Posts Tagged ‘Healthcare rationing’

Physician Groups Go After Unnecessary Medical Tests

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

America’s physicians are embarking on an initiative to cut healthcare costs by ordering fewer unnecessary tests and treatments for their patients.  Nine prominent physician groups released lists of 45 common procedures they say are often unnecessary and may even harm patients. According to Kaiser Health News, “The move represents a high-profile effort by physicians to help reduce the extraordinary amount of unnecessary treatment, said to account for as much as a third of the $2.6 trillion Americans spend on healthcare each year.  Each of the societies, representing both primary care doctors and specialists, picked five procedures that medical evidence shows have little or no value for certain conditions, and which they say should be questioned by patients and their doctors.  The list includes such common practices as routine electrocardiograms for patients at low risk for heart disease, and antibiotics for mild sinus infections.”

Dr. Donald Berwick, formerly the Medicare administrator, called the campaign “a game changer.  This could be a turning point if it’s approached with energy,” Berwick said.  “Here you have scientifically grounded guidance from a number of major specialty societies addressing a very important problem, which is the overuse of ineffective care.”

“We need to use this opportunity to raise awareness that sometimes overtreatment or testing can be harmful,” said Glen Stream, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, one of the nine participating physician groups.  The Choosing Wisely campaign comes amid efforts – some called for in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) – to compare the effectiveness of treatments and to change payment incentives to physicians and hospitals to reward quality and penalize inefficiency.  But efforts to slow medical spending growth tend to be political, giving rise to fears of healthcare rationing or death panels.  “Anytime you are recommending against a test or treatment, people wonder ‘is it for some economic interest?'” Stream noted.

Among the nine groups backing the initiative are the American College of Cardiology and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.  The effort is being spearheaded by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation (ABIM). Together, the participants represent nearly 375,000 physicians.

Writing in Time, Alice Park says that “Each of the nine professional groups has come up with five tests or procedures that it believes doctors and patients overuse routinely. The American Gastroenterological Association, for example, is recommending against repeat colonoscopies within 10 years of a normal result from a first colonoscopy for patients with no family history of colon cancer.  The American College of Physicians is advising against using MRI to image patients any time they complain of generalized low back pain, and heart experts say doctors should stop using stress echocardiograms in routine check-ups for patients who don’t have chest pain or other risk factors for heart disease or heart attack.”

One of the initiative’s goals is to make people “feel empowered to go to their doctor and say, ‘Do I really need this test?'” said Christine Cassel, president of the ABIM and the group’s foundation. John Santa, an internist and the director of the Health Ratings Center for Consumer Reports, said, “I think it’s courageous of cardiologists, internists and family physicians to suggest reducing services that they know generate income for some of their members.  I’m sure some of their members won’t be happy.”

According to Dr. Steven Weinberger, CEO of the American College of Physicians, “Most of us feel something like $750 billion or so could be eliminated from the system that we spend on healthcare.”  Weinberger said that unneeded diagnostic tests almost certainly account for $250 billion annually.  “I talk about this a fair amount around the country, and invariably physicians come up to me and recount their own anecdotes about overuse and misuse of care.”

Time to Resolve the “Doc Fix”

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Congress’ end of year to-do list inevitably includes the “doc fix” – billions of dollars to avoid deep rate cuts for physicians who treat Medicare’s 48 million patients.  Congressmen and Senators always defer the cuts demanded by a 1997 reimbursement formula — known as the sustainable growth rate (SGR) and which most believe needs to be entirely rewritten.  The deferrals are temporary, and the doc fix has become increasingly difficult to pass through a divided and deficit-wary Congress.  In 2010, Congress put off scheduled cuts five times, with the longest delay lasting one year.

The story is the same heading into 2012.  If lawmakers are unable to agree before returning home for the holidays, 500,000 physicians will face a stiff 27 percent cut beginning January 1.  Although Congressional leaders have vowed to prevent that, they disagree over how to pay for the fix.  There is little doubt some agreement will be reached, but that deal could be delayed until early next year.

The cost of congressional intervention, not surprisingly, has grown: Delaying the cuts — the solution Congress has chosen since 2003 — will cost $21 billion for a one-year delay and $38.6 billion for two years.  Repealing the formula would add approximately $300 billion to the deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

No one imagined that the SGR would cause so much trouble when it was passed as a minor element of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.  Nearly 15 years ago, Medicare physician spending, which accounts for a small share of the program’s overall outlay, was growing slowly.  The law included other restraints that have since been repealed.  Analysts predicted that, at most, the SGR formula would curb physician payments minimally.  “It wasn’t viewed as a big deal at the time,” said Paul Van de Water, an economist specializing in Medicare with the research group Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  “They needed a few more billion dollars in savings (for the Balanced Budget Act), so they just tacked on the SGR arrangement.”

Kaiser Health News wonders why Congress doesn’t just scrap the SGR formula.  “Money is the biggest problem.  It would cost about $300 billion to stop the doc fix cuts over the next decade and Congress can’t agree on where to find that kind of cash.  Some lawmakers, including Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), have proposed using money saved from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to finance a permanent fix.  While the idea has found favor among some Democrats, other Republicans oppose it.  For physicians, the prospect of facing big payment cuts is a source of mounting frustration.  Some say the uncertainty led them to quit the program, while others are threatening to do so.  Still, defections have not been significant to date, according to MedPAC.  Physician groups continue to lobby Congress to enact a permanent payment fix.”

