Archive for category Health Care Reform

Participation by Emergency Physicians in Compensation Driven Cost Containment Strategies

It strikes me that in developing payment reform related, compensation driven cost-containment strategies aimed at constraining the cost of emergency care, policy makers, emergency physicians, and health insurers should adhere to certain principles. ACEP should be at the forefront when it comes to establishing these principles, which I hope will be focused on protecting our patients first, and our specialty second.

The concept and practice of ‘managed care’ has raised some very reasonable concerns about the way some physicians’ commitments to the welfare of their patients has been compromised by the financial incentives inherent in compensation arrangements like capitation and risk-pools. If emergency physicians are going to be engaged, willingly or reluctantly, in cost-containment oriented incentive compensation programs; we need to make sure that the competing interests of patients, providers and insurers (including the government) are balanced properly, and morally.

I thought I would take a shot at formulating a few of these principles, and encourage readers of this blog to suggest changes and propose additions.

1. Cost containment strategies for emergency care should focus first and foremost on cost-effective care, with the emphasis on effective.
2. Shared-savings, pay-for-performance, capitation, risk-pools, and similar payment reform programs designed to incentivize emergency physicians to reduce the cost of providing emergency care must not result in a reduction in necessary care, an unreasonable delay in the provision of care, a significant increase in medical risk to patients, or a significant decrease in patient satisfaction with care; or shift the burden of care to those who are unwilling and/or unable to provide this care.
3. Cost-effective care strategies should be evidence-based where possible, though common sense strategies should also be considered even if evidence in favor of such strategies is not abundant.
4. The proportion of total reimbursement that emergency physicians derive from the successful adoption of cost-containment strategies, relative to the proportion derived from payment for services rendered, should be limited in order to ensure that these cost-containment incentives do not overwhelm service-driven and outcome-driven medical decision-making.
5. Strategies that rely on the deferral of care in the ED should be considered as relatively high-risk, low-reward strategies when compared to others that are focused on cost-effective care and high-cost services.
6. Cost-containment strategies for emergency care should be transparent to patients, providers, insurers, and policy-makers.

Any other ideas out there?

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Attribution and Emergency Medicine, a Payment Reform Conundrum

Several years ago, the medical director of the emergency department I was working in at the time decided to take a closer look at productivity amongst our physician and PA staff. In order to ensure that data on patients seen and visit times was being appropriately attributed to the treating physician or PA, we took a closer look at how the patient and the treating provider were linked in the hospital’s IT system (the data source), since we had a fair amount of double and triple coverage. It was a bit surprising, not to mention perplexing, to discover that at registration, the physician who arrived for the latest shift was assigned in the IT system to all the patients who arrived during this shift, until the next physician arrived, regardless of which provider actually took care of the patient. Thus, all the data related to provider productivity, and the attribution of the ordering provider for diagnostic tests, consults, medications, admissions, etc. which was derived from the IT system, was flawed. An approach initially designed to facilitate speedy order entry was never subjected to reconciliation at the end of the day, as we all assumed. Bummer.

The more we looked at the issue, the more complex it became. How should we attribute an inpatient admission when one ER physician handed off to another in mid-workup at change of shift? What about when a PA was supervised by two different physicians? Should a double bounce-back be attributed to the first treating physician, or the second, or both? You might think that provider-order-entry would solve many of the issues related to attribution of diagnostic test and treatment orders and consults and such; but if a patient is sent in to the ED by their primary care provider to have a work-up for RUQ pain, should the PCP or the ED physician be ‘credited’ with ordering the GB Ultrasound? Is the ED physician, or the hospitalist, responsible for ordering the admission? If a consultant requests a serum porcelain level before he will see the patient in the ED, is the consultant or the ED physician acting as the ordering provider?

