U.S. Healthcare – Moving Forward

Last week I gave a presentation to the leaders of some women’s health advocacy organizations about where the U.S. healthcare system is heading, i.e., where we go from the current situation with the A.C.A. We had a great discussion, and the organizer of the event emailed me afterward to say, “Amazing is all I can say. You are the first person who could speak to [the] ACA in which people listened and engaged.”Blog-2-17-Picture

Some of the key points I made included:

  • Focus on the future. Don’t relive the past.
  • Move forward from today’s strengths and weaknesses. The slide below describes health insurance coverage for 2015 showing dramatic increases in coverage in individual insurance and Medicaid, and a decrease in the uninsured. [Note: The Census data indicates any insurance status during the year, which is why the total is more than 100%.]Blog-2-17-Slide1
  • Are we more of less broken? Some “so-called” pundits have characterized the current situation as “broken.” To move forward, it is important to consider whether or not the current system is more or less “broken” than it was in 2010 when the A.C.A. was enacted, or in 2014 when most of its provisions started.Blog-2-17-Slide2

Several of the less broken aspects of the current situation are:

  • The business model for health insurance is now based more on managing risk rather than avoiding risk, which was a major focus before the A.C.A.
  • Access to insurance – particularly for individuals – is now much more reliable and dependable. The A.C.A. created a national floor for insurance practices, with state level implementation and augmentation. This was the focus for the “Patient Protection” part of the A.C.A. i.e., the original title of the law was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
  • Descriptions of insurance plans are now more standardized and easier for consumers to understand.
  • Medicare’s Hospital Trust Fund is now projected to be solvent for 11 more years than before the A.C.A., and the Medicare Part D benefit was significantly improved, with the coverage gap (a.k.a. “donut hole”) being filled.

Several of the still broken or problem areas in the current situation are:

  • Affordability is still a major problem. This is – and was – a problem for many individuals, as well as some companies that discovered in the midst of the Great Recession (2008-2010) that their healthcare costs were eating deeply into their profits. [Note – polling has long indicated affordability as a priority issue, which is why it was called the “Affordable Care Act.” However, affordability takes much longer to achieve than access, which was the case for the A.C.A.’s model in Massachusetts, where affordability is still being addressed.] Within the A.C.A., affordability for lower income people was addressed with subsidies, but overall costs are slowly being addressed with improvements in healthcare delivery – primarily through public-private alignment in new payment models that are driving greater “value” in healthcare. It is also worth noting that this concept of value is at the core of the new Medicare physician payment framework created in the MACRA law, which had large bipartisan support in Congress.
  • State-to-state implementation has been very variable, with some states doing a good job in creating more stable insurance markets, and others facing low numbers of insurers in their individual markets.
  • Requirements for coverage of certain benefits, and how risks are segmented or shared across populations, are potential areas where changes could be made to address perceived inequities, reduce government spending, and lower costs for some people – but also increase costs for other people. For example, changing the age ratings from 3:1 to 4:1 or 5:1 would expand risk stratification with younger people paying less and older people paying more. Similarly, excluding certain types of benefits from the required “Essential Health Benefits” (which are currently set at the state level within federal guidelines), would decrease costs for people who don’t ever use those benefits (such as contraception or organ transplantation), while increasing costs for people who do use those services. However, such “insurance by body part” practices could also cause insurers (and at risk providers) to build business models around avoiding risk rather than managing it.

Conclusions: The A.C.A. fixed several problems with the U.S. health insurance markets and improved access to health insurance. However, it also accentuated or created some other problems because of its innate structure (e.g., “inartful drafting”), hyper-partisan political advantage seeking, and the normal evolution of insurance business practices. For example, those three factors combined to undermine individual insurance markets in some states because of HHS’ inability to fully make risk corridor payments: The law was not explicit about HHS’ authority, Congress specifically prohibited HHS from shifting funds to make those payments, and many insurers had business plans for the A.C.A. marketplaces with losses in early years to build market share, while expecting to recoup those losses both through the risk corridor payments and higher premiums in later years. The result has been that most of the new non-profit insurance companies created under the A.C.A. (COOPs) failed, and many existing insurers pulled out of markets where they had significant losses, leaving fewer options for consumers. It should also be noted that some insurers have done well in the marketplaces using networks and benefits more similar to Medicaid than large company group health insurance plans, while at least one insurer apparently pulled out of several markets as a positioning strategy to try and bolster their merger plans.

