The meme of interdependency of access, quality and cost

Posted by on Monday, Jul 14, 2014

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.

Why Improving Access to Health Care Does Not Save Money

By Aaron E. Carroll
The New York Times, July 14, 2014

One of the most important facts about health care overhaul, and one that is often overlooked, is that all changes to the health care system involve trade-offs among access, quality and cost. You can improve one of these – maybe two – but it will almost always result in some other aspect getting worse.

You can make the health care system achieve better outcomes. But that will usually cost more or require some change in access. You can make it cheaper, but access or quality may take a hit. And you can expand access, but that will increase cost or result in some change in quality.

More people being able to get care was the point of the A.C.A. It’s possible that overall health care spending may remain flat or even decrease because of other changes to the health care system, or economic factors outside the system entirely. But with respect to emergency care, prevention and procedures, we should expect that increasing access will lead to more spending, not less.

It’s understandable that supporters of the law want it to increase access, increase quality and decrease spending all at the same time, but that’s very unlikely. Trade-offs occur; we need to be honest, and prepared, for what’s likely to happen.

The supposedly inevitable trade-offs between access, quality and cost ignore one important intervention regarding cost. The health care financing system in the United States is unique in its profound, costly administrative waste due to the highly inefficient, fragmented financing through a multitude private insurers and public programs (and no programs at all for the uninsured).

Merely changing to a universal single payer program or a national health service model dramatically reduces costs without having a negative impact on access and quality. The future trajectory of cost increases would be shifted downward – achieving that elusive bending of the cost curve. That is one way other nations provide truly universal health care at a per capita cost averaging only half of that of the United States.

In fact, the monopsonistic purchasing of a public program can actually improve quality by obtaining greater value in health care purchasing.

Some of the savings that would accrue by changing to a universal program such as an improved Medicare for all would be redirected to much needed improvements in access.

The important bottom line is that we really can achieve improved access, improved quality, and lower costs by structural reform of our highly dysfunctional financing system – a system that was only expanded by the Affordable Care Act.…

Urgent care centers – capitalism in action

Posted by on Friday, Jul 11, 2014

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.

Race Is On to Profit From Rise of Urgent Care

By Julie Creswell
The New York Times, July 9, 2014

NORWALK, Conn. — For more than eight hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, an assortment of ailments is on display at the tidy medical clinic on Main Avenue here. But all of the patients have one thing in common: No one is being treated at a traditional doctor’s office or emergency room.

Instead, they have turned to one of the fastest-growing segments of American health care: urgent care, a common category of walk-in clinics with uncommon interest from Wall Street. Once derided as “Doc in a Box” medicine, urgent care has mushroomed into an estimated $14.5 billion business, as investors try to profit from the shifting landscape in health care.

But what is happening here is also playing out across the nation, as private equity investment firms, sensing opportunity, invest billions in urgent care and related businesses. Since 2008, these investors have sunk $2.3 billion into urgent care clinics. Commercial insurance companies, regional health systems and local hospitals are also looking to buy urgent care practices or form business relationships with them.

The business model is simple: Treat many patients as quickly as possible. Urgent care is a low-margin, high-volume proposition.

Urgent care clinics also have a crucial business advantage over traditional hospital emergency rooms in that they can cherry-pick patients. Most of these centers do not accept Medicaid and turn away the uninsured unless they pay upfront. Hospital E.R.s, by contrast, are legally obligated to treat everyone.

Already, the race is on to build large chains with powerful, national brands — a McDonald’s or a Gap of health care. Wall Street money is driving the growth, but so are other forces. Millions of newly insured Americans are seeking care. Others are frustrated by long waits at E.R.s, or by having to conform to regular doctor’s hours.

The insurance giant Humana paid nearly $800 million in 2010 to buy Concentra, the nation’s largest group of urgent care centers, with about 300 currently. Two years later, Dignity Health, a San Francisco-based health system, acquired U.S. HealthWorks, a group that today has 176 centers.

Even hospitals are embracing the trend. Florida Hospital in Orlando, for example, has opened 24 Centra Care urgent care clinics.

But some of the most aggressive buyers have been private equity firms, according to data from a research firm, PitchBook.

In 2010, General Atlantic, a private equity firm, and Sequoia Capital, a giant in venture capital, acquired a stake in MedExpress Urgent Care, which operated 47 clinics in four states. today, MedExpress has 130 clinics in 10 states.…

The growing popularity of urgent care centers is understandable. Patients can receive timely care with shorter waits, at a cost well below that of hospital emergency departments. These centers are working well for patients, for the health professionals who staff them, and for… yes, passive investors who have learned how to divert to their own coffers some of the $3 trillion that we are spending on health care.

That’s the thing about capitalism. When there is an opening that can provide a significant return on invested dollars, capitalists jump in, while socialists stand back and observe, especially since the machinery of government grinds very slowly.

In the case of urgent care centers, what approaches will provide the best return for the capitalists? Above all, locate them in wealthy communities. Do not ever consider placing them in communities with high poverty levels, even though the medical need may be great. Cherry pick your patients. You can turn away Medicaid and cashless uninsured patients and give them instructions on how to get to the nearest hospital emergency department, which is required by law to accept them. But cater to the insurance companies that are quite willing to pay your higher fees as long as they are lower that emergency department fees. In fact, maybe the insurers will even be willing to pay a premium to buy you out.

