Media outlets report on news from Pennsylvania, Georgia, California, Minnesota, Florida, New Hampshire, Texas, Virginia, Iowa, Ohio and Massachusetts.
The hospitals say that complying with the rule, which requires employees to compensate workers when there are last-minute schedule changes, would mean a collective $30 million loss. Meanwhile, Chicago-area chains have been reconfiguring themselves to become specialty hospitals. Other hospital news comes out of California, Massachusetts and Kansas, as well.
CHEROKEE, N.C. — Light pours through large windows and glass ceilings of the Cherokee Indian Hospital onto a fireplace, a waterfall and murals. Rattlesnake Mountain, which the Cherokee elders say holds ancient healing powers, is visible from most angles. The hospital’s motto — “Ni hi tsa tse li” or “It belongs to you” — is written in Cherokee syllabary on the wall at the main entrance.
“It doesn’t look like a hospital, and it doesn’t feel like a hospital,” Kristy Nations said on a recent visit to pick up medications at the pharmacy. “It actually feels good to be here.”
Profits from the tribe’s casino have helped the 12,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opt out of the troubled U.S. government-run Indian Health Service. They are part of an expanding experiment in decentralization, in which about 20% of federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, California, Arizona and elsewhere have been granted permission to take full control of their health care.
For the North Carolina Cherokee, self-governance has meant adopting an integrated care model designed by Alaska Natives to deliver care that not only improves patients’ health, but also is tailor-made for the needs of the tribe. It has meant the opening of a 20-bed state-of-the-art facility in 2015 and the construction of an 18-bed mental health clinic scheduled to open in October 2020.
The hospital is a “medical home for our people,” said Casey Cooper, the hospital’s CEO who is a member of the tribe.
Half of the Indian Health Service budget is now managed by Indian tribes to various degrees. But while full control has worked out well for tribes with resources like the Eastern Cherokee, they are one of just a few bright spots in an otherwise dire medical landscape. It remains to be seen how widely this model can be applied.
“Not all tribal communities have access to the economic opportunities that we have,” Cooper said. “Some tribes are in these desolate, remote locations where there are no natural resources or economic development opportunities. I get that.”
Self-Governing To Change The Narrative
The U.S is legally obligated to offer health services to all members of the 573 federally recognized tribes. Yet the federal Indian Health Service, which currently provides direct care to about 2.2 million out of the nation’s estimated 3.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, is chronically underfunded. The current IHS budget is about $5.4 billion, yet the National Indian Health Board estimates the total level of need to be nearly $37 billion.
American Indians are more than twice as likely to get diabetes and six times as likely to get tuberculosis than the average U.S. population. Mental illness, and especially substance abuse, runs high in Indian Country. Native Americans are more likely to commit suicide than any other ethnic or racial group.
Health disparities are particularly harsh in the Northern Plains region. In the Dakotas, average life expectancy among American Indians is 20 years less than among white Americans.
“You do not have to cross an ocean to find Third World health conditions,” said Dr. Donald Warne, a professor of public health at the University of North Dakota and an Oglala Lakota tribesman. “You can find them right here, in the heartland of the United States.”
One particularly grim example is the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In 2015, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services found safety violations at the local IHS hospital so severe that they shut down the emergency room for six months. During this time, at least five patients died en route to other hospitals located sometimes 100 or more miles away. Since then, the situation has only slightly improved.
“The Indian Health Service respects tribal sovereignty and is committed to tribal self-governance,” said IHS spokesman Joshua Barnett. “IHS recognizes that tribal leaders and members are in the best position to understand the health care needs and priorities of their communities.”
Self-governance also allows tribes to be eligible for Medicare, Medicaid, private-sector health insurance, partnerships with larger health systems and even federal grants that are designed for underserved communities — all which can be limited for the IHS.
“Generally speaking, tribally operated health care systems tend to run more efficiently, more effectively and with higher quality of care than IHS-managed systems,” said Warne.
Money Makes A Difference
The Cherokee Indian Hospital is lucky to be supported by a tribe that’s economically thriving due to gambling revenues, according to Cooper. The Qualla Boundary is home to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. It’s a unique situation, said Indian health expert Warne, as most reservation casinos don’t make huge profits.
The hospital’s annual budget has grown from $20 million to over $80 million within the past 17 years. The largest sources are third-party reimbursements, mostly from Medicaid and Medicare, at $27.4 million, followed by IHS contributions and tribal funding.
In 2012, the hospital decided to implement a new, patient-centered approach called the Nuka System of Care, created by the Southcentral Foundation, a nonprofit health provider owned and led by Alaska Natives. A Cherokee delegation visited a Nuka program to see how it could be tailored to their culture and health needs.
“An integrated approach is more consistent with traditional healing,” Warne said. Since “we don’t separate our physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health the way we do in modern specialized health care.”
At Cherokee Indian Hospital, patients are assigned a team, which typically includes a primary care physician or a family nurse practitioner as well as a nutritionist, a pharmacist and a behavioral health specialist.
Rebuilding their health care prompted the need for the new hospital. Gambling revenue covered most of the costs for the $82 million facility. “The old building was outdated and inefficient,” said Cooper, “a constant reminder of the paternalistically provided Indian Health Service.”
The new hospital’s main concourse — called Riverwalk — tells stories from Cherokee legend through graphics of a winding river, fish and turtles inlaid in the terrazzo floor. Signs are written in English and Cherokee. A literal translation of the emergency room sign is “Get better in a hurry,” and the dental suite is “the place that gives you a big smile.”
