Posts Tagged ‘Accountable care organizations’

Is It Time to Reform the Fee-for-Service Model?

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Despite the healthcare industry’s attempts to alter the way in which physician reimbursements are determined,  fee-for-service is still the accepted basis for payment.  Typically, physicians are reimbursed according to the number of patients they see and how many procedures and tests they order.  Policymakers have concluded that the “do more, earn more” business model is deeply flawed and one reason why Americans pay so much for healthcare.  In 2012, Americans will pay more than $8,000 per individual on healthcare.  That’s more than double the $3,400 average spent for each person in other industrialized nations.  What’s more, all that spending has not made Americans healthier.

The time may have come to find a new reimbursement model that places less of a financial burden on patients while still rewarding physicians.  An August article in the Journal of the American Medical Association notes that the fee-for-service payment is the foundation of even some emerging accountable-care organizations, including Medicare’s popular shared-savings program, say Drs. Allan Goroll of Harvard University Medical School and Stephen Schoenbaum of the Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation.  The shared-savings program “Promotes accountability for a patient population and coordinates items and services under (Medicare) Part A and B, and encourages investment in infrastructure and redesigned care processes for high quality and efficient service delivery.”

Goroll and Schoenbaum isolate a number of reasons for why fee-for-service endures:  many physicians are risk-averse and so resist change; additionally, skepticism is a “major barrier” to reforming the payment model.  “Transitioning to a new payment system will require new modes of practice, and many physicians feel ill equipped to assume financial or performance risks individually or even collectively,” Goroll and Schoenbaum write.  “The concern is that continued reliance on fee-for-service payment for primary care as well as for specialists, with its emphasis on volume of services, threatens meaningful practice transformation and the very goals of delivery system reform.” The bottom line is that the healthcare industry must develop “robust, scientifically validated risk-adjustment models,” according to Goroll and Schoenbaum.  Payment reform could blend capitation and fee-for-service with a plan to revise the payments over time.

Change must be forced on the medical community, whether or not they are ready for it.  One provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires alterations to payment and delivery systems to control costs and enhance the quality of care.  Rather than basing payment solely on the number of patients a physician sees and tests ordered, these methods promote preventive care and maintain open lines of communication between a patient’s multiple physicians.

The potential alternative reimbursement models presently being considered include:

•       Bundled payments or fixed amounts paid to healthcare providers for related services a patient needs within a given timeframe.

•       Patient-centered medical homes.  This model would restructure primary-care practices so that their focus is on preventive medicine, patient education and healthcare coordination.

•       Accountable care organizations, in which physicians and other providers share responsibility for providing cost-effective, quality care for patient groups.

Handicapping the ACA’s Fate

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

As the nation anticipates the Supreme Court decision on the future of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA),  pointed questioning by justices has supporters and opponents facing the possibility that the law could be declared unconstitutional.  That would eliminate — along with the contentious mandate that people purchase health insurance — popular provisions such as letting young adults stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, making prescription drugs more affordable for seniors, and requiring insurers to cover those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Even if the court keeps most of the law intact and strikes down the individual mandate, many healthcare advocates, insurers, and legislators believe that these consumer protections will be meaningless.  “There are a series of provisions of the law which have already been enacted which have proven to be fairly popular,’’ said Andrew Dreyfus, president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.  “The question nationally is will there be bipartisan consensus to maintain those provisions even if the Supreme Court overturns some aspects of the law or the whole law?’’

Congress has been disinclined to talk about contingency plans, or the possibility of compromise.  There is agreement  that nothing will be done before November’s presidential election.  “Repeal and replace is a good slogan, but what kind of replacement are we talking about?’’ asked Gail Wilensky, a healthcare economist who administered Medicare and Medicaid under George H.W. Bush.  “Is it a replacement that will substantially extend coverage for people who have been uninsured?  At the moment it’s a little hard to see that happening.’’

“It’s a standard rule of politics that people value losses more than hypothetical gains,’’ said John McDonough, director of Harvard University’s Center for Public Health Leadership and who helped the Senate write the ACA.  “If the court were to strike down significant parts of the law that are already in place, there could quite possibly be a potent public reaction against what is being taken away from people.’’

In an interview with Kaiser Health News, Jon Kingsdale, Executive Director of the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority, who is working to implement the ACA said “We’re working with about a dozen states, and they fall, I’d say, into three camps: One, working very, very hard with a real strong vision of what they want to set up, to implement by October 1, 2013 – which is less than 18 months away.  Others that are planning – they’re preparing.  They’re waiting to see, in fact, if it’s implemented after the Supreme Court decision, which is expected to be announced in June – and/or the election in November.  And then there are states, frankly, we are not working with that are pretty much waiting to see this go away.”

