Posts Tagged ‘Department of Health and Human Services’

Big Medicine Is Watching You

Monday, September 24th, 2012

Big Medicine is on the way, according to celebrated author and Harvard professor, Atul Gawande, In a major article in the New Yorker, Gawande describes the new frontier of ICUs as ones where patients may be monitored not from a telemetry station within the hospital but from a remote command center filled with high-tech screens and armies of highly-trained technicians that could be miles away and serve multiple hospitals.

Gawande cites the example of Dr. Armin Ernst, who is responsible for Steward Health Care’s ICU operations at the system’s 10 hospitals, serving approximately 8,000 patients annually.  “He sees it (the ICU) as the temporary home of the sickest, most fragile people, Gawande writes.  ”Nowhere in healthcare do we expend more resources.  Although fewer than one in 4,000 Americans are in intensive care at any given time, they account for four percent of healthcare costs.  Ernst believes that his job is to make sure that everyone is collaborating to provide the most effective and least wasteful care possible.”

Ernst’s ICU command center is a one-story building that contains millions worth of technology, banks of computer screens carrying cardiac-monitor readings, imaging scans, and lab results.  Special software sends an alert when it detects patterns that raise concerns.  Doctors and nurses operate consoles where high-definition video cameras zoom into any ICU room and talk directly to the staff or to the patients themselves.  Soon, the tele-ICU team will monitor the care for every ICU patient in the Steward system.

The experience was eye-opening for Gawande.  After five minutes of observation, I realized that the remote ICU team wasn’t exactly in command; it was in negotiation, Gawande writes.  Sometimes the bedside staff resist resolving problems that the E-ICU staff identify.  You have got to be careful from patient to patient, Gerard Hayes, a tele-ICU doctor, explained.  Pushing hard has ramifications for how it goes with a lot of patients. You don’t want to sour whole teams on the tele-ICU.  Several hospitals have decommissioned their systems; clinicians have placed gowns over the camera, or torn the camera out of the wall.

Despite some opposition, there is good reason why hospitals are adopting the E-ICU model.  Remote monitoring is a high-tech solution to a sticky problem facing hospitals: how to care for the sickest patients amid a worsening shortage of intensive-care physicians.  Currently, only one third of ICU patients receive care from an intensivist.  The Department of Health and Human Services believes that demand for intensivists will outstrip supply over the next 30 years.  Initial results from the E-ICUs have been dramatic: Mortality rates are 30 to 40 percent lower when physicians provide 24/7 care to prevent complications and minimize errors. A University of Massachusetts Medical Center study of 6,400 patients in seven adult intensive-care units monitored by E-ICU showed substantial benefits in reducing both costs and mortality, according to the hospital’s director, Craig Lilly.  The hospital saved $5,000 per case, mostly because the system lets intensivists in the remote-command center “detect instability and bring new treatment to the patient before they would have received it in a typical ICU.”

National Alzheimer’s Plan Launched

Monday, May 21st, 2012

President Barack Obama has thrown down the gauntlet in announcing the first National Alzheimer’s Plan, which sets a deadline of 2025 to find ways to effectively treat — or at least delay — the mind-destroying disease.  The Obama administration is laying out numerous steps the government and private partners can take over the coming years to fight what is poised to become a defining disease of the rapidly aging population.  Families and caregivers with a family member suffering from Alzheimer’s can visit a new website for information about dementia and where to get help in their own communities.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding new studies of possible therapies, including a form of insulin that is shot into the nose.  “These actions are the cornerstones of an historic effort to fight Alzheimer’s disease,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

The National Alzheimer’s Plan comes as leading scientists and researchers are meeting at the NIH to debate what research needs to be prioritize to meet that 2025 deadline.  According to the researchers, the time is right to begin testing potential therapies before people have full-blown Alzheimer’s symptoms, when it may be too late to help.  “There’s a sense of optimism” as a result of some new discoveries, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said.  But, “we need to figure out exactly where is the best window of opportunity” to battle Alzheimer’s.  Collins noted that cardiologists don’t test cholesterol-reducing drugs on people who have advanced heart failure.

