Is Obama Winning or Losing on Medicaid Expansion Under the Affordable Care Act?

By: Katie Booth

The Obama administration announced in February that it would allow Arkansas to use the federal money intended for Medicaid expansion to buy private health insurance plans for individuals with incomes up to 133% of the federal poverty level. This week, Florida’s senate rejected the Medicaid expansion but left open the possibility that it would try to negotiate a similar deal with the Obama administration. Indiana and Ohio may follow suit.

At first glance, this seems like a political loss for Obama. Several states with Republican governors may now expand healthcare for the poor using a private payer model—the type of model Mitt Romney supported during the 2012 presidential race. Yet Obama’s compromise in Arkansas may ultimately be a win for the president. All of the 14 states that are not participating (as of now) in the Medicaid expansion have republican governors. The private insurer model would allow these governors to save face while ultimately expanding access to healthcare for the poor.

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Is Paying For Medical Care Like Buying A Used Car?

By Nadia N. Sawicki

Two recent publications prompt me to ask this question.

The first, forthcoming in JAMA Internal Medicine, is a study by Jaime Rosenthal, a student at Washington University in St. Louis.  Rosenthal and her colleagues set out to obtain pricing data for total hip arthroplasty from 20 top-ranked orthopedic hospitals and 102 representative general hospitals (two from each state and Washington DC).  Rosenthal, posing as the granddaughter of a 62-year old woman without health insurance, contacted each hospital numerous times to inquire about the total cost of the procedure.  Only 45% of the top-ranked hospitals and 10% of other hospitals were able to provide a complete bundled price; price estimates were obtained at 15% of ranked hospitals and 53% of other hospitals by contacting the hospital and physicians separately.  And perhaps most startlingly, the prices quoted for the procedure ranged from $11,000 to $125,798.  The authors’ conclusion is a modest one – that patients “may find considerable price savings through comparison shopping” – but I believe its impact is far greater.  In part because of the way health care is financed in our country, the average American consumer has little awareness of how much any given medical procedure actually costs.  But who can blame the consumer in this market, when those who provide the services themselves have no baseline against which to set costs?

This brings me to the second piece —  Steven Brill’s excellent article in Time Magazine, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us,” which my co-blogger Patrick O’Leary blogged about last week.  ).   Brill spent half a year trying to understand why some nonprofit hospitals seem to function like prosperous businesses – with brand-new facilities, impressive executive compensation, and high profit margins.  He approached this problem by analyzing patients’ medical bills from hospitals, physicians, drug companies, “and every other player in the American health care ecosystem.”  Brill offers a scathing commentary on a system where patients are billed $18 per diabetes testing strip that can be purchased in boxes of 50 on Amazon.com for about 55 cents per strip.  Another example: one patient was billed $7,997.54 for a CT scan stress test that Medicare pays $554 for; and $3 for a reusable pen that marked where an incision would go.  These prices, Brill explains, are based on the chargemaster, a master document of prices kept by every hospital that is the basis for insurance negotiation reductions.  Nearly every executive he spoke with said that the chargemaster prices are irrelevant because “nobody gets charged those prices,” but Brill’s research suggests the contrary. Those without insurance, as we in the health law and policy community have long known, are charged more that those who are covered by insurance.  Brill’s article also follows medical billing advocates who negotiate patient bills down dramatically for patients who are willing to pay their fees; however, not every patient is so lucky.

The findings in Rosenthal’s and Brill’s articles are startling.  Few consumers, I would image, participate in the health care market with the understanding that the costs they might pay vary widely from institution to institution; that the prices they are asked to pay for a given procedure are far in excess of how much federal health programs believe the procedure is worth; or that they can “bargain down” their charges through skilled negotiation by someone with inside knowledge of the system.  Readers of this blog might chafe at the comparison between the market for health care and the market for used cars, but perhaps it is the used car dealer who should feel offended.  His customers, at least, can rely on the Kelley Blue Book.

