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The latest on Trump efforts to kill the ACA

Please hit this link for an update from FierceHealthcare on the potential implications  for consumers and providers of the Trump administration’s latest attempts to kill the Affordable Care Act.

 


Paying hospitals to keep patients away

By JAY HANCOCK

For Kaiser Health News

Saturdays at Mercy Medical Center used to be perversely lucrative. The dialysis clinic across the street was closed on weekends.

That meant the downtown Baltimore hospital would see patients with failing kidneys who should have gone to the dialysis center. So Mercy admitted them, collecting as much as $30,000 for treatment that typically costs hundreds of dollars per patient per dialysis.

“That’s how the system worked,” said Mercy CEO Thomas Mullen. Instead of finding less expensive alternatives, he said, “our financial people were saying, ‘We need to admit them.’”

Maryland’s ambitious hospital-payment overhaul, put in place in 2014, has changed such crass calculations, which are still business as usual for most of American health care. A modification of a long-standing state regulation that would be hard to replicate elsewhere, the system is nevertheless attracting national attention, analysts say.

As soon as Mercy started being penalized rather than rewarded for such avoidable admissions, it persuaded the dialysis facility to open on weekends, saving government insurance programs and other payers close to $1 million annually.

In the four years since Maryland implemented a statewide system of pushing hospitals to lower admissions, such savings are adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars for the taxpayers, employers and others who ultimately pay the bills, a new report shows.

Maryland essentially pays hospitals to keep people out of the hospital. Analysts often describe the change as the most far-reaching attempt in the nation to control the medical costs driving up insurance premiums and government spending.

Like a giant health maintenance organization, the state caps hospitals’ revenue each year, letting them keep the difference if they reduce inpatient and outpatient treatment while maintaining care quality. Such “global budgets,” which have attracted rare, bipartisan support during a time of rancor over health care, are supposed to make hospitals work harder to keep patients healthy outside their walls.

 

Maryland’s system, which evolved from a decades-old effort to oversee hospitals as if they were public utilities, regulates all hospital payments by every private and government insurer. That makes it radically different from piecemeal attempts to lasso health spending, such as creating accountable care organizations, which seek savings among smaller groups of patients.

From the program’s launch in 2014 through 2016, per capita hospital spending by all insurers grew by less than 2 percent a year in Maryland. That’s below the economic growth rate, according to new results from the state’s hospital regulator and the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Keeping hospital spending below economic growth — defined four years ago as 3.58 percent annually — is a key goal for the program and something that rarely happened.

Counting The Savings

The state plan saved the Medicare program for seniors and the disabled about half a billion dollars over three years and achieved “substantial reductions in hospitalization and especially improvements in quality of care,” said a Medicare spokesman.

In the three years measured so far, he added, “the state has already exceeded the required performance for the full five years of the model.”

As high costs for hospital care have been growing more slowly nationwide, Maryland hospital costs over that period rose even less.

“It looks like it has very strong results,” said John McDonough, a Harvard health-policy professor who helped craft the federal Affordable Care Act.

What Maryland is doing, he said, “is pretty bold and it’s pretty thoughtfully done and has generated a huge amount of interest around the country.”

Comprehensive results through 2016 are the most recent available from Maryland and HHS, although savings continued last year, Maryland officials said. Independent researchers found mixed results for savings in the earlier years of Maryland’s system.

Maryland’s global budgets saved Medicare $293 million — 1.8 percent of total Medicare spending — in 2014 and 2015, research firm RTI International reported in August.

A separate paper from a team led by Eric Roberts at the University of Pittsburgh found that Maryland’s program in those years couldn’t be clearly credited for reducing hospital use.

The system’s advocates say several years of results are needed to show it’s working.

“These are not fake savings,” said Joseph Antos, an economist at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute who sits on Maryland’s hospital-payment commission. “It didn’t happen instantaneously. It’s taken this number of years to achieve the kinds of savings that you see” for 2016 and beyond.

Even boosters such as Joshua Sharfstein, the former Maryland health secretary who got approval for global budgets from the Obama administration, say the system is far from perfect or finalized.

“There is a range of responses. Some hospitals have been able to do more than others,” said Sharfstein, now an associate dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore. “Change in health care is notoriously slow.”

Hospitals have lagged in delivering primary, preventive care to people with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart failure, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

Maryland’s system does little to control soaring costs of drugs or nursing home care, doctors’ office treatments and other care not connected to hospitals, although policymakers are working on proposals to do both.

Even so, “what Maryland has done is just so far ahead of many of these other models” to try to control costs, said Dan D’Orazio, a management consultant who has worked with hospitals across the country. One Maryland hospital CEO told him: “This has fundamentally changed how we wake up and do business every day,” D’Orazio said.

