The real number of U.S. coronavirus cases could be as high as 23 million — 10 times the 2.3 million currently confirmed cases — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters yesterday, Axios’ Marisa Fernandez reports.
Between the lines: The new estimate is based on antibody testing, which indicates whether someone has previously been infected by the virus regardless of whether they had symptoms.
“This virus causes so much asymptomatic infection. The traditional approach of looking for symptomatic illness and diagnosing it obviously underestimates the total amount of infections,” CDC director Robert Redfield said.
The agency also expanded its warnings of which demographic groups are at risk, which now include younger people who are obese and who have underlying health problems.
The shift reflects what states and hospitals have been seeing since the pandemic began, which is that young people can get seriously ill from COVID-19.
The new guidance also categorizes medical conditions that can affect the severity of illness:
Conditions that increase risk: Chronic kidney disease; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; obesity; weakened immune system from solid organ transplant; serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies; sickle cell disease; Type 2 diabetes.
Conditions that may increase risk: Chronic lung diseases, including moderate to severe asthma and cystic fibrosis; high blood pressure; a weakened immune system; neurologic conditions, such as dementia or history of stroke; liver disease; pregnancy.
A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers said employer spending on healthcare could increase anywhere from 4% to 10% next year. The report highlighted three potential scenarios depending on what happens with the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic slowdown strain company budgets, employers are trying to calculate how much they will spend on healthcare next year. Soon, they will be picking health plans for 2021, and the pandemic will certainly go into that calculus.
A new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers attempts to forecast healthcare costs for next year. But there are still lots of unknowns. According to the report, the medical cost trend could increase between 4% and 10% in 2021.
Researchers with PwC’s Health Research Institute interviewed health plan actuaries from 12 national and regional payers over the past three months. The consensus? They were still unsure about the pandemic’s effect on spending now and what it will mean for 2021.
PwC considered three potential scenarios:
If healthcare spending remains down in 2021, PwC expects a 4% medical cost trend
If spending continues to grow at the same rate that it has from 2014 to 2019, PwC forecasts a 6% medical cost trend
If spending increases significantly next year in part due to pent-up demand from delayed care during the pandemic, PwC forecasts a 10% medical cost trend.
Employers are already considering measures to reduce their costs next year. For instance, a growing number are looking at narrow-network plans as a way of negotiating down prices.
“As the pandemic continues and the economic pressures increase, the shift towards narrow network will likely continue and accelerate,” PwC Health Research Institute Leader Ben Isgur wrote in an email.
In particular, large companies with more than 5,000 employees are more likely to consider this strategy, with 25% offering narrow-network plans, according to a 2019 survey by PwC.
Walmart is a recent example. The company began offering “curated physician networks” in Arkansas, Florida and Texas in 2020. In March, the company indicated it would expand on its network strategies.
More companies are also expanding their telehealth services, in part a direct result of the pandemic. While this may not save them money in the short-term — most insurers are currently reimbursing the same for telehealth visits as in-office visits — in the long term, it is expected to reduce costs.
“Employers understand the benefits of telehealth including lower costs, easier access, less time away from work and a good consumer experience,” Isgur wrote. “89 percent of employers surveyed by PwC in spring 2019 offered telemedicine either through their medical vendor or a carve-out vendor, up from 56 percent in 2016. Over the past few months, we have seen telehealth accelerate even faster.”
A couple of ongoing factors could increase spending next year. Employers are adding mental health services to their health plans, and have seen increased demand for those services, especially in light of the pandemic. According to a recent survey by the Health Research Institute, 12% of individuals on employer plans said they had sought mental health services, and another 18% planned to do so.
Specialty drug spending is also expected to drive up costs, as the majority of pharmaceuticals planned for release next year are specialty drugs. This is not a new trend; of companies’ total drug spending, specialty drugs grew from 21% of the total in 2010 to 58% in 2017.
Many patients have delayed care as a result of the pandemic. Even as medical offices begin to offer in-person visits again, volumes are still down. It’s still too early to tell whether that will lead to a surge in spending next year due to postponed — but needed — procedures.
According to PwC, 22% of patients with employer-sponsored insurance have delayed care since March.
“We could see the population risk increase for 2021 if members with chronic conditions are not able to manage their health as effectively in 2020 due to Covid-19,” Amy Yao, senior vice president and chief actuary at Blue Shield of California, told PwC’s Health Research Institute.