Thus, the A.C.A. transformed what was essentially becoming a two-tiered health insurance market (Medicaid and group health insurance plans) into a three-level system, with a more structured middle tier for individual insurance that looks like a hybrid between Medicaid and large employer health plans. One of the A.C.A.’s successes (although perhaps temporary) was this middle tier, which had been rapidly disappearing in most parts of the country as premiums escalated and people with non-trivial pre-existing conditions were excluded from buying insurance. In 2010, when layoffs were common and the “gig-economy” was expanding, the shrinking supply side of the market for individual insurance not only accentuated the problem of “job lock,” but it also undermined state and federal efforts to control health spending since so many people were “out” of the insurance system.

Are “we” better off than “we” were four years ago? That depends on who “you” are, and what you expect your situation to be in the future.

  • For individuals with health insurance through large groups (such as large companies), things are probably about the same as they would have been without the A.C.A. While premiums and deductibles are almost certainly higher, better information about quality of services is available, and there is more access to things like telemedicine – both of which would have occurred to a similar degree without the A.C.A.
  • For low income individuals, there are now subsidies to buy insurance, or access to Medicaid (in some states).
  • For middle-class people buying insurance on their own, they now have assured access to buying and keeping insurance, although in some cases their costs have increased more than what would have occurred without the A.C.A. in part because they have expanded benefits under the A.C.A.’s requirements. But without the A.C.A., costs for individuals and small groups could have been very dependent upon their age, costly illnesses, or injuries, which could have dramatically increased their premiums, or caused them to lose insurance coverage for specific body-parts or entirely.
  • For people with Medicare, things are better since the Part D donut hole is getting filled, and Medicare is driving new quality improvement initiatives, which are also benefiting people who are not on Medicare since many are being done in conjunction with Medicaid programs and private payers.

Bottom Line:

  • So, are “we” as a nation better off? Overall, we have a clearer picture of the problems and more tools to try and improve (if not totally solve) the problem areas like affordability and quality.
  • Will making productive changes be easy? No.
  • Can positive changes be made while extracting great savings from the health insurance and healthcare delivery systems? Not quickly – but possibly over the long term.
  • Can changes be made in 2017 so that no other changes will be necessary for many years? No. Like trauma surgery, the patient needs to be stabilized, and then multiple surgeries (targeted towards the problems of greatest urgency and long-term benefit) need to be done over time to improve the functioning and long-term capabilities and viability of the patient. Trying to do everything at once can lead to serious morbidity and mortality, and would be more traumatic and expensive, and waste more resources than a measured and planned approach.

Health, Healthcare, and Government Spending (and a Culture of Health)

Why governments care about health and healthcare, how they are connected to government spending and priorities, and why addressing social determinants of health is so important for making lasting improvements, were the subjects I covered in a presentation at George Mason’s graduate policy school in September. My goal was to provide the soon-to-be policy analysts and advisers with a framework for understanding those issues so they will be able to provide useful recommendations to their future decision making bosses. (See the slide below for the topics covered in the presentation.) Links to videos of the talk are below, along with short descriptions – I think that Part 6 is particularly good. (Embedded views of the videos are at the end.)

I’ve had discussions with policy makers and corporate executives about these issues since their organization’s value propositions increasingly require demonstrating individual and population outcomes with specific metrics. Those requirements are part of the broader rapid movement of the U.S. healthcare system towards more accountability. Consequently, the connections among health, healthcare delivery, spending, community organizations, and social determinants of health are becoming a top priority for healthcare and life science leaders in companies and government agencies as they seek to increase value for their organizations and the people they serve.