Patients can receive dialysis, acupuncture, massage therapy and chiropractic care. The ambulance bay, surgical suite and in-patient unit are located out of patients’ view to reduce anxiety and stress.
“The building really is one big strategic tool,” Cooper said.
Nations, the patient visiting recently, remembers the old days when she and her family, many of them dealing with diabetes and some on dialysis, used to wait for hours in the former hospital, a dark space dubbed “the bunker.”
The 46-year-old said that she’d typically see different providers every visit. “And every time I would have to tell my story over and over and over.” Now, she feels somewhat accountable to her care team — and more motivated to make and keep appointments.
“Back then, if my provider had wanted me to see a nutritionist, for example, I would have probably said, ‘Whatever,’ and forgotten about it,” she said.
“We’re trying to build a relationship with our patients,” said Richard Bunio, the Cherokee Indian Hospital’s clinical director who is Canadian and married to a tribe member. He noted that Native Americans generally have suffered a lot of historical trauma, leading to deeply rooted mistrust of mainstream medicine.
By quality measures, including the widely used Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set, the hospital has recently performed in the top quartile for blood pressure control, blood sugar control and several cancer screenings. Also, Cooper added that in the past four years the diabetes rate in the community has leveled.
Could It Work Everywhere?
It is uncertain if self-governance would work for tribes such as the Rosebud Sioux or the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where geographic isolation, poverty and a lack of resources make new health care investments difficult.
“It’s a huge challenge, but it’s possible,” said Warne, adding that philanthropy or partnerships with an academic health system might help finance such projects.
Not too long ago, tribal officials from South Dakota visited the Cherokee Indian Hospital. Despite their geographic and socioeconomic challenges, Cooper said, he believes self-determination is essential for their future. “Self-determination works. Self-determination is the right thing. And self-determination is the catalyst to restoring the health of our communities.”
Yet many of the South Dakota tribal leaders remain skeptical. They are concerned that self-determination would let the federal government off the hook from its responsibility to provide health services.
Therefore, the Rosebud Sioux took a different route. Instead of just parting ways with the IHS, they sued the federal government for violating treaties. The case is pending in court.
Happy Friday! As you all know, when I come across an outrageous medical mystery story I like to drag you all down with me because horrified misery loves company. This week’s offering: A man in Kentucky went into his doctor complaining of eye irritation. And what did his doctor pull out of his eyeball? That’s right! A tick. (You’re welcome.)
Quickly moving on! Here’s what you might have missed during this very hot week.
The tensions in the Democratic presidential field that have been brewing for a while erupted into verbal sparring between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden. The mini-war seems to be more than just your typical political posturing — both men have deep personal stakes in the issue (which, if you haven’t noticed, voters care a lot about right now). Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan is nearly synonymous with the man himself, while Biden experienced firsthand the blood, sweat and tears it took to actually get the health law passed.
Earlier in the week, Biden dropped his own health plan, which could be summed up as the Affordable Care Act on steroids. And his promise that went along with the reveal — “If you like your plan … you can keep it” — was a blast-from-the-past that highlights all the advantages (the health law is quite popular at the moment) and pitfalls (that promise when President Barack Obama made it was ranked PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year”) of taking this particular path.
It also nudged Biden and Sanders into a collision over their philosophical differences that played out in public at various events this week. Neither candidate pulled punches, but Sanders, in particular, had some tough words for his rival. “Unfortunately, he is sounding like Donald Trump,” he said. “He is sounding like the health care industry, in that regard.”
On that note, Sanders called on the Democratic candidates to join his pledge not to take donations from the health industry or pharma. Though he didn’t name names, it seemed to many like another jab at Biden.
Biden also took shots of his own, calling Medicare for All costly and complicated, and insinuating that those looking to get rid of the health law are no better than Republicans.
Whatever the outcome of this particular scuffle, it highlights that, in a crowded field, candidates are looking for things to set them apart. And in this particular election cycle, looks like it’s health care.
Meanwhile, the health law faced off against an unlikely foe this week: Democrats. Lawmakers in the House delivered what is in all intents and purposes a death blow to the “Cadillac tax,” a cost-containing provision that at one point in time was looked at as crucial to the law’s success. (The Senate hasn’t voted on it yet, but Republicans are not exactly fans of the tax, so its fate seems decided.)
But as hell has not frozen over, it’s not as if the Democrats are suddenly jumping on the GOP bandwagon to dismantle the law. The tax was disliked by unions (a key constituency) and some liberal-leaning economists. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the author of the repeal bill, even (subtly) called it, the “Middle Class Health Benefits Tax Repeal Act.”
As a side note, you should be following Noam Levey’s great series on the ways Americans are hurting in the wake of the high-deductible revolution.
The Democratic field’s fireworks over candidates’ philosophical differences weren’t the only ones on display this week. Dr. Leana Wen was ousted from her position as head of Planned Parenthood after only eight months in the role. Although there have been reports about managerial styles, Wen has hinted that the friction comes from her desire to view the organization through a public health prism. During a time when the abortion wars grow only more intense, Wen’s strategy to emphasize abortion as part of a larger part of improving women’s health felt out of step to some.
As if underscoring that very tension, the ousting came as the Trump administration announced that the changes to family planing funding, often called a “gag rule” by critics, would be enforced immediately, now that it has the court’s go-ahead.
