The State of Emergency: What the data tell us about emergency department use in California

https://www.chcf.org/blog/state-emergency-data-tell-us-ed-use-california/?_cldee=aGVucnlrb3R1bGFAeWFob28uY29t&recipientid=contact-58e265c0591ce51180f7c4346bac4b78-de59cf931c0e4657974f1926c3e4c339&utm_source=ClickDimensions&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Newsletters%202018&esid=67048e37-1cbc-e811-8187-e0071b6ac161

hospital emergency department entrance sign

The California Health Care Foundation recently published the latest edition in its wide-ranging Almanac series, California Emergency Departments: Use Grows as Coverage Expands. This timely publication is loaded with data that paint a detailed picture of broad trends in hospital emergency department (ED) care across the state. Recently, I talked about the Almanac’s findings with Kristof Stremikis, who directs CHCF’s Market Analysis and Insight team. Senior program officer Robbin Gaines produced the report as part of the team’s mission to promote greater transparency and accountability in California’s health care system. 

Q: California’s 334 hospital emergency departments provide a vital service to every part of the state. How are they faring?

A: The biggest takeaway from our Almanac is that California EDs are serving significantly more patients than they were just 10 years ago. When we control for population growth, the rate of ED use has grown 33% over the last decade, from 280 to 371 visits per 1,000 residents per year. Visits are up regardless of the type of insurance a patient has. Now, there’s a lot to unpack and understand about these figures, but when we think about the future, it’s important to realize that we are likely to continue to see increased demand for emergency services as the population ages. From a policy standpoint, we need to double down on efforts to ensure patients have access to the care they need in the most appropriate setting, be that an emergency department or somewhere else.

Q: What’s behind the increase in emergency department visits?

A: We don’t exactly know why more people are showing up in California emergency departments, but we do know ED use has been on the rise for at least 30 years. Across the nation, emergency departments have long been a major source of care across all categories of patients. We also know that regardless of source of coverage, California’s public and private payers are covering more visits per enrollee than they were a decade ago.

Sometimes ED use cannot be avoided. A few data points in our most recent Almanac suggest that a significant proportion of the rise in ED visits is due to clinically necessary visits. When we look at the acuity of ED visits, moderate and severe symptoms — including life-threatening ones — constituted all of the increase over the past decade. The number of visits with low or minor acuity fell. That is a big deal. This happened as the number of Californians with Medicare and Medi-Cal increased substantially during this period, and these programs cover a lot of older and sicker Californians who are more likely to need emergency care.

We also know that some of this rise is attributable to visits that could have been avoided. Precisely identifying what portion of visits are avoidable is difficult, and we do not include an estimate in our Almanac. But we know they are there — public and private payers in California have been working hard for years to identify and prevent unnecessary ED use.

Q: How big a problem are avoidable visits? And why would someone go to the ED if they don’t need to?

A: Available research does not point to a precise percentage of ED visits that could be avoided. The most conservative definition classifies as avoidable things like visits for low-acuity mental health and dental issues. Using that methodology, perhaps 3% of ED visits in California did not need to happen. But other estimates are much higher, sometimes exceeding 70% in the commercial market. What is clearer are the reasons why patients go to the ED over other options. Some people can’t take off work when doctors’ offices are normally open. Others have limited or negative perceptions of alternatives. Researchers have found that there is also an increasing number of patients who are referred to the ED by their physician.

Q: The number of ED departments has stayed flat during this period of growth. How are hospitals handling the additional visits?

A: The number of dedicated ED spaces for individual patients, or “treatment stations,” has increased almost 30% over the last decade. In 2016, the average treatment station handled 1,846 patients, or approximately five visits per day, up from 1,656 patient visits in 2006. Despite a 44% increase in total ED visits between 2006 and 2016, the number of visits by patients who left without being seen fell by almost 15%. That is remarkable.

Q: The data show a lot of regional variation in ED use. Are some regions or health plans better than others at addressing ED challenges?