Seeing A Difference

At Mercy, described by policymakers as more aggressive than many hospitals in watching costs, about a third of the patients now leave the hospital with medications in hand, said Dr. Wilma Rowe, the hospital’s chief medical officer. That bypasses the tendency for patients to skip a follow-up pharmacy visit and risk landing back in the emergency room.

A statewide data network notifies Mercy and other hospitals when one of their patients ends up in an emergency room somewhere else. That helps coordinate care.

Greater Baltimore Medical Center, north of the city, has hired dozens of primary care doctors to track around 1,000 people with diabetes — staying in touch, advising on diets and keeping them on insulin so they avoid the hospital.

Often clinicians visit elderly patients’ homes to prevent what might turn into an ambulance call and admission, said the hospital’s CEO, Dr. John Chessare.

Before global budgets, “I’d look at the waiting room in the [emergency department], and if it wasn’t full I’d get scared,” he said.

Now he worries it might be full of people who could be better treated elsewhere — including Gilchrist, a GBMC affiliate delivering hospice care for those at the end of life.

These days, he said, “we consider it a defect if someone with chronic disease dies in the hospital.”


How GOP tax legislation would affect health policy

By JULIE ROVNER

Kaiser Health News

Having failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Congress is now working on a tax overhaul. But it turns out the tax bills in the House and Senate also aim to reshape health care.

Here are five big ways the tax bill could affect health policy:

1. Repeal the requirement for most people to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty.

Republicans tried and failed to end the so-called individual mandate this year when they attempted to advance their health overhaul legislation. Now the idea is back, at least in the Senate’s version of the tax bill. The measure would not technically remove the requirement for people to have insurance, but it would eliminate the fine people would face if they choose to remain uninsured.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that dropping the requirement would result in 13 million fewer people having insurance over 10 years.

It also estimates that premiums would rise 10 percent more per year than they would without this change. That is because healthier people would be most likely to drop insurance in the absence of a fine, so insurers would have to raise premiums to compensate for a sicker group of customers. Those consumers, in turn, would be left with fewer affordable choices, according to the CBO.

State insurance officials are concerned that insurers will drop out of the individual market entirely if there is no requirement for healthy people to sign up, but they still have to sell to people who know they will need medical care.

Ironically, the states most likely to see this kind of insurance-market disruption are those that are reliably Republican. An analysis by the Los Angeles Times suggested that the states with the fewest insurers and the highest premiums — including Alaska, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, and Wyoming — would be the ones left with either no coverage options or options too expensive for most consumers in the individual market.

2. Repeal the medical-expense deduction.

The House-passed tax bill, although not the Senate’s, would eliminate taxpayers’ ability to deduct medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of their adjusted gross income.

The medical expense deduction is not widely used — just under 9 million tax filers took it on their 2015 tax returns, according to the Internal Revenue Service. But those who do use it generally have very high medical expenses, often for a disabled child, a serious chronic illness or expensive long-term care not covered by health insurance.

Among those most vehemently against getting rid of the deduction is the senior advocacy group AARP. Eliminating the deduction, the group said in a statement, “amounts to a health tax on millions of Americans with high medical costs — especially middle income seniors.”

3. Trigger major cuts to the Medicare program.

The tax bills include no specific Medicare changes, but budget analysts point out that passing it in its current form would trigger another law to kick in. That measure requires cuts to federal programs if the federal budget deficit is increased.

Because the tax bills in both the House and Senate would add an additional $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years, both would result in automatic cuts under the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010, known as PAYGO. According to the CBO, if Congress passes the tax bill and does not waive the PAYGO law, federal officials “would be required to issue a sequestration order within 15 days of the end of the session of Congress to reduce spending in fiscal year 2018 by the resultant total of $136 billion.”

Cuts to Medicare are limited under the PAYGO law, so the Medicare reduction would be limited to 4 percent of program spending, which is roughly $25 billion of that total. Cuts of a similar size would be required in future years. Most of that would likely come from payments to providers.

4. Change tax treatment for graduate students and those paying back student loans.

The House bill, though not the Senate’s, would for the first time require graduate students to pay tax on the value of tuition that universities do not require them to pay.

Currently, graduate students in many fields, including science, often are paid a small stipend for teaching while they pursue advanced degrees. Many are technically charged tuition, but it is “waived” as long as they are working for the university.

The House tax bill would eliminate that waiver and require them to pay taxes on the full value of the tuition they don’t have to pay, which would result in many students with fairly low incomes seeing very large tax bills.

At the same time, the House tax bill would eliminate the deduction for interest paid on student loans. This would disproportionately affect young doctors.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 75 percent of the medical school class of 2017 graduated with student loan debt, with nearly half owing $200,000 or more.

