Posts Tagged ‘Medicaid’

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.

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.

When Uninsured Have Dental Pain, They Often Head to the ER

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Greater numbers of Americans , especially those who lack insurance coverage, are turning to the emergency room for routine dental care.  This choice frequently costs 10 times more than preventive care and offers far fewer treatment options than a dentist’s office.  The majority of these ER visits are to treat toothaches that could have been avoided with regular checkups but went untreated, often due to a shortage of dentists, particularly those who treat Medicaid patients.

The number of ER visits nationally for dental problems increased 16 percent from 2006 to 2009, and a report from the Pew Center on the States states that the trend is just getting started.

In Florida, more than 115,000 dental patients visited the ER in 2010, costing more than $88 million.  That included more than 40,000 Medicaid patients, a 40 percent increase when compared with 2008.  Many ER dental visits involve repeat patients seeking additional care.  In Minnesota, nearly 20 percent of all dental-related ER visits are return trips because emergency rooms generally are not staffed by dentists.  They are equipped to offer pain relief and medicine for infected gums but not much more.  Because many patients can’t find or afford follow-up treatment, they return to the emergency room.  “Emergency rooms are really the canary in the coal mine.  If people are showing up in the ER for dental care, then we’ve got big holes in the delivery of care,” said Shelly Gehshan, director of Pew’s children’s dental campaign.  “It’s just like pouring money down a hole.  It’s the wrong service, in the wrong setting, at the wrong time.”

For example, in 2009, 56 percent of children enrolled in Medicaid received no dental care.

Visiting ERs for dental treatment “is incredibly expensive and incredibly inefficient,” said Dr. Frank Catalanotto, a professor at the University of Florida’s College of Dentistry.  Preventive care such as regular teeth cleaning can cost $50 to $100, as opposed to $1,000 for emergency room treatment that may include painkillers for aching cavities and antibiotics from resulting infections, Catalanotto said.  Infections can be dangerous, particularly in young children, who often have fevers and suffer from dehydration from preventable dental conditions.  In Florida 200 children were hospitalized in 2006 for those types of infections.  The recession has only worsened the trend, according to Catalanotto.  When someone in the family is laid off, dental tends to take a back seat to food and other necessities.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association has estimated that 32,000 patients with dental problems visit hospital ERs every year. The fees paid to dentists by state health programs such as BadgerCare Plus are the fifth-lowest in the country, according to a report by the Pew Children’s Dental Campaign.  Raising the fees paid to dentists is not likely in the short term given the state’s budget, said Matt Crespin, associate director of the Children’s Health Alliance of Wisconsin, an affiliate of Children’s Hospital and Health System.  “That’s why some of those innovative models have to be looked at,” according to Crespin.

Pekin Hospital in central Illinois has seen a significant increase in ER patients with “very poor dental health,” said Cindy Justus, the hospital’s ER nursing director.  They include uninsured patients and drug abusers, and many are repeat patients.  “There’s just not a lot of options” for them, Justus said.  Shortages of dentists, most notably in rural areas, are part of the problem, Gehshan said.

In Illinois’ Cook County, — which includes Chicago — ER dental visits rose nearly 77,000 between 2008 and 2011.

The cause of the problem is too little financing for dental care in the healthcare system. “And when you lose adult dental coverage like California did in 2009, that creates an even bigger problem,” Gehshan said.  “We do have a safety net, and it’s not big enough,” she said.  In fact, she said, California’s dental care system can only handle about 70 percent of the need in the state, and that’s if the system were actually at full capacity.

Amazingly, 25 percent of all California children have never been to a dentist.  As a result, when those children and their parents end up in the emergency room, using time and resources that could be better spent on non-dental emergencies, that costs California’s taxpayers money, Gehshan said.

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.’”

Income Disparities Impact Healthcare Availability

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

There are limited affordable choices for Americans who do not have health insurance through their jobs, especially for those with low and moderate incomes.  Few are Medicaid-eligible, and locating a plan on the individual market equals paying high premiums.  According to the Commonwealth Fund Health Insurance Tracking Survey of U.S. Adults, 2011, nearly 57 percent of adults aged 19 to 64 in families earning less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level ($29,726 for a family of four) were uninsured for a time in 2011 and 41 percent) were uninsured for a year or longer.  In contrast, only 12 percent of adults earning 400 percent of poverty or more ($89,400 for a family of four) were uninsured during the year, with four percent having no healthcare insurance for one year or longer.