From El Centro Regional Medical Center, the largest hospital in California’s Imperial County, it takes just 30 minutes to drive to Mexicali, the capital of the Mexican state of Baja California. The international boundary that separates Mexicali from Imperial County is a bridge between nations. Every day, thousands of people cross that border for work or school. An estimated 275,000 US citizens and green card holders live in Baja California. El Centro Regional Medical Center has 60 employees who reside in Mexicali and commute across the border, CEO Adolphe Edward told Julie Small of KQED.
Now these inextricably linked places have become two of the most concerning COVID-19 hot spots in the US and Mexico. While Imperial County is one of California’s most sparsely populated counties, it has the state’s highest per capita infection rate — 836 per 100,000, according to the California Department of Public Health. This rate is more than four times greater than Los Angeles County’s, which is second-highest on that list. Imperial County has 4,800 confirmed positive cases and 64 deaths, and its southern neighbor Mexicali has 4,245 infections and 717 deaths.
The COVID-19 crisis on the border is straining the local health care system. El Centro Regional Medical Center has 161 beds, including 20 in its intensive care unit (ICU). About half of all its inpatients have COVID-19, Gustavo Solis reported in the Los Angeles Times, and the facility no longer has any available ventilators.
When Mexicali’s hospitals reached capacity in late May, administrators alerted El Centro that they would be diverting American patients to the medical center. “They said, ‘Hey, our hospitals are full, you’re about to get the surge,’” Judy Cruz, director of El Centro’s emergency department, recounted to Rebecca Plevin in the Palm Springs Desert Sun.
By the first week of June, El Centro was so overburdened that “a patient was being transferred from the hospital in El Centro every two to three hours, compared to 17 in an entire month before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Miriam Jordan reported in the New York Times.
Border Hospitals Filled to Capacity
Since April, hospitals in neighboring San Diego and Riverside Counties have been accepting patient transfers to alleviate the caseload at the lone hospital in El Centro, but the health emergency has escalated and now those counties need relief. “We froze all transfers from Imperial County [on June 9] just to make sure that we have enough room if we do have more cases here in San Diego County,” Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Health, told Paul Sisson in the San Diego Union-Tribune. El Centro patients are now being airlifted as far as San Francisco and Sacramento.
Nonessential travel between the US and Mexico has been restricted since March 21, with the measure recently extended until July 21. However, jobs in Southern California, such as in agricultural fields and packing houses, require regular movement between the two countries. “I’m always afraid that people are imagining this rush on the border,” Andrea Bowers, a spokesperson for the Imperial County Public Health Department, told Small. “It’s just folks living their everyday life.”
These jobs, some of which are considered essential because of their role in the food supply chain, may have contributed to the COVID-19 crisis on the border. Agricultural workers often lack access to adequate personal protective equipment and are unable to practice physical distancing. They also are exposed to air pollution, pesticides, heat, and more — long-term exposures that can cause the underlying health conditions that raise the risk of death for COVID-19 patients.
Comite Civico del Valle, a nonprofit focused on environmental health and civic engagement in Imperial Valley, set up 40 air pollution monitors throughout the county and found that levels of tiny, dangerous particulates violated federal limits, Solis reported.
“I can tell you there’s hypertension, there’s poor air pollution, there’s cancers, there’s asthma, there’s diabetes, there’s countless things people here are exposed to,” David Olmedo, an environmental health activist with Comite Civico del Valle, told Solis.
Fear of New Surges
With summer socializing in full swing, health experts worry that COVID-19 spikes will follow. Imperial County saw surges after Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, probably because of lapsed physical distancing and mask use at social events.
Latinos in California are adhering to recommended public health behaviors to slow the spread of the virus. CHCF’s recent COVID-19 tracking poll with Ipsos asked Californians about their compliance with recommended behaviors. Eighty-four percent of Californians, including 87% of Latinos, say they routinely wear a mask in public spaces all or most of the time. Seventy-two percent of Californians, including 73% of Latinos, say they avoid unnecessary trips out of the home most or all of the time, and 90% of Californians, including 91% of Latinos, say they stay at least six feet away from others in public spaces all or most of the time.
A Push to Reopen Anyway
Most counties in California have met the state’s readiness criteria for entering the “Expanded Stage 2” phase of reopening. Imperial County has not. In the past two weeks, more than 20% of all COVID-19 tests in the county came back positive, the Sacramento Bee reported. The state requires counties to have a seven-day testing positivity rate of no more than 8% to enter Expanded Stage 2.