5. Change or eliminate the tax credit that encourages pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs for rare diseases.

Congress created the so-called Orphan Drug Credit in 1983, as part of a package of incentives intended to entice drugmakers to study and develop drugs to treat rare diseases, defined as those affecting fewer than 200,000 people. With such a small potential market, it does not otherwise make financial sense for the companies to spend the millions of dollars necessary to develop treatments for such ailments.
To date, about 500 drugs have come to market using the incentives, although in some cases drugmakers have manipulated the credit for extra financial gain.

The House tax bill would eliminate the tax credit; the Senate bill would scale it back. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, is one of the original sponsors of the orphan drug law.

The drug industry has been relatively quiet about the potential loss of the credit, but the National Organization for Rare Disorders called the change “wholly unacceptable” and said it “would directly result in 33 percent fewer orphan drugs coming to market.“


Canadians root for an ACA innovation center

By SHEFALI LUTHRA

For Kaiser Health News

TORONTO

Ask people in Canada what they make of American healthcare, and the answer typically falls between bewilderment and outrage.

Canada, after all, prides itself on a health system that guarantees government insurance for everyone. And many Canadians find it baffling that there’s anybody in the United States who can’t afford a visit to the doctor.

So even as Canadians throw shade at the American hodgepodge of public plans, private insurance, deductibles and copays, they hold in high esteem a little-known Affordable Care Act initiative: the federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation (CMMI).

It was a hot topic on a reporter’s recent visit to Toronto to study the single-payer  system.

Wonky as it seems, the center’s mission — testing innovations to hold down healthcare costs while increasing quality — has gotten noticed. Researchers and clinicians talk about its potential to foster experimentation and how it has led the United States to think out of the box regarding payment and reimbursement models.

“It is gaining traction in many circles here,” said Robert Reid, who researches health care quality at the University of Toronto.

“There have been some good efforts … they have tried more things than we have,” agreed Dr. Kaveh Shojania, a Toronto-based internist who studies health care quality and safety.

Despite the praise emanating from north of the border, the program doesn’t get the same love on the homefront.

Through the ACA, CMMI is armed with $10 billion each decade and sponsors on-the-ground experiments with doctors, health systems and payers. The idea is to devise and implement payment approaches that reward healthcare quality and efficiency, rather than the number of procedures performed.

Since taking office, though, President Trump has rolled back its reach.

Canada has its own reasons for seeing potential in this sort of systemic test kitchen.

Healthcare’s growing price tag — and a payment system that doesn’t necessarily reward keeping people healthy — is hardly just an American problem. The vast majority of Canadian doctors are paid through what Americans call the “fee-for-service” model. And Canadian policymakers are also looking for strategies to curb health care costs — which, while greater in the United States, are a big budget here, too.

“The whole world is confronting the same issue, which is, ‘How do you pay and incentivize doctors to keep people out of the hospital and keep them healthy?’” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a former adviser to former President Obama who pushed for the center’s initial development. “Different places are looking at how to break out of that system, because everyone knows its perversions. This is one place where … we are in the world among the most innovative groups.”

Emanuel added that he wasn’t surprised to hear of the center’s appeal in Canada. He has received similar feedback from health ministers in Belgium and France, he said.

Even so, U.S. critics say CMMI’s work is a waste of money or a federal overreach.

And, so far, the Trump administration has reduced by half the size of one high-profile Obama administration project that would have bundled payments for hip and knee replacements — so that the hospitals performing those were paid a set amount, rather than for individual services. It also canceled other scheduled “bundling” projects targeting payment for cardiac care and other joint replacements.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma wrote in The Wall Street Journal in September that the Innovation Center was going to begin moving “in a new direction.”

A follow-up “request for information” from the federal government suggested that the center would emphasize cutting healthcare costs through such  strategies as market competition, eliminating fraud and helping consumers actually shop for care. It also suggested that the Innovation Center would favor smaller-scale projects.

At least for now, it’s hard to interpret what this means, said Jack Hoadley, a health-policy analyst at Georgetown University who has previously worked at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Limiting CMMI’s footprint would be problematic, Emanuel argued, while discussing CMMI’s status in the U.S.

The footprint in Canada, though, seems to be growing.

“We definitely looked to it as a model as something we can do. Like look, this happened, and why can’t we do the same thing here?” said Dr. Tara Kiran, a Toronto-based primary-care doctor who also researches healthcare care quality.


More states rescinding Medicaid ‘retroactive eligibility’

By MICHELLE ANDREWS

For Kaiser Health News

If you’re poor, uninsured and fall seriously ill, in most states if you qualify for Medicaid — but weren’t enrolled at the time — the program will pay your medical bills going back three months. It protects hospitals, too, from having to absorb the costs of caring for these patients.