Kingsdale believes that the entire law will not be thrown out by the Supreme Court.  “I think their striking down the entire law is much less probable than striking down the mandate,” he said.  “I’ve begun to talk to people in insurance companies and states and vendor organizations about what happens if the entire law is struck down, and I am struck by the lack of anticipation of what that would mean.  People are aware that there are huge problems. There are many things that have been implemented already, in terms of insurance coverage and Medicare payment policies and accountable care organizations, the authorization of which would be undercut.”

David Axelrod, chief campaign strategist to President Barack Obama, is denying reports that the White House may revisit healthcare in his second term.  “Our hope and our expectation is that the Supreme Court will affirm the healthcare law,” Axelrod said.  “Now is not the time to speculate on that.  We believe that the law is constitutional.  The Affordable Care Act is also really important to the health and well-being of the American people,” Axelrod said. “It is already helping people all over this country, and has improved the position of people relative to their insurance companies, and the kind of policies they are getting and the return they are getting for the premiums they are paying.”

New Study Reveals Where Healthcare Costs Are Rising

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Higher prices charged by hospitals, outpatient centers and other providers drove up healthcare spending at twice the rate of inflation during the financial crisis – even as patients sought less medical care, according to the first-ever Health Care Cost and Utilization Report. According to Kaiser Health News, prices rose five times faster than the inflation rate for emergency room visits, outpatient surgery and facility-based mental health care from 2009 to 2010, according to the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI), a nonpartisan research group funded by insurers.  Prices fell only in nursing home care, which declined by 3.2 percent in the cost per admission.  Rather surprisingly, the fastest growing spending was in children’s medical care.

“The story really does seem to be prices,” said Martin Gaynor, chair of the institute’s governing board and a healthcare economist at Carnegie Mellon University.  One of the most comprehensive analyses at real claim payments made by insurers, the study’s findings raise questions about the nation’s $2.6 trillion annual healthcare bill: Why are medical services costs rising significantly faster than inflation?  Is the fast increase in spending on children a glitch, or a long-standing drift with major implications for future costs?  “If you don’t know what the cause is, you don’t know what the right policy lever is (for a solution),” Gaynor said.

The study’s results are based on nearly three billion claims paid by Aetna, Humana and UnitedHealthcare for 33 million people with employer-based insurance.  The data represent approximately 20 percent of the people with insurance nationally, but do not include spending for people who are on Medicare, Medicaid or those who purchase private policies.

According to the report, people with job-based insurance “are paying more and getting less,” said Chapin White, a senior researcher at the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan think tank.  Hospitals and other medical providers “just seem to be able to raise prices faster than general inflation.”

“This is an important study that clearly demonstrates that rising prices for medical services are driving health care cost growth,” said Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry lobby. “Reducing medical costs is essential to making health care coverage more affordable for individuals, families, and employers.”

Before this treasure trove of data was available, researchers have relied on far smaller surveys of employers or on government claims statistics from Medicare, which primarily covers Americans over age 65.

Healthcare researchers have wondered why, after more than 10 years of startling growth, healthcare spending is now rising more slowly.  The researchers’ numbers lend support to one of the most popular theories: People are using less healthcare.  According to the report, between 2009 and 2010, people with employer-sponsored insurance had 3.3 percent fewer admissions to hospitals and other medical facilities, 3.1 percent fewer “outpatient” visits, and virtually no change in the number of procedures performed at physicians’ offices.  There was a slight increase in procedures performed at medical facilities, which rose by two percent, and use of prescription drugs, which went up by just under one percent.

“People had speculated that there was a decline in utilization, but by analyzing over three billion claims we now know not only the trend but the magnitude of the trend,” said David Newman, the institute’s executive director.  “It’s one thing to believe something, it’s a completely different thing to actually know it.”

If these tendencies continue, Gaynor said, “we may need to think about where we’re directing our policies” to control costs.  That’s because healthcare reform initiatives like accountable care organizations — networks of hospitals and doctors that will work together to coordinate patients’ care and cut out unnecessary services — may not help if they’re still charging more for those services.  Gaynor suggested that it might be worthwhile to keep a closer eye on consolidation in the health care sector — since larger hospitals and health systems might have the leverage to demand higher prices from insurers. He also said it might be more effective to regulate prices or increase the portion of health costs insured people pay so that they demand better deals.