Still, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors is pushing Governor Gavin Newsom for local control over its reopening timetable. The county has a high poverty rate — 24% compared with the statewide average of 13% — and “bills are stacking up,” Luis Pancarte, chairman of the board, said on a recent press call.
He worries that because neighboring areas like Riverside and San Diego have opened some businesses with physical distancing measures in place, Imperial County residents will travel to patronize restaurants and stores. This movement could increase transmission of the new coronavirus, just as reopening Imperial County too soon could as well.
More than 1,350 residents have signed a petition asking Newsom to ignore the Board of Supervisor’s request, Solis reported. The residents called on the supervisors to focus instead on getting the infection rate down and expanding economic relief for workers and businesses.
Cruz, who has been working around the clock to handle the county’s COVID-19 crisis, agrees with the petitioners. The surges after Mother’s Day and Memorial Day made her “really concerned about unlocking and letting people go back to normal,” she told Plevin. “It’s going to be just like those little gatherings that happened [on holidays], but on a bigger scale.”
Over the past months, the country and the economy have radically shifted to unchartered territory. Now more than ever, we must reexamine how we spend health care dollars.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed challenges with health care in America, we see two overarching opportunities for change:
1) the under-delivery of evidence-based care that materially improves the lives and well-being of Americans and
2) the over-delivery of unnecessary and, sometimes, harmful care.
The implications of reallocating our health care spending to high-value services are far-ranging, from improving health to economic recovery.
To prepare for coronavirus patients and preserve protective equipment, clinicians and hospitals across the country halted non-urgent visits and procedures. This has led to a substantial reduction in high-value care: emergency care for strokes or heart attacks, childhood vaccinations, and routine chronic disease management. However, one silver lining to this near shutdown is that a similarly dramatic reduction in the use of low-value services has also ensued.
As offices and hospitals re-open, we have a once in a century opportunity to align incentives for providers and consumers, so patients get more high-value services in high-value settings, while minimizing the resurgence of low-value care. For example, the use of pre-operative testing in low-risk patients should not accompany the return of elective procedures such as cataract removal. Conversely, benefit designs should permanently remove barriers to high-value settings and services, like patients receiving dialysis at home or phone calls with mental health providers.
People with low incomes and multiple chronic conditions are of particular concern as unemployment rises and more Americans lose their health care coverage. Suboptimal access and affordability to high-value chronic disease care prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was well documented As financially distressed providers re-open to a new normal, hopeful to regain their financial footing, highly profitable services are likely to be prioritized.
Unfortunately, clinical impact and profitability are frequently not linked. The post-COVID reopening should build on existing quality-driven payment models and increase reimbursement for high-value care to ensure that compensation better aligns with patient-centered outcomes.
At the same time, the dramatic fall in “non-essential care” included a significant reduction in services that we know to be harmful or useless. Billions are spent annually in the US on routinely delivered care that does not improve health; a recent study from 4 states reports that patients pay a substantial proportion (>10 percent) of this tab out-of-pocket. This type of low-value care can lead to direct harm to patients — physically or financially or both — as well as cascading iatrogenic harm, which can amplify the total cost of just one low-value service by up to 10 fold. Health care leaders, through the Smarter Health Care Coalition, have hence called on the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Azar to halt Medicare payments for services deemed low-value or harmful by the USPSTF.
As offices and hospitals reopen with unprecedented clinical unmet needs, we have a unique opportunity to rebuild a flawed system. Payment policies should drive incentives to improve individual and population health, not the volume of services delivered. We emphasize that no given service is inherently high- or low-value, but that it depends heavily on the individual context. Thus, the implementation of new financial incentives for providers and patients needs to be nuanced and flexible to allow for patient-level variability. The added expenditures required for higher reimbursement rates for highly valuable services can be fully paid for by reducing the use of and reimbursement for low-value services.
The delivery of evidence-based care should be the foundation of the new normal. We all agree that there is more than enough money in U.S. health care; it’s time that we start spending it on services that will make us a healthier nation.
Seriously ill people avoided hospitals and doctors’ offices. Patients need to return. It’s safe now.
More than 100,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. Beyond those deaths are other casualties of the pandemic — Americans seriously ill with other ailments who avoided care because they feared contracting the coronavirus at hospitals and clinics.
