Dreams Deferred

By Wendy Parmet

After the November election, President Obama’s executive order implementing parts of the so-called “Dream Act” was widely credited with shoring up his support within the Latino community.  Less often noted was his Administration’s decision to exclude the “Dreamers” from the benefits afforded by the Affordable Care Act.

Last August, the Center for Medicare Services (CMS) issued an interim final regulation stating that individuals who benefitted from the President’s program, more formally known as “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” or DACA, would not be considered “lawfully present” for purposes of eligibility to health benefits established by the Affordable Care Act, including the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan and the subsidies and credits that will be available in 2014 to purchase insurance through the health insurance exchanges. Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan Program, 77 Fed. Reg. 52614-01 (Aug. 30, 2012) (to be codified 45 C.F.R. § 152.2), http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-08-30/html/2012-21519.htm.

The impact of this little noticed determination is quite significant. Although most of the estimated 1.7 million DACA immigrants are healthy, because of their age (under 30), many lack access to employer-provided health insurance. Moreover, if as expected, employers begin to shift their health insurance programs to the ACA-created exchanges, DACA immigrants may find themselves barred from employer-provided plans, even though under the President’s executive order they have a legal right to work in the United States.

The insurance gap created by CMS’ determination that the DACA immigrants are not “lawfully present” in the U.S., a decision that is inconsistent with the Administration’s conclusion that other deferred action recipients are eligible for benefits established under the ACA, illuminates the critical relationship between immigration policy and health policy.  To a surprising degree, the health insurance access problem in the U.S. results from laws that bar immigrants (including many with Green Cards) from many government-supported health insurance programs, including Medicaid. In 2010, over 45 % of non-citizens were uninsured, as compared to less than 14 % of native-born Americans. Approximately 65 % of undocumented immigrants are believed to lack health insurance. The ACA is unlikely to reduce those rates, especially regarding undocumented immigrants. Neither, it is now seems, is DACA.

Twitter Round-Up (12/2-12/8)

By Casey Thomson
This week’s Twitter Round-Up features an “American Idol-style” selection of research grant winners, the problems facing children in Syria attempting to be vaccinated, and a review of where we stand with current patient health information privacy and security.
  • Michelle Meyer (@MichelleNMeyer) retweeted an article about a newly emerging landmark case in the United Kingdom. In the suit, a childless couple denied IVF funding due to the woman’s age is suing Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (because he is “ultimately accountable for healthcare in England”) on the basis of age discrimination. Thought to be the first venture to sue the Health Secretary concerning decisions about this NHS fund rationing, this case also will be the first instance where age discrimination laws have been employed to try for fertility treatment. (12/3)
  • Alex Smith (@AlexSmithMD) shared an article about a problem patients must deal with when approaching post-hospitalization care: Medicare’s offer to pay for hospice care or for a Skilled Nursing Facility (S.N.F.), but only rarely at the same time. Not only does the choice create a financial predicament, but it also has extensive repercussions for the patient’s health. Calls for a combined benefit process between hospice/palliative care and S.N.F. have been made, including a proposed “concurrent care” demonstration project in the Affordable Care Act. (12/6)
  • Dan Vorhaus (@genomicslawyer) linked to a summary of the Ponemon Institute’s Third Annual Benchmark Study on Patient Privacy & Data Security, reporting on the challenges still being faced to safeguard protected health information (“PHI”). (12/6)
  • Michelle Meyer (@MichelleNMeyer) additionally retweeted a link explaining Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s attempt to deal with the rising difficulty of choosing which research grants to support: an “American Idol-style” public online voting. With almost 6,500 votes cast, the public engagement experiment picked a project hoping to research methods for integrating genomic sequencing into newborns’ routine medical care. When future grant holders are struggling to award between a set of equally deserving project proposals, this push for public involvement (after having confirmed scientific rigor) may have intriguing implications. (12/6)
  • Daniel Goldberg (@prof_goldberg) also linked to a study in Denmark testing the relationship between socio-economic status (SES) and blood pressure levels. Despite having a healthcare system that is free and equal-access regardless of factors like SES, the study found that SES had a “significant effect on BP [blood pressure] control” in this survey. (12/7)
  • Arthur Caplan (@ArthurCaplan) posted a report by UNICEF on the efforts by parents in the Syrian Arab Republic to get their children vaccinated. With many medical centers destroyed by the conflict, and with health practitioners having to operate and transport supplies in the dangerous environment, children have been unable to receive routine vaccinations for several months. This campaign aims to provide such vaccinations (specifically for measles and polio) to children, having advertised via churches, mosques, schools, television, and even by SMS to get greater coverage. (12/7)
  • Frank Pasquale (@FrankPasquale) included a book review of Pharmageddon by David Healy, a look at how pharmaceutical companies are excessively influencing the medical industry particularly with “diagnostic categories and clinical guidelines.” The result, according to Healy: a society where people “think about their bodies as a bundle of risks to be managed by drugs,” with a workforce that is “getting ‘sicker,'” and with “major pharmaceutical companies…banking on further overdiagnosis and overtreatment,” all “undermining universal health care.” (12/8)

