Medical Patriotism

Posted by on Wednesday, Jul 6, 2011

By Pippa Abston MD, PhD, FAAP

Every year around the Fourth of July, amid the flag waving and fireworks, I come across an article or two blaming patriotism for the ills of civilization. I agree with much of the criticism. A constant obsession with being “the best in the world” makes us both arrogant and unrealistic. Believing we can be truly healthy—economically, environmentally, or otherwise—without considering the roles and needs of other nations is not only immature but dangerous.

As I often do when confronted with a loaded word, I looked up “patriot” in my old Merriam Webster dictionary. I was struck right away by the short, simple definition: “love for or devotion to one’s country.” I’m sure you know it came originally from the Latin for father, pater. Interesting, since the earth parent is usually a maternal one. The paternal face of country has more to do with the political structure, historically a masculine creation, than the land itself.

What if we imagined our country, in both earthy and political nature, as a parent? I don’t mean to invoke the over-protective helicopter version. I’m talking about our formation as persons—the various influences that eventually make us who we will be. And how about our reciprocal duty to our parents, as they age and sometimes need us to care for them? Could we consider how we are serving in that role to our nation, now well over 200 years old?

I’ve worried sometimes, while advocating strenuously for Medicare for All (including visitors and immigrants), that I’m taking a sort of parochial view. It seems a little selfish to spend so much effort lobbying for my fellow country-people, when much of the world fares far worse in life expectancy. I wonder if I should be doing something more globally relevant instead.

But all this thinking about land and politics, fathers and mothers, and caring for one another took me in an unexpected direction. We aren’t patriotic enough. If we were more patriotic (loving, devoted), and followed the principle of loving other (countries) as ourselves, maybe we’d do better. There’s no need to hold back our love for this land, its history or its people. We don’t have to be blind about it either. In fact, we owe a special duty to address the errors of those we love. I have a deep love for my state, Alabama, despite its sometimes recalcitrant and difficult ways. It’s ok to love a city, a certain neighborhood, a particular tree. We can all start where we are, then extend ourselves outwards, as in the spiritual practice of lovingkindness meditation.

Let’s love our country more. Tell Congress we want to pay for our nation’s healthcare and not be forced to give protection money to private insurers. With the savings, we will be in better condition to bring resources to those other (also beloved) lands in need. We don’t have to limit the borders of our patriotism. Everybody in. Nobody out.

ALERT: The private insurers are taking over!

Posted by on Tuesday, Jul 5, 2011

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Managed Care Enters The Exam Room As Insurers Buy Doctor Groups

By Christopher Weaver
Kaiser Health News/Washington Post, July 1, 2011

Even if UnitedHealth Group isn’t your insurance company, there’s a good chance it touches you in some way. The $100 billion behemoth sells technology to hospitals and other insurers, distributes drugs, manages clinical trials and offers continuing medical education, among other things, through the growing web of firms it owns.

Now, that touch could get a lot more personal.  United’s health services wing is quietly taking control of doctors who treat patients covered by United plans in several areas of the country — buying medical groups and launching physician management companies, for example.

It’s the latest sign that the barrier between companies that provide health coverage and those that actually provide care to patients is crumbling. Other large insurers, including Humana and WellPoint, have announced deals involving doctors in recent months, part of a strategy to curb rising health costs that could cut into profits and to weather new challenges to their business arising from the federal health law. But United is the biggest insurer by revenue, making the trend much more significant.

Many patients insured by these companies are going to see much tighter management of their care.

“Health care costs are still going to rise,” said Wayne DeVeydt, chief financial officer of WellPoint, which entered the business of running clinics in June with the announcement that it would acquire CareMore, a health plan operator based near Los Angeles that owns 26 clinics. “But the only way to stem those costs in the long term is to manage care on the front end.”

That means enlisting doctors. Their orders drive most health care spending, including the wasteful share: treating heart patients with expensive stents when cheaper drugs might work, or overusing high-tech imaging devices, for example. By managing doctors directly, insurers believe they can reshape the practice of medicine – and protect their profits.

For instance, CIGNA, another large insurer, saves 9 percent on patients treated by doctors in a Phoenix medical group it controls, said Stephanie Gorman, president of CIGNA Arizona. CIGNA has expanded the group over the last 18 months in response to the health law, and it now serves patients at 32 locations.

Insurance companies are pursuing doctors in response to increasing financial pressure. The health law cuts government spending on private Medicare plans that many insurers offer, imposes rules that could limit profits, and increases scrutiny of their rates. Adding to the pressure, the insurers’ customers are tired of rising prices.