The record is in on for-profit health care facilities. Business principles trump patient service principles every time. Make the most money on insured patients that the market will bear, but avoid losses on uninsured and welfare patients by turning them away.

About those socialists who are standing back and observing, what are they to do? How do they move urgent care services into communities with high poverty? They know that the private investors want no part of that. What about primary care practices? Isn’t it unrealistic to expect physician offices to be staffed 24 hours a day? What about community health centers? On their tight budgets, can they provide 24hour/7day urgent care services? What about emergency departments of hospitals? Of course, they are already serving that function, but at very high fees that are used to support other money-losing services of the hospital – not to mention long delays at times other health care facilities are closed.

Under a single payer system, facilities would be established through central planning based on the health care needs of the community, not on what would be the most profitable. Passive investors would not be involved and thus would play no role in those decisions, as they shouldn’t.

Private sector investors move in rapidly at any opportunity, structuring their investments to get the most dollars they can from us while neglecting those without dollars. Government bureaucrats move much more slowly, but at least they get it right, making sure that health care is available for people when they need it. Single payer is what we need.

Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO) is an irreparably flawed concept

Posted by on Thursday, Jul 10, 2014

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.

Anthem Blue Cross faces another suit over Obamacare doctor networks

By Chad Terhune
Los Angeles Times, July 9, 2014

Amid growing scrutiny statewide, insurance giant Anthem Blue Cross faces another consumer lawsuit over its use of narrow networks in Obamacare coverage.

A group of Anthem policyholders sued California’s largest for-profit health insurer Tuesday in state court, accusing the company of misrepresenting the size of its physician networks and the insurance benefits provided.

A similar suit seeking class-action status was filed June 20 against Anthem, a unit of WellPoint Inc., The Times has reported.

In response to the two lawsuits, Anthem said “materials at the time of enrollment and in members’ explanation of benefits have clearly stated that the plan was an EPO plan which may not have out of network benefits.”

The company added that Blue Cross Blue Shield Assn. rules required the PPO designation on EPO member cards because coverage for emergencies is available in other states.

In May, two San Francisco residents sued Blue Shield in state court, accusing the company of misrepresenting that their policies would cover the full network.

Separately, California regulators are investigating whether Anthem and Blue Shield of California violated state law in connection with inaccurate provider lists and making it difficult for patients to obtain timely care.

To hold down premiums under the health law, Anthem and Blue Shield cut the number of doctors and hospitals available to patients in the state’s new health insurance market.

These exclusive-provider organization, or EPO, health plans have been particularly troublesome for some consumers who were accustomed to having more conventional preferred-provider organization, or PPO, policies.

One of the major differences is that patients with an EPO plan typically have little or no coverage if they see an out-of-network medical provider and they are often responsible for the full charges.

“EPOs will continue to play a role,” said exchange spokeswoman Anne Gonzales. “But we’re going to have to do a better job educating people about how these networks work. We recognize the EPO model can be confusing.”

Some supporters of the Affordable Care Act say the smaller size of the provider networks isn’t the problem so much as clear information about what doctors and hospitals are available.

“The problem has been the transparency and reliability of the networks,” said Micah Weinberg, a health-policy analyst at the Bay Area Council, an employer-backed group.

“That’s the problem that we need to fix. If we focus on narrowness we will be focusing on the wrong thing,” Weinberg added.…

Micah Weinberg, a health-policy analyst at the Bay Area Council, an employer-backed group, says, “The problem (with exclusive provider organizations – EPOs) has been the transparency and reliability of the networks. That’s the problem that we need to fix. If we focus on narrowness we will be focusing on the wrong thing.” Really? Narrow networks are not the problem?

There is a general rule that when you are confronted with a problem you should provide a solution that corrects the problem at its origin rather than providing a solution that requires compliance by everyone else involved. In the case of EPOs it would have been far better to simply eliminate them and address cost issues by more effective policies rather than to try to get each individual to understand EPOs and comply with the restrictions on which health care providers will be covered – compliance which is sometimes impossible to achieve.

Once private insurers began using networks of contracted physicians and hospitals, compliance has been a problem for many reasons. The network lists are difficult to access. They undergo continual revisions. Frequently not all physicians providing coordinated health care services are contracted with the insurer. EPOs tend to use narrower networks to leverage more favorable contracts with those who do participate which further limits patients’ access and coverage. The individual’s selection of health plans often changes for a variety of reasons, and the networks change accordingly. This often disrupts continuity of care.

The only rationale for EPOs is for the insurer to negotiate lower prices. It is a terribly inefficient and disruptive way to do that. A far more effective way of pricing health care services appropriately would be to establish a single payer system. There would be no networks involved.

Much the same applies to PPOs. They differ from EPOs primarily in that they may cover a very modest portion of the charges outside of their networks, but they do not protect the patient from prices that are higher than the insurers’ usual contracted rates. By the rule that a problem should be corrected at its source, PPOs should be eliminated as well.

In fact, single payer advocates know that this applies to all private insurance plans. They should be eliminated and replaced with a single, publicly-financed and publicly-administered health program. You have eliminated the problem at its origin – the private insurers – and have replaced it with a program in which patient compliance is totally automatic – a single payer national health program.

