Why is healthcare so expensive? This Johns Hopkins surgeon might have the answers

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals-health-systems/why-healthcare-so-expensive-johns-hopkins-surgeon-might-have-answers?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTTJNMVpURTNNelJpTVRBeiIsInQiOiJEYTZVeG1LN2VxWEMzUXRTb3dQWWkrbDNKdHBnSzQ5NUpuZVZoXC9US1QzQVwvcUVDSU9mMHZLR2pwZWFcLzNkbk9XYTdPRUtTM2tRVU5oOXhhMXRhSFd5STFZY2VzVlo2UTl0cGxOZjdSMUROVjhZVFZNeXFrMWRZdEdIRVBFS0M2VyJ9&mrkid=959610

For a small group of vascular surgery centers in metropolitan Washington, D.C., it was local churches that turned out to be surprisingly lucrative.

It was at health screening fairs hosted by these houses of worship where Marty Makary, M.D., found surgeons drumming up business for pricey—and often unnecessary—leg stents. It’s among the collection of systemic and human examples Makary examines in his new book “The Price We Pay: What Broke American Health Care—and How to Fix It” as driving forces behind rising U.S. health costs.

Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins and New York Times best-selling author, hits every segment of the market, from a health system in New Mexico that has sued 1 in 5 residents in town to a health insurance conference where brokers described over drinks why they usually aren’t helping employers get the best deal.

“Healthcare has adopted a business model that uses middlemen, price gouging and sometimes delivers care that can be inappropriate, and this bloated economy has a tremendous amount of waste,” Makary said. “So our research really asks the question: ‘What is the experience of the everyday American interfacing with our healthcare system?’”

I caught up with Makary recently to discuss some of the problems he highlights in his new book, which is being released Sept. 10, and some of his ideas on how we solve them.

FierceHealthcare: Why did you write this book?

Marty Makary: Hospitals are amazing places and there is a tremendous amount of public trust in hospitals. But I’ve been seriously concerned about the erosion of public trust by the price gouging and predatory billing practices that patients are describing all over America. Our research team found bills are marked up as much as 23 times higher than what hospitals will accept from Medicare. We kept hearing over and over again that, ‘No one is expected to pay these bills. Hospital CEOs assured me when I showed them inflated bills that nobody is expected to pay the sticker price.’ But that didn’t seem to match the stories we were hearing on the ground.

FH: One of the hospitals you highlight in this book in Carlsbad, New Mexico, had a practice of hiking prices and suing patients who were unable to pay. What did you find there?

MM: We decided to shift our research into the question: “Are Americans asked to pay the sticker price and if so, what happens when they can’t afford it?”

A woman sent me a message where not only was the bill inflated, but the care was—in her opinion, unnecessary—and the hospital had sued her. When I reached out, she said, “They’ve sued all my friends as well and garnished our paychecks.” I couldn’t believe this, and so I flew out to Carlsbad. The driver of the Chamber of Commerce taxi service that picked us up from the airport, the receptionist at the hotel, the waitress at the breakfast place, the clerk’s office staff, families in the courthouse: You couldn’t believe it. Everywhere you turned, people had been terrorized financially by this local community hospital. I thought: “Where is the spirit of medicine? Do these executives even know the consequences on the ground of these billing practices?”

FH: In the book, you mention many hospital executives don’t even know they’re suing patients.

MM: Oftentimes, there’s detachment. And when we’re detached from the consequences or problems, that’s when horrible things happen in societies historically. I found sometimes hospital executives, board members and certainly our research supports doctors not knowing about this practice. And when they find out, the clinicians are outraged. By and large, board members want it to stop … I think if you look at any major issue in the United States, whether it be race, poverty or healthcare, if we are not proximate to the problem, we tend to rationalize financial systems that enable the problem. In healthcare, what I’ve noticed is, when I would share these stories at conferences, other healthcare experts argued it was not a problem that was diabolical, they just weren’t proximate to the issue.

FH:  You also document that many hospitals are doing the right thing.

MM: Most hospitals try to do the right thing. But I think it tells us a lot about the practice of suing patients and that it’s unnecessary. When all the revenue generated from suing patients amounts to less than the amount of the CEO pay increase in one year, which is something we’ve seen, the argument that it’s essential to sue patients in order for the hospital to be sustainable melts away.

FH: But obviously, the problem is not just about hospitals, right?

