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Three Words That Health Care Should Stop Using: Insurance, Market, and Quality (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on August 23, 2016 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

The previous part of this article ripped apart the use of the words “insurance” and “market” to characterize healthcare. Not let’s turn to another concept even more fundamental to our thinking about care.

Quality

The final element of this three-card Monte is the slippery notion of quality. Health care is often compared to the airlines (when we’re not being compared to the Cheesecake Factory), an exercise guaranteed to make health care look bad. Airlines and restaurants offer relatively homogeneous experiences to all their clients and can easily determine whether their service succeeded or failed. Even at a mechanical level, the airlines have been able to quantify safety.

Endless organizations such as the National Association for Healthcare Quality (NAHQ) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) collect quality measures, and CMS has tried strenuously to include quality measures in Meaningful Use and the new MACRA program. We actually have not a dearth of quality measures, but a surfeit. Doctors feel overwhelmed with these measures. They are difficult to collect, and we don’t know how to combine them to create easy reports that patients can act on. There is a difference between completing a successful surgery, caring for things such as pain and infection prevention after surgery, and creating a follow-up plan that minimizes the chance of readmission. All those things (and many more) are elements of quality.

Worst of all, despite efforts to rank patients by their conditions and risk, hospitals repeatedly warn that quality measures underestimate risky patients and therefore penalize the hospitals that do the most difficult and important work–caring for the sickest. Many hospitals are throwing away donor organs instead of doing transplants, because the organs are slightly inferior and therefore might contribute to lower quality ratings–even if the patients are desperate to give them a try.

The concept of quality in health care thus needs a fresh look, and probably a different term. The first, simple thing we can do is remove patient ratings from assessments of quality. The patient knows whether the nurse smiled at her or whether she was discharged promptly, but can’t tell how good the actual treatment was after the event. One nurse has suggested that staff turnover is a better indication of hospital quality than patient satisfaction surveys. Given our fascination with airline quality, it’s worth noting that the airline industry separates safety ratings from passenger experience. The health care industry can similarly leverage patient ratings to denote clients’ satisfaction, but that’s separate from quality.

As for the safety and effectiveness of treatment, we could try a fairer rating system, such as one that explicitly balances risk and reward. Agencies would have to take the effort to understand all the elements of differences in patients that contribute to risk, and make sure they are tallied. Perhaps we could learn how to assess the success of each treatment in relation to the condition in which the patient entered the office. Even better, we could try to assess longitudinal results instead evaluating each office visit or hospital admission in isolation.

These are complex activities, but we have lots of data and powerful tools to analyze it. Together with a focus on changing behavior and environments, we should be able to make a real difference in quality–and I mean quality of life. Is there anything an ordinary member of the health professions can do till then? Well, try issuing Bronx cheers and catcalls at any meeting or conference presentation where someone uses one of the three misleading terms.

Three Words That Health Care Should Stop Using: Insurance, Market, and Quality (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on August 22, 2016 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

Reading the daily papers, I have gotten increasingly frustrated at the misunderstandings that journalists and the public bring to the debates of over health expansion, costs, and reform. But you can’t blame them–our own industry has created the confusion by misusing terms and concepts that work in other places but not in health. Worse still, the health care industry has let policy-makers embed the incorrect impressions into laws and regulations.

So in this article I’ll promote the long process of correcting the public’s impressions of health care–by purging three dangerous words from health care vocabulary.

Insurance

The health care insurance industry looks like no other insurance industry in the world. When we think of insurance, we think of paying semi-annually into a fund we hope we never need to use. But perhaps every twenty years or so, we suffer damage to our car, our house, or our business, and the insurance kicks in. That may have been true for health care 70 years ago, when you wouldn’t see the doctor unless you fell into a pit or came down with some illness they likely couldn’t cure anyway. The insurance model is totally unsuited for health care today.

The Affordable Care Act made some symbolic gestures toward a recognition that modern health care should embrace prevention and wellness. For instance, it eliminated copays for preventative visits. The insurance companies took that wording very literally: if you dare to bring up an actual medical problem during your preventative visit, they charge you a copay. Yet the “preventative” part of the visit usually consists of a lecture to stop smoking and go on the Mediterranean diet.