Hospitals go where the money is

Posted by on Wednesday, Jul 9, 2014

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.

Inadequate State, Federal Payment Rates Forcing Hospital Closure, Officials Say

By David Gore
California Healthline, July 5, 2014

Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, about 10 miles north of Oakland, is slated to shut its doors at the end of July, unless some kind of deal can be worked out to keep it operating.

There are many contributing factors to the financial death spiral at Doctors Medical Center, according to said Eric Zell, chair of the West Contra Costa Healthcare District board of directors, which oversees Doctors Medical Center. But there is one fundamental and underlying reason it cannot remain economically viable:

“It’s the Medi-Cal and Medicare reimbursement rates,” Zell said. “The rates are just too low.”

Zell added, “The payer mix is 80% Medicare/Medi-Cal and about 10% uninsured. There’s only about 10% private pay, and that’s not enough to keep us going.”

According to hospital officials, Doctors Medical Center is paid 60 cents for every dollar it spends to treat each Medi-Cal patient and just 90 cents on the dollar for every Medicare patient.

When you’re looking at 100 patients a day and you lose money on 90 of them, the losses mount quickly, according to John Gioia, a longtime district supervisor on the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors.

Most medical facilities have a payer mix with a much higher percentage of people with commercial health insurance to mitigate the losses of their Medi-Cal, Medicare and uninsured patients, Gioia said.

And when you have such a large population of people living at poverty level, that also means the residents of western Contra Costa County don’t have much money to try to underwrite the hospital.

Doctors Medical Center is one of the few remaining stand-alone small district hospitals left in the state, Gioia said. “There have been many places like this, hospitals like this in similar circumstances,” he said. “Many have closed, dozens of them in California.”

“This hospital represents a larger problem and issue,” Gioia said, referring to the access issue that would emerge in the west county if Doctors does shut down. “This represents a larger problem and issue,” he said. “Is there a model that’s more sustainable?”

“I think this is a failure of our health care system,” (state Sen. Loni) Hancock said. “We need to have a single payer health system.”

But at its root, Hancock said, it shouldn’t be up to hospitals in the area to pick up the slack for low Medi-Cal and Medicare rates.

“Look, it’s a great health care system for employed, insured people,” Hancock said. “But this is not a health care system for people who are poor.”…

Doctors Medical Center is owned and operated by the West Contra Costa Healthcare District.

Doctors Medical Center Has an Emergency

If it doesn’t get financial help in the next few months, it will close its doors permanently. More than 40,000 people use Doctors Medical Center for emergency room services every year. If you have a heart attack or stroke, or you are in an accident, the ER at DMC is often the first stop for an ambulance. Without it, an ambulance trip could take up to an additional hour. That time could mean the difference between life and death.

It does not take much intellect to understand that hospitals should be located where they are needed and that they should be financed by a system that would ensure that adequate funds would be available to pay for appropriate health care services for the community. Based on our current methods of hospital planning and financing, it may be intellect that is in short supply.

Today a hospital that is located in a community with high levels of poverty is dependent on income from Medicare and Medicaid. In California these programs, especially Medicaid (Medi-Cal), pay rates below costs of providing that care. Insolvency is inevitable. This is directly related to our dysfunctional, fragmented system of financing health care through a multitude of private insurers, public programs, and no programs at all.

With the private sector making decisions on hospital planning, areas with assurance of revenues will be selected – usually areas with a high percentage of privately insured patients plus Medicare patients with higher regionally adjusted payment rates. The private planners do not select areas with high poverty rates and high numbers of uninsured and Medicaid beneficiaries. Private planning decisions are based on money, not on local need.

Under a well designed single payer system, capital spending is budgeted separately. Hospitals are built in areas of need. The hospital operations are financed through global budgets, just as with our fire and police departments. Public financing obviates the need to consider wealth when establishing the location of health facilities.

If Doctors Medical Center is closed down, the billionaire who is passing through town and is critically injured in an accident may die if his ambulance has to drive past a padlocked emergency department and continue for another hour to a different facility. No amount of money will buy your way to the front of that queue.

We need to adopt a system that will provide both appropriate planning and appropriate financing. Our current fragmented system can’t do that.

California State Senator Loni Hancock is right. “This is a failure of our health care system. We need to have a single payer health system.”

OECD compares U.S. with other high-spending countries

Posted by on Tuesday, Jul 8, 2014

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.

Health-care expenditure and health policy in the USA versus other high-spending OECD countries

By Luca Lorenzoni MSc, Annalisa Belloni MSc, Franco Sassi PhD
The Lancet, July 1, 2014


The USA has exceptional levels of health-care expenditure, but growth has slowed dramatically in recent years, amidst major efforts to close the coverage gap with other countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). We reviewed expenditure trends and key policies since 2000 in the USA and five other high-spending OECD countries (Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland). Higher health-sector prices explain much of the difference between the USA and other high-spending countries, and price dynamics are largely responsible for the slowdown in expenditure growth. Other high-spending countries did not face the same coverage challenges, and could draw from a broader set of policies to keep expenditure under control, but expenditure growth was similar to the USA. Tightening Medicare and Medicaid price controls on plans and providers, and leveraging the scale of the public programmes to increase efficiency in financing and care delivery, might prevent a future economic recovery from offsetting the slowdown in health sector prices and expenditure growth.