Employers and other customers “are saying, I want more value for the dollars I spend in health care,” said Dawn Owens, chief executive officer of OptumHealth, United’s health services subsidiary. But, “there’s also a realization that the delivery system isn’t ready for that kind of change. That’s where we come in.”

The tools needed to control costs and improve care are things insurers have “invested in over the years,” she said. “The provider community doesn’t have those tools.”

Dr. Amir Bacchus, chief medical officer of HealthCare Partners of Nevada, a large physician group, said he learned about United’s plans in a phone call from a United recruiter. He was asked if he’d be interested in joining the company to manage 500 doctors at a network of clinics United planned to build around the country, one part of its physician strategy.

By adding physicians in some places, United “can definitely control the health system” in those areas, said Bacchus, who declined United’s overture. “It’s a threat for us,” he added. “They are going to compete directly with our business model.”

United’s OptumHealth subsidiary, meanwhile, is buying doctors’ groups, building management companies to organize physicians, fostering new partnerships with medical groups and hiring doctors at a group it already controls.

Insurers managed physician practices before, especially in the 1990s. But customers rejected those tightly managed plans. Some local plans, and larger insurers such as Kaiser Permanente, continue to employ practicing doctors. But the biggest national insurers shed such arrangements.

One reason the strategy makes sense now is that the health law could reward such arrangements. The law envisions so-called accountable care organizations, groups of doctors and hospitals that take responsibility for patients and the financial risk that comes with them. If they cut spending, they would keep some of the savings.

While hospitals are widely seen as the natural leaders of ACOs, United’s strategy positions it to lead the new systems, too, a company executive acknowledged.

Some observers watching the developments say the health law, which in part was sold as a way to rein in insurers, has had the opposite result, opening the door for the companies to take control of even more parts of the health system.

“There’s a gigantic Murphy’s law emerging here,” said Ian Morrison, a California-based health care consultant who does some work for United, as well as most of its competitors. “The very people who were the demons in all of this, that the public can’t stand” – managed-care firms – “are the big winners.”

In the push towards integrated health systems, hospitals have been consolidating within markets in order to gain leverage in the negotiation of insurance contracts. Physicians have been consolidating within medical groups, also giving them greater market leverage. Leading the way, virtually all metropolitan insurance markets are now highly concentrated. In this power play between the health care giants, who is winning and who is losing?

Although the Medicare Shared Savings version of accountable care organizations is not gaining much traction, the underlying concept of integrating physicians and hospitals is. We are witnessing a power play by physician groups that want to be the entry point for health care through primary care medical homes and integrated specialty services. Many of these medical groups are establishing associations with hospitals in order to be able to contract with insurers as providers of comprehensive health care services.

On the other hand, hospitals would like to be in control, so they are not only consolidating but they are also purchasing physician practices. Is it the hospitals or the physicians who are winning this game?

Think back on how health care reform played out. Hospitals and physicians meekly supported the process mostly out of fear that their lot would be much worse off if they weren’t there during the process. But who was placed in control, with representatives actually writing the Affordable Care Act? The insurance industry! Everyone will be required to purchase their products, Medicaid is being converted to managed care organizations, and Medicare Advantage private health plans have been expanding. The private insurers are being given control of much of our national health care spending.

Look what the insurers are doing with that control. In the full version of the article provided at the link above and in many other information resources, you will see that the insurers are very busy trying to buy up enough of the health care delivery system to gain control of the health care markets. They will not only be the money managers for health care, but they will replace the current owners of the health care delivery system. In the worst possible outcome imaginable, they will be the actual providers of our health care!

Karen Ignagni of Americas Health Insurance Plans stated repeatedly during the reform process that the measure must provide effective mechanisms of controlling costs. It doesn’t. But now that the insurers are gaining total control, they will be able to bring us cost containment, but on their terms. How? As the CFO of WellPoint states, by owning the delivery system, they will be able to “manage care at the front end.” They will use their own doctors to prevent “overuse” and “protect their profits.”

A single payer system would be designed to macromanage dollars but would leave micromanagement of health care to the physicians and their patients. Once the insurers become the owners, the insurers will move in as the micromanagers of health care. Patients not only lose choice of their health care providers, but they also lose choice of their health care services and products.

So between the hospitals and the physicians, who comes out the winners? Neither. It’s the insurers who win. You can argue about whether or not the hospitals and physicians would be losers (or rather how much they would lose), but the tragedy of all of this is that the real losers would be those for whom the health care system should be designed – the patients.