The lack of health insurance significantly makes it difficult to get needed healthcare.  Low- and moderate-income adults who were uninsured in 2011 were much less likely to have a regular source of healthcare than those who did have insurance.  Additionally, uninsured low- and moderate-income adults were more likely to cite factors other than medical emergencies as reasons for going to the emergency room.  These included needing a prescription drug or lacking a regular primary-care physician.

The survey also demonstrates how vital Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are in providing health insurance to children in low- and moderate-income families.  More than 63 percent of adults with children under 133 percent of the poverty level and nearly 38 percent with incomes between 133 percent and 249 percent of poverty said that some or all of their children were covered by either program.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) will expand the ability of Medicaid and CHIP to cover children and families by targeting adults in low- and moderate-income families who are at the greatest risk of lacking health benefits through a job.

When it becomes fully effective in 2014, the ACA will provide near-universal health insurance through a broad expansion of Medicaid, premium tax credits that cap premium contributions as a share of income for people purchasing private health plans through new state insurance exchanges.  Another benefit is new insurance market rules that prevent health insurers from denying coverage or charging people with pre-existing medical conditions higher premiums.

Or, as the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff puts it, “While the private insurance expansion could get thrown into limbo by the Supreme Court, there’s pretty widespread agreement that, absent full repeal of the bill, health reform’s Medicaid expansion is here to stay.  And that means a wide-reaching expansion of the entitlement program about two years from now.”

According to the Commonwealth Fund’s analysis, as a result of the Affordable Care Act, the majority of the 52 million adults who did not have health insurance in 2010 will gain coverage beginning in 2014.  Millions more will benefit as their ability to afford the price of premiums and out-of-pocket costs improves.

Karen Davis, President of the Commonwealth Fund, said that “The silver lining is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has already begun to bring relief to families.  Once the new law is fully implemented, we can be confident that no future recession will have the power to strip so many Americans of their health security.”

Amanda Peterson Beadle, writing on the website, notes that “The Affordable Care Act has already expanded health insurance to 2.5 million 19-to-25 year-olds, banned lifetime limits on health insurance coverage, created pre-existing condition insurance plans providing health insurance options to those who were often uninsurable, and required insurers to cover preventive care without requiring co-payments.  But the major provisions of the law to be implemented in 2014 will have the biggest effect on narrowing the income divide.”

EHR Adoption Moving Forward

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

The nation’s hospitals must demonstrate that they have collected the vital statistics of more than 80 percent of their patients in digital form if they want to continue receiving as much as $14.6 billion in federal grants for installing electronic health records (EHR) technology.  Awards as large as $11.5 million are available to hospitals that can prove “meaningful use” of the equipment, under preliminary rules issued by the Obama administration.  Physicians can apply for grants of $44,000 or $64,000, depending on whether they treat patients in Medicare or Medicaid.

The rules continue carrying out an initiative in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) as a step toward overhauling the nation’s healthcare system, specifically in the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act.  Hospitals and doctors should achieve “substantial benefits” from adopting digital records, including lower record-keeping costs, fewer pointless tests, shorter hospital stays and reduced medical errors.

The percentage of U.S. hospitals that have adopted electronic records more than doubled between 2009 and 2011, to 35 percent, according to the American Hospital Association.  Approximately 85 percent of hospitals told the association that they plan to take advantage of government incentives by 2015.  The government expects that by 2019, 96 percent of hospitals will adopt electronic records and at least 36 percent of doctors’ practices.

In this second stage of adoption of EHR, the government is emphasizing making sure that electronic systems can talk to one another – or are “interoperable.”  According to Kaiser Health News, it’s “a real push ahead,” said Farzad Mostashari, the national coordinator for health information technology.  The rules require systems be able to transfer patient information across platforms.  A “summary of care” — including past diagnoses, procedures and test results – must be able to follow patients across referrals and changes in health care provider.  Additionally, the information should be available to some patients, who under Stage 2 requirements must be allowed to view their records online, as well as download and transfer information.  Finally, some patients must be able to communicate with their doctors through a secure, online system.

According to a survey of 302 hospital IT executives, more than one-quarter said they had already proven to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that they have met the government’s standard for the first stage of meaningful use of health IT.  That means they have demonstrated that they have the baseline capabilities in their CMS-approved health IT system to collect and submit data.  Stage 2 also deals with security of exchanging patient information electronically, particularly the risk of a doctor mistakenly leaving his laptop or iPad accessible to the public.  “A huge, huge, huge portion of all breaches don’t occur because someone hacked into the system; they occur because people left their laptop on the train and they didn’t encrypt it,” Mostashari said.