After a yearlong legal battle, The Washington Post and HD Media, which publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, obtained information from a Drug Enforcement Administration database that shows how 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills saturated the country as the opioid epidemic was gaining steam. Just six companies distributed 75% of the pills from 2006 to 2012, sending millions of pills into tiny rural towns with only a few thousand residents. The numbers reveal a trail of bright, screaming red flags that were overlooked as the country barreled toward a crisis point.
There was some rare good news on the opioid front this week: For the first time since 1990, fatal drug overdoses actually fell. There are (of course!) caveats, though: Experts still see worrying trends when it comes to synthetic drugs such as fentanyl.
Everyone in Congress and the administration is really, very, extremely angry about high drug prices … and yet pharma is still racking up the wins on Capitol Hill. Stat has a great read on exactly what’s going on with the industry’s influence, and looks at a new strategy from drugmakers, who seem to be targeting a pair of vulnerable Republicans to get their way.
In a landscape where everyone is jonesing to cut costs, why is it so breathtakingly easy to scam insurers? Some investigators estimate that fraud eats up 10% of all health care spending. Consumers’ gut reaction is that insurers would, of course, be stepping in to police these bad actors. But they don’t seem to have any desire — or, at least, not enough — to actually act. Maybe that’s because consumers are the ones getting stuck with the losses.
Speaking of, a former VA employee who was supposed to help veterans navigate insurance for their kids who had spina bifida used the position to collect millions in kickbacks, prosecutors allege.
A lot of very cool (or at least interesting) news came out of the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference this week. A look at highlights:
And in the miscellaneous file:
• What’s it like to be a Border Patrol agent? Because access to them can be tightly controlled, it’s rare to hear about their experiences. This story contains a chilling, yet fitting musing: “Somewhere down the line people just accepted what’s going on as normal.”
• It’s one of health care’s biggest challenges: weaning people off the habit of going to the ER instead of a primary care doctor. Well, New York City is going to invest $100 million a year to try to do just that.
• More than 200,000 kids in Tennessee were either cut or slated to be cut from insurance because the state’s unwieldy system heavily relied on hard-copy forms.
• Do service dogs actually help veterans with PTSD? Although there are plenty of heart-warming anecdotal stories about the benefits, doctors in the VA are hesitant to recommend them over treatment that has been shown to work because there’s little hard science on their benefits. The thing is, the VA is supposed to be doing research on it. Yet, for some reason, it’s been lagging, despite the burgeoning mental health crisis among veterans.
• A look at law enforcement in Alaska, where violence against women is gaining national attention, shows that dozens of convicted criminals have been hired as cops for these communities. In one small village, every single policeman on the force, including the chief, has a criminal record of domestic violence.
That’s it from me! Try to stay cool and make sure to hydrate this weekend!
Media outlets report on new Alaska, Kansas, Ohio, Maryland, California, Texas, Virginia and Connecticut.
The report by consulting giant Deloitte found that an estimated 1.5 million residents lack health insurance and that Georgia trails other states, even those that also have not expanded Medicaid, in covering low-income residents. Medicaid news comes out of Iowa, Florida and Alaska, as well.
Around the country, cities are mobilizing outreach teams, armed with supplies of water, to check on residents living on the streets or in housing without air conditioning. “We are treating this as the emergency it is,” said Josh Kruger, communications director for the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services. In the District of Columbia, where the heat index is supposed to reach 115 this weekend, the mayor has declared a state of emergency and is keeping shelters open round the clock so people can try to cool off.
When Michael Howard arrived for a checkup with his lung specialist, he was worried about how his body would cope with the heat and humidity of a Boston summer.
“I lived in Florida for 14 years, and I moved back because the humidity was just too much,” Howard told pulmonologist Dr. Mary Rice as he settled into an exam room chair at a Beth Israel Deaconess HealthCare clinic.
Howard, 57, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a progressive lung disease that can be exacerbated by heat and humidity. Even inside a comfortable, climate-controlled room, his oxygen levels worried Rice.
Howard reluctantly agreed to try using portable oxygen, resigned to wearing the clear plastic tubes looped over his ears and inserted into his nostrils. He assured Rice he has an air conditioner and will stay inside on extremely hot days. The doctor and patient agreed that Howard should take his walks in the evenings to be sure he gets enough exercise without overheating.
Then Howard turned to Rice with a question she didn’t encounter in medical school: “Can I ask you: Last summer, why was it so hot?”
Rice, who studies air pollution, was ready.
“The overall trend of the hotter summers that we’re seeing [is] due to climate change,” Rice said.
For Rice, connecting climate-change consequences — heat waves, more pollen, longer allergy seasons — to her patients’ health is becoming routine. She is among a small but growing number of doctors and nurses who discuss those connections with patients.
In June, the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Heart Association were among a long list of medical and public health groups that issued a call to action asking the U.S. government, business and leaders to recognize climate change as a health emergency.
Some medical societies provide patients with information that explains the related health risks. But none have guidelines on how providers should talk to patients about climate change.
There is no concrete list of “do’s” — as in wear a seat belt, use sunscreen and get exercise — or “don’ts” — as in don’t smoke, don’t drink too much and don’t text while driving ― that doctors can talk about with patients.
Climate change is different, said Rice, because an individual patient can’t prevent it. So Rice focuses on steps her patients can take to cope with the consequences of heat waves, such as more potent pollen and a longer allergy season.
That was Mary Heafy’s main complaint. The 64-year-old has asthma that is worse during the allergy season. During her appointment with Rice, Heafy wanted to know why her eyes and nose were running and her chest feels tight for longer periods every year.