You might think all of this is irrelevant, or as I am fond of saying, academic (meaning almost irrelevant); but in light of payment reform and Accountable Care Organizations and the push for cost-effective, error-free care: the need for accurate attribution in the ED is likely to be pretty important. If you can’t count correctly, you can’t have accountability. Since many ED physicians are employees of the hospital or academic institution where they work, accurate attribution might, in an era where cost-effectiveness and resource utilization is likely to be scrutinized at the individual provider level, mean the difference between continuing employment and getting the boot. Attribution might even be more important for contracted ED staffing groups working under contractual agreements with PHOs and hospital-owned or affiliated ACOs in risk-sharing or shared-savings arrangements that predicate payment of withholds or payouts to the ED group on performance against cost-effective care or use-reduction targets. These staffing contracts often have no-cause 90 day cancellation clauses hanging over these ED staffing groups, putting everyone’s job at risk.

I raise the issue of attribution and accountability in ED care because our practice environment is very complex – ED care is a team sport, with many providers having varied positions (sometimes the ED physician is the quarterback, sometimes the trauma surgeon, and sometimes the PA or NP), and the field of play is often unmarked and multidimensional, and the game challenging to track and score. If a quarterback throws a touchdown pass, who gets the credit: the QB, the receiver, or the offensive line? If a patient has wrong-side chest-tube placement, is the ED physician, the radiology tech who mislabeled the film, or the surgeon at the head of the gurney responsible? Who gets credit for the unnecessary dye-enhanced rescan, the risk-averse radiologist who insists he needs more contrast to make the diagnosis, the ED physician who is prepared to make the diagnosis of appendicitis clinically, or the surgeon demanding a scan before doing the consult? I am not advocating that ED care be carved out of the risk-sharing or shared-savings or pay for performance calculation simply because attribution in the ED is complicated. If we get carved out of these arrangements, ED physicians will simply become another expense item, inviting even less favorable treatment. I am just saying that we need to start working on developing systems and standards for the attribution of the work done in the ED now, before this payment reform cake is fully baked.

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PPACA, Medical Loss Ratios, and Capitation – a Loop Hole Big Enough to Drive an Armored Truck Through

One of the new health reform provisions in the PPACA regulations is a requirement for health insurers to spend a certain proportion of health insurance premiums on actual medical care, thus limiting to some extent the proportion of these premiums that can be allocated to administrative expenses and profits. This proportion is called the medical loss ratio (MLR), and in the regs the proportion that must be spent on care is 85% or higher in large-group markets and 80% or higher in individual and small-group markets. I believe the impetus for this rule is two fold: 1) to try to get insurers to minimize the costs associated with administration of the plan (so as to maximize their profits within the MLR restriction), and 2) to try to insure that any successful cost-effective care strategies that are adopted go directly to reducing the premium costs for enrollees. Insurers that fail to meet this standard must rebate some premiums back to enrolees. It doesn’t take much savvy to imagine that insurance companies executives would, in response to this reform of their market, launch aggressive advocacy strategies to modify these regulations in order to recoup their potential profit margins and maintain their obscene executive salaries.

Great debates have been sparked at DHHS and at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners over a wide range of MLR issues, especially around what types of activities should be included in the definition of ‘medical services provided to enrollees’ (should nurse advice lines and other ‘cost-containment strategies’ count as care?), whether federal taxes should be factored into or excluded from the calculations, to which types of plans should MLR standards apply (should mini-med plans be included?), and a whole host of other accounting, reporting, and procedural issues. Nothing generates gaming the system in Washington like new federal regulations, and health insurance lobbyists are having a field day. I had to laugh when I read that the former director of the Congressional Budget Office and president of the think tank American Action Forum was quoted as saying: “I was surprised to see the members of Congress try to influence this process.” Really?

