Author Archives: Susan Dentzer

Five Takeaways from the National Transparency Summit: An Issue Whose Time Has Come

Dec 9, 2013, 4:33 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

RWJF Senior Health Policy Adviser Susan Dentzer RWJF Senior Health Policy Adviser Susan Dentzer
  1. Transparency is an idea whose time has come—in large part because U.S. consumers are feeling so much pain from higher health costs. Health economists have long noted that U.S. health care prices are out of whack and that hospital chargemasters are nonsensical. Recent media coverage of these phenomena has captured widespread attention, perhaps because consumers are being hit so hard in the pocketbook. Since 2000, rising prices of hospital charges, professional services, drugs, devices and administrative costs, are responsible for 91 percent of the increases in health spending. Meanwhile, consumers’ out-of-pocket spending on health care, estimated at $329 billion this year, is projected to rise to $411 billion in 2020—a 25 percent increase. Almost three in five workers in small firms, and one in three workers in larger firms, are in a health plan with a deductible of at least $1,000 for single coverage, and in 2012, nearly one of five U.S. adults was contacted by a collection agency over unpaid medical bills.

    It’s well established that much of this money is being spent on health care of questionable value. With so much of their money—and their well-being—now at stake, “People are going to impose transparency on the health care industry,” predicted Leah Binder, a conference participant who heads the Leapfrog Group.

  2. Consumers and patients deserve to know far more about the costs and quality of care, but unless the two are linked, the public may continue with its longstanding delusion that the more expensive the care, the better the quality. Francois de Brantes, executive director of the Health Care Incentives Improvement Institute, noted that this widespread consumer misapprehension constitutes a “perverse incentive” for providers to continue to raise prices. Meanwhile, evidence of poor quality abounds. Martin Makary, a Johns Hopkins University physician and author of Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You And How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care, reminded the conference that preventable adverse events in hospitals are now the nation’s third leading cause of death annually. Many highly esteemed medical centers that end up routinely on “best hospital” lists don’t make the Joint Commission’s tally of top performers on basic quality and safety measures.

    Conference speakers agreed that there’s a pronounced need to combat these trends by developing more and better quality measures—especially those capturing care outcomes, and in particular, the outcomes that are most important to patients. Providers’ scores on these measures should then be funneled to purchasers and the public. “When consumers can really start to see that this hospital is better than this other hospital, or this doctor is better than that doctor, they will start to move,” said Bill Kramer, executive director for national health Policy at the Pacific Business Group on Health.

    Promising prototypes of the platforms that could communicate such information include winners of the RWJF Hospital Price Transparency Challenge—for example, Consumer Reports’ Hospital Adviser: Hip & Knee, which combines hospital quality rankings with Medicare cost data to help consumers pinpoint high value institutions where they could obtain surgery.

  3. Fostering greater transparency will be a long process, but there could be relatively quick “wins.” Many contracts between health insurers and providers contain “gag clauses” that bar both parties from disclosing claims data or prices paid for care. The clauses appear to serve both parties’ interests—helping to protect health plans’ proprietary interests in the provider networks they’ve established, and providers’ desire not to disclose how little they are willing to be paid. California has outlawed such clauses in health plan contracts, and many conference attendees agreed that other states should follow suit.

    What’s more, a total of 16 states have set up mandatory or voluntary all-payer claims data bases (APCDs) to pool statewide data on diagnoses, procedures, care locations, and provider payments. Conference participants agreed that more states should enact mandatory APCD’s, or use the regulatory authority in state insurance laws to compel insurers to issue payment and pricing data, as was done in Rhode Island.   More states could also follow the lead of Maine Quality Counts, the private, independent nonprofit organization that leads the RWJF-sponsored Aligning Forces for Quality coalition in the state, and which has aggregated health plan data for purchasers, consumers and providers to promote transparency on quality and cost.

