Category Archives: Healthcare Reform

Quit Beating A Dead Horse (and wasting money): The Day of the Pharma Rep is Done

As I sit behind a computer in my office today at the Physician’s “workstation”, I am baffled at the steady flow of Pharmaceutical representatives that flow into our office on a daily basis. Each rep comes in with a fancy glossy print detailing the data concerning their particular drug. My office is busy—patients are coming in and out and medical assistants are busy checking vitals and verifying medications (and of course, entering data into the computer system EMR). Yet the reps come in and stand at the workstation until someone acknowledges them. They stand, and stand—often distracting clinical staff. These reps are given a quota of “visits” they must make by their superiors. Many times they will arrive with their direct supervisor in tow—they are evaluated by the relationship they may (or may not have) with a group of physicians. But my time with each and every patient I see is limited due to the increased electronic medical record work that I must do—I feel bad for the reps (it is not their fault that they are placed in this role)—but Do I really have time to stop the endless flow of clinical work to speak to them? Does a Pharma rep actually provide any real value to me or to my patients? Would a “detail” presentation by any rep change my practice?

The Days of Yore

In the past, pharma reps were a source of “samples” that I could provide to my poorer patients who could not afford their meds. This was a real value—I depended on reps to provide these medications for my patients. In the days of print only access to journals, I may not have been as current with the medical literature. Reps would often come in and discuss breaking trial news that I had not yet had time to read about. Often they would discuss upcoming trials and plans for the future. We would have spirited “academic” debates over drugs, trial design and outcomes or endpoints. When you were unable to attend scientific meetings, the pharma rep would often be able to summarize the latest trials after they were released.

Now, my institution no longer allows “samples” to be left, and honestly, if I need a drug rep to share the latest data with me then I am not doing my job as a physician. Online access to immediate data from trials upon their release makes “keeping current” much easier. Social Media and other digital tools make it possible to attend national academic meetings such as the American Heart Association annual scientific session or the American College of Cardiology meetings allow everyone to be virtually present for ground breaking presentations of Late Breaking Clinical Trials.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the people who choose to be pharma reps—many are smart, classy, well-meaning folks. However, there is a lot wrong with the antiquated pharma rep sales model in today’s world. Modern technology and easy access to data allows physicians to keep up with the latest clinical trials. Pharmaceutical detailing by reps is not very helpful—it is scripted and based solely on what the FDA allows them to say (think on label vs off label). Reps are not allowed to talk about upcoming trials or discuss any off label applications.

What’s the Answer?

Drug prices in the United States are far too high. Pharma will argue (rightfully so) that the costs of research and development (as well as marketing) drive those costs. However, I think that there are ways to lower costs without sacrificing R and D. I would argue that a restructuring of the pharma “sales force” would save significant dollars. I would also argue that making the FDA approval process more streamlined, faster and more agile would also lower costs. The current Congress is working on the “Cures Act” that will address some of the issues associated with the FDA process. Ultimately, I think that pharma must adjust to the way medicine is now practiced. There is no role for the pharmaceutical representative in the office or hospital. These individuals have absolutely no bearing on my choice to prescribe a particular drug and do not contribute to my continuing medical education. Nearly 75% of all Americans go to the internet after a doctor’s visit. Almost all physicians can access the internet immediately from a smartphone or tablet. Pharma should move their marketing and sales efforts to the digital space exclusively. There is no role for in person physician-pharma rep interaction in medicine today. Use these dollars in better ways—fund patient assistance programs, improve treatments and fund clinical trials. Stop spending money on lunches for the office staff and on fancy packaging. Glossy detail cards are simply tossed in the trash as soon as the representative leaves the building. Focus more on patients. The days of the drug rep have come to an end.

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What Does a Trump Presidency Mean For Healthcare?

While much about a Trump Presidency remains relatively unclear, one thing is for certain—the way healthcare is handled in the US today will change.

One of Mr Trump’s biggest issues while on the campaign trail was his promise to “Repeal and Replace” Obamacare.

WILL PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP KEEP ANYTHING FROM OBAMACARE?

–Based on his most recent comments on 60 Minutes, it appears that Mr. Trump will keep a very important provision that ensures that those with pre existing conditions will remain insured. If we do not keep this provision, we will go back to the days when insurers could discriminate against individuals with chronic medical problems by either denying coverage or making coverage far too expensive. It is essential that this stay in place in order to make sure that ALL Americans are covered (in an affordable way)—regardless of what chronic medical problems they may have.

–Mr. Trump has also indicated that he will keep the provision that allows young adults to stay on their parent’s plans thru age 26. I think this too is vital. Young adults are building careers and often are scraping to get by from a financial standpoint while they complete higher education and low paying internship training programs. I think allowing these individuals to stay on their parent’s plans only makes sense. It alleviates a significant financial burden during the time in which they are developing careers and working towards education goals in order to make significant contributions to society.
WHAT IS LIKELY TO CHANGE IN HEALHTCARE?

This is where the water gets a little “murky”. Trump says that he will “Repeal and Replace” Obamacare—this may be difficult from a legislative standpoint unless the Republicans invoke the Harry Reid approach of the “nuclear option” in Congress. Currently it will take 61 votes in the Senate in order to repeal the legislation. Based on the partisan politics we are likely to see in Congress, this is unlikely to happen. Alternatively, Trump can “starve the ACA” by signing a bill similar to the one that was sent to Obama a few years ago that essentially defunded the ACA. (Obama of course vetoed that bill).

Over the last year, President Obama has been using Treasury monies that were meant for tax refunds to pay back insurers in the exchanges that have had high cost patients. While the ACA provided for these payments, Congress did not fund this provision so Obama has been re-appropriating money from other sources. There is a court case pending that is likely to stop this action. However, Trump can stop it immediately on Jan 20th. If this happens, I worry that more insurers are likely to pull out of the exchanges and the ACA will continue to slowly implode.

ARE THERE ANY SPECIFICS FROM TRUMP’S PLAN FOR HEALTHCARE?

While it is likely that any plan will involve the Republican/Ryan proposal that has been crafted for more than a year, Mr Trump has discussed a few specifics during the course of the campaign. It is unclear at this point just how much of this will be implemented.

  1. Allow insurers to sell insurance across state lines

–By allowing free market competition, Trump argues that competition for patients by insurance companies will lead to better service, lower prices and more patient satisfaction

  1. Allow individuals to deduct healthcare premiums from taxes

–By putting more $ in individual pockets, patients will be better able to afford healthcare

  1. Allow individuals to set up Healthcare savings accounts (HSAs) tax free money

—tax free accumulation for healthcare spending

  1. The individual and employer mandates will be eliminated 

—Allow individuals to CHOOSE if they wish to purchase health insurance

5.  Price transparency for doctors and hospitals

–Prices for common surgeries and services vary widely by geography and hospital. By requiring transparency, patients can shop around, using both quality and price data to determine the best place for them

–This will prevent gouging by certain hospital systems.

  1. Begin a Block grant to states to deal with Medicaid

— The federal government would send money to the states. It would then be up to the states as to how to use the money to cover the citizens.   This may not be good as in some states it is likely to lead to decrease payments to docs and hospitals and may leave more low income Americans without adequate care

  1. Streamline the FDA and allow Americans to purchase prescription drugs from other countries.

–Currently the US pays far too much for drugs that can be obtained in Canada and elsewhere for much less. Why should the US pay all of the R and D costs for the world?

  1. Privatize Medicare—Other Medicare changes

–Provide citizens with a choice—use medicare dollars to see a medicare doctor or use that money to pay for private doctor that does not take medicare. May result in more out of pocket expenses for seniors.

–Allow medicare to negotiate drug prices—lower costs to Federally sponsored healthcare plans

Ultimately we must put a healthcare plan in place that will cover all Americans and we must make sure that the plan allows for low costs and easy access. However, I do not think this will be a “quick fix”. If there is no good replacement plan I am concerned that there may be 25million new uninsured Americans. However, many of these while listed as insured, are currently functionally uninsured due to limited access, high copays and premiums and deductibles. It is my hope that Congress will work quickly to craft a fiscally responsible healthcare plan that works for ALL Americans—and allows doctors to be healers once again.

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Illegal Use of Tax Dollars to Cover Insurance Company Shortfalls: Obama Bails Out Insurers

Recently, a Federal audit found that the Obama administration has illegally redirected funds related to collections from the Affordable Care Act that, by law, should have been deposited in the US Treasury. The President, under the guise of executive order, used these tax dollars to bail out insurance companies that have experienced hundreds of millions of dollars in losses due to their participation the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges. In their report auditors state that the Obama administration “ignored the statutory requirement to collect funds for the Treasury,” As you might expect, President Obama defended his actions by arguing that it was necessary to direct these funds to insurers in order to offset the increasing costs (and rising premiums) of the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately for taxpayers, the Government Accountability Office—who was responsible for this audit—has no legal authority to enforce its findings or legal opinions.

This latest report is just another example of how the President’s devotion to a failed policy continues to hurt the American people. Even with the diversion of tax dollars to insurance companies by Mr. Obama, premiums continue to rise an average of 25% with some states reporting nearly 50% increases for some plans. As these premiums rise, covered services and access to care have begin to dwindle.  Competition in the exchanges is nearly non-existent in some states—patients are beginning to realize that they have very little choice in insurance companies. Many shoppers are unable to compare prices due to the fact that only one company is represented in the exchange marketplace in their State.

This week, the New York Times FINALLY admits that unless changes are made, the ACA is unlikely to be sustainable unless changes are made. While neither candidate has spent very much time on discussing healthcare (no mention in the first debate), healthcare and the ACA will definitely change based on who becomes the next President. As mentioned before, Hillary Clinton wants to expand government involvement in healthcare—ultimately resulting in a single-payer system—Medicare for All. Mr Trump, by contrast suggests that less government involvement will be the answer. Mr Trump advocates for more free market competition—essentially allowing insurance companies to compete for subscribers across state lines.

When the marketplace opens for its fourth year of enrollment in November, consumers will be greeted with higher premiums and fewer choices. Major players such as United, Aetna and Humana have significantly limited their participation in the exchanges due to mounting financial losses. Many non-profit cooperatives have closed down. The basic premise of the ACA is that young and healthy enrollees would help pay for older, sicker enrollees who would require more care and more healthcare dollars. Unfortunately, for the President and his legacy, two things (that I and others predicted) happened:

  1. Older patients with multiple medical problems enrolled in the exchanges in record numbers. This has placed an enormous financial burden on the Federal government and the insurers that participated in the ACA.
  2. Fewer young healthy patients have enrolled in the ACA than originally expected. This has resulted in a premium shortfall in many cases—Many insurers are “upside down” in the ACA and are pulling out.

Ultimately, the ACA is a bad law. While insurance for all is a noble goal, it must be accomplished in a way that is fiscally responsible and in a way that allows doctors to practice responsible evidence based medicine. It is disturbing that our President has manipulated tax dollars (redirected them outside the law) in order to buffer his signature legislation rather than work with Congress to actively overhaul a broken law.

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Sharing Bad News or Keeping Secrets—How Physician Communication Impacts Patients and Families

Doctors and Patients bond over time. Information exchange, education and sharing of expertise are critical activities that add to the effective practice of medicine. Delivering bad news is unfortunately an unpleasant part of a physician’s job. Honesty, empathy and clear communication are essential to delivering news to patients and their families—even when the news is unpleasant or unexpected. While communication is an integral part of the practice of medicine, not all healthcare providers are able to relay information or test results in a way that is easily digested and processed by patients. Some physicians may avoid delivering bad news altogether—often keeping patients in the dark. While a paternalistic approach to medicine was accepted as the status quo for physician behavior in the 1950s, patients now expect to play a more active role in their own care. Patients have a right to demand data and understand why their healthcare providers make particular diagnostic and treatment decisions.

Recently, a disturbing report indicated that in a database of Medicare patients who were newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, only 45% were informed of their diagnosis by their physician. While shocking, these statistics mirror the way in which cancer diagnoses were handled in the 1950s with many doctors choosing not to tell patients about a devastating health problem. With the advent of better cancer therapies and improved outcomes, now we see than nearly 95% of all patients are informed of their cancer diagnosis by their physician.

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How can this be? Why would a physician NOT tell a patient about a potentially life changing diagnosis?

I think that there are many reasons for this finding in Alzheimer’s disease and that we must address these issues in order to provide ethical and timely care to our patients.

  1. Time constraints: Electronic documentation requirements and non-clinical duties allow for less time spent with each patient. In order to deliver bad news such as a terminal diagnosis, a responsible physician must not only spend time carefully delivering a clear message but must also be available to handle the reaction and questions that will inevitably follow. Many physicians may avoid discussing difficult issues due to the lack of time available to help the patient and family process a diagnosis. We must create ways to diminish the administrative burden on physicians and free them up to do more of what they do best—care for patients. More reasonable and meaningful documentation requirements must be brought forward. Currently, many physicians spend far more time typing on a computer rather than interacting in a meaningful way with patients during their office visits. Eye contact, human interaction and empathy are becoming more of a rarity in the exam room. This certainly limits the effective delivery of bad (or good) news to patients. Priority MUST be placed on actual care rather than the computer mandated documentation of said “care”.
  2. Dwindling Long-Term Doctor Patient Relationships: Networks of hospitals, providers and healthcare systems have significantly disrupted traditional referral patterns and long-term care plans. Many patients who have been enrolled in the ACA exchanges are now being told that they cannot see their previous providers. Many physicians (even in states such as California) are opting out of the Obamacare insurances due to extremely low reimbursement rates. Patients may be diagnosed with a significant life changing illness such as Alzheimer’s disease early in their relationship with a brand new healthcare provider. When a new physician provides a patient with bad news—of a life-changing diagnosis that will severely limit their life expectancy as well as quality of life—patients often have difficulty interpreting these results. Healthcare providers that have no relationship with a patient or family are at an extreme disadvantage when delivering negative healthcare news. Long-term doctor patient relationships allow physicians to have a better understanding of the patient, their values and their family dynamics. This “insider knowledge” can help facilitate difficult discussions in the exam room.
  3. Lack of effective therapies to treat the disease: No physician likes to deliver bad news. No doctor wants to admit “defeat” at the hands of disease. It is often the case where some healthcare providers will not disclose some aspects of a diagnosis if there are no effective treatments. I firmly disagree with this practice of withholding relevant information as I believe that every patient has the right to know what they may be facing—many will make significant life choices if they know they have a progressively debilitating disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. In the 1950s, many patients were not told about terminal cancer diagnoses due to the lack of effective treatments. However, medicine is no longer paternalistic—we must engage and involve our patients in every decision.
  4. Lack of Physician communication education: As Medical Students we are often overwhelmed with facts to memorize and little attention is given to teaching students how to effectively interact with patients as well as colleagues. Mock interviews with post interview feedback should be a part of pre clinical training for physicians. We must incorporate lectures on grief and the grieving process into the first year of medical school. Making connections with patients must be a priority for physicians in the future—we must equip trainees with the tools they need for success.  Leaders distinguish themselves by the way in which they share bad news.  According to Forbes magazine the critical components of sharing bad news include–accuracy of communication, taking responsibility for the situation, listening, and telling people what you will do next.

What’s next?

As with most things in medicine, change often occurs “around” healthcare providers without direct physician input. Physicians are appropriately focused on providing excellent care and connecting with patients while politicians and economists craft the future of medicine. The issues with lack of communication of negative findings with patients MUST be addressed. Patients have a right to their own data and have a right to know both significant and insignificant findings. In order to avoid situations where patients are not fully informed about their medical condition, we must continue to remain focused on the patient—even if it means that other clerical obligations are left unattended.

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Buyer Beware: How Patients are Negatively Impacted by the Changing Landscape of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

As the Obamacare machine continues to grind forward, many patients have re enrolled in a second year of coverage. While most have not had to use their insurance (the young and healthy crowd) others have found their newly minted coverage to be far less than promised. High deductibles, and up front out of pocket expenses, forced many covered by the exchanges to avoid seeking regular preventative care—Prevention was one of then tenets of the ACA plan. Many have found choices limited and have been forced into healthcare systems that are not their first choice.

Now, as the second year of enrollment (and re-enrollment) has concluded, many of us are concerned about the likelihood of rate hikes and changes in coverage. The Obama administration continues to tout the fact that enrollment numbers remain high and that there have been no substantial increases in premiums. However, this is not necessarily the case. Many exchange insurers have cleverly disguised rate hikes through changes in other aspects of the plans. While some advertise that there are absolutely no significant premium increases, customers who shopped carefully on the exchange site were able to find higher prices for Emergency Room visits, and higher charges for non generic drugs. For some plans this means that rather than pay a $250 co-pay for an Emergency Room visit, the customer must pay up to the yearly deductible for the same ER visit before the co-pay rules go into affect. For many, this may be a non-starter. ER visits can be very expensive and can amount to thousands of dollars in just a few hours. Many patients will find themselves having to pay a 3-6 thousand dollar deductible early in the insured year before any of the benefits begin to contribute to reduce individual out of pocket costs. In some plans, the co-payment for a routine physician visit will go down by an average of 20 dollars and many generic drugs will be covered for free. However, specialty visit co-pays will increase and the prices for specialty medications will increase by 40-50%

In an effort to promote re-enrollment in 2015, the government implemented an automatic re-enrollment system. However, this has left many patients with increasing out of pocket costs due to the fact that multiple changes have been made—such as those described above. Many patients were unaware of the need to shop around for re enrollment and are now increasingly unhappy with their plans. Ultimately the ACA and its supporters in Washington have placed statistics and politics ahead of the patient. While the delivery of quality care to the patients who need it SHOULD be the goal, it appears that politics remains the top priority. Increasing out of pocket costs and higher deductibles—many requiring payment in the first half of the year—are having the opposite affect. One of the central tenets of the ACA is to focus on prevention through promoting regular access to primary care physicians for prevention of chronic disease and its complications.   However, rather than promoting and environment where patients are engaged and actively seek preventative care, many are using the insurance simply as a “disaster plan” simply due to the overwhelming costs. While out of pocket limits and guaranteed care consume the healthcare reform talking points of the Obama administration, the reality is that the way in which the ACA is structured and implemented has actually increased personal financial burden for many.

What Can Patients Do?

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Unfortunately, much of the burden of navigating the new healthcare landscape falls to the patient. The Law itself remains a moving target—with changes certain on the horizon. We must remember that insurers are for profit entities and will ultimately find a way to make a profit—often at the taxpayer and patient expense. While many have been encouraged by the Obama administration to continue to offer affordable premiums, most have found other ways to improve their revenue streams. Whether it is thru juggling co-payments and charges, shifting cost, denying procedure approval or limiting choice, all of these changes will–in the end—negatively impact patients. As a healthcare provider, my job is to educate patients about behaviors that may improve their overall health. Now with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, this responsibility now extends to helping my patients manage their insurance choices. While this is not necessarily a traditional role of a physician, it is important that we make sure that our patients continue to have access to the care they need—without incurring a life altering expense.

There are a few things that I think that patients can do to actively advocate for themselves and others:

  1. Stay Informed: Make sure that you ask questions of your insurer—are their changes to my coverage? How are out of pocket expenses handled? Can I see my doctor and my specialist when I want or need to without incurring a penalty or increased cost?
  2. Shop Around: Just because you have had coverage with a particular company in the past does not mean that you have to remain locked in with them. Make sure you explore all of the options that are available to you through the exchanges. Carefully question insurance company representatives so that you completely understand policies BEFORE you agree to a contract
  3. Demand Transparency: If you are unable to get a clear answer from an insurer about costs and coverage BEFORE you sign up, it is very unlikely that you will get a clear answer once you are a customer. Once you are a customer, make sure that you have a clear idea of the costs involved prior to scheduling a procedure or test. A recent survey sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation found that nearly 56% of Americans get out of pocket cost information before accessing healthcare services.

As with most things that have occurred with the Affordable Care Act, it is the patient who ultimately suffers. Insurers continue to profit, as do drug makers and hospital systems and administrators. Physicians have seen reimbursement cut to levels that have forced integration with large hospital systems. Most tragically, however, patients tend to be caught in the middle and have seen their healthcare suffer. Surveys indicate that patients are now inquiring as to cost prior to office visits, tests and procedures. Many find that they must put off necessary preventative activities and even more opt not to have needed tests and therapeutic procedures due to cost. It is clear that the ACA has missed its mark. While insuring large numbers of Americans is a noble goal, this insurance must also provide value rather than meaningless statistics to be utilized at a White House press briefing. As my research mentors at Duke University taught me during my training–with any data analysis, it remains that garbage will equal garbage out. WE must find a better way to provide affordable care to our patients. For now, insurers, hospital systems and politicians are using patients as nothing more than a “Profit Center”. As reenrollment continues through this year and the next we must make sure that our patients are armed with the old adage—“Buyer Beware”

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“Veritas”, Ivy and the Affordable Care Act: What’s Good for the Goose May Now NOT be Good for the Gander at Harvard

Prominent academics within the prestigious Harvard University department of Economics have long been vocal supporters of President Obama and his Affordable Care Act legislation.  In fact, many Harvard professors helped develop some of the concepts that were utilized in the drafting of the ACA.  During the debates over the ACA in Congress, these professors were frequently seen (and heard) touting the legislation as a fiscally responsible way to provide affordable care to all Americans.  The current Provost, Dr Alan Garber,  (not to be confused with MITs Gruber), was part of a group of economist who sent letters to the President in the early days of the ACA praising certain aspects of the bill such as “cost sharing” and the Cadillac tax applied to the best plans.

My how things have changed.  This week, as reported in the New York Times, these same Harvard faculty are in an uproar as they have seen their own healthcare plans completely overhauled.  Rather than being allowed to maintain their long time low cost (out of pocket) plans, the university has now implemented healthcare coverage that is consistent with the provisions in the ACA.  Now there are more up front out of pocket expenses for basic insurance plans and the Cadillac plans are much more expensive.

During a faculty meeting the vast majority of Harvard professors voted to oppose the changes in the Harvard health plan that would require them to pay more for their own healthcare—How dare Harvard adjust their own benefits and how dare the University actually expect them to be a part of a new ACA influenced health care plan at Harvard???

This type of attitude is even more prevalent among lawmakers in both the White House and in Congress.  Members of Congress as well as the President and all staffers are EXEMPT from the individual mandate.  This type of paternalistic governance is what is wrong with Washington today.  Many Democrats seem to have taken the attitude that they were elected not to represent the people but rather to do what they think is best for their constituents.    In an era when the ACA is wildly unpopular, many politicians continue to refuse to believe that changes to the legislation should be made.

If the ACA is such a great thing, why then do those who designed it and legislated it refuse to participate?

  1. The President and His Legacy:  The President continues to see the ACA as his legacy.  In spite of plummeting approval numbers and a negative referendum on his failed policies during the 2014 Midterm Elections, Obama refuses to examine the numerous issues associated with the healthcare law and does not appear to have any willingness to compromise on amending the act.  Unfortunately, Obama’s pursuit of his legacy appears to trump sensible bipartisan negotiations and will severely limit Washington’s ability to actually govern.
  2. Paternal Governance:  Currently, Many in power feel as though they know what is “best” for the rest of us.  Rather than represent a constituency, many of our leaders actually believe that the American people are incapable of making sound decisions for themselves and their own healthcare.  The “Big Brother” knows best attitude continues to alienate millions of voting Americans.  Interestingly, when those that helped craft the legislation (i.e. the now disgruntled Harvard economics professors) are subjected to the law that they supported, the outlook quickly changes.
  3. Partisan Politics:  Our country is the more divided politically than ever before.  Relationships in Washington are so polarized that compromise will be difficult to achieve.  Our elected government is divided with the President refusing to even consider bills that are put forward–instead he threatens vetoes in advance on any bills that address issues concerning the reform of the ACA.

So, What’s Next?

As a country we must begin to deal with the issue of healthcare in a more productive and collaborative way.  Politics as usual will result in another two years of decline in both the quality and affordability of the American healthcare system.  We must hold Washington accountable and the Obama administration MUST begin to work with Congressional leaders to find workable, effective solutions to the mountain of problems that has been created by the poorly thought out and recklessly implemented Affordable Care Act legislation.  And, those at Harvard (as well as those in Washington) should have to live with the same healthcare insurance programs that are mandated for the rest of us–No Exemptions.

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Reflecting on Medicine in 2014: Sailing Rough Seas and Finding Uncharted Waters Ahead

As we close out on a tumultuous 2014 in healthcare, many physicians are looking forward to a better and more stable 2015. For most of us, 2014 has been marked by significant change. Many healthcare providers have seen their jobs and their patient care roles transform completely. Physician autonomy has diminished and regulation and mandated electronic paperwork has more than doubled. Many physicians find that they are spending far less time caring for patients and a greater proportion of their available clinical time is now being spent interfacing with a computer—both at work and at home on personal time.

During the last year, we have all been affected by the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), changes in reimbursement, as well as the implementation of a new billing and coding system (ICD-10). For many of us, it also marked a year of transition to system wide electronic medical record systems such as Epic and the growing pains associated with such a major upheaval in the way in which medicine is practiced.   Many practices have continued the trend of “integration” with larger healthcare systems in order to remain financially viable. The American College of Cardiology estimates that by the end of 2014, nearly 60% of all physician members have integrated with hospital systems and this number is expected to rise even further in 2015—ultimately defining the death of private practice as we know it.

Why have these changes occurred?

Ultimately, I believe that the changes to the way in which healthcare is delivered has come about due to 3 distinct reasons:

 1. Declining Reimbursement

Currently reimbursement continues to fall. Multiple government budgetary “fixes” have led to much uncertainty and instability in medical practices (much like seen in any small business with financial and market instability). In addition, the implementation of the ACA has resulted in the expansion of the Medicaid population in the US—now nearly 1 in 5 Americans is covered under a Medicaid plan. Traditionally, Medicaid plans reimburse at levels 45% less than Medicare (which is already much lower than private insurance payments). While the Obama administration did provide a payment incentive for physicians to accept Medicaid, this incentive expires this week. Many practices are becoming financially non viable as overhead costs are risking to more than 60%. As for the ACA, many exchanges have set prices and negotiated contracts with hospital systems—leaving many practices out of network. Both patients and doctors suffer—longtime relationships are severed due to lack of access to particular physicians.

2. Increasing Administrative/Regulatory Demands

With the implementation of the ICD-10 coding system, now physicians are confronted with more than 85, 000 codes (previously the number of codes was approximately 15,000). In addition, “meaningful use” mandates for payment have resulted in increasing documentation requirements and even more electronic paperwork. In addition, the implementation of new billing and coding systems has required increasing staff (more overhead) as well as intensive physician training. Sadly, the new coding system that has been mandated by the Federal government includes thousands of absurdities such as a code for an “Orca bite” as well as a code for an “injury suffered while water skiing with skis on fire”.

3. Electronic Medical Record Mandates

Federal requirements for the implementation of Electronic Medical Records and electronic prescribing have resulted in several negative impacts on practices. While in theory, the idea of a universal medical record that is portable and accessible to all providers is a noble goal, the current reality in of EMR in the US is troubling. There are several different EMR systems and none of them are standardized—none of them allow for cross talk and communication. Many small practices cannot afford the up front expenditures associated with the purchase and implementation of the EMR (often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars).   In addition, the EMR has slowed productivity for many providers and resulted in more work that must be taken home to complete—not a good thing for physician morale. Finally, and most importantly, the EMR often serves to separate doctor and patient and hinders the development of a doctor-patient relationship. Rather than focusing on the patient and having a conversation during an office visit, many physicians are glued to a computer screen during the encounter.

So, What is next in 2015?

While I have probably painted a bleak picture for Medicine in 2014, it is my hope that we are able to move forward in a more positive way in 2015. I think that there are several very exciting developments that are gaining momentum within medicine and healthcare in general.  Innovation and medical entrepreneurship will be critical in moving healthcare forward in 2015.  Physicians must continue to lobby for the tools and freedoms to provide better patient care experiences for all stakeholders in the healthcare space.

2015 begins with much promise. I am excited to see what we as healthcare professionals will be able to accomplish in the coming year. We must continue to put patients first and strive to provide outstanding care in spite of the obstacles put before us. While 2014 provided challenges, we must rise above the fray and continue to advocate for a better healthcare system in the US today and in the future.

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