Writing on the website, Robert Rowley, M.D., says that “Stage 2 is about connectivity.  So let us take a step back and re-assess the larger picture.  Stage 1 Meaningful Use is about adoption of EHRs into the daily practice of clinicians and hospitals.  It is about moving the documentation of healthcare away from paper, and onto a digital platform.  The platform didn’t really have to connect with anything, though the capability to connect needs to be built for the technology to be Certified.  Stage 2 is about connectivity.  Now that EHRs are adopted, implemented and used meaningfully, the next stage is intended to be about connecting the silos together.  Stage 3, to come later, will be about inserting Decision Support between the connections, so that best practices (as well as authorizations) become part of the daily fabric of healthcare.”

A little-known fact is that EHR adoption is having a positive impact on healthcare IT job creation.  According to job resource Medzilla, an estimated 50,000 new jobs have been created in the health IT field since 2009, when the government passed the HITECH Act, which authorized funding for the EHR incentive program.  “The statistics over the past few months have been more than encouraging,” said Del Johnson, director of client relations at Medzilla.  “Here you have two, previously separate industries that are rapidly growing into one another.  Where the two meet you have an opportunity to explore a completely new labor pool.”

Cost of Alzheimer’s High in Dollars and Caregiver Devotion

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

As baby boomers age, the cost of caring for those stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease has nowhere to go but up. By 2050, the cost of treating Alzheimer’s is likely to rise from $172 billion per year in 2010 to more than $1 trillion per year in 2050.  The disease could cost Americans $20 trillion over the next few decades, according to a report from the Alzheimer’s Association.

“We saw it coming.  We knew the numbers were going to be high in the number of people getting the disease.  We as an organization have been preparing for this,” said Nancy Rainwater, vice president of communications for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Illinois chapter.  “But to think of trillions of dollars…just the amount of money was pretty staggering.”

The statistics were calculated using an analytical model based on data from research and national surveys.  Part of the problem lies in how successful treatment has become for other diseases, Rainwater said.  “We’re living longer, so that has a lot to do with it,” she said.  “There has been so much work in other diseases – cancer, diabetes, heart disease – and people are surviving those diseases.  But then there’s a higher risk, as people age, of getting Alzheimer’s.  You look at statistics of those diseases, and the rates of death have all declined, whereas Alzheimer’s disease has increased.”

Researchers believe that the number of Americans aged 65 and older with Alzheimer’s will more than double to 13.5 million by 2050 as the population ages.  By the middle of the 21st century, nearly 50 percent of people with the disease will be in its most severe – and costly – stage.  “People in the earlier stages don’t necessarily need as much care or support,” said Darby Morhardt, social worker and research associate professor at Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.  “But as they deteriorate, as they decline, they have more and more difficulty managing their daily care, so that care needs to be provided by someone.  Often that’s where most of the money is spent, on those last years.”

What’s most stunning is Alzheimer’s human and financial toll. According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2011 Facts and Figures Report, 5.4 million Americans (one in eight older Americans) suffer from the debilitating illness.  Joy Johnston of Atlanta knows how difficult caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s can be.  Her father, Patrick, like more than five million other Americans, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  “It can be heartbreaking at times,” Joy said in reference to caring for her father.  “You have to relearn your relationship with your loved one.”  Caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s can take a profound financial and emotional toll.  Nearly 15 million Americans are unpaid caregivers for those sick with dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.  Do the math, and it adds up to about 17 billion hours of unpaid care valued at $202 billion in 2010 alone.

To help with the staggering cost of care, the Obama Administration has included $26 million in the proposed 2013 budget.  That money will go to education, outreach and support for families affected by the disease.

“Caregivers are often in a situation where their feelings and what they have to do are in conflict,” Dr. Peter Rabins said.  “That’s very hard for most of us because we’ve related with people that we love in a certain way. The disease forces a change in that relationship.”  Rabins, the director of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, notes that medical bills can pile up quickly.  “That’s a tremendous financial challenge for many families.” Rabins said.

Money isn’t the only sticking point.  The emotional costs take root as soon as dementia is diagnosed.  Family members often begin grieving a death of someone who is still physically present but disappearing mentally.  “Those feelings of loss can become quite chronic,” Rabins says.

