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“Obamacare And Emergency Rooms, A Bit Of Perspective Needed”: Oregon Study Doesn’t Undermine Affordable Care Act Claims

Headlines based on a study of emergency room visits by a few thousand Oregon Medicaid beneficiaries undoubtedly gave the Obama administration heartburn last week. Although the study predated the Medicaid expansion authorized by the Affordable Care Act — which began in some states on January 1 — many who wrote about the Oregon study jumped to the conclusion that the millions of newly enrolled Medicaid beneficiaries would make greater — not less — use of the ER for routine care.

I may be going out on a limb, but I for one don’t buy the idea that the Oregon study means emergency rooms are going to get even more crowded. And that’s because more Americans will finally have insurance.

Reform advocates have long suggested that getting folks out of the ranks of the uninsured should cut down on visits to the ER for noncritical medical care. Many people who lack coverage don’t have a primary care physician and all too often make trips to the ER when their illness or injury could have been treated more appropriately and inexpensively in a clinic or doctor’s office.

The Oregon study, which was published in the journal Science, would seem to disprove that theory.

In 2008, two years before the ACA was enacted, Oregon increased the number of Medicare beneficiaries in a novel way: by lottery. Many Oregonians who had been on a waiting list for the state’s Medicaid program got lucky when their names were drawn and they were added to the rolls.

The researchers who wrote the Science article studied the emergency room use of about 25,000 of the successful and unsuccessful lottery participants and found that those who won coverage actually made more trips to the ER over 18 months than those whose names were not drawn.

Headline writers were quick to draw their conclusions: Obamacare would not reduce unnecessary ER visits.

“Emergency Visits Seen Increasing with Health Law,” read the headline above the New York Times story last Thursday.

“Obamacare Medicaid Expansion to Worsen Hospital ER Burden,” said Bloomberg.

And Forbes gave us this: “New Oregon Data: Expanding Medicaid Increases Usage of Emergency Rooms, Undermining Central Rational for Obamacare.”

“For years,” wrote Forbes columnist Avik Roy, “it has been the number one talking point of Obamacare supporters. People who are uninsured end up getting costly care from hospitals’ emergency rooms. ‘Those of us with health insurance are also paying a hidden and growing tax for those without it — about $1,000 per year that pays for [the uninsureds’] emergency room and charitable care,’ said President Obama in 2009. Obamacare, the President told us, would solve that problem by covering the uninsured, thereby driving premiums down. A new study, published in the journal Science, definitively reaches the opposite conclusion.”

There is more than a bit of twisted logic in that paragraph. It is true that those of us with insurance pay considerably more for it because those who don’t have it often can’t pay for their ER care. That’s because the hospital shifts the cost of that “uncompensated care” to its insured customers. Researchers have estimated that people with insurance pay $1,000 more a year for it than they would if this cost shifting didn’t have to occur.

Bringing uninsured people into coverage eliminates much of that cost shifting. And that’s a good thing, considering that the vast majority of Americans with health coverage — even after the Medicaid expansion — get it through private insurance companies, either at work or on their own.

The actual increase in the number of visits per person among the newly insured in Oregon via the Medicaid lottery was 0.41. In other words, each new enrollee made 0.41 visits more on average during the 18 months than the 1.02 ER visits made by those who remained uninsured.

When you look at it from the perspective of those numbers, and the actual amount Oregon spent per person, as University of Chicago health policy expert Harold Pollack did in a healthinsurance.org post, this is far from a “sky is falling” disaster in the making. And it is actually reducing the cost shifting.

Also, as Pollack pointed out, “the emergency departments will be reliably paid for care they provide … (With coverage expansion) providers don’t have to fear the burdens or uncompensated care, and…they don’t need to cruelly pursue low-income patients over bad debts.

It’s also important to keep in mind that private insurers now manage most of the states’ Medicaid populations, and they will be vigilant in their efforts to steer their new Medicaid enrollees away from the ERs and to more appropriate and cost-effective settings. WellPoint subsidiary Amerigroup described in a recent policy brief, for example, how its efforts to reduce primary care-treatable ER visits among Medicaid beneficiaries resulted in a savings of more than 50 percent.

Rather than rushing to conclusions, let’s see how the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare actually plays out in the years ahead.

