Here come the Millennials!

We spend an awful lot of time in healthcare talking about the Baby Boomers. No surprise, America has spent decades—six-and-a-half of them, to be exact—contending with the impact of this historically large generation on nearly every aspect of our national life. From politics to economics to culture, the Baby Boom reshaped almost every facet of our society, and healthcare has been no exception. The fact that over 10,000 Boomers join the Medicare ranks every day means they’ll have a transformative effect on how healthcare is delivered and paid for—up to and including the sustainability of the Medicare program itself. So it may come as a shock to Boomers to learn that, starting in 2019, it’s no longer All About Them. This year America passes a new milestone: Baby Boomers are now outnumbered by Millennials. As the chart below shows, Boomers (whose average age is now 63), will be surpassed this year by America’s new Largest Generation. Born between 1981 and 1996, the Millennials are now 30 years old on average, and there are 72.5M of them, compared to 72.0M Boomers—a gap that will continue to widen. (Thanks to immigration, we have another 14 years until we hit “peak” Millennial, according to Census Bureau projections.)

This demographic achievement alone ought to earn Millennials a participation trophy—obviously, not their first. (Forgive the sarcasm…we’re Gen X-ers, it’s what we do.) But this changing demographic landscape brings big implications for healthcare. Boomers are just entering their peak “senior care” consumption years now, and we’ll have a quarter-century or more of very expensive care to fund for a generation that is by all indications more riven with chronic disease but more likely to live into very old age than previous cohorts. That creates the imperative for population health approaches that allow care for seniors to be delivered in lower-acuity settings. At the same time, however, Millennials are really just entering the healthcare system. For the next several years, most of their care needs will be driven by having babies and caring for growing families. But just as the last of the Boomers get their Medicare cards in 2029, the Millennials will begin to enter their “upkeep” years—demanding a variety of diagnostics, surgeries, and procedures to keep them thriving. Who will pay for all of that specialty care, and where will it be delivered? Today’s health system planners would do well to begin to look ahead to future capacity needs, and economic models.

The Millennials bring dramatically different service expectations as well. This is a generation raised in the era of Amazon. One-click purchases, same-day delivery, frictionless transactions, personalized offerings, low institutional loyalty—all of that will shape the way this generation thinks about consuming healthcare, with huge implications for providers. This is a high-information generation, whose adult years have seen a pervasive shift from physical to digital commerce, and they’ll expect healthcare to follow that trend. Ask today’s pediatric providers how different the Millennials are as parent-consumers—you’ll quickly get the picture. Even as physicians, hospitals and others scramble to retool care delivery to more efficiently manage the swelling ranks of seniors, they’ll need to keep a close eye on the preferences of Millennials, upon whom their future fortunes will rely, and who won’t tolerate the hurry-up-and-wait ethos that still pervades American medicine.

(Spoiler alert: waiting in the wings is Gen Z, digital natives born in 1997 and after. Guess what? There’s even more of them!)


Kaiser Permanente just invested in a housing complex. Here’s what it’s doing with it

Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser Permanente has gotten into the business of housing.

The health system announced in May that it would put $200 million toward initiatives targeting housing insecurity and homelessness in the communities it serves. On Tuesday night, it announced the first investment is the $5.2 million purchase of an affordable housing complex in Oakland, California, through a fund in partnership with Enterprise Community Partners and the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation.

The 41-unit building is in an Oakland neighborhood “on the brink of gentrification” which puts the existing residents at risk for displacement. By purchasing the building, it will be blocked from redevelopment that prices out the existing residents, preventing displacement, Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson said at a press event on Tuesday.

Preserving buildings like this is a “key component to addressing the national homelessness crisis,” he said. “We know that preserving affordable housing is more effective than building new units.”

It’s part of a comprehensive strategy, officials said, to invest in addressing the economic, social and environmental conditions that ultimately affect the health of their patients.

Kaiser also announced it is “adopting” 500 homeless individuals in the city, Tyson said. He said that several of the system’s employees focused for 12 weeks to expedite a strategy to partner with community groups to house older homeless patients with chronic conditions.