For those who support a single payer Medicare for all system and believe that it will only be a matter of time before we’re there, think about this. When we have enacted a single payer system, the government will then negotiate with the providers of health care for delivery of health care services. That will not be with the physicians nor the hospital administrators, but it will be with the owners of the health care delivery system – the private insurers!

Unless we can enlist an outraged public to fight this thing, we will not end up with a single payer health care nirvana for all, but a single payer health care inferno from hell. Never have we had a greater imperative to inform and activate the public than right now. Let’s do it!

Prof. Gerald Friedman on single payer

Posted by on Friday, Jul 1, 2011

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Universal Health Care: Can We Afford Anything Less?

By Gerald Friedman
Dollars and Sense, July/August 2011

America’s broken health-care system suffers from what appear to be two separate problems. From the right, a chorus warns of the dangers of rising costs; we on the left focus on the growing number of people going without health care because they lack adequate insurance. This division of labor allows the right to dismiss attempts to extend coverage while crying crocodile tears for the 40 million uninsured. But the division between problem of cost and the problem of coverage is misguided. It is founded on the assumption, common among neoclassical economists, that the current market system is efficient. Instead, however, the current system is inherently inefficient; it is the very source of the rising cost pressures. In fact, the only way we can control health-care costs and avoid fiscal and economic catastrophe is to establish a single-payer system with universal coverage.

In short, the question is not whether we can afford a single-payer health-insurance system that would provide adequate health care for all Americans. The real question is: can we afford anything else?

(Gerald Friedman is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.)

It is great to have on board another economist from the academic community who understands the imperative of the single payer model. We should be hearing more from Professor Gerald Friedman.

Orszag – Medicare, not commercial insurers, has the clout

Posted by on Wednesday, Jun 29, 2011

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Orszag sees legislative gridlock ahead

By Melanie Evans, June 28, 2011

Peter Orszag, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, speaking before health finance executives in Orlando, said an overhaul of U.S. healthcare payment to reward value cannot succeed without Medicare, yet policymakers face gridlock in what is a highly politicized environment.

Commercial insurers are too fragmented to change healthcare payments, but Medicare has the clout, he explained. Options under consideration to address the nation’s rising healthcare costs, which Orszag called the primary source of the U.S. fiscal woes, won’t accomplish much, Orszag said. Cuts to Medicare provider payments are “blunt” and “temporarily effective” but not a “long-term answer.” He dismissed rationing care as politically unviable. Proposals to increase household financial liability for healthcare are least effective among the most costly patients, which policy makers must address to slow spending, he said.

Healthcare Financial Management Association

According to Peter Orszag, “commercial insurers are too fragmented to change healthcare payments, but Medicare has the clout.” Though he didn’t expand on that with the obvious extrapolation, we can. Let’s get rid of the commercial insurers and improve and expand Medicare so that it covers everyone.

Declines in physician acceptance of Medicare less than private coverage

Posted by on Tuesday, Jun 28, 2011

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Declines in Physician Acceptance of Medicare and Private Coverage

By Tara F. Bishop, MD, MPH; Alex D. Federman, MD, MPH; Salomeh Keyhani, MD, MPH
Archives of Internal Medicine, June 27, 2011

A number of articles in the lay and medical press report a decline in the number of physicians who accept patients with Medicare; however, to our knowledge, recent trends in acceptance of different types of insurance have not been examined. Using data from a national survey of physicians, we examined trends in physician acceptance of different types of insurance and self-pay patients.


The percentage of physicians accepting new patients did not vary significantly between 2005 and 2008, ranging from 94.2% to 95.3%. Physician acceptance of new Medicare patients dropped from 95.5% in 2005 to 92.9% in 2008 (P = .01). Physicians in private practice were largely responsible for the declining acceptance of Medicare patients as determined in stratified analyses (95.5% in 2005 vs 93.0% in 2008; P = .01) (eTable).

There was a more pronounced decline in physician acceptance of patients with private noncapitated insurance (93.3% in 2005 vs 87.8% in 2008; P < .001). A smaller percentage of adult primary care physicians accepted private noncapitated patients over the study period (97.3% in 2005 vs 89.9% in 2008; P < .001).

Rates of acceptance of new Medicaid and private capitated patients were lower than Medicare and private noncapitated insurance, but also showed a decline over the study period. Acceptance of self-paying patients was more than 96% in all years and did not change significantly over the study period.

