Monday, March 8, 2010

Passing the Democratic Health Care Bill is Not the “Right Thing To Do”

Any big health care bill will be full of compromises—political or otherwise. But this bill doesn’t even come close to deserving to be called “health care reform.”

As the Democrats make their final push to pass their health care bill many of them, and most notably the President, are arguing that it should be passed because it is the “right thing to do whatever the polls say.”

Their argument is powerful: We will never get the perfect bill. If this fails who knows how long it will be before we have another big proposal up for a vote. There are millions of uninsured unable to get coverage because of preexisting conditions or the inability to pay the big premiums and this bill would help them.

But as an unavoidable moral imperative, enacting this bill would fall way short:
  • It is unsustainable. Promises are being made that cannot be kept. As the President has said many times, we need fundamental health care system reform or the promises we have already made—the Medicare and Medicaid entitlements, for example—will bankrupt us. What few cost containment elements the Democrats seriously considered are now either gone from their final bill or hopelessly watered down—most notably the “Cadillac” tax on high cost benefits and the Medicare cost containment commission.
  • It is paying off the people already profiting the most from the status quo. Many of the big special interests, that will have to change their ways if we are really going to improve the system, are simply being paid off for their support. The drug deal, the hospital deal, promises not to cut or change the way physicians are paid, all add up to more guaranteeing the status quo rather than doing anything that will bring about the systemic change everyone knows is needed.
  • Nothing in these bills will fundamentally change our current fiscal course. As the CBO, and every other expert has said, if this bill becomes law we will continue on the same cost trajectory we are already on. Yes, the CBO says the Democratic plan will reduce costs during the next ten years by about $100 billion—but that only means they would be $100 billion less than the $35 trillion they would have been anyway! That is merely a rounding error on the track we are already on.
  • There is nothing here that will stop unaffordable health insurance rate increases. Lately supporters have said this bill is the solution to the recent big individual health insurance rate increases we have been reading about in the press. But there is little in this bill that will mitigate or control any such increases because so little would be done to impact underlying health care costs.
We often hear the argument, “Let’s get this entitlement expansion bill passed and it will force us to deal with costs later.” If we don’t now have the political courage to face daunting health care costs in the face of exploding deficits how will we have that courage later?

I will suggest that adding 30 million more people to an unsustainable system expecting it will create an even bigger crisis and thereby force real reform is tantamount to reboarding the Titanic in the hopes it will sink faster. It is also hard to see how doing such a thing is the politically courageous thing to do.

Just where is the moral imperative in ramming a trillion dollar entitlement expansion through knowing full well it will make our long-term deficit nightmare even worse—for those now uninsured and for everyone else?

The Democratic health care bill makes little if any systemic changes to the health care system—certainly not at the level we need.

The Democratic health care bill makes promises we cannot keep.

Proponents of the Democratic health care bill make the claim that it will make health insurance affordable, improve our deficit outlook, and make our health insurance system sustainable. None of those claims are even close to being true and everyone who knows anything about this debate knows that.

Heck of a foundation for doing the “right thing.”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Issue Has Become Arrogance Not Health Care

Away from Washington people I talk to are just amazed at what the Democrats are in the process of doing on health care.

What I think the Democratic leadership is missing is that this is no longer about passing a health care bill in the minds of lots of these voters—a majority of voters from what the polls say.

To these people, this is about Democratic arrogance. What the polls don't measure is the anger I hear from people who can't believe what is going on. After the last few recent state elections and all of the polls that overwhelmingly say, “stop” or “start over” they just keep plowing along anyway. To defend themselves, the Dems point to the many times the Republicans have used the legislative tactic of reconciliation before—the Bush tax cuts, Part D, welfare reform.

They are right. But those were popular bills.

The Dems may be scoring debating points but instead what the voters I talk to see is a demonstration of political arrogance—not a health care legislative process.

The Democratic logic is that they have already voted for it so they might as well put a finished product on the table for people to appreciate on Election Day.

But the problem with that logic is that the the bill’s real benefits—eliminating pre-existing conditions and medical underwriting as well as the subsidies to buy insurance—don’t start until 2014.

What voters, particularly the swing independent voters, now see is not a health care bill but political arrogance—and that is really the issue Democrats are going to have to deal with.