All 500 people identified by the system have at least one chronic condition. The system is working with local groups to secure housing and other needed services for this group.

The plans unveiled by the system on Tuesday also expand beyond Oakland and the Bay Area, where Kaiser is headquartered. On top of the two initiatives focused in that region, Kaiser and Enterprise are teaming up to launch a $100 million loan fund to create or maintain affordable housing units in all of the communities Kaiser Permanente serves. 

Tyson said the health system will make future announcements about specific plans under that fund. Tackling this issue, he said, “ties into who we are and what we’re about as Kaiser Permanente.”

“This is the beginning of us being in traffic and backing our talk that we want to help to make a difference in Oakland, in the Bay Area, in this great country,” Tyson said.




What the 2018 Midterm Elections Means for Health Care

Whatever you want to call the 2018 midterm elections – blue wave, rainbow wave, or purple puddle – one thing is clear: Democrats will control the House.

That fundamental shift in the balance of power in Washington will have substantial implications for health care policymaking over the next two years. Based on a variety of signals they have been sending heading into Tuesday, we can make some safe assumptions about where congressional Democrats will focus in the 116th Congress. As importantly, there were a slew of health care-related decisions made at the state level, perhaps most notably four referenda on Medicaid expansion.

In this post, I’ll take a look at which health care issues will come to the fore of the Federal agenda due to the outcome Tuesday, as well as state expansion decisions. And it should of course be noted that, in addition to positive changes Democrats are likely to pursue over the next two years, House control will allow them to block legislation they oppose, notably further GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Drug Pricing

Democrats have long signaled they consider pharmaceutical pricing to be one of their highest priorities, even after then-candidate Trump adopted the issue as part of his campaign platform and maintained his focus there through his tenure as President.

While aiming to use the issue to drive a wedge between President Trump and congressional Republicans, who have historically opposed government action to set or influence prices, Democrats will also strive to distinguish themselves by going further on issues like direct government negotiation of Medicare Part D drug reimbursement.

Relevant House committee chairs, perhaps especially likely Oversight and Investigations chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD), will also take a more aggressive tack in investigating manufacturers and other sector stakeholders for pricing increases and other practices. Democratic leaders believe it will be easier to achieve consensus on this issue than on more contentious issues like single payer (more detail below) among their diverse caucus, which will include dozens more members from “purple” districts as well as members on the left flank of the party

Preexisting Condition Protections

If you live in a contested state or district, you have probably seen political ads relating to protecting patients with preexisting conditions. As long as a Republican-supported lawsuit seeking to repeal the ACA continues, Democrats believe they can leverage this issue to demonstrate the importance of the ACA and their broader health care platform.

A three-legged stool serves under current law to protect patients with chronic conditions: (1) the ban on preexisting condition exclusions; (2) guaranteed issue; and (3) community rating. Democrats will likely seek to bolster these protections with measures to shore up the ACA exchange markets. In the same vein, they will likely strive to rescind Trump Administration proposals to expand association-based and short-term health plans, which put patients with higher medical costs at risk by disaggregating the market.


Congressional Democrats believe that there were some stones left unturned in this year’s opioid-related legislation, especially regarding funding for many of the programs it authorized. This is a priority for likely Ways & Means Committee Chair Richie Neal (D-MA) and could potentially be a source of bipartisan compromise.

Medicare for All

While this issue could become a bugaboo for old guard party leaders, the Democratic base will likely escalate its calls for action on Medicare for All now that the party has taken the House. Because the details of what various camps intend by this term are still vague (some believe it is tantamount to single payer, others view it as a gap-fill for existing uninsured, etc.), we will likely see a variety of competing proposals arise in the coming two years. Expect less bona fide committee action and more of a public debate aired via the presidential primary season that will kick off about, oh, right now.

Surprise Bills

The drug industry is not the only health care sector that can expect heightened scrutiny of their pricing practices now that Democrats control the people’s chamber. Most notably, the phenomenon of surprise bills (unexpected charges often stemming from a hospital visit) has risen as a salient issue for the public and thus a political winner for the party. Republicans have shown interest in this issue as well, so it could be another source of bipartisanship next year.