Any thoughts you have about this talk, the connections among health, healthcare, spending, and community health factors (a.k.a. social determinants of health), would be greatly appreciated. And if there are any aspects of these issues where I can be of help to you or your colleagues – or you know of organizations or audiences that would also benefit from a similar presentation – please just let me know as I’d be happy to discuss that with you.

GMU - 9-29-16 Overview Slide

Part 1: Introduction. Why Governments care about health and healthcare. What is health. What is healthcare. https://youtu.be/KvDVcBGOePc

Part 2: Insights into healthcare spending with a particular focus on the Medicare and Medicaid programs. https://youtu.be/6Onuae2c0Xw

Part 3: Why spending on (and budgeting for) health and healthcare programs are unlike almost all other Federal programs, and why projecting spending is so challenging. https://youtu.be/lyaAjRzD0ic

Part 4: How government and private payers are seeking greater value and better clinical outcomes from their healthcare spending, and how data and analytics are increasingly important components of developing and evaluating those initiatives. https://youtu.be/7abj14xIcMw

Part 5: Examples of value based pricing initiatives and the importance of data and analytics for managing such programs, determining “success”, and sharing savings with physicians, other providers, or patients. https://youtu.be/MeLZA5wcpG8

Part 6: How health, healthcare, and spending on government health programs (and private insurance reimbursements) connect to each other, and how social determinants of health can drive clinical and economic outcomes, i.e., how a culture of health can be so important for transforming health in a community. This Part concludes with a brief discussion of the Affordable Care Act and the future of that program and the U.S. healthcare system. https://youtu.be/66zt_Rqf9hA

Enjoy. Pass along to your colleagues and friends. And as always, constructive comments are welcome!

Challenges Estimating Future U.S. Healthcare Spending

The challenges of estimating future U.S. healthcare spending (and why projections are so often so inaccurate) is the focus of the third video segment from my guest lecture at George Mason University about Health and Budget Policy – see below. (The first two are in previous blog posts and are on the HealthPolCom YouTube Channel.)

The final two video segments on the topics of Medicaid, and the Changing U.S. Healthcare System will be posted next week. The five subjects covered in the video segments from the guest lecture are:

  1. U.S. Spending on Health and Healthcare
  2. Medicare and U.S. Healthcare Spending
  3. Challenges for Estimating Future Healthcare Spending
  4. Medicaid: Federal and State Fiscal Issues
  5. Changing U.S. Healthcare System: New Payment and Delivery Models

Enjoy. Pass along to your colleagues and friends. And as always, constructive comments are welcome!

Medicare and U.S. Healthcare Spending

The second video from my guest lecture at George Mason University about Medicare and U.S. Healthcare Spending in now available – see below. (The first was an overview of Health Spending in the United States, and is in the previous blog and also on the HealthPolCom YouTube Channel.)

The other video segments from my guest lecture that I’ll be posting over the next week or so will be on the following subjects:

  1. Challenges for Estimating Future Healthcare Spending
  2. Medicaid: Federal and State Fiscal Issues
  3. Changing U.S. Healthcare System: New Payment and Delivery Models

Enjoy. pass along to your colleagues and friends. And as always, constructive comments are welcome!

 

U.S. Spending on Health and Healthcare & Update

Sorry to have been so delinquent in publishing new posts.  For most of 2015 I was busy working with the National Governors Association and the Institute of Medicine organizing State Health Leadership Retreats for the Governors of 4 states. Those retreats were modeled on a pilot retreat we conducted in late 2013, and in late 2015 we did a culminating meeting for officials from all the states. Right after that I joined Foley Hoag as their Senior Health and Life Sciences Advisor.

All that has kept me rather busy, but in February I again guest lectured at George Mason about Health Reform and Fiscal Challenges (a.k.a “Health Policy is Budget Policy”). An edited video from the first part of the lecture about U.S. Spending on Health and Healthcare is below, and over the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting additional videos from that talk on the topics of:

  1. Medicare and U.S. Healthcare Spending
  2. Challenges for Estimating Future Healthcare Spending
  3. Medicaid: Federal and State Fiscal Issues
  4. Changing U.S. Healthcare System: New Payment and Delivery Models

Enjoy – pass along to your colleagues and friends – and as always, constructive comments are welcome!