While reports in the press highlight physicians’ dissatisfaction with Medicare, we found only a small decline in physician acceptance of Medicare patients between 2005 and 2008. In contrast, the decline in physician acceptance of noncapitated privately insured patients was more pronounced. Physicians continued to accept patients who were self-paying.

Although physician reimbursement under Medicare is often cited as the reason why physicians turn away Medicare patients, our findings that more than 90% of physicians continue to accept Medicare patients despite marginal increases in reimbursement suggest that anecdotal reports may be overstating access problems.

The observed decline in acceptance of private noncapitated insurance was unexpected and could be related to reimbursement but also to administrative burden. Acceptance rates of capitated insurance was lower and may reflect lower reimbursement in this model. Finally, the low and declining acceptance of new Medicaid patients is not surprising given the program’s historically poor reimbursement rate. Low rates of Medicaid acceptance may threaten access to care for the estimated 16 million Americans who will receive Medicaid coverage as a result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

eTable. Percentage of physicians accepting new patients by insurance type, practice type, and specialty, 2005-2008:

The good news in this report is that the often stated claim that physicians are dumping Medicare patients in favor of privately insured patients is not really true, at least as of 2008. Although there has been a small decline in the numbers of physicians accepting Medicare, well over 90 percent still do. Contrary to claims otherwise, the decline in the acceptance of privately insured patients was even greater.

Examining the breakdown in the eTable (link above) reveals some other interesting though not unexpected findings. With the exception of community health centers, close to one-third of physicians do not accept new Medicaid patients. Even more do not accept privately insured capitated patients (paid a flat amount per month per patient rather than fee for service). Over half of HMOs do not accept self-pay patients, though acceptance rates for these patients is very high in private practices and community health centers.

Although cash paying patients had the best access, this report does not cover the potentially catastrophic consequences of being uninsured or inadequately insured (e.g, high deductibles). Having adequate insurance is essential. The new lower actuarial value standards of private insurance make them a less desirable model for expanding coverage. Also the chronic underfunding of Medicaid makes it a poor choice.

Although Medicare remains popular and is widely accepted, it does need to be improved. Once we do that then it would be the ideal program to cover everyone. Acceptance rates would be virtually 100 percent.

Oberlander – our elusive search for health care cost control

Posted by on Monday, Jun 27, 2011

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Throwing Darts: Americans’ Elusive Search for Health Care Cost Control

By Jonathan Oberlander
Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, June 2011

During the 2009 – 2010 health reform debate, secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius contended that “every cost-cutting idea that every health economist has brought to the table is in this bill” (Gregory et al. 2010).

That assertion had considerable merit. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) contained numerous items on health services researchers’ and health economists’ wish lists, including policies to promote accountable care organizations (ACOs), primary care medical homes, bundled payment, pay for performance (P4P), comparative effectiveness research (CER), and health information technology (HIT). Even economists’ longtime holy grail — limiting the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance — made it, against the political odds, into the ACA. So too did proposals to create an independent Medicare commission and an innovation center, while the Obama administration additionally promised to authorize an Institute of Medicine study on reducing the geographic disparities in Medicare payment made (in)famous by Dartmouth researchers (Wennberg, Fisher, and Skinner 2002).

Not surprisingly, many policy analysts lavished praise on the new law’s promise to “bend the cost curve.”

Is there, then, reason to believe that the ACA will decisively rein in U.S. medical care spending? Alas, probably not. The enthusiasm for the cost-containment provisions in health reform is striking precisely because so many of those provisions are tepid. Put simply, the Affordable Care Act lacks systemwide, reliable cost control. It is in fact a retreat from the cost-control ambitions of the 1993 – 1994 Clinton plan, which had, whatever one thinks of managed competition, a serious theory of how to slow health care spending, and, beyond that, a National Health Board and a budget to enforce expenditure targets. That some analysts believe the new law encompasses all available cost-containment ideas says more about the parochialism of U.S. health policy and its inattention to international experience than it does about the robustness of the ACA’s spending limits.

But slowing federal expenditures on Medicare is not the same as controlling spending in the broader U.S. health care system that encompasses private insurance and other public programs (Marmor and Oberlander 2009). Outside of asserting Medicare’s powers, the ACA has three major policies that purport to control costs. The establishment of health insurance exchanges is expected to generate savings by concentrating purchasing power, reducing administrative costs, and promoting competition among health insurers. Yet the scope of the exchanges, and consequently their likely impact on national health expenditures, is limited: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO 2010) projects 24 million Americans will participate in them by 2019 (though enrollment could expand significantly over time). Moreover, Massachusetts’s experience to date with its Health Connector program provides little ground for believing that the exchanges will slow spending in the broader health system.