Regulatory Oversight

Democrats believe they are scoring well with the public, and certainly their base, every time they take on President Trump. The wide range of aggressive regulation (and deregulation) the Administration has pursued will be thoroughly investigated and challenged by Democratic committee leaders, especially administration efforts to dismantle the ACA and to test the legal bounds of the hospital site neutrality policy enacted in the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) of 2015.


While it instituted permanent policies for Medicare physician payments and some other oft-renewed ‘extenders’, the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) of 2015 left a variety of policies in the perennial legislative limbo of needing to be repeatedly extended. While the policies in the Medicare space have dwindled to subterranean, though not necessarily cheap, affairs like the floor on geographic adjustments to physician payments, a slew of Medicaid-related and other policies are up for renewal in 2019.

For example, Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments face a (previously delayed) cliff next year. That and the most expensive extender, ACA-initiated funding for community health centers, alone spring the cost of this package into the high single digit billions at least, driving a need for offsetting payment cuts and creating a vehicle for additional policy priorities.

A likely addition to this discussion will be the fact that Medicare physician payments, per MACRA, are scheduled to flatline for 2020-2025 before beginning to increase again, albeit in divergent ways for doctors participating in the Merit-Based Incentive Payment Program (MIPs – 0.25 percent/year) and Advanced Alternative Payment Models (APMs – 0.75 percent/year). The AMA assuredly noticed this little wrinkle in the celebrated legislation but hundreds of thousands of doctors probably did not.

Medicaid Expansion

Of the variety of state-level health policy decisions voters made on Tuesday, perhaps the most significant related to Medicaid expansion. In there states where Republican leaders have blocked expansion under the ACA – Nebraska, Idaho, and Utah – voters endorsed it via public referenda. Increasing the Medicaid eligibility level in those three states to the ACA standard will bring coverage to approximately 300,000 people.

Notably, voters in Montana rejected a proposal to continue funding the Medicaid expansion the state enacted temporarily in 2015 by an increase to the state’s tobacco tax. Their expansion is now scheduled to lapse in July 2019 if the legislature doesn’t act to maintain it. If they do not act, about 129,000 Montanans will lose Medicaid coverage.

Finally, Democratic gubernatorial wins in Maine, Kansas, and Wisconsin will make Medicaid expansion more likely in those states.

As they say, elections have consequences. While the Republican-controlled Senate and White House can block any Democratic priorities they oppose, the 2018 midterm elections assure a busy two years for health care stakeholders.



​Many families can’t afford even moderate deductibles

Reproduced from Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finance; Note: Liquid assets include the sum of checking and saving accounts, money market accounts, certificates of deposit, savings bonds, non-retirement mutual funds, stocks and bonds; Chart: Axios Visuals

A lot of low-income families can’t afford even a moderate deductible, yet deductibles continue to rise in almost all forms of insurance, Kaiser Family Foundation president Drew Altman writes in his latest Axios column.

  • Roughly 40% of all non-elderly households don’t have enough liquid assets to cover a high deductible ($3,000 for an individual or $6,000 for a family).
  • Among families whose income makes them eligible for the ACA’s premium subsidies, 60% don’t have enough liquid assets to cover a high deductible and 44% couldn’t cover the deductible for a mid-range plan ($1,500 for an individual or $3,000 for a family).

Why it matters: High deductibles are everywhere, and they’re only getting higher. Many ACA plans have relatively big deductibles and Republicans’ alternatives would push them higher. They’ve been getting bigger and bigger in employer plans, too.

  • “For many families, even if they have insurance, any significant illness could wipe out all their savings, making impossible to fix a broken car to get to work, or pay for school, or make a rent or mortgage payment,” Altman says.

