Whitehouse Pushes for Medicare to Pay for Person-Centered Care

Published on July 11, 2016 in Pawtucket Times

At a June hearing of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse calls for improving care for over 90 million Americans with advanced illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and heart disease. On the day of this Aging panel hearing, the Rhode Island Senator unveiled his legislative proposal, “Removing Barriers to Person-Centered Care Act,” at this panel hearing that would promote better coordination between health care providers, and place greater emphasis on the care preferences of Medicare beneficiaries with advanced illnesses.

The hearing, titled “The Right Care at the Right Time: Ensuring Person-Centered Care for Individuals with Serious Illness,” explored ways to improve the quality and availability of care and examined care models that are helping people with serious illness and their families.

Having Important Life Conversations

The June 23 hearing pulled together witnesses who called for “about the need for families and health care providers to prioritize these important life conversations, so that individuals’ wishes are known and person-centered care is prioritized,” noted U.S. Senator Susan Collins, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging. In her opening statement the Maine Senator called for federal policies to “support efforts to relieve suffering, respect personal choice, provide opportunities for people to find meaning and comfort during serious illness, and – most important – remain in control of their own care.”

Advance care planning conversations to a patients’ physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being are important in the care of a patient, says Collins. However, studies reveal that less than one-third of physicians have reported that their practice or health care system has a formal program in place to assess patients’ goals or preferences, she notes.

Collins also shared a personal story of a close friend who benefited from the person-centered care she received while she was a patient at the Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough, Maine. “Despite her serious illness, because of hospice care her days were filled with visits from friends and families and many joyful moments, and she was surrounded by her family when she died peacefully,” she said.

“I’ve heard from Rhode Islanders about how difficult it can be for patients battling serious, advanced illnesses to get the care and respect they want,” said Whitehouse.

Whitehouse noted that “We can do better by these patients. Because so many of the rules and incentives in our health care system are tied to the payment structure, we should design payment systems that support models of coordinated care that focuses on the full person. Payment systems should reward providers for honoring patients’ own preferences for their care.

As Dr. Atul Gawande, surgeon and author of the New York Times best-selling book, “Being Mortal, mentioned in his testimony, “people with serious, potentially life-limiting illnesses face substantial and increasing suffering, particularly during the last year of life. Medical care today typically exacerbates this suffering, often without any benefit of lengthened life. We have an opportunity to change this.”

“The goal is not a good death. Instead, the goal is to have as good a life as possible all the way to the very end,” say Dr. Gawande.

In her testimony, Amy Berman, a nurse and senior program officer at the John A. Hartford Foundation, who is living with stage IV inflammatory breast cancer stand stressed the importance of palliative care, which is designed to improve the quality of life for patients with serious illness.

“Palliative care is the best friend of the seriously ill,” said Berman, “Studies have shown that when palliative care is added at the beginning of a serious illness that people feel better and live longer.”

Finally, Dr. Kate Lally, Chief of palliative care for the Providence-based Care New England Health System, Medical Director of the Integra Accountable Care Organization, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Alpert Medical School of Brown University, urged Congress to consider legislation that would improve the quality, not just the quantity, of life of the seriously ill. “I feel blessed to do this work, and to be able to reflect with my patients on the life they have lived, their joys and regrets,” she said. “I feel I am able to share some of the most sacred moments of their life, and be at their side as they consider what is most important to them in their limited time.”

“The healthcare system as a whole, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, need to face growing expectations about how people with serious or terminal illnesses are treated,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We are investing in prevention and early treatment and getting better results. Ultimately, however, people will still face serious illness and palliative care. Person-centered care is the proper prescription, and we must strive to make sure that it’s available. We need to be vigilant when it comes to supporting a healthcare environment in which patients with serious illness feel they are well informed and can remain properly in control of their options. And while families still tend to avoid these discussions in advance, when the time is right proper guidance makes a world of difference.