But a growing number of states are rescinding this benefit known as “retroactive eligibility.” On Nov. 1, Iowa joined three states that have eliminated retroactive coverage for some groups of Medicaid patients since the Affordable Care Act passed. Each state had to secure approval by the federal government.

Retroactive eligibility has been a feature of Medicaid for decades, reflecting the program’s emphasis on providing a safety net for poor, disabled and other vulnerable people. In contrast to private insurance, determining Medicaid eligibility can be complex and the application process daunting, advocates say. A patient’s medical condition also may keep families from applying promptly for coverage.

All four states — Arkansas, Indiana and New Hampshire, in addition to Iowa — have expanded Medicaid under the health law, which allowed states to include adults with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,000 for one person. So, in theory, most adults are required to have insurance under the ACA. In practice, each state still has a significant number of uninsured, ranging from 5 to 8 percent of the population.

The retroactive coverage “can compensate for the sorts of errors and lapses that can so easily occur on the part of both the applicant and the government bureaucracy” that delay applications, said Gordon Bonnyman, staff attorney at the Tennessee Justice Center, a public interest law firm that represents low-income and uninsured residents.

State and federal officials say eliminating the retroactive coverage helps encourage people to sign up for and maintain coverage when they’re healthy rather than waiting until they’re sick to enroll. It also fits into federal officials’ efforts to make Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care for low-income adults and children, more like private insurance.

But consumer advocates and health care providers say the shift will saddle patients with hefty medical bills and leave hospitals to absorb more uncompensated care when patients can’t pay. Some worry this could be the start of a trend.

In Iowa, the change applies to just about anyone coming into Medicaid — except for pregnant women and children under age 1. The change will affect up to 40,000 residents annually and save the program more than $36 million a year.

“We’re making it a lot more likely that Medicaid-eligible members are going to incur significant medical debt,” said Mary Nelle Trefz, health policy associate at the Child & Family Policy Center, in Des Moines, whose organization opposed the change.

When someone has a traumatic health event, the initial focus is to get them stabilized, not figure out how to pay for it, said MaryBeth Musumeci, associate director of the Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured at the Kaiser Family Foundation. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Patients may neglect to apply immediately for Medicaid, leaving them financially responsible for days or months of care they received before they got in their application, even though they may have been eligible for Medicaid all along.

That’s not the only issue, advocates say. Unlike the commercial insurance market where re-enrollment through someone’s employer is routine, Medicaid requires that beneficiaries’ eligibility be reassesed every year.

“People fall through the cracks,” said Andrea Callow, associate director of Medicaid initiatives at Families USA, a consumer advocacy group.

In addition, complications can arise for people who might need Medicaid coverage for long-term care services. “The criteria are complicated. For a layperson to find those criteria and figure out if they’re eligible” is challenging and they may need extra time, said Musumeci. Once patients have secured coverage, they may already have accrued hefty expenses.

Maybe so, but some people argue that a 90-day retroactive eligibility guarantee is counterproductive.

“We’re trying to get people to behave more responsibly, not less responsibly,” said Gail Wilensky, an economist who oversaw the Medicaid and Medicare programs in the early 1990s under President George H.W. Bush. “That is not the signal you’re sending” with three months of retroactive eligibility. A 30-day time frame is more reasonable, Wilensky said.

In contrast to Iowa, the waivers in Arkansas, Indiana and New Hamsphire generally apply only to adults who gained coverage under the law’s Medicaid expansion. (Indiana’s waiver also applies to other groups.)

Kentucky has a request pending that, like Iowa, would eliminate retroactive Medicaid eligibility except for pregnant women and children under 1, according to KFF.

Under federal law, officials can waive some Medicaid coverage rules to give states flexibility to experiment with different approaches to providing services. And retroactive eligibility waivers in Medicaid are hardly new. A few states like Tennessee have had them in place for years. Tennessee officials eliminated retroactive eligibility for all Medicaid beneficiaries in 1994 when the state significantly expanded coverage under TennCare, as Medicaid is known there. At the time, the state even allowed uninsured people to buy into the program who wouldn’t otherwise qualify based on income, said Bonnyman.

“There was no reason for anybody to be uninsured except undocumented immigrants,” said Bonnyman. “It didn’t seem to have the potential for harm.”

But state officials revamped that program after serious financial problems. Eligibility for TennCare has become more restrictive again.

Other states that waived retroactive coverage for at least some Medicaid groups include Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts and Utah, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Bonnyman said his group frequently works with Medicaid beneficiaries who have medical bills they can’t afford that accumulated during the months before they applied for Medicaid.