“It feels like once [the allergy season] starts in the springtime, it doesn’t end until there’s a killing frost,” Heafy told Rice.
“Yes,” Rice nodded, “because of global warming, the plants are flowering earlier in the spring. After hot summers, the trees are releasing more pollen the following season.”
So Heafy may need stronger medicines and more air filters, her doctor said, and may spend more days wearing a mask — although the effort of breathing through a mask is hard on her lungs as well.
As she and the doctor finalized a prescription plan, Heafy observed that “physicians talk about things like smoking, but I don’t know that every physician talks about the environmental impact.”
Why do so few doctors talk about the impact of the environment on health? Besides a lack of guidelines, doctors say, they don’t have time during a 15- to 20-minute visit to broach something as complicated as climate change.
And the topic can be controversial: While a recent Pew Research Center poll found that 59% of Americans think climate change affects their local community “a great deal or some,” only 31% say it affects them personally, and views vary widely by political party.
We contacted energy-industry trade groups to ask what role — if any — medical providers should have in the climate change conversation, but neither the American Petroleum Institute nor the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers returned calls or email requests for comment.
Some doctors say they worry about challenging a patient’s beliefs on the sometimes fraught topic, according to Dr. Nitin Damle, a past president of the American College of Physicians.
“It’s a difficult conversation to have,” said Damle, who practices internal medicine in Wakefield, R.I.
Damle said he “takes the temperature” of patients, with some general questions about the environment or the weather, before deciding if he’ll suggest that climate change is affecting their health.
Dr. Gaurab Basu, a primary care physician at Cambridge Health Alliance, said he’s ready if patients want to talk about climate change, but he doesn’t bring it up. He first must make sure patients feel safe in the exam room, he said, and raising a controversial political issue might erode that feeling.
“I have to be honest about the science and the threat that is there, and it is quite alarming,” Basu said.
So alarming, Basu said, that he often refers patients to counseling. Psychiatrists concerned about the effects of climate change on mental health say there are no standards of care in their profession yet, but some common responses are emerging.
One environmental group isn’t waiting for doctors and nurses to figure out how to talk to patients about climate change.
Molly Rauch, the public health policy director with Moms Clean Air Force, a project of the Environmental Defense Fund, urges the group’s more than 1 million members to ask doctors and nurses for guidance. For example: When should parents keep children indoors because the outdoor air is too dirty?
“This isn’t too scary for us to hear about,” Rauch said. “We are hungry for information about this. We want to know.”
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Former Vice President Joe Biden has said if he’s elected president he would build on the Affordable Care Act rather than move to a whole new health care system, such as the “Medicare for All” plan supported by some of his primary opponents for the Democratic nomination. But his campaign’s new health plan would include many things Congress tried and failed to pass as part of the health law, including a government-run “public option” plan that would be widely available.
Meanwhile, the U.S. House voted to repeal one of the ACA’s key financing mechanisms, voting overwhelmingly to cancel the so-called “Cadillac tax,” which was set to take effect in 2022. It is a 40% excise tax on the most generous employer-provided health plans.
And it was not a good week for Planned Parenthood. The women’s health provider parted ways with its president of less than a year, Leana Wen. And the Trump administration announced it would begin enforcement of new rules for the federal family planning program that Planned Parenthood said will force it to stop participating.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner from Kaiser Health News, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Kimberly Leonard of the Washington Examiner and Margo Sanger-Katz of The New York Times.
Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:
- Biden’s health proposal seeks to lower out-of-pocket costs for many people in several ways. For example, it would make federal premium help available to all who buy their own insurance, not just those with low and middle incomes. It would also change how federal premium subsidies are determined. It would base the assistance on the cost of a gold plan, rather than the current practice of using the second lowest priced silver plan. Since gold plans are more generous, using that standard could lower the amount of deductibles and copayments people getting subsidies have to pay.
- The ACA’s Cadillac tax has been strongly endorsed by health economists, who view it as a way to cut the amount of unnecessary care some people with generous plans seek. But many employers, consumers and labor unions don’t want to tinker with the current tax system of job-based insurance.
- The administration’s decision to go forward with its new rules for the Title X family planning program — while critics are challenging those regulations in the courts — will have a significant effect on Planned Parenthood’s finances. But the group gets even more government money through the Medicaid program.
- Despite two setbacks last week in the administration’s efforts to reduce drug prices, President Donald Trump is continuing to hint that he wants to go forward with a plan to tie some Medicare drug prices to what people in other countries pay for the medications.
- Federal officials have announced that opioid deaths have declined, but it is not clear that opioid overdoses or addiction has declined.
Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:
Julie Rovner: The New York Times’s “Where Roe v Wade Matters Most,” by Quoctrung Bui, Claire Cain Miller and Margot Sanger-Katz.
Joanne Kenen: Scientific American’s “Why Doctors Are Drowning in Medical School Debt,” by Daniel Barron.
Margot Sanger-Katz: Bloomberg News’ “Deadly Disease Is Treatable, But Newborn Screening Patchwork Leaves Many Vulnerable,” by Michelle Cortez.
Kimberly Leonard: The Washingtonian’s “DC Types Have Been Flocking to Shrinks Ever Since Trump Won. And a Lot of the Therapists Are Miserable,” by Britt Peterson.
To hear all our podcasts, click here.