In all the fuss, some of which has actually made it into the national news media, there appears to be one particular loophole for insurers that seems to have escaped much attention. This loophole is big enough to drive an armored truck through, on the way to the bank (with a brief stop-over in Wall Street to rack up some leveraged premium on the insurer’s stock price). When health plans, particularly HMOs, capitate medical groups and IPAs to service their enrollees, these plans typically pass, via the per-member-per-month cap payment, not only the risk of paying for care, but also much of the cost for managing the program. Capitated medical groups are often delegated the responsibility for paying non-contracted provider claims, credentialing providers, managing prior authorizations, investing in IT, marketing plans to potential enrollees, and a whole host of other administrative tasks normally performed by the plan. Yet in accounting for administrative overhead to meet the MLR requirements, it appears that these plans will be allowed to shift these administrative costs to their subcontracted medical groups and IPAs and count them as ‘medical services’. What a deal for the plans!

At a recent Department of Managed Health Care meeting in California, a representative of a large capitated medical group described the development of one of the first Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) in the state, in concert with Blue Cross. When I asked this representative, during the public question period, which of the administrative costs associated with management of the ACO would be attributed to Blue Cross when it came time to calculate the MLRs for the plan; he at first hemmed and hawed, then said that the issue had not been discussed with the plan yet. Really? This far into the planning process, you would think that issue would be pretty high on the list. ACOs are not just going to be Medicare Advantage programs, they are going to evolve into the next iteration of commercial health coverage, and you can bet that many plans will skip right over shared savings and similar strategies and go directly to capitation, because there is nothing better for an insurance company than collecting premiums like a health plan, acting like a broker, and shucking all the risk on to the providers. At this same DMHC hearing, CAL/ACEP testified as to how EMTALA obligated providers were being ripped off by these unregulated subcontracting medical groups and IPAs, and left holding bags full of unpaid claims when these risk bearing organizations go belly up. The HMOs, of course, often respectfully decline to take responsibility for these unpaid claims. Remember the term ‘negligent delegation’ when an ACO near you goes bankrupt – it may come in handy.

But I digress. My point here is that, for some reason, DHHS seems to have been deterred from closing this ‘capitation-delegation model’ loophole in the MLR rules, and we can only hope they catch on before the rules are finalized.

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Results of the Defensive Emergency Medicine Poll

Yes, it’s just an N of 74, but I think this data is pretty fascinating, and highlights why it’s so hard to estimate how much defensive medicine we “practice,” and why it’s so hard to define it: we can’t even agree on what it is. (If you’re confused, see this.) A quick review of the scenarios, followed by some beautiful graphs (thanks, Numbers App!):

  • Scenario 1: 50s lady with a few cardiovascular risk factors with a few minutes of chest pain and a normal EKG. You admit for rule-out ACS.
  • Scenario 2: 40yo guy with a history of PE on coumadin, therapeutic INR, with 3 weeks of chest pain. You scan for a PE despite adequate anti-coagulation.

Both of these were pretty split down the middle, which I thought was surprising. I thought fewer people would have wanted to scan the guy with the PE.

  • Scenario 3: 4yo kid banged the side of his head on a door. Brief LOC, has a 2cm hematoma, looks like a normal kid here, no other concerning signs/symptoms. You CT the kid.
  • Scenario 4: 26yo woman with vomiting and abdominal pain but a non-tender belly. You accidentally get labs with a WBC of 25. Feels better, belly’s still not tender, but you scan anyway, since the white count’s so high.

Apparently we don’t like scanning kids and non-tender bellies, since most people felt like these scans were unnecessary–but still a good 20% felt that the plan was reasonable.

  • Finally, Scenario 5: 36yo female with a history of anemia with a story of heavy vaginal bleeding, but normal vitals and asymptomatic of anemia/blood loss, and some pooling in the vault. You send a CBC.

This seemed to be the least “defensive,” maybe because it’s just a lab test and doesn’t expose the patient to significant risk (just the cost of waiting in the department and the cost of a CBC.)

I also ran one more stat — were people who took the survey consistent in their values? (Obviously the scenarios are quite different, and everyone has their own issues, but were people likely to say most scenarios were defensive, or likely to say most scenarios were not?) Here’s a breakdown of how many respondents answered Yes to 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, or all 5 of the scenarios. This surprised me the most: most people were in the middle. I thought more people would be skewed toward the extremes.