The second major cost-control instrument is the 40 percent marginal tax that will be imposed on high-cost insurance plans (policies exceeding $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families). The so-called Cadillac tax reflects many economists’ deeply held belief that insulating patients from costs leads to overconsumption of and higher spending on medical care (Vladeck and Rice 2009). That other nations spend much less than the United States on health care despite having comprehensive benefits and, in some cases, no cost sharing has so far not disturbed the view that moral hazard is the root of our high costs. Tax health insurance, advocates believe, and insurers and employers will trim overly generous benefits, patients will consume less medical care, and national health spending will slow.

The final piece of the ACA’s cost-control strategy is delivery system reform. Here the idea is to “modernize” U.S. medical care (Buntin and Cutler 2009) by providing better information and new incentives (CER, HIT), reorganizing how care is delivered (ACOs, medical homes), and changing how it is paid for (bundled payment, P4P). In addition, the law embraces prevention, including a new requirement that insurers must cover recommended preventive services without any cost sharing.

However, little evidence exists that any of these reforms — as politically appealing as their promise to improve health outcomes and health care delivery may be — will generate sizable savings in the short term (Marmor, Oberlander, and White 2009; Tanenbaum 2009). Moreover, in many cases the reforms are initially envisioned only as Medicare pilots and demonstrations, with the hope that they would spread throughout the program and then to the rest of the health system. This strategy for controlling costs is akin to throwing darts. Evidently, the idea is that since we don’t know how well any of these policies will work, we should try them all at once and see which ones actually stick.

There is good reason to be skeptical that delivery system reform will by itself provide reliable cost control. After all, other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations that spend less on medical care than the United States do so largely through concentrated purchasing, budgeting, and price regulation (Jost, Dawson, and den Exter 2006; Marmor, Oberlander, and White 2009; Vladeck and Rice 2009; White 1995, 2010). The ACA does not move the United States closer to that international standard (White 1995) as much as it maintains the American tradition of searching for technical fixes to the fundamentally political problem of slowing the flow of income to the health care industry (Barer and Evans 1992; Morone 1990; Reinhardt 1990; Vladeck and Rice 2009).

Thus many American policy analysts continue to lament fee-for-service payment and argue for the “necessity” of switching to a “fee-for-value” system if costs are to be controlled — never mind that other nations that pay doctors fee-for-service, including Canada, control costs much better than we do. The American debate has lost sight of a crucial fact: it is not just about how you pay for medical care, but how much you pay for services. Rather than emulating policies that actually work to constrain spending abroad (e.g., global budgets, fee schedules) the United States seems intent on reinventing and reorganizing its way out of the cost crisis. Yesterday’s conviction that capitation and integrated delivery systems held the key to stemming medical costs has been resurrected in the current fad for accountable care organizations and bundling, with scant acknowledgment that we have been down this road before. An ever-increasing list of abbreviations (HMOs, HSAs, HIT, P4P, and so on) bear witness to Americans’ elusive, and now four-decade-long, search for magic bullets.

Proponents of the ACA have attempted to turn the absence of reliable cost control into a strength. The law is, they contend, diverse and flexible. By trying many approaches, “it does not rely on just one policy for effective cost control” (Orszag and Emanuel 2010: 603). Yet combining a series of potentially ineffective reforms does not make them any more effective. Moreover, the rationale for experimenting with an array of delivery systems and payment reforms reflects a sort of policy agnosticism, since, as Jon Gruber argues, “health policy experts can’t really say for sure how governments should best go about slowing cost growth” (Gruber 2010: 189). But international experience suggests that other nations do know how to slow medical spending; the United States is simply unable or unwilling to adopt those policies. Americans are, in other words, determined to try all available cost-control options — except those that actually succeed elsewhere. Ultimately, the insistence that the United States has to try everything because nothing is certain to contain medical costs sounds less like agnosticism or intellectual curiosity and more like ignorance.

Read these excerpts from Jonathan Oberlander’s article, and you’ll understand much better why the Affordable Care Act will fail to control health care costs. Has our reform been driven by ignorance, as he suggests? With the great body of health policy literature available to us, how could that be? It seems more likely that ego and greed are much more powerful policy drivers.

Obama administration revises insurance appeal rules – to benefit insurers

Posted by on Thursday, Jun 23, 2011

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

HHS Scales Back Rules On Health Insurance Appeals

By Susan Jaffe
Kaiser Health News, June 23, 2011

The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it is scaling back some of its earlier rules under the 2010 health law that governed consumers’ right to appeal denials by health plans, disappointing patient advocates and earning praise from industry groups.

