Tag: "doctors"

Consumer Driven Health Care Gets Messy: That’s the Good News

According to a new health benefits survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, premiums for employer coverage rose only about 3% in 2016. The low increase was due to rising deductibles. A slight majority (51%) of workers have a deductible of $1,000 or more. Two-thirds of workers in small firms do, while slightly less than half of large firm workers (45%) are covered by $1,000 or higher deductible.  About 10 years ago, only 4% of workers were enrolled in a high-deductible plan with a savings component. Now, nearly one-third are. [See the figure.]

Do Transparency Tools Work in Health Care?

Laptop and Stethoscope --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Laptop and Stethoscope — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

A new report by economist Jon Gabel and his colleagues at NORC, a research center affiliated with the University of Chicago, looked at the use of transparency tools in an employer health plan. The analysis found the use of price transparency tools to be spotty. For instance, 75 percent of households either did not log into the transparency tool or did so only one time in the 18-month period of study. Fifteen percent did so twice; but only 1 percent logged in 6 times or more. The study concluded:

It could very well be that we are asking too much of a single tool, no matter how well-designed. Consumer information for other goods and services on price and quality are seldom dependent upon information gained mainly, if not solely, through a digital tool. Rather, information on relative value is spread far and wide through advertising and other kinds of promotion using conventional, digital, and social media communication channels.

Experts: Little Evidence Flossing is Beneficial

I confess, I’m not a very dedicated flosser. Throughout my life I have had numerous dentists lambast me about flossing.

“Do you floss?”          “You are not flossing often enough!” 

“Don’t use a floss pick, use the thread! It works much better!”

“Let me show you the right way you’re supposed to floss!”

These are some of the comments I’ve heard over the years. In my dentists’ collective opinions, my flossing was never quite up to snuff.

Should Dissent Be Allowed In Health Care?

Confident DoctorsAn eminent physician has tentatively proposed that published treatment guidelines be accompanied by dissenting expert opinions, much like the U.S. Supreme Court does. Daniel Musher, MD, of Baylor College of Medicine, served on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which considered guidelines for a dual vaccine approach for pneumococcal vaccination for adults.

He disagreed strongly with the published recommendation, but was prevented from publishing his opinion alongside the recommendation. Dr. Musher believes the publishing of dissenting opinions is very valuable to the progress of knowledge:

As citizens of the United States, we are as much bound by a 5-4 decision of the High Court as a 9-0 vote (although closely passed decisions are more likely to be overturned in future cases).1 Similarly, as practitioners of medicine, until new guidelines are written, we are seriously constrained by, if not actually bound by, existing ones, without regard to the unanimity of opinion in the recommending committee. Nevertheless, there is much to gain from studying dissenting opinions, as was famously shown by the writings of Justices Holmes and Brandeis, many of whose minority opinions, in time, became the law of the land.2 I propose that the failure to publish differing or dissenting views in medical guidelines presents our profession with an inappropriately monolithic view—one that is studied as gospel by physicians-in-training and forced on practitioners by incorporation into a variety of performance measures.

Will You Ever Understand Your Medical Bill?

stress(A version of this Health Alert was published by Forbes.)

It is hard to exaggerate how painful the medical billing process is for patients. Steven Brill, an entrepreneurial lawyer turned journalist, became one of the most famous critics of American health care when Time magazine published a long article by him in 2013. It was a wide ranging criticism of pretty much everything in U.S. health care, which grabs and keeps our attention because it uses the absurd hospital bill as the fulcrum for his case:

The first of the 344 lines printed out across eight pages of his hospital bill — filled with indecipherable numerical codes and acronyms — seemed innocuous. But it set the tone for all that followed. It read, “1 ACETAMINOPHE TABS 325 MG.” The charge was only $1.50, but it was for a generic version of a Tylenol pill. You can buy 100 of them on Amazon for $1.49 even without a hospital’s purchasing power. Dozens of midpriced items were embedded with similarly aggressive markups, like $283.00 for a “CHEST, PA AND LAT 71020.” That’s a simple chest X-ray, for which MD Anderson is routinely paid $20.44 when it treats a patient on Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly.