Health expenditure levels

The higher health spending reported in the USA is not simply a result of the country’s greater wealth or of the age structure of its population. Even the larger prevalence of risk factors — including obesity — explains only a small part of the reported differences. OECD Health Care Quality Indicators show that the US health-care system is doing well in several areas (eg, cancer care), but less well in others (particularly the primary care sector). Overall, the quality of the care provided does not seem to explain the higher health expenditure in the USA.

OECD work on comparative price levels in health suggests that the prices, rather than volumes, of health services contribute the most to explaining the higher US spending, in line with the conclusions of scholarly work.

Probable explanations for health price levels exceeding general price levels in the USA include a more intense use of health-related technologies, low productivity, decentralised price negotiations, fragmentation in the insurance market, and a high level of provider concentration. In a private insurance or provider model — as in the Netherlands and Switzerland (with compulsory insurance coverage), and the USA (with voluntary insurance coverage) — a high amount of choice is combined with weaker cost control. In particular, the USA — excluding Medicare — does not use a centralised authority to set health spending budgets or negotiate prices with providers. A public-contract model — as in Canada, France, and Germany — gives a central authority (national government or social insurance administration) more leverage over health-care providers, generally with lower administrative costs than multiple-payer systems.

From the Discussion

The USA is an outlier in the scenery of OECD health-care systems, for its staggering levels of expenditure, the extent of fragmentation of its system and the sheer complexity of its administration, the power of vested interests, and the large number of people left without adequate health insurance coverage. However, during the period examined in this paper, characterised by a long and severe recession with a fluctuating economy and employment rates, differences in growth rates between the USA and other high-spending countries were substantially reduced. Great efforts have been made to sustain coverage and lift the USA from the bottom of the OECD coverage league table. Efforts have also been made to contain further growth in health-care expenditure, with rates falling in line with those of other high-spending OECD countries. This progress is no reason for complacency, and more and bigger efforts are needed in the years to come, particularly in controlling the main driver of higher health-care expenditure in the USA — ie, health sector prices. The risk that a future sustained economic recovery, and the probable general price increases that would come with it, might offset the gains made in recent years is real and should be anticipated. Medicare and Medicaid price controls on plans and providers, such as adjustments in payments to Medicare Advantage managed care plans, or DRG base rate adjustments to account for expected productivity growth in the general economy, could be tightened further and extended, particularly for pharmaceutical products and physician fees, without resorting to measures affecting service use, which would restrict choice or coverage. More daring measures could be used in the hospital sector, such as all-payer fees negotiated at state level (eg, Maryland’s Health Service Cost Review Commission), global budgets, and reference prices, although these would involve major changes in the US health-care market approach. Examples of effective measures are available from other countries, which might bring the USA further in line, in terms of both health-care expenditure and coverage, notwithstanding the relatively smaller effect of policy changes in the USA, in view of the different relation between insurance or financing and delivery systems. Changes gradually introduced towards the end of the study period, which will probably affect expenditure growth in the future, include bundled payments, reference prices for hospital care, and the introduction of Accountable Care Organisations to realign provider incentives, with a potential for quality improvement, in addition to cost containment. However, more evidence is needed about the complex causal pathways that link health-care expenditure and use with health outcomes, to avoid possible detrimental effects on population health from tightened controls on health-care expenditure.

[The authors are from the Health Division, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Paris, France.]

Press release – The Lancet: “Dramatic slowdown in growth of US health expenditure over last decade closes gap between USA and other high-spending countries”:

Press release – OECD: “After Decline in U.S. Health Expenditure Growth, OECD Sees Risk of Spending Uptick in Recovery”:

This OECD study comparing health care spending and health policy in the United States with five other high-spending OECD nations confirms that health care financing systems undergo continual revision. Yet the United States is unique in that our policy changes have not moved us from first position on per capita spending nor from last position on the proportion of the population that is covered.

As the authors state, “the USA is an outlier in the scenery of OECD health-care systems, for its staggering levels of expenditure, the extent of fragmentation of its system and the sheer complexity of its administration, the power of vested interests, and the large number of people left without adequate health insurance coverage.” Although some slowing in health care spending has occurred, future spending trends are uncertain.

The authors suggest some possibilities for reform, but they are based on maintaining the basic financing structure that was expanded but not fundamentally altered by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In fact, some of their suggestions were derived from ACA.

This paper is helpful since it describes the dynamics of health financing policy in several wealthy nations. We can always learn from others, even if the lessons are on what not to do. On the latter point, other nations have had much to learn from us even if they have not applied the lessons well (e.g., unwise attempts at privatization schemes).

The obvious flaw in this paper is that the authors did not discuss more comprehensive reform proposals such as a single payer national health program. They do, however, note that the United States “does not use a centralised authority to set health spending budgets or negotiate prices with providers,” whereas a public-contract model used in other nations “gives a central authority (national government or social insurance administration) more leverage over health-care providers, generally with lower administrative costs than multiple-payer systems.”

Doesn’t it seem that this is the lesson we should be receiving from other nations? Doesn’t this cry out for single payer in the United States? Of course, we already knew that. Our policy failure is a political failure. We will not get the policy right until we change our politics.

Is Gingrich’s prediction of Medicare withering on the vine about to come true?

Posted by on Monday, Jul 7, 2014

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.