Media outlets report on news from California, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Illinois, Virginia, Florida, Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Arizona, Wisconsin and New Hampshire.
Media outlets report on news from New York, California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Kansas, Missouri, Arizona, Texas and Delaware.
Media outlets report on news from Rhode Island, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Georgia, Connecticut, Nevada, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and California.
Experts say the swelling number of users around the transit hubs is in part because they can find more tolerance and support in New York City than in their hometowns, as well as greater access to services such as syringe exchanges. Meanwhile, the country’s foster system is being strained beneath the weight of the drug epidemic. Other news on the opioid crisis comes out of Maryland and California.
The New York Times takes a look inside the agency that so often is the face of President Donald Trump’s immigration strategy that has led to national outrage over how it is being implemented. Meanwhile, Border Patrol is investigating those involved with a secret Facebook group that included posts joking about migrant deaths. Other news from the border crisis focuses on the companies running the shelters, pediatricians’ concerns over the health of children, and the conditions at the facilities.
The six-week trial was the first of many lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies over what role they played in the opioid epidemic, and the outcome is expected to set the bar for the ones that follow. The judge says he anticipates taking about a month to reach a decision in the case.
Health insurers that treat millions of seniors have overcharged Medicare by nearly $30 billion the past three years alone, but federal officials say they are moving ahead with long-delayed plans to recoup at least part of the money.
Officials have known for years that some Medicare Advantage plans overbill the government by exaggerating how sick their patients are or by charging Medicare for treating serious medical conditions they cannot prove their patients have.
Getting refunds from the health plans has proved daunting, however. Officials with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services repeatedly have postponed, or backed off, efforts to crack down on billing abuses and mistakes by the increasingly popular Medicare Advantage health plans offered by private health insurers under contract with Medicare. Today, such plans treat over 22 million seniors, more than 1 in 3 people on Medicare.
Now CMS is trying again, proposing a series of enhanced audits tailored to claw back $1 billion in Medicare Advantage overpayments by 2020 — just a tenth of what it estimates the plans overcharge the government in a given year.
At the same time, the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General’s Office has launched a separate nationwide round of Medicare Advantage audits.
As in past years, such scrutiny faces an onslaught of criticism from the insurance industry, which argues the CMS audits especially are technically unsound and unfair and could jeopardize medical services for seniors.
America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, blasted the CMS audit design when details emerged last fall, calling it “fatally flawed.”
Insurer Cigna Corp. warned in a May financial filing: “If adopted in its current form, [the audits] could have a detrimental impact” on all Medicare Advantage plans and “affect the ability of plans to deliver high quality care.”
But former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who now works as a political analyst, said officials must move past powerful lobbying efforts to hold health insurers accountable and demand refunds for “inappropriate” billings.
“There’s a lot of things that could cause Medicare to go broke. This would be one of the contributing factors,” she said. “Ten billion dollars a year is real money.”
Catching Overbilling With A Wider Net
In the overpayment dispute, health plans want CMS to scale back — if not kill off — an enhanced audit tool that, for the first time, could force insurers to cough up millions in improper payments they’ve received.
For over a decade, audits have been little more than an irritant to insurers because most plans go years without being chosen for review and often pay only a few hundred thousand dollars in refunds as a consequence. When auditors uncover errors in the medical records of patients they paid the companies to treat, CMS has simply required a rebate for those patients for just the year audited — relatively small sums for plans with thousands of members.
The latest CMS proposal would raise those stakes enormously by extrapolating error rates found in a random sample of 200 patients to the plan’s full membership — a technique expected to trigger many multimillion-dollar penalties. Though controversial, extrapolation is common in medical fraud investigations — except for investigations into Medicare Advantage. Since 2007, the industry has successfully challenged the extrapolation method and, as a result, largely avoided accountability for pervasive billing errors.
“The public has a substantial interest in the recoupment of millions of dollars of public money improperly paid to health insurers,” CMS wrote in a Federal Register notice late last year announcing its renewed attempt at using extrapolation.
Penalties In Limbo
In a written response to questions posed by Kaiser Health News, CMS officials said the agency has already conducted 90 of those enhanced audits for payments made in 2011, 2012 and 2013 — and expects to collect $650 million in extrapolated penalties as a result.
Though that figure reflects only a minute percentage of actual losses to taxpayers from overpayments, it would be a huge escalation for CMS. Previous Medicare Advantage audits have recouped a total of about $14 million, far less than it cost to conduct them, federal records show.
Though CMS has disclosed the names of the health plans in the crossfire, it has not yet told them how much each owes, officials said. CMS declined to say when, or if, they would make the results public.
This year, CMS is starting audits for 2014 and 2015, 30 per year, targeting about 5% of the 600 plans annually.
This spring, CMS announced it would extend until the end of August the audit proposal’s public comment period, which was supposed to end in April. That could be a signal the agency might be looking more closely at industry objections.
Health care industry consultant Jessica Smith said CMS might be taking additional time to make sure the audit protocol can pass muster. “Once they have their ducks in a row, CMS will come back hard at the health plans. There is so much money tied to this.”
But Sean Creighton, a former senior CMS official who now advises the industry for health care consultant Avalere Health, said payment error rates have been dropping because many health plans “are trying as hard as they can to become compliant.”
Still, audits are continuing to find mistakes. The first HHS inspector general audit, released in late April, found that Missouri-based Essence Healthcare Inc. had failed to justify fees for dozens of patients it had treated for strokes or depression. Essence denied any wrongdoing but agreed it should refund $158,904 in overcharges for those patients and ferret out any other errors.