The health overhaul gives members in group and individual health plans the right – many for the first time — to appeal the denial of coverage to an independent review panel. But the administration’s new rules provide beneficiaries less time to prepare their appeal, less information about why their claim was denied and limit what type of denials can be challenged.

A spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, which had pressed the administration for changes, said the trade group was still reviewing the 95-page document, but the group’s overall impression was positive.

“The new regulations take important steps to simplify and streamline the appeals process so that patients can receive the most accurate and timely decision about their medical claims,” said the spokesman, Robert Zirkelbach.

Stephen Finan, senior policy director at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said Wednesday’s announcement would have the opposite effect. “Transparency and independence are critical to ensure that a fair and objective appeal is conducted,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are numerous barriers and burdens placed on the consumer that could prevent a timely and objective resolution to a denial.”


Group Health Plans and Health Insurance Issuers: Rules Relating to Internal Claims and Appeals and External Review Processes

Department of the Treasury
Department of Labor
Department of Health and Human Services

SUMMARY: This document contains amendments to interim final regulations implementing the requirements regarding internal claims and appeals and external review processes for group health plans and health insurance coverage in the group and individual markets under provisions of the Affordable Care Act. These rules are intended to respond to feedback from a wide range of stakeholders on the interim final regulations and to assist plans and issuers in coming into full compliance with the law through an orderly and expeditious implementation process.

(Following is one example of the revised rules)

II. Overview of Amendments to the Interim Final Regulations
A. Internal Claims and Appeals
1. Expedited notification of benefit determinations involving urgent care (paragraph
(b)(2)(ii)(B) of the July 2010 regulations).

The July 2010 regulations provided that a plan or issuer must notify a claimant of a benefit determination (whether adverse or not) with respect to a claim involving urgent care (as defined in the DOL claims procedure regulation) as soon as possible, taking into account the medical exigencies, but not later than 24 hours after the receipt of the claim by the plan or issuer, unless the claimant fails to provide sufficient information to determine whether, or to what extent, benefits are covered or payable under the plan or health insurance coverage. This was a change from the DOL claims procedure regulation, which generally requires a determination not later than 72 hours after receipt of the claim by a group health plan for urgent care claims. The preamble to the July 2010 regulations stated that the Departments expected electronic communication would enable faster decision-making than in the year 2000, when the DOL claims procedure regulation was issued.

While some commenters supported the 24-hour rule (particularly consumer advocates and medical associations, including mental health providers who noted the 24-hour standard was especially important for people in psychiatric crisis), concerns were raised by many plans and issuers regarding the burden of a 24-hour turnaround. Some commenters argued that some of the claims constituting “urgent care” and thus qualifying for the expedited timeframe really do not need to be made within 24 hours. Moreover, a number of commenters highlighted that the 72-hour provision was intended only to serve as a “backstop”; as the general rule under both the July 2010 regulations and the DOL claims procedure regulation requires a decision as soon as possible consistent with the medical exigencies involved, making the change to a 24-hour timeframe unnecessary for the most serious medical cases. Some commenters cited the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which generally requires hospitals to provide emergency care to individuals with or without insurance or preauthorization and, therefore, mitigates the need for expedited pre-service emergency claims determinations in many situations. Finally, some commenters stated that a firm 24-hour turnaround for urgent care claims will adversely affect claimants, as plans and issuers will not have sufficient time to properly review a claim, adversely affecting the quality of the review process in cases where the provider cannot be consulted in time, and leading to unnecessary denials of claims.

After considering the comments, and the costs and benefits of an absolute 24-hour decision-making deadline for pre-service urgent care claims, this amendment permits plans and issuers to follow the original rule in the DOL claims procedure regulation (requiring decision making in the context of pre-service urgent care claims as soon as possible consistent with the medical exigencies involved but in no event later than 72 hours), provided that the plan or issuer defers to the attending provider with respect to the decision as to whether a claim constitutes “urgent care.” At the same time, the Departments underscore that the 72-hour timeframe remains only an outside limit and that, in cases where a decision must be made more quickly based on the medical exigencies involved, the requirement remains that the decision should be made sooner than 72 hours after receipt of the claim.

Was reform intended to benefit patients or insurers? As the reform process evolved, the insurers were dictating the policies. Understandably, they took care of their own interests first. Their lack of concern for patients is confirmed by the fact that their policies will leave 23 million people without any coverage and tens of millions more with inadequate coverage.