Gingrich’s Correct Prediction About Medicare’s Future

By Austin Frakt
The New York Times, July 7, 2014

On Oct. 24, 1995, Newt Gingrich made an assertion about what would happen to Medicare if its beneficiaries could choose between it and private plans. Medicare is “going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it — voluntarily.” Though he later walked this statement back, many observers viewed it as an attack on the program.

In fact, over the nearly two decades since, Mr. Gingrich’s claim has undergone something of a test — and it has largely passed it.

In that time, Medicare beneficiaries have enjoyed various levels of access to private alternatives to traditional Medicare through the Medicare Advantage program and its predecessors.

Today, 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan, more than at any time in history.

The surge in Medicare Advantage enrollment seems surprising. With payments to plans cut by the Obama administration, history suggests enrollment should go down, not up. What, then, could explain the growing popularity of private Medicare plans?

One answer is that baby boomers, who are just entering Medicare-eligibility age, are more accustomed to the types of insurance Medicare Advantage offers, such as H.M.O.s, than their predecessors were.

Another answer is that prior generations of retirees may have been more likely to have had coverage from former employers that wrap around traditional Medicare, filling in its gaps. This coverage has become less common as employer-sponsored retirement benefits have eroded generally. Since Medicare Advantage plans generally offer extra benefits, financed by the generous government subsidies they receive relative to traditional Medicare, perhaps new retirees are turning to them in greater numbers for more complete coverage.

As Medicare Advantage grows, traditional Medicare necessarily shrinks and its influence on the American health care system weakens. If the trend continues, policies, including those in the Affordable Care Act, designed to use traditional Medicare as a tool to reshape health care delivery for all Americans may become less potent. Is there a tipping point at which traditional Medicare ceases to matter?

If so, we’re probably not there yet, but we may be moving toward it. Unless things change, the data suggest Mr. Gingrich may have been right in a way: Given a choice between traditional Medicare or more benefits from more highly subsidized private plans, Medicare beneficiaries may well be willing to let the former wither on the vine.

Although the higher payments to the Medicare Advantage plans are being reduced, the Obama administration, with encouragement from Congress (responding to AHIP’s intense lobbying campaign), has offset some of the reductions with innovative measures to increase payments to the private insurers.

That is perpetuating the blatant unfairness wherein taxpayers are paying more for those enrolled in the private plans than they are for those enrolled in the traditional Medicare program.

If it is right that we pay the private insurers more, then in all fairness we should be paying more for those in the traditional program so that everyone receives comparable benefits.

Fairness should be of the highest priority when our elected politicians are spending our tax dollars. Once we get that right, it will be no contest when it comes to comparing the traditional Medicare program with the private Medicare Advantage plans that divert a large portion of funds to profound administrative excesses, wasteful marketing, excessive executive compensation packages, and profits for superfluous passive investors, as they take away our choice of health care providers.

If we voters insist on fairness, it will be the private Medicare Advantage plans that will wither on the vine.…


Further comment by Don McCanne

Maintaining the integrity of the traditional Medicare program is important because it serves as an example of the capabilities of the government in managing a public insurance program. If the reputation of Medicare is trashed it would provide powerful rhetoric for the opponents of single payer.

The Medicare plus Choice program was established to provide private health plan competition to the traditional Medicare program, supposedly bringing us higher quality at lower cost. The experiment proved to be a failure since it was clear that the private insurers were unable to deliver on that promise. The privatizers did not give up. The program was revitalized as Medicare Advantage, but with a new twist. To supposedly prove that the plans could provide higher quality at lower cost, Congress cheated. They gave the plans an extra 14 percent over the costs of traditional Medicare, thinking that we wouldn’t notice.

The plans became popular mainly because they could entice Medicare beneficiaries with extra benefits, though those benefits were only a small part of their extra payments. That was enough to lure more enrollees. Recognizing that the plans were being paid too much, and struggling to find ways to pay for the Affordable Care Act, Congress included in the Act a gradual reduction in these Medicare Advantage overpayments.

It did not take long for the insurance industry to organize protests against Obama’s “cuts to Medicare.” The Obama administration, under pressure from members of Congress, responded with three years of accounting gimmicks that would offset some of the reductions.

Not only is our tax money being unfairly diverted to the private insurers, while neglecting those in the traditional program, a portion of the Part D premiums paid by traditional Medicare beneficiaries is also being diverted to the provision of more benefits for the Medicare Advantage patients – benefits that those in the traditional program do not receive.

It is important that we publicize this injustice so that the blatant cheating will end. Once that happens, the Medicare Advantage plans will have proven to be a failed model of health care financing. Hopefully then people will listen when we show them that a publicly administered and financed program – a single payer system – provides much greater value in health care.

Private Medicare Part D insurers pay 69% more for brand drugs than does Medicaid

Posted by on Thursday, Jul 3, 2014

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.

Comparison of DOD, Medicaid, and Medicare Part D Retail Reimbursement Prices

United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), June 2014

GAO found that Medicaid paid the lowest average net prices across a sample of 78 high-utilization and high-expenditure brand-name and generic drugs when compared to prices paid by the Department of Defense (DOD) and Medicare Part D. Specifically, Medicaid’s average net price for the entire sample was $0.62 per unit, while Medicare Part D paid an estimated 32 percent more ($0.82 per unit) and DOD paid 60 percent more ($0.99 per unit). Similarly, Medicaid paid the lowest net price for the subset of brand-name drugs in the sample, while DOD paid 34 percent more and Medicare Part D paid an estimated 69 percent more. Medicaid also paid the lowest net price for the subset of generic drugs, while Medicare Part D paid 4 percent more and DOD paid 50 percent more.