I’d love to see ACEP or someone do this with a larger sample and more validated. But I think it’s a fascinating look into practice patterns and just more evidence that there’s no such thing as a “standard of care;” no one person can say what’s “right” or what “should” be done for a patient. We all have different ideas of what’s overly cautious or not cautious enough — and different ideas of what we should worry about. (And I’d hazard a guess that what we’re worried about for our patients is different from what we’re worried about for our patients’ lawyers.)

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The Independent and the Employee Models of EM Practice – Where Are We Going?

You will notice that the title of this blog is not ‘independent vs. employee model’: I readily acknowledge that I know little about being an employed emergency physician. Having spent my entire career as, initially, an independent contractor, and then as a partner in a large EM partnership; I am not the guy to be making a comparison between these modes of EM practice. However, I recently heard from one of ACEP’s Board members (Dr. Kivela) that approximately 55% of emergency physicians in this country are now employed by hospitals (or was that employed by someone?). In either case, this fact led me inevitably to reflect on these two modes of practice, and the many variations on these themes, and how this trend towards more EP employees and fewer EPs practicing as independent contractors or partners is likely to impact the practice of EM, our patients, our hospitals, and our specialty.

Of course, this is a topic that could never be covered in a blog, perhaps not even in a textbook, but I hope to generate some discussion of these issues here in The Central Line and elsewhere. I have far more questions than answers to offer, as you will see; but these are questions that we should try to answer before they are answered for us. Health Reform is going to put even more pressure on the independent EP practice model as policy makers and insurers push to consolidate providers into vertically integrated health care systems to foster accountability and coordination of care (euphemisms for risk-sharing and cost-cutting). How our specialty and the house of medicine respond to this pressure will have a major impact on the practice of EM, from the choice of meds we use to the professional affiliations we make.

One of the first questions that come to mind when exploring independent and employee models of practice revolve around the corporate practice of medicine. There are only a handful of states that have a bar against the corporate practice of medicine, and enforcement of these bars vary considerably. The rationale for prohibiting corporations from influencing the practice of medicine is nicely summarized by the CA Medical Board: and the gist is that this bar is “intended to prevent unlicensed persons from interfering with or influencing the physician’s professional judgment”. The Medical Board provides examples of “types of behaviors and subtle controls that the corporate practice doctrine is intended to prevent”. Hospitals are sometimes exempted from such state bars, as hospitals are also licensed, but the concept is premised on an obligation to protect consumers (patients) from profiteers, and hospitals are no strangers to the profit motive. First question: Are EPs who are employed by hospitals more or less subject to controls and subtle pressures impacting medical decision-making than EPs who are employed by a medical group, or EPs who are part of a medical partnership, or EPs that are independent contractors? I know for a fact that EPs who practice in the ‘independent mode’ can be subjected to such pressures, geared towards improving the hospital’s bottom line, especially since EM group–hospital staffing contracts can be, and have been, canceled for ‘no cause’; and I suspect that employed EPs are regularly subjected to subtle (and not so subtle) pressures to adjust their practices to accommodate hospital employer expectations and financial goals. Put another way: if you were a patient in an ED, would you have more trust in an EP who was a hospital employee or an independent contractor or a partner in the EM practice? How about if he or she was an employee of your insurance plan? There probably isn’t any data to support your preference, but perhaps there should be. The rise of managed care, risk-sharing ventures, IT demands on investment capital, and the surge of interest in ACOs is going to put increasing pressure on states to eliminate or modify corporate bars on the practice of medicine. Wouldn’t it be appropriate for legislators to know how ‘corporate influences’ impact the care we provide, and how patients feel about that?