The toll from their deaths may be close to the toll from Covid-19. The trends are clear and concerning. Government orders to shelter in place and health care leaders’ decisions to defer nonessential care successfully prevented the spread of the virus. But these policies — complicated by the loss of employer-provided health insurance as people lost their jobs — have had the unintended effect of delaying care for some of our sickest patients.
To prevent further harm, people with serious, complex and acute illnesses must now return to the doctor for care.
Across the country, we have seen sizable decreases in new cancer diagnoses (45 percent) and reports of heart attacks (38 percent) and strokes (30 percent). Visits to hospital emergency departments are down by as much as 40 percent, but measures of how sick emergency department patients are have risen by 20 percent, according to a Mayo Clinic study, suggesting how harmful the delay can be. Meanwhile, non-Covid-19 out-of-hospital deaths have increased, while in-hospital mortality has declined.
These statistics demonstrate that people with cancer are missing necessary screenings, and those with heart attack or stroke symptoms are staying home during the precious window of time when the damage is reversible. In fact, a recent poll by the American College of Emergency Physicians and Morning Consult found that 80 percent of Americans say they are concerned about contracting the coronavirus from visiting the emergency room.
Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed grievous outcomes as a result of these delays. Recently, a middle-aged patient with abdominal pain waited five days to come to a Mayo Clinic emergency department for help, before dying of a bowel obstruction. Similarly, a young woman delayed care for weeks out of a fear of Covid-19 before she was transferred to a Cleveland Clinic intensive care unit with undiagnosed leukemia. She died within weeks of her symptoms appearing. Both deaths were preventable.
The true cost of this epidemic will not be measured in dollars; it will be measured in human lives and human suffering. In the case of cancer alone, our calculations show we can expect a quarter of a million additional preventable deaths annually if normal care does not resume. Outcomes will be similar for those who forgo treatment for heart attacks and strokes.
Over the past 12 weeks, hospitals deferred nonessential care to prevent viral spread, conserve much-needed personal protective equipment and create capacity for an expected surge of Covid-19 patients. During that time, we also have adopted methods to care for all patients safely, including standard daily screenings for the staff and masking protocols for patients and the staff in the hospital and clinic. At this point, we are gradually returning to normal activities while also mitigating risk for both patients and staff members.
The Covid-19 crisis has changed the practice of medicine in fundamental ways in just a matter of months. Telemedicine, for instance, allowed us to pivot quickly from in-person care to virtual care. We have continued to provide necessary care to our patients while promoting social distancing, reducing the risk of viral spread and recognizing patients’ fears.
Both Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic have gone from providing thousands of virtual visits per month before the pandemic to hundreds of thousands now across a broad range of demographics and conditions. At Cleveland Clinic, 94 percent of diabetes patients were cared for virtually in April.
While virtual visits are here to stay, there are obvious limitations. There is no substitute for in-person care for those who are severely ill or require early interventions for life-threatening conditions. Those are the ones who — even in the midst of this pandemic — must seek the care they need.
Patients who need care at a clinic or hospital or doctor’s office should know they have reduced the risk of Covid-19 through proven infection-control precautions under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We’re taking unprecedented actions, such as restricting visiting hours, screening patient and caregiver temperatures at entrances, encouraging employees to work from home whenever possible, providing spaces that allow for social distancing, and requiring proper hand hygiene, cough etiquette and masking.
All of these strategies are intended to significantly reduce risk while allowing for vital, high-quality care for our patients.
The novel coronavirus will not go away soon, but its systemic side effects of fear and deferred care must.
We will continue to give vigilant attention to Covid-19 while urgently addressing the other deadly diseases that haven’t taken a pause during the pandemic. For patients with medical conditions that require in-person care, please allow us to safely care for you — do not delay. Lives depend on it.
“Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, and health care.”
COVID-19 has unleashed a dual threat to health equity in the United States: a pandemic that has sickened millions and killed tens of thousands and counting, and an economic downturn that has resulted in tens of millions of people losing jobs—the highest numbers since the Great Depression. The COVID pandemic underscores that:
Our health is inextricably linked to that of our neighbors, family members, child- and adult-care providers, co-workers, school teachers, delivery service people, grocery store clerks, factory workers, and first responders, among others;
Our current health care, public health, and economic systems do not adequately or equitably protect our well-being as a nation; and
Every community is experiencing harm, though certain groups are suffering disproportionately, including people of color, workers with low incomes, and people living in places that were already struggling financially before the economic downturn.
