Two More Unrelated Health Care Reform Items

In something as complex and pervasive as, say, changing the entire health insurance industry, the “big” things tend to divert attention from noteworthy items that deserve some attention, too. In my previous post I wrote about the inability of Congress to repeal the 1099 requirement contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  As I continue to clean out my (digital) files, there’s a few other items I’ve come across that deserve mentioning.

Anti-Trust Suit:

Back in October, the Justice Department filed suit against Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan claiming the health plan had used its dominant position in the market to force hospitals to charge higher prices to its competitors, a violation of anti-trust laws. According to New York Times, the complaint alleges the “most favored nation” clauses insisted upon by BCBSMi, which “require hospitals to charge other insurers a specified percentage more than they charge Blue Cross — in some cases, 30 to 40 percent more” result in “higher health insurance premiums for consumers and employers.” The clauses also prevent the medical providers from offering any other carrier a better price than they offer to BCBSMi. In exchange for the favorable treatment the suit asserts BCBSMi agreed to pay higher prices themselves.

A spokesman for the health plan was quoted by the New York Times as responding that it was against the insurer’s interests to pay more than they could otherwise negotiate and the “These kinds of low-cost guarantees are widely used in a variety of contracts in a number of industries.”

However the suit turns out, merely bringing the legal action will draw attention to what the Washington Post describes as the “concentration of power that dominant health insurers wield in many parts of the country.”  A study sponsored by the General Accounting Office last year found that the median small group market share of the largest carrier in a state was 47 percent. The dominance of a single insurer varied considerably from state-to-state: in Arizona the largest carrier had a 21 percent market share among small businesses; in Alabama the dominant carrier had a 96 percent share.

A government-run health plan, what was called the “public option” during the health care reform debate,  was President Barack Obama’s attempt to, among other things, provide competition to these dominant carriers. Of course, in bringing competition to Alabama (where arguably it is needed) he was also imposing a government-run plan on Arizona (where it apparently is not needed). Having failed to secure a public health plan in the PPACA, the Obama Administration is now using the courts to bring about greater competition among health insurers.

The courts will determine if what Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan does in its contracts are unfairly (and illegally) anti-competitive.  There’s nothing wrong with the Administration bringing suit to find out. That’s how America’s legal system works. But given a recent insurance industry study disclosing that hospital costs in California rose 159 percent over the past 10 years, in part because of the dominant position some medical providers enjoy in parts of the state, it will be interesting to see if the Administration gets around to exploring the anti-competitive activity that may be involved in their business practices.

Doctor Owned Hospitals

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to create new physician-owned hospitals that bill Medicare for reimbursement. A group of Texas doctors sued to have this provision (Section 6001 of the new health care reform law for those keeping track at home) declared unconstitutional. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Schneider dismissed the suit, but the plaintiffs have pledged to appeal his decision according the Becker’s Hospital Review. The plaintiffs claim the provision, which also limits expansion of existing doctor-owned facilities and freezes the percentage physicians can own of a hospital, is “retroactive in effect.”

It was only last summer when Dr. Atul Gawande, writing in The New Yorker described the impact doctor-owned facilities had on making McAllen, Texas the most expensive town in the country in terms of Medicare spending. His article gained widespread attention and was cited by President Obama during a major speech on to the nation on health care reform. The PPACA attempted to address this cost driver. Doctors are suing to excise that provision. Whether they succeed or not, the law suit will (hopefully) bring additional attention to the advisability of having the those who help determine the amount of demand for care own the source of supplying that care.

And what both these items underscore is the important role courts will play in determining the nature — and affordability — of America’s health care system in the coming years.

Medical Cost Containment Drum Beat Continues

File this under “Better Late Than Never” but the drum beat aimed at focusing attention on the need to constrain medical costs in America continues.

Earlier this week I wrote about Sacramento Bee columnist Daniel Weintraub’s posting a reality check for California lawmakers that all the insurance carrier bashing they’re enjoying will do little to address the rising cost of health care. That post also reported on Warren Buffet’s advice to the president to do much more to rein in costs.

Then, yesterday, President Obama indicated he’ll be incorporating into the legislation he’ll be proposing later today some of the medical cost cutting ideas put forward by Republicans during last week’s bipartisan health care reform summit.

And the beat goes on. CNN has been reporting this week on extraordinary and wasteful costs in America’s health care system. $140 for a single Tylenol pill? $1,000 for a toothbrush anyone?

Some of the unnecessary expenses are mistakes made by the hospital that slip past health insurers’ claim examiners (a Georgia patient billed for 41 bags of IV solutions for an emergency room visit that lasted two hours in which just one bag was used). But some of the outrageous expenses are intentionally designed “to make up for lower payments the government pays through Medicare and Medicaid.”