A: ED use does vary widely, from a low of 311 visits per 1,000 residents in Orange County to a high of 516 in the Northern and Sierra region. Patient characteristics (such as age, race, and income), lack of alternatives, and physician referral patterns may all play a role in the relatively high rates of ED use in certain parts of the state. Among the promising strategies that can be deployed regionally are increasing access to primary care services in rural areas through telehealth, providing outreach and case management to frequent users, and addressing the needs of patients with behavioral health and substance use disorders.

Q: The Almanac shows an increase in the percentage of ED visits that are for Medi-Cal beneficiaries, due in large part to the expansion of eligibility for the program. What else would explain why the percentage from Medi-Cal went up?

A: Medi-Cal paid for a larger proportion of California’s ED visits in 2016 than in 2006 because it now covers many more Californians. When we control for the number of beneficiaries covered by various programs, a Medi-Cal member is less likely to end up in an emergency room than someone covered by Medicare, though more likely than someone with private insurance. Regardless of insurance type, the number of visits per enrollee is increasing.

Though we did not include the data in our Almanac, the state closely tracks ED use among Medi-Cal beneficiaries on its monthly managed care performance dashboards. Elderly and seriously disabled beneficiaries remain the most likely to visit the ED, at almost twice the rate of the next highest group, which is the Medi-Cal expansion population. Fortunately, the rate among the expansion population has decreased over the last several years, from about 70 visits per 1,000 member months in January 2014 to around 50 in June 2017. This may reflect managed care plan efforts to connect new patients with primary care “medical homes.”

When we look at the acuity of ED visits, moderate and severe symptoms — including life-threatening ones — constituted all of the increase over the past decade. The number of visits with low or minor acuity fell. That is a big deal.

Q: Critics of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) cite increasing ED visits, especially from people in the expansion population, as evidence that the law isn’t working in California. Is that a fair criticism?

A: Both critics and proponents of the ACA probably agree that the law is complicated — and complicated reforms need to be carefully unpacked and evaluated over long periods of time. One of the law’s major goals was to expand access to insurance coverage, and on this measure the law has made tremendous progress. As of 2016, only 7% of California residents lacked health insurance. Expanding Medi-Cal was the cornerstone of that success.

The relationship between ED use and health insurance coverage is complex, with studies showing both increases and decreases in use when people gain or lose coverage. What is much more clear is that the ACA did not create the problem of ED use — though it has led to decreases in bad debt and charity care reported by our state’s hospitals. What is needed now is further research into just how many of our state’s ED visits are avoidable and how to scale the best approaches to reducing avoidable ED use throughout California’s market.

Q: What’s being done to address avoidable ED use at a local level?

A: On the public side, the ongoing Whole Person Care pilot program in Medi-Cal is one example of where innovation is taking place on this issue — 17 of the 25 counties participating in the program have made it an explicit goal to reduce avoidable ED use. Just last week, 17 health systems, including several in California, announced a major initiative to reduce avoidable ED use among Medicaid beneficiaries. This is likely to include some combination of enhanced access to primary care, behavioral health care, and social services. On the private side, the issue of avoidable ED use has attracted the attention of California payers like Anthem, Blue Shield, and Kaiser Permanente for several years. These groups have also worked to increase access to primary care using medical homes that offer after-hours and weekend care.

Another approach involves targeting those patients who are frequent ED users. In California, one recent study suggested frequent users were less than 10% of the population but accounted for nearly one-third of the visits. Intensive case management, health coaching, and community support for high users are all promising interventions. Finally, specific case management programs for substance use disorder and mental health problems are being considered.

Q: A report like this Almanac is obviously limited by the data that is currently available. What additional data points would you like to have for future issues?

A: I think the most important metric to focus on is potentially avoidable use of the emergency departments rather than the overall number of visits. While the California data we report here certainly do capture the universe that includes avoidable use, it does not allow us to parse out the differences among the subsets. It is always helpful to have additional research to help identify this type of visit, the reasons why a patient decided to go to the ED, and the strategies that would be most effective at helping patients get their care in more appropriate settings.