Dr. Florence C. Barnett recently decided to quit seeing Medicare patients.  She said the plan covered approximately 33 percent of what it cost her to see patients — and found herself facing a growing Medicare patient population after other local neurosurgeons left the program in 2010.  “This is the way the government will ration healthcare,” Barnett said.  “The people who can afford it will have healthcare, and the people who are only on government support — they will not be able to find a doctor or they will have a very long wait.  It’s happening now.”

A survey conducted by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission found that among patients looking for a new primary-care physician in 2010, 79 percent experienced no problems finding one.  According to the American Medical Association (AMA), which generally resists limits in reimbursements, nearly 33 percent of primary-care physicians already restrict how many Medicare patients they accept in their practices.

Physicians are once again relying on Congress to put off the impending cut.  It’s a scenario that Glen Stream, M.D. and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, calls a “Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football thing.”  In other words, physicians have become numb to the whole situation.  This year, that numbness could be risky.  “Doctors are sort of numb from this,” Stream said.  “It’s concerning because I think there’s a very serious chance that this cut could go into place and yet many practicing physicians have heard this years and years in a row and it always seems to get averted at the last minute.  I think that they may not understand the gravity of the situation this time.”

Writing on the MDNews.com website, Maggie Behringer says that “Last year the battle to fund the Medicare deficit — $19 billion for the fiscal year — ended in a one-year measure.  The summer saw a hands-off stance from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services when the administration instructed providers to temporarily cease filing claims until Congress resolved a standstill over stimulus spending and unemployment benefits.  The cut projected for January, 2012, should Congress fail to enact the customary doc-fix, totals to 27.4 percent.  The core conflict for legislators — 19 of whom are physicians, themselves — emerges in the inability of the SGR to adapt in today’s economic environment.  The formula was originally developed to bind spending to the economy’s growth.  Despite initial success, the exponential climb in healthcare costs quickly surpassed the overall market.  The subsequent deficits to fund Medicare were further compounded by the recent depression and ongoing recession.  Even if Congress is able to act in time with a temporary doc-fix over the holidays, the fundamental dilemma will remain a question of funding just as the patient population eligible for Medicare benefits enters a major boom.”

Berwick Laments Washington, D.C., Cynicism About ACA

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Dr. Donald Berwick, who recently left his job as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) because the Senate refused to confirm his nomination, struck back at his critics who had accused the pediatrician of advocating healthcare rationing.

“The true rationers are those who impede improvement, who stand in the way of change, and who thereby force choices that we can avoid through better care,” Berwick said.  “It boggles my mind that the same people who cry ‘foul’ about rationing an instant later argue to reduce healthcare benefits for the needy, to defund crucial programs of care and prevention, and to shift thousands of dollars of annual costs to people — elders, the poor, the disabled – who are least able to bear them.”

Although Berwick didn’t specifically accuse Senate Republicans, it was clear that he was referring to proposals to drastically slash the nation’s budget deficit by capping federal funding to states for Medicaid.  That proposal could cut billions of dollars that critics have said would lead to cuts in benefits.

During his 16-month tenure at CMS, Berwick studiously avoided using the term “rationing”.  Now, the gloves have come off.  “When the 17 million American children who live in poverty cannot get the immunizations and blood tests they need, that is rationing.  When disabled Americans lack the help to keep them out of institutions and in their homes and living independently, that is rationing.  When tens of thousands of Medicaid beneficiaries are thrown out of coverage, and when millions of seniors are threatened with the withdrawal of preventive care or cannot afford their medications, and when every single one of us lives under the sword of Damocles that, if we get sick, we lose health insurance, that is rationing.”

Berwick also jabbed at those who inaccurately said the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) included so-called “death panels.”  According to Berwick, “If you really want to talk about ‘death panels,’ let’s think about what happens if we cut back programs of needed, life-saving care for Medicaid beneficiaries and other poor people in America.  Maybe a real death panel is a group of people who tell healthcare insurers that is it OK to take insurance away from people because they are sick or are at risk for becoming sick.”

Going even further, Berwick said that the ACA needs more advocates supporting the law. “The law is just a framework,” Berwick said.  “Healthcare in America can improve and it can become sustainable without a tremendous amount of community involvement.”  President Obama has an important role in this, as do healthcare consumers who must push healthcare leaders to rethink the way they work.  “Increasingly, though, that advocacy role is falling to physicians, nurses, and hospital executives.  We need their voices, because they know the system can’t go on the way it is,” he said.

“I think that a lot of the public concern about that law and a lot of the congressional criticism is ill-founded and based on myths,’’ Berwick said.  “I think any chance to air publicly, with conversation and even debate, matters of such concern is healthy.’’

While contemplating what to do next in his career, Berwick said “I’m excited by how much is in motion in healthcare right now.  It’s an incredibly interesting and promising time with many risks, and I want to stay thoroughly engaged in reshaping American healthcare into the high-performance, sustainable system I know it can be.”