“People form especially strong opinions about decisions made that may prolong their existence, but add little to the quality of lives and, in fact, can prolong suffering,” Connell added. “Conversations on this phase of life are critical and we applaud Senators Collins and Whitehouse for their contribution to this dialogue.”

Legislation to Support New Models of Coordinated Care

The thrust of Whitehouse’s legislative proposal is to promote better coordination between health care providers, and place greater emphasis on the care preferences of Medicare beneficiaries with advanced illnesses.

“Too many Rhode Island Medicare patients battling difficult illnesses are struggling to get the right care at the right time,” said Whitehouse. “We need to break down the barriers between patients and the care they need. Because so many of the rules and incentives in our health care system are tied to the payment structure, we should design payment systems that support new models of coordinated care that are focused on human beings and not some rule or regulation.”

Whitehouse’s legislation would establish a pilot program administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) made up of twenty “advanced care collaboratives” of affiliated health care providers and community-based social service organizations. Collaboratives would receive a planning grant to assess the needs of the population of patients it would serve; to purchase or upgrade health information technology to facilitate better coordination of care between providers; and to support education and training on documenting and communicating beneficiary treatment preferences and goals.

Once planning is complete, collaboratives would enter a three-year payment agreement with Medicare to provide coordinated, high-quality care for their target patient population. Under the terms of the pilot program, CMS would waive regulations to promote innovative care for patients with advanced illness.

Waivers would be granted to allow Medicare patients to receive hospice care and curative treatment at the same time. Currently CMS’s regulations force patients to choose one or the other for their terminal illness. Patients would be able to also receive Medicare coverage in a skilled nursing home without a consecutive three-day inpatient hospital stay. Under current Medicare rules, patients are often charged for skilled nursing care after they leave an inpatient hospital stay because they were hospitalized for observation rather than admitted to the hospital.

Whitehouse’s legislative proposal would also allow Medicare patients to receive home health services without the requirement that they be homebound. Under current rules, a patient’s condition must have progressed such that there “exists a normal inability to leave home,” denying these services to those who are seriously ill but still mobile. Finally, it would also allow nurse practitioners to sign home health and hospice care plans and certify patients for the hospice benefit. Right now, only doctors can do so, even though nurse practitioners are often the ones administering home health and hospice care. This forms another barrier for patients seeking these services, especially in underserved and rural areas.

According to Tom Koutsoumpas, Co-Chair of the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care’s (C-TAC) Board of Directors, Whitehouse’s legislative proposal is “a critical step forward to achieving high-quality, coordinated care for those with advanced illness. This legislation allows for important innovations in care delivery and removes obstacles to support patients throughout the care continuum.”

Congressional Panel Looks Over Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 20, 2016

Last Wednesday’s hearing of House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee signals the panel’s interest to bring Medicare, a federal health insurance program for people age 65 and over, into the 21st century to meet the needs of its current 55.3 million beneficiaries.

At the March 16 hearing, Chairman Pat Tiberi (R-OH), stated that “Today’s seniors [are] inundated with an array of confusing deductibles, coinsurance and copayments with no protection from high health care costs unless they enroll in a private plan. Despite major improvements and innovations in the health care sector that have transformed how care is delivered, traditional Medicare has barreled through the last 50 years on the same trajectory of increased costs and little innovation.”

In addition to the structural challenges facing the program, critical parts of Medicare are expected to run out of money by 2026. In other words, the benefits Americans were promised stand to disappear if policymakers don’t act soon, says Tiberi.

Putting the Spotlight on Medicare

Tiberi’s March 16 Health Panel hearing, entitled “Preserving and Strengthening Medicare,” held in room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building, brought together three witnesses to discuss ways to sustain the nation’s Medicare program and to keep it from going bankrupt. From both sides of the aisle and expert witnesses all agreed that the federal government’s current approach to delivering high-quality health care is not working. As a result of an outdated Medicare program and harmful Obamacare policies, today’s seniors “must navigate a disjointed program, face rising health care costs, and have fewer healthcare choices,” says the GOP panel chairman.