Officials of the Obama administration, along with leaders in Congress, were complicit with the insurers during the legislative process that led to the Affordable Care Act. You might think that they would show some remorse by tailoring the provisions of the act to better benefit patients. No.

The example of the rule change for determinations involving urgent care shows where their heart is. If a patient requires urgent care, the system should be designed to ensure that the necessary care is provided immediately. Yet read the contorted explanation leading to the revised rule above. It is being revised to ensure that the insurers are allowed three days instead of one to make a decision. That might even save them money should the patient die in the interim.

The administration’s rule: first do no harm – to the insurance company. And the patients? Who’s making these rules anyway? The patients need to butt out.

What would be the appeals process for a determination of urgent care under a single payer national health program? Appeals? What are you talking about? If the patient urgently needs care, the patient gets care – now! Period.

By Laura Boylan, M.D.

It was December. I got a dismaying e-mail from the American Academy of Neurology.

The AAN was conducting a membership survey to inform the Academy’s 2011 advocacy agenda. “We want to hear from you about the challenges you and your patients are facing,” the message read.

To my chagrin, I did not feel that my priorities or values were represented in the choices presented on the questionnaire. The items on the menu were all decidedly “thinking INside the box” of business-as-usual health care:

From the list below, please select up to three issues that you believe should be top legislative priorities for the AAN in 2011:

* Adoption of guidelines to minimize concussive injury during sporting activities
* Inclusion of neurology in the E/M bonus (created by the 2010 health reform law)
* Medical liability reform
* Neuroimaging practice issues
* Reimbursement for telemedicine
* Remedy for the loss of Medicare consult codes
* Right to privately contract with and balance-bill Medicare beneficiaries

I felt sure many other neurologists would feel the same way as I did about the limitations of this list. I appealed to my colleagues at Physicians for a National Health Program for help and was quickly supplied with a list of e-mail addresses of PNHP neurologists.

I e-mailed this group and suggested they send a “write-in” vote for single-payer national health insurance. I wrote to 113 members and, though I did not ask for any response, got back 14 personal replies from neurologists in eight states, all of whom “wrote in” votes for single-payer health reform to the AAN.

After this heartening response, I had a series of conference calls and e-mail exchanges with several of my colleagues, including Drs. Rachel Nardin and Deborah Leiderman, to discuss how we might put additional pressure on the AAN to take up our issue.

We did not expect the Academy to take a stance in support of single payer. We decided that a more sensible “ask” would be to request that the AAN poll its members about their views on health care reform.

Citing polling data showing robust, majority support for national health insurance, we wrote a letter to the Academy suggesting it conduct such a survey “so as to faithfully be able to represent its members’ voices in the national health care debate.”

Over 30 neurologists from 14 states signed the letter, which we sent to the president of the AAN, Dr. Bruce Sigsbee, and other key members of AAN leadership.

Dr. Sigsbee replied to our letter, saying that “AAN members have diverse views ranging across the spectrum of the government involvement in the health care system,” adding, “We recognize and respect the differing views and feel it best to focus on those issues where a majority of our members feel we can have the most impact.”

In short, he did not agree to our request.

Nonetheless, we believe efforts such as ours will keep pressure on bodies of organized medicine and keep single-payer advocacy “on the map.” Furthermore, the sign-on letter allowed a disparate group of neurologists to raise our voices together for what we believe in: health care as a human right, with everybody in and nobody out.

Laura S. Boylan, M.D., is clinical associate professor of neurology, New York University School of Medicine; attending neurologist, Department of Veterans Affairs; and board member, Physicians for a National Health Program – N.Y. Metro chapter. Dr. Boylan’s institutional affiliations are provided for identification purposes only; the views expressed are hers alone.

Okma – A European Perspective of U.S. Health Reform

Posted by on Wednesday, Jun 22, 2011

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

Obama’s Health Reform in European Perspective

By Kieke G. H. Okma
Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, June, 2011

It is hard to understand the European perspective on the current health reform debate in the United States without calibrating the left-right “scale” of politics in the two continents. If we were to rank political parties in Europe from, say, 1 to 10, the similar scale in America would run from 5 to 15. Thus, Europe’s middle is located at or close to America’s (extreme) left; likewise, America’s far right is way off the European chart. (That also explains why Europeans have a hard time understanding or taking seriously the Tea Party Movement.)