Essence also faces a pending whistleblower suit filed by Charles Rasmussen, a Branson, Mo., doctor who alleges the health plan illegally boosted profits by overstating the severity of patients’ medical conditions. Essence has called the allegations “wholly without merit” and “baseless.”
Essence started as a St. Louis physician group, then grew into a broader holding company backed by prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr with his brother, St. Louis doctor and software designer Thomas Doerr, in 2007. Neither would comment on the allegations.
How We Got Here
CMS uses a billing formula called a “risk score” to pay for each Medicare Advantage member. The formula pays higher rates for sicker patients than for people in good health.
Congress approved risk scoring in 2003 to ensure health plans did not shy away from taking sick patients who could incur higher-than-usual costs from hospitals and other medical facilities. But some insurers quickly found ways to boost risk scores — and their revenues.
In 2007, after several years of running Medicare Advantage as what one CMS official dubbed an “honor system,” the agency launched “Risk Adjustment Data Validation,” or RADV, audits. The idea was to cut down on undeserved payments that cost CMS nearly $30 billion over the past three years.
The audits of 37 health plans revealed that on average auditors could confirm just 60% of the more than 20,000 medical conditions CMS had paid the plans to treat.
Extra payments to plans that had claimed some of its diabetic patients had complications, such as eye or kidney problems, were reduced or invalidated in nearly half the cases. The overpayments exceeded $10,000 a year for more than 150 patients, though health plans disputed some of the findings.
But CMS kept the findings under wraps until the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism group, sued the agency under the Freedom of Information Act to make them public.
Despite the alarming results, CMS conducted no audits for payments made during 2008, 2009 and 2010 as they faced industry backlash over CMS’ authority to conduct them, and the threat of extrapolated repayments. Some inside the agency also worried that health plans would abandon the Medicare Advantage program if CMS pressed them too hard, records released through the FOIA lawsuit show.
CMS officials resumed the audits for 2011 and expected to finish them and assess penalties by the end of 2016. That has yet to happen amid the continuing protests from the industry. Insurers want CMS to adjust downward any extrapolated penalties to account for coding errors that exist in standard Medicare. CMS stands behind its method — at least for now.
At a minimum, argues AHIP, the health insurers association, CMS should back off extrapolation for the 90 audits for 2011-13 and apply it for 2014 and onward. Should CMS agree, it would write off more than half a billion dollars that could be recovered for the U.S. Treasury.
Media outlets focus on news from Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Hawaii, Tennessee, Virginia, Connecticut, California, North Carolina, District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Missouri, Georgia, Washington, Maryland, Oregon, Colorado, Ohio, Florida and West Virginia.
A Center for Investigative Reporting report finds that a dozen children arrived at Child Crisis Arizona starting in mid-June, after it garnered a $2.4 million contract to house unaccompanied children through January 2022. It’s unclear where the children’s parents are. In other news from the crisis at the border: a momentary reprieve in arrests, a commemorative coin’s connection to a toxic culture within Border Patrol, ICE raids, and more.
The Tennessean looks at the dramatic negative effects the paperwork system — which has now been replaced — had on the state’s children. Medicaid news comes out of Indiana, New York and Montana, as well.
Happy Friday! If you want a smile after this long week, be sure to check out today’s Google Doodle. I feel like this is the right crowd to appreciate it.
Now on to what you may have missed!
The latest challenge to the health law was a long-shot case, with legal experts writing off its chances of prevailing at the start. The suit can be perfectly summed up by a question from Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, one of the three judges who heard oral arguments on the case in New Orleans: “If you no longer have the tax, why isn’t it unconstitutional?”
Judge Kurt Engelhardt also asked why the Senate hadn’t sent a lawyer along with the House counsel to convey that the congressional intent had been to keep most of the law. “They’re sort of the 800-pound gorilla that’s not in the room,” he said.
Despite some blunt questioning, though, it’s not clear where the judges will land on the final decision. The case could end up in front of the Supreme Court right in the heart of the 2020 election cycle. Considering that the “we’re the side protecting all those popular health law provisions” argument was at least partly credited for Democrats’ blue wave in the midterms, the timing of the case could have deep political ramifications for Republicans.
If the law is overturned, the far-reaching ripple effects would go far beyond politics. It’s not just that 21 million people could lose health insurance, or that the protections for people with preexisting conditions would go away or that insurers would no longer have to cover young adults on their parents’ plans. So many of the Affordable Care Act’s directives have become ingrained in daily life that it’s as if many people forget they’re tied to that hot-button “Obamacare” topic.
On that list? Calorie counts on menus, lactation rooms at work, transparency for gifts from pharma companies to doctors, YMCA courses that teach diabetes maintenance, etc., etc.
Also on that list? A wonky provision that grants HHS “innovation” authority. The reason it’s important? President Donald Trump is using that very authority (that’s part of the law he’s trying to get overturned) to make big promises on revolutionizing the kidney care marketplace.
(Pardon my detour from the courts for a minute, but that’s an impossible-not-to-utilize segue for the other big news of the week, and I’m going to jump on it.)
Trump announced an extremely ambitious plan this week to upend the kidney care world. Currently, the marketplace relies heavily on patients getting care at large dialysis clinics, even though at-home options are both safe and cost-effective. But those big chains can pull in $24 billion a year in revenue, so I somehow doubt that they’re going to go gently into that good night. Another part of the plan would incentivize kidney donations with reimbursements for lost wages and child care to try to address the country’s shortages. (And a special shoutout to Politico for the scoop on the plan.)