5 Ways the Graham-Cassidy Proposal Puts Medicaid Coverage At Risk

Image result for 5 Ways the Graham-Cassidy Proposal Puts Medicaid Coverage At Risk


The Graham-Cassidy proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is reviving the federal health reform debate and could come up for a vote in the Senate in the next two weeks before the budget reconciliation authority expires on September 30. The Graham-Cassidy proposal goes beyond the American Health Care Act (AHCA) passed by the House in May and the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) that failed in the Senate in July. The Graham-Cassidy proposal revamps and cuts Medicaid, redistributes federal funds across states, and eliminates coverage for millions of poor Americans as described below:
  1. Ends federal funding for current ACA coverage and partially replaces that funding with a block grant that expires after 2026. The proposal ends both the authority to cover childless adults and funding for the ACA Medicaid expansion that covers 15 million adults. Under Graham-Cassidy, a new block grant, the “Market-Based Health Care Grant Program,” combines federal funds for the ACA Medicaid expansion, premium and cost sharing subsidies in the Marketplace, and states’ Basic Health Plans for 2020-2026. Capped nationally, the block grant would be lower than ACA spending under current law and would end after 2026. States would need to replace federal dollars or roll back coverage. Neither the AHCA nor the BCRA included expiration dates for ACA-related federal funds or eliminated the ability for states to cover childless adults through Medicaid.
  2. Massively redistributes federal funding from Medicaid expansion states to non-expansion states through the block grant program penalizing states that broadened coverage. In 2020, block grant funds would be distributed based on federal spending in states for ACA Medicaid and Marketplace coverage. By 2026, funding would go to states according to the states’ portion of the population with incomes between 50% and 138% of poverty; the new allocation is phased in over the 2021-2025 period. The Secretary has the authority to make other adjustments to the allocation. This allocation would result in a large redistribution of ACA funding by 2026, away from states that adopted the Medicaid expansion and redirecting funding to states that did not. No funding is provided beyond 2026.
  3. Prohibits Medicaid coverage for childless adults and allows states to use limited block grant funds to purchase private coverage for traditional Medicaid populations. States can use funds under the block grant to provide tax credits and/or cost-sharing reductions for individual market coverage, make direct payments to providers, or provide coverage for traditional Medicaid populations through private insurance. The proposal limits the amount of block grant funds that a state could use for traditional Medicaid populations to 15% of its allotment (or 20% under a special waiver). These limits would shift coverage and funds for many low-income adults from Medicaid to individual market coverage. Under current law, 60% of federal ACA coverage funding is currently for the Medicaid expansion (covering parents and childless adults). Medicaid coverage is typically more comprehensive, less expensive and has more financial protections compared to private insurance. The proposal also allows states to roll back individual market protections related to premium pricing, including allowing premium rating based on health status, and benefits currently in the ACA.
  4. Caps and redistributes federal funds to states for the traditional Medicaid program for more than 60 million low-income children, parents, people with disabilities and the elderly. Similar to the BCRA and AHCA, the proposal establishes a Medicaid per enrollee cap as the default for federal financing based on a complicated formula tied to different inflation rates. As a result, federal Medicaid financing would grow more slowly than estimates under current law. In addition to overall spending limits, similar to the BCRA, the proposal would give the HHS Secretary discretion to further redistribute capped federal funds across states by making adjustments to states with high or low per enrollee spending.
  5. Eliminates federal funding for states to cover Medicaid family planning at Planned Parenthood clinics for one year. Additional funding restrictions include limits on states’ ability to use provider tax revenue to finance Medicaid as well as the termination of the enhanced match for the Community First Choice attendant care program for seniors and people with disabilities. Enrollment barriers include the option for states to condition Medicaid eligibility on a work requirement and to conduct more frequent redeterminations.
Much is at stake for low-income Americans and states in the Graham-Cassidy proposal. The recent debate over the AHCA and the BCRA has shown the difficulty of making major changes that affect coverage for over 70 million Americans and reduce federal funding for Medicaid. Medicaid has broad support and majorities across political parties say Medicaid is working well. More than half of the states have a strong stake in continuing the ACA Medicaid expansion as it has provided coverage to millions of low-income residents, reduced the uninsured and produced net fiscal benefits to states. Graham-Cassidy prohibits states from using Medicaid to provide coverage to childless adults. With regard to Medicaid financing changes, caps on federal funding could shift costs to states and result in less fiscal flexibility for states. States with challenging demographics (like an aging population), high health care needs (like those hardest hit by the opioid epidemic), high cost markets or states that operate efficient programs may have the hardest time responding to federal caps on Medicaid spending. Faced with substantially reduced federal funding, states would face difficult choices: raise revenue, reduce spending in other areas, or cut Medicaid provider payments, optional benefits, and/or optional coverage groups.