GAO found that multiple factors affected the net prices paid by each program. Specifically, a key factor for the entire sample and the brand-name subset was the amount of any post-purchase price adjustments, which are the refunds, rebates, or price concessions received by each program from drug manufacturers after drugs have been dispensed to program beneficiaries. These price adjustments ranged from about 15 percent of the gross price for Medicare Part D to about 31 percent for DOD, and nearly 53 percent for Medicaid across the entire sample. The gross prices each program negotiated with pharmacies and the magnitude of beneficiary-paid amounts also contributed to differences in net prices paid by the three programs, but to a lesser degree.

In some cases, VA beneficiaries can obtain drugs on a fee-for-service basis through non-VA facilities. These make up a very small proportion of VA drug expenditures (less than 1 percent in fiscal year 2010). Therefore we did not include VA in this report comparing prices paid to retail pharmacies.

The statutory framework allowing each program to obtain post-purchase price adjustments contributes to the wide range of percentages observed. Medicaid’s federally mandated rebates apply to virtually all drugs, while DOD’s refunds only apply to certain drugs (i.e., primarily brand-name drugs). Furthermore, we found that even when DOD received a refund for a given drug, DOD’s per-unit refund amount was less than Medicaid’s per-unit rebate for most of the drugs in our sample even though we applied only the federally mandated (i.e., URA-based) rebates for the calculation of Medicaid net prices. If we had been able to accurately apply the Medicaid state supplemental rebates, the per-unit Medicaid rebate amounts would be even larger (i.e., a greater percentage of the gross unit price) than we report. Finally, we found that Medicare Part D obtained the lowest per-unit price adjustments among the three programs. In contrast to the statutory authority allowing DOD and Medicaid to collect specific refunds and rebates, Medicare Part D plan sponsors rely on independent negotiations to obtain price concessions from drug manufacturers. As we have previously reported, plan sponsors have noted limitations on their ability to negotiate price concessions for some drugs due to formulary requirements set by CMS, lack of competitors for some drugs, or low utilization for some drugs that limit incentives for manufacturers to provide price concessions.


Comparison of DOD and VA Direct Purchase Prices

United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), Apr 19, 2013

When GAO compared prices paid by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for a sample of 83 drugs purchased in the first calendar quarter of 2012, DOD’s average unit price for the entire sample was 31.8 percent ($0.11 per unit) higher than VA’s average price, and DOD’s average unit price for the subset of 40 generic drugs was 66.6 percent ($0.04 per unit) higher than VA’s average price. However, VA’s average unit price for the subset of 43 brand-name drugs was 136.9 percent ($1.01 per unit) higher than DOD’s average price. These results were consistent with each agency obtaining better prices on the type of drugs that made up the majority of its utilization: generic drugs accounted for 83 percent of VA’s utilization of the sample drugs and brand-name drugs accounted for 54 percent of DOD’s utilization of the sample drugs. DOD officials told GAO that in certain circumstances they are able to obtain competitive prices for brand-name drugs – even below the prices for generic equivalents – and therefore will often preferentially purchase brand-name drugs.

These two GAO reports explain prices that the federal government pays for drugs and the mechanisms for pricing of those drugs within the Department of Veterans Affairs, Medicaid, Department of Defense, and Medicare Part D programs. The mechanisms are complex, and you have to read the full reports to fully understand them.

The bottom line is that government agencies are far more effective in negotiating optimal pricing than are the private insurers that administer the Medicare Part D program. As an example, the Medicare Part D insurers paid 69 percent more for brand-name drugs than did Medicaid.

The private Part D plan sponsors tout their effectiveness in using market principles to obtain best prices – supposedly the reason for their existence –  yet they complain that they have not been as effective as the government because of “formulary requirements set by CMS, lack of competitors for some drugs, or low utilization for some drugs that limit incentives for manufacturers to provide price concessions.”

Formulary requirements? The government agencies include in their formularies the drugs that patients need. The private insurers attempt to exclude from their formularies drugs that do not provide optimal profit opportunities. Complaining about “formulary requirements set by CMS” does not explain their inability to to obtain best prices for the government since the government has its own de facto formulary requirements for the VA, DOD and Medicaid programs.

Lack of competitors for some drugs? The government agencies also negotiate within the same pharmaceutical environment wherein there is a lack of competitors for some drugs.

Low utilization for some drugs that limit incentives for manufacturers to provide price concessions?  The government agencies also include low utilization drugs in their formularies.

Medicare Part D was designed based on the fraudulent contention that private marketplace dynamics are more effective then government negotiation in obtaining maximum value – a position that wastes government/taxpayer funds by paying excessive prices in the private sector compared to the price concessions that the government can obtain. We would not be tolerating this fraud if we had a properly designed single payer national health program.

Anthem Blue Cross punishing patients and providers for their own error

Posted by on Wednesday, Jul 2, 2014

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.