The research is being funded by grants of $16 million and $7.9 million respectively. Experts predict that unless more effective drugs are developed, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s will double by 2050 and related healthcare costs could soar to more than $1 trillion.  Alzheimer’s affects approximately 5.1 million Americans today; current treatments address symptoms, but do not prevent the disease or halt its progression.

The 2025 goal was the subject of a long debate in the advisory council tasked with helping to write the national plan.  “We had people saying it was overly ambitious and we had people who said it wasn’t ambitious enough,” said Don Moulds, principal deputy assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at HHS.  According to Moulds, some were concerned that an earlier goal might skew research funding into treatments that might be easy hits, but not game-changing treatments.  The 2025 target was deemed to be the earliest date when an effective treatment could be found.  “It’s a huge initiative and a very ambitious step in the right direction,” Moulds said.

Researchers leading the largest clinical study ever done on Alzheimer’s disease have run into an unexpected hurdle.  With nearly 500 patients undergoing MRI scans, PET scans and even spinal taps, researchers hope to invent the first ever test to find Alzheimer’s before a patient loses any memory — or even knows there’s a problem.  “We may be able to screen and begin treatment even before any symptoms begin,” said Dr. Raymond Turner of Georgetown University Hospital, which is one of 57 centers participating in the study.

“The problem is finding volunteers to join the studies,” Turner said.  “Patients.”  The study of 750 patients is 250 patients short.  Nationally, the deficit is in the thousands, with virtually every clinical trial related to Alzheimer’s short of volunteers.  Alzheimer’s itself is part of the problem.  Patients who don’t know that they have the disease don’t know to volunteer, and patients with mild memory loss are often reluctant to participate.  The lead researcher of the imaging trial, Dr. Michael Weiner, says one answer is to recruit physicians who treat Alzheimer’s patients.  “We definitely could do a better job trying to get physicians to refer patients to our project,” Weiner said.  “The slower our trial goes, the slower the rate of progress.”

Eric J. Hall, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA), “This day has been a long time coming. The release of the ‘National Plan To Address Alzheimer’s Disease’ reflects the growing impetus among the public and policymakers to act on a disease that has been in the shadows for far too long.  We commend President Obama, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Congress for uniquely recognizing and responding to the implications of the Alzheimer’s Disease epidemic.  Recognition is essential for action, and their courage has forged enormous opportunity.

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?”

Sebelius Asks Civil Right Activists to Defend the ACA

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has asked civil rights activists to help defend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), noting that the healthcare law faces an “enemy” whose goal is to set American health policy back half a century.  The remarks come two months before the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling that could strike down the law.

Sebelius described the ACA as an crucial weapon against racial disparities that have long meant higher infant mortality rates, shorter life spans and limited access to medical services for minorities.  “The enemy is at the door and we know that they would like to dismantle these initiatives,” Sebelius told the annual convention of the National Action Network, a civil rights group led by the Reverend Al Sharpton“Healthcare inequalities have been one of the most persistent forms of injustice,” she said. “Now is not the time to turn back.”

Civil rights advocates and the minorities they often represent form a key segment of the Democratic base, especially if the Supreme Court strikes down Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.  Research shows that low-income Americans, including many minorities, have significantly less access to medical care and suffer higher rates of childhood illnesses, hypertension, heart disease, AIDS and other diseases.

Designed to bring healthcare coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, the ACA has become a pet target for Republicans mainly because of an `individual mandate that requires most Americans to have healthcare insurance by 2014.  “We’ve got folks who are committed to undoing…the important initiatives that we’ve made in the last few years,” Sebelius said.  “Frankly, they want to go back and undo Medicare and Medicaid from the mid-1960s.  They want to roll us back years and years.”