Last-Ditch Effort By Republicans To Replace ACA: What You Need To Know

Last-Ditch Effort By Republicans To Replace ACA: What You Need To Know

Related image

Republican efforts in Congress to “repeal and replace” the federal Affordable Care Act are back from the dead. Again.

While the chances for this last-ditch measure appear iffy, many GOP senators are rallying around a proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), along with Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.)

They are racing the clock to round up the needed 50 votes — and there are 52 Senate Republicans.

An earlier attempt to replace the ACA this summer fell just one vote short when Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) voted against it. The latest push is setting off a massive guessing game on Capitol Hill about where the GOP can pick up the needed vote.

After Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year, Republicans would need 60 votes ­— which means eight Democrats — to pass any such legislation because special budget rules allowing approval with a simple majority will expire.

Unlike previous GOP repeal-and-replace packages that passed the House and nearly passed the Senate, the Graham-Cassidy proposal would leave in place most of the ACA taxes that generated funding to expand coverage for millions of Americans. The plan would simply give those funds as lump sums to each state. States could do almost whatever they please with them. And the Congressional Budget Office has yet to weigh in on the potential impact of the bill, although earlier estimates of similar provisions suggest premiums would go up and coverage down.

“If you believe repealing and replacing Obamacare is a good idea, this is your best and only chance to make it happen, because everything else has failed,” said Graham in unveiling the bill last week.

Here are five things to know about the latest GOP bill: 

1. It would repeal most of the structure of the ACA.

The Graham-Cassidy proposal would eliminate the federal insurance exchange,, along with the subsidies and tax credits that help people with low and moderate incomes — and small businesses — pay for health insurance and associated health costs. It would eliminate penalties for individuals who fail to obtain health insurance and employers who fail to provide it.

It would eliminate the tax on medical devices. 

2. It would eliminate many of the popular insurance protections, including those for people with preexisting conditions, in the health law.

Under the proposal, states could “waive” rules in the law requiring insurers to provide a list of specific “essential health benefits” and mandating that premiums be the same for people regardless of their health status. That would once again expose people with preexisting health conditions to unaffordable or unavailable coverage. Republicans have consistently said they wanted to maintain these protections, which polls have shown to be popular among voters.

3. It would fundamentally restructure the Medicaid program.

Medicaid, the joint-federal health program for low-income people, currently covers more than 70 million Americans. The Graham-Cassidy proposal would end the program’s expansion under the ACA and cap funding overall, and it would redistribute the funds that had provided coverage for millions of new Medicaid enrollees. It seeks to equalize payments among states. States that did not expand Medicaid and were getting fewer federal dollars for the program would receive more money and states that did expand would see large cuts, according to the bill’s own sponsors. For example, Oklahoma would see an 88 percent increase from 2020 to 2026, while Massachusetts would see a 10 percent cut.

The proposal would also bar Planned Parenthood from getting any Medicaid funding for family planning and other reproductive health services for one year, the maximum allowed under budget rules governing this bill. 

4. It’s getting mixed reviews from the states.

Sponsors of the proposal hoped for significant support from the nation’s governors as a way to help push the bill through. But, so far, the governors who are publicly supporting the measure, including Scott Walker (R-Wis.) and Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.), are being offset by opponents including Chris Sununu (R-N.H.), John Kasich (R-Ohio) and Bill Walker (I-Alaska).

On Tuesday 10 governors — five Democrats, four Republicans and Walker — sent a letterto Senate leaders urging them to pursue a more bipartisan approach. “Only open, bipartisan approaches can achieve true, lasting reforms,” said the letter.

Bill sponsor Cassidy was even taken to task publicly by his own state’s health secretary. Dr. Rebekah Gee, who was appointed by Louisiana’s Democratic governor, wrote that the bill “uniquely and disproportionately hurts Louisiana due to our recent [Medicaid] expansion and high burden of extreme poverty.”