 

 

Behind Rising Health-Care Bills: Secret Hospital Deals

https://www.realclearhealth.com/2018/09/20/behind_rising_health-care_bills_secret_hospital_deals_278180.html?utm_source=morning-scan&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=mailchimp-newsletter&utm_source=RC+Health+Morning+Scan&utm_campaign=82a1cdfd43-MAILCHIMP_RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b4baf6b587-82a1cdfd43-84752421

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Last year, Cigna Corp. and the New York hospital system Northwell Health discussed developing an insurance plan that would offer low-cost coverage by excluding some other health-care providers, according to people with knowledge of the matter. It never happened.

The problem was a separate contract between Cigna and New York-Presbyterian, the powerful hospital operator that is a Northwell rival. Cigna couldn’t find a way to work around restrictive language that blocked it from selling any plans that didn’t include New York-Presbyterian.

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Consolidation in California’s Health System Leads to Higher Prices and Premiums

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/journal-article/2018/sep/consolidation-california-health-system-higher-prices

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The Issue

Integration and consolidation among health care providers and health plans has the potential to improve the coordination and quality of patient care. However, when markets become highly concentrated — served by a single or a few large health care organizations — competition is curtailed and health care prices and insurance premiums tend to rise.

In a Commonwealth Fund–supported study in Health Affairs, researchers explored the effect of market consolidation across California between 2010 and 2016 on outpatient visit prices and premiums for individual coverage on the Covered California marketplace. The study focused on two measures of consolidation: the percentage of physicians in practices owned by hospitals and the total market share controlled by hospitals, health plans, and physician practices in a particular area.

What the Study Found

  • The number of physicians in hospital-owned practices increased from 25 percent to 40 percent across select California counties between 2010 and 2016.
  • Hospital employment increased more steeply among specialists than primary care physicians. Among the specialties studied (i.e., cardiology, hematology/oncology, orthopedics, and radiology), employment rose to 54 percent from 20 percent. In comparison, primary care physician employment increased to 38 percent from 26 percent.
  • Premiums for individual coverage rose the most, by 12 percent, in areas with both high consolidation among hospitals and a high percentage of hospital-owned physician practices.
  • Prices of specialty outpatient visits were 9 percent higher in areas with 100 percent hospital-physician employment compared to areas with average levels. Prices of primary care visits were 5 percent higher in areas with high versus average hospital-physician employment.
  • Seven counties were identified as “hot spots,” or markets with concerning levels of health care mergers and consolidation that could be limiting competition.

The Big Picture

The significant price increases in California markets with high hospital-physician employment and hospital consolidation point to the need for careful scrutiny of health care mergers and acquisitions. Additional research is needed to determine if the price increases are tied to improvements in patient care. For instance, if care is more expensive because it is more comprehensive, then overall utilization and spending should decrease. At the same time, regulatory laws and actions may be needed to prevent some health care organizations from attaining unfair market advantages that shut out rivals and raise prices.

The Bottom Line

In California, hospital acquisition of physician practices, particularly in markets with limited hospital competition, is associated with higher prices for outpatient visits and higher insurance premiums on the individual marketplace.

 

 

Congress Is Making Quiet Progress on Drug Costs

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2018/congress-making-quiet-progress-drug-costs?omnicid=EALERT1477719&mid=henrykotula@yahoo.com

Progress on drug costs

While the Trump administration has taken small steps to implement its blueprint to lower prescription drug prices, Congress has recently made quiet progress on some policies that could help lower drug costs for patients.

First, both the Senate and House advanced legislation to ban “gag clauses” that prevent pharmacists from telling patients that they can save money on medications by paying for them out of pocket. Certain prescription benefit managers (PBMs) have used gag clauses as part of their formulary design. While this is not a widespread industry practice, a 2016 survey of community pharmacists found that nearly 60 percent had encountered a gag clause in the previous 10 months. Two bills (S. 2553 and H.R. 6733) would prohibit private Medicare plans from instituting gag clauses. A third, related bill (S. 2554) — passed by the Senate on Monday with overwhelming support — prohibits private health insurance plans from using them. While they enable pharmacists to advise patients on how to spend less at the pharmacy counter, these bans won’t necessarily lower the prices of drugs.