Although the insurers whose data was analyzed provided “seed funding” for the study, they did not limit the questions that researchers can ask and have no control over what they produce, Gaynor said.  The group plans to update the database with more-recent claims and make the information available for further study.  “There’s been an awful lot of consolidation in certain sectors of the healthcare industry, and we know that tends to lead to higher prices, but we can’t draw any conclusions yet,” Gaynor said.

Is Medicare in Peril if the Supreme Court Rules Against the ACA

Monday, April 30th, 2012

Could there be collateral damage if the Supreme Court rules to overturn the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA)? Some healthcare experts are warning of potential collateral damage if the Supreme Court strikes down the entire ACA: potential chaos for Medicare.  “The Affordable Care Act has become part and parcel of the Medicare system, encouraging providers to deliver better, more integrated, better coordinated care, at lower cost,” said Judy Feder, a public policy professor at Georgetown University and former Clinton administration health official.  “To all of a sudden eliminate that would be highly disruptive.”

Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law and policy at George Washington University, is more blunt: “We could find ourselves at kind of a grand stopping point for the entire healthcare system.”  It’s not only Democrats warning of potential problems.  Gail Wilensky, who ran Medicare and Medicaid during President George H.W. Bush’s administration, doesn’t think it’s likely that the court will strike down the entire health law.  But if it does, she warns, “it seems like it takes everything with it, including those aspects that are only very peripherally related to the expansion of coverage.”

One reason that so many experts are concerned is that the ACA altered the payment rates for nearly every type of healthcare professional who treats Medicare patients.  Every time Medicare sets a payment rate, it must cite a legal authority.  Since 2010, according to Rosenbaum, that legal authority has been the ACA.  If the law is ruled unconstitutional, she said, every one of those changes “doesn’t exist anymore because the law doesn’t exist.”  The result?  “You have agencies sitting on two years of policies that are up in smoke,” she said.  “Hospitals might not get paid.  Nursing homes might not get paid.  Doctors might not get paid.  Changes in coverage that have begun to take effect for the elderly, closing the donut hole might not happen.  We don’t know.”

Writing for the Huffington Post, Ethan Rome, Executive Director, Health Care for America Now, says that “The Supreme Court will uphold the ACA not only because it’s constitutional, but because to do otherwise would impose a massive judicial intervention in one of the economy’s most complex sectors and derail a train with millions of individuals and businesses on board.  If the conservative justices disregard decades of legal precedents and strike all or part of Obamacare, they would not merely be tearing down the most sweeping piece of social legislation since Medicare and Medicaid, they would be taking away substantial consumer protections and benefits from millions of America’s seniors, families and small businesses.  The court would have to take responsibility for dismantling the law piece by piece, a task as difficult as it is unconscionable.  The law is two years old.  Implementation is moving forward, and hundreds of complicated provisions are in effect, helping millions of Americans.  States, businesses, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies have undertaken major, costly changes in anticipation of the improved insurance marketplace developing right now.  The fact is that serious wreckage would result from a bad decision.  Attempting to unscramble this omelet would be a national nightmare.”

Politico’s J. Lester Feder offers this perspective. “If America is hoping a Supreme Court ruling will end the legal uncertainty hanging over the healthcare system once and for all, there’s a chance it could be sorely disappointed.  Most legal experts are hoping the Supreme Court will give a clear thumbs up or down to the healthcare law.  But they’re worried about the possibility that, if the court strikes down just part of the health law, it could outsource the job of figuring out precisely which provisions of the gargantuan law stay or go.  That could mean at least another year of legal proceedings before the country — and the states that have to build the health exchanges — really know the rules its health system will operate under.  And that doesn’t even include the wild card of the election.  The parties challenging the law attempted to head off this scenario by specifically asking the court to consider whether the individual mandate could be severed from the rest of the law.  But if the Supreme Court decided it lacked the capacity — or the desire — to settle questions of how dependent the various parts of the law are on the individual mandate, it could remand the case to the lower courts to work through the details, legal experts say.  Another outside possibility is that the Supreme Court could appoint a ‘special master’ to sift through it under the high court’s supervision, though special masters usually oversee complex settlements or disputes among states, not dismantling politically charged legislation.”