5. The measure would come to the Senate floor with the most truncated process imaginable.

The Senate is working on its Republican-only plans under a process called “budget reconciliation,” which limits floor debate to 20 hours and prohibits a filibuster. In fact, all the time for floor debate was used up in July, when Republicans failed to advance any of several proposed overhaul plans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could bring the bill back up anytime, but senators would immediately proceed to votes. Specifically, the next order of business would be a process called “vote-a-rama,” where votes on the bill and amendments can continue, in theory, as long as senators can stay awake to call for them.

Several senators, most notably John McCain, who cast the deciding vote to stop the process in July, have called for “regular order,” in which the bill would first be considered in the relevant committee before coming to the floor. The Senate Finance Committee, which Democrats used to write most of the ACA, has scheduled a hearing for next week. But there is not enough time for full committee consideration and a vote before the end of next week.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office said in a statement Tuesday that it could come up with an analysis by next week that would determine whether the proposal meets the requirements to be considered under the reconciliation process. But it said that more complicated questions like how many people would lose insurance under the proposal or what would happen to insurance premiums could not be answered “for at least several weeks.”

That has outraged Democrats, who are united in opposition to the measure.

“I don’t know how any senator could go home to their constituents and explain why they voted for a major bill with major consequences to so many of their people without having specific answers about how it would impact their state,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor Tuesday.

An Untapped Opportunity For Health Care Progress: Redesigning Care For High-Need Patients

A doctor works with a patient

While uncertainty and debate about health care reform remains, there is near-universal agreement on the need to improve care delivery and health outcomes and decrease the rate at which spending continues to grow. An underrecognized but crucial component to achieving these goals is redesigning care for “high-need patients”—in other words, the small cohort of patients with complex needs who represent the greatest usage of the health care system.

Currently, 1 percent of patients account for more than 20 percent of health care expenditures, and 5 percent account for nearly half of the nation’s spending on health care, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Driving these costs for high-need patients are the functional limitations that impact patients’ daily living and ability to cope with health challenges, leading to their use of health care and social services that are often too late and poorly matched to their needs.

A 2014 survey conducted by the Commonwealth Fund found that high-need patients are highly susceptible to lack of coordination within the health care system and are more likely to experience cost-related barriers to accessing care, compared to other older adults. A 2016 Commonwealth Fund survey found that nearly two-thirds of high-need patients reported hardships with housing, meals, or utilities and that this population was also more likely to report feeling socially isolated, compared with the general adult population. Providing quality care for these high-need patients is a sizable challenge—yet it’s also an area where strategic attention and investment could yield significant payoffs for patients and the entire health system.

Indeed, a number of health systems have designed successful models that leverage an understanding of the unique characteristics of high-need patients to deliver quality care at sustainable costs.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, a new publication from the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) says successful models generally share a number of common features across four dimensions:

    • Focus of service setting. Successful models tailor their care settings for either a targeted age group with various combinations of illnesses or individuals who use a significant amount of care. Examples of care settings include enhanced primary care, transitional care, integrated care, home-based care, and others.
    • Care and condition attributes. Successful models include practices such as targeting patients most likely to benefit from an intervention, coordinating care and communication among patients and providers, promoting patient and family engagement in self-care, and facilitating transitions from the hospital and referrals to community resources.
    • Delivery features. Successful models often feature the use of care managers alongside primary care providers to identify and work with high-risk patients. In addition, they often put high-risk patients under the care of specific physicians who treat a limited number of patients to enhance communication and adherence.
    • Organizational culture. For care models to be successful, organizations must emphasize leadership at all levels; be capable of adapting based on the size of the program and local circumstances; offer specialized, customizable training for team members; and effectively use data access, sources, and application.