  4. Transparency in the hands of consumers could be powerful—but in the hands of providers, even more so. Health care providers themselves often lack information about the quality and costs of their care. In particular, transparency can focus attention on the extreme amount of variation among providers in the care they provide. Glenn Steele, president and CEO of Geisinger Health System, described how Geisinger’s physicians came together to define “best practices” across a dozen hospital episodes of care, including heart bypasses, hip replacements, and gastric bypass surgery. As physicians in the system adhered to these guidelines, spending fell, by 20 percent  because doctors narrowed the indications for which they agreed that the procedures were warranted, and 15 percent by reducing unnecessary variation.
  5. Transparency is a necessary but insufficient tool for health system transformation. Openness about price and quality alone is “not going to be enough” to achieve the goals of the Triple Aim, observed Steven Brill, whose Time magazine article in March 2013 gave renewed focus to the issue. Payment reforms and “culture change” that shift providers from a volume-based to-value-based approaches remain critical. What’s more, consumers need to have health insurance benefit designs beyond high-deductible health plans that encourage them to make wise choices, such as “value-based” benefits” that help nudge them toward cost-effective care delivered by low-cost, high quality providers. Others at the conference warned that regulators must stay attuned to unintended consequences of health system transformation, such as the consolidation of health care providers that could lead to attempts to jack up prices.

    In the end, “We don’t win the game until the care gets better,” observed Jay Want, CEO of WantHealthcare. The nation also must ensure “that the transparency we seek will serve to change the way we think about health and wellness,” said RWJF president and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. “We need to use our skills, our imagination, our influence, and, yes, our hearts, to transform our nation into one that considers being healthy part of what it means to be an American.”

    To that end, transparency about the choices we face as a nation on the costs and quality of health and health care can give our society a critical lens to look within.

“An Educated Consumer is Our Best Customer:” Four Things to Know About Transparency In Health Care Prices, Costs and Quality

Nov 26, 2013, 10:14 AM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Watch our December 6, 2013, FirstFriday Google+ Hangout archive on transparency in health care.

Panic about high health insurance premiums. Fears about high-cost health-care providers being cut out of health plan networks. Worries that the health plans now available through health insurance exchanges won’t cover the care that patients need.

Welcome to the rollout of Obamacare....right?

Actually, with the exception of the new health insurance exchanges, all of the phenomena described above have a long history. Similar concerns were voiced loudly in the late 1980s and 1990s, when “managed care” in health insurance became a dominant force on the health care and health insurance landscape.

What’s amazing to people who lived through both of these eras—then and now—is how little has changed.  

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Enrollment through Health Insurance Exchanges Lagging, but Humming Along In Medicaid in Many States

Nov 4, 2013, 1:22 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Susan Dentzer Susan Dentzer

Amid the attention focused on technology flaws of the nation’s new health insurance exchanges, a happier story has received less attention:  the relative ease with which many Americans newly eligible for an expanded Medicaid program are now enrolling in coverage in many states. There’s a lesson in this story for all of us—that governments at many levels can, and often do, get things right. But sometimes it takes years of effort, policy changes, big dollar investments, and improved know-how to make all the processes work.

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The Exchanges Marathon Begins: Improving Health Care Quality and Lowering Cost

Oct 4, 2013, 4:37 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Peter Lee, director of Covered California Peter Lee, director of Covered California

When the starting gun went off this week for the nation’s health insurance exchanges, millions of Americans began shopping  for coverage. For those running the exchanges, or marketplaces, it was the start of a marathon.

That’s the conclusion that emerged from a Health Reporters’ Roundtable that the foundation sponsored in Washington recently. As top officials overseeing three of the state-based exchanges told reporters, signing people up for health insurance is just one of their tasks. Over time, the officials plan to use the power of their exchanges to help drive broader changes to improve the quality and value of U.S. health care.  

The foundation-funded State Health Reform Assistance Network is providing technical support to 11 states. Two of those states, Maryland and Rhode Island, were represented at the roundtable—the former by its exchange director, Christine Ferguson, and the latter by Maryland’s secretary of health and hygiene, Joshua Sharfstein, who chairs that state exchange’s board. A third state, California, isn’t receiving help from the network, but was represented by Peter Lee, the director of its exchange, Covered California.

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Rx for Delivery System Transformation: Satisfied Doctors Who Find More Joy in Practice

Aug 20, 2013, 4:32 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Susan Dentzer

In my last post, I wrote about what would best motivate physicians to transform health care: carrots, sticks or something else. The case for “something else” was made in a series of innovation sessions presented at a recent American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) Foundation forum. They focused on evolving health care delivery models aimed at increasing quality, decreasing cost and enhancing patient-centered care.

Readers of Daniel Pink’s book Drive will be familiar with his thesis about “Type I” human behavior: the kind that is less concerned with “the external rewards to which an activity leads and more with the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.” Many innovations presented at the forum echoed that theme—augmenting the satisfaction that doctors get from focusing most of their attention on helping patients.