 

By: Wendell Potter, The Center for Public Integrity, January 6, 2014

January 8, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Care Costs, Medicaid Expansion | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“$2,229.11 For Three Stitches?”: We Don’t Have To Wonder What The Unfettered Market In Health Care Produces, We’ve Been Living It

Twenty years ago I had my first knee surgery, after tearing some cartilage while skying for a thunderous dunk on the basketball court (or it might have been just falling backward while getting faked out on defense—who remembers the details?). Although I had insurance, I was responsible for a substantial copay, and I vividly recall the one item that stood out among the dozens on the bill. For the two steri-strips that covered an incision—tiny pieces of tape that even today cost about 20 cents retail, and which hospitals buy in bulk so surely cost them just a couple of pennies—I and my insurance company were charged $11, or $5.50 per strip. A miniscule amount in a five-figure bill, but it struck me as the most absurd, since it represented a markup of approximately 10,000 percent, if not more. More recently, I was getting some physical therapy for the same knee, and in what turned out to be a session that wasn’t covered by my insurance, a therapist put a piece of kinesio tape around my kneecap. The retail price for that length of tape is around 40 cents (though again, they buy it in bulk so it’s probably a quarter of that); and there was the therapist’s time to retrieve, cut, and apply the tape, which took about 60 seconds all told. Total tape charge: $75.

My experience is not at all uncommon, as an excellent piece in today’s New York Times explains. The article discusses things like people getting charged thousands of dollars to have a couple of stitches put on a finger, or my personal favorite, the $137 charge for an IV bag that costs the hospital one dollar. There are a number of reasons why they can get away with this, including the fact that nobody tells you what the charges are going to be before you’re treated, and the fact that information is diluted through the insurance system.

But since we’re now talking about what government is and isn’t capable of handling when it comes to health care, allow me to repeat something I’ve argued elsewhere: The government didn’t give us this kind of price-gouging, just like the government didn’t give us 50 million uninsured Americans. Nor did the government give us lifetime and yearly caps on coverage. Nor did the government give us now-outlawed “rescission,” in which your insurer cancels your coverage because you got sick. Nor did the government gave us denials for pre-existing conditions. You know what gave us all that? The free market. Government can certainly cause problems, but just about all the major reasons our health-care system is so expensive and serves so many people so poorly (or not at all) are the result of the free market.

Or more specifically, the health-care market, which is so different from other kinds of markets. The unique features of health care are what makes a far higher level of government involvement than exists in the markets for wristwatches or shoes necessary. If we don’t want to have a system that costs so much more than every other one in the world while giving us crappy results, then we’re just going to have to accept that. In other industrialized countries, the government says, “We can’t sustain a system in which an MRI costs $1,200. So an MRI is going to cost $300.” And guess what? The MRI manufacturers and the hospitals accommodate themselves to that reality, and not only do they manage to survive, but people still get MRIs when they need them.

If maintaining the ability of certain people to suck as much profits from the health-care system as possible is your highest value, you find that unacceptable. But if having a system that serves everyone, maximizes health, and is affordable rank higher for you than making sure there are hospital systems with 28 different executives pulling down salaries of over $1 million a year, you have to make a different choice.

And let’s be clear about this: what conservatives are arguing for is the maintenance of the status quo that gives us the $2,229.11 hospital charge for putting in three stitches. It was their devotion to the primacy of market freedom in health care that put us where we are now. When the government doesn’t work properly, by, say, making a terrible website that took months to fix, the answer is to make it work better. Because we don’t have to wonder whether the alternative is worse. We’ve been living it.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, December 3, 2013

December 4, 2013 Posted by | Health Care, Health Care Costs | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Obamacare’s Secret Success”: Health Reform Is Starting To Look Like A Bigger Success Than Even Its Most Ardent Advocates Expected

The law establishing Obamacare was officially titled the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And the “affordable” bit wasn’t just about subsidizing premiums. It was also supposed to be about “bending the curve” — slowing the seemingly inexorable rise in health costs.

Much of the Beltway establishment scoffed at the promise of cost savings. The prevalent attitude in Washington is that reform isn’t real unless the little people suffer; serious savings are supposed to come from things like raising the Medicare age (which the Congressional Budget Office recently concluded would, in fact, hardly save any money) and throwing millions of Americans off Medicaid. True, a 2011 letter signed by hundreds of health and labor economists pointed out that “the Affordable Care Act contains essentially every cost-containment provision policy analysts have considered effective in reducing the rate of medical spending.” But such expert views were largely ignored.