That political convergence of the main political parties in Europe, combined with “corporatist” policy making where governments share the responsibility for social policy making with organized stakeholders, explains why there is much less political polarization than in the United States — particularly on health care issues. European citizens, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, expected and accepted government intervention to make sure everyone has access to health care via state- sponsored or state provided arrangements. They still do. Once in place, welfare programs tend to create their own constituencies. It is hard, politically speaking, to reduce entitlements of existing programs. Even in times of economic downturn and fiscal strains, few European politicians have proposed serious cutbacks in public health spending. Leveling of growth rates of health expenditure, yes, perhaps. Experiments with a modest degree of “markets” based on consumer choice and much government regulation, maybe. But a substantial delisting of entitlements or major increases in user fees are not seriously on the agenda anywhere, especially not when such cuts would affect the elderly or people with chronic illness.

The vast majority of Europeans warmly embraced Obama’s election promise to enact universal health financing. They see universal access to health care as a social right, a crucial element of a decent society.

Two common misperceptions have generated disappointment, however. It is now clear that the 2010 health reform legislation will leave substantial numbers of Americans uninsured. The first error arose from applying the wrong political scale. The U.S. “middle of the road” is much more conservative than that in Europe, and no U.S. president can afford to be seen at the far left of the American scale. The second misunderstanding concerns the power of the American presidency. Surely, Europeans believe, the president of the most powerful country in the world can do what he sets out to do (and surely, no one could be against universal health care either). They find it hard to accept that the president’s power is bound by political institutions that make major change very difficult if not impossible.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed by Obama on March 23, 2010, takes on many problems. The health reform law will reduce the number of uninsured by expanding access to Medicaid and imposing restrictions on private insurers (the law also contains many other provisions that only weakly relate to health insurance reform). The step toward universal coverage, however, with effective cost control that would require a form of collective action, was one bridge too far.

Policy is easy. Politics isn’t. For the United States, the politics of collective action on health reform has been one bridge too far. Let’s now build that bridge.

AMA 2011 Insurer Report Card

Posted by on Tuesday, Jun 21, 2011

This entry is from Dr. McCanne's Quote of the Day, a daily health policy update on the single-payer health care reform movement. The QotD is archived on PNHP's website.

New AMA Health Insurer Report Card Finds Increasing Inaccuracy in Claims Payment

June 20, 2011

According to the AMA’s latest findings, commercial health insurers have an average claims-processing error rate of 19.3 percent, an increase of two percent compared to last year. The increase in overall inaccuracy represents an extra 3.6 million in erroneous claims payments compared to last year, and added an estimated $1.5 billion in unnecessary administrative costs to the health system. The AMA estimates that eliminating health insurer claim payment errors would save $17 billion.

Physicians received no payment at all from commercial health insurers on nearly 23 percent of claims they submitted. There are many reasons a legitimate claim may go unpaid by an insurer. Claims may be denied, edited or deferred to patients. During Feb. and March of this year, the most common reason insurers didn’t issue a payment was due to deductible requirements that shift payment responsibility to patients until a dollar limit is exceeded.

Metric 6: First ERA accuracy:

This metric measured the percentage of claim lines where the payer’s allowed amount was equal to the physician practice’s expected allowed amount. For this metric, it was necessary to obtain the actual contracted allowed amounts (i.e., fee schedule) for each claim line.

81.08% – Aetna
61.05% – Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield
83.02% – CIGNA
87.04% – Health Care Services Corporation
81.99% – Humana
88.41% – Regence
90.23% – UnitedHealthcare
96.19% – Medicare

AMA press release:

2011 National Health Insurer Report Card:


The private health insurance industry’s primary product that they are selling us is administrative services. How well are they doing? One-fifth of the claims that they process are in error. Medicare does better, but in using private billing contractors, their claims are still incorrect 4 percent of the time. We’re sure paying a lot to an industry that is doing such a lousy job.

Another finding that is buried in this report is that physicians received no payment at all from commercial health insurers on nearly 23 percent of claims they submitted. Think of the amount of administrative hassle involved here that is producing… nothing! The supposedly legitimate reasons for nonpayment include failure to meet the deductible, insurance policy has been cancelled, employer changed health plans, failure to use a network physician, services are not an included benefit, etc.

Under our current dysfunctional system of financing health care such denied claims are expected, as is the administrative waste entailed. But think of how it would be under a single payer system. None of these would be reasons to deny a claim. With everyone covered under one set of single payer rules, claims payment rate would be close to 100 percent.

Our current health care financing system is highly flawed, and the commercial insurers are incompetent. And we want more of this?!

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