What I think this is finally going to come down to is a few House Democrats putting their finger in the air to see which direction the political wind is blowing from. It's pretty clear to me there will be a gale force wind blowing from the direction of "no."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Why Rush Vendor Certification of EHR Technologies?

Why Rush Vendor Certification of EHR Technologies?

by DAVID C. KIBBE and BRIAN KLEPPER

A surprise move by ONC/HHS indicates the wheels may be falling off health IT reform at about the same rate they've fallen off Democrats' broader health reforms.

David Blumenthal and his staff have unveiled two separate plans to test and certify EHR technology products and services. We don't think this is a good idea. We've supported the purpose and spirit of the ARRA/HITECH incentive programs, and believe ONC's/HHS' re-definition of EHR technology puts it on a trajectory to improve the quality and efficiency of health care in the U.S. But this recently-announced two-stage EHR technology certification plan bears all the marks of a hastily drawn up blueprint that, if rushed into production, could easily collapse of its own bureaucratic weight.

The new Proposed Rule puts vendors through the wringer, twice. As defined by ONC, vendors with "complete EHRs" and those with "EHR modules" will have to find an "ONC-approved testing and certification body" (ONC-ATCB) that will take them through a "temporary certification program" from now until end of 2011. Then in 2012, under a "permanent certification program," they'll have to switch over to a National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP)-accredited testing body for testing, after which they must seek an "ONC-approved certification body" (ONC-ACB, not to be confused with ONC-ATCB) that can provide certification. The ONC-ATCB will be accredited by ONC, but the ONC-ACBs will be accredited by an "ONC-approved accreditor" (ONC-AA).

Confused? This is just the start. We can't imagine many federal agency Notices of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) that have created, in a single document, more new acronyms. And the prose in the document can challenge even the most focused minds. For example, the drafters of the NPRM recognize that things could get a little complicated, saying:

"Should CMS finalize its proposed staggered approach for meaningful use stages, we recognize that some confusion within the HIT industry may arise during 2013 and 2014 because of this apparent inconsistency and the divergent use of the term “meaningful use.”

But, then they go on to clarify:

"We would anticipate, therefore, that ONC-ACBs would clearly indicate the certification criteria used when certifying Complete EHRs and/or EHR Modules, and identify certifications according to the calendar year and month rather than the meaningful use stage to reflect the currency of the certification criteria against which the Complete EHRs and/or EHR Modules have been certified. Consequently, if an eligible professional or eligible hospital were seeking to obtain a certified Complete EHR or certified EHR Module in 2014, for instance, that eligible professional or eligible hospital would look for Complete EHRs and EHR Modules certified in accordance with certification criteria current in 2014, rather than Complete EHRs and EHR Modules certified as meeting certification criteria intended to support meaningful use Stage 1, Stage 2, or Stage 3. We request comments on ways to ensure greater clarity in the certification of Complete EHRs and EHR Modules."

Got that? Glad they're requesting comments, though we're not sure where to start. The use of the word "staggered" to describe ONC's programs is apt: this new NPRM is going to leave a lot of people staggering, as in punch drunk.

We would like to see ONC and HHS abandon temporary certification in favor of a single, permanent certification process, even if it means delaying testing and certification until mid- or late 2011. The hurry appears to be related to the need to have at least some EHR technology tested and certified by the end of 2010, so at least some physicians and hospitals can meet the meaningful use criteria. That would require them to use "certified EHR technology" by the official start year for the incentive programs, 2011.

But we don't think this timetable makes sense any longer, and the rush may jeopardize the whole program. Between meaningful use, accreditation, testing, and certification, there are simply too many moving parts to implement and coordinate in too short a time.

Delays seem inevitable. For example, we know that the release of the meaningful use final rule will be postponed until early summer and perhaps longer due to the large number of comments received and their implications. A consortium of physician membership groups will soon recommend that the meaningful use criteria be simplified. It also predicts that many small and medium sized medical practices will sit on the sidelines during 2011 and 2012, rather than rush into risky attempts to meet the meaningful use requirements. In addition, CMS has said it won't be ready to accept EHR technology product and service data until 2012, at the earliest. That timeline could be ambitious by about a year.