“Of federal entitlements, Medicare presents the most difficult challenges,” says Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Robert Moffit, warning that the Trust Fund “faces insolvency in 2026.”

At the hearing, Moffit gave his fix for revamping Medicare that have bipartisan support and promise to shore up the ailing entitlement program. He called for the Medicare program to be simplified by combining Parts A and B – including catastrophic coverage, an out-of-pocket cap, a single deductible, and uniform coinsurance in a single plan along with bringing reforms to Medigap coverage. Also, retargeting Medicare benefits to low-income enrollees can provide assistance to lower-income enrollees. Increasing Medicare’s eligibility age to 67 (the same eligibility age for Social Security) along with encouraging innovation and cultivating competition through Premium Support can put the brakes to rising program costs.

When it comes to simplifying Medicare and incorporating catastrophic coverage, Tiberi had called the need for reform a “no-brainer.” Moffitt overwhelmingly agreed, stating, “It is a no-brainer. It is absolutely a no-brainer … [seniors] do not have protection from the most important thing that health insurance should deliver, which is that ultimate protection.”

As Moffit explained, the lack of catastrophic coverage in Medicare not only puts financial strain on the beneficiary, but it also causes a significant increase in unnecessary health care spending.

Coming Up with a Commonsense Approach

In her testimony, Katherine Baicker, Harvard University Professor of Health Economic and serves on the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, also called for commonsense solutions, specifically focused on the need for increased competition. She heighten the role that Medicare Advantage program plays in promoting innovation, as well as providing more seniors flexibility, choice, and quality at an affordable cost.

Baicker emphasized, “A thriving and competitive Medicare Advantage program can be a vital contributor to high quality beneficiary care in a sustainable health care system.”

When Baicker was asked which Obamacare provisions Congress should work to immediately repeal in an effort to protect Medicare Advantage, she replied, “I would like to see the cap on quality bonuses removed … and removing the double bonus for quality so that you’re appropriately rewarding plans for delivering the high-quality care that beneficiaries are seeking out.”

Finally, Stuart Guterman, senior scholar in residence at
AcademyHealth, told the panel that he believes the nation’s largest purchaser of health care can do more to ratchet up quality, enhance quality and coordinate care and control costs. “Because of Medicare’s unique position, it can be an important testing ground for cost and quality innovations. Policies have been put in place that encourage such development, including the expanding the power of the Secretary of Health and Human Services to put pilot programs on a ‘fast track’ and to work with private payers and providers to establish multi-payer initiatives.”

At the conclusion of the two hour hearing, like Baicker, Tiberi stressed the importance of bolstering support for Medicare Advantage, which serves approximately one-third of seniors today. Obamacare cut billions of dollars from Medicare Advantage and redirected those resources toward a one-size-fits-all, Washington-run entitlement, he says.

Tiberi also noted, “If we continue to berate a system that has been widely successful…I don’t think that’s a really good way to try to figure out how we bester serve patients, seniors, in a more cost-effective value-added, comprehensive way.”

Watching from the Sidelines

But, one aging group expressed strong concerns about the Health Panel’s look at Medicare. In his released statement, Max Richtman, President/CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security Medicare (NCPSSM), viewed the Health Panel hearing as “an Orwellian political exercise in which politicians say preserve when they actually mean privatize, and strengthen when they mean slash.”

“Republicans in the House envision a future in which millions of seniors will lose their guaranteed Medicare benefits in favor of a privatized CouponCare system in which they receive a government coupon to try and buy private insurance. Millions of seniors in Medicaid will lose their benefits due to block-granting to states without providing the resources to pay for it. The repeal of the Affordable Care Act will leave tens of millions without insurance and strip benefits from seniors in Medicare,” says Richtman in NCPSSM’s statement.