If the unthinkable happens and the Supreme Court does strike down President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation, employers and insurance companies — not the government — will be the primary drivers of change over the next decade.  They’ll borrow some ideas from Obamacare, and push harder to slash costs.  Business can’t and won’t take care of America’s 50 million uninsured.  Workers will pay more of their own medical costs as job coverage changes to plans with higher deductibles.  Another part of the equation will be tax-free accounts for routine medical expenses, to which employers can contribute.  Employees and their families will be steered to hospitals and doctors that can prove to insurers and employers that they deliver quality care.  These networks of medical providers would earn part of their fees for keeping patients healthy, similar to the accountable care organizations in the ACA.

CMS Chooses 27 Medicare Shared Savings Program ACOs

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

As the nation waits for the Supreme Court to rule on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), a key provision that will transform the delivery of healthcare is moving ahead.  According to Kaiser Health News, the Obama administration announced that 27 health systems have been designated as Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) in Medicare’s Shared Savings Program, which offers financial incentives for physicians, hospitals and other healthcare providers to create more integrated healthcare delivery.  The new ACOs will serve an estimated 375,000 individuals in 18 states.

ACO supporters say they improve care for Medicare beneficiaries and slow rising costs by altering the incentives that affect how physicians and hospitals operate.  Experts cite as models such respected health systems as the Mayo Clinic and the Geisinger Health System of Pennsylvania.  Rather than being paid for each service, ACOs reward providers that manage chronic disease and meet certain quality standards, including reducing hospital admissions and emergency room visits.  If they improve care while holding down costs, the systems can share in the savings.

CMS is reviewing another 150 applications seeking to enter the program, suggesting that the Shared Savings Program is succeeding.  The program is “off to a very phenomenal start,” said Jonathan Blum, a CMS deputy administrator.  “We are on track to fundamentally transform the (Medicare) fee-for-service program.”

Late last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) chose 32 organizations to participate in an advanced version of the Medicare program.  These “pioneers” have made significant progress in developing the ACO model, with many already largely functioning as ACOs.  During their first two years the pioneers will assume more risk, but with a greater potential reward.  Although hospitals were expected to lead the ACO field, Blum noted that the majority of ACOs are physician-led organizations.  He also said many of the organizations are working with private health insurers to serve patients not in the Medicare program.

Chas Roades, chief research officer at the Advisory Board Company in Washington, D.C., warned that as the ACOS take off and “people actually start to deliver care in a different way, it’s messy and complicated.  There will be successes and failures, and it may go slower than policy-makers would like it to.”  According to Roades, it’s important that CMS create some way for the pioneer ACOs to share their data and best practices.  “It’s a slow ramp but everyone will be watching very closely to see how these early ACOs succeed,” Roades said.

Under the shared savings program, ACOs must meet 33 quality measures relating to care coordination and patient safety, appropriate preventive health services, improved care for at-risk populations and the patient experience of care – while reducing the costs of care.  ACOs that meet the standards will be eligible to share in the program’s savings.

“We are encouraged by this strong start and confident that by the end of this year, we will have a robust program in place, benefitting millions of seniors and people with disabilities across the country,” said CMS Acting Administrator Marilyn Tavenner.

Regarding the anticipated Supreme Court ruling, Emily Brower, an executive director with Atrius Health, operator of a pioneer ACO in Massachusetts, said “It’s not changing anything for us.  This is a model of care we’ve been trying to evolve into since before the pioneer program existed.  We’ll continue making investments, and if the law is overturned, we’ll be asking where the return on investment is for us, if not in shared savings.”

Writing for the e-Care Management blog, Vince Kuraitis is unimpressed.  “I had been anticipating this announcement as a defining moment for Medicare’s thrust into accountable care.  My expectations had been that we would see either:  Boom — a big splash of new Medicare shared savings ACOs announced, including big name hospitals and medical groups that were starting large scale ACOs, perhaps with hundreds of thousands of patients.  Bust — no one showed up at the party.  Providers would have concluded that Medicare ACOs were too risky, bureaucratic, and high effort.  This isn’t the defining moment I thought it would be.  But that defining moment might be just around the corner.  Medicare’s announcement included a mention that they have 150 more Shared Savings ACO applications waiting in the wings.  Is the boom around the corner?”

Medicare to Tie Physician Pay to Quality, Cost

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Approximately 20,000 physicians in four Midwest states recently had a sneak peak at their financial future. According to Kaiser Health News, they were e-mailed links to Medicare reports detailing the amount their patients cost on average as well as the quality of the care they provided.  Additionally, the reports showed how Medicare spending on each doctor’s patients compared to their peers in Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska.

