Five Worrisome Trends in Healthcare and the VA Seeks to Redirect Billions of Dollars into Private Care and the VA Access to Healthcare

50065252_1872612819535035_7021591760191094784_nAs the idiots in Congress still fight over the wall and continue to act like spoiled children we, the intelligent voters should be looking at healthcare delivery reality. What can we expect from these liberals and their cultural revolution? Joyce Frieden, the News Editor of MedPage Today pointed out last year that a reckoning is coming to American healthcare, said Chester Burrell, outgoing CEO of the CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield health plan, here at the annual meeting of the National Hispanic Medical Association.

Burrell, speaking on Friday, told the audience there are five things physicians should worry about, “because they worry me”:

  1. The effects of the recently passed tax bill.“If the full effect of this tax cut is experienced, then the federal debt will go above 100% of GDP [gross domestic product] and will become the highest it’s been since World War II,” said Burrell. That may be OK while the economy is strong, “but we’ve got a huge problem if it ever turns and goes back into recession mode,” he said. “This will stimulate higher interest rates, and higher interest rates will crowd out funding in the federal government for initiatives that are needed,” including those in healthcare.

Burrell noted that Medicaid, 60 million by Medicare, currently covers 74 million people and 10 million by the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), while another 10 million people are getting federally subsidized health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) insurance exchanges. “What happens when interest’s demand on federal revenue starts to crowd out future investment in these government programs that provide healthcare for tens of millions of Americans?”

  1. The increasing obesity problem.”Thirty percent of the U.S. population is obese; 70% of the total population is either obese or overweight,” said Burrell. “There is an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and coronary artery disease coming from those demographics, and Baby Boomers will see these things in full flower in the next 10 years as they move fully into Medicare.”
  2. The “congealing” of the U.S. healthcare system. This is occurring in two ways, Burrell said. First, “you’ll see large integrated delivery systems [being] built around academic medical centers — very good quality care [but] 50%-100% more expensive than the community average.”

To see how this affects patients, take a family of four — a 40-year-old dad, 33-year-old mom, and two teenage kids — who are buying a health insurance policy from CareFirst via the ACA exchange, with no subsidy. “The cost for their premium and deductibles, copays, and coinsurance [would be] $33,000,” he said. But if all of the care were provided by academic medical centers? “$60,000,” he said. “What these big systems are doing is consolidating community hospitals and independent physician groups, and creating oligopolies.”

Another way the system is “congealing” is the emergence of specialty practices that are backed by private equity companies, said Burrell. “The largest urology group in our area was bought by a private equity firm. How do they make money? They increase fees. There is not an issue of quality but there is a profound issue on costs.”

  1. The undermining of the private healthcare market. “Just recently, we have gotten rid of the individual mandate, and the [cost-sharing reduction] subsidies that were [expected to be] in the omnibus bill … were taken out of the bill,” he said. And state governments are now developing alternatives to the ACA such as short-term duration insurance policies — originally designed to last only 3 months but now being pushed up to a year, with the possibility of renewal — that don’t have to adhere to ACA coverage requirements, said Burrell.
  2. The lackluster performance of new payment models.”Despite the innovation fostering under [Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation] programs — the whole idea was to create a series of initiatives that might show the wave of the future — ACOs [accountable care organizations] and the like don’t show the promise intended for them, and there is no new model one could say is demonstrably more successful,” he said.

“So beware — there’s a reckoning coming,” Burrell said. “Maybe change occurs only when there is a rip-roaring crisis; we’re coming to it.” Part of the issue is cost: “As carbon dioxide is to global warming, the cost is to healthcare. We deal with it every day … We face a future where cutbacks in funding could dramatically affect the accessibility of care.”

“Does that mean we move to move single-payer, some major repositioning?” he said. “I don’t know, but in 35 years in this field, I’ve never experienced a time quite like this … Be vigilant, be involved, be committed to serving these populations.”

VA Seeks to Redirect Billions of Dollars into Private Care

Jennifer Steinhauer and Dave Phillipps reported that The Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing to shift billions of dollars from government-run veterans’ hospitals to private health care providers, setting the stage for the biggest transformation of the veterans’ medical system in a generation.

Under proposed guidelines, it would be easier for veterans to receive care in privately run hospitals and have the government pay for it. Veterans would also be allowed access to a system of proposed walk-in clinics, which would serve as a bridge between V.A. emergency rooms and private providers, and would require co-pays for treatment.

Veterans’ hospitals, which treat seven million patients annually, have struggled to see patients on time in recent years, hit by a double crush of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and aging Vietnam veterans. A scandal over hidden waiting lists in 2014 sent Congress searching for fixes, and in the years since, Republicans have pushed to send veterans to the private sector, while Democrats have favored increasing the number of doctors in the V.A.