Furthermore, “The Republican leadership has offered no plans to improve benefits in Medicare or make reforms to reign in the skyrocketing price of drugs and healthcare costs system wide. Instead, the GOP vision for seniors in Medicare is they must just do more with less. Stagnant wages are grinding away at the middle class’s ability to save for retirement. Many employers have significantly scaled back or eliminated the traditional retirement benefits offered to their employees. As a result, current and future retirees simply cannot afford proposals to cut benefits, raise the eligibility age or privatize the program,” says in the NCPSSM statement.

Finally, the aging advocate warns that the GOP majority on the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee majority is moving to replace the nation’s traditional Medicare program in favor of a fully privatized system, and the GOP controlled House is in the process of producing a budget that would do just that.

A Democratic or Republican President? Which political party controls the House and Senate? When the dust settles these answered questions may result in a restructuring of the Medicare program, that may either be strengthened and expanded or put on the budgetary chopping block by the new incoming President or Congress. It’s a no brainer…Sitting on the political sideline will ultimately be detrimental to your pocketbook and coverage you receive for your health care.

Bush Flip Flops on Politically Charged Medicare Statement

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 16, 2015

On July 30, aging advocates celebrated the fiftieth birthday of Medicare, the nation’s second largest social insurance program in the United States. This program provides health care to more than 53.8 million beneficiaries, with total expenditures of $613 billion in 2014.  Three weeks earlier one GOP Presidential candidate was not calling for the celebration of this golden anniversary, but for the dismantling of it.

On Wednesday, July 22, at a New Hampshire town hall meeting, GOP Presidential candidate Jeb Bush suggested that its time to “phase out” Medicare.  This event was sponsored by Americans for prosperity, a conservative group financially backed by the extremely right-wing Koch Brothers, who oppose President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the expansion of Medicare, minimum wage and anything else endorsed by Democrats and Progressives. . .

Bush Gets Cozy with Koch Brothers

At the town hall meeting, the former Florida Republican Governor called on the left to “join the conversation” of reforming Medicare.  “But they haven’t,” he charges.

GOP Presidential candidate Bush reminded the attending conservatives that over a year ago Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) offered his proposal in the 2015 Budget plan to replace the health program with vouchers and to increase the age eligibility from 65 to 67.  After this, television ads began to appear with a Ryan look-alike pushing a senior off a cliff in a wheelchair, he said, quipping “That’s their [liberals] response.”

Bush went on to say, “And I think we need to be vigilant about this and persuade people that our, when your volunteers go door to door, and they talk to people, people understand this. They know, and I think a lot of people recognize that we need to make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that have already received the benefits, that are receiving the benefits. But that we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something – because they’re not going to have anything.”

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) quickly seized Bush’s politically charged talking points, posting his comments at Americans for Prosperity event on YouTube.  The DNC jumped on the opportunity to send a message out to older Americans and liberal groups that the Florida Republican opposes a very popular domestic program.

One day later, on August 23, Bush worked hard to dodge intense political flack generated by his call for seriously “phasing out Medicare.” He explained that the Democrats and media took his previous comments out of context, he was only trying to reform Medicare to save it.

Medicare is an “actuarially unsound health system,” says Bush, who called for something to be done before skyrocketing costs burden future generations with $50 billion dollars of debt.

Keep the Status Quo

Bush’s campaigning in New Hampshire has revealed what many seasoned Republicans lawmakers know, there can be a swift political backlash to tinkering with the widely popular Medicare program.  A newly released national poll bluntly supports what AARP and other national aging advocacy groups and Democrats clearly know, the American public is quite happy with their Medicare program.

According to “Medicare and Medicaid at 50,” a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll released on last month, a majority of Americans and the vast majority of program beneficiaries view both Medicare positively.   Simply put, respondents had a strong preference for the status quo over major structural changes that would reshape how the programs serve beneficiaries, say researchers in their 27 page report.

