Tagged States

Gap Between People Who Can’t Afford Health Care And Those Who Can Barely Afford It Stokes Resentment

For those that don’t qualify for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the requirement for insurance coverage can seem unfair. Meanwhile, the congressional spending deal raises doubts about what lawmakers are doing to control health costs that are only expected to get worse.

Gap Between People Who Can’t Afford Health Care And Those Who Can Barely Afford It Stokes Resentment

For those that don’t qualify for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the requirement for insurance coverage can seem unfair. Meanwhile, the congressional spending deal raises doubts about what lawmakers are doing to control health costs that are only expected to get worse.

Reducing Red Tape For Traveling Nurses

Lauren Bond, a traveling nurse, has held licenses in five states and Washington, D.C. She maintains a detailed spreadsheet to keep track of license fees, expiration dates and the different courses each state requires.

The 27-year-old got into travel nursing because she wanted to work and live in other states before settling down. She said she wished more states accepted the multistate license, which minimizes the hassles nurses face when they want to practice across state lines.

“It would make things a lot easier — one license for the country and you are good to go,” said Bond, who recently started a job in California, which does not recognize the multistate license.

The license, known as the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), was launched in 2000 to address nursing shortages and enable more nurses to practice telehealth. Under the agreement, registered nurses licensed in a participating state can practice in other NLC states without needing a separate license. They must still abide by the laws that govern nursing wherever their patients are located.

About half of the states joined the original compact, which was modeled on the portability of a driver’s license. Some states that declined to sign on cited a major flaw: The agreement didn’t require nurses to undergo federal fingerprint criminal background checks.

Last month, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing launched a new version of the NLC that requires those checks. Twenty-nine states have passed legislation to join the new agreement.

Jim Puente, who oversees the compact for the council, said he expects even more states to sign the agreement now that criminal background checks are required. He noted that nine states have legislation pending to join.

Among states participating in the new nurse licensing compact are Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee, Delaware, Idaho and Arizona.

California does not plan to join the new compact, largely because of concern about maintaining state training and quality standards. The state, like many others, already requires nurses to undergo background checks. Washington, Oregon and Nevada are among the other states that do not accept the multistate license.

Proponents of the nurse licensing agreement — both the old and new versions — argue that it helps fill jobs in places where there aren’t enough nurses and enables nurses to respond quickly to natural disasters across state lines.

“The nurse shortage tends to wax and wane regionally, so being able to move nurses where the needs are is really, really important,” said Marcia Faller, chief clinical officer at AMN Healthcare, a San Diego-based medical staffing company that employs Bond. The multistate license “really helps with that mobility … to deliver care to patients across state lines.”

Similar cross-state agreements exist for physicians, psychologists, emergency medical technicians and physical therapists.

In some states, the multistate nursing license is helpful because it streamlines the process for nurses doing case management or telehealth, said Sandra Evans, executive director of the Idaho Board of Nursing. Getting nurses to work in the rural areas of Idaho is a challenge, and hospitals often rely on telemedicine in places where the closest health care facility might be in Montana, she said.

Before Idaho joined the original NLC in 2001, nurses doing telehealth or case management needed numerous licenses to work across state lines, but now they “can travel virtually — electronically or telephonically — to help their clients,” she said.

Joey Ridenour, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Nursing, said one of the biggest advantages of the compact for her state is that it allows authorities to share information and collaborate with other states to investigate and discipline problem nurses. “We are able to take action faster,” she said.

Opponents of the compact argue that states have different standards, course requirements and guidelines and that nurses licensed in one state may lack the necessary knowledge or experience to practice in another one.

“The ability to control the standards of training and quality are of some concern to us,” said Linda McDonald, president of United Nurses and Allied Professionals union in Rhode Island, which participated in the original NLC but hasn’t signed on to the new one. “We want them trained in Rhode Island. We want them licensed in Rhode Island.”

Nurses in California have similar concerns. “We really want to make sure that nurses who are entering our state and taking care of our patients are competent and qualified,” said Catherine Kennedy, a Sacramento-area nurse who is secretary of the California Nurses Association. Some traveling nurses haven’t been, she added.

