Unpacking Bill Clinton’s Refreshingly Candid Comments on the ACA

Guest post Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

A recent poll conducted by Monmouth University concluded that “fully 70 percent of American voters say that this year’s presidential campaign has brought out the worst in people.”

Undoubtedly and sadly, in this era in which fact-checking of candidate statements is essential, a majority of Americans believe that all politicians lie or at least that they lie often.

That prevailing sentiment is what made former President Bill Clinton’s candid riff about the Affordable Care Act at an Oct. 3 Democratic rally in Flint, Mich. so extraordinary. He stated, “…the current system works fine if you’re eligible for Medicaid, if you’re a lower-income working person, if you’re already on Medicare, or if you get enough subsidies on a modest income that you can afford your healthcare. But the people who are getting killed in this deal are small business people and who make just a little bit too much to get any of these subsidies. Why? Because they’re not organized. They don’t have any bargaining power with insurance companies. And they’re getting whacked. So you’ve got this crazy system where all of a sudden 25 million more people have healthcare, and then the people out there bustin’ it sometimes 60 hours a week end up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half. It’s the craziest thing in the world.”

Unlike the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid, which has been blocked by 19 states that have declined to go along with the law, the health insurance exchanges have been operational for a number of years in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

So how are the health insurance exchanges of this “crazy system” really doing and, to Clinton’s point, what’s happening to people who don’t qualify for subsidies?

Clinton was generous in saying that the “system works fine” for those who get subsidies. State regulators have used terms such as “near collapse,” “emergency situation,” “meltdown,” and “financial death spiral” to describe the condition of their exchanges. In total, the health insurance exchanges are way over budget, serve fewer people, and show signs of being unsustainable, which pushes health plans to cost shift by raising premiums for non-exchange insurance policies, especially employer-sponsored health insurance. The population paying for those policies include the people Clinton described as “bustin’ it sometimes 60 hours a week.”

Originally, the federal government was supposed to spend $136 billion from 2015-2019 on health insurance exchange subsidies. However, as more states than expected opted to have the federal government run their exchanges and because of the higher-risk pool of individuals participating in the exchanges—which led to premium hikes—the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in August projected $278 billion in federal outlays for health insurance exchange subsidies for that period, leading to an overspending or budget deficit just for the subsidies of $142 billion for 2015-2019, a staggering amount, considering that it would basically cancel out the projected 10-year budget surplus for the entire health reform law. With even greater average premium hikes expected for 2017—24 percent for the non-group market—the CBO’s projection is clearly conservative and will certainly be revised upward.

Many states are reporting individual market rate hikes in 2017 well above the aforementioned national average. Minnesota’s approved increases range from 50 to 67 percent. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee will raise its rates by 62 percent. Golden Rule Insurance Co. in Kentucky received approval for a 47.2 percent rate increase, while Wellmark in Iowa will raise its rates by 42.6 percent. In Delaware, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield received approval for a 32.5 percent average rate increase, and Utah’s individual exchange health plans will rise on average 30 percent.

What’s driving these increases?

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2015 Medicare ACO Results Reflect the Turning of the Deming Wheel

Guest post by Ken Perez, VP of healthcare policy, Omnicell, Inc.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

Quality expert W. Edwards Deming was famous for many concepts, including the Deming Wheel or Deming Cycle, more formally known as the PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) Cycle. It is a systematic series of steps for gaining valuable learning and knowledge for the continual improvement of a product or process.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ August 25 release of 2015 quality and financial performance results for Medicare accountable care organizations (ACOs) reflected the application of the PDSA Cycle by the participating organizations as well as CMS in its continued development and refining of its ACO programs.

At a high level, in 2015, the 404 reporting ACOs—392 in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) and 12 in the Pioneer ACO Model—achieved $466 million in savings. A bit more than half of the ACOs (210 or 52 percent) held costs below their benchmark, and slightly less than a third (125 or 31 percent) generated savings above a minimum savings rate (MSR) and met quality performance standards, thus meriting shared savings.

As is common with most statistics and especially any material news coming out of Washington, D.C. nowadays, there were widely divergent interpretations of these results.