Error on Anthem ID cards results in claim denials

California Medical Association
CMA Alert, June 30,2014

In late March, the California Medical Association (CMA) began receiving complaints from physicians in San Diego, Orange and Bay Area counties about denials from Anthem Blue Cross. Practices reported that patients presented to their offices with Anthem ID cards that indicated they had a Covered California/mirror PPO product and subsequent eligibility verification also indicated the patient had a PPO product.

However, Anthem later denied the claims stating the services were not covered under the patients’ benefit plans because they received services from out-of-network providers.

CMA escalated the issue to Anthem and learned that while the Anthem ID card and eligibility verification indicated these patients had purchased PPO products, it was a mistake. These patients had actually purchased EPO products, with no out-of-network benefits.

While Anthem is offering a PPO product for their Covered California/mirror patients in most counties, they are only offering an EPO product in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. The Anthem EPO product does not provide any benefits if patients receive services from out-of-network physicians/facilities.

At CMA’s urging, Anthem corrected the affected patient ID cards and reissued new cards to EPO patients in May. Anthem also confirmed they have updated the information that displays when physicians verify eligibility to accurately reflect the correct product type.

CMA requested that Anthem automatically reprocess affected claims at the PPO rates, the product the ID card and eligibility information reflected, but Anthem was unwilling to do so. Instead they are requiring patients to appeal each individual claim to Anthem.

Anthem Blue Cross made a mistake in that they provided ID cards and eligibility verification for their EPO (exclusive provider) patients that indicated they were PPO (preferred provider) patients. PPO patients can obtain some care out-of-network but with reduced benefits. EPO patients are not eligible for any benefits out-of-network.

The California Medical Association has requested that Anthem Blue Cross reprocess those claims based on the PPO status that they had verified. Anthem has refused to do so, insisting that each claim be appealed individually. For an industry noted for administrative excesses and placing an administrative burden on health care providers, they are carrying it to an extreme wherein they are requiring much more administrative excesses to rectify their own error – punishing patients and providers for their own mistake.

How can this industry be so crass? Yet this industry, which should be placing patient service above all else, places its own business interests first. Such an insensitive response would never take place if our health care financing system were to be managed by our own public administrators. EPOs wouldn’t even exist. It’s time to replace the private insurers with a publicly-administered single payer system.

UnitedHealth’s Premium Physician Designation Program is not about quality

Posted by on Tuesday, Jul 1, 2014

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.

UnitedHealth Premium® Designation Program

The UnitedHealth Premium® physician designation program uses evidence-based, medical society, and national industry standards to recognize physicians for providing quality and cost efficient care.

The following designation results are displayed publicly in UnitedHealthcare’s physician directories (e.g., to support informed decision-making by members when making health care choices and by physicians when making referrals.

Designation information is as follows:

  • Quality & Cost Efficiency
  • Cost Efficiency & Not Enough Data to Assess Quality
  • Quality & Not Enough Data to Assess Cost Efficiency
  • Quality & Did Not Meet Cost Efficiency
  • Not Enough Data to Assess Quality & Did Not Meet Cost Efficiency
  • Not Enough Data to Assess
  • Not Evaluated
  • Did Not Meet Quality & Cost Efficiency

Innovative Benefit Plan Designs

In addition, employers may offer health benefit programs (e.g., reduced cost-sharing or tiered benefit programs) that provide benefit incentives for members to use UnitedHealth Premium Tier 1 physicians.

Members in health plans that offer tiered benefits may pay lower co-pays and co-insurance amounts for services provided by UnitedHealth Premium Tier 1 physicians.

UnitedHealth Premium Tier 1 physicians have received one of the following Premium designations:

  • Quality & Cost Efficiency
  • Cost Efficiency & Not Enough Data to Assess Quality…


UnitedHealth Premium® Physician Designation Program

Summary Methodology

The UnitedHealth Premium physician designation program uses clinical information from health care claims and other sources to assist physicians in their continuous practice improvement and to help consumers make more informed and personally appropriate choices for their medical care.

Evaluation for quality compares a physician’s observed practice to the UnitedHealthcare national rate among other physicians who are responsible for the same interventions. Cost efficiency is assessed by comparing the case-mix adjusted cost of care attributed to the physician to a benchmark and applying a statistical test to determine if the difference is statistically significant.

Quality is the fundamental measurement, demonstrating our commitment to evidence-based practice. The quality designation is separate from the cost efficiency designation. Although the quality and cost efficiency evaluations are performed separately, the results are used together to determine the physician’s designation.

Physicians who meet both the quality and cost efficiency designation criteria will receive the quality and cost efficiency designation. Physicians who meet the quality designation criteria will receive the quality designation regardless of their cost efficiency evaluation. Physicians who meet the cost efficiency designation criteria will receive the cost efficiency designation if they do not have enough data to assess quality.

Quality Assessment

A physician’s quality individual outcome is determined by comparing the number of times his/her patients received recommended care with a benchmark number based on the UnitedHealthcare national rate of the same recommended care for each quality measure.

Cost Efficiency Assessment

Episode cost measurement compares a physician’s observed costs for episodes of care to a peer group’s costs for similar episodes of care, with adjustments for the patient’s severity of illness and the physician’s case mix.

For both episode cost and population cost measurement, the physician’s costs within each set are evaluated against their peer group’s costs by ordering the costs from lowest to highest cost. The costs are converted into percentiles to allow comparison across different types of cases or patients.