Second, a lesser-known provision of S. 2554, added by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), could help lower drug prices by shedding light on patent-settlement agreements between drug manufacturers. Brand-name manufacturers sometimes use these agreements to extend their monopolies and keep drug prices higher by directly and indirectly compensating generic manufacturers for voluntarily delaying generics from coming to market. The Congressional Budget Office has found that setting a standard to rein in these types of settlements would produce $2.4 billion in savings over 10 years.

The HELP committee provision would require manufacturers of biologics (large-molecule drugs) and biosimilars (nearly identical copies of original biologics) to report patent-settlement agreements to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — an important step in understanding and preventing abuse of what is sometimes referred to as “pay for delay.”

Pay-for-Delay Stalls Drug Competition, Costing Patients Billions

In 2003, Congress required patent-settlement agreements between brand-name and generic small-molecule drug manufacturers to be filed with the FTC for review after they are made. (Currently most drugs sold are small-molecule drugs, but the biologics market is growing rapidly.) Such agreements effectively delay the sale of lower-cost generic drugs by nearly 17 months longer than agreements without payments, according to a 2010 report by the FTC. These anticompetitive agreements cost taxpayers approximately $3.5 billion each year.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in FTC v. Actavis that a brand-name drug manufacturer’s payment to a generic competitor to settle patent litigation can violate antitrust law. After the Court’s decision, the number of pay-for-delay agreements declined two years in a row. With drug companies now required to report these settlements to the FTC, the agency has been able to act to protect patients from anticompetitive deals that delay cheaper, generic drug products from coming to market. The FTC reviews reported settlements and, if it determines an agreement violates antitrust law, the agency challenges the agreement in the courts.

For example, in 2008 the FTC sued Cephalon, Inc., for paying four generic companies $300 million to delay marketing of their generic versions of Cephalon’s sleep-disorder drug, Provigil, until 2012. In 2015, the FTC reached a settlement with Cephalon’s owner, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Ltd., which agreed to ending pay-for-delay agreements for all their U.S. operations. The company also paid $1.2 billion in compensation for Cephalon’s anticompetitive behavior.

FTC Reporting Requirement Does Not Apply to Biologic and Biosimilar Manufacturers

The FTC reporting requirement applies only to small-molecule drugs, however, and not to far more expensive biologics and biosimilars. The potential savings of having biosimilars available for sale are significant: even one biosimilar competing against a brand-name biologic can result in a 35 percent lower price for patients and payers. Without delays in competition with brand-name biologics, biosimilars could save $54 billion to $250 billion over 10 years.

But there are concerns that manufacturers are entering into pay-for-delay agreements to keep prices for these drugs artificially high. Since 2015, when the biosimilar pathway was implemented, the FDA has approved 12 biosimilars, yet only three are currently available to patients — likely because of patent litigation and pay-for-delay agreements.

FTC Review Is Part of the Solution

In his remarks upon releasing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Biosimilars Action Plan in July, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb noted the FTC’s key role in monitoring U.S. markets to protect consumers from anticompetitive behaviors, including those of prescription drug manufacturers. He also pointed out the patent litigation tactics manufacturers use to delay biosimilar competition.

As it does for the small-molecule drug market, the FTC can play a proactive role in monitoring what is happening in the biologic and biosimilar markets. At a workshop on drug pricing held last year, acting FTC chair Maureen Ohlhausen said that while her agency has been making progress in eliminating pay-for-delay agreements, it has not seen the last of them. She said they will remain a target. But to move forward, the FTC needs clearer authority to review patent settlements between biologic and biosimilar manufacturers.

With Senate passage of S. 2554 and its FTC reporting provision, Congress has taken an important step in encouraging a robust biosimilar market. (While the House has not passed a similar measure, the Senate bill could be added to a reconciliation of the House and Senate gag clause bills.) Engaging all the relevant market regulators — including the FTC, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the FDA — will inject needed competition into this nascent market and help lower drug prices for U.S. consumers.