The CNN report goes on to cite, however, a Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s Health Research Institute finding that $1.2 trillion of health care spending in the United States – roughly half – represents waste. This analysis includes in the definition of waste defensive medicine, preventable hospital readmissions, medical errors, and unnecessary emergency room visits. (The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 30 percent of America’s health care spending is wasted or spent on low-value services using a less broad definition of waste.

There hasn’t been this much talk focused on the need to reduce medical costs since Dr. Atul Gawande wrote about the difference in Medicare spending experienced in two Texas cities, McAllen and El Paso. That was right before attention shifted to the misbehavior of demonstrators during Congressional Town Hall meetings and the debate in Washington pivoted to health insurance reform rather than health care reform. And I am not suggesting that the need to focus on medical cost containment undermine efforts to reform health insurance company behavior where that’s necessary.

Nor am I saying that the health care reform bill the President will put forward today does enough to attack skyrocketing medical care costs. But it will be a start. And it will do more than the proposal he unveiled last week or those previously passed by the Senate and House of Representatives. And that’s a good thing. Let’s just hope it’s the beginning of the effort to reduce health care costs and not the end of it.

Dr. Gawande’s Radio Interview

There’s a chicken and egg aspect to health care reform which often frustrates lawmakers and policy makers. To achieve universal coverage the cost of health insurance must be affordable. To make coverage affordable you need universal coverage. So which comes first?

My take is that affordability has to come first. You cannot require people to buy something they cannot afford. When a pen is out of ink, all the regulations in the world won’t fill it again. This means the government has to make coverage affordable, most likely through subsidies of some kind. Subsidies are expensive And the budget, already groaning under the weight of the recession, two wars, an economic stimulus package, existing entitlements, and much, much more. Congress will be hard pressed to find the funds needed to provide the premium support required to get close to universal coverage.

Consequently, affordability needs to come first. This explains, in part, Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag’s consistent focus on the as much as $700 billion in medical spending each year that goes towards services which do not improve health outcomes.  He began pushing lawmakers on this issue when he was Director of the Congressional Budget Office and he continues in his new role at the OMB.

The opportunity for health care reform to reign in medical costs received a substantial boost recently with the publication of an article in The New Yorker by Dr. Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon who is also a staff writer for the magazine. Titled “The Cost Conundrum,” the article described Dr. Gawande’s exploration of medical practices in McAllen, Texas. That community spends more per person on health care than anywhere in the country with the exception of Miami, Florida which has higher labor and other costs. McAllen’s spending is twice that of nearby El Paso, Texas, even though the two areas have similar demographics and similar outcomes. The explanation, Dr. Gawande discovers, is the entrepreneurial culture of the community’s physicians. They maximize their incomes, but fail improving the health of their patients.

The article has been cited by President Barack Obama (who, it is said, has made the piece required reading for his staff), members of Congress, pundits and policy wonks. Few magazine articles have had comparable impact on the health care reform debate.

Those wanting to learn more about what he discovered in McAllen will enjoy an interview with Dr. Gawande  on Public Radio’s Fresh Air. During the nearly 30 minute segment, the doctor expands on his article providing insights from his own practice.

Dr. Gawande has made a valuable contribution to the health care reform debate by shedding light on the correlation between community medical practices, health care costs, and health outcomes. For anyone interested in health care reform, his Fresh Air interview is well worth the investment of time.

Health Care Reform 2009: More Required Reading

There’s a lot of moving pieces to the health care reform process currently underway in Washington, D.C. Politics, policy, and personal interest are all colliding as lawmakers and President Barack Obama Administration try to fix what everyone is calling America’s broken health care system. To put the debate in context it helps to know what the participants are thinking. To understand what they’re thinking it helps to know what their reading and writing.

Earlier this year I put forward a list of required reading for understanding the health care reform debate. Here’s the second installment of what will be a series of such posts. (Note: a third list of required health care reform reading was added August 2, 2009).

1. The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Senator Max Baucus, will play a major role in determining the health care reform legislation that is likely to arrive on President Barack Obama’s desk this Autumn. And they are taking this role very seriously. The Committee has produced three policy option documents to facilitate their deliberations. The policy papers don’t describe what the Finance Committee will decide upon, but it does provide insight concerning what they will be deciding upon. The option papers are:

2. The Senate Finance Committee isn’t the only one in the upper house with jurisdiction over health care reform. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and its chair, Edward Kennedy, will have a great deal to say about the final legislative package as well. The Committee released an outline of its reform plan yesterday. I have yet to get my hands on that document, although I did find a Senate HELP Committee Briefing Paper dated May 21, 2009.  (When I get a copy of the most current outline I’ll post it here). In addition, as I’ve posted previously, Senator Kennedy recently described his vision for health care reform in some detail. The HELP Committee’s plan stakes out the most liberal, yet still politically realistic, proposals (meaning it doesn’t call for a single payer system). Whether Senator Kennedy expects to get much of what’s laid out in the outline into legislation is unknown. At the very least, by providing an anchor on the left his plan will help him keep the final product from moving what he would consider too far to the middle.