Effective wellness programs jettison the notion of insurance (although patients need separate insurance for catastrophic problems). They keep in regular contact with clients, provide coaching, and sometimes use intelligent digital interventions such as described by Dr. Joseph Kvedar in The Internet of Healthy Things (which I reviewed shortly after its release). There are scattered indications that these programs do their job. As they spread, the system set up to deal with catastrophic health events will have to adapt and take a modest role within a behavioral health model.

The term “insurance” is so widely applied to our healh funding model that we can’t make it go away. Perhaps we should put the word in quotation marks wherever it must be used.

Market

This term is less ubiquitous than “insurance” but may be even more harmful. Numerous commenters have pointed out the difference between health care and actual markets:

  • In a market, you can walk away and refuse to pay for a good that is too expensive. If the price of beef goes through the roof, you can switch to beans (and probably should, for your own health). So the best time to argue with someone who promotes a health care market may be right after he’s fallen from a ladder and is clutching at his leg in agony. Ask him, “Do you feel you can walk away from an offer of health care?” Cruel, but a lesson he won’t forget.

  • A market serves people who can afford it. It’s hard to find a stylish hair dresser in a poor neighborhood because no one can pay $200 for a cut. But here’s the rub: the people who need health care the most can’t afford it. Someone with serious mental or physical problems is less likely to find work or be able to attend a college with health insurance. Parents of seriously ill children have to take time off from work to care for them. And so on. It’s what economists–who have trouble discarding the market way of thinking–call a market failure.

  • In a market, you know what you’re going to pay for a service and what your options are. Enough said.

  • In a market, you can evaluate the quality of a service and judge (at least in retrospect) whether it was worth the cost. I’ll deal with quality in the next section.

The misconception of health care as a market came to a head in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Presumably, millions of “young invincibles” were avoiding health insurance because of the cost. The individual mandate, combined with affordable plans on health care exchanges, would bring them flooding into the insurance system, lowering costs for everyone and balancing the burden created by the many sick people who we knew would join. And yet now we have stubbornly rising health care rates, deductibles, and caps, along with new costs in the states where Medicaid expanded Where did this all fall apart?

Part of the problem is certainly the recession, which caused incomes to decline or stagnate and exacerbated people’s health care needs. Also, there was a pent-up need for treatment among people who had lacked health insurance and avoided treatment for some time. This comes through in a study of prescription medication use. Furthermore, people don’t change habits overnight: many continue to over-rely on the emergency room (perhaps because of a shortage of primary care providers).

But there’s another unanticipated factor: the “young invincibles” actually start using health care once they get access to it. An analysis showed that mental health needs among the young are much higher than expected. In particular, they suffer widely from depression and anxiety, which is entirely reasonable given the state of our world. (I know that these conditions are connected to genetics and biology, but environment must also play a role.)

Ultimately, until we get behavioral health in place for everybody, health care costs will continue to rise and we won’t realize the promise of near-universal coverage. Many health care activists–especially during the recent political primary season–call for a single-payer system, which certainly would introduce many efficiencies. But it doesn’t solve the problems of chronic conditions and unhealthy lifestyles–that will require policy action on levels ranging from improvements in air cleanliness to new opportunities for isolated individuals to socialize. Meanwhile, we still have to look at the notion of quality in tomorrow’s post.

We Share Health Data with Marketing Companies, Why Not with Healthcare Providers? Answer: $$

Posted on November 20, 2015 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

For those who don’t realize it, your health data is being shared all over the place. Yes, we like to think that our health care data is being stored and protected and that laws like HIPAA keep them safe, but there are plenty of ways to legally share health care data today. In fact, many EHR vendors sell your health care data for a pretty penny.

Of course, many would argue that it’s shared in a way that complies with all the laws and that it’s done in a way that your health record isn’t individually identified. They’re only sharing your health data in a de-identified manner. Others would argue that you can’t deidentify the health data and that there are ways to reidentify the data. I’ll leave those arguments for another post. We’ll also leave the argument over whether all this sharing of health data (usually to marketing, pharma and insurance companies) is safe or not for a future post as well.