MM: A lot of people are getting rich in healthcare. We’ve created tens of thousands of millionaires that are not patient-facing. If you look at the earnings on Wall Street of some of these healthcare companies, for example, UnitedHealth Group reported a 25% increase in earnings in a recent earnings report. How do earnings go up 25% in an actuarial insurance business? They said on their call it was in part due to their pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), a well-known middleman that profits from spread pricing and money games. Hospitals are on target this year for their highest margin in history—5.1% based on early 2019 data. At the same time rural hospitals are closing, large hospitals are making barrels of money. Although they are claiming razor-thin margins, the cost shift accounting is so sophisticated, that they can use their profit to buy new buildings, pay down debt, buy more real estate, increase executive pay. What we have right now is an arms race of profiteering in healthcare where all the stakeholders are making a lot of money except for one, and that’s the patient.

FH: In the book, you talk about efforts to address practice outliers like those vascular surgeons through the use of big data, which led to the creation of the “Improving Wisely” initiative. What did you do?

MM:  Most doctors do the right thing or always try to. But the fraction that are responding to the consumerist culture or the perverse incentives or are just not practicing state of the art care can cost the system a lot more money than those who aren’t … Instead of hammering doctors that do the right thing with reporting burdens and other hassles, we can shunt those resources to address outliers identified in the data using metrics endorsed by the experts in each specialty, and gold card the good doctors so they don’t have to deal with reporting hassles and the expense of the reporting hassles.

In studying the issue of inappropriate care and delivering measures of the appropriateness of care, we’ve been meeting with individual specialists around the country and many of these doctors are telling us about the practice pattern that a fraction of specialists in their field are doing that represents overuse. Our work called “Improving Wisely” partners with associations to send outlier physicians their data around a specialty-endorsed measure of overuse. What we’ve seen is, among doctors, among outlier physicians who see their data with a confidential dear doctor letter, that 83% reduce their pattern of overuse. The initial project two years ago that cost $150,000 has resulted in $27 million worth of savings. This is an example of a high consensus approach that results in real savings that you just don’t see in other areas. By and large, politicians are talking about different ways to fund the broken healthcare system and not ways to fix it. We need to talk about how to fix it.

FH: In the book, you really seem to try to take on everyone: doctors, hospitals, air ambulances, workplace wellness companies, PBMs.

MM:  Almost all the voices in healthcare are beholden to some special interest or stakeholder. We desperately need a global critique of how this system has gone awry and there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on right now, especially at the insurance companies and pharma. But the reality is, we all have a piece of this pie. I don’t think there’s really any one villain in the healthcare system. I don’t even think there’s much deliberate malfeasance that goes on. I think we have a system that’s largely run by people doing what they are told to do and they are doing it in a place where they may not be proximate to the hardship the system creates.

FH: So the big question: How do we fix the problems?

MM: For every problem I described, I tried to describe one of the most exciting disrupters in this space. With the pricing failure problem, I highlight the Free Market Medical Association and the individuals who are saying they are going to make all prices transparent and fair regardless of who’s paying whether it’s a patient or an insurance company. There’s one fair price. Keith Smith of the Surgery Center of Oklahoma is offering one fair true price. Not a sticker price but a true price, regardless of who’s paying. You look at MDsave and Clear Health Costs. They are offering ways for people to shop. If the government does nothing on healthcare, I’m still optimistic we are moving in the right direction because businesses in American are realizing that they’re getting ripped off on their healthcare and pharmacy plans. They’re increasingly doing direct contracting and looking closely at their health insurance benefits and pharmacy design and realizing there is a lot of money wasted.

One of the root issues in healthcare is the way we physicians are educated. It uses a model that’s highly flawed, relying highly on rote memorization of things that are easily available on the Internet today and omits training in effective communication, public policy and healthcare literacy. It turns out that many doctors feel paralyzed in fixing this broken system even as they’re suspicious of the waste in it. One of the goals of writing the book was creating healthcare literacy because we in the field are taught medical literacy but we’re never taught healthcare literacy. One of the exciting disrupters I had the privilege of spending time was the Sidney Kimmel Medical College (in Philadelphia). They have an academic standard in the admissions process. Once people meet that academic standard, everybody is considered based on their empathy, self-awareness and communication skills. It’s revolutionary as simple as it sounds. But they’re focusing on what matters.

 

 

 

 

Rural hospitals take spotlight in coverage expansion debate

https://www.modernhealthcare.com/payment/rural-hospitals-take-spotlight-coverage-expansion-debate?utm_source=modern-healthcare-daily-dose-wednesday&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20190807&utm_content=article1-readmore

Image result for rural hospital

Opponents of the public option have funded an analysis that warns more rural hospitals may close if Americans leave commercial plans for Medicare.

With the focus on rural hospitals, the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future brings a sensitive issue for politicians into its fight against a Medicare buy-in. The policy has gone mainstream among Democratic presidential candidates and many Democratic lawmakers.