Denver Health: A Real-World Example

In 2012, Denver Health—an integrated system that includes an acute care hospital, all of Denver’s federally qualified health centers, a public health department, an emergency 9-1-1 call center, a health maintenance organization, and several school-based health centers—set out to create a new care model and transform its primary care delivery system by providing individualized care that would more effectively meet medical, behavioral, and social needs for its largely low-income population. In designing its 21st Century Care model, which included modifications to better serve its high-need patients, Denver Health’s goals were to improve the experience of care, improve the health of populations, and reduce per capita costs of health care. Early in its implementation, a fourth goal also emerged: improving provider engagement and creating healthier and happier patients.

With support from a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation award, Denver Health was able to redesign its health teams and invest in health information technology to enable population segmentation and categorization of patients by clinical risk groups. Funds were also spent on rapid evaluation efforts to refine the care model’s design.

The new model matched care delivery to four risk tiers. Healthy individuals were assigned to tier one and interacted with staff using Denver Health’s eTouch text messaging platform. Individuals in tier two received additional chronic disease management, such as lay patient navigators, nurse care coordination and home visits, and environmental scans for children with asthma. For patients in tiers three and four, integrated behavioral health assessments and care were standard, as was the inclusion of nurse care coordinators, clinical pharmacists, and clinical social workers as part of the care team. For patients in tier four, Denver Health relied on specialized intensive outpatient clinics to serve as adult patients’ medical homes or multidisciplinary special needs clinics for high-risk pediatric patients. Targeted toward individuals who had experienced multiple potentially avoidable inpatient admissions within one year, care teams in these clinics included a dedicated social worker and navigator, and teams were responsible for a limited number of patients. This clinic also worked closely with the Mental Health Center of Denver.

Denver Health’s systems modification paid off, particularly for high-need patients. These innovations not only improved patient outcomes and patient and provider satisfaction, but also resulted in reductions in expected spending. Over a one-year period, the system saw an approximately 2 percent reduction in expected spending. Most of the savings were driven by a decrease in hospitalizations among patients in tier four. Denver Health’s success demonstrates the real potential of strategic models to improve care for these patients while curbing health care spending.

The Opportunity

Health systems can play an essential role in improving care for our nation’s high-need patients. That’s why we, as members of an initiative under the NAM Leadership Consortium for a Value and Science-Driven Health System, are spreading the word about the characteristics of high-need patients, the challenges they face, and the features of successful care models for this population. This initiative was conducted in partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Commonwealth Fund, and publication sponsor, the Peterson Center on Healthcare.

To promote improvements to the care of high-need patients, health systems should work with payers, providers, and other health systems to better identify and target high-need patients, test new practices and tools, and develop interactive electronic health records that can include functional and behavioral status and social needs. They should use established metrics and quality improvement approaches to continuously assess and improve care models and partner with community organizations, patients, caregivers, and social and behavioral health service providers outside the health care system to create patient-centered care plans. Health systems can also assess their current culture and promote changes needed to build new and successful care models, blending medical, social, and behavioral approaches.

Of course, health systems can’t do this alone. At the federal level, policy makers should improve coordination among the Medicare and Medicaid programs to increase access to needed services and reduce the burden on patients and caregivers, and should continue payment policy reforms that align initiatives to incentivize pay-for-performance instead of fee-for-service models. Policy makers should also explore the expansion of programs that could mitigate the financial strain of caregiving, such as Medicaid’s Cash and Counseling—a national program in which the government gave people cash allowances to pay for the services and goods they felt would best meet their personal care needs and counseling about managing their services—and incentivize the adoption and use of interoperable electronic health records that include functional, behavioral health, and social factors.

Payers can develop financing models to provide social and behavioral health services that will both improve care and lower the total cost of care for high-need patients, recognizing that even cost-neutral programs are worth supporting if the outcome is positive for patients. Providers can learn to work collaboratively in teams and engage with patients, care partners, and their caregivers in the design and delivery of care.

Return on investment for most models of care for high-need patients will take time. But one of the most expensive and challenging populations for the current health care system will remain underserved and continue to drive health care spending until there is a unified effort to improve their care. We know there are models that work. Now, action is critical, and while health care reform remains on center stage in the national policy agenda, the time is right. By taking the lead in the bold changes needed for this transformation, health systems can play a pivotal role alongside all stakeholders in reducing costs and improving the health of some of the nation’s most vulnerable patients.