Can Marilyn Tavenner Save Medicare?

Monday, December 5th, 2011

President Barack Obama’s choice of Marilyn Tavenner as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — to replace Dr. Donald Berwick, whose recess appointment was set to expire at the end of the year – is more likely to survive the Senate confirmation process relatively unscathed.

A Harvard-educated pediatrician, Berwick won praise and the backing of major healthcare groups for his academic work, which focused on cutting the cost of care while improving quality and patient experience.  Republicans took exception to his praise of Britain’s National Health Service as an “example” for the United States to emulate.  Others accused him of supporting “rationing” healthcare services, a claim Berwick rejects.  “Every bone in my body, as a physician, even as a person, is to get everything (patients) want and need and to help them at every step,” he said.  “I have gone to the mat to get a last-ditch bone marrow transplant for a child with leukemia…and they are telling me I’m rationing?  They haven’t met me.”

White House officials said, “Before entering government services, Tavenner spent nearly 35 years working with health care providers in significantly increasing levels of responsibility, including almost 20 years in nursing, three years as a hospital CEO, and 10 years in various senior executive-level positions for Hospital Corporation of America.”

According to Ezra Klein, “Tavenner’s healthcare experience lies much more in management than policy.  Former colleagues describe her as a patient-centered manager, a hands-on medical professional equally comfortable in the board room and the emergency room.  And in contrast to Berwick, Tavenner isn’t associated with a grand vision for health reform, or a particular policy agenda for Medicare and Medicaid.  ‘With Marilyn, you present the information, then she makes a decision, and you move on,’ said Patrick Finnerty, who served as Virginia’s Medicaid director under Tavenner.  ‘She doesn’t make promises she can’t keep.  There are differences of opinions, and she would try to work through those.  She’s straight with folks but always respectful.’”

Tavenner started her career as a nurse at Virginia hospitals owned by the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA).  Tavenner met with success, rising from chief nursing officer to CEO.  In 2004, she was again promoted to HCA’s president of outpatient services, her first national position with the firm.  She resigned two years later, when then-Virginia Governor Tim Kaine tapped her to head the state’s Health and Human Resources department.

Tavenner has already won the American Medical Association’s (AMA) backing. “We have worked extensively with her in her role as deputy administrator, and she has been fair, knowledgeable and open to dialogue,” AMA President Peter Carmel said.  “With all the changes and challenges facing the Medicare and Medicaid programs, CMS needs stable leadership, and Marilyn Tavenner has the skills and experience to provide it.”

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said that the panel would thoroughly scrutinize Tavenner, but did not say he opposes her nomination.  Despite Hatch’s mild comment, Tavenner is expected to face some difficult questioning because Senate Republicans have not overtly endorsed her.  According to a Republican healthcare lobbyist, “I can’t imagine a lot of support for her,” noting that the high-profile CMS role “always gets sucked into the controversy of the day.”  Ultimately, Tavenner is likely to be confirmed for the CMS post.

Tavenner is widely seen as a pragmatic administrator who will not rock the CMS boat. “The only way to stabilize costs without cutting benefits or provider fees is to improve care to those with the highest health care costs,” she said.  Tavenner also said she opposed Republican efforts to turn Medicaid into a block grant that would limit the amount of federal funding states can receive for the program.  “That approach would simply dump the problem on states and force them to dump patients, benefits or make provider cuts or all the above,” she said.  Tavenner “brings continuity in terms of implementing the mission,” said Len Nichols, director of George Mason University’s Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics.

Arizona Halts Medicaid Funding for Some Transplant Surgeries

Friday, December 17th, 2010

The State of Arizona – facing soaring enrollments and shrinking revenues – has eliminated Medicaid coverage for some transplants of the heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and bone marrow.  Because these treatments are usually considered to be life saving, the consequences for Medicaid patients in Arizona requiring transplantation are grim.  The cut, which impacts approximately 100 Arizonans, is a clear demonstration of the fiscal pressure that states are facing.

“It’s a real sign of the times,” said Alan Weil, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy.  “And I think this is a precursor to a much larger number of states having this discussion.”  These policy implications are all the more striking, given the partisan framing of the healthcare debate.  Republican arguments against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act frequently focus on the specter of healthcare rationing and even the so-called death panels.  Democrats counter with the argument that – because 50 million Americans currently lack coverage – healthcare is already being rationed.

Diane Rowland, director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, said that Arizona’s move “is a classic example of making decisions based not on medical need but based on a budget.  It results, potentially, in denial of care to individuals in a life-or-death situation.”  Dr. Robert Gaston, president-elect of the American Society of Transplantation, agrees, noting that “It seems inappropriate that life-saving care has the potential to be withheld based solely on budgetary issues and the bureaucratic determination of relative benefits.”

Earlier this year, Arizona became the only state to almost eliminate its Children’s Health Insurance Program, which would have impacted 47,000 children from lower-income families.  State legislators reversed this decision before the effective date, but only after concluding that the state might lose billions of dollars in matching money from the federal government