Rural hospitals could lose between 2.3% and 14% of their revenue if the U.S. opens up Medicare to people under 65, the consulting firm Navigant projected in its estimate. The analysis assumed just 22% of the remaining 30 million uninsured Americans would choose a Medicare plan. The study based its projections of financial losses primarily on people leaving the commercial market where payment rates are significantly higher than Medicare.

The estimate assumed Medicaid wouldn’t lose anyone to Medicare, and plotted out various scenarios where up to half of the commercial market would shift to Medicare.

The analysis was commissioned by the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a coalition of hospitals, insurers and pharmaceutical companies fighting public option and single-payer proposals.

In their most drastic scenario of commercial insurance losses, co-authors Jeff Goldsmith and Jeff Leibach predict more than 55% of rural hospitals could risk closure, up from 21% who risk closure today according to their previous studies.

Leibach said the analysis was tailored to individual hospitals, accounting for hospitals that wouldn’t see cuts since they don’t have many commercially insured patients.

The spotlight on rural hospitals in the debate on who should pay for healthcare is common these days, particularly as politicians or the executive branch eye policies that could cut hospital or physician pay.

On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) seemingly acknowledged this when she published her own proposal to raise Medicare rates for rural hospitals as part of her goal to implement single payer, or Medicare for All. She is running for the Democratic nomination for president for the 2020 election.

“Medicare already has special designations available to rural hospitals, but they must be updated to match the reality of rural areas,” Warren said in a post announcing a rural strategy as part of her campaign platform. “I will create a new designation that reimburses rural hospitals at a higher rate, relieves distance requirements and offers flexibility of services by assessing the needs of their communities.”

Warren is a co-sponsor of the Medicare for All legislation by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is credited with the party’s leftward shift on the healthcare coverage question. But she is trying to differentiate herself from Sanders, and the criticisms about the potentially drastic pay cuts to hospitals have dogged single-payer debates.

Most experts acknowledge the need for a significant policy overhaul that lets rural hospitals adjust their business models. Those providers tend to have aging and sick patients; high rates of uninsured and public pay patients over those covered by commercial insurance; and fewer patients overall than their urban counterparts.

But lawmakers in Washington aren’t likely to act during this Congress. The major recent changes have mostly been driven by the Trump administration, where officials just last week finalized an overhaul of the Medicare wage index to help rural hospitals.

As political rhetoric around the public option or single payer has gone mainstream this presidential primary season, rural hospitals will likely remain a talking point in the ideas to overhaul or reorganize the U.S.’s $3.3 trillion healthcare industry.

This was in evidence in May, when the House Budget Committee convened a hearing on Medicare for All to investigate some of the fiscal impacts. One Congressional Budget Office official said rural hospitals with mostly Medicaid, Medicare and uninsured patients could actually see a boost in a redistribution of doctor and hospital pay.

But the CBO didn’t analyze specific legislation and offered a vague overview of how a single-payer system might look, rather than giving exact numbers.

The plight of rural hospitals has been used in lobbying tactics throughout this year — in Congress’ fight over how to end surprise medical bills as well as opposition to hospital contracting reforms proposed in the Senate.

And it has worked to some extent. Both House and Senate committees have made concessions to their surprise billing proposals to mollify some lawmakers’ worries.

 

Lowering Out-of-Pocket Health Costs Isn’t Easy. States Have Tried

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U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy shows a chart during a congressional hearing.

Congress has promised to tackle high consumer health-care costs this year. It’s one of the few issues where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle find common ground.

The Lower Health Care Costs Act, introduced in June, is an almost 200-page piece of legislation that seeks to prevent surprise medical bills, lower prescription drug prices and force hospitals to be more transparent about what they bill insurance companies.

But there are already signs of potential failure.

Despite early momentum, Congressional leaders postponed a vote on the measure until after August recess. The pharmaceutical industry as well as hospital and provider groups have started to lobby against the legislation, meeting with President Trump in July to make their case.

Although the Affordable Care Act led to more people having health insurance, many Americans still struggle with out-of-pocket costs, especially ones they weren’t expecting. Meanwhile, health care is taking up an ever-growing size of state budgets. Governors and lawmakers try to tackle this issue almost every legislative session, but few have succeeded in a meaningful way.

“It’s usually a third of state budgets. States have every reason to try and control health-care costs. And yet, everybody struggles to,” says Josh Shaferstein, vice dean of Johns Hopkins University’s Office of Public Health Practice and Training, and a former health secretary for the state of Maryland.

Battling the Health-Care Industry

The first and usually biggest hurdle is private interest groups who see reforms as a threat to their livelihood.