“If you’re a moderate- to low-income working family, one or two days in the hospital is enough to ruin you financially,” he said.

 


CMS seeks to give states more freedom to define essential benefits

 

FierceHealthcare reports that the  Trump administration has proposed a new federal rule to  give states more freedom  to define essential health benefits, as well as other changes to the regulations governing the individual and small-group markets.

The 2019 Notice of Benefit and Payment Parameters (PDF) was released Friday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Fierce reported that “{p}erhaps most notably, CMS’s proposed rule would allow states to alter their essential health benefits  {EHB} benchmark plan annually, beginning as early as 2019.”

“As mandated by the Affordable Care Act, insurers in the individual and small-group markets will still have to cover 10 basic benefits, such as preventive care and prescription drugs. But once CMS’s proposed rule takes effect, states could borrow another state’s EHB benchmark plan—in whole or part—or create a new one altogether, provided it follows certain criteria,” the news service reported.

CMS said: “In addition to granting states more flexibility regulating their markets, we believe this change would permit states to modify EHBs to increase affordability of health insurance in the individual and small group markets.”

But the agency conceded that the proposed changes might cause some people  with specific health needs to lose coverage for certain services, depending on what option their state chooses.

 Fierce reported that CMS also seeks to (in the news service’s words), among other things:
  • “Allow states to assume a larger role in the qualified health plan certification process for the federally facilitated exchanges.”
  • “Explore ways to make state-based exchanges that use the Healthcare.gov platform a more appealing and sustainable option for states.”
  • “Gives states ‘significantly more flexibility’  {in CMS’s words} in how they operate a Small Business Health Options Program, also known as SHOP.”
  • “Recalibrate the parameters for risk adjustment methodology and give states more flexibility regarding risk adjustment transfers in their markets.”
  • “Let states  apply for an adjustment to their individual market medical loss ratio standard.”
  • “Raise the threshold for review of ‘unreasonable’ premium increases from 10% to 15%.”
  • “Remove the requirement that each exchange have at least two navigator entities, and the rule that navigators provide in-person outreach/enrollment support.”

To read more, please hit this link.

 


The future of CHIP

By PHIL GALEWITZ

For Kaiser Health News

Congress finally seems ready to take action on the Children’s Health Insurance Program after funding lapsed Sept. 30.

Before the deadline, lawmakers were busy grappling with the failed repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

CHIP covers 9 million children nationwide. But until Congress renews CHIP, states are cut off from additional federal funding that helps lower- and middle-income families.

CHIP, which has enjoyed broad bipartisan support, helps lower- and middle-income families that otherwise earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid. Besides children, it covers 370,000 pregnant women a year. Like Medicaid, CHIP is traditionally paid for with state and federal funds, but the federal government covers most of the cost.).

Though current authorization for spending has expired, states can use some of their unspent federal CHIP money. Still, several states are expected to run out of money before the end of 2017, and most of the rest will run out by next summer. CHIP has been in this fix only one other time since it was established in 1997. In 2007, CHIP went weeks without funding authorization from Congress.

Here’s a quick look at what may lie ahead for the program.

1. Will children lose coverage because Congress missed the deadline?

They could eventually, but not immediately. A few states facing the most immediate threat — including California and Arizona — have enough funding to last only until the end of the year.

No states have yet announced plans to freeze enrollment or alert families about any potential end in coverage. But if Congress fails to renew funding quickly, some states may begin taking steps to unwind the program in the next few weeks.

2. What are states doing in reaction to Congress missing the deadline?

Most states are doing little except reaching into their unspent federal funds.

However, Minnesota was among those most imperiled because it had spent all its funds. State officials said Tuesday that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) was giving Minnesota $3.6 million from unspent national funds to cover CHIP this month.

Emily Piper, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, reported in a newspaper commentary last month that her state’s funds would be exhausted last Sunday.

Even without the last-minute infusion of funding from CMS, most of the children covered by CHIP would have continued to receive care under the state’s Medicaid program, but Minnesota would get fewer federal dollars for each child, according to Piper’s commentary. However, she added, those most at risk are the 1,700 pregnant women covered by CHIP, because they wouldn’t be eligible for Medicaid.

Utah has notified CMS that it plans to discontinue its CHIP program by the end of the year unless it receives more federal money. About 19,000 children are in the state’s CHIP program, state officials say. So far, though, the state said it is not moving to suspend service or enrollment or alert enrollees about any possible changes.

Nevada officials said if funding is not extended it might have to freeze enrollment on Nov. 1 and end coverage by Nov. 30.

California, which has 1.3 million children covered by CHIP, has the highest enrollment of any state running out of funding this year. But, so far, it’s continuing business as usual.