The House of Representatives voted recently to partially privatize Medicare and convert Medicaid to a block-grant program for states, although the legislation is likely to be stalled in the Senate.  “I’m here to ask you to help,” Sebelius said.  “If we can begin to close the disparities in health, we begin to close disparities in other areas, too.”

Sebelius asked religious leaders, health advocates and other minority leaders to help the Obama administration educate the public about the healthcare law’s many benefits. The law, which becomes fully effective on January 1, 2014, has already benefited minorities by extending private insurance coverage to young adults, providing free preventive services for those with insurance and prohibiting coverage denials for children with pre-existing conditions.

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?”

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.”

HHS Issues New Rules on Healthcare Insurance Exchanges

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued its final rule aimed at implementing state health insurance exchange provisions of the federal healthcare law.  The rule becomes effective 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register.  The regulation outlines details of the exchanges, which are scheduled to launch on January 1, 2014, and offer insurance plan options for individuals and small businesses, as well as federal subsidies for premiums.

The final rule outlines the minimum standards states must meet in establishing and operating their exchanges, such as individual and employer eligibility for enrollment.  The rule also outlines minimum standards that health insurers must meet to participate in an exchange and the standards employers must meet to participate in the exchange.  The regulation offers states “substantial discretion” in how to design and operate their exchanges.  HHS will accept comment on nine sections of the exchange rule, including provisions regarding the ability of a state to allow agents and brokers to assist qualified individuals in applying for advance payments of the premium tax credit and cost-sharing reductions for qualified health plans; Medicaid and CHIP regulations; options for conducting eligibility determinations; and verification for applicants.  This final rule does not address all of the insurance exchange provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“These policies give states the flexibility they need to design an exchange that works for them,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “These new marketplaces will offer Americans one-stop shopping for health insurance, where insurers will compete for your business.  More competition will drive down costs and Exchanges will give individuals and small businesses the same purchasing power big businesses have today.”

Among the regulations are a guide to set standards for establishing exchanges; setting up a Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP); performing the basic functions of the exchange; and certifying health plans for participation in the exchange; as well as setting up a streamlined, web-based system for consumers to apply for and enroll in qualified health plans and insurance affordability programs.  The announcement is the culmination of more than two years’ work with states, small businesses, consumers, and health insurance plans.  The administration examined models of exchanges; convened numerous meetings and regional listening sessions across the country with stakeholders; and consulted closely with state leaders, consumer advocates, employers and insurers.  To finalize the rules, HHS accepted public comment to learn from states, consumers, and other stakeholders on how to improve the rules; HHS adapted the proposals based on feedback from the American people.

Unfortunately, many state lawmakers are hesitant to move forward with creating the exchanges until the Supreme Court has ruled on the ACA’s constitutionality, according to Joy Johnson Wilson, federal affairs counsel and health policy director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.  “It’s fair to say that legislation has kind of slowed,” Johnson Wilson said, noting that many lawmakers are taking a “wait-and-see approach” in anticipation of the high court’s oral arguments this month.  Legislators do not want to make plans that have to be revisited and revised, Johnson Wilson said.

Despite the ambivalence of some states, they will be given great flexibility in setting up the exchanges. The concept is the eligibility for determining the premium tax credit is going to be done by the exchange…but also in the state-based exchange to allow — whether it’s a web-based broker or a small-business broker or agent — to interact with the exchange in an automated way,” Tim Hill, deputy director in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services insurance-regulation office, said.

“Those are all relationships that are regulated on the state level…to determine the fee structure for how agents or brokers can be compensated for bringing business to the exchange,” Hill said.  “That’s something we’re going to leave to the state.”  Hill said allowing third-party companies or brokers access the exchanges will help inform people about the insurance exchanges.  “There are lots of folks out there who can generate interest and marketing…it’s a source of leverage that we want to leverage if the states choose to,” Hill said.