On the cheery side, CMS chief medical officer Patrick Conway, M.D., rhapsodized, “Accountable Care Organization initiatives in Medicare continue to grow and achieve positive results in providing better care and health outcomes while spending taxpayer dollars more wisely.”

In contrast, Clif Gaus, CEO of the National Association of ACOs, in an email message to FierceHealthcare, struck a negative tone in his appraisal of the results, sharing that his organization “was disappointed not to find stronger financial results that reflect the extensive financial and personal contributions invested by ACOs” and he also said that CMS and Congress must “take swift and decisive action to solidify the foundation of the Medicare ACO program.”

Despite these obviously divergent views, certainly neither Conway nor Gaus would disagree with the idea that the ability to learn is a critical success factor in ACO performance.

A deeper analysis of the data bears this out. As noted by CMS, more-experienced ACOs were more likely to generate savings above their MSR. In performance year 2015, 42 percent of ACOs that started in 2012 generated savings above their MSR. This compares with 37 percent for ACOs starting in 2013, 22 percent for 2014 starters, and 21 percent for 2015 starters.

The value of learning from experience was also reflected in the quality results. MSSP ACOs that reported quality measures in both 2014 and 2015 improved on 84 percent of the measures common to both years.

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The Magnitude of Medical Errors

Guest post Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

On May 3, BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) published an analysis of prior research on medical errors by a team led by Dr. Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Startlingly, the analysis concluded that more than 250,000 Americans die annually and nearly 700 perish daily from medical errors. Based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) official list of the top causes of death, that figure would place medical errors as the third leading cause of death, behind only heart disease and cancer, which each took about 600,000 lives in 2014, and ahead of respiratory disease, which caused over 147,000 deaths.

The kind of medical mistakes that can be fatal range from surgical complications that go unrecognized to errors regarding the doses or types of medications administered to patients.

The Johns Hopkins analysis received widespread media coverage, with the New York Times, NBC News, NPR, Time, U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Post, among others, all reporting the study’s findings.

This is certainly not the first time that medical errors have attracted the attention of the mainstream media.

The Institute of Medicine’s landmark report, To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System, released in November 1999, concluded that 44,000 to 98,000 Americans died each year because of preventable mistakes in hospitals. Moreover, the report estimated the annual costs of medical errors at $17 billion to $29 billion.

It was estimated that more than 100 million Americans were aware of the general conclusions of the IOM report, thanks to ample media coverage, which conveyed the idea that medical errors were more prevalent and costly than previously thought. Despite all the publicity about medical errors as a result of the IOM report, it would appear that the U.S. healthcare system is not any safer more than 16 years later.

No one knows the precise toll of medical errors, largely because the coding system used by CDC to record death certificate data does not capture items such as communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors, and poor judgment, all of which can cost lives.

In terms of the economic cost of medical errors, a study sponsored by the Society for Actuaries and conducted by Milliman in 2010 concluded that medical errors in 2008 cost the United States $19.5 billion—$17 billion (87 percent) of which was directly associated with added medical costs (inpatient care, ancillary services, prescription drug services, and outpatient care). The remainder was due to increased mortality rates and days of lost productivity from missed work, based on short-term disability claims.

Adjusting for the increase in the U.S. population from 2008 to 2016, the current year’s cost of medical errors is estimated at $20.8 billion. Continue Reading

Prescription Drug Costs: In Washington’s Line of Fire

Guest post by Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

At two recent healthcare conferences run primarily for provider organizations, speakers spent a considerable amount of time highlighting the sharply increased U.S. spending on prescription drugs in 2014 (+12.5 percent versus 2013) and 2015 (+7.8 percent versus 2014)—about double overall healthcare cost inflation for those two years. In 2015, prescription drugs accounted for one-sixth of all the money spent on personal healthcare services. While drug spending growth is expected to moderate in the coming years, the attendees at the conferences were left with the lingering impression that pharmaceutical companies may have gotten away with inappropriate levels of profiteering in recent years.