Physicians’ costs must be statistically significantly lower than the peer group’s physicians at the 75th percentile performance for all physicians (measured in the same specialty for the same types of episodes in the same geographic area) in order to meet the episode cost measurement criteria.

UnitedHealthcare informs members that designations are intended only as a guide when choosing a physician and should not be the sole factor in selecting a physician. As with all programs that evaluate performance based on analysis of a sample, there is a risk of error.…

The perennial promise of private health insurers is that their insurance products would bring us higher quality care at lower cost, even though there is a paucity of evidence to support such claims. UnitedHealth now claims to be serious about delivering on that promise with their new Premium Physician Designation Program. They say that “quality is the fundamental measurement.” But let’s sort through their program description to see what the truth really is.

You can consult the websites at the links above for the detailed descriptions of how determinations of quality and cost efficiency are made. Although they state that quality is the fundamental measurement, they combine that with cost efficiency measurements and then use this information to classify each physician in one of the eight categories listed above. There are really only two designations that physicians can receive: quality and cost efficiency. If the physician receives either one or both of these designations, then these honors are displayed publicly in UnitedHealth’s physician directories.

Those designations might be nice, but what the patient really wants to know is if their physician is a Tier 1 physician. In plans that offer tiered benefits – very commonplace today – plan beneficiaries pay lower co-pays and co-insurance when they use Premium Tier 1 physicians. So what determines whether on not a physician is in Tier 1?

Of the eight categories listed, only the first two will qualify the physician as Tier 1. Either the physician must receive the designations of “Quality & Cost Efficiency” or “Cost Efficiency & Not Enough Data to Assess Quality.” Although quality is the “fundamental measurement” and is determined before cost efficiency, it is important to note that the third category – “Quality & Not Enough Data to Assess Cost Efficiency” – will not qualify a physician for Tier 1. The only way to become a Tier 1 physician is to be cost efficient; quality does not count.

It is also important to understand that even if all or almost all physicians are actually cost efficient, they are compared to their peers. “Physicians’ costs must be statistically significantly lower than the peer group’s physicians at the 75th percentile performance for all physicians.” It is impossible, no matter how efficient they are, for all physicians to gain Tier 1 status.

Further, the health care market in the United States is by far the most expensive of all nations, not only because of our prices but also due to our inefficiencies, especially our profound administrative waste. Favoring prices at the lower end of a highly inflated health care market falls far short of what we need to do to improve efficiency in our health care purchasing.

Thus UnitedHealth, for Tier 1, is selecting the cheapest physicians in an overpriced and inefficient market, regardless of the quality of their care. “Higher quality at lower cost” is a fraudulent marketing slogan of the private insurance industry. We need to throw these con artists out and replace them with our own efficient, quality-driven single payer national health program. The sooner the better.

Supreme Court decision: Whose religious freedom?

Posted by on Monday, Jun 30, 2014

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.

Opinion of the Court

Supreme Court of the United States, June 30, 2014




Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court.

We must decide in these cases whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U. S. C. §2000bb et seq., permits the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to demand that three closely held corporations provide health-insurance coverage for methods of contraception that violate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies’ owners.

In holding that the HHS mandate is unlawful, we reject HHS’s argument that the owners of the companies forfeited all RFRA protection when they decided to organize their businesses as corporations rather than sole proprietorships or general partnerships. The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate in this way against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs.

Since RFRA applies in these cases, we must decide whether the challenged HHS regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do.


Ginsburg, J., dissenting

Importantly, the decisions whether to claim benefits under the plans are made not by Hobby Lobby or Conestoga, but by the covered employees and dependents, in consultation with their health care providers. Should an employee of Hobby Lobby or Conestoga share the religious beliefs of the Greens and Hahns, she is of course under no compulsion to use the contraceptives in question. But “[n]o individual decision by an employee and her physician — be it to use contraception, treat an infection, or have a hip replaced — is in any meaningful sense [her employer’s] decision or action.” Grote v. Sebelius, 708 F. 3d 850, 865 (CA7 2013) (Rovner, J., dissenting). It is doubtful that Congress, when it specified that burdens must be “substantia[l],” had in mind a linkage thus interrupted by independent decisionmakers (the woman and her health counselor) standing between the challenged government action and the religious exercise claimed to be infringed. Any decision to use contraceptives made by a woman covered under Hobby Lobby’s or Conestoga’s plan will not be propelled by the Government, it will be the woman’s autonomous choice, informed by the physician she consults.

Allowing an employer to deny coverage of family planning services for employees, strictly on the basis of the employer’s own religion, is yet one more flaw in our highly dysfunctional system of health care financing – a system that is being perpetuated by the Affordable Care Act. If we had a single payer national health program, the employer would not be involved.

As Justice Ginsburg stated in her dissent, a woman’s use of family planning services should be “the woman’s autonomous choice, informed by the physician she consults.” If religious beliefs enter into that decision, it should be the religious beliefs of the individual and not anyone else.

About this blog

Physicians for a National Health Program's blog serves to facilitate communication among physicians and the public. The views presented on this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of PNHP.

News from activists

PNHP Chapters and Activists are invited to post news of their recent speaking engagements, events, Congressional visits and other activities on PNHP’s blog in the “News from Activists” section.