 

New Direction for Health Reform Book

In 2005 I started writing a book about health reform.  As I was working on it, the structure and framework of the U.S. healthcare system kept shifting. I am now returning to work on this book, with the new working title, “Pivoting the U.S. Healthcare System: A Guide to Making Health Reform Work.” Below is a brief overview of the background about the book, which can also be found on my main website.

Comments, suggestions, and general inquiries about this project are welcome.

Overview – “Pivoting the U.S. Healthcare System: A Guide to Making Health Reform Work”

In my very first class in medical school, one of the first things the Professor said was, “Half of what we’re going to teach you is wrong. We just don’t know which half.”  That admission is not something you will hear in political or policy pronouncements, even though in the rapidly evolving U.S. healthcare systems situations change, preliminary data is corrected, projections turn out to be wrong in meaningful ways, and “solutions” fix problems but also lead to new ones.

To provide people with a framework for improving the quality of care and controlling costs for themselves and their communities in this shifting world, this book will examine important ideas, issues, and trends, and the steps individuals can take to help achieve better health, access, and affordability. To do that, I will provide my synthesis of observations and information focusing on policy, political, scientific, and medical changes that are building upon one another. Thus, the book will not be an academic treatise, nor adhere to specific ideological, philosophical or political lines. Rather, it will reflect what I have learned in in more than 25 years of clinical, scientific, and health policy work, and my vision for achieving a better, stronger, more vibrant, and healthier healthcare system.

Long Look Forward

In June 2003, I was invited to address the Presidents of the State Medical Societies about “The Future of the US Healthcare System.” To help these physician leaders see the future more clearly through murky waters, I discussed how the trajectories of the major US healthcare programs (including Medicare and employment-based insurance) were leading to greater transparency and accountability for both clinical and economic outcomes.  I then described a future where clinicians and providers would be responsible for the outcomes their care was producing, how payments would be tied to those outcomes, and how documenting those outcomes would be facilitated by electronic medical records and population-based analytical systems.

The reaction of the assembled physician leaders was one of dismissive disbelief. This was 2003. The world had come through Y2K unscathed, the dot-bomb recession was over, and the stock market was rising every week.  Their primary question was ‘who will pay us to put in electronic medical records and to provide information about quality and costs?’ They didn’t believe my answer that those who wanted the information – such as health insurance companies and government agencies – would pay them to provide data and information about quality and costs. Those reactions were not unreasonable at the time, since I suspect most of this group was planning to retire within the next 10 years. (This was before the Great Recession turned their 401k accounts into 101k amounts.)  However, while 2003 was generally a time of great uncertainty for the U.S. healthcare system, the year ended with the passage of a new law – the Medicare Modernization Act (MMA) – that included the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, and it was the first of several major laws driving fundamental transformation of the US healthcare systems.

Slow Turns

The 2003 passage of the MMA, the 2008 election of President Obama, the 2009 stimulus law (ARRA) that included the HITECH Act to support the implementation of electronic health records, and the 2010 passage of the Affordable Acre Act (ACA, or ObamaCare), have all promoted significant changes in the U.S. healthcare system.  But since it is a huge and extensively connected but disjointed set of enterprises, turning the U.S. healthcare system is a slow process. Even policy focused physicians and senior health managers have been slow to accept or react to those changes.  For example, in March 2009, I gave a Grand Rounds presentation at a hospital in Boston. Like my 2003 presentation to the Medical Society Presidents, I described a future with greater transparency and accountability, and the increased use of electronic health systems – particularly since the HITECH Act had become law the month before. The responses included a “rebuttal” from the Canadian-born Department Chair arguing for a single payer system, and a Resident who felt that the Geisinger model in Danville, PA wasn’t replicatable or relevant because – unlike most of the rest of the U.S. – Geisinger dominates its geographically insulated area.