If put into effect, the proposed rules — many of whose details remain unclear as they are negotiated within the Trump administration — would be a win for the once-obscure Concerned Veterans for America, an advocacy group funded by the network founded by the billionaire industrialists Charles G. and David H. Koch, which has long championed increasing the use of private sector health care for veterans.

For individual veterans, private care could mean shorter waits, more choices and fewer requirements for co-pays — and could prove popular. But some health care experts and veterans’ groups say the change, which has no separate source of funding, would redirect money that the current veterans’ health care system — the largest in the nation — uses to provide specialty care.

Critics have also warned that switching vast numbers of veterans to private hospitals would strain care in the private sector and that costs for taxpayers could skyrocket. In addition, they say it could threaten the future of traditional veterans’ hospitals, some of which are already under review for consolidation or closing.

 President Trump, who made reforming veterans’ health care a major point of his campaign, may reveal details of the plan in his State of the Union address later this month, according to several people in the administration and others outside it who have been briefed on the plan.

The proposed changes have grown out of health care legislation, known as the Mission Act, passed by the last Congress. Supporters, who have been influential in administration policy, argue that the new rules would streamline care available to veterans, whose health problems are many but whose numbers are shrinking, and also prod the veterans’ hospital system to compete for patients, making it more efficient.

“Most veterans chose to serve their country, so they should have the choice to access care in the community with their V.A. benefits — especially if the V.A. can’t serve them in a timely and convenient manner,” said Dan Caldwell, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America.

In remarks at a joint hearing with members of the House and Senate veterans’ committees in December, Mr. Wilkie said veterans largely liked using the department’s hospitals.

“My experience is veterans are happy with the service they get at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he said. Veterans are not “chomping at the bit” to get services elsewhere, he said, adding, “They want to go to places where people speak the language and understand the culture.”

Health care experts say that whatever the larger effects, allowing more access to private care will prove costly. A 2016 report ordered by Congress, from a panel called the Commission on Care, analyzed the cost of sending more veterans into the community for treatment and warned that unfettered access could cost well over $100 billion each year.

A fight over the future of the veterans’ health care system played a role in the ousting of the department’s previous secretary, David J. Shulkin, center.

Tricare costs have climbed steadily, and the Tricare population is younger and healthier than the general population, while Veterans Affairs patients are generally older and sicker.

Though the rules would place some restrictions on veterans, early estimates by the Office of Management and Budget found that a Tricare-style system would cost about $60 billion each year, according to a former Veterans Affairs official who worked on the project. Congress is unlikely to approve more funding, so the costs are likely to be carved out of existing funds for veterans’ hospitals.

At the same time, Tricare has been popular among recipients — so popular that the percentage of military families using it has nearly doubled since 2001, as private insurance became more expensive, according to the Harvard lecturer Linda Bilmes.

“People will naturally gravitate toward the better deal, that’s economics,” she said. “It has meant a tremendous increase in costs for the government.”

A spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Curt Cashour, declined to comment on the specifics of the new rules.

“The Mission Act, which sailed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and the strong backing of veterans service organizations, gives the V.A. secretary the authority to set access standards that provide veterans the best and most timely care possible, whether at V.A. or with community providers, and the department is committed to doing just that,” he said in an email.

Veterans’ services organizations have largely opposed large-scale changes to the health program, concerned that the growing costs of outside doctors’ bills would cannibalize the veterans’ hospital system.

Dr. Shulkin, the former secretary, shared that concern. Though he said he supported increasing the use of private health care, he favored a system that would let department doctors decide when patients were sent outside for private care.

The cost of the new rules, he said, could be higher than expected, because most veterans use a mix of private insurance, Medicare and veterans’ benefits, choosing to use the benefits that offer the best deal. Many may choose to forgo Medicare, which requires a substantial co-pay if Veterans Affairs offers private care at no charge. And if enough veterans leave the veterans’ system, he said, it could collapse.

Robert L. Wilkie, the secretary of veterans’ affairs, has repeatedly said his goal is not to privatize veterans’ health care.

One of the group’s former senior advisers, Darin Selnick, played a key role in drafting the Mission Act as a veterans’ affairs adviser at the White House’s Domestic Policy Council and is now a senior adviser to the secretary of Veterans Affairs in charge of drafting the new rules. Mr. Selnick clashed with David J. Shulkin, who was the head of the V.A. for a year under Mr. Trump and is widely viewed as being instrumental in ending Mr. Shulkin’s tenure.

Mr. Selnick declined to comment.

Critics, which include nearly all of the major veterans’ organizations, say that paying for care in the private sector would starve the 153-year-old veterans’ health care system, causing many hospitals to close.