3. As members of Congress begin drafting legislation they will be paying close attention to the impact health care reform will have on the federal budget. The analysts they will turn to for answers work in the Congressional Budget Office.  The CBO recently published guidelines explaining how they will evaluate the budget impact of various proposals in the Budgetary Treatment of Proposals to Change the Nation’s Health Insurance System. An added bonus: the director of the CBO, Douglas Elmendorf, posts frequently to the Congressional Budget Office Director’s Blog, providing additional insight into the agency’s thinking.

4. The Emanuel family has hit the trifecta. Their youngest son is a major Hollywood agent. The middle son is a former Congressman and currently the White House Chief of Staff. Their oldest son is a doctor. Not just any doctor. He is the Chair of the Deparment of Bioethics at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health (that must be one huge business card he’s got). But wait, there’s more. Earlier this year, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel was named a special adviser to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget for health policy. In other words, he’s pretty close to health care reform’s ground zero in the Obama White House.  (No slight intended of the Director of the White House Office on Health Reform, Nancy-Ann DeParle, who gets to sit on the actual bulls eye — see #5).  How Dr. Emanuel views reform, consequently, matters. He’s thought long and hard on the subject and, fortunately for inquiring minds, he’s written extensively on the topic, including the book Healthcare, Guaranteed: A Simple, Secure Solution for America. Other writings by Dr. Emanuel include a posting he made to The Huffington Post and another he co-wrote for the New America Foundation.

5. As noted in #4, Nancy-Ann Deparle’s is charged with coordinating President Obama’s health care reform efforts. It’s her job to keep the various players and issues in the debate from spinning out-of-control. Like a traffic cop, it’s up to her to keep things moving toward eventual passage of comprehensive legislation. It’s hard to find much on her personal health care reform positions (if anyone out there has links to her writings on the topic, please let me know).  In an April 2009 briefing for reporters sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Families USA and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, she did define what she means by a “public health plan.”  You can read a transcript or view a video of her presentation to the press on the Kaiser Family Foundation site

6. Everyone knows the key to health care reform is controlling medical costs. You can have all the market reforms Congress can dream up, but if medical inflation continues to outpace general inflation and wage growth at the rate it has been, it will cripple the economy. Even entrenched stakeholders recongize this reality, which is  how the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), American Hospital Association (AHA), American Medical Association (AMA) , the Pharaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) , and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) came to publish their medical cost reduction proposals. The document contains cost cutting committments the organizations have made to President Obama.

7. Perhaps the most talked about article on cost containment making the rounds today is a New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande. It is a terrific read that recounts his investigation into why McAllen, Texas is “the most expensive town in the most expensive country for health care in the world.”  It seems MediCare pays twice as much per person in McAllen than it does 800 miles away in El Paso. Dr. Gawande investigates why, offering insights into the health care system that are too rarely considered.

8. It is generally accepted that 30% of health care spending in the united states is unnecessary. That’s $700 billion we’re talking about that could be spent insuring the uninsured, among other uses. Folks like Peter Orszag, the former director of the CBO and currently director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (which makes him Dr. Emanuel’s boss, for those keeping track) often sites this statistic — and its source: Dartmouth University’s  “Atlas of Health Care.”  They have done numerous and extensive studies on the connection (or lack thereof) between medical spending and health outcomes. Their most recent findings, published February 27, 2009, are described in Health Care Spending, Quality, and Outcomes. It’s subtitle: “More Isn’t Always Better,” pretty well sums up the results.

9. A bonus item: For a 3 minute summary of the health care reform debate, presented in a surprisingly entertaining, clear, and balanced way, take a look at the video at myhealthreform.org.  The video is not an in-depth dive into the issue, but rather an informative overview of the topic. If you’ve got friends, clients or colleagues who are looking for a simple explanation of what the debate is all about, it’s a great place to start. (Full disclosure: the site is run by Humana who clearly has a stake in the outcome of health care reform).

There will be more required reading coming soon. For example, we should hear very soon from the  three House Committees with jurisdiction on health care reform with details on their proposals for change. In the meantime, if you come across any articles, books, postings or the like you think belongs on a list of required health care reform reading for 2009, please send them my way.