Kennedy said California does not have difficulty recruiting nurses, even without the compact, because of the state’s relatively high salaries and strict nurse-to-patient ratios in hospitals.

Research has shown that California’s minimum nurse staffing requirements, which were the first in the nation, can reduce workloads and burnout, improve the quality of care and make it easier for hospitals to retain their nurses.

Lauren Bond, a traveling nurse who has a temporary position at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, has held licenses in five states and the District of Columbia. She maintains a detailed spreadsheet to keep track of license fees, expiration dates and the different courses each state requires. (Courtesy of Robert Hernandez/UCLA Health)

Massachusetts, which has never participated in the nurse licensing compact, requires nurses licensed there to take courses on treating victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, said Judith Pare, director of the division of nurses for the Massachusetts Nurses Association. If the state allowed out-of-state nurses to practice in Massachusetts without getting a license there, they wouldn’t necessarily have that training, she noted.

Bond, the traveling nurse, said additional courses don’t make her more qualified to do her job. “Across the board, wherever you go to nursing school, everybody comes out with a similar experience,” said Bond, who works at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. “Then most of the training you are going to do is on the job.”

Jenn Stormes works as a nurse and formally cares for her 18-year-old son, who has a severe seizure disorder and developmental disabilities. Stormes is licensed in Colorado, which participates in the multistate compact.

She has been able to use that license in some states. But she has also had to get several individual licenses so she can continue serving as her son’s nurse in other states where the family travels for medical care. Stormes estimated she has spent about $2,000 on licenses.

“It took me over a year to get all these licenses,” she said. “I had to prove to every state the same education, the same experience, the same fingerprints. I think it is a duplication of efforts and is a waste of everybody’s time and money.”

Investigation In Aetna’s Approval Process Expands Into More States

The inquiry kicked off after statements by a former medical director came to light that he never looked at patients’ records when deciding whether to approve or deny care. Aetna says the comments were taken out of context. Meanwhile, Anthem is changing its emergency room program after it received pushback from providers and lawmakers.

Investigation In Aetna’s Approval Process Expands Into More States

The inquiry kicked off after statements by a former medical director came to light that he never looked at patients’ records when deciding whether to approve or deny care. Aetna says the comments were taken out of context. Meanwhile, Anthem is changing its emergency room program after it received pushback from providers and lawmakers.

In An Effort To Curb Drug Costs, States Advance Bills To Prod Feds On Importation

Norm Thurston is a “free-market guy” — a conservative health economist in Republican-run Utah who rarely sees the government’s involvement in anything as beneficial.

But in a twist, the state lawmaker is now pushing for Utah to flex its muscle to spur federal action on ever-climbing prescription drug prices.

“This is something that a red state like Utah could do. I don’t think this is a partisan issue,” Thurston said. “Those outrageous cost increases are not the result of the free market.”

The approach: Let the state contract with wholesalers in Canada, importing cheaper prescriptions from up north and distributing them to the state’s health care system.

Other states — Vermont, West Virginia and Oklahoma, among them — are following similar paths, pushing legislation that would seek permission from the Trump administration to launch their own plans to import drugs from Canada.

For years, American consumers have tried to buy cheaper drugs from their northern neighbor, sometimes packing into buses for day trips to Canadian pharmacies, or patronizing American stores that help them order drugs from abroad. But the practice is illegal.

The states want to change that, and set up a formal process that nets broader savings. The idea is for the state health department to set up a wholesale program that buys drugs from Canada and resells them to local pharmacies and hospitals. Individual states would be responsible for ensuring that the medications are safe and that importing them does save money.

“This statute is putting pressure on the federal government to take a harder look at these questions,” said Rachel Sachs, an associate law professor at Washington University of St. Louis, who researches drug price regulations. “The state legislatures can say, ‘Look, we’re doing everything we can, but we do need the federal government to help us out on this.’”

The federal government has been slow to act on this issue, and skeptics say a 30-page Trump administration memo on drug pricing released late last week would likely have only limited impact.

But states, whose budgets for Medicaid and state employee health programs are squeezed by these costs, are moving forward.