Writing on The Hill’s Healthwatch blog, Julian Pecquet notes that “States will have ‘substantial flexibility’ to operate a key provision of President Obama’s healthcare reform law.  The long-awaited final rules expand states’ ability to craft insurance marketplaces that meet their residents’ needs.  This includes allowing states to structure their health insurance exchange in a variety of ways — for example, as a nonprofit entity established by the state, as an independent public agency or as part of an existing state agency.  The final rules also offer each state more time to set up its exchange.  The law requires states to ‘demonstrate complete readiness’ to guarantee they’ll be operational 12 months later.  If states don’t meet the deadline, a federal exchange will take over.  The final rule, however, allows for ‘conditional approval’ if a state is ‘advanced in its preparation’ by January 1, 2013.  In addition, states that aren’t deemed ready for 2014 can apply to operate their own exchange in 2015 or any subsequent year.  ‘HHS may conditionally approve a state-based exchange upon demonstration that it is likely to be fully operationally ready by October 1, 2013, which provides States with flexibility in meeting exchange development timelines,’ according to the regulation.  ‘HHS will provide additional details in future guidance.’”

ACA’s Future Unclear As It Celebrates Its 2nd Birthday

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

As the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) celebrates its second birthday, the Obama administration reminded senior citizens – one of the most reliable voter blocs — exactly how much healthcare reform has helped them.  Coverage of the “donut hole” in prescription drug plans saved five million seniors and disabled people $3.2 billion.  According to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), through the first two months of 2012, roughly 103,000 Americans saved $93 million in the donut hole.  “Without the healthcare law, more than 5.1 million seniors would have faced $3.2 billion in higher drug costs,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.  The donut hole is a gap in coverage for prescription drugs under what is called Medicare Part D.  Part D covers 75 percent of the cost of prescription drugs until total medication spending for the patient hits $2,800.  Then the hole opens, and seniors must pay out of pocket until they have spent $4,550.  After that, Medicare pays about 95 percent of drug costs.

The ACA sent all seniors who hit the prescription drug donut hole a one-time $250 check.  In 2011 and 2012, seniors in the donut hole receive a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs.  Additionally seniors covered by traditional Medicare received wellness check-ups and screenings for diseases like cancer and diabetes without paying anything out of pocket.  Under the law, the donut hole phases out in 2020.

The seniors’ lobby AARP launched its largest-ever outreach effort with ads and town-hall meetings aimed at defending Medicare and Social Security.  “We’re not leaving it up to chance” that the public hears about the law’s benefits, congressional Seniors Task Force co-chairwoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said.  Democrats, Schakowsky said, have made it a “primary organization effort”…”to tell the truth (about the law) over the next several months.”

Writing in The Hill, Julian Pecquet says that “Democrats see the Ryan budget, which is expected to propose replacing Medicare with subsidies for people to buy insurance, as political gold ahead of the November election.  Republicans for their part will spend the week hammering the law’s ‘broken promises’ — higher premiums, employers dropping coverage and the soaring cost of insurance subsidies when compared to the earlier budget window Democrats highlighted when they were debating the law two years ago.  They’re also arguing that the healthcare law hastens Medicare’s insolvency by removing $500 billion from the program to pay for what they call an unsustainable new entitlements.”

In terms of implementing the law to meet the 2014 deadline, the ACA leaves it up to the states to set up health insurance exchanges.  In states that refuse to do that, HHS has the authority to create a federal exchange as a backup — but it could be stretched thin if it has to cover too many states.  At the moment, a number of states are not making plans and the federal exchange could end up covering as many as 15 to 25 states.

Other states are biding their time depending on the outcome of the Supreme Court case — and the elections — to decide what to do next.  There’s an excellent possibility that many of them won’t be far enough along by January of 2013, when HHS has to either certify the states’ exchanges or prepare to run a federal exchange in those states.  HHS has already extended the deadline for states to apply for the grants that will help them run exchanges.  And it’s taking other steps to help states that won’t be ready in time.  But if a lot of states refuse to create the exchanges –and more time won’t help them — HHS will be forced to act.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that President Obama is looking beyond past battles. “He is focused on a forward agenda right now, and working with Congress and doing the things he can through executive action to grow the economy and create jobs,” Carney said.