But the more things change, sometimes they don’t.  For example, I recently heard about a senior manager at a large integrated health system that refused to consider planning for the implementation of the ACA’s many provisions: First, Congress would repeal it. Then, it wouldn’t be implemented because Mitt Romney would win the 2012 election.  And lastly, the Supreme Court would overturn the entire law.  Of course, none of those things happened, so this large health system is now playing catch-up with their regional competitors.  Similarly, in early 2014 I spoke with the physician leadership from a state that has not embraced improvements in their clinical care systems or changing incentives for physicians, hospitals, or patients to improve the quality of care or control spending.  Their attitudes reflected a strong desire to maintain their status quo of autonomy, and particularly to not be held accountable (or responsible) for their patients’ clinical outcomes or the health of their communities. Basically they had healthcare delivery and insurance structures that hadn’t changed much since the 1980s, and such physician-centered care is much better for physicians than patient-centered care.

Health Reform Pivots at the Local Level

While my 2003 presentation to the Medical Society Presidents was in many ways a nexus for the work I’d been doing for more than 15 years, it also led me to start writing a book that had the working title “Fixing the US Healthcare System.” The 2008 election of President Obama (and the subsequent passage of the ACA/ObamaCare) led me to change the title to “Making Health Reform Work.”

Now in mid-2014, with many of the major components of the ACA having begun to be implemented – and their effects starting to be seen – I’ve returned to the book and the pieces I’ve been writing for almost 10 years. With the dramatic shifts that have occurred in that time, I’ve pivoted the book’s focus to explore more directly the important changes occurring at the local level and within healthcare delivery. Therefore, I’ve also changed the working title to “Pivoting the U.S. Healthcare System: A Guide to Making Health Reform Work.”

Goal of the Book

The goal of the book will be to provide readers with insights and greater understanding of how to evaluate and influence the rapidly changing healthcare world that encompasses delivery, financing, public health, and information technology – particularly at the local and personal level. The book will explore how initiatives at the local level are what will primarily improve the health of people and communities in the coming years. Specifically, while ObamaCare and governmental activities are changing the framework and the contours of the playing field, how local leaders, organizations, and communities are allocating their resources, setting their priorities, and improving their practices involving health benefits, clinical services, and public health activities are what will most dramatically effect the lives of people and communities.

The book will enable and empower people to alter and accelerate those important changes based upon their personal and local perspectives by working with different groups to make improvement more meaningful for them and their communities. This local multi-stakeholder engagement and alignment is increasingly recognized as crucial for improving healthcare quality and controlling costs: Large employers, insurance companies, and government programs now appreciate that they are not large enough to drive major changes in any market or at any provider organization. Similarly, large hospitals, health systems, payers, and public health agencies increasingly understand that their work and goals are interconnected so that their actions needs to be aligned, and at times even directly coordinated.

Physicians are also an important group to include in this process since physicians (and other clinicians) are primary guides for patients in making healthcare decisions, and greatly influence healthcare spending and quality.[1] And of course patients – and their indirect advocates in the media, government, non-profits, and foundations – need to be part of these intertwined dialogues and decision-making.  The bottom, middle, top, left, and right conclusions all indicate that in the struggle against rising healthcare costs and burdens of disease and disability brought on by aging populations and other factors, united we can succeed, but divided we shall continue down the same failing path.

p.s. To see an old version of the working summary click “Making Health Reform Work.” The latest summary and outline are on my whiteboard and computer.  Please contact me if would like more information about my progress, focus areas, and conclusions.


[1] As an old axiom states, “the most expensive piece of medical technology is the pen in the physician’s hand.”  Today, that prescribing and referring pen is being replaced with a keyboard, a mouse, and a touchscreen, but the effect is similar, even as electronic medical records and systems are raising their own concerns about costs and quality.

Medicare Trust Fund Solvency Projections (History Of)

The 2014 Medicare Trustees’ Report was released yesterday.  Amidst all the reporting was how the revised projections for the Medicare Trust Fund (for Part A) increased by 3 years from last year’s report. The Kaiser Family Foundation has a great summary of Medicare financing and projections for future spending, but below is another chart that shows the actual number of years of projected solvency for the Part A Trust Fund in the years since 1970 – in the years when the Trustees’ Report included such projections:

Medicare Trust Fund Solvency - 07-28-14-v2Two things to note about this chart: The dramatic leap up in 2010 mostly reflects a combination of the healthcare spending slowdown in the Great Recession and the legislative changes in the ACA that pared back Medicare payments. (Note – those payment reductions were included in Republican proposals for replacing/supplanting the ACA.)

Another interesting item in the Trustees’ Report that both Kaiser Family Foundation and Sarah Kliff have noted is an actual dollar decline in per Medicare beneficiary spending on hospital costs. This may be due to some combination of greater scrutiny for hospitalizations, greater efforts to avoid rehospitalizations, and medicines ability to treat more things as outpatients. However, it also might mean that Medicare enrollees are facing higher cost sharing if they are getting more treatments as outpatients, which are covered under Medicare Part B.

This all seems to confirm the old saying, “The more things change, the less they stay the same,” i.e., projections change as the underlying conditions don’t stay the same.

Health Reform and Transformation in San Diego & California

I recently sat down with Kevin Hirsch, MD, President of Scripps Coastal Medical Group* to talk about health reform and transformation in the San Diego region. (See video below.)

Dr. Hirsch’s insights are interesting and timely because California often precedes the rest of the country in adopting new approaches to healthcare delivery and financing problems.  An example of this may be California’s 2006 Hospital Fair Pricing Act, which addressed very high hospital bills for the uninsured. This month’s Health Affairs includes an article that analyzes the impact of this law, and the authors’ findings contrast markedly with Steven Brill’s Time magazine article, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us.”

The California law is a significant step, and the Health Affairs authors describe it as a “detailed and well-structured approach.” The Act did have  limitations: it only protects uninsured people with incomes under 350% of the FPL, the state has minimal enforcement activities, and it only covers hospital bills and not those from physicians or outside services. (Note: In 2011 the law was expanded to include bills from ED physicians.)

Since the ACA will leave many people without health insurance, the Health Affairs authors conclude, “Policy makers and health planners in other states searching for options to protect the uninsured should be encouraged by our findings and should seek to learn more about California’s approach and determine how they might adapt similar laws to their own state’s health care system.”


(Disclosure: I’ve known Dr. Hirsch for many years – and aside from out obvious East Coast-West Coast attire differences, we continue to share a similar hairstyle and are both working to improve healthcare quality and efficiency.)

 

*Scripps Coastal Medical Group includes more than 140 family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, physical medicine and rehabilitation, rheumatology and general surgery clinicians practicing throughout San Diego County, and exclusively provides medical services through Scripps Health, a nonprofit integrated health system, under the Scripps Coastal Medical Centers brand.

Health Reform and Low-Income People in Washington DC

I recently sat down with George Jones, Bread for the City’s CEO, to talk about health reform and the challenges low-income people in Washington DC have accessing healthcare. The video of our discussion is below.  A couple of notes: 1. George’s title changed from Executive Director to CEO about a year ago.  I’ve known George for more than 15 years, so my bad when I introduce him as the Executive Director. 2. Please excuse my verbal stumbles and be impressed by George’s answers – we filmed this in one take in his small, hot office at Bread for the City.  I’m confident there will be improvement in future videos – and of course, your feedback is always welcome!

Health Spending: For What, To Whom, and Where It Is Heading

The data for 2011 US healthcare spending was reported in the January issue of Health Affairs.  Below are some graphs showing how spending was distributed across the different categories of healthcare services in the years 2000, 2007, and 2011, as well as who paid for the spending.  (My analyses and commentary follow these graphs. The source for all graphs is Health Affairs, 32, no. 1 (2013):87-99)

What Healthcare Spending Went For:


Where Healthcare Spending Funds Came From:
Three highlights from the Health Affairs article are:

