Tag: "Medicare"

Everybody Gets A Medal: Budget Busting Performance “Incentives” In Medicare Reform

Confident DoctorsIn April 2015, huge bipartisan majorities passed a milestone Medicare reform bill called MACRA, which imported all the worst elements of Obamacare into Medicare. At the time, I wrote an alternative proposal, and anticipated physicians would refuse to swallow the medicine MACRA prescribed. Congress passed the flawed MACRA bill, and President Obama gave a speech describing how “this legislation builds on the Affordable Care Act.” Remarkably, Republican politicians who assert they want to “repeal and replace Obamacare” have still not recanted their support of MACRA.

The gist of MACRA is that Medicare will no longer pay for “volume” but “value” in a zero-sum game wherein physicians who do not satisfy the government’s requirements for “value” transfer income to those who do. Since the bill was signed, the details have percolated from the elite physician executives who run the medical societies which lobbied for the bill down to practicing physicians. There has been pushback.

Nervous that physicians will bail out of Medicare if the government squeezes them too hard, the Administration has backtracked on MACRA’s sticks and shifted towards carrots. Last April, the Administration published a proposed rule, 426 pages long. After a lengthy comment period, the final rule, which is 2,205 pages long (!), was published on October 14.

Medicare Accountable Care Organizations Continue to Underwhelm

Confident DoctorsMedicare’s Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), which launched in 2012, were supposed to introduce a significant shift away from paying for “volume” to paying for “value.” Critics of Fee-For-Service medicine claim this system causes physicians to do more to patients so they get paid more, notwithstanding benefits to patients. Those critics seldom identify the moral hazard associated with third-party payment (by insurers or governments) as a cause of too many medical tests or procedures.

So, they introduced ACOs, which would increase quality and cut costs by getting rid of straight Fee-For-Services and putting more financial risk on physician groups. If the physician groups pass certain thresholds of cost and quality, they can pocket some of the savings. The 2015 results for Medicare’s ACOs have been reported, and the results are underwhelming:

Incentives Matter: Medicare’s Hospital Readmissions Penalties Are Having An Impact

cmsIn 2012, Medicare began to penalize hospitals which had too many readmissions. For a small number of targeted conditions, the program compares actual readmissions within 30 days to what an acceptable readmission rate should be. This is an important part of the drive to “pay for value, not volume.”

For example, if a patient who had a knee replacement is readmitted within 30 days because the implant was poorly implanted, the hospital used to profit from that readmission because the extra costs would just be submitted to Medicare for reimbursement.

Evidence so far suggests reducing readmission was low-hanging fruit. In the program’s fourth year, Medicare will penalize over half the nation’s hospitals a total of $528 million, an increase of $108 million over last year. It is a significant increase, but not a money-maker for taxpayers, amounting to just 0.18 percent of Medicare’s expected hospital spending of $287.1 billion in 2016.

Medical Marijuana Saves Taxpayers Money

ReeferIn a fascinating article in Health Affairs, Ashley Bradford and David Bradford of the University of Georgia have estimated that medical marijuana has benefited taxpayers:

Using data on all prescriptions filled by Medicare Part D enrollees from 2010 to 2013, we found that the use of prescription drugs for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative fell significantly, once a medical marijuana law was implemented. National overall reductions in Medicare program and enrollee spending when states implemented medical marijuana laws were estimated to be $165.2 million per year in 2013. The availability of medical marijuana has a significant effect on prescribing patterns and spending in Medicare Part D.

(Ashley C. Bradford and W. David Bradford, “Medical Marijuana Laws Reduce Prescription Medication Use in Medicare Part D,” Health Affairs, 35 (7) July 2016, pp. 1230-1236.)

Let’s not get carried away, here. The Medicare Part D prescription drug program spent $69 billion on benefits in 2013, of which $59 was funded by taxpayers (not premiums). So, medical marijuana is making an insignificant dent in the burden of this entitlement.

Chemotherapy Payment Reform: Medicare Is Missing the Elephant in the Room

cigarettes-2Last May I wrote about the uproar over Medicare’s proposed changes to how it will pay doctors who inject drugs in their offices. This largely concerns chemotherapy. Currently, physicians buy the drugs and Medicare reimburses them the Average Sales Price (ASP) plus 6 percent. The proposed reform would cut the mark-up to 2.5 percent and add a flat fee of $16.80 per injection.

I did not think the reform would have a positive impact, but I also thought criticism was overblown. Well, Medicare has managed to irritate all the affected interest groups to such a degree that it is likely to toss the proposal and go back to the drawing board.