Impact of the Sequester on Health Care: By the Numbers

By: Katie Booth 

The looming sequester will have a significant impact on health care, including cuts to Medicare, FDA, CDC, NIH, and Affordable Care Act programs. Budget cuts could slow down the drug approval process, impede the tracking of infectious diseases, and lead to layoffs for hundreds of thousands of workers in the health care sector. Read on for sequestration by the numbers…

Medicare:

  • Medicare cut by 2% ($11 billion) (not set to begin until April 1st, 2013, unlike other sequestration cuts, which are set to begin on March 1, 2013)
  • Physicians’ payments cut by 2%
  • Hospital Medicare reimbursement cut by $5.8 billion
  • Hospitals could end up with especially large cuts under the sequester because other parts of healthcare system run on longer term contracts
  • Loss of almost 500,000 health care sector jobs in the first year of the sequester according to an American Medical Association and American Hospital Association study, including job losses for 40,000 practitioners such as physicians and dentists

FDA:

  • FDA cut by 8% ($318 million)
  • FDA public funding cut by $206 million
  • FDA industry user fees cut by $112 million (for an interesting discussion of user fee cuts and the sequester, see Patrick O’Leary’s Bill of Health blog post)
  • Cuts by department (assuming 8% across-the-board cuts): $71 million to Foods, $39 million to Human Drugs, $17 million to Biologics, $11.3 million to Animal Drugs, and $26.5 million to Devices
  • Longer drug approval process is likely
  • Layoffs and furloughs likely
  • 2,100 fewer food safety inspections

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The High Cost of Health Care: Why Some Pay $240 for a $9 Bottle of Pills

By Jonathan J. Darrow

An earlier post discussed the equivocal efficacy of Propecia (finasteride) as a baldness remedy, ending with the provocative assertion that, efficacy aside, “there is little reason for anyone ever to buy or consume Propecia (finasteride), or any doctor ever to prescribe it, since a much cheaper and identical chemical sold under the trade name Proscar (finasteride), is available.” This post continues the discussion, addressing one small component of the rising cost of healthcare—the cost of finasteride.  It explores why consumers pay as much as $240 for a bottle of Propecia (finasteride) when a $9 bottle of an equivalent, FDA-approved supply of the identical chemical is readily and legally available at nearby stores.

In the exorbitantly priced landscape of prescription drugs, there is at least one low-cost oasis: Wal*Mart.  Though some find reason to criticize the discount store, few would disapprove of the dozens of prescription medications Wal*Mart offers for an unbeatable $4 for a 30-day supply.  Cost-sensitive consumers can purchase everything from blood thinners to antidepressants to antibiotics at this price, while a 90-day supply is only $10 (and this price includes shipping to your doorstep).  A handful of drugs that cannot be sold at $4 per month sell for a still-modest $9.  For the 300 or so drugs on Wal*Mart’s list, this means there is no longer a need for $10 co-pays or snowy treks to the pharmacy in 15 degree weather.  That’s right: the Wal*Mart total price is less than most insurance company co-pays.  Finally, a major industry player seems to have put effective downward pressure on prescription drug prices.  Read More

Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Medical Center: Hospitals Allege Medicare Intentionally Underpaid Providers–And Got Away With It

By Katie Booth

In the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Auburn Regional Medical Center, the Court held that a suit against HHS by eighteen hospitals alleging intentional underpayment of Medicare reimbursements was barred by a 180-day internal agency deadline for appeals of reimbursement decisions. The rub is that the hospitals only found out about the underpayments, which allegedly occurred from 1987 to 1994, in March of 2006. These underpayments affected thousands of hospitals and added up to billions of dollars. Yet under Auburn, since the hospitals did not sue within 180 days of the underpayment (or even within an extended three-year window for “good cause”), they cannot recover. The Court in Auburn rejected the hospitals’ argument that equitable tolling should apply, finding instead that “the presumption in favor of equitable tolling does not apply to administrative appeals of the kind here at issue.”

The Auburn decision raises important questions about the ability of the federal government to intentionally underpay healthcare providers. In oral argument, the lawyer for the hospitals characterized HHS’s actions as “intentional concealment . . . [and] misconduct by the Secretary, that caused the statute of limitations time to be missed.” While there are good reasons not to disturb decades-old reimbursement decisions, it is sobering that the federal government can intentionally conceal underpayments and—if it conceals the underpayment for only 180 days—never have to reimburse the injured party. This situation presents a striking contrast “to 42 CFR § 405.1885(b)(3) (2012), which permits reopening of an intermediary’s reimbursement determination ‘at any time if it is established that such determination . . . was procured by fraud or similar fault of any party to the determination.’” In other words, HHS can reopen reimbursement decisions if a provider intentionally conceals important information, but not vice versa.

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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.