“There are a lot of stakeholders that have vested interest and lobbyists on the ground that will fight tooth and nail, whether it’s doctors and nurses groups or insurance companies. They are perhaps moreso willing to fight at the state level,” says Sabrina Corlette, research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms.

She points to a bill introduced in Colorado this year that would have capped payments to hospitals in order to lower premiums. After pushback from hospital groups, lawmakers amended the legislation — which was signed into law — so that hospitals will be paid the same but will have to pay back a portion of their revenue to help lower premiums. 

In Washington state, which passed a first-in-the-nation “public option” bill this year, lawmakers rewrote the original legislation after doctor and hospital groups fought a provision that would have set the same cap on provider payments as Medicare. The final legislation reflected a compromise for insurers to pay providers 160 percent of Medicare rates.

At least eight other states discussed or introduced public option bills this year, but they failed to gain traction.

In Delaware — a state that ranks third in health-care spending but 31st in health outcomes — Gov. Jay Carney signed an executive order in November that outlines eight goals the state will work toward to curb the growth in health spending. But Kara Odom Walker, the state’s health secretary, concedes that they weren’t able to convince stakeholders to enact new penalties or regulations.

“Being a small state makes it a lot harder to do things that might be unpopular. Any conversation that includes words like ‘penalty’ or ‘payment cap’ is like a bomb going off,” she says.

The health-care industry is one of the biggest in the country. That gives it a lot of leverage.

“The health systems are often the largest employers in town. The governor says they want to slow health-care spending growth, and the hospital group will say, ‘that means losing jobs,’” says Robert Mechanic, executive director of the Health Industry Forum.

But as Congress tries to lower out-of-pocket costs, they have an asset that states don’t: better data. Corlette says states often lack impartial numbers on potential policies, hurting their ability to assess and defend legislation.

“It’s very hard for your average state legislator to pierce the veil,” Corlette says. “There’s an imbalance of info for legislators to really tackle the problem. They don’t have a Congressional Budget Office.”

One Person’s Savings Are Another’s Costs

Many compare efforts to control health-care costs to a game of whack-a-mole. A state might successfully regulate spending in one area only to see costs skyrocket in another.

“You might be able to cut rates in Medicaid, but then rates will pop up in private insurance. The standard toolkit for states is fraught with political danger,” says Shaferstein.

“Health care is so complex, and there are so many different players. It’s really hard to get your arm around the whole bundle,” says Mechanic.

For instance, Medicare lowered the limit for how long older patients can stay in hospitals. But there’s some evidence that the Medicare savings became extra costs for nursing homes because hospitals started providing fewer services for elderly patients altogether.

State Legislation

When it comes to controlling drug prices, states haven’t made much progress. They have made more headway regulating surprise medical bills.

Half the states have passed surprise billing laws. Only nine of them, though, included “comprehensive protections” that apply to all insurance plans, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

While states have struggled to actually lower drug prices, like Congress plans to do, they have passed laws to make them more transparent and to clamp down on pharmacy benefit managers — middlemen who negotiate drug benefits for plans.

Five states have enacted laws that require drug companies to notify them if they will significantly raise the price of a drug, and at least a dozen have restricted the power that a pharmacy benefit manager can have, like requiring them to register with the state.

Solutions That Have Worked

There are some success stories and lessons learned that Congress could use to lower health-care spending in general.

“States should be thinking of more global solutions because you kind of have to go big. Oftentimes people are looking to save $1 to $2 million a year, but that’s not going to make much of a difference,” says Shafterstein.

Only a couple of states have “gone big” in this sense.

Massachusetts passed what became the framework for the federal Affordable Care Act in 2006, known as “RomneyCare,” which requires residents to have health insurance. Health-care spending has since slowed in recent years. Mechanic credits that to the law’s requirements for private health entities to publicly justify price hikes and high spending.

In Maryland, it has taken decades to get health-care spending under control. The state has had an all-payer system for hospitals since the 1970s, meaning they get a fixed sum every month rather than bill insurers for every claim. While that system — which is only used by one other state, Vermont — curbed hospital spending per patient, hospital spending overall grew at a slightly higher rate than the national average.

So in 2014, Maryland forced hospitals to limit their spending to 0.5 percent less than the national growth rate. It has largely been deemed a success, with a report commissioned by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finding that “Maryland hospitals were able to operate within their global budgets without adverse effects on their financial status.”

On a less global scale, states have been able to drive down premiums by implementing reinsurance programs, meaning the government pays for the most expensive patients, taking that bill off insurance companies’ plate.

But reinsurance is like slapping a band-aid on a much larger wound.

“Recent state efforts on reinsurance have worked, but they aren’t really getting at the overall cost of coverage,” says Kevin Lucia, research professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute.