Now Viewing: Health Care Costs

How Cataract Surgery Helped Me See the Future of Health Transparency

Dec 12, 2014, 1:34 PM, Posted by Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

Robotic Surgery

More and more health care costs are shifted to consumers. So why, asks RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, can’t we easily discover and compare health care costs and quality?

Here’s how the subject came up. Recently, Lavizzo-Mourey underwent cataract surgery at an outpatient center in Philadelphia. No matter whom she talked to—and she was shunted from one person to the next—she could not learn the all-in cost of the procedure.

Lavizzo-Mourey finally did manage to find out the cost of her surgery: $2,000, including co-pays and deductible. But the whole episode, she says, is illustrative of a larger problem.

Writing in a recent blog post on the professional social networking site LinkedIn, Lavizzo-Mourey asks: “Could there be a clearer example of the lack of transparency in the U.S. health care system?”

To get the information we need, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is funding a set of studies to help us better understand how greater price transparency influences consumer and provider decisions. “And in March,” Lavizzo-Mourey adds, “we will host a summit on transparency that will attempt to come up with more answers."

Along those lines, RWJF last year issued a challenge to developers to devise consumer-friendly tools to parse the abundant hospital price data released by Medicare. The winner? Consumer Reports, for the Consumer Reports Hospital Adviser: Hip & Knee, a personalized app for health care consumers seeking the best hospital for hip or knee replacement surgery.

You can help us move the cost and quality needle forward. Do you know of any other price/quality apps or tools? Let us know.

Transparency in Health Care? Sadly, That's Not How We Roll.

Nov 7, 2014, 3:13 PM, Posted by Andrea Ducas

Patrick Toussaint Andrea’s husband, Patrick Toussaint, using his super strength to tighten a lug nut.

What do changing a flat tire and scheduling a surgical procedure have in common? Nothing. And that’s the problem.

Last month, on our way home to New Jersey from Boston, my husband and I got a flat tire. And while this is a dreaded possibility on any road trip, it happened to us at 9 p.m. on a Sunday. No shops were open, and with an early morning flight just a few hours away we didn’t have time to wait for AAA.

At this point it’s important to emphasize that neither my husband nor I know a thing about cars. We didn’t even know we had a jack or spare in the trunk until we called my uncle, who teased us (“You have a new car! Everything you need is in the back!”) and gave us the pep talk we needed. So we pulled out our owner’s manual.

I’m not sure who that manual is written for, but it clearly isn’t for us. After five minutes of thinking I’d need to call the airline and book a later flight, I realized: There is a better way. I pulled out my iPhone, Googled “how to change a flat tire,” and called up a YouTube video and a step-by-step, picture-guided Wikihow article. Within 20 minutes, the tire was changed, our spare was filled with air to 60 psi, and we were on our way.

So what does any of this have to do with health care? Unfortunately, not very much.

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Helping Physicians Do What They Got Into Medicine to Do

Sep 25, 2014, 10:02 AM, Posted by Anne Weiss

Two women are at a desk, one is counting money

“Health care was never intended to be the behemoth it's become. It was intended to be the place where people could get help for medical problems so they can return to living a healthy life.”

For me, this statement—from an internist I met last month—is a refreshing take on the value of the health care system in a Culture of Health. It’s an inspiring vision for those of us focused on the usual litany of problems: Our health care system costs too much, and delivers outcomes that lag behind other countries to such a degree that it threatens our economic health and social fabric.

Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) invested in five markets—Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado, and the St. Louis region—where there is the will and ability to measure health care costs and quality, and use that information to drive change. In each of these markets, we’re working with multi-stakeholder organizations who are members of the Network for Regional Health Improvement (NHRI). Each organization will produce reports that compare the cost of treating patients in each primary care practice in their market. (You can learn more about this project here.)

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Exactly How Much DOES That Appendectomy Cost?

Aug 1, 2014, 4:29 PM, Posted by Andrea Ducas

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Want to know one of health care’s dirty little secrets? While we know how much the country spends on care each year, we have little understanding of what it actually costs to provide care.

Think, for example, about an appendectomy. What does it really “cost” the health care system to perform that procedure? The answer is complex, and of course it includes everyone’s time—from the surgeon to housekeeping staff—and it also includes the drugs, equipment, space, and overhead associated with your stay.

The cost of your visit will also depend on who is delivering your care. A consult with a registered nurse (RN) is less costly to the hospital than one with a physician.

Then, consider insurance. If the price your carrier pays for that RN consult is $85, but the price another carrier pays is only $65, what does it actually cost the hospital—and how do those variances affect what you pay both out-of-pocket and for insurance premiums? Moreover, health care providers are currently not trained to think about the costs of the care they provide—and often have no incentive or means to even consider those costs.

These complexities have made it difficult to reform the way we purchase and pay for health care.

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What’s Keeping the Cardiac Polypill off the Market?

Jul 3, 2014, 10:05 AM, Posted by Sheree Crute

Lisa Ranson Lisa Ranson

No matter how busy Lisa Ranson’s morning gets, somewhere between preparing breakfast and suiting up for work or play, she takes the first cluster of eight pills that protect her from a family legacy of heart disease so powerful she had bypass surgery at 34.

Even at that young age, she was no stranger to daily prescription regimens. Growing up, she watched her dad struggle. These days they compare notes. “He’s survived two heart attacks, had bypass surgery, and he has a pacemaker,” Ranson says.

An avid walker who treks three and a half miles most days near her home in the small town of Dunbar, W.Va., Ranson is now 51 and in great shape. But her healthy lifestyle is no match for her genetic inheritance—she is one of 34 million people living with hypercholesterolemia.

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Choosing Wisely: Intensifying the Spotlight On Health Care of Dubious Value

Apr 30, 2014, 8:52 AM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

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“If you study the kinds of decisions that people make, and the outcomes of those decisions, you’ll find that humanity doesn’t have a particularly impressive track record,” write the brothers Chip and Dan Heath in their masterful book Decisive. Invoking research from psychology and behavioral economics, the Heath brothers demonstrate how people often make decisions by looking at what’s in the “spotlight”—the information immediately before them, sparse as it may be.

But what’s in that spotlight “will rarely be everything we need to make a good decision,” the Heaths counsel. To choose wisely, we need to broaden our focus, or “shift the light.”

That’s especially true in health care, where the consequences of any decision, poorly made or not, may be life or death.

Enter Choosing Wisely, a program that shifts the spotlight onto many of the tests and treatments that both providers and patients should question, if not abandon completely.

(Editor's note: On May 2, 2014, RWJF held a First Friday GoogleHangout to explore how Choosing Wiselysprang from critical examination of the overuse of medical care in the United States—and how it’s changing how care is delivered in communities. Watch an archived version of the Hangout, above.)

This two-year old campaign, launched in 2012 by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation, has identified more than 250 tests and procedures that warrant scrutiny because they are ineffective, unnecessary, unsupported by evidence, or possibly harmful. Even so, physicians and other clinicians perform them regularly, and patients sometimes request them.

Fifty-four of the nation’s premier medical specialty societies have joined the Choosing Wisely effort, and most of these have contributed to their own lists of questionable care. This week, three non-physician groups will also sign on to the campaign. Among the categories of dubious care identified on various societies’ “top five” lists are these:

  • Excessive imaging: CT or MRI scans for low back pain shouldn’t be ordered within the first six weeks of treating a patient, unless there are severe neurological symptoms, while patients with minor head injuries shouldn’t routinely get a head CT unless they have a skull fracture or are bleeding. Excessive scans expose patients to radiation that increases their lifetime risk of cancer.
  • Unnecessary medications: Antibiotics are not effective against viruses and should not be prescribed for viral illnesses such as sinus infections or bronchitis, particularly in children. But doctors say they frequently feel pressured to write these prescriptions by anxious parents.
  • Superfluous screening or diagnostic tests: Patients with no symptoms of heart disease and are at low risk of developing it are still frequently subjected to electrocardiograms when they get routine physical exams, despite evidence that this routine screening doesn’t improve patient outcomes. By the same token, hospitalized patients may have their blood drawn countless times for costly diagnostic testing that often yield little useful information, and can contribute to anemia.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is supporting Choosing Wisely with a $2.5 million grant to extend the influence of these lists beyond medical specialty societies and into communities. State medical societies in Texas, Oregon, Minnesota, Tennessee, Washington, and Massachusetts have undertaken steps to promote the lists, including developing continuing medical education courses for doctors. So have ten regional health collaboratives, such as Maine Quality Counts and the Washington Health Alliance outside Seattle (both are among RWJF’s Aligning Forces For Quality communities as well).

Consumer Reports and AARP are among organizations that have taken the lead in publicizing the lists for consumers. All told, these efforts have reached an estimated 170,000 or more physicians and 16 million-plus consumers. There’s even a Wikipedia page for the campaign, with the lists of tests and procedures curated by a “Wikipedian” in residence.

Caveats: Although more than 200 articles have been written about aspects of the campaign in medical journals, there is as yet little hard evidence that is has reduced superfluous care. A recent perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that the specialty societies’ lists “vary widely in terms of their potential impact on care and spending”—and suggests that some societies omitted lucrative elective procedures, such as knee replacement surgery, that also aren’t appropriate for many patients.

The bottom line: As a nation, we need to shine a spotlight on an even broader range of questionable health care in the future. But for now, the Choosing Wisely campaign is illuminating plenty of “care” that we can clearly pass up with impunity as we pursue our real objective:  better health.

 

ACOG Issues New Guidelines to Curb Overuse of C-Sections

Feb 27, 2014, 5:27 PM, Posted by Tara Oakman

Tara Oakman Tara Oakman

While I knew that having children would turn my world upside down, I assumed that this transition would be more metaphorical than literal. Ha! Moments before I was discharged from a Maryland hospital a few days after my twins were delivered by c-section, the ground shook violently. My husband had just left the hospital room to get the car, so I was alone with two newborns and a painful surgical wound. All I could think was ... “This is an earthquake! I have two babies. And I can’t move!

One of the scariest parts of the experience was that I couldn’t respond to my maternal instinct to quickly pick up and protect my babies because I had just had major abdominal surgery. Granted, managing in an earthquake is not a common part of recovery from a C-section, but there can be many other dangerous complications that occur more frequently, such as infection, emergency hysterectomy or heavy blood loss. It can also lead to greater difficulty with breastfeeding. C-sections are also very costly, even if there are no major complications. They are much more expensive than vaginal delivery.

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Health Policy Wit or Wit-Out Consumer Input

Dec 13, 2013, 10:56 AM, Posted by David Adler

Consumers Union RWJF Health Care Cost Conference for Advocates Consumer advocates brainstorm about rising health care costs.

Whether you’re a Philadelphia native, a visitor, or just a cheesesteak aficionado, you need to know how to order. When you get to the front of the line at one of Philadelphia’s long-established cheesesteak stands you order your sandwich wit or wit-out. Either with onions or without. Whatever you do, don’t stand at the window and first think about this important decision. Let’s just say it won’t end well. But, as much as I love cheesesteaks (in moderation of course) this is not the most important wit or wit out decision we have to make as a country.

The decision we really need to make is how we want our health policy decisions made. You can have it wit or wit out consumer input. At a recent meeting on health care costs sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Consumers Union, my colleague Anne Weiss drove this point home.

I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the gist of her remarks (and indeed of the meeting) was that efforts to contain spending and to get more value out of our health care system are going to come about with or without consumer input. She wants it to proceed with it. In other words, Anne’s ordering her health care value steak wit. I second her choice. Personally I think it’s ridiculous to eat a cheesesteak without onions, and I think it’s equally problematic to address health care costs without consumer input.

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

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

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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