  • The distribution of healthcare spending for various services and providers has been relatively constant despite significant growth in total and per capita spending. (See chart below)
  • Growth in hospital spending slowed in 2010 and 2011 after bumping up in 2009. (Y/Y increases were 6.7% in 2009, and 4.3% and 3.9% in 2010 and 2011, compared to 3.9% for total National Health Expenditures for each of these years over the prior year.) The Health Affairs article notes that “The growth in use of hospital services remains low, with the number of inpatient days declining by 1.1 percent in 2011, following a decline of 1.6 percent in 2010, and the number of outpatient visits increasing by 0.7 percent, a slowdown from the increase of 1.5 percent in 2010.”
  • The percentages of healthcare spending coming from private businesses and households has decreased. This probably reflects higher government spending for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit and increased Medicaid enrollment during the economic downturn being only partially offset by private insurers shifting costs to individuals.

Effects of Health Reform (ACA)

While only a few of the ACA’s provisions went into effect during 2010 and 2011, there has been much speculation as to how (and how much) the ACA has or will change healthcare spending.  The Health Affairs article includes data about changes in private insurance enrollment from the requirement that companies offer coverage for dependents up to age 26. But it also points out that this age group is relatively inexpensive to insure so it probably didn’t produce great changes in spending.  However, Medicaid coverage and spending did change significantly, with more people in Medicaid programs due to the economic downturn, and the states’ costs increasing with the end of the temporary bump in Federal matching rates.

The Health Affairs authors don’t speculate about is how healthcare providers and organizations are shifting their operations and attitudes in anticipation of various of various new Federal programs, such as the Shared Savings Program for ACOs, value based payments, EMR Meaningful Use incentives/penalties, and penalties for avoidable adverse events. With private payers expanding clinical and economic accountability for healthcare providers through various payment innovations that are aligned with Medicare’s policies, the acceleration of system-wide transformations may be greater than projected – and lead to greater and earlier cost savings.  I have written about the factors that may be moderating healthcare spending growth, and believe that the relatively slower rate in hospital spending  and inpatient days reported in the Health Affairs article are the leading edge of this trend.  However, as hospitals purchase physician practices they may establish local market power that limits competition, and the prices charged to Medicare by these acquired practices could increase as they shift from the category of clinicians’ office to hospital outpatient facilities. Conversely, to the extent that these integrated healthcare systems assume risk for savings and quality performance – probably with payments involving episodes or bundles of care – then these concerns will be diminished, although not eliminated if they can still limit price and quality competition and comparisons.

Looking Forward to Future Health Spending

The Health Affairs article speculates a bit about where healthcare spending is heading in the near future. And, as is typical when trying to predict the future, the article doesn’t completely agree with what others have written. Not to be critical of the Health Affairs authors, (or professionals at the Congressional Budget Office or other organizations), but modeling is hard. To illustrate how difficult this task is – and how it can lead to different predicted outcomes even with lots of historical data to work with – below is a map showing the multiple predicted paths for 2012 Hurricane Sandy.

Communicating the meaning of the latest data can also be confusing. For example, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal delivered significantly different verdicts on the meaning of the Health Affairs article. The Times’ headline declared, “Growth of Health Spending Stays Low” and quoted the Medicare agency’s chief actuary as saying “’I am optimistic.  There’s lot of potential.  More and more health care providers understand that the future cannot be like the past, in which health spending almost always grew faster than the gross domestic product.’”  Conversely, the Journal’s headline was “Health-Cost Pause Nears End,” and the article noted that the Health Affairs article, “…showed that the amount of spending to treat individuals, as opposed to spending on administration and insurance premiums, began to rise in 2011.” It then concluded that this was “signaling that cutbacks in health spending hadn’t become permanent.”

Predicting the Future is Easy

Predicting the future is easy. Accurately predicting the future is difficult. 2014 will almost certainly bring significant changes to how many people in the US get health insurance, how healthcare organizations deliver care, and how Medicare and Medicaid operate.  Like CMS’ chief actuary, I am optimistic, even though I also recognize that he is also correct in that, “The jury is still out whether all the innovations we’re testing will have much impact.” But I also see his actuarial caution as a reason for optimism because I believe that modeling based upon few precedents causes projections to be overly cautious, which should mean that actual savings will be greater than expected.