“It’s the sort of crisis that policymakers, clinicians know is happening,” said Len Fishman, CEO of Hebrew Senior Life, the largest provider of elder care services in Massachusetts.  “I don’t think the country has absorbed it yet and in a couple of decades when the number of Alzheimer’s cases has doubled, people will look back and say,  ‘Why didn’t we know this was coming?’”

National statistics suggest that it takes an average three to four people to help care for each Alzheimer’s patient living at home; approximately 11 million Americans are currently helping to care for the estimated 70 percent of Alzheimer’s patients who are able to be at home.  That statistic does not include paid caregivers.

Although Medicaid pays for Alzheimer’s day programs for some low-income seniors; Medicare does not.  As a result, many patients and their families must pay privately for Alzheimer’s care until they’ve spent enough money to qualify for Medicaid.  Medicaid does pay for long-term nursing home care, but not the less restrictive assisted living for seniors.

Will California Opt for the Public Option?

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Although Vermont became the first state in the union to adopt a public option in healthcare, it may soon have company.  As Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin said when signing the legislation, “We gather here today to launch the first single-payer healthcare system in America, to do in Vermont what has taken too long – have a healthcare system that is the best in the world, that treats health care as a right and not a privilege, where health care follows the individual, isn’t required by an employer –  that’s a huge jobs creator,” Shumlin said.

The enormity of creating a public option hasn’t stopped tiny Vermont, which might seem like an unlikely place for a major revamp of the health insurance system: “By most standards, Vermont’s health care system already is one of the nation’s best. The United Health Foundation has ranked Vermont the healthiest state in the country four years in a row. Fewer than 10 percent of Vermonters lack health insurance, one of the lowest rates in the country.”

And then there’s California.  In a giant warehouse in Alameda, an army of  phone operators are employed by a large health insurance plan, and they’re willing to go the extra mile for their customers. They’ll schedule a doctor who will make home visits, a pharmacist who will drop off a prescription, and even help fill out an application for food stamps.  “We do things for them that a traditional, commercial health plan doesn’t do,” says Ingrid Lamirault, chief executive officer of the Alameda Alliance for Health, a county-run, not-for-profit insurer.

Although the much celebrated, and much maligned, public option may have died in Congress, it’s alive and well in California, which is unique in the nation for having public health insurance plans that are run by its counties.  California’s plans stretch from San Francisco to the Mexican border and cover 2.5 million residents.

The Alameda Alliance for Health – like a private insurance company — has a network of doctors and hospitals and covers 200,000 people in Oakland and neighboring communities.  Much like private health insurance companies, the alliance also runs a managed care plan for Medicaid beneficiaries and additional plans for county workers.   The alliance’s Lamirault thinks this is just the beginning.  In 2014, when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care (ACA) becomes law, millions of Americans will be able to buy coverage through state-based insurance exchanges. In California, government-run public plans, like the Alameda Alliance for Health, will compete with private insurance companies for all those new customers, those who run the county plans believe they can offer a robust network of doctors and hospitals to bargain shoppers looking for affordable coverage. “I think when some people get to make a choice,” according to Lamirault, “having local offices they can walk into and get help with things and get their questions answered, and when they call customer service they get their calls answered in under two minutes. Those kinds of things are important to them.”

California is unique in that many public county systems also contract with private physicians and top-notch research hospitals. They even share the same lobbying group as the big-named insurance companies, the California Association of Health Plans.  Some of those companies don’t have a lot of love for their public brethren. “Certainly, there are some health plans that didn’t like the idea of having to compete with these public plans,” said Anthony Wright, a public plan booster and executive director of Health Access, a Sacramento-based health care consumer advocacy group. “Especially ones that, having come out of the Medicaid program, are used to providing care at cheaper rate.”

Some California insurance companies say they will happily compete on price so long as the public plans do not get preferential treatment.  Doctors and hospitals already accept low reimbursement rates from public plans, often as part of their charity care. That lets the public plans keep their premiums low, although private plans say they are charged higher prices.

The preferential treatment is not likely to last beyond the 2014 opening of the exchanges in California to people with higher incomes, the government-run plans will have to pay providers more than they do now, according to Sumi Sousa, officer of policy development at the San Francisco Health Plan. Sousa says the belief that public plans always cost less just isn’t true. “Some commercial providers, because they’re so large, they’re able to spread their cost over a much broader network,” Sousa said. That’s not the case for many county-run health plans in California, which are quite small.  Still, says Sousa, the public plans do have low overhead: Executives earn a fraction of the salary paid to the big CEOs, and they have no stockholders.