The so-called “resource use” reports, which Medicare eventually plans to distribute to doctors nationally, are one of the most visible phases of the government’s efforts to enact a complex and delicate although little-known proviso of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA): paying more to doctors who provide quality care at lower cost to Medicare, and cutting payments to physicians who add to Medicare’s costs without improved results.

Requiring providers to pay closer attention to cost and quality is seen as crucial if the nation is to succeed at controlling its healthcare spending — currently more than $2.5 trillion a year.  It’s also vital to Medicare’s solvency.  Efforts are already underway to transform the way Medicare pays hospitals, physicians and other providers who agree to work together in accountable care organizations.  This fall, Medicare – which covers 47 million seniors and disabled people — will fine-tune hospital reimbursements based on quality of care.  It plans to take cost into account as early as next year.

But applying these same precepts to doctors is much more difficult, experts agree. Doctors see far fewer patients than do hospitals, so making statistically accurate assessments of doctors’ care is much harder. Comparing specialists is tricky, since some focus on particular kinds of patients that tend to be more costly.  Properly assessing how a physician impacts costs must include not just the specific services provided, but also care other providers may give.

“It may be the most difficult measurement challenge in the whole world of value-based purchasing,” said Dr. Donald Berwick, the former administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  “We do have to be cautious in this case.  It could lead to levels of gaming and misunderstanding and incorrect signals to physicians that might not be best for everyone.”

Dr. Michael Kitchell, a neurologist and chairman of the McFarland Clinic in Ames, IA, predicted that the Medicare reports “will be a huge surprise to almost every physician.”  That’s because the calculations of how much those doctors’ patients cost Medicare not only include the services of the individual doctor but of all the physicians who provided any treatment to the patient.  Kitchell said his own patients typically saw 13 other physicians.  “You’re a victim or a beneficiary of your medical neighborhood,” Kitchell said.  “If the primary-care doctors are doing the preventative screening tests, you’ll get credit for that, but if you’re in a community where the community doctors are doing a poor job, you’re going to look bad.”

Medicare officials are attempting to improve the way they measure physicians as they follow the ACA’s directive to phase in the new payment system, called a Physician Value-Based Payment Modifier, which is scheduled to begin in 2015.  At first, it will apply solely to physician groups and some specialists selected by the government; by 2017, the payment change is intended to apply to most if not all doctors.  The assessment “is a very important change we’re putting into place, one where we’re going to need a lot of feedback and deliberation,” said Jonathan Blum, CMS’s deputy administrator. “We’re not blind to the challenges that are coming toward us.”  Although the program is still being worked out, it will become reality for many doctors in January, because CMS wants to base its 2015 bonuses or penalties on a doctor’s patients’ outcomes during 2013.

Private insurers may decide to use a formula similar to Medicare’s, said Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change.  Medicare’s ultimate method of judging and paying physicians could become “a valuable asset for private insurers, with a tool that will be somewhat bulletproof, that physicians won’t attack because they’ve been part of the process of developing them.”

Getting physician support might not be a peace of cake, said Margaret O’Kane, president of the National Committee for Quality Assurance.  “Doctors are a very powerful political segment,” she said. Additionally, “Patients are not behind this agenda.  The public is very scared about managing costs.”

Dana Gelb Safran, who measures quality for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, doubts it will be possible for the government to judge individual doctors.  “There really are very few measures that we can reliably evaluate on the individual doctor level,” she said.  “When they move forward with the value-based modifier, there is going to have to be a way to allow physicians to identify other physicians with whom they say they practice and who they say they share clinical risk for performance.”

CMS Chooses 27 Medicare Shared Savings Program ACOs

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

As the nation waits for the Supreme Court to rule on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), a key provision that will transform the delivery of healthcare is moving ahead.  According to Kaiser Health News, the Obama administration announced that 27 health systems have been designated as Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) in Medicare’s Shared Savings Program, which offers financial incentives for physicians, hospitals and other healthcare providers to create more integrated healthcare delivery.  The new ACOs will serve an estimated 375,000 individuals in 18 states.

ACO supporters say they improve care for Medicare beneficiaries and slow rising costs by altering the incentives that affect how physicians and hospitals operate.  Experts cite as models such respected health systems as the Mayo Clinic and the Geisinger Health System of Pennsylvania.  Rather than being paid for each service, ACOs reward providers that manage chronic disease and meet certain quality standards, including reducing hospital admissions and emergency room visits.  If they improve care while holding down costs, the systems can share in the savings.