“We estimate that we have available CHIP funding at least through December 2017,” said Tony Cava, spokesman for California Department of Health Services. “Our CHIP program is open for enrollment and continues to operate normally.”

Oregon said it has enough CHIP funding to last through October for its program that covers 98,000 children.

3. When is Congress likely to act?

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, announced an agreement in mid-September to renew CHIP funding. Under the proposed dealfederal CHIP funding would drop by 23 percentage points starting in by 2020, returning to its pre-Affordable Care Act levels. The agreement would extend the life of the CHIP program through 2022.

Hatch and Wyden did not provide any details on how they would pay for the CHIP extension.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee posted its bill just before midnight Monday. It mirrors the Senate Finance plan by extending funding for CHIP for five years and gradually phasing down the 23-percentage-point funding increase provided under Affordable Care Act over the next two years.

4. If CHIP is so popular among Republicans and Democrats, why hasn’t Congress renewed the program yet?

The funding renewal was not a priority among Republican leaders, who have spent most of this year trying to replace the Affordable Care Act and dramatically overhaul the Medicaid program. Some in Congress also thought the Sept. 30 deadline was squishy since states could extend their existing funds beyond that.

5. Who benefits from CHIP?

While CHIP income eligibility levels vary by state, about 90 percent of children covered are in families earning 200 percent of poverty or less ($40,840 for a family of three). CHIP covers children up to age 19. States have the option to cover pregnant women, and 18 plus the District of Columbia do so.

The program is known by different names in different states such as Hoosier Healthwise in Indiana and PeachCare for Kids in Georgia.

For families that move out of Medicaid as their incomes rise, CHIP is an affordable option that ensures continued coverage for their children. Many states operate their CHIP programs as part of Medicaid.

 


Direct primary care seen as partial safety net

 

By CHARLOTTE HUFF

For Kaiser Health News

JARRELL, Texas

Darrell Kenyon had been punting for years on various medical issues — fatigue, headaches, mood swings. The 43-year-old uninsured carpenter was particularly worried about his blood pressure, which ran high when he checked it at the grocery store. Then he heard about a different type of physician practice, one that provided regular primary care for a monthly fee.

“Insurance for the self-employed is through the roof,” Kenyon told Dr. Loy Graham, as she examined him one morning in August. Two years ago, Graham had hung out her shingle in this central Texas town of nearly 1,400, about 40 miles north of Austin.

Under the practice model, called direct primary care, patients are charged monthly — typically $20 to $75, depending on age, in Graham’s practice — for basic, office-based medical care and frequently cell phone and other after-hours physician access. Proponents of the model, which is also supported as a practice option by the American Academy of Family Physicians, say it can provide a safety net for those with limited treatment options, including the uninsured and people in the country illegally. The alternative is particularly helpful in states such as Texas that haven’t expanded Medicaid access, the advocates add.

But there’s a sizable catch: Direct primary care is not insurance.

Carolyn Engelhard worries that strapped individuals will decide the easier access to primary care is “good enough” and won’t investigate insurance options. “It can be a false security,” said Engelhard, who directs the health-policy program at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, in Charlottesville. “There’s sort of the illusion that it’s kind of like insurance.”

Lower-income Texans would be better off with coverage on the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchange, where they could get a subsidy to reduce the cost of their premiums, Engelhard said. The policy would have a deductible, “which they might feel that they can’t afford,” she said. “But they would be protected if they got cancer or if they had an automobile accident.”

Graham estimates that at least three-quarters of her roughly 450 patients lack insurance, even though she advises them to carry some kind of catastrophic coverage for major health expenses. But the cost for such policies can be daunting. Like Kenyon, some of Graham’s patients are self-employed with fluctuating incomes or work for businesses that don’t offer coverage. Even if their employer offers affordable coverage for the employee, premiums for dependents might make coverage financially out of reach. Roughly 1 in 5 of her patients speak primarily Spanish. Some are undocumented, working in construction and other labor-intensive jobs in the region.

Despite her concerns, Engelhard said, such flat-fee practices might offer “one of the few viable options” for those living here under the radar, given they’re not eligible for ACA-related coverage. “So they are completely dependent on paying out-of-pocket for medical care,” she said.

‘Better Than Nothing’?

Nationally, direct primary care is relatively new and very much a niche option. Nearly 3 percent of family physicians practice it, according to a 2017 survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians. Some critics have questioned whether the model’s growth is already stalling, after one of its earliest providers, Seattle-based Qliance, closed its clinics this year.

Graham, who practiced traditional medicine in central Texas for decades, said she was drawn to the option after growing weary of packing too many patients into each day. She was considering leaving medicine and had started developing a lavender farm as an alternative source of income when she heard about direct primary care.