So, how’s it going? The health exchanges are off to a famously rocky start, but many, though by no means all, of the cost-control measures have already kicked in. Has the curve been bent?

The answer, amazingly, is yes. In fact, the slowdown in health costs has been dramatic.

O.K., the obligatory caveats. First of all, we don’t know how long the good news will last. Health costs in the United States slowed dramatically in the 1990s (although not this dramatically), probably thanks to the rise of health maintenance organizations, but cost growth picked up again after 2000. Second, we don’t know for sure how much of the good news is because of the Affordable Care Act.

Still, the facts are striking. Since 2010, when the act was passed, real health spending per capita — that is, total spending adjusted for overall inflation and population growth — has risen less than a third as rapidly as its long-term average. Real spending per Medicare recipient hasn’t risen at all; real spending per Medicaid beneficiary has actually fallen slightly.

What could account for this good news? One obvious answer is the still-depressed economy, which might be causing people to forgo expensive medical care. But this explanation turns out to be problematic in multiple ways. For one thing, the economy had stabilized by 2010, even if the recovery was fairly weak, yet health costs continued to slow. For another, it’s hard to see why a weak economy would have more effect in reducing the prices of health services than it has on overall inflation. Finally, Medicare spending shouldn’t be affected by the weak economy, yet it has slowed even more dramatically than private spending.

A better story focuses on what appears to be a decline in some kinds of medical innovation — in particular, an absence of expensive new blockbuster drugs, even as existing drugs go off-patent and can be replaced with cheaper generic brands. This is a real phenomenon; it is, in fact, the main reason the Medicare drug program has ended up costing less than originally projected. But since drugs are only about 10 percent of health spending, it can only explain so much.

So what aspects of Obamacare might be causing health costs to slow? One clear answer is the act’s reduction in Medicare “overpayments” — mainly a reduction in the subsidies to private insurers offering Medicare Advantage Plans, but also cuts in some provider payments. A less certain but likely source of savings involves changes in the way Medicare pays for services. The program now penalizes hospitals if many of their patients end up being readmitted soon after being released — an indicator of poor care — and readmission rates have, in fact, fallen substantially. Medicare is also encouraging a shift from fee-for-service, in which doctors and hospitals get paid by the procedure, to “accountable care,” in which health organizations get rewarded for overall success in improving care while controlling costs.

Furthermore, there’s evidence that Medicare savings “spill over” to the rest of the health care system — that when Medicare manages to slow cost growth, private insurance gets cheaper, too.

And the biggest savings may be yet to come. The Independent Payment Advisory Board, a panel with the power to impose cost-saving measures (subject to Congressional overrides) if Medicare spending grows above target, hasn’t yet been established, in part because of the near-certainty that any appointments to the board would be filibustered by Republicans yelling about “death panels.” Now that the filibuster has been reformed, the board can come into being.

The news on health costs is, in short, remarkably good. You won’t hear much about this good news until and unless the Obamacare website gets fixed. But under the surface, health reform is starting to look like a bigger success than even its most ardent advocates expected.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, November 28, 2013

November 29, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Care Costs | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Major Obamacare Success Story”: It’s Increasingly Clear That The Affordable Care Act Is Significantly Bending The Cost Curve

The anger over the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s federal health insurance exchange — and over the conflicting explanations about whether people can keep their coverage — has been bipartisan and well-deserved. The administration needs to make personnel and management changes to get enrollment back on track. But the focus on insurance coverage obscures other parts of the ACA that are working well, even better than expected. It is increasingly clear that the cost curve is bending, and the ACA is a significant part of the reason.

The law has two overarching goals: Cover almost everyone, and slow the growth of medical care costs. The goals are equally important. Too little coverage, and premiums in the exchanges will be unaffordable; too rapid a cost increase, and the federal government will not be able to afford the subsidies.

Even as coverage efforts are sputtering, success on the cost front is becoming more noticeable. Since 2010, the average rate of health-care cost increases has been less than half the average in the prior 40 years. The first wave of the cost slowdown emerged just after the recession and was attributed to the economic hangover. Three years later, the economy is growing, and costs show no sign of rising. Something deeper is at work.