Of course, that impression was made—and some would say cemented—last year when Martin Shkreli, former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, famously hiked the price of Daraprim, a 62-year-old treatment for parasitic infections, by 5,455 percent overnight from $13.50 a tablet to $750. Similarly, Michael Pearson, outgoing CEO of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, raised by 1,800 percent the prices of two drugs used to treat cancer-related skin conditions: Targretin gel, a topical treatment for cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, and Carac cream, used to treat precancerous skin lesions called actinic keratosis. A 2012 report by Ipsos Public Affairs concluded that the U.S. pharmaceutical sector had a “net negative” favorability score with consumers, and the much-publicized actions of Shkreli and Pearson three years later obviously did not improve the public’s view of pharma.

As expected, the aforementioned price hikes by Turing and Valeant were denounced by numerous presidential candidates, and drug prices became a popular political football. Both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have made lowering prescription drug costs significant planks of their respective policy platforms. They both advocate allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. Sanders goes even further—to the brink of outright drug price controls—pledging to require pharmaceutical companies to publicly disclose information regarding drug pricing and research and development costs—with the obvious implication that there should be some reasonable relationship between the two.

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Impact on the Deficit of Much-Higher Outlays for Health Insurance Exchange Subsidies

Guest post Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

Soon after passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Congressional Budget Office, the Obama Administration and private research firms, such as Health Policy Alternatives, concluded that the health reform law would generate budget surpluses over the 10-year period of 2010-2019 of $124 billion to as much as $150 billion.

However, according to the CBO’s report, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2016 to 2026,” released in January of this year, the divergence between past rhetoric and current reality has widened, at least in terms of the coverage expansion initiative of health insurance exchange subsidies.

According to an April 22, 2010, memorandum from Richard S. Foster, chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the ACA’s health insurance exchange subsidies were projected to total $153 billion from 2014-2019. However, arguably because of the higher-risk pool of individuals participating in the exchanges, the recent CBO report projects $347 billion in federal outlays for health insurance exchange subsidies for 2014-2019, leading to a deficit just for the subsidies of $194 billion for that period, outweighing the previously projected budget surplus.

Even worse, the higher health insurance exchange subsidies aid a significantly smaller exchange enrollment population, down about 40 percent from 21 million to 13 million individuals for 2016, per the CBO. Moreover, the CBO projects exchange enrollment to peak at 16 million in the next decade, a third less than the 24 million it predicted in March 2015.

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The Outlook for ACA Healthcare Delivery Reforms

Guest post by Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell, Inc.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandated five major healthcare delivery reforms that collectively aim to improve care quality and slow the growth of healthcare spending. In the five years since passage of the ACA, each of these delivery reforms has been implemented, revised and broadened.

What is the outlook for these changes? Clearly, the long-term strategic intent of the Obama administration is to shift Medicare payments from fee for service to fee for value. On Jan. 26, 2015, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell set forth quantified goals and an aggressive timeline for directing an increasing share of Medicare payments through alternative payment models (APMs) such as accountable care organizations (ACOs) and bundled payments, from 20 percent in 2014 to 50 percent in 2018. Let’s consider each of the major healthcare delivery reforms.

Accountable Care Organizations

On January 11, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that 477 organizations are participating in one of Medicare’s four accountable care programs.

With 434 current participants, the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) accounts for the vast majority (91 percent) of the total. Although the total number of MSSP ACOs has grown steadily each year since the program’s inception in 2012, cumulatively about 100 ACOs (19 percent) have dropped out of the program.

Medicare’s first ACO program, the higher-risk, higher-reward Pioneer ACO Model, suffered numerous departures during the second half of 2015, as the number of Pioneers has dropped from 32 original participants announced in December 2011 to a current total of nine, a 72 percent decline. However, some of the departing Pioneers have transferred to the MSSP or the even higher-risk, higher-reward Next Generation ACO Model, which was launched in March 2015.

CMS also disclosed that 21 organizations are participating in the Next Generation ACO Model, including five former Pioneers. The remaining 13 of the 477 ACOs are the initial participants in the first disease-specific Medicare ACO program, the Comprehensive ESRD Care Model, which was announced in October 2015.