What’s undeniable is that health data for pretty much all of us is being bought and sold all over health care. If you don’t believe it’s so, take a minute to look at the work of Deborah Peel from Patient Privacy Rights and learn about her project theDataMap. She’ll be happy to inform you of all the ways data is currently being bought and sold. It’s a really big business.

Here’s where the irony comes in. We have no trouble sharing health data (Yes, even EHR vendors have no problem sharing data and lets be clear that not all EHR vendors share data with these outside companies but mare are sharing data) with marketing companies, payers and pharma companies that are willing to pay for access to that data. Yet, when we ask EHR vendors to share health data with other EHR vendors or with an HIE, they balk at the idea as if it’s impossible. They follow that up with a bunch of lame excuses about HIPAA privacy or the complexity of health care data.

Let’s call a spade a spade. We could pretty easily be interoperable in health care if we wanted to be interoperable. We know that’s true because when the money is there from these third party companies, EHR vendors can share data with them. The problem has been that the money has never been there before for EHR vendors to be motivated enough to make interoperability between EHR vendors possible. In fact, you could easily argue that the money was instructing EHR vendors not to be interoperable.

However, times are changing. Certainly the government pressure to be interoperable is out there, but that doesn’t really motivate the industry if there’s not some financial teeth behind it. Luckily the financial teeth are starting to appear in the form of value based reimbursement and the move away from fee for service. That and other trends are pushing healthcare providers to want interoperable health records as an important part of their business. That’s a far cry from where interoperability was seen as bad for their business.

I heard about this shift first hand recently when I was talking with Micky Tripathi, President & CEO of the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative. Micky told me that his organization had recently run a few RFPs for healthcare organizations searching for an EHR. As part of the EHR selection process Micky recounted that interoperability of health records was not only included in the RFP, but was one of the deciding factors in the healthcare organizations’ EHR selections. The same thing would have never been said even 3-5 years ago.

No doubt interoperability of health records has a long way to go, but there are signs that times are changing. The economics are starting to make sense for organizations to embrace interoperablity. That’s a great thing since we know they can do it once the right economic motivations are present.

King v Burwell Decision Teaches Sad Lesson in Law Making

Posted on June 25, 2015 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

In case you’re living under a hole (in the healthcare world we call that in the middle of an EHR implementation), the Supreme Court ruled on King v Burwell today. You can read the 47 page document here if you’re interested in the details of the decision. If you’ve ever read a Scalia decision or dissent, then you’ll know what to expect in his dissenting comments.

The reality is that the decision essentially made it a non-event. If they’d decided the other direction, then there would be a lot of scrambling to mitigate the damage of having all the federal health exchanges not be subsidized. That didn’t happen and so ACA (Obamacare) will continue on as before.

I won’t dive into the good and bad of ACA or the efforts to keep it around or get rid of it here. However, the one big takeaway I have from reading the SCOTUS decision is that the law making process is really awful. At one point in the decision they even reference a quote that “we need to pass the law to see what’s in it” which I’m told is a common phrase in Washington. The decision also commented on how the law was poorly crafted because it wasn’t put through the regular congressional procedures.

I understand that the US government has hundreds of years of overhead that they’re dealing with when making laws. A lot of the procedures likely play a critical role in the law making process. However, I feel that the law making process has accrued so much complexity that it makes everything a challenge.

In the tech world we call this situation “technical debt.” Over time as you’re programming a piece of software, you accrue so much technical debt that making changes on the existing code base becomes really expensive. The solution in the software world is often to recode the software from scratch. It’s almost like declaring bankruptcy and starting from scratch.

The SCOTUS decision highlights to me how much legislative debt our government has accrued in their processes. Unfortunately, they can’t declare bankruptcy and start over without the debt. That’s just not feasible or reasonable.

Since I live in the healthcare IT world, we’ve seen a lot of this “debt” impact legislation like meaningful use. We’re going to see more of it around value based reimbursement and ACOs as the healthcare payment world evolves. Government involvement is a reality in healthcare for many reasons including the government being one of the biggest healthcare “customers.” There can be a lot of benefits that come from government involvement, but there can also be a lot of challenges and loopholes that can snag you. That’s the lesson I’m taking from the King v Burwell decision.

Does Federal Health Data Warehouse Pose Privacy Risk?