Additionally, the public option is likely to be on California’s 2012 ballot.   Jamie Court, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based consumer advocacy group, plans to put an initiative to add a state-run healthcare public option on the ballot. Opponents say the initiative doesn’t improve the way healthcare is delivered and paid for.  Despite critics, Court says he’ll push forward on his plans to circulate a petition to the public.  “We believe the premium regulation is definitely something that Californians overwhelmingly favor, and we think the public option is something that they still favor,” Court said.  Court has written that health insurance requirements are a motivating force for the initiative: “By 2014, all of us will be required to buy health insurance or face tax penalties. The problem is that health insurance companies can charge whatever they like and raise premiums at will in California.”

In opposition, Micah Weinberg of the Bay Area Council, say rising rates reflect rising health care costs and extended life spans, and the government should let competition keep rates down. Weinberg calls himself an “enthusiastic supporter of healthcare reform,” and argued on KPCC’s Patt Morrison Tuesday that the system is already making reforms — reforms he feels the public option doesn’t address.  “We’re expanding insurance coverage by giving people insurance subsidies to purchase insurance through the exchanges, so that’s exactly what we’re doing.  A public option doesn’t get us any closer to that goal and it’s not a helpful addition to what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Weinberg.

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.

Hedging Their Bets, Insurers Setting Up Health Insurance Exchanges

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Health insurance companies are trying to play an important role in healthcare reform as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) threatens to upend their marketplace in 2014 by creating their own exchanges. Health plans are trying to lock in business before government-sponsored health insurance exchanges go online in 2014.  According to Kaiser Health News and reported by Minnesota Public Radio, the largest insurers are creating their own private insurance exchanges to protect themselves against competition from the public exchanges.

The implementation of the ACA is the most significant change to healthcare since Medicare and Medicaid came on line in the 1960s – and the impact for health insurers is virtually unfathomable.  Less than two years from today, the federal healthcare law will bring more restrictions on premium increases, millions of new customers, and the ability for consumers to comparison shop online for the best deal on their health insurance.

According to Sabrina Corlette, research professor at Georgetown’s Health Policy Institute, these are just some of the changes coming in 2014. Just how insurance markets will shake out is anyone’s guess, she said.  “Insurance companies are grappling with the uncertainty like everybody else and trying to look two years down the road and how to position themselves,” Corlette said.  “(What) also needs to be watched closely (is) that it’s working for the consumer.”

According to the Obama administration, 28 states are in the process of establishing insurance exchanges under the ACA, despite multiple lawsuits and a spring date with the Supreme Court.  Fourteen states, including some with Republican governors, have passed legislation or have the authority in place to set up the regulated insurance markets, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  Other states have passed executive orders or authorized studies to demonstrate the value of exchanges.  The goal is to bring coverage to 16 million uninsured Americans in 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In their most recent demonstration of progress in health reform, administration officials promised to provide assistance to states that miss the 2013 deadline to ensure their participation.  “We’re going to meet states where they are, and…we’re going to work with them to get them as far down the path as we can,” said an anonymous administration official.

According to the report, some states such as Nevada, Alabama, Mississippi, all with Republican governors, and others are making significant progress.  The irony is that many of these “red” states are also suing the administration over the ACA’s constitutionality.

How does a red state that has taken a lead in lawsuits against the ACA reconcile these differences?  Writing in the Richmond Times Dispatch, Michael Martz says that “Six bills have been filed in the legislature proposing varying ways to set up a benefits exchange, which is required under the federal healthcare reform law that (Governor Bob) McDonnell opposes and the state hopes to overturn in the U.S. Supreme Court.  But the governor is discouraging legislators from approving any of the bills during this session, despite looming federal deadlines that some lawmakers and insurers fear will leave Virginia with a less-competitive federal exchange for individuals and small businesses to buy health benefits.  The state would have to submit a plan for the exchange this year to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) no later than January 1, 2013, to ensure that the entity can begin operating a year later.”

“There is plenty of time to act,” the McDonnell administration said in a series of “talking points” on why legislation is not currently needed.  “There is no need for members of the General Assembly to make untimely and unnecessary decisions surrounding creation of an exchange during the 2012 session.”