For communities and their residents to recover fully and fairly, state and local leaders should consider the following health equity principles in designing and implementing their responses. These principles are not a detailed public health guide for responding to the pandemic or reopening the economy, but rather a compass that continually points leaders toward an equitable and lasting recovery.
Pandemics and economic recessions exacerbate disparities that ultimately hurt us all. Therefore, state and local leaders cannot design equitable response and recovery strategies without monitoring COVID’s impacts among socially and economically marginalized groups.¹ Data disaggregation should follow best practices and extend not only to public health data on COVID cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities, but also to: measures of access to testing, treatment, personal protective equipment (PPE), and safe places to isolate when sick; receipt of social and economic supports; and the downstream consequences of COVID on well-being, ranging from housing instability to food insecurity.
Geographic identifiers would allow leaders and the public to understand the interplay between place and social factors, as counties with large black populations account for more than half of all COVID deaths, and rural communities and post-industrial cities generally fare worse in economic downturns. Legal mandates for data disaggregation are proliferating, but 11 states are still not reporting COVID deaths by race; 16 are not reporting by gender; and 26 are not reporting based on congregate living status (e.g., nursing homes, jails). Only three are reporting testing data by race and ethnicity.
While states and cities can do more, the federal government should also support data disaggregation through funding and national standards.
Our communities are stronger, more stable, and more prosperous when every person, including the most disadvantaged residents, is healthy and financially secure. Throughout the response and recovery, state and local leaders should ask: Are we making sure that people facing the greatest risks have access to PPE, testing and treatment, stable housing, and a way to support their families? And, are we creating ways for residents—particularly those hardest hit—to meaningfully participate in and shape the government’s recovery strategy?
Accordingly, policymakers should create space for leaders from these communities to be at decision-making tables and should regularly consult with community-based organizations that can identify barriers to accessing health and social services, lift up grassroots solutions, and disseminate public health guidance in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. For example, they could recommend trusted, accessible locations for new testing sites and advise on how to diversify the pool of contact tracers, who will be crucial to tamping down the spread of infection in reopened communities. They could also collaborate with government leaders to ensure that all people who are infected with coronavirus (or exposed to someone infected) have a safe, secure, and acceptable place to isolate or quarantine for 14 days. Key partners could include community health centers, small business associations, community organizing groups, and workers’ rights organizations, among others. Ultimately, state and local leaders should measure the success of their response based not only on total death counts and aggregate economic impacts but also on the health and social outcomes of the most marginalized.
Race or ethnicity should not determine anyone’s opportunity for good health or social well-being, but, as COVID has shown, we are far from this goal. People of color are more likely to be front-line workers, to live in dense or overcrowded housing, to lack health insurance, and to experience chronic diseases linked to unhealthy environments and structural racism. Therefore, state and local leaders should empower dedicated teams to address COVID-related racial disparities, as several leaders, Republican and Democrat, have already done.
To be effective, these entities should: include leaders of color from community, corporate, academic, and philanthropic sectors; be integrated as key members of the broader public health and economic recovery efforts; and be accountable to the public. These teams should foster collaboration between state, local, and tribal governments to assist Native communities; anticipate and mitigate negative consequences of current response strategies, such as bias in enforcement of public health guidelines; address racial discrimination within the health care system; and ensure access to tailored mental health services for people of color and immigrants who are experiencing added trauma, stigma, and fear. Ultimately, resourcesmatter. State and local leaders must ensure that critical health and social supports are distributed fairly, proportionate to need, and free of undue restrictions to meet the needs of all groups, including black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous communities.
The Congressional response to COVID has been historic in its scope and speed, but significant gaps remain. Additional federal resources are needed for a broad range of health and social services, along with fiscal relief for states and communities facing historically large budget deficits due to COVID. Despite these challenges, state and local leaders must still find ways to take targeted policy actions. The following questions can help guide their response.
Who is left out?Inclusion of all populations will strengthen the public health response and lessen the pandemic’s economic fallout for all of society, but federal actions to date have not included all who have been severely harmed by the pandemic. As a result, many states and communities have sought to fill gaps in eviction protections and paid sick and caregiving leave. Others are extending support to undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families through public-private partnerships, faith-based charities, and community-led mutual aid systems. Vital health care providers, including safety net hospitals and Indian Health Service facilities, have also been disadvantaged and need targeted support.