Despite these seemingly impressive numbers, to achieve the aforementioned goal of flowing half of Medicare payments through APMs by 2018, CMS needs even more growth in the number of Medicare ACOs coming onboard in the next couple of years, perhaps 150-200 net new ACOs per year in 2017 and 2018.

Bundled Payments

In 2013, CMS launched the Bundled Payments for Care Improvement Initiative (BPCI), a voluntary program which offers providers four episode-based payment models. In three of the models, implementation is divided into two phases. During Phase 1, “the preparation period,” CMS shares data and helps the participating providers learn in preparation for Phase 2, “risk-bearing implementation,” in which the providers begin bearing financial risk with CMS for some or all of their episodes. CMS required all participants to transition at least one episode (e.g., Acute Myocardial Infarction) into Phase 2 by July 1, 2015, to continue participating in the BPCI.

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The Comprehensive ESRD Care Model: The First Disease-Specific ACO Program

Guest post by Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

Under the authority of Section 3021 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has launched a variety of accountable care organization (ACO) initiatives, including the Pioneer ACO Model, the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), the Advance Payment ACO Model, and the Next Generation ACO Model. ACOs continue to be the most aggressive of the healthcare delivery reforms mandated by the ACA.

Notably, none of the aforementioned ACO models has a disease-specific focus. During the past few years, DaVita Inc., the nation’s second-largest dialysis provider, lobbied CMS diligently for a renal-specific ACO or at least creation of a framework that would allow for a disease-specific approach. DaVita formed the Accountable Kidney Care Collaborative to prepare the nephrology community to participate broadly in general ACOs and/or in disease-specific renal ACOs.

An ACO Program Focused on Renal Disease

On Oct. 7, 2015, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (the Innovation Center) made a groundbreaking announcement, launching the Comprehensive ESRD Care (CEC) Model, with its sole focus on end-stage renal disease (ESRD), also known as kidney failure. This disease afflicts more than 600,000 Americans. These individuals require life-sustaining dialysis treatments several times each week. In 2012, ESRD beneficiaries comprised 1.1 percent of the Medicare population and accounted for $26 billion or 5.6 percent of total Medicare spending.

The CEC Model’s first three-year agreement period began on Oct. 1, 2015, with 13 ESCOs in 11 states: Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. All except one of the 13 ESCOs are owned by a large dialysis organization (LDO), defined as an organization that owns 200 or more dialysis facilities. Dialysis Clinic, Inc. (DCI), the nation’s largest non-profit dialysis provider, owns three of the ESCOs, as does DaVita. Fresenius, the largest dialysis provider, owns six of the ESCOs. The lone non-LDO is the Rogosin Institute in New York City.

As with all Medicare ACO programs, the CEC Model has both quality measures and expenditure-reduction targets which impact the model’s payment arrangements.

Quality Measures

The CEC Model features 26 quality measures—14 outcome and 12 process—for both LDOs and non-LDOs. The quality measures span five domains: patient safety, person- and caregiver-centered experience and outcomes, communication and care coordination, clinical quality of care, and population health.

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Medicare Advantage Value-Based Insurance Design Model: Increasing Beneficiary Engagement

Guest post by Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

“I get by with a little help from my friends.”– The Beatles

In simple terms, healthcare delivery reform under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is catalyzed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) through establishment of performance standards or goals and application of behavioral economics—financial carrots and sticks—to encourage improved quality and reduced cost. The financial incentives—both positive and negative—are usually offered to healthcare provider organizations, such as accountable care organizations, which are on the hook to meet numerous quality measures and hold costs below targeted benchmarks, or commercial health insurers running Medicare Advantage plans, which pass along some of the onus to maintain quality performance onto providers.

However, these applications of behavioral economics do not directly target or impact the central player in the healthcare system—the individual member or patient. Engagement by the patient in their care is critical and explains why billions of dollars are spent each year on patient outreach and communications, as well as development and promotion of consumer-friendly apps and wearable devices. When patients are engaged, the healthcare system can more effectively and efficiently prevent, diagnose and treat health conditions.