And now back to our court news: Trump’s strategy to curb drug prices sustained the first of two significant blows this week when a federal judge ruled that the administration can’t force companies to put prices in their TV ads. Judge Amit Mehta dodged the tricky First Amendment debate and instead focused on HHS’ authority (or lack thereof, really) to enforce such a rule. His ruling was, essentially: Hey, high drug prices are the pits and this might be an effective tool. But HHS can’t do more than Congress has authorized.
The second punch came Friday when the administration pulled the plug on a signature proposal to eliminate drug rebates for pharmacy benefit managers (the target du jour for ire over high prices). Policy experts had worried the rule would lead to higher premiums for Medicare beneficiaries. Insurers and PBMs were popping the champagne over the announcement, while the general consensus is that pharma companies should now be braced for (an even bigger) storm headed their way.
The 2020 Democratic candidates were busy bees this week:
— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced an immigration plan that would include the creation of a DOJ task force to investigate complaints of abuse and neglect from detainees.
— Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wants to take on the epidemic of outrageous rape kit backlogs. The kits can sometimes sit in police departments, which are strained for resources, for years. Harris has some bona fide experience to back up her plan. When she was California’s attorney general, her Rapid DNA Service team said it cleared all 1,300 untested rape kits in the state’s backlog in one year and earned national recognition and grants for its efforts.
— Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) released a proposal to tackle a wide range of problems that affect Americans’ seniors, from high drug costs to Alzheimer’s research to long-term care issues.
— And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is hopping on a bus to Canada with a group of Americans in search of cheaper insulin. This isn’t his first time embarking on such a trip. Twenty years ago, he went north with a group of breast cancer patients with a similar goal. (That two-decade gap between the trips speaks volumes, doesn’t it?)
As we’ve seen in recent weeks, nearly all the Democratic candidates support the idea of providing health care to people who are in the country illegally. But what exactly would that entail? For one, it would place the U.S. even further left of progressive countries who already have universal health care. Most of them have at least some restrictions in place. But experts say that not only in the long run could providing care for them save money — immigrants in the country without legal permission tend to be young and relatively healthy and underuse available care.
Meanwhile, California is charging forward to become the first state in the country to offer Medicaid coverage to residents below the age of 26, regardless of their immigration status.
Speaking of Medicaid, New Hampshire pumped the brakes on its new work requirements following reports that more than 17,000 people (yes, you read that right) would be found to be noncompliant with the rules after its first month. The state has been making the rounds with mailings, phone calls and even a door-knocking campaign, but officials still suggest the problem is that most people aren’t aware they need to report their hours. The experience mirrors Arkansas’ (almost down to the exact number of people who would be booted) and highlights the inherent obstacles states face when putting such rules in place.
A mother whose 19-month-old daughter died after being detained by ICE spoke at a House hearing this week about reports of the inhumane conditions at the facilities. “The world should know what happened,” Yazmin Juárez said during deeply emotional testimony. The name of the hearing — “Kids in Cages: Inhumane Treatment at the Border” — set the tone and reflected the state of affairs on Capitol Hill over the issue.
About 20% of the nation’s hospice facilities have safety lapses that are serious enough to endanger patients. What does that look like, beyond the dry terminology of an inspector general’s report? Gangrene so bad that a patient’s leg needed to be amputated; maggots burrowing near wound openings; and unnoticed sexual assault. But the report highlights another issue: There’s not much CMS can do about all of it. It would take an act of Congress to give CMS the power to fine the industry’s bad actors.
In the miscellaneous file for the week:
• There are lots of voices in the abortion wars these days. Many of them, though, are from white leaders — on both sides of the issue — while the unique nuances and challenges that black communities face are missing from the debate. For women of color, race is tied to abortion in a way that white advocates rarely have to contend with.
• An alleged mix-up at a fertility clinic that resulted in a woman having two babies who were not related to either her or each other highlights the real pitfalls of human error and advanced medicine.
• On paper, as medical aid-in-dying laws continue to pass across the country, more Americans are gaining control over how they end their lives. The reality looks a lot different, though.
• A Disney Channel star’s death this week highlighted the dangers of epilepsy-linked sleep deaths. Although it is rare, SUDEP is responsible for more deaths than SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and yet few people have heard of it.
• A new Secret Service report on mass violence incidents reveals that two-thirds of perpetrators had made threats before the attacks.
• A hospital in Ohio fired 23 employees in the wake of murder charges against one of its doctors in a case related to patients’ painkiller-linked deaths. There are a lot of issues here, but of particular note is how systemic such problems can become. One medical professional might be the root problem, but, at some point, that infection can spread to many interlocking parts within a health system.
And, as election season kicks up, I really don’t blame any of the candidates for grabbing the Purell. Have a great weekend!
Media outlets report on news from Missouri, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Florida, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, California, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, Texas, Michigan, Mississippi and Nebraska.
A ProPublica and Frontline investigation about gaps in oversight for patients living outside institutions prompted U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis to order a report and make recommendations for improving care. At least six had died and others struggled to live on their own. Mental health news is from California and Massachusetts, as well.
The legislation is complicated and was quickly shepherded through the California Legislature with fears of the utility companies going bankrupt if something wasn’t done. The bill will provide investor-owned utilities with at least $21 billion to pay for damage from blazes linked to their equipment beginning this summer. Utility customers will be required to pay $10.5 billion to the so-called wildfire fund. Meanwhile, new data show the town of Paradise lost over 90% of its population since a wildfire killed 85 people last year.