Will protections last long enough?Many programs, such as expanded Medicaid funding, are tied to the federal declaration of a public health emergency, which will likely end before the economic crisis does. Other policies, like enhanced unemployment insurance and mortgage relief, are set to expire on arbitrary dates. And still others, such as stimulus checks, were one-time payments. Instead, policy extensions should be tied to the extent of COVID infection in a state or community (or its anticipated spread) and/or to broader economic measures such as unemployment. This is particularly important as communities will likely experience re-openings and closings over the next six to 12 months as COVID reemerges.
Have programs that meet urgent needs been fully and fairly implemented?Allexisting federal resources should be used in a time of great need. For example, additional states should adopt provisions that would allow families with school-age children to receive added Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and more communities need innovative solutions to provide meals to young children who relied on schools or child care providers for breakfast and lunch. States should also revise eligibility, enrollment, and recertification processes that deter Medicaid use by children, pregnant women, and lawfully residing immigrants.
Health, public health, and social infrastructure are critical for recovery and for our survival of the next pandemic, severe weather event, or economic downturn. A comprehensive public health system is the first line of defense for rural, tribal, and urban communities. While a sizable federal reinvestment in public health is needed, states and communities must also reverse steady cuts to the public health workforce and laboratory and data systems.
These principles can guide our nation toward an equitable response and recovery and help sow the seeds of long-term, transformative change. States and cities have begun imagining and, in some cases, advancingtoward this vision, putting a down payment on a fair and just future in which health equity is a reality. Returning to the ways things were is not an option.
Research shows that some veterans with discharges that limit their benefits have PTSD symptoms, military sexual trauma or other behaviors related to military stress. Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have disproportionately more of these negative discharges than veterans from other eras, for reasons still unclear.
The Veterans Administration frequently and perhaps unlawfully denies benefits to veterans with “other than honorable” discharges.
Dental surgery, routine visits and elective surgeries at Veterans Administration medical centers have been postponed since mid-March. VA hospitals are understaffed – just before the pandemic, the VA reported 43,000 staff vacancies out of more than 400,000 health care staff positions. Access to health care will be even more difficult when those medical centers finally reopen because they may have far fewer workers than they need.
As residential facilities close to new participants, many veterans eligible to leave prison or jail have nowhere to go. They may stay incarcerated or become homeless.
Courts have moved online or ceased formal operations altogether, meaning no veteran charged with a crime can be referred to a treatment court. It is unclear whether those who were already participating in a treatment program will face delays graduating from court-supervised treatments.
Further, some veterans treatment courts still require participants to take drug tests. With COVID-19 circulating, those participants must put their health at risk to travel to licensed testing facilities.
7. Disability benefits delayed
In the pandemic’s epicenter in New York, tens of thousands of veterans should have access to VA benefits because of their low income – but don’t, so far.
The pandemic has exacerbated existing delays in finding veterans in need, filing their paperwork and waiting for decisions. Ryan Foley, an attorney in New York’s Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit legal services organization, noted in a personal communication that these benefits are worth “tens of millions of dollars to veterans and their families” in the midst of a health and economic disaster.
All 56 regional Veterans Administration offices are closed to encourage social distancing. Compensation and disability evaluations, which determine how much money veterans can get, are usually done in person. Now, they must be done electronically, via telehealth services in which the veteran communicates with a health care provider via computer.
But getting telehealth up and running is taking time, adding to the longstanding VA backlog. Currently, more than 100,000 veterans wait more than 125 days for a decision. (That is what the VA defines as a backlog – anything less than 125 days is not considered a delay on benefit claims.)
A disproportionately high number of post-9/11 veterans live in some of the hardest-hit communities that depend on these industries. Veterans returning from overseas will face a dire economic landscape, with far fewer opportunities to integrate into civilian life with financial security.
There are many social groups to pay attention to, all with their own problems to face during the pandemic. With veterans, many of the problems they face now existed long before the coronavirus arrived on U.S. shores.
But with the challenges posed by the situation today, veterans who were already lacking adequate benefits and resources are now in deeper trouble, and it will be harder to answer their needs.
I’ve had two conversations this week with health system leaders who have been struggling to navigate conversations about direct contracting with large employers in their market. A system chief innovation officer expressed frustration about the pace of discussions with a regional employer: “They’re clearly interested in our network, and we’ve been designing a program for them. They’ve seen our performance results from our accountable care organization (ACO) and the savings we generated. But even after a year of meetings, I’m not sure it’s going anywhere.”