Republican leaders, who once accused the president of focusing too much on healthcare and not enough on jobs, now say the White House is moving away from the ACA because of uncertainty over whether or not its individual mandate is constitutional.  In terms of the upcoming Supreme Court oral arguments, Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) said “I think we’ll win in the end.  Now the question is how long is it until the end.  There’s no question that the president’s plan will not work.”

A differing opinion was offered by Democratic Caucus Vice-Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-CA).  “I think as time goes by more and more people are beginning to support the reform because it starts to apply to them.  The more people see what the ACA does, the more they’re going to like it.”

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.

2011 Was a Good Year in Medicare Fraud Battle

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

The Department of Justice recovered nearly $4.1 billion stolen in healthcare fraud schemes during 2011, according to the Obama administration.  That is a 58 percent increase when compared with 2009.  “This is an unprecedented achievement — and it represents the highest amount ever recovered in a single year,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.  The Justice Department reported that more than 1,400 people were charged with fraud in 500 cases.  More than 700 have been convicted.  “We’re regaining the upper hand in our fight against healthcare fraud,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  The numbers are part of the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program Annual Report, which is submitted to Congress every year.

Holder and Sebelius gave credit to their Medicare Fraud Strike Force teams for tracking down crime in areas with “hot spots” of unexplained Medicare billing.  The strike forces include prosecutors and investigators from the FBI, the Justice Department and the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.

According to Sebelius, aggressively pursuing health care fraud is a great investment.  “Over the last three years, for every dollar we’ve spent, we’ve put more than seven dollars back in the hands of American taxpayers,” she said.  The money goes into the Medicare Trust Fund, the U.S. Treasury and state treasuries.

From 2009 to 2011, the federal government collected $7.20 for every dollar spent on fighting fraud, according to the HHS inspector general.  That’s an increase from the $5.10 for every dollar spent between 1997 and 2008.  “It demonstrates that our collaborative efforts to prevent, identify and prosecute the most egregious instances of health care fraud have never been stronger,” Holder said.  “Over the years, we’ve seen that as these crimes harm all of us — government agencies and programs, insurers and healthcare providers, and individual patients.”

The Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Teams (HEAT) sent 175 people to prison, with an average sentence of 47 months, according to the Justice Department.  The teams were created in 2009.  “I expect that we will be expanding those efforts to additional cities,” said Peter Budetti, director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Center for Program Integrity.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) sets aside $350 million in healthcare fraud-fighting funds. One of the law’s provisions requires  providers and suppliers wishing to participate in the Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program that have been deemed to be at higher risk of fraud or abuse to undergo license checks and site visits to confirm legitimacy.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Warren Richey puts this in historical perspective.  According to Richey, “During President Bush’s eight years in office, nearly $1.6 billion was recovered on average each year by federal agents and prosecutors.  In contrast, the Obama administration has recovered an average $3.6 billion per year during each of the past three years.  Fighting healthcare fraud is essential in an administration that is seeking to dramatically increase the level of federal control over the nation’s health insurance system.

But it is unclear from the report to what extent the increased recoveries are a function of more efficient law enforcement or simply the rampant nature of fraud against the government.  Estimates are that healthcare fraud diverts more than $60 billion a year from public health care to criminal enrichment.  Administration officials insist they are bringing fraud, waste, and abuse under control.”

In its fiscal year 2013 budget, HHS proposes to continue making progress against healthcare fraud by increasing support through mandatory and discretionary funding.  The mandatory funding level is $1.3 billion. HHS is requesting $610 million in discretionary funds.  In its FY 2013 budget request, the Justice Department requested $294.5 million in mandatory and discretionary funding to continue the fight against  healthcare fraud.

According to Holder, the department’s civil division filed 1,000 new civil cases in addition to 1,000 pending actions.  The work resulted in $2.4 billion in recoveries under the federal False Claims Act, he said.  “These are stunning numbers,” Holder said.