Recession could come in 6 to 9 months, Morgan Stanley says

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/strategy/recession-could-come-in-6-to-9-months-morgan-stanely-says.html?origin=cfoe&utm_source=cfoe

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Recent moves from President Donald Trump to raise tariffs on Chinese goods are leading the global economy closer to the brink of recession, according to a Morgan Stanley note cited by Newsweek.

In a recent research note, Morgan Stanley said if President Trump goes through with proposals to raise existing tariffs and China responds, the global economy would fall into recession in the next six to nine months. Specifically, Morgan Stanley’s U.S. public policy lead, Michael Zezas, said the tariffs would be what pushes the global economy into recession.

“Friday’s escalation of tariffs between the U.S. and China suggests they’ve not moved any closer on the key negotiation points that have separated them since May 5,” he said, according to Newsweek. “Neither side sees the benefit to cooperating as better than hanging tough. … We expect that tensions will continue to escalate at least until the costs of doing so are too big to ignore.”

The president said Aug. 23 that he plans to raise existing tariffs to 30 percent from 25 percent on $250 billion of Chinese goods starting Oct. 1. Additionally, he proposed tariffs on another $300 billion of Chinese imports to increase from 10 percent to 15 percent over the coming months. The president’s proposals come after China said it will impose tariffs on another $75 billion of U.S. imports, and that it would reinstate tariffs on auto products that were previously suspended.

Read more here.

 

 

 

The provider lobby takes on Congress

https://www.axios.com/the-provider-lobby-takes-on-congress-57d2acc6-b26b-4b57-aa64-a75606e612b8.html

Illustration of a giant health plus on top of a pile of cash, the ground underneath is cracking.

Ending surprise medical bills inspires bipartisan kumbaya in a way nearly unheard of these days, and yet a brutal lobbying and public relations blitz by doctor and hospital groups is threatening to kill the entire effort.

Driving the news: Provider-backed groups are spending millions of dollars to sway lawmakers and the public opinion against Congress’s efforts to ban surprise billing, according to a handful of recent reports.

Details:

  • A dark money group called Doctor Patient Unity has spent more than $13 million on advertising in states where senators are up for re-election, Bloomberg Government reported on Monday — the most expensive campaign on any congressional health care topic this year.
  • Modern Healthcare’s Susannah Luthi reported yesterday that some congressional staffers worry that the provider onslaught will cause the entire surprise billing effort to collapse. The staffers say that may be what the groups want; providers insist this isn’t the case.
  • My colleague Bob Herman reported last week that physician outsourcing companies — which are often the source of surprise medical bills — and private equity firms have flooded Congress with lobbyists.

The other side: Other congressional aides are less worried about the surprise billing effort being killed.

  • “If anything, [providers’] tactics are backfiring. Compassion is winning. Members are more concerned for patients than a profit fight between industries,” a GOP aide familiar with the effort told me.
  • Instead, “members are beginning to question private equity’s interest in this. What is it they’re willing to invest $13 million to save and why are they hiding behind dark money?”

 

 

 

Nonprofit hospitals in Virginia garnish wages more often than for-profit hospitals, yielding only small payoffs

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/nonprofit-hospitals-virginia-garnish-wages-more-often-profit-hospitals-yielding-only-small

More than 70% of Virginia hospitals that garnish wages are nonprofit, and the money collected is only a tiny percentage of revenue.

Nonprofit hospitals in Virginia are more likely to garnish patients’ wages if they don’t pay their medical bills than for-profit hospitals in the state, and ultimately, the practice does little to drive revenue for those hospitals, according to a JAMA study published this week.

Researchers examined Virginia court records from 2017 that dealt with completed “warrant in debt” lawsuits, or cases where a party sues an individual for unpaid debt. They examined how hospital characteristics link to wage garnishments, and found that 71% of hospitals in Virginia that garnished wages were nonprofit.

A recent ProPublica report highlighted Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, which it said filed more than 8,300 lawsuits from 2014 through 2018. Methodist isn’t alone. The JAMA researchers unearthed more than 20,000 debt lawsuits filed by various Virginia hospitals in 2017; more than 9,300 garnishment cases took place that year, and almost three in four were liked to nonprofits.