Direct-to-employer (DTE) contracting has proven much more difficult for health systems than anyone anticipated a decade ago, in the wake of highly publicized DTE contracts with Boeing and Intel. Most employers, even large ones, lack the sophistication and bandwidth to co-create DTE offerings with health systems.
But those two deals may have led health systems to mistake what employers are looking for in a relationship. Both Boeing and Intel keep their employees for decades, and are interested in solutions, like chronic disease management, that have a longer-term return on investment (think heart disease management for the 55-year-old engineer).
The average employer, on the other hand, keeps a worker for just a few years. They don’t have a “population health” problem: from a healthcare cost perspective, they won’t see an ROI from management of chronic conditions.
Their pressing healthcare cost problems result from high-cost events, like a premature baby in the NICU, an unexpected spine surgery or a new cancer diagnosis.
Most health system ACOs have been designed to manage the cost of aging Medicare beneficiaries with multiple chronic diseases via enhanced primary care—and are a mismatch for delivering what the average employer needs the most: high-cost episode management, behavioral health support, and ready, available, guaranteed access.
Striking successful DTE deals will require providers to augment their service offerings beyond traditional population health, and to demonstrate their success in managing the benefit costs of their own employees.
As we’ve discussed before, the greatest challenge facing health system economics is demographics. Simply put, with 80M Boomers entering their Medicare years, hospitals beds will fill with elderly patients receiving treatment for exacerbations of congestive heart failure (CHF), diabetes, or other chronic conditions, of which the average Medicare beneficiary has four. It’s easy to envision the hospital becoming a giant nursing facility, with the vast majority of beds occupied by Medicare patients receiving nursing care and drugs, only to be sent home until their chronic disease flares again and the cycle repeats, four or five times a year.
Health systems must create a new model for managing Medicare patients with multiple chronic conditions, one that does not rely on care delivered in an inpatient setting. In the graphic below, we outline two approaches for managing a Medicare patient with advanced CHF. The top path illustrates today’s legacy model, where limited support for ongoing care management leaves the patient vulnerable to exacerbations, leading to numerous ED visits and admissions for diuresis, after which the patient returns home to a sub-optimal diet and lifestyle and is likely to return.
A better alternative is illustrated in the second path. Here our CHF patient has access to the ongoing support of a care team, which regularly monitors her status from home with the help of remote monitoring and can communicate with the patient to adjust therapy if early symptoms are detected. At Gist, we’re working with clinicians to understand just how to build this system of care and maximize its impact.
One example: a leading heart failure specialist told us that admissions for CHF could be reduced by one-third if patients with severe heart failure were monitored with a CardioMEMS implantable device, which can detect changes in pressure before the patient has symptoms, allowing for very early intervention. Developing these kind of care approaches to manage chronic disease outside the hospital will be the key to sustainable health system economics—and may have the greatest impact on lowering the total cost of care for the growing Medicare population.
In the course of a single year, a homeless man named Steve in Phoenix, Arizona, visited the emergency room 81 times. Only 54 years old, Steve is coping with a daunting array of medical conditions: multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, heart disease, and diabetes. Because of his health and reliance on emergency rooms, his medical costs averaged about $13,000 per month that year.
Thanks to an innovative housing program run by the nation’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealth Group, Steve no longer sleeps outside — a crucial prerequisite to improved health. He is one of about 60 formerly homeless people covered by Arizona Medicaid who now receive housing and support services in Phoenix, John Tozzi reported for Bloomberg Businessweek. The UnitedHealth housing program, called myConnections, represents the growing recognition across the health care system that improved health cannot be achieved exclusively by traditional clinical models. Getting patients off the streets is often the first — and most important — step to helping them heal, physically and mentally.
“Patients like Steve wind up in the ER because they don’t fit into the ways we deliver health care. . . . [The US system] is not set up to keep vulnerable people housed, clothed, and nourished so they’ll be less likely to get sick in the first place. —John Tozzi, Bloomberg News
“Patients like Steve wind up in the ER because they don’t fit into the ways we deliver health care,” Tozzi explained. “The US system is engineered to route billions of dollars to hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and labs to diagnose and treat patients once they’re sick. It’s not set up to keep vulnerable people housed, clothed, and nourished so they’ll be less likely to get sick in the first place.”