The survey finds that a strong majority (70%) say that Medicare should continue to ensure all seniors get the same defined set of benefits. Far fewer (26%) say that the program should be changed to instead guarantee each senior a fixed contribution to the cost of their health insurance – a system known as premium support that has been proposed to address Medicare’s long-term financing challenges.

By a whopping two-to-one margin, majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents favor keeping Medicare as is rather than changing to a premium support program. Adults under 65 years old are somewhat more likely than seniors to favor premium support (28% compared to 18%), though large majorities in all age groups prefer Medicare’s current structure.

But, despite the public’s lack of support for this change, the survey says that majority (54%) worry that Medicare will not be able to provide the same level of benefits to future enrollees, and two thirds (68%) say that changes are needed to keep Medicare sustainable for the future.

Improved Outlook for Medicare

While Bush, his fellow Republican Presidential Candidates and Republican Congressional Leadership say that Medicare costs are bankrupting the nation, a recently released Medicare Trustee’s 2015 Annual Report states the opposite.  This program will remain solvent until 2030, unchanged from last years analysis, but with an improved long-term outlook from the 2014 report, says the report released in July.   Under this year’s projection, the trust fund will remain solvent 13 years longer than the Trustees projections in 2009, before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

“Growth in per-Medicare enrollee costs continues to be historically low even as the economy continues to rebound. While this is good news, we cannot be complacent as the number of Medicare beneficiaries continues to grow,” said Andy Slavitt, Acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). “That’s why we must continue to transform our health care system into one that delivers better care and spends our dollars in a smarter way for beneficiaries so Medicare can continue to meet the needs of our beneficiaries for the next 50 years and beyond,” he adds.

The Medicare Trustee’s 2015 Annual Report also noted that per-enrollee Medicare spending growth has been low, averaging 1.3 percent over the last five years. In 2014, Medicare expenditures were slightly lower for Part A and Part D, and higher for Part B than previously estimated. Over the next decade, and partially due to the cost-containment provisions in the Affordable Care Act, per-enrollee Medicare spending growth (4.2 percent) is expected to continue to be lower than the overall growth in overall health expenditures (5.1 percent).

Over the years, Republican Congressional Lawmaker efforts have been largely unsuccessful in changing a very popular Medicare program.  As Bush found out during his politicking in the granite state, touching Medicare can have instant negative political consequences.

Once the GOP whittles down its 16 presidential candidates to a chosen standard-bearer to push its conservative agenda in the upcoming 2016 Presidential elections, the party must reexamine its position of scrapping the existing Medicare program.  Recognizing future challenges in the nation’s health care system, AARP throws commonsense ideas into the national debate as to what is the best way of strengthening Medicare.  The Washington, D.C. aging advocacy group calls for lowering prescription costs, improving health care coordination, and cracking down on over-testing, waste and fraud.

As AARP suggests, simple fixes can lower costs, but it also continues health coverage to the program’s current and future beneficiaries.  That’s the way to reform a widely popular domestic program.  By small incremental steps.

 

“Doc Fix” Law Brings Permanent Changes to Medicare Physician Payments

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 19, 2015

Congress put aside its fierce partisan bickering and came together to pass H.R. 2 – the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA). This week President Obama took the opportunity to sign the legislation package into law.

The Congressional fix repeals and replaces the flawed Medicare physician reimbursement system known as the sustainable growth rate or Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR). For the past 13 years, physicians have faced the possibility of an arbitrary cut in their Medicare payments unless Congressional lawmakers passed a so-called “Doc.fix” Medicare bill. Since 2003, Congress has passed 17 short-term bills to block these cuts in Medicare doctors’ fees that were called for under the existing law.

On April 14, the U.S. Senate passed the MACRA by a whopping 92 to 8 (the House passing its version of the bill in late March by a large margin, 392-37). Two days later, at an outdoor signing ceremony in the Rose Garden, President Obama signed the legislation into law, with the House bill brokers, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in attendance. .