Last Year’s Medicare “Doc Fix” Is Already Breaking Down. Here Are Some New Fixes

man-in-wheelchair(A version of this Health Alert was published by Forbes.)

What a difference a year makes! In April 2015, a bipartisan super-majority in Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill to give the federal government even more control over how doctors practice medicine on Medicare beneficiaries. Advertised by Republican and Democratic leaders as a permanent solution to the flawed way Medicare paid doctors, the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) was actually Republican politicians’ first vote for Obamacare.

The president himself confirmed this shortly after signing the bill, congratulating leaders of both parties at a White House garden party celebrating the law’s concentration of power within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: “I shouldn’t say this with John Boehner here, but that’s one way that this legislation builds on the Affordable Care Act. But let’s put that aside for a second.”

The MACRA was largely pushed the professional societies which claim to represent physicians. Unfortunately, practicing physicians who see patients all day were too busy to pay attention to how the federal government was going to impose itself even more on their practices. In a survey of 600 physicians published earlier this year by Deloitte, half had never heard of MACRA and one third recognized only the name.

That blissful ignorance is dissipating, in the wake of a lengthy rule proposed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) last March. Just the first step in implementing the many technical requirements necessitated by MACRA, the rule has been described as “962 pages of gibberish” by Margalit Gur-Alie, a leading healthcare consultant.

As more practicing physicians have learned about MACRA and the proposed rule, a deluge of comments have forced the Acting Administrator of CMS, Andy Slavitt, to admit its implementation might be delayed beyond its January 2017 start date. This delay provides a window of opportunity to make some changes that could re-direct MACRA in a more positive direction, according to a new report published by the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Should Drug Investors Worry About Medicare Revenues?

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

The pharmaceutical sector has held up quite well in this aging bull market. Now, a new political risk is on the horizon: The Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which was instituted in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Starting in 2015, the IPAB was empowered to cut Medicare spending if costs increased faster than a certain rate. It quickly faded into the background as the growth in Medicare spending moderated after President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act.

Those days are gone. The latest annual Medicare Trustees’ report, published on June 22, indicates Medicare spending will cross the threshold for IPAB to swing into action in 2017. The 2017 threshold is determined by a target rate of growth which is the average of the change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the medical-care component of the CPI. Estimates of both actual Medicare spending per capita and the target rate are calculated as five-year averages.

Table I, extracted from a recent presentation by Medicare’s Chief Actuary, illustrates why investors are becoming concerned. Table I highlights this year’s Medicare spending per capita will increase 2.21 percent (averaged over the five years, 2014 through 2018). The target rate is 2.33 percent, higher than the estimated actual rate, so the threshold is not crossed. IPAB remains asleep.

20160708 Forbes IPAB TI

Reforming Medicare Part D to Improve Access to Medicines

Variety of Medicine in Pill Bottles(A version of this Health Alert was published by Forbes.)

Specialty drugs are typically high-cost prescription drugs used to treat complex chronic and/or life threatening conditions. Many do not have substitutes available at lower costs.  Over the last decade, the Medicare Part D benefit has imposed high out-of-pocket costs as a way to control costs of specialty drugs. This is causing many patients not to fill prescriptions. Some patients may be adding costs to the system by getting drugs more expensively by injection in doctors’ offices, where they are covered by Medicare supplemental insurance.

Misleading Rhetoric on Medicare Cancer Drug Payment Reform

man-in-wheelchairA few weeks ago, Medicare proposed a pilot program to test a new way to pay doctors who inject drugs. Cancer is the big kahuna, cost-wise, when it comes to injected drugs. Medicare payment policy leads to certain industry practices to profit from the status quo. When the status quo is threatened, the “preservatives” immediately form a defensive coalition to stop the change.

Although I do not endorse this precise reform, the campaign to roll it back has become irresponsible and misleading. Currently, physicians who inject drugs are paid by Medicare a margin of 6 percent on top of a reported price called the Average Sales Price (ASP). The concern is that the oncologists make more margin off an expensive drug than a less-expensive drug.

The New Medicare Gold Rush

Cheerful Senior Man Having His Blood Pressure Taken(A version of this Health Alert was published by Forbes.)

Over the next few years, Medicare will significantly change how it pays hospitals, physicians, and other providers. This is sparking a gold rush among investors. BDO, a leading management consulting firm, released a report last month describing significantly increased private equity investment in long-term care facilities, rehabilitation facilities and home health agencies. BDO reported 79 deals in 2015, in which private equity sponsors invested $5.92 billion, up from just $1.67 billion in 2014. The previous high-water mark was $3.58 billion in 2011.