Here are some more questions that deserve to be answered: Which practice mode pays EPs more appropriately? Which contributes more towards enhancing the value of EM practice? Is a hospital CEO more likely or less likely to appreciate excellent EP care and service if the EP is an employee or a member of a contract staffing group? To whom do employed EPs look when seeking support for improved salaries or working conditions? Should ACEP develop into a union for these physicians? I heard a rumor that some hospitals have discouraged their EPs from joining ACEP – is that true?

Which mode of EM practice provides greater encouragement or incentive to document their care appropriately so as to assure appropriate third party reimbursement? Are hospital-employed EP salaries indirectly dependent on the ability of staffing-contract EPs to collect fair payment from health plans? Do independent mode EPs have greater or fewer opportunities to move to new communities and keep their ‘tenured’ pay rate? Are they happier with their practice setting? Which has the better malpractice experience? Which offers more support when the provider is sued?

I could go on, but you get the gist. There may be no good way to really answer many of these questions, but this shouldn’t deter us from discussing the issues. Let me give you just one example of why these considerations need to be aired. ACEP is going to be developing strategies for EP participation in ACO risk-sharing, payment bundling, and shared savings arrangements under health reform. I have no doubt that these strategies may be very different for hospital-employed EPs, for academic group EPs, staffing contract model EPs, and medical group employed EPs. ACEP may not have the resources to address each of these strategies for each of these member groups, so where should the emphasis be made? Here’s another: ACEP is increasing its advocacy role in DC, and reaching out to EPs to financially support this effort separate from ACEP dues. Which EPs are more likely to contribute to this effort? Should some ACEP advocacy resources be expended to support the independent practice of EM, or should ACEP be advocating for the right to represent employed EPs, or both?

If you are worried that discussing these questions exposes the soft underbelly of EM, or somehow might precipitate the deconstruction of the cooperative venture that ACEP represents: get over it. The forces aligned to divide and conquer the practice of emergency medicine, and the practice of medicine in general, have already begun their work, and everything that defines our profession is now in play.

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Emergency Medicine and Payment Reform – Becoming Part of the Solution PART III

Health care is bankrupting this country. The truth is, emergency physicians are as much a part of the problem as any other provider, health plan, or patient in this country. Many emergency physicians over-order scans and tests, practice defensive medicine, over-utilize consultants, don’t pay much attention to the cost of drugs and treatments we order or prescribe, and generally spend too much money for too little benefit. I could argue convincingly that we are more effective and efficient than most physicians, especially in light of the difficulties of practice in the ED; but our challenge is not just to dispel the mistaken assumption that ED services do not meet the value proposition. We must simultaneously participate in developing solutions to the cost-effective care conundrum, or the payers and politicians will focus on ways to work around us, or through us.

Policy makers have selected payment reform as the primary path to cost-effective care, and fee for service as the principle foil responsible for our health care financing predicament. I could argue that tacking ‘for profit’ in front of ‘health plans’ is equally responsible, but this is, after all, America. Health reform is in many respects predicated on the concept of risk sharing: sharing the financial risks of care (and the rewards of cost-effective care) between insurers, providers, and patients on the assumption that having ‘skin in the game’ will solve the problem. Bundled payments, episodes of care, ACOs, pay for performance: its all designed to restrain costs by sharing risk, which is presumed to motivate providers to adopt strategies and develop infrastructure designed to cut costs (first) and improve care (second). The most critical role that ACEP has in the next few years is to determine how EPs can participate in the context of payment reform while preserving our value and protecting our practices.
Let’s talk about ACOs first. To make a very complicated story short, ACOs are likely to be about full capitation, or about risk pools, or both; and they are also about consolidation of physician practices to facilitate this risk sharing. In my experience, one consequence of this consolidation is that the PHOs (physician hospital organizations – soon to morph into ACOs) tend to pay lower rates to EPs than health plans pay. EPs are going to have to find ways to share risk in ACOs as independent practitioners or as hospital employees without sacrificing significant income or undermining practice quality and autonomy. Half of ED physicians are either hospital employees or the employees of academic institutions, and the other half are partners or independent contractors (or employees) of groups contracted to staff the ED. What the former need to understand about the latter is that the independent practice of emergency medicine is key to defining the commercial value of EP services: anything that undermines the payment of claims from an EP who is engaged in the ‘independent practice’ of EM undermines the wages of the EP who is employed by a hospital, a university or an HMO. We are all part of a national market for EP services. If the mode of our participation in ACOs, either as contracted groups, or employees, turns EP services into a commodity, we, and perhaps our patients, will suffer. Thus, when ACEP talks about EP participation in ACOs, or contributes to the development of model contracts, or policies for revenue or risk-pool distribution, or strategies for coordination of care with other ACO-participating providers; these three different modes of EM practice (independent contractor, employee, educator) need to be factored into the equation, most likely in separate and distinct approaches.
Another set of strategies for cost-containment and payment reform is the concept of bundled payments and episodes of care. I liken this to carving off most of the meat before throwing the bone to the pack of hounds. I suspect it will not be easy to identify episodes of care or bundled payment categories that will accurately reflect the contribution of EPs to the overall effort expended on these patient groupings. The management of abdominal pain is s tree with so many branch points it makes knee replacement look like an asparagus stalk. To complicate matters further, the three modes of EM practice will also have to be addressed in defining the EP’s share of the bundled payment for these episodes of care. For example, the work-up and management of a patient with abdominal pain in an environment like Kaiser is likely to be quite different than for the same patient in a community ED or a university teaching hospital where access to consultants, follow-up, and coordination of care are organized on a different model; even if you assume that under ACOs, access to EMRs and diagnostic services were equivalent. Personally, I think even though most episodes of care and bundled payments will focus on the higher-cost conditions, these approaches to payment reform are not likely to cover more than a modest percentage of the work EPs do, or the compensation we earn. Mostly, I believe, independent EM practitioners will be carved out of these payment reform modules because our level of participation will be difficult to predict, and our ability to restrict our role is limited. We are, after all, one of the few players on the team that regularly plays just about every position. The danger of being carved out, however, is that we then stick out like a sore thumb, an expense item begging to be trimmed.
I think one of the most effective ways for EPs and ACEP to contribute to solving the cost of care conundrum, and thus demonstrate our value to patients and payers alike, is through cost-effective care protocols. It is through the use of such protocols that EPs can earn a piece of the cost-sharing incentives, especially in risk pools. If we get carved out of bundled payments, we can get integrated back in under the risk-sharing umbrella through risk pools. Even so, it will still be necessary to utilize cost-effective care protocols that take into consideration each of the three EM practice modes. For example, hearing hoofbeats, you are more likely to encounter zebras in the ED of a major university teaching and referral center than in a small community hospital. Likewise, we should also focus on the most costly patients and types of care first, use best evidence, and take great care to protect our integrity as professionals and care givers. This last is what I mean by preserving the quality of our practice. An emphasis on cost-effectiveness is an invitation to inappropriate deferral of care, denial of access to needed testing and consultation, inappropriate discrimination in service, avoidable delays, and excessive risk taking, all of which hurts our patients and ourselves. Development of these protocols will not be easy, but adoption of these protocols across the spectrum of EM practice will be the real challenge. As I mentioned in the very beginning of this three-part diatribe, one hospital’s welcome cost effective protocol is another’s inadvertent financial misstep. It will take time to align incentives across all our modes of practice, medical staffs, hospital administrations, payers, and patients. Patient education as well as resident and provider training will be an essential part of the process, and all of us need to be part of the solution.