Some even sue their own employees. Again looking at Methodist, ProPublica found the hospital has sued more than 70 of its employees for unpaid medical bills since 2014, including a suit brought against a hospital housekeeper in 2017 for $23,000 — $7,000 more than her annual salary.

Methodist responded by pointing out its considerable charity care, with community contributions estimated at more than $226 million annually. The federal government expects nonprofit hospitals to provide charity care and financial assistance since those hospitals are exempt from local, state and federal taxes.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT

Just five hospitals — four of them nonprofit — were responsible for more than half of the garnishment cases in the state, JAMA researchers found. Overall, 48 out of 135 Virginia hospitals garnished patient wages, amounting to 36 percent.

Despite the high prevalence of the practice, the money collected from garnishments comprised a minuscule share of hospital revenue. Hospitals that garnished wages collected annual gross revenue that averaged out to $806 million, while garnishments accounted for $722,342. That’s about 0.1% of gross revenue.

The garnishments, which ranged from $24.80 to $25,000, averaged $2783.15 per patient, researchers found.

According to a report filed by NPR, nonprofit Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg was the hospital that sued the most patients in Virginia in 2017 — so much so that Fredericksburg General District Court reserved a morning each month to hear its cases.

The day after NPR published its report, Mary Washington announced its intention to suspend the practice of suing patients for unpaid bills, saying it was committed to a “complete re-evaluation of our entire payment process.”

The JAMA study found that, of those whose wages were garnished, Walmart, Wells Fargo, Amazon and Lowes were the most common employers.

THE LARGER TREND

Though researchers focused on Virginia, suing patients over medical debt is not a trend that’s unique to the state. Arizona hospitals have gone to court over personal injury claims, and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, was recently presented with a petition from citizens and unions to drop medical debt lawsuits.

 

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.

 

 

 

Anthem again irks docs with latest changes to reimbursement

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/anthem-again-irks-docs-with-latest-changes-to-reimbursement/559747/

Anthem is again ruffling the feathers of providers, this time over a new reimbursement policy denying payment for certain follow-up office visits the same day a procedure is performed. 

The policy could impact many specialists and primary care doctors. Dermatologists are particularly upset over the change, which they call punitive and unnecessary with the potential to disrupt patient care.

“It is a nuisance. It makes absolutely no sense,” George Hruza, a practicing dermatologist and president of the American Academy of Dermatology, told Healthcare Dive.

It’s the latest in a string of controversial policies from Anthem. The Blue Cross payer that insures 40 million people has taken steps to rein in costs by enforcing different payment policies based on site of care and other factors. 

In the past several years, the Indianapolis-based for-profit said that it would no longer pay for emergency room visits if patients show up with minor ailments like the common cold. It also stopped paying for certain imaging tests at outpatient facilities owned by hospitals due to the unexplained wide variation in costs compared with freestanding imaging centers.

And this year, Anthem cut rates paid to hospital-based labs in an attempt to align them with independent labs, a strategy that garnered extensive discussion on lab giant Quest Diagnostic’s second quarter earnings call.

Anthem contends the latest change to office visit payments will prevent duplicative billing for similar visits. The change took effect March 1, according to a previous provider alert. Anthem told Healthcare Dive it’s an update to its claims systems and does not describe it as a new reimbursement policy.

Despite conversations with Anthem, Hruza said his organization hasn’t been given an explanation on what triggered the change and whether it actually addresses a problem or an abuse of the system. He said he understands the need to cut healthcare costs, but wonders how much savings the change will generate as some of the visits are below $100.

The payer proposed an almost identical change last year but later decided to pull it back after intense pushback from the American Medical Association and other provider groups. The newer policy is worse because doctors would receive no payment, and it’s more narrowly tailored to the same diagnosis, Hruza said.

‘Appropriate settings’

Anthem argues the policy is needed to move care to more cost-efficient settings.

“Our efforts to help achieve that goal include a range of initiatives that, among other things, encourage consumers to receive care in the most appropriate setting and also help promote accurate coding and submission of bills by providers,” Anthem said in a statement to Healthcare Dive.