Engaging doctors: At the forum, Craig Sammit, the CEO of Wisconsin-based Dean Health noted that “extrinsic” motivators, such as showing doctors how their relative performance data stacked up against their peers, had substantial impact in spurring improvement. But he observed that the measures that were most effective in transforming the way care is delivered  at Dean were those that helped make the organization “the best place for a physician to work.”

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Carrots, Sticks, or Something Else? Motivating Doctors to Transform Health Care

Aug 14, 2013, 2:14 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

craigsammitforumedited Craig Sammit, MD, president and CEO of Dean Health System, and Holly Humphrey, MD, dean for Medical Education at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine

An old joke has it that the doctor’s pen is the costliest technology in medicine, since money typically flows where physicians’ prescriptions and other orders decide that it should go. As a result, influencing these decisions is key to achieving the Triple Aim of better health and health care at lower cost.

But what’s more likely to influence doctors: external factors, such as bonuses for improving the quality of care, or internal factors, such as appealing to their sense of altruism or satisfaction with their work?  In other words, carrots, sticks, or something altogether different—what Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive, calls “our innate human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world”?

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The Latest Financial Scandal: Variations in Health Care

Jul 31, 2013, 9:54 AM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Susan Dentzer Susan Dentzer

Imagine the outrage if an investigation uncovered a decades-old scheme in which hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars were siphoned off to pay for health care of little to no value. That finding would probably mean that millions of Americans subjected to this unnecessary care could have been harmed as a result.

Guess what? An investigation—actually a new report from the Institute of Medicine—just did "uncover" such a scheme. And much of the original detective work was done by researchers at Dartmouth, supported in part through grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Insurance Exchanges Foster Competition, Consumers Stand to Benefit

Jul 18, 2013, 12:52 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Susan Dentzer
  • Health insurance for many individuals that is cheaper and better than what’s available now.
  • More competition among health insurers than ever before.
  • Partnerships between health plans and providers to deliver care at affordable cost.

These developments sound like the dreams of health reformers that fueled passage of the Affordable Care Act. But they’re proving to be reality now in many states—particularly in the 17 jurisdictions (including the District of Columbia) that are creating state-based health insurance exchanges, or “marketplaces.”

That’s the conclusion that emerges from analyses of the states participating in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s State Reform Assistance Network. Housed at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, the program provides technical assistance to 11 states implementing coverage expansions under the health reform law.

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New Role for Health Care Providers: ‘Hot-Spotting’ Unhealthy Communities?

Jun 28, 2013, 9:21 AM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

In his now legendary approach to urban medicine, physician and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantee Jeffrey Brenner, MD, pioneered the technique of hot spotting—making block-by-block maps of Camden, N.J., examining residents’ hospital costs and identifying the handful of patients who cycled in and out of those institutions and racked up stratospheric medical bills.

What if America’s hospitals and health systems used similar techniques to identify the nation’s poorest and least healthy communities—and then teamed up with local community development organizations to set them on a path to better health?

David Fleming, a physician who directs Seattle’s public health department, made that pitch recently to members of the Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America. National health reform, he said at the panel’s June 19 Washington meeting, affords an opportunity to nudge health care providers to reach outside their facilities to hot spot areas in need of health improvement. “The solutions to health in this country lie beyond the walls of the clinic and in our communities,” Fleming argued.

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Address Toxic Stress in Vulnerable Children and Families for a Healthier America

Jun 21, 2013, 1:43 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Susan Dentzer

“Speed kills,” warns the traditional highway sign about the dangers of haste and traffic deaths. Now, we know that stress kills, too.

Toxic stress, at any rate. The human body’s response to normal amounts of stress—say, a bad day at the office—is likely to be brief increases in the heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. But a toxic stress response, stemming from exposure to a major shock or prolonged adversity such as physical or emotional abuse, can wreak far more havoc.         

In children, science now shows that toxic stress can disrupt the developing brain and organ systems. The accumulated lifelong toll of stress-related hormones sharply raises the risk of chronic diseases in adulthood, ranging from heart disease and diabetes to depression and atherosclerosis.

Thus, the message from a panel of experts to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America was at once simple and challenging: Create a healthier environment for—and increase coping mechanisms and resilience in—the nation’s most vulnerable and stress-ridden children and families.

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