On Sept. 1, 2015, CMS’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (Innovation Center) announced the Medicare Advantage (MA) Value-Based Insurance Design (VBID) Model, an initiative that will test whether allowing health plans administering MA plans to offer targeted additional benefits or reduced cost sharing to enrollees who have certain chronic conditions will result in better quality and more cost-effective care.

The model’s goals are to enhance enrollee health, decrease the use of avoidable high-cost care, and reduce costs for MA plans, beneficiaries, and ultimately, the Medicare program. The model focuses on MA enrollees with the following chronic conditions: diabetes, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), past stroke, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and mood disorders.

The MA VBID Model will take effect Jan. 1, 2017, and run for five years in seven states which were deemed representative of the overall national MA market: Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

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Keeping the 2014 Medicare ACO Results in Perspective

Guest post by Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

“We have to take the long view, and be focused on iterating, evolving, and improving the concept, rather than seeking summary judgment.” – Farzad Mostashari, former national coordinator for health information technology, commenting on accountable care organizations

On Aug. 25, 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released 2014 financial and quality performance results for 353 accountable care organizations, 333 in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) and 20 in the Pioneer ACO Model (although as of this writing, the CMS website only lists 19 Pioneer ACOs). As is customary, proponents (such as CMS) and critics of ACOs interpreted the results quite differently, as a glass half-full or half-empty.

Pioneer ACO Performance

During the third performance year, the Pioneer ACOs generated total model savings of $120 million. That figure constitutes a 24 percent increase versus the $96 million of savings produced during the previous year. A total of 15 ACOs (75 percent of all Pioneers) were able to generate savings during performance year three, compared with 14 ACOs (61 percent of all Pioneers) for the prior year. Of those generating savings in the most recent performance year, 11 Pioneers produced savings that exceeded the minimum savings rate, garnering shared savings payments totaling $82 million. One quarter of the 20 Pioneers generated losses, with three generating losses beyond a minimum loss rate, requiring them to make $9 million in shared-loss payments to CMS.

The Pioneers improved the quality of care delivered during performance year three, as their mean quality score rose from 85.2 percent to 87.2 percent year-to-year. The Pioneers improved in 28 of 33 quality measures and generated average improvements of 3.6 percent across all quality measures compared to Performance year two. CMS highlighted significant improvement in medication reconciliation (up from 70 percent to 84 percent), screening for clinical depression and follow-up plan (up from 50 percent to 60 percent), and qualification for an electronic health record incentive payment (up from 77 percent to 86 percent).

Moreover, Pioneer ACOs improved the average performance score for patient and caregiver experience in five out of seven measures compared to performance year two.

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The Treatment of Good News about the U.S. Healthcare System

Guest post by Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy, Omnicell.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

Tracy Morgan, the “30 Rock” and “Saturday Night Live” star, once said, “Bad news travels at the speed of light; good news travels like molasses.” Such is the case with respect to the cost and clinical performance of the U.S. healthcare system.

Steven Brill, founder of Court TV and the American Lawyer, famously pilloried America’s healthcare system in “Bitter Pill: How outrageous pricing and egregious profits are destroying our healthcare,” the cover article in the March 4, 2013 issue of Time and the longest in the history of the magazine. Brill wrote, “In the U.S. people spend almost 20 percent of the gross domestic product on health care, compared with about half that in most developed countries. Yet in every measurable way, the results our health care system produces are no better and often worse than the outcomes in those countries.” In a subsequent article in the Jan. 19, 2015 issue of Time, Brill went on to describe the U.S. as having “a broken-down jalopy of a health care system.”

Brill’s “Bitter Pill” article received generous coverage by CBS, the Commonwealth Club, the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and even Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”

The July 28, 2015 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) included an article, “Mortality, Hospitalizations, and Expenditures for the Medicare Population Aged 65 Years or Older, 1999-2013,” that shared the findings of a study of over 68 million Medicare fee-for-service and Medicare Advantage beneficiaries by H.M. Krumholz, et al.

This lengthy, detailed, heavily footnoted, and carefully written study reported the following encouraging findings:

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