Hruza is worried the latest iteration would cause patients delays in care.

He gave the example of a patient with acne prescribed a medication. He would want to see them for a follow-up in a few weeks. At that second appointment, if he saw the treatment wasn’t working well, he might prescribe a different medication. At the same time, he may drain an acne cyst, a minor procedure. That would trigger a denial, he said, because of the two visits revolving around the same diagnosis with the same-day procedure.

AMA is aware of the policy and has had meetings with Anthem about its concerns, a source for the organization that represents the nation’s doctors told Healthcare Dive.

For providers, the big fear is the change will result in unjustified claim denials and encourage other payers to adopt similar measures. Hruza said there is no recourse for contracted providers, particularly those that work in smaller practices, when these changes are made, given Anthem’s size as the nation’s second-largest insurer.

As deductibles rise and patients are shouldering a greater burden of the cost of care, insurers may be feeling the pressure from employers to wring out costs from the provider side, Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University, told Healthcare Dive.

“Employers are getting more and more wise to the fact that the reason we have a cost problem in this country is because of provider prices,” Corlette said. 

 

 

 

Hospital billing is big business

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Health care’s administrative back end — services like verifying patients’ insurance, putting patients on payment plans and collecting patient debt — is bigger than ever, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

The big picture: The U.S.’ fractured insurance system leads hospitals and doctors to spend tens of billions of dollars annually on billing software and services — none of which are tied to actual health care.

Driving the news: For-profit hospital system Tenet Healthcare decided to spin off its billing services unit, Conifer, into its own publicly traded entity in 2021.

Between the lines: Many hospital systems that send out bills have ownership stakes in these companies.

  • Tenet controls 76% of Conifer, which registered $1.5 billion of revenue last year. Catholic Health Initiatives owns the remaining 24%. They both use Conifer.
  • Catholic health system Ascension and private equity firm TowerBrook hold a majority stake in R1 RCM, which used to be named Accretive Health and was prohibited from doing business in Minnesota due to its aggressive collections practices. Two Ascension executives sit on R1’s board.
  • Bon Secours Mercy Health recently sold off a majority stake in its billing firm, Ensemble Health Partners, for $1.2 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Researchers have cited administrative costs as a sizable source of health care waste. Some startups are trying to address this issue, but traditional billing and service firms are only getting larger and have providers as investors.

 

 

 

Politicians Tackle Surprise Bills, but Not the Biggest Source of Them: Ambulances

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A legislative push in Congress and states to end unexpected medical bills has omitted the ambulance industry.

After his son was hit by a car in San Francisco and taken away by ambulance, Karl Sporer was surprised to get a bill for $800.

Mr. Sporer had health insurance, which paid for part of the ride. But the ambulance provider felt that amount wasn’t enough, and billed the Sporer family for the balance.

“I paid it quickly,” Mr. Sporer said. “They go to collections if you don’t.”

That was 15 years ago, but ambulance companies around the nation are still sending such surprise bills to customers, as Mr. Sporer knows well. These days, he oversees the emergency medical services in neighboring Alameda County. The contract his county negotiated allows a private ambulance company to send similar bills to insured patients.

In most parts of medical care, you can choose a doctor or hospital that takes your insurance. But there are some types of care where politicians have begun tackling the “surprise” bills that occur when, say, patients go to an emergency room covered by their insurance and are treated by a physician who is not.

Five states have passed laws this year to restrict surprise billing in hospitals and doctor’s offices. Congress is working on a similar package of measures, after President Trump held a news conference in May urging action on the issue.

But none of these new policies will protect patients from surprise bills like the one Mr. Sporer received. Ordinary ambulances that travel on roads have been left out of every bill.

“Ambulances seem to be the worst example of surprise billing, given how often it occurs,” said Christopher Garmon, a health economist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “If you call 911 for an ambulance, it’s basically a coin flip whether or not that ambulance will be in or out of network.”

Mr. Garmon’s research finds that 51 percent of ground ambulance rides will result in an out-of-network bill. For emergency room visits, that figure stands at only 19 percent.