A Permanent Fix Prevents Payment Cuts

Just hours before a cut in reimbursement that would take place this week, a rare bipartisan Congressional effort prevented a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to occur. It’s a permanent fix. And the new law extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which has provided coverage to millions of American children.

At the signing, Obama called the passage “a milestone for physicians, and for the seniors and people with disabilities who rely on Medicare for their health care needs,” noting that it would also strengthen the nation’s health care delivery system for the long run.

Obama stated this new law “creates incentives to encourage physicians to participate in new, innovative payment models that could further reduce the growth in Medicare spending while preserving access to care.”

According to the Center for Medicare Advocacy (CMA), a national nonprofit, nonpartisan law group that provides education, advocacy and legal assistance to older people and people with disabilities, the estimated cost of the new law is roughly $214 billion over 10 years. CMA says roughly half (approximately $35 of the total $70 billion over 10 years) will come from Medicare beneficiaries through changes that will increase their out-of-pocket costs for health care.(through means testing of higher-income Medicare beneficiaries, increased Part B premiums, and added deductibles to Medigap plans purchased in the future.”

CMA adds that the nation’s pharmaceutical and insurance industries were not required to pay for any of this law, although doing so would have paid for a major portion of the SGR replacement.

On the Back of Medicare Beneficiaries

Aging advocacy groups, including the Center for Medicare Advocacy and AARP, failed in their attempts to improve the Senate bill Medicare beneficiaries, including a repeal of the annual therapy caps, raising eligibility standards for low-income programs and permanently extending outreach and education funding for critical programs aimed at low-income beneficiaries. The Senate bill passed without amendments.

While many gave thumbs up to the new law, Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC –based National Committee to Preserve Medicare and Medicaid, sees big problems with MACRA. “The Senate ‘Doc Fix’ vote has traded one bad policy for another, shifting the costs of Congress’ failed Medicare payment formula for physicians to seniors who can least afford to foot that bill. Contrary to claims by supporters, on both sides of the aisle, this ‘doc fix’ will hit millions of seniors who aren’t ‘wealthy’ by any stretch of the imagination. Seniors at all income levels who are already paying steep premiums for Medigap plans to help control their health care costs will now be hit with even higher costs. Forty-six percent of all Medigap policy holders have incomes of $30,000 or less.”

Richtman added, “Medicare beneficiaries will also be forced to contribute nearly $60 billion in premiums over the next decade thanks to passage of this so-called ‘fix.’

It’s no surprise that conservatives applaud this legislation as ‘the first real entitlement reform in two decades’ because it fulfills their political goal of shifting costs to seniors, cutting benefits and expanding means-testing to push Medicare further and further away from being the earned benefit seniors have long valued and depended on.”.

“Trading a bad deal for doctors for a bad deal for seniors is not a legislative victory and it is a surprising move from so many in Congress who have previously vowed to protect Medicare from harmful benefit cuts and seniors from cost-shifting,” says Richtman. .

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins also expressed strong disappointment in the Senate not passing an amendment that would have removed Medicare’s arbitrary cap on physical therapy, speech language pathology, and occupational services. “Many Medicare patients, particularly stroke victims and people with Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis would have benefited,” says Jenkins. With a majority of the Senate agreeing with this amendment, Jenkins says that AARP will continue to lobby to remove the arbitrary coverage cap.

But, Jenkins sees the positives. “Passage of MACRA moves Medicare in the right direction toward better quality health care and greater transparency for patients. These changes will benefit Medicare beneficiaries, as well as physicians and other providers, hospitals, and the overall health care system,” she says.
.
Through the enactment of MACRA Congress put aside its political differences that made a permanent fix to a flawed law. If you can do it once, let’s see our lawmaker do this again, to provide improved programs and services to our nation’s older population.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.