The Affordable Care Act is a key to the underlying change. Starting in 2010, the ACA lowered the annual increases that Medicare pays to hospitals, home health agencies and private insurance plans. Together, these account for 5 percent of the post-2010 cost slowdown. Medicare payment changes always provoke fears — in this case, that private plans would flee the program and that the quality of care in hospitals would suffer. Neither of these fears has materialized, however. Enrollment in private plans is up since the ACA changes.

The law also emphasized that payments should be based on the value, not the volume, of medical care. In a value-based system, compensation is made for the patient as a whole, not for specific services provided. As a result, eliminating services that are not needed is financially rewarded. The reaction to this change has been rapid: Hospital readmissions, which used to bring in substantial dollars, are now penalized.

Unsurprisingly, the readmission rate in Medicare is down 10 percent since 2011. Similarly, hospital-acquired infections used to bring in additional dollars, but now they do not. One program to cut infections, encompassing only 333 hospitals, saved more than $9 billion. Both of these changes improve patient health even as they reduce spending.

The accountable-care movement — which aims to make providers more accountable for the cost and quality of care — has blossomed far beyond expectations. There are nearly 500 Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) nationwide, half in Medicare. Ten percent of Medicare beneficiaries are in ACOs, and many others are in payment systems that put together all reimbursements for a procedure, such as a hip replacement or cardiac stent insertion. Leaders of medical systems routinely report that they expect, and are preparing for, a move to value-based payments.

Evaluations of recent ACO programs show quality improvements among all participating organizations and financial savings for many. This is not a surprise. The Institute of Medicine has been reporting for more than a decade that a third or more of medical spending could be eliminated while increasing patient health. The only surprise is how fast the system has moved in this direction.

The ACA does not account for all of the recent cost slowdown. New medical technologies are coming online more slowly than they used to; none of the 10 best-selling drugs on the market today were developed in the past decade. Similarly, patients with high deductibles are deferring elective procedures. Many insured families today owe more from a hospital visit than they have in the bank. Each of these factors is contributing to the reduction in health-care spending. But noting that factors beyond the ACA are important does not deny the importance of the law.

Cost savings induced by the ACA are particularly beneficial because they could increase quality while they lower spending. The reduction in technology development means lower costs but also fewer ways to treat sick people. People with high deductibles use fewer valuable services as well as fewer less-valuable ones. Only by eliminating unnecessary care can we ensure that everyone benefits from saving money in health care.

Governors and legislators in red states are almost universally opposed to the ACA. But these states are still seeing cost savings from the law — and they are participating in other ways.

Six states, including places as diverse as Arkansas, Massachusetts and Oregon, are using ACA-appropriated funds to help shift medical care to a higher-quality, lower-cost system . Nineteen other states are planning similar changes. And many of these states are solidly red.

States’ successes can feed back to federal policy. A recent Senate proposal, for example, calls for replacing the broken payment system that Medicare uses to compensate physicians with a system of payments based on value.

Before he was criticized for his statements about insurance continuity, President Obama was lambasted for his forecasts of cost savings. In 2007, Obama asserted that his health-care reform plan would save $2,500 per family relative to the trends at the time. The criticism was harsh; I know because I helped the then-senator make this forecast. Yet events have shown him to be right. Between early 2009 and now, the Office of the Actuaries at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has lowered its forecast of medical spending in 2016 by 1 percentage point of GDP. In dollar terms, this is $2,500 for a family of four.

Looking ahead, there is every reason to believe that costs will continue to grow slowly, maybe even more slowly. A study in Massachusetts showed that ACO savings increase over time as organizations move into more areas that can slow cost growth. An analysis of exchange premiums estimated that insurance costs in the exchanges are 16 percent below what was forecast two years ago; the lower costs were attributed to competition from new entrants in the market.

If cost growth continues at its low pace, the cumulative savings to the federal government would be more than $750 billion over the next decade. Such savings are likely to dwarf anything that comes out of Congress this year.

Many Americans are rightly upset with the Obama administration’s rocky rollout of the insurance exchange. Failing at such a major project is inexcusable. But if the early indications are any guide, we should be pleased with how the new health law is affecting what we pay for care. If the Web site is fixed and enrollment can catch up to expectations, the ACA could yet become a major policy success.