“We don’t like it,” said Rick Weidman, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America. “This thing was initially sold as to supplement the V.A., and some people want to try and use it to supplant.”

Members of Congress from both parties have been critical of the administration’s inconsistency and lack of details in briefings. At a hearing last month, Senator John Boozman, Republican of Arkansas, told Robert L. Wilkie, the current secretary of Veterans Affairs, that his staff had sometimes come to Capitol Hill “without their act together.”

Although the Trump administration has kept details quiet, officials inside and outside the department say the plan closely resembles the military’s insurance plan, Tricare Prime, which sets a lower bar than the Department of Veterans Affairs when it comes to getting private care.

Tricare automatically allows patients to see a private doctor if they have to travel more than 30 minutes for an appointment with a military doctor, or if they have to wait more than seven days for a routine visit or 24 hours for urgent care. Under current law, veterans qualify for private care only if they have waited 30 days, and sometimes they have to travel hundreds of miles. The administration may propose for veterans a time frame somewhere between the seven- and 30-day periods.

Mr. Wilkie has repeatedly said his goal is not to privatize veterans’ health care, but would not provide details of his proposal when asked at a hearing before Congress in December.

Access to VA Health Services Now Better Than Private Hospitals?

So, the question is with the shift of funding to the privatization of VA care is access better? Nicole Lou, contributing writer for the MedPage noted that efforts to stir up access to Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals have cut down on wait times for new patient appointments, according to a report.

In 2014, the average wait for a new VA appointment in primary care, dermatology, cardiology, or orthopedics was 22.5 days, compared with 18.7 days in private sector facilities (P=0.20). Although these wait times were statistically no different in general, there was a longer wait for an orthopedics appointment in the VA that year (23.9 days vs 9.9 days for private sector, P<0.001), noted David Shulkin, MD, former VA secretary under President Trump, and now at the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, and colleagues.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that wait times in 2017 favored VA medical centers (17.7 days vs 29.8 days for private sector facilities, P<0.001). This was observed for primary care, dermatology, and cardiology appointments — but not orthopedics, which continued to produce appointment lags in the VA system (20.9 days vs 12.4 days, P=0.01), the authors stated.

“Although the results reflect positively on the VA, we intend to continue improving wait times, the accuracy of the data captured, and the transparency of reporting information to veterans and the public,” the researchers wrote.

Their study included VA medical centers in 15 major metropolitan areas and compared them with private sector facilities. Wait times were calculated differently based on VA records and secret shopper surveys, respectively, which was a limitation of the study, the team said.

Shulkin and colleagues found that VA wait times trended toward improvement in 11 of 15 regions, whereas private medical centers had significant increases in wait times in 12 of the 15.

Prompting the scrutiny over VA hospital wait times was a 2014 report showing that at least 40 veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA Health Care System in Arizona. Even worse, the wait times had apparently been deliberately manipulated to look better than they were.

“This incident damaged the VA’s credibility and created a public perception regarding the VA health care system’s inability to see patients in a timely manner,” Shulkin and co-authors said. “In response, the VA has worked to improve access, including primary care, mental health, and other specialty care services.”

Meanwhile, VA medical centers continue to suffer from staffing issues such as high turnover and employee vacancies in the tens of thousands.

The study authors noted a modest increase in the number of patients going to VA hospitals for the four services studied, although that number still stayed around five million per year.

From 2014 to 2017, patient satisfaction scores also increased by 1.4%, 3.0%, and 4.0% for specialty care, routine primary care, and urgent primary care, respectively (P<0.05 for all).

Another problem with the methodology of the study was that it failed to address how easily established patients could obtain return appointments, noted an accompanying editorial by Peter Kaboli, MD, MS, of Iowa City Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, and Stephan Fihn, MD, MPH, of the University of Washington in Seattle and JAMA Network Open’s deputy editor.

Furthermore, they pointed out, a patient returning for a 6-month follow-up visit may show up in the scheduling system as having a long delay.

“As this study highlights, measuring access to healthcare remains dodgy. Even so, the seven million veterans who receive care from the VA seem able to obtain routine and urgent care in a time frame that is on par for other Americans despite increasing demand, although there are and always will be exceptions,” Kaboli and Fihn noted.

“As resources in the VA are increasingly diverted to purchase care in the community, it remains to be seen if access to healthcare services can be maintained while access in the private sector continues to deteriorate,” they continued, adding that virtual care may be one way to improve access given the non-infinite supply of face-to-face appointments.

The VA experience seems to say that privatization of healthcare delivery is the way to go with improved access to care. So, onward to discuss universal healthcare and single payer systems of health care delivery. What would they all look like and what are the strategies to develop any of these systems.

 

 

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