Congress has shown little appetite to include ambulances in a federal law restricting surprise billing. One proposal would bar surprise bills from air ambulances, helicopters that transport patients who are at remote sites or who have life-threatening injuries. (These types of ambulances tend to be run by private companies.)

But that interest has not extended to more traditional ambulance services — in part because many are run by local and municipal governments.

Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and a key author of a Senate surprise billing proposal, said in an email that surprise bills from air ambulances were the more pressing issue because federal law prevents any local regulation of their prices. “Unlike air ambulances, ground ambulances can be regulated by states,” said Mr. Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee. “And Congress should continue to learn more about how to best solve that problem.”

The ambulance industry has brought its case to Capitol Hill, arranging meetings between members of Congress and their local ambulance operators.

“When we talk to our members of Congress, what we really emphasize is that we’re a little different from the other providers in the surprise billing discussion,” said Shawn Baird, president-elect of the American Ambulance Association. “We have a distinct, public process. The emergency room isn’t subject to any oversight of that kind.”

Patient advocates contend that this public oversight isn’t doing enough to protect patients, who often face surprise bills and forceful collection tactics from ambulance providers.

Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, worked on a 2016 California law to restrict surprise billing. Initially, he thought it made sense to include ambulances in that legislation.

“It’s our experience that ambulance providers bill quicker and are more aggressive in sending bills to collection,” Mr. Wright said. “If they’re being more aggressive, you might want legislation to deal with that one first.”

But obstacles quickly began to mount. Some were about policy, like whether California would need to offset the revenue local governments would lose.

Then there were the politics. “There is the political reality that it’s hard to go after an entire industry at once,” Mr. Wright said. “It’s hard to have a bill opposed by doctors and hospitals and ambulances. We did manage to get a strong protection against doctor billing, but that was an epic, brutal, three-year fight.”

The California law that passed in 2016 did not regulate ambulance prices.

Patient groups elsewhere also say they ran into political trouble. Of the five states that passed surprise billing regulations in 2019, only Colorado’s new law takes aim at ambulance billing — not by regulating it, but by forming a committee to study the issue.

“The surprise bills laws are hard enough to get,” said Chuck Bell, program director for advocacy at Consumer Reports, who worked to pass a Florida surprise billing law in 2016. “You’re struggling with health plans, hospitals and doctors and other provider groups. At a certain point you don’t want to invite another big gorilla in the room to further widen the brawl.”

On Capitol Hill, the ambulance services have been less aggressive than other health care providers in lobbying against their inclusion in reforms. But lawmakers have largely declined to even include them in the conversation.

Consumer advocates say the lack of state-level legislation has been a barrier.

“Since there are issues related to ambulances being run by municipalities, and, at the state level, there hasn’t been a lot of model law to inform federal law, I think that’s made some members hesitant to wade into that space,” said Claire McAndrew, the director of campaigns and partnerships at the health care consumer group Families USA.

Local governments generally finance their ambulance services through a mix of user fees and taxes. If ambulances charge less to patients, they typically need more government funding.

Municipal governments often publish the prices of their ambulance services online, and they can range substantially. In Moraga and Orinda, in the Bay Area, the base rate for an ambulance ride is $2,600, plus $42 for each mile traveled. In Marion County, Fla., the most basic kind of ambulance ride costs $550, plus $11.25 per mile.

In many communities, there is no choice of ambulances.

Older patients are not charged such fees. Medicare, which also covers some people with disabilities, pays set prices for ambulance rides — a base rate of around $225 for the most typical type of care, in addition to a mileage fee — and forbids the companies to send patients additional bills.

In Bucks County, Pa., where it is $1,500 for a basic ambulance ride, in addition to $16 per mile, the emergency medical service gets 78 percent of its revenue from ambulance billing, according to Chuck Pressler, the executive director of the Central Bucks Emergency Medical Services. The rest of the budget comes from taxes raised by local cities and fund-raising drives.

“There is an expectation that we just plant money trees, that people should come in and work for free,” Mr. Pressler said of proposals to tamp down ambulance billing. “When was the last time you saw the police send out a fund-raiser? They don’t have to do that. Why do we have to raise money to come get you when you’re sick?”