CMS is reviewing another 150 applications seeking to enter the program, suggesting that the Shared Savings Program is succeeding.  The program is “off to a very phenomenal start,” said Jonathan Blum, a CMS deputy administrator.  “We are on track to fundamentally transform the (Medicare) fee-for-service program.”

Late last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) chose 32 organizations to participate in an advanced version of the Medicare program.  These “pioneers” have made significant progress in developing the ACO model, with many already largely functioning as ACOs.  During their first two years the pioneers will assume more risk, but with a greater potential reward.  Although hospitals were expected to lead the ACO field, Blum noted that the majority of ACOs are physician-led organizations.  He also said many of the organizations are working with private health insurers to serve patients not in the Medicare program.

Chas Roades, chief research officer at the Advisory Board Company in Washington, D.C., warned that as the ACOS take off and “people actually start to deliver care in a different way, it’s messy and complicated.  There will be successes and failures, and it may go slower than policy-makers would like it to.”  According to Roades, it’s important that CMS create some way for the pioneer ACOs to share their data and best practices.  “It’s a slow ramp but everyone will be watching very closely to see how these early ACOs succeed,” Roades said.

Under the shared savings program, ACOs must meet 33 quality measures relating to care coordination and patient safety, appropriate preventive health services, improved care for at-risk populations and the patient experience of care – while reducing the costs of care.  ACOs that meet the standards will be eligible to share in the program’s savings.

“We are encouraged by this strong start and confident that by the end of this year, we will have a robust program in place, benefitting millions of seniors and people with disabilities across the country,” said CMS Acting Administrator Marilyn Tavenner.

Regarding the anticipated Supreme Court ruling, Emily Brower, an executive director with Atrius Health, operator of a pioneer ACO in Massachusetts, said “It’s not changing anything for us.  This is a model of care we’ve been trying to evolve into since before the pioneer program existed.  We’ll continue making investments, and if the law is overturned, we’ll be asking where the return on investment is for us, if not in shared savings.”

Writing for the e-Care Management blog, Vince Kuraitis is unimpressed.  “I had been anticipating this announcement as a defining moment for Medicare’s thrust into accountable care.  My expectations had been that we would see either:  Boom — a big splash of new Medicare shared savings ACOs announced, including big name hospitals and medical groups that were starting large scale ACOs, perhaps with hundreds of thousands of patients.  Bust — no one showed up at the party.  Providers would have concluded that Medicare ACOs were too risky, bureaucratic, and high effort.  This isn’t the defining moment I thought it would be.  But that defining moment might be just around the corner.  Medicare’s announcement included a mention that they have 150 more Shared Savings ACO applications waiting in the wings.  Is the boom around the corner?”

Healthcare Employment on a Strong Growth Trajectory

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Healthcare employment will continue to grow much faster than employment in general, with the number of jobs in home care and other ambulatory settings expected to grow by more than 40 percent by 2020, according to a new study from the Center for Health Workforce Studies (CHWS) at the State University of New York at Albany.

Recent statistics from the Department of Labor focus on an expected hiring shift away from hospitals, as the system emphasizes preventive care and fewer admissions, said Jean Moore, CHWS director.  “For a long time, acute-care services tended to trump everything else, and that seems to be changing,” Moore said.  “There’s a growing awareness that it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish not to pay attention to preventive and primary care.”

Hospitals also are expected to keep hiring — nearly one million between now and 2020 — for a growth rate of 17 percent – as baby boomers age and need more inpatient care.

Physicians’ offices and other healthcare professionals are projected to hire 1.4 million people by 2020, a 36 percent increase.  The number of home health care jobs will soar by 872,000 – that’s an 81 percent growth rate.  The total number of ambulatory-care jobs will grow by 2.7 million by 2020, or 44 percent.

According to Kaiser Health News, healthcare is projected to be a growth industry, even if the Supreme Court strikes down the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).  “One of the things I wasn’t expecting was how much growth there was even during the recession,” Moore said.  “I would have expected some tempering of the growth.”

Although total U.S. employment declined by two percent between 2000 and 2010, healthcare employment rose 25 percent — demonstrating the sector’s expanding share of the economy.  By 2020, nearly one of every nine American jobs will be in healthcare.  When you consider that four million new health jobs will be created and people retiring from existing ones, more than seven million new workers will be needed.  That includes more than one million nurses.