MyConnections was the brainchild of a partnership between UnitedHealthcare (a division of UnitedHealth) and the Camden Coalition, a New Jersey–based nonprofit dedicated to improving care for people with complex health and social needs. The partnership was established in 2017 at the same time Jeffrey Brenner, MD, founder and executive director of the Camden Coalition, announced he was leaving the nonprofit to lead myConnections. He is now UnitedHealthcare’s senior vice president for integrated health and human services. UnitedHealthcare provides managed care to about six million people nationwide, according to company filings. It does not get reimbursed by Medicaid for housing assistance.
Making the Case for Addressing Social Determinants
Brenner hopes myConnections will show that both a health care and a business case can be made for investing in a Housing First (PDF) model. Tozzi reported that UnitedHealth “aims to reduce expenses not by denying care, but by spending more on social interventions, starting with housing.”
At the Residences at Camelback West, a Phoenix apartment complex of 500 apartments ranging from studios to two-bedroom units, up to 100 apartments are set aside for UnitedHealth Medicaid members enrolled in myConnections. The rest of the units are rented out at market rates. Five health coaches use an on-site office to serve as case managers and counselors for the myConnections residents. The coaches make sure that their clients remember medical appointments, and arrange transportation for them and sometimes accompany them to the doctor.
Since receiving housing and health coaching from Brenner’s team, Steve’s average monthly medical costs have dropped from $12,945 to $2,073. An analysis of the first 41 participants in Phoenix shows that “housing and support services proved cost effective for the 25 most expensive patients, reducing their overall costs dramatically,” Tozzi reported. But total spending for the other 16 increased, highlighting the complexity of this work.
“The return’s only going to work out if we target the right people,” Brenner told Tozzi. The myConnections team selects patients who are enrolled in UnitedHealth, are homeless, and who have annual medical spending greater than $50,000 mostly because of ER visits and inpatient stays. Those high-cost patients are UnitedHealth’s best bet for recovering the cost of its housing investment.
UnitedHealth is starting with 10 subsidized apartments in each new city where it’s introducing the program, including in places where there might be hundreds of homeless Medicaid members on its rolls, Tozzi reported. MyConnections will be in 30 markets by early 2020.
Kaiser Addresses Homelessness in Its Backyard
In its home base of Oakland, California, health system Kaiser Permanente has invested $200 million in an affordable housing project, Hannah Norman reported in the San Francisco Business Times. Its help is not targeted exclusively at Kaiser members, instead aiming to benefit any residents who live in communities it serves.
The initiative was championed by Bernard Tyson, the late chairman and CEO of Kaiser, who died unexpectedly this month. In a New York Times remembrance, Reed Abelson noted that Tyson was committed to addressing social determinants of health in the places where Kaiser operates. “He had the organization examine broad issues like housing shortages, food insecurity, and gun violence and their impact on health and well-being,” Abelson wrote.
Tyson, who was the health system’s first Black chief executive, served as chair of the Bay Area Council, a business association dedicated to economic development in the San Francisco region. His chairmanship culminated in a major report (PDF) that documented the severity of the homelessness crisis and recommended ways to address it, Norman reported.
“We don’t believe as a mega-health system that our only lane is medical care,” Tyson said in April. “It’s a critical lane, but it’s not our only lane.”
Steady Rents in Buildings with Seismic Upgrades
Kaiser announced its $200 million housing initiative, the Thriving Communities Fund, in January. Since then, it partnered with Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit organization focused on affordable housing, and the nonprofit East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation to invest a total of $8.7 million ($5.2 million from Kaiser) in Kensington Gardens, a 41-apartment building in East Oakland. “The trio of organizations plans to keep the residents in place and the rent steady at $1,597 per month for a studio and $2,250 for a two-bedroom,” Norman wrote. “Some residents receive federal housing benefits, including Section 8, to help cover the cost.”
The Kensington Gardens purchase is part of the Thriving Communities Fund’s strategy to keep rents steady and to make health and safety upgrades such as seismic upgrades and new roofs.
Kaiser’s Built for Zero initiative committed $3 million over three years to a data-driven, county-level approach to understanding the dynamics of homelessness. Built for Zero tracks the homeless population in a county from month to month to understand “who they are, what they need, and even how many of them are repeatedly visiting emergency rooms,” Norman reported. Fifteen Kaiser communities, including eight in California, are participating in the program.