Note: As mentioned in previous posts, retweeting should not be considered as an endorsement of or agreement with the content of the original tweet.

Meaningful Scrutiny for Meaningful Use

By Nicolas Terry

Today the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in the Department of Health and Human Services released a report, here, that is decidedly critical of CMS and ONC oversight of the Electronic Health Record (EHR) subsidy program.

Over the last couple of years there have been growing criticisms of the Meaningful Use program and its disbursement of potentially $30 billion in ARRA funds. I have detailed many of these concerns, such as the overall effectiveness of electronic records, my doubts as to the robustness of the first two Stages of Meaningful Use requirements, the safety record of the technologies, their ability to actually save money, their real-world interoperability, and their general usability in the healthcare workflow, here.

Recently, additional questions have been raised that go to the very heart of the subsidy program. First, the Center for Public Integrity, here,  and the New York Times, here, set off a firestorm with allegations of EHR use leading to extensive upcoding. This led to a scolding letter to the healthcare industry from Secretary Sebelius and the Attorney-General, here, and combative words back from some of the addressees, here.

Questions have also been raised about the apparent laxity of CMS in approving payment to providers claiming subsidy funds, leading to CMS announcing a hastily designed audit process, here.

Today’s OIG report elaborates on the same basic issue of lax payment safeguards. First, the report finds that CMS has not implemented strong pre-payment safeguards (either by verifying self-reported data or requiring supporting documentation). Second, it suggests that CMS’s proposed post-payment audit program is limited and potentially flawed. Fortunately, CMS/ONC are in broad agreement with the OIG that the EHR technology itself must step up and meaningfully test for meaningful use. In the meantime increased Congressional scrutiny seems a less elegant but likely surrogate.

The Readmission Penalty Begins to Bite

By Nicolas Terry

As is well known ACA § 3025 (§1886(q) Social Security Act) established the Hospital Readmissions Reduction program. This is operationalized through deductions built into the Hospital IPPS (Inpatient Prospective Payment Systems) Rule which sets the Medicare reimbursement amounts, here. The excess readmissions ratio initially only applies to readmissions based on MI, Heart Failure, and Pneumonia. Initially the maximum deduction is 1% but that rises to 2% in October 2013 and 3% in October 2015.

A parallel program for Medicaid designed to reduce hospital-acquired infections was introduced in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act, here. However, Lee and colleagues, here, found no change in infection rates. Nevertheless, the dollars associated with readmissions reduction may give that program greater traction.

Jordan Rau in the New York Times, here, notes that 307 hospitals are already facing the maximum reduction involving many millions of dollars. Not surprisingly some hospitals view the penalties as a distraction while others blame their patients for everything from their level of sickness and poverty to non-compliance. Overall, however, Rau’s article and Amy Boutwell’s recent post at Health Affairs, here, suggest that CMS is succeeding in getting the industry’s attention.