According to the report, administrative healthcare jobs were cut during the economic slump from 2008 to 2010, a time when providers added nursing and other clinical positions.  Recent reports suggest that hospitals are hiring additional administrative staff to keep up with the increased regulation required by the ACA.  “They may be rehiring the people they had to let go when times were tight,” Moore said.

Healthcare employment totaled 14.19 million in October of 2011, an increase from the 13.88 million a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Hospital jobs increased by 84,000 during the same time period.  Ambulatory services — physician offices, outpatient clinics and home health agencies added more than 173,000 positions.

Demand is strongest for general practitioners, nurse practitioners and physician assistants at private practices, community clinics, hospitals and long-term care facilities.  Demand also is high for physical therapists.  Some analysts predict that the shortage of physical therapists will increase as healthcare reform goes into effect.  Fewer uninsured Americans translates to a greater demand for physical therapy.  In response, medical schools are expanding and developing physical therapy training programs.

If anything, the physical therapist shortage will worsen, because in 2000, 15.6 percent were between the ages 50 and 64; 10 years later, 32 percent were in that age bracket, according to a report from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).  Unemployment among physical therapists remains remarkably low: In 2010, only 0.4 percent — one in 250 — of physical therapists were jobless.  “Nobody knows how accountable-care organizations and medical homes will shake out, but healthcare reform in general will decrease the number of uninsured, which will increase demand for physical therapists,” said Marc Goldstein, senior director of research for the APTA.  “Physical therapy programs are being developed or expanded, so the current level of 6,000 graduates annually should creep up.”

A survey by Sullivan, Cotter and Associates, Inc., a nationally-recognized compensation and human resource management consulting firm, over the last year, nearly 75 percent of respondents reported they increased their physician staffing levels; adding an average of 12 specialists and nine primary-care physicians to their staffs.  Another 75 percent said they plan to increase their physician staffs and mid-level providers over the next year.  “These data are consistent with the labor market shift in physician employment that has been occurring over the past few years,” said Kim Mobley, practice leader for physician compensation.  “We expect this trend to continue for some time.  This shift in the labor market has resulted in what has become a highly competitive market for physicians as organizations and physicians align to provide services in a high quality, more efficient manner.”

HHS To Step Up Alzheimer’s Research

Monday, April 9th, 2012

Federal officials have taken another step toward their goal of better treatment for and even prevention of Alzheimer’s disease by 2025, according to Kaiser Health News. A more comprehensive, draft version of the Obama administration’s national plan to address Alzheimer’s is now available. Experts emphasized expanding and better coordinating disease research, primarily through public-private partnerships.  They also stressed improved preparation for the healthcare workforce, enhancing public outreach and providing Alzheimer’s families with financial and other support.  To achieve these goals, President Obama proposed an additional $106 million in federal funds as part of his 2013 budget.

The Alzheimer’s advisory council provides new specifics about how the money will be used.  For example, they propose creating registries to better direct Alzheimer’s patients into clinical trials, as well as establishing a national inventory of research investments.  On the healthcare side, the council proposes working with private partners to develop evidence-based guidelines for Alzheimer’s care and establishing a national clearinghouse to publicize those recommendations.  Additionally, the council advocates that new healthcare models – such as the medical homes and accountable care organizations promoted by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) – be analyzed for outcomes among Alzheimer’s patients.

The draft plan, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), places top priority on treatment, and focuses on the burden the disease places on families and caregivers.  “Alzheimer’s burdens an increasing number of our nation’s elders and their families, and it is essential that we confront the challenge it poses to our public health,” President Barack Obama said.  The White House plans to divert an additional $50 million this year from HHS projects to Alzheimer’s research, and seeks an extra $80 million in new research funding in fiscal 2013.  “These investments will open new opportunities in Alzheimer’s disease research and jumpstart efforts to reach the 2025 goal,” according to HHS.

Eric Hall, president and chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America and a member of the advisory council that has been working with HHS, said the draft proposal addresses many of the panel’s concerns.  “Given the current economic environment that limits much-needed resources and the scientific unknowns of this disease, we believe that defeating Alzheimer’s disease will likely happen in a series of small victories,” Hall said.  He was particularly satisfied that the plan focuses on educating healthcare providers on detecting early signs of cognitive impairment and linking newly diagnosed families with support services.

A differing perspective was offered by George Vradenburg, chairman of USAgainstAlzheimer’s and an advisory panel member, who said the draft plan does not go far enough.  “This first draft fails to present a strategy aggressive enough to achieve the goal of preventing and treating Alzheimer’s within 13 years,” he said, noting that the plan lacks specific timelines and does not hold any high-level officials accountable for meeting the plan’s goals.