(Steve Brill, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” Time, February 20, 2013)

It is hard not to get carried away on a wave of outrage when reading stories of patients faced with ridiculous bills, which (even if they can understand them) they might never be prepared to pay. A new crop of entrepreneurs is hoping to solve this problem.

Innovation and Self-Insured Employer Plans

About 175 million people are covered by an employee health plan through their job or the job of a loved one.  More than half of people in employee health plans work for an employer that is self-insured or partially self-insured.  Self-insured plans are ones that are subject to federal law rather than the patchwork of state regulations that insurers must follow.  When employers self-insure, they take on the risk of their employees medical needs and generally have stop loss coverage to guard against any one worker or dependent have exceptionally high medical bills. Whereas insurance is somewhat of a stodgy business, employers themselves are looking for solutions rather than premium hikes year-after-year.  Most of the innovation that occurs in health coverage are experiments being conducted by self-insured employers. These include decision-support tools to make enrollees more informed consumers of medical care. Employers are dumping a ton of money into employee Health & Wellness programs, health risk assessments and chronic disease management.  A few employer plans, like North Carolina-based like HSM Solutions, are outsourcing some medical care for high cost procedures to countries abroad.  CalPERS, the public employee union, has initiated experiments in reference pricing to provide beneficiaries an incentive to seek out lower-cost providers.  These are all examples of self-insured plans looking for solutions to the problem of high medical costs.

A ‘Free Health Clinic’ for Montana State Employees

Before he left office, then-Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer decided Montana’s 11,000 state workers, retirees and their dependents needed an employee health clinic. Before leaving office he had one created without consulting the legislature. For those of you who have not heard of the concept, it’s sort of like the school nurse, except there are doctors and real medical equipment involved. At most employee health clinics, physician visits are either free or involve no cost-sharing. Montana employees aren’t required to use the clinic; they can continue to see their own doctors with the normal cost-sharing.

Doctors, Hospitals, Medical Groups Demand EHR Rule Delay

electronic-medical-recordElectronic Health Records (EHRs) continue to take on water:

Calls for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to refrain from finalizing Meaningful Use Stage 3 are increasing, with the American Medical Association and the Medical Group Management Association adding their voices to the din.

Both organizations cite concerns over the proposed rule as it currently stands, with AMA saying in a letter to CMS Acting Administrator Andy Slavitt and National Coordinator for Health IT Karen DeSalvo that the program “will create significant challenges for physicians, patients, and vendors.”

MGMA adds in its own letter to Slavitt that Stage 3 could result in a failure to meet the goals outlined in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It should be delayed, MGMA says, until it is known what the impact of Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 will be. (Katie Dvorak, FierceEMR, June 3, 2015).

I discussed the stage 3 rule when it was published. The response of these professional groups is stunning: They were all happy to take the almost $30 billion the government handed out to induce them to install Electronic Health Records.

And they led Congress by the nose just a few weeks go to pass the flawed Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act. At the time, none of them mentioned it was going to increase the burden of EHR compliance. The first organization to explain this consequence was the NCPA, in report I wrote before the law passed. These groups are asking the government for relief from a flawed so-called Medicare “doc fix” for which they themselves had spent years lobbying.

“Transparency” Will Not Fix Medicare Physician Fees

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report criticizing the way the federal government sets physicians’ fees in Medicare. It concludes that “Better Data and Greater Transparency Could Improve Accuracy.”

I doubt it. Note the mind-numbing detail of this process: The government delegates its assumed authority to a group of physicians who comprise the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC). The government “reviewed 1,278 RUC work relative value recommendations for about 1,200 unique (new and existing) services)” in the last four years.

High U.S. Health Prices From “Market Power”?

The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) recently published a consensus report on provider consolidation. Basically, we have a growing problem in that hospitals are buying each other up and also physician practices, which leads to reduced competition and higher prices.

The report was promoted with an op-ed in The Hill by the esteemed Robert A. Berenson (Urban Institute) and G. William Hoagland (Bipartisan Policy Center):

The use of market power—or the ability to raise and keep prices higher than would prevail in a competitive market – is the key reason the United States spends so much more on healthcare than other countries.
For policymakers, tackling the lack of competition is like climbing a mountain. Even the initial steps — creating more competition – may be difficult, but they must be explored before more regulatory action further down the path is considered.

These are remarkable statements; and difficult to accept uncritically.