Posted on June 23, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Not too long ago, few consumers were aware of the threat data thieves posed to their privacy, and far fewer had even an inkling of how vulnerable many large commercial databases would turn out to be.

But as consumer health data has gone digital — and average people have become more aware of the extent to which data breaches can affect their lives — they’ve grown more worried, and for good reason. As a series of spectacular data breaches within health plans has illustrated, both their medical and personal data might be at risk, with potentially devastating consequences if that data gets into the wrong hands.

Considering that these concerns are not only common, but pretty valid, federal authorities who have collected information on millions of HealthCare.gov insurance customers need to be sure that they’re above reproach. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

According to an Associated Press story, the administration is storing all of the HealthCare.gov data in a perpetual central repository known as MIDAS. MIDAS data includes a lot of sensitive information, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and financial accounts.  If stolen, this data could provide a springboard for countless case of identity or even medical identity theft, both of which have emerged as perhaps the iconic crimes of 21st century life.

Both the immensity of the database and a failure to plan for destruction of old records are raising the hackles of privacy advocates. They definitely aren’t comfortable with the ten-year storage period recommended by the National Archives.

An Obama Administration rep told the AP that MIDAS meets or exceeds federal security and privacy standards, by which I assume he largely meant HIPAA regs. But it’s reasonable to wonder how long the federal government can protect its massive data store, particularly if commercial entities like Anthem — who arguably have more to lose — can’t protect their beneficiaries’ data from break-ins. True, MIDAS is also operated by a private concern, government technology contractor CACI, but the workflow has to impacted by the fact that CMS owns the data.

Meanwhile, growing privacy breach questions are driven by reasonable concerns, especially those outlined by the GAO, which noted last year that MIDAS went live without an in-depth assessment of privacy risks posed by the system.

Another key point made by the AP report (which did a very good job on this topic, by the way, somewhat to my surprise) is that MIDAS’ mission has evolved from a facility for running analytics on the data to a central clearinghouse for data sharing between CMS and health insurance companies and state Medicaid organizations. And we all know that with mission creep can come feature creep; with feature creep comes greater and greater potential for security holes that are passed over and left to be found by intruders.

Now, private healthcare organizations will still be managing the bulk of consumer medical data for the near future. And they have many vulnerabilities that are left unpatched, as recent events have emphasized. But in the near term, it seems like a good idea to hold the federal government’s feet to the fire. The last thing we need is a giant loss of consumer confidence generated by a giant government data exposure.

Health Insurance Exchange Q&A with John Kelly from Edifecs

Posted on September 27, 2013 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

The following is an interview about Health Insurance Exchanges with John Kelly, Principal Business Advisor, Edifecs.
John Kelly
1. Where are we at with Health Insurance Exchanges (HIX)? What are the timelines for their implementation?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandates creation of a retail market for health insurance, where individuals can shop, compare and buy healthcare coverage much the same way as they would a car. The goal is to provide greater access to healthcare coverage and eventually lower costs. While the ACA initiated the health insurance exchanges (HIXs) as the first step in creating a new retail market for healthcare, it specifically did not stipulate the Federal and State exchanges as the stated goal of the legislation. The stated goal was to reform the way Americans purchased their healthcare. Before the October 1st deadline has even arrived, the HIX model is already evolving beyond the federally funded exchanges. Private exchanges are already up and running and private websites (eHealth Insurance, et al.) have begun to integrate with public infrastructure. Much of the country has focused on the open enrollment date, but the real challenges come afterward, as the industry deals with the operational realities of participating on HIXs over the long term.

The public exchanges are due to launch next week, and open enrollment runs through March 31, 2014. Starting January 1, 2014 all health plans purchased through the insurance exchanges will go into effect, meaning those who bought their health insurance on an exchange will be covered.

2. This is implemented on a state-by-state basis, right? Are all 50 states ready?

There are numerous exchanges. Each state had the option to establish its own state-operated HIX or participate in the Federally Facilitated Marketplace (FFM). Thirty-three states chose the FFM, 15 states plus the District of Columbia are running their own marketplaces, and two states are partnering with the federal government to run their exchange.

In addition to the state-run marketplaces, another major component is the Data Services Hub, which is a tool developed by The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to interact with all 51 exchanges, verify applicant information and determine eligibility for enrollment in select health plans and subsidy programs.