More than five million Americans already have Alzheimer’s or similar dementias, a number that is expected to rise to 16 million by 2050, along with skyrocketing medical and nursing home bills, because the population is aging so rapidly.  “They’ve covered the right topics.  What is needed now is more detail,” said Alzheimer’s Association President Harry Johns.  “There’s real recognition at this point that Alzheimer’s is devastating for not only the individual but for the families and caregivers.”

CMS’ Value-Based Purchasing Program Is In the Works

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is formulating a new initiative to reward hospitals for the quality of care they provide to Medicare patients and reduce healthcare costs.  Authorized by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Hospital Value-Based Purchasing program marks an historic change in how Medicare pays healthcare providers and facilities — for the first time, 3,500 hospitals nationwide will be paid for inpatient acute-care services based on care quality, not just the quantity of the services they provide.

This initiative supports the objectives of the Partnership for Patients, a public-private partnership that will help improve the quality, safety and affordability of health care for all Americans.  The partnership has the potential to save 60,000 lives and up to $35 billion in U.S. healthcare costs over the next three years, including up to $10 billion for Medicare.  Over the next ten years, the Partnership for Patients could reduce costs to Medicare by about $50 billion and result in billions more in Medicaid savings.

“Changing the way we pay hospitals will improve the quality of care for seniors and save money for all of us,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  “Under this initiative, Medicare will reward hospitals that provide high-quality care and keep their patients healthy. It’s an important part of our work to improve the health of our nation and drive down costs.  As hospitals work to improve their performance on these measures, all patients – not just Medicare patients – will benefit.”

The Hospital Value-Based Purchasing initiative is just one part of a broad effort by the Obama Administration to improve the quality of health care for all Americans, using important new tools provided by the ACA.  The Partnership for Patients brings together hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, employers, unions, and state and federal government committed to keeping patients from getting injured or sicker in the health care system and improving transitions between care settings.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is investing up to $1 billion to drive these changes.  Additionally, proposed rules allowing Medicare to pay new Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) to improve coordination of patient care are also expected to result in better care and lower costs.

In essence, the program rewards hospitals that perform well on quality measures relating both to clinical process of care and to patient experience of care, or those making improvements in their performance on those measures.  Hospitals that meet performance criteria will receive higher compensation.  The hospital value-based purchasing program, which is expected to become effective in fiscal 2013 for payments for discharges occurring on or after October 1, 2012, would make value-based incentive payments based on how much the hospitals’ performance improves certain quality measures during a baseline timeframe.  The better a hospital’s performance or improvement during the performance period, the higher the hospital’s value-based incentive payment would be, according to CMS.

According to CMS estimates, approximately 50 percent of the facilities participating in this Hospital Inpatient Value-Based Purchasing program will receive a net increase in their Medicare payments.  The other half will see a net decrease.  Neither the increase nor the decrease will exceed one percent in the first year, CMS said.  The better-performing hospitals in the first year have the potential to receive value-based incentive payments totaling as much as two percent of Medicare reimbursement, or a net one percent extra,  CMS sees the program as “the next step in promoting higher quality care for Medicare beneficiaries.”  When the program gets underway, CMS said, the government will reward hospitals on the basis of “actual quality performance,” and not just data.

Jean Moody-Williams, director of the Quality Improvement Group within CMS’ Office of Clinical Standards and Quality, said the Hospital VBP Program is funded by a one percent withholding from participating hospitals’ diagnosis-related group (DRG) payments; hospitals excluded from the program will not have that one percent withheld from their DRG payments.  “The goal of CMS through the Hospital Value-Based Purchasing Program is to link payments to quality outcomes,” Williams said.  “We really are starting to get away from asking, ‘How much did you do?’ to ‘How well did you do and how was it for the patient?'”

The American Hospital Association (AHA) has serious reservations about the program, noting that “CMS has not met its requirements with respect to certain measures.  This failure will unfairly and adversely impact the hospital field and even undermine the intent of the law, which is to provide opportunities for hospitals to improve their performance.”

According to the AHA, the problem “is exacerbated in the outpatient PPS (prospective payment system) rulemaking cycle because it builds on policies that fail to comply with the law’s requirements.” AHA also expressed concern with how the agency handled the notice and comment process for the hospital VBP program, which “made significant changes to this program in three separate regulations,” and suggested that the agency choose a single regulation in which it will make any future changes to the program.