In 2015, she opened her practice in a small strip mall in Jarrell, figuring that nearby residents — with limited access to primary care — might take a chance on the different style of medicine.

John Bender, M.D., an academy board member who is part of a larger practice that’s transitioning to direct primary care, said that the low monthly fees are attracting patients who view insurance as out of reach. “I think something [in terms of medical care] is better than nothing,” said the Fort Collins, Colo., family physician, who estimates that roughly half of the practice’s 800-plus direct primary care patients are uninsured.

“I can spare them quite a few urgent care and emergency room bills,”  Dr. Bender said, noting that his office handles anything from strep throat to stitches for minor gashes. Moreover, the cost is within reach of people on tight budgets, he said. “In fact, a carton of cigarettes runs $49, which just happens to be the price of my monthly subscription fee [for adults].”

In Texas, 16.6 percent of the state’s residents were uninsured as of 2016, the highest rate nationally, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. The Lone Star State didn’t expand Medicaid access and has one of the nation’s lowest income-eligibility cutoffs. A single mother with two children can’t earn more than $3,781 annually to qualify for coverage herself, according to a 2017 Medicaid report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization.

Dr. Felicia Macik, who launched her direct care practice in 2014 in Waco, estimates that 10 to 15 percent of her patients are uninsured, including some who drop coverage because they can’t afford the premiums. “I’m frightened for them,” she said. “It could decimate a family if something happened and they didn’t have any coverage.”

But Macik pointed out that getting regular primary care, rather than avoiding the doctor entirely due to lack of insurance, might avert costlier complications like an asthma attack or a diabetic crisis.

Uninsured individuals who sign up for these practices are rolling the dice, said Dr. Mohan Nadkarni, an internist who co-founded the Charlottesville (Va.) Free Clinic, which treats lower-income individuals. “For routine regular care, it may work out,” he said. “But it’s gambling that you’re not going to get sicker and need further care.”

Two years ago, Dr. Loy Graham opened a flat-fee primary-care practice in Jarrell, Texas. She estimates that at least 75 percent of her patients lack health insurance.  (Photo by Charlotte Huff.)_

For instance, a patient can develop severe heartburn and require further tests and referrals to specialists to look for the underlying cause — potentially anything from an ulcer to esophageal cancer — that could quickly run up a hefty bill, Nadkarni said. Another patient with chest pain might need a similarly costly work-up to rule out heart problems, including a potentially life-threatening blockage, he said.

Graham said that her monthly fees cover anything that she can handle in the office. During Kenyon’s visit, she froze a small growth off one ear. Shortly afterward, she gave a steroid injection to an older woman with a painful, swollen wrist.

She has negotiated low fees with a local laboratory; the battery of blood tests and urinalysis she ordered for Kenyon cost him just under $40. “This is concierge medicine for normal people,” said the 61-year-old family physician.

Physician enthusiasts maintain that jettisoning the paperwork and other overhead costs associated with insurance enables them to take on fewer patients — roughly 600 to 800 for direct care practices compared with 2,000 to 2,500 typically, according to the family physicians academy — and thus spend more time with each one.

As A Safety Net, It’s A Stretch

Erika Miller first came to see Graham two years ago for severe headaches. The 30-year-old mother of three, who is working on her college degree and has a full-time job, doesn’t have insurance.

Graham diagnosed high blood pressure. Getting that under control helped alleviate her headaches, Miller said. She also has shed 50 pounds under Graham’s guidance.

But Graham can’t handle everything for her patients. Last year, Miller went to the emergency room at Scott & White Medical Center, in nearby Temple, with severe abdominal pain. It was her appendix, which had to be removed. The safety-net hospital started Miller on a payment plan based on her income, totaling roughly $500.

“If the question is: `Is [direct primary care] better than nothing?’ Then I would say, ‘Yes,’” Engelhard said. But along with leaving uninsured patients financially vulnerable to a medical curveball, she said, these smaller practices — by seeing fewer patients per doctor — risk aggravating the nation’s primary care shortage if they become more common.

Graham countered that she nearly left medicine, but these days — as she continues to build her practice — she’s reaching some patients who had previously fallen through the health system’s cracks. On that summer morning, Kenyon left Graham’s office with a prescription for a blood pressure medication and an appointment to return in several weeks to discuss his lab results.

Kenyon and his wife, Denise, later described how they had signed up last year for a family policy through the Affordable Care Act. But the monthly premium was $750 and the deductibles were $3,500 per person, Denise Kenyon said.

She called around and couldn’t find a family doctor who would take the coverage. After several months, they stopped paying the premiums, figuring that the money they saved would pay for a lot of medical care.