Some states are more prepared than others, having made investments in customer service hotlines, technology testing, and consumer education campaigns. Generally, these states made early decisions to participate, so their implementations are more mature, though I doubt any would say they are all set to go. As enrollment gets underway, all of the exchanges will engage in constant improvements (much like any large technology project) to iron out bugs and improve functionality. For the states that didn’t make those investments, it will be a more difficult process.

3. What do health insurance exchanges mean for the health plans? What’s their reaction to the health insurance exchanges?

HIXs are creating a disruptive force for insurers and purchasers, a force that will change the way they conduct business. For insurers, it will change everything from attracting consumers to their end-to-end administrative processes (member enrollment, system integration, payment transactions, etc.).

It hasn’t been easy, particularly because of the compressed timeline between the federal government releasing detailed guidelines and the go-live date of October 1, 2013. Insurers are trying to balance caution with the prospect of 30 million enrollees and $200 billion in revenue within the next decade.

Many health insurers have realized they already participate in Medicare and Medicaid, a form of retail healthcare purchasing, so why not exploit the opportunity of these new exchanges? The reward potential is compelling, especially for regional plans that can now compete with national plans for employers who may choose to migrate to “defined contribution” plans. This is likely to be the largest open enrollment period in history nationwide. While it is not an ideal situation to increase enrollment under such a tight timeline, many realize the potential opportunities and are committed to making it work.

Perhaps the biggest change for plans is that they will have to learn to compete for members and customers, rather than employer groups and brokers. The shift away from competing for members began in the early 1990’s with “sole source” health plan marketing. Plans will need to re-learn some old skills. Plans will need to compete much more consciously on value as opposed to just cost. This was the primary and clear intent of the ACA.

4. What do the health insurance exchanges mean for an employer?

Up until recently, the consensus in the industry was that most employers would stick with the conventional employer-sponsored benefits system, rather than switch to a defined contribution plan. But as this recent Wall Street Journal article explains, many employers are now moving toward providing employees a sum of money to go buy their own coverage. This trend indicates that many companies are looking at HIXs as a way to control the increase in their healthcare benefit costs, while perhaps more importantly, providing their employees with greater choice. This is a huge sea change. While employers have known they need to continue offering healthcare coverage to attract the most talented workforce, they have been struggling with the spiraling costs. Many now see HIXs as an ideal solution.

5. What do the health insurance exchanges mean for patients?

These exchanges are part of a greater trend toward patients playing a larger, more active role in their own healthcare. For selecting a healthcare plan, HIXs are shifting decision-making from employers to their employees; in essence returning healthcare to a direct-to-consumer sales model that will redefine consumer expectations, customer service and healthcare consumer marketing. The overall success of this shift will be based upon the ability of consumers to be better purchasers. There is certainly more risk and effort involved, but the upside is a significant increase in choice and a strong incentive for the plans to compete aggressively on value for dollar.

6. What broader goals do you see the health insurance exchanges bringing to healthcare?

As I mentioned above, one mandate in the ACA is to establish a retail marketplace for healthcare as a means to improving access to healthcare and inevitably lowering costs. HIXs are the current manifestation of that goal, and it’s a positive disruption in the market. As we’ve seen with other such market force change, we may be able to predict the disruption, but we can only guess at the form it will take after the first wave of innovation and market reaction.

7. What are the biggest challenges for health insurance exchanges?

There are a lot of moving pieces, and as with any large technology project, there are always going to be bugs to be fixed and improvements to be made. There is no reason to believe each state’s marketplace won’t go live on October 1 or soon after; however, many won’t be perfect. This launch is similar to the “soft launch” of a retail store opening, and it may take a few months to get everything working. It will probably take a couple of open enrollment cycles to achieve a steady state. The long-term challenge is the same as any insurance product; will the actuarial base support the financial health of the system over time? As this is a market rooted in Federal Law, similar to the experience seen in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Connector (“Romney Care”), I suspect the system will demonstrate remarkable inertia and will roll slowly toward equilibrium.

These Exchanges have no choice but to continuously improve. By March 2014, I expect the industry will be thinking, “It could have been a lot worse, but we made it,” and they’ll be moving forward to make the next open enrollment much smoother.