the concept of “welfare queens” in his failed 1976 bid for the presidency. But these fraudulent cases that the policy is meant to restrict are limited and more often the imposed asset tests prevent working-age adults from reducing dependency on social welfare programs.

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Medicaid and Access to Health Care Services

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Washington Headquarters

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Washington Headquarters, Hubert H. Humphrey Building

Last week Health Affairs released a new article that surveyed low-income individuals in Kentucky and Arkansas, two states that expanded Medicaid coverage to all people under 138 percent of the federal poverty level in 2014. They survey, led by Harvard professors, Robert Blendon and Ben Sommers, found that people in these states reported lower rates of problems paying medical bills and forgoing care or prescriptions due to cost. Additionally, the number of people that reported seeing a physician for a checkup and management of chronic conditions increased in Kentucky and Arkansas. All of these responses are indicators of having access to health care.

The results seen in Kentucky and Arkansas are in stark contrast to the survey results in Texas, which has elected not to expand Medicaid coverage. Texas has seen no change in an individual’s ability to pay for medical services and an increase in people forgoing health care coverage. This comparison indicates that expanded Medicaid coverage improves a person’s access to medical care.

But this isn’t the first time Medicaid has been shown to score well in measures of access to health care services for low-income individuals. Contrary to the rhetoric of politicians and the logic that Medicaid’s low reimbursement rates mean people have fewer choices of physicians, evidence to date has suggested that some of these arguments may be exaggerated.

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Realizing the Potential of Accountable Health Communities

Michael Anne Kyle

The recent $157 million commitment from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) for a new “Accountable Health Communities” test model is most welcome. This is major step for the agency in recognizing the significance of social determinants of health in improving outcomes and costs. A New England Journal of Medicine article accompanying the funding announcement does an excellent job of highlighting the extent to which social conditions affect health outcomes and costs.

The program will invest in 44 communities over five years in three progressively advancing tracks: “increasing awareness”, “providing assistance” and “aligning partners”. Evaluation (perhaps proof of concept is more apt) is an important aspect of the model: the goal is not only to find out whether social service linkages affect health outcomes, but what types of interventions work. The awareness and assistance tracks each involve randomizing patients to usual care or an intervention; in the case of awareness, this is information about relevant social services, and in the case of assistance, the patient is provided navigation to facilitate the connection. The alignment track provides navigation, and will not involve randomization; instead, outcomes in these communities will be measured against a matched control site.

The CMMI vision of AHCs (another new acronym, gulp!) reflects emerging trends in health care and antipoverty work. The funding announcement credits initiatives like Health Leads for inspiring the low-touch (e.g., awareness) pathways. The alignment track, meanwhile, aligns very nicely with the work of emerging Medicaid Accountable Care Organizations in states like Minnesota, Colorado, and New Jersey.

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Studies Find ACA Did Not Lead to Substantial Increases in Part-Time Employment

By Katherine Kwong

Analysts from all over the political spectrum have long suggested that the Affordable Care Act’s provisions could lead to a reduction in employment numbers. New research suggests that contrary to these expectations, the available data do not support claims that the ACA would lead to a substantial shift from full-time workers to part-time workers. The current evidence also does not support claims that there would be substantially more part-time workers and people leaving the workforce due to the ACA’s provisions expanding Medicaid eligibility.

Many politicians have specifically expressed concern that the ACA’s requirement that companies with 100 or more employees provide health insurance to employees working 30 or more hours per week would lead to companies shifting employees from full-time work to part-time. Republican presidential candidates including Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have stated that they believe Obamacare makes more workers part-time instead of full-time. While campaigning in Iowa, even Hilary Clinton said she believes the ACA created “some unfortunate disincentives that discourage full-time employment.” Continue reading

Cost Control’s Growing Complexity

By Zack Buck

A paper entitled “The Price Ain’t Right? Hospital Prices and Health Spending on the Privately Insured” has a number of health policy experts talking this week. Authors Zack Cooper, Stuart Craig, Martin Gaynor, and John Van Reenen—as part of the Health Care Pricing Project—present new findings demonstrating that geographic areas with low Medicare costs and geographic areas with low private insurance costs are nearly completely unrelated. That is, locales with comparatively low Medicare costs are not necessarily areas with comparatively low costs for care paid for by private insurers. Though stunning, this lack of relation between the two metrics does make sense; the report notes that Medicare’s costs are largely driven by the amount of provided care and services, whereas care paid for by private insurance is largely affected by the price at which the care is set by each hospital. (Kevin Quealy and Margot Sanger-Katz of the New York Times have a number of interesting graphs and charts that reflect the study’s findings here.)

Indeed, before the study, and because of a dearth of private insurance pricing data, many simply believed that locales that were cheaper for Medicare were cheaper for private insurance—that is, areas that were great stewards of Medicare funds were likely efficient for private insurers as well. But this new paper demonstrates that this is not true. The two metrics are completely separate.

At the risk of overstating it, this finding could drastically change the paradigm for controlling health care costs going forward. The paper got the attention of Atul Gawande, who noted its importance in an article for The New Yorker. There, Gawande revisits the story of McAllen, Texas, which focused on exploding Medicare costs largely driven by large volume. (I even look at the McAllen story in a forthcoming article here because of its fascinating impact on cost control for Medicare.)

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