State officials had complained that the 2015 rule imposed excessive administrative burdens. Medicaid news comes out of Iowa and California, as well.
Six years ago, Erin was a newly minted graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, working three part-time jobs and adjusting to life as a non-student. She stopped in for a drink one night at a restaurant in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, where she got into a conversation with a guy. The next thing she remembers clearly was awakening at home the next morning, aching, covered in bruises, with a swollen lip.
She believed she had been raped and went to the local police station to file a report. The police sent her to a hospital emergency room nearby, where a doctor did a medical forensic exam, checking her for injuries and taking evidence from her body and clothes to potentially use in a prosecution case. The exam took hours and made her even more miserable.
Police never made an arrest.
As time passed and Erin tried to move past the assault, she received regular, unwelcome reminders: bills from the hospital and emergency physicians group that treated her. The physicians group eventually sent her bill to a collection agency, and she started receiving nagging phone calls as well. Now 28 and living near Dallas, Erin still gets phone calls and letters a couple of times a year ordering her to pay up.
“When I get that phone call, it’s still so raw. I’m shaking,” Erin said. (Kaiser Health News does not use the full name of people reporting a rape if they request it be withheld.)
For 25 years, the federal Violence Against Women Act has required any state that wants to be eligible for certain federal grants to certify that the state covers the cost of medical forensic exams for people who have been sexually assaulted. Subsequent reauthorizations clarified that these individuals can’t be required to participate with law enforcement to get an exam, nor do they have to pay anything out-of-pocket for it, even if they would be reimbursed later.
Yet for some people who have been raped, the bills keep coming, despite this long-standing federal prohibition and laws in many states that provide additional financial protections.
“There’s often a disconnect between the emergency room personnel that take care of the person and the billing department that sends out the bills,” said Jennifer Pierce-Weeks, CEO of the International Association of Forensic Nurses, professionals who have specialized training in how to evaluate and care for victims of violent crime or abuse.
There is wide variation in how states meet their financial obligations to cover rape exams, sometimes called “rape kits,” that collect evidence of the crime. Many states tap funds they receive under the federal Victims of Crime Act. Others use money from law enforcement or prosecutors’ budgets or other designated options.
What services are covered as part of the rape exam can vary by state as well. Federal rules require that victims be interviewed and examined for physical trauma, penetration or force, and that evidence be collected and evaluated.
But many states include additional services without charging victims, including testing and treatment for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Some may cover treatment for injuries that victims receive during the assault or for counseling.
Having financial protections for rape victims on the books, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to seamless, no-cost services on the ground.
For instance, New York requires that rape victims receive some services at no charge beyond the federal requirements, including emergency contraception and treatment for STDs, said Christopher Bromson, executive director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center in New York.
Still, last November the New York attorney general’s office announced settlements with seven hospitals that had illegally charged more than 200 rape patients for medical forensic exams, with amounts ranging from $46 to $3,000. In some cases, the hospitals referred the individuals to bill collectors who dunned them for the payments.
Afterward, the Healthcare Association of New York State, a nonprofit group that advocates for better health services, teamed up with the state Department of Health and others to present four webinars for hospital personnel to explain their legal responsibilities.
Karen Roach, the association’s senior director of regulatory affairs and rural health, said the billing problem in New York doesn’t appear widespread.
“Some of these issues arose from greater automation of the billing process,” she said. “Training is needed to flag these cases, to put systems in place not to automatically generate a bill.”
Working with an advocacy group, Erin eventually got the hospital to stop billing her. But the emergency physicians group no longer exists, and her $131.68 bill has been bundled with other debts and resold to different collectors several times, she said. She contacted Kaiser Health News and NPR through the “Bill of the Month” series, which explores exorbitant or baffling medical bills.
When she tells a debt collector that the bill they’re calling about is for services related to rape, “They say, ‘Oh, we’ll fix it,’ but they don’t,” Erin said. “They just sell it again and it just becomes someone else’s problem. But it’s always my problem.”
Despite state and federal laws, many people who were raped wind up paying for some medical services out-of-pocket, even if they have insurance. An analysis of billing records from 1,355 insured female rape victims found that in 2013 they paid an average $948 out-of-pocket for prescription drugs and hospital inpatient or outpatient services during the first 30 days after the assault. That amount represented 14% of total costs, the study found.
“We just assumed that this was only a problem for women who fell through the cracks,” said Kit Simpson, a professor in the department of health care leadership and management at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, who co-authored the study. “But this was a systematic problem.”
Some rape victims don’t want to use their insurance in any case, because they are worried about privacy or safety issues if family members or others find out, advocates said.
The Violence Against Women Act, often referred to as VAWA, is up for reauthorization this year. It’s not clear if a new bill would address these payment issues.
If states don’t certify that they shoulder the cost of rape exams and don’t require victims to participate in the criminal justice system, their funds can be frozen. The Department of Justice declined to comment on enforcement of those VAWA provisions.
Some advocates would like to see the federal definition of what must be included in a no-cost medical forensic exam broadened to such services as testing and medication for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Such a move would level the playing field for rape victims across the country, they say.
Janine Zweig, associate vice president of justice policy at the Urban Institute, who co-authored a study examining state payment practices for rape exams, said a federal standard should be considered. “Do we really want it to be about which state you live in?”