The ONC/HHS interim final rule (IFR) may have inadvertently caused another kind of delay. It set initial standards and implementation specifications for EHR technology - we applauded this - endorsing a modular EHR technology approach that opens the door to industry innovation. But it will take time for market entrants to bring modules and components to their customers, and perhaps longer to integrate different EHR vendors' modules in plug-and-play fashion. In other words, by opening up the market, ONC/HHS created circumstances that will almost certainly delay the goals it seeks.

So what if, to get the certification process right, ONC were to postpone payments by one year? It would be worth it.

The "permanent certification" plan in this new NPRM is very reasonable. Under it, NIST would be involved in setting up the testing of EHR technology software under the auspices of the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program. A single accrediting body would be chosen by ONC/HHS to oversee, supervise, and accredit the certification entities, following established international standards, including the International Organization for Standardization's (ISO) standards 17011 and Guide 65, that have guided conformity assessment in numerous industries, and ISO 17025 that is used for assuring quality of testing and calibration laboratories.

So each vendor would follow an orderly progression: first, ensuring that the product meets the technical testing criteria and then, having passed those technical tests, moving on to certification. The stability of this process has much to commend it.

We're not alone in thinking that delaying the EHR incentives start date is a good idea. At a HIMSS session on Monday, March 1, Congressman Tom Price (R-Ga.), an orthopedic surgeon, said that ONC's delay in issuing guidance on the certification process has prompted him to organize Congressional members. They'll send a letter to federal officials asking to postpone the start date for for demonstrating meaningful use to qualify for incentive payments. Price said members of Congress are currently collecting signatures for the letter and could send it to HHS within a week.

David Blumenthal is smart, dedicated, and is hiring many talented, experienced people into ONC. But rushing ARRA/HITECH's policy and statute beyond what is humanly possible could ultimately be at cross-purposes with the very goals they're trying to achieve.

David C. Kibbe, MD, MBA and Brian Klepper, PhD write together about health care technology, innovation, market dynamics, and reform. Their collected writings can be found here.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"What a Disaster Looks Like"

In case you missed Peggy Noonan's column in the WSJ yesterday, let me suggest it is worth your time.

I think she hit the nail on the head:
It is now exactly a year since President Obama unveiled his health care push and his decision to devote his inaugural year to it—his branding year, his first, vivid year.

What a disaster it has been.

At best it was a waste of history's time, a struggle that will not in the end yield something big and helpful but will in fact make future progress more difficult. At worst it may prove to have fatally undermined a new presidency at a time when America desperately needs a successful one.

In terms of policy, his essential mistake was to choose health-care expansion over health-care reform. This at the exact moment voters were growing more anxious about the cost and reach of government. The practical mistake was that he did not include or envelop congressional Republicans from the outset, but handed the bill's creation over to a Democratic Congress that was becoming a runaway train. This at the exact moment Americans were coming to be concerned that Washington was broken, incapable of progress, frozen in partisanship.
You can read her full column here: "What a Disaster Looks Like--ObamaCare Will Have Been a Colossal Waste of Time If We Are Lucky."

Monday, March 1, 2010

After the Failure of Reform

After the Failure of Reform
by
Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe

The stalemate in the bi-partisan health care summit was cast the moment it was announced. Republicans demanded that the reform process start anew, and Mr. Obama insisted on the Senate bill as the framework going forward. The President may now offer a more modest reform bill that can demonstrate some progress on the health care crisis, but that remains to be seen.

We hoped the White House would seize the opportunity presented by Massachusetts’ election of Scott Brown to begin again, huddling away from the lobbyists to develop a new set of provisions that would include reasonable Republican elements, like medical liability reform, as well as other meaningful cost reduction provisions excluded from the first round of bills: pricing/quality transparency, a move away from fee-for-service reimbursement, and the re-empowerment of primary care.

They took a different path. As Ezra Klein speculated in the Washington Post, Mr. Obama and his advisers may believe that, with the 2010 elections bearing down on Congress, there is too little time to begin again.

But this is a questionable political calculation. The reform process soured the American people and American business on the health care bills. A January 27 Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health (NBGH) survey found that 71% of employers believe the bills "will increase the overall cost of health care services in the United States." A February 11 Rasmussen survey found that 61% of voters think the bills should have been scrapped and the process started over.