In Vermont alone, drug spending has gone up by 35 percent from 2010 to 2015, the most recent year for which data are available.

Backers of the state plans say the strategy is a no-brainer that could save hundreds of millions of dollars. They discount concerns about drug safety, arguing that drugs from Canada are made by reputable companies, often in the same facilities and by the same firms that sell them in the U.S. — but at much higher prices.

“We would be bringing in drugs intended for the Canadian market, and therefore at Canadian pricing,” Thurston said. “One would assume if we could come up with a program that meets the recommendations of federal law, what justification would the [Health and Human Services] secretary have for saying no?”

The state measures follow model legislation developed by the National Academy for State Health Policy that uses a framework put in place by the 2003 federal law that created the Medicare Part D program. That law says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can approve drug importation plans if it is convinced the plans will save money and will not create any public health concerns.

Once passed, these laws task state health departments with overseeing the development of these programs. After the health department settles on the specifics, state officials must negotiate implementation with HHS. That could take years.

It is also likely to be an uphill battle.

In 15 years, HHS has never acted upon the 2003 law by approving any drug importation program.

Last spring, when members of Congress pushed a national bill, a bipartisan group of former Food and Drug Administration commissioners came out in opposition, arguing it would be impossible to verify drug safety absolutely. That bill ultimately failed to garner a majority vote.

It’s unclear where the current administration stands on this issue.

Alex Azar, the newly confirmed HHS secretary, has been coy on the subject — though in a confirmation hearing last fall, he said importing drugs from Canada could create safety concerns. Despite multiple requests, HHS did not provide comment for this story by the publication deadline.

The pharmaceutical industry echoed the cautions about safety.

“The proposals we are seeing in states across the country threaten the safety of patients and families and will not deliver the savings they promise,” said Priscilla VanderVeer, a spokeswoman for the trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

In the states, though, backers say their bills address that concern.

And other analysts argued that, regardless, safety of Canadian drugs isn’t a real issue.

“A lot of the drugs used in the United States and in Canada are made in the same plants, in countries like India or Europe,” said Michael Law, a pharmaceutical policy expert and associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Center for Health Services and Policy Research. “The U.S. FDA and other regulatory agencies rely on other agencies’ inspections — the idea that Canadian drugs are these dangerous drugs is a red herring.”

A bigger question, he said, is the amount of savings these bills would generate.

Thurston pointed to Utah state analyses that suggest the state could save $70 million in the private sector, and another $20 million to $30 million in state-funded insurance programs. If approved, he said, the state would target 15 to 20 drugs to import — insulin, for instance, because it is bought in large quantities, or expensive drugs that treat hepatitis C or HIV.

Others expressed skepticism.

For one thing, the true price of prescription drugs isn’t always clear. There’s the list price — and generally, those are much higher in the United States. But insurance plans often negotiate rebates, or discounts, from the drug company — meaning they can end up paying far less than what’s advertised. Those discounts aren’t public, making it much harder to compare prices between the two countries.

The drug industry would also likely employ strategies to counter importation.

Pharmaceutical companies, Law noted, stand to lose if American states are importing cheaper drugs. That could motivate them to tamp down how many prescriptions they sell in Canada, or find other ways to discourage Canadian wholesalers from participating.

“My guess is any Canadian distributor to engage in that would find their [medication] supply dwindle quickly, because the drug companies would stop supplying,” he said. “The supplier systems in the United States would probably find it hard to get a [Canadian drug] supply in the long term.”

That’s certainly a real concern, said Claire Ayer, a Vermont state senator and Democrat who chairs her legislature’s Health and Welfare Committee.

“We can’t tell drug companies or wholesalers what to do in Canada,” she added.

VanderVeer said PhRMA could not speculate on how individual drug companies may react to importation.

Still, these state efforts could spur the federal government to take action, Sachs suggested — even if it’s unclear how large an impact importation would have.

“Importation will not solve all the problems — and I don’t think states see it as such,” she said. “But it could be a useful way to put pressure on a federal government and White House that has thus far largely been inactive on this topic.”