Both are now patients of Graham’s; their combined monthly bill totals $125, which they can budget for, Darrell Kenyon said. “I do have good months and bad months, as far as pay is concerned,” he said. “If I have a bad month, it’s still affordable.”


Community health centers anxiously await congressional rescue

 

By RACHEL BUTH

For Kaiser Health News

One community health center in New York has frozen hiring. Another in Missouri can’t get a bank loan to expand.

The nation’s 1,400 community health centers are carefully watching expenses in case the financial rescue they hope Congress delivers very soon doesn’t arrive. With four days left in the government’s fiscal year, Congress has not voted on reauthorizing billions of dollars now going to community health centers and other health programs for the 2018 budget year that starts Sunday.

“The anxiety level is increasing on almost a daily basis,” said Dan Hawkins, senior vice president of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) in Washington, D.C. “There is broad support and agreement in Congress that it should get done, but we are working against a ticking clock and a crowded legislative calendar.”

For the past two weeks, the GOP’s scramble to repeal the Affordable Care Act before the month ends pushed other healthcare matters off the congressional agenda. That effort ended Tuesday when Senate Republicans said they would not seek a vote this week because they lacked enough support to pass the bill.

It’s not clear if lawmakers’ lighter agenda will now leave room for funding health centers or deciding other issues, such as renewing the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which also expires Sept. 30. At a hearing Sept. 25,  Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah) urged his colleagues to work with the Senate’s health committee to settle the matter. NACHC officials privately express optimism that a deal might come later in October if not by Sunday.

Community health centers operate in more than 9,500 locations, serving 27 million people, according to the NACHC. They are the main source of healthcare for many low-income Americans — and the only source of primary care in many underserved areas.

Health centers provide preventive care, counseling, dentistry and primary care to everyone, whether or not they can pay. A sliding fee scale based on income and family size is available to patients without insurance.

In 2015, nearly 1 in 6 Medicaid beneficiaries received health-center services, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported this year. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

“The end result is these are people who will be locked out of health care” without new funding, Hawkins said.

Community health centers gained billions of dollars in federal revenue under the ACA, which created a special trust fund to support them from 2011 through 2015. The Community Health Center Fund was extended in 2015 for two years with an additional $3.6 billion annually.

That money represents 70 percent of all federal grants to health centers and about a fifth of their annual revenue. Medicaid reimbursements account for the largest share, about 40 percent.

One beneficiary is Pamela Richardson, a 60-year-old patient of Valley Community Healthcare,in North Hollywood, Calif., who suffers from an iron- absorption disorder called hereditary hemochromatosis. She was unable to get health insurance before Obamacare prohibited insurers from excluding people with preexisting medical conditions. The clinic helped her sign up for coverage through the Medi-Cal expansion.

Once Richardson was covered, she received long-delayed primary care, which revealed she had “scary high” blood pressure and a lump in one breast (which proved benign). “When you don’t have insurance you don’t get breast exams. You don’t have Pap smears,” she told a KHN reporter earlier this year. “I wish people had a little more patience with Obamacare. Once you get what’s wrong with you under control, the cost would come down.”

California has by far the most federally funded health centers and they serve 6.2 million Californians, according to CaliforniaHealth+ Advocates, which represents state clinics. They have received over $1.6 billion from 2011 through 2016 from the Community Health Center Fund, more than any other state, the Congressional Research Service reported in January.

If health centers receive no new funds for 2018, the ensuing financial crunch would cost 51,000 jobs, force the centers to close 2,800 locations and cause 9 million people to lose healthcare services, according to a budget document that the Health and Human Services Department gave Congress in July.

Uncertainty about what Congress will do now is already causing problems. Hawkins said his members call him and his staff every day, fretting about employment contracts, lease agreements and equipment rentals that run past Oct. 1.

Neighborhood Health in Nashville, Tenn., has federal grant money that will carry it through Jan. 31, but CEO Mary Bufwack said some of her 180 staff members live paycheck to paycheck and are getting nervous about Neighborhood’s stability.

Bufwack is worried the health center won’t receive money it needs to replace a clinic, a project now being planned.

She fears that a new doctor she recruited to join Neighborhood next June will take another job before she can get his signature on an employment contract. And she doesn’t want to do that until she’s sure about her budget.

Mostly, she worries that whatever Congress gives her will be only for one year.

“We’re already worried about next Sept. 30,” Bufwack said.


Congress’s healthcare to-do list

This from Kaiser Health News:

“Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post and Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times discuss the continuing efforts in Congress to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, upcoming open enrollment for individual insurance and Congress’s long healthcare to-do list for September.

“Plus, for ‘extra credit,’ the panelists recommend their favorite health stories of the week they think you should read, too.”

To hear the podcast, please hit this link.


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