And no wonder. Over the past year, the legalized bribery that is special interest lobbying was fully on display, with members of both parties (but led by the Democrats) taking contributors' money with a gusto unprecedented since the Republican feeding frenzy set off by Newt Gingrich's K-Street Project. A new report from the Center for Public Integrity shows that "more than 1,750 companies and organizations hired about 4,525 lobbyists — eight for each member of Congress — to influence health reform bills in 2009." Together, they spent $1.2 billion on health care, more than one-third of the $3.47 billion spent by special interests in 2009 to buy influence over policy.

And then there was the brazen political deal making. Mary Landrieu brought $300 million in federal aid home to Louisiana for voting with the Democratic Leadership, which the GOP promptly dubbed "the Louisiana Purchase." Ben Nelson got the Feds to pay for most of Nebraska's Medicaid expansion...in perpetuity. And, on the eve of the Massachusetts Senatorial election, the White House cut a deal that exempted unions from the tax on "Cadillac health plans" until 2018.

The resulting reform provisions - a cynical combination of expert advice, uncompromising ideology and donor quid pro quos - would have extended entitlements while rescuing the industry at the top of a financial bubble, exacerbating the cost growth problem during a recession by replacing dwindling private funding with public dollars. At the same time, the bills specifically avoided committing to approaches that could wring excessive cost from the system.

In truth, either passing or blocking such poor bills would have had little impact on the increasingly threatening crisis. Short of starting over, American health care will continue to face some very harsh realities. More individual and corporate purchasers, particularly small employers, will be priced out of coverage as health care costs explode. This erosion in mainstream coverage is translating to a reduction in total health plan premium - the engine of the health care economy - and to escalating uncompensated care cost loads throughout the system. A plummeting number of insured patients will find it harder and harder to pay for a rapidly growing number of uninsureds and under-insureds.

These are recipes for instability and disaster. And as health care - the nation's largest economic sector, representing one dollar in six and one job in eleven - becomes increasingly unstable, so does the larger US economy.

Americans are increasingly aware that a government in which both parties are compromised by political ideologies and special interests will likely leave them to their own devices in dealing with health care. American business had, to a great extent, put health care benefits decisions on hold until reform was complete. Now it is resigned to continuing to cope with that burden, but with a renewed commitment to innovation. A February 22nd Towers Watson/NBGH survey found that "83% of companies have already revamped or expect to revamp their health care strategy within the next two years, up from 59% in 2009," a clear sign that businesses now think they need to act on their own behalves. (Of course, most individual Americans don't have that latitude.)

One thing is clear. Without reform as it was constituted and the subsidies it promised, the industry faces an onslaught of actions from the marketplace that will focus on its excesses, drive down reimbursement, and hold it more accountable. A long list of innovations - re-empowered primary care; data collaboratives that identify and then create incentives for making the best choices; new technologies like minimally invasive surgeries, point-of-care testing, and clinical decision support tools; medical tourism; clinical groupware; check lists; Health 2.0 business-to-business ventures that streamline health care processes - are now proving they can improve the quality of care while reducing cost.

The result is inescapable. No system this far out of balance can remain unchanged indefinitely. So long as it was influencing the policy process, the health care industry would never course correct in ways that are in our national interest. But as the environment continues to intensify, the market will be driven to embrace and integrate these solutions. One way or another, the health industry is in for real change over the next few years.

Meanwhile, until America meaningfully addresses cost and access through policy, proper health care will continue to be out of reach to many and will threaten many more with personal financial ruin. It will continue to sap the nation's economic strength, and compromise our efforts to lead and compete internationally.

Which is why the President should begin again, and make achieving serious health care policy reform a dedicated goal. In the process, he could challenge special interest influence over policy, and work to refocus the political process on the common interest. We believe the American people can see how the current paradigm is corroding our nation, and would rally behind this approach. More to the point, this was the premise of Mr. Obama's election. The American mainstream is waiting for him to assert his leadership in this way.

Health care reform has stalled and possibly failed for the moment. But the stakes are so great for America that failure cannot be an option.

Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe write together on health care reform, market dynamics, innovation and technologies.
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