By: David Cutler, The Washington Post, Opinions, November 8, 2013

November 11, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Care Costs | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Cloaked In Secrecy”: The Myth Of The Medical-Device Tax

In the last few days of negotiations in Congress, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s tax on medical devices emerged as a key Republican demand. The medical-device industry waged an intense lobbying campaign — even garnering the support of many Democrats who favored the law — arguing that the tax would stifle innovation and increase health care costs.

This argument is doubly disingenuous. Not only can the medical-device industry easily afford the tax without compromising innovation, but the industry’s enormous profits are a result of anticompetitive practices that themselves drive up medical-device costs unnecessarily. The tax is a distraction from reforms to the industry that are urgently needed to lower health care costs.

The medical-device industry faces virtually no price competition. Because of confidentiality agreements that manufacturers require hospitals to sign, the prices of the devices are cloaked in secrecy. This lack of transparency impedes hospitals from sharing price information and thus knowing whether they are getting a good deal.

Even worse, manufacturers often maintain personal relationships (sometimes involving financial payments like consulting fees) with physicians who choose the medical devices that their hospitals purchase, creating a conflict of interest. Physicians often don’t even know the costs of the devices, and individual physicians often choose devices on their own, which weakens a hospital’s ability to bargain for volume discounts.

Such anticompetitive practices help generate a wide variation in the prices of medical devices — and contribute to higher prices in general. For example, the Government Accountability Office found that prices for cardiac implantable medical devices in the United States vary by several thousand dollars. And even the lowest-priced devices in the United States are expensive compared with those in other developed countries. According to the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the United States spends about 50 percent more than expected on the top five medical devices, compared with Europe and Japan. McKinsey calculates that this amounts to $26 billion in excessive spending each year. Medicare, private health insurers and patients end up paying these inflated prices.

Excessive prices fuel enormous profits — profits that dwarf both the medical-device tax and the industry’s investments in research and development. Consider the device division of Johnson & Johnson, which in 2012 had an operating profit of $7.2 billion. By the company’s own estimate, the device tax would amount to at most $300 million, and its investment in research and development amounts to only $1.7 billion.

There are several ways policy makers could lower device costs. The first step would be to end the anticompetitive practices that prevent hospitals from getting the best deals. Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has sponsored legislation that would foster transparency by posting online price information for implantable medical devices.

In addition, instead of simply paying hospitals based in part on what they have spent on devices, Medicare should force manufacturers to compete for business based on a product’s price and quality.

Medicare should also pay hospitals a single lump sum for all of the associated costs of a given procedure (like a hip replacement). This approach, known as “bundling” the costs, would create incentives for hospitals to lower device costs. Savings should be shared with the physicians, so that their incentives are aligned with the hospital’s.

Bundling has been used successfully in pilot programs. Under Medicare’s Acute Care Episode Program — which bundled payments for cardiac and orthopedic procedures — physicians worked together to choose high-quality, cost-effective devices. Baptist Health System in Texas, which participated in the program, used clinical evidence to choose devices and negotiated lower prices for both Medicare and non-Medicare patients.

States could adopt similar payment reforms for private insurance and their Medicaid programs. In Arkansas, the Medicaid program and private payers — including Walmart — have collaborated to adopt bundled payments for several procedures, including hip and knee replacements.

To complement these efforts, the new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a nongovernmental body created by the Affordable Care Act, should pay for research that compares the effectiveness of devices so physicians can make informed choices. (Three years into its existence, the institute has initiated few, if any, studies of medical devices.) Medicare or the Food and Drug Administration should also require the use of registries that track when devices fail.

Currently, medical-device manufacturers allocate only a sliver of profits to research and development and often focus on “tweaks” to existing devices, without providing any evidence that they are of better quality. Competitive pressures from public and private payers would provide incentives for the industry to become more innovative, producing technologies that actually lowered costs and offered truly advanced breakthroughs.

Instead of using its clout to lobby against the device tax — which helped foment opposition to the Affordable Care Act — the medical-device industry needs to share the responsibility of lowering costs for patients, businesses and taxpayers.

 

By: Topher Spiro, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, October 16, 2013

October 17, 2013 Posted by | Big Business, Health Care Costs | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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