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Value Based Purchasing and Emergency Care – Is It a Perception Problem? PART II

If the perception is that a visit to the ED represents a failure of the health care system, it sure makes it difficult for ACEP to assert that emergency physicians routinely provide valuable services to patients and insurers. Apparently, many policy makers hold this perception. It reflects the consequence of cost shifting (especially by hospitals) to cover the care of the under- and uninsured, which makes it appear that EPs are wasteful and inefficient. Health plans have aggressively promoted this mis-perception, using very distorted data. A good example is a recent study (“Many-ED Visits Could be Managed at Urgent Care Centers and Retail Clinics”) from the California Health Care Foundation , a very pro-managed care organization. Is it reasonable to compare the cost of treating strep throat in the ED versus the Urgent Care Center when the UCC turns away every patient with no money and no insurance?  The attitude of the Health Plans is: “the uninsured are not our problem”, and would prefer to ignore our service to the uninsured in calculations of the value based proposition. The uninsured are not going away with Health Reform, and emergency physicians need to make sure that, in the value based purchasing calculation, no one takes for granted our mission to provide care to everyone regardless of ability to pay .

Fortunately, it’s really not all that difficult to challenge mis-perceptions about the value of ED care. The continuing growth in ED visits every year is perhaps the best testimony of the value that our patients ascribe to the care and service they receive in the emergency department. There are innumerable examples of the failure of our health care system in this country. A visit to the ED for acute appendicitis does not represent a failure of managed care, whereas a ruptured appendix that results from a patient being encouraged to wait until the morning to see their primary care physician certainly might.

With the demise of the idea of a national emergency care patient registry, it may not be easy to prove the value proposition for emergency medicine; but we don’t really need to prove our value so much as we need to substantiate it. First, we need to make sure that in comparing care in the ED to care in the office based practice; apples are compared to apples. Would all those assertions about ED patients not meeting the prudent layperson standard hold up if, for example, we could show that the incidence of peri-tonsilar abscess in patients with sore throat was three times the incidence of this complication in the PCP’s office? I think ED physicians all believe that children with fever in the ED are different than children with fever in the UCC, but try convincing a pediatrician. This will take some studies directed specifically at the value-based proposition, and that is where we should put the Emergency Medicine Foundation’s contributions to work. We heard at this year’s Council meeting about a compilation of hundreds of studies showing the value of good ED care (early antibiotic treatment in pneumonia, ED physician activation of cath labs, etc). This compilation needs to be translated into an easily digested summary with bullet points for the media and policy makers.

Although I am not a great fan of public relations, when you are faced with a perception problem, you need a well-financed, highly organized campaign. The ED has become the premier provider of diagnostic services and acute care; and in some EDs, half the patients who are discharged from the ED were sent to the ED by their PCP for evaluation and treatment. ED physicians provide four times as much charity care as any other specialty. These types of factoids need to be widely disseminated, because they change perceptions, and re-frame the value proposition. ACEP needs to provide the science, the sound bites, and perhaps the professional PR team; but this is not just a challenge for ACEP’s D.C. office, it is a challenge for every state chapter, and every emergency physician in every ED and every state. The next time you hear someone say how expensive ED services are, take the time to explain cost shifting, talk about 24/7/365, remind them about all the patients we manage to keep out of the ICU.  With ACOs, bundled payments, and cost-containment, we are in a fight for the economic survival of our specialty.

Risk sharing is our third challenge. I will try to cover that in PART III.

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Practicing EM Under Health Reform – the New Paradigm PART I

Imagine that you are the medical director of an ED, and you decide to take to your hospital administrator a new set of cost-effective care policies that are designed to reduce the percent of admissions from your ED from 17% to 15%. In some hospitals, you might be met with incredulity: why would you do something like this when if would cost your hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue every month? You might be looking for another job. If you worked at a Kaiser hospital, you might be looking at a raise. If you worked at a hospital that was heavily involved in capitated managed care, your proposal might be welcome, but if the administrator of this hospital was particularly unscrupulous, you might be asked to apply these policies only to patients who are enrolled in the HMOs that had capitated the hospital for inpatient care, and not to those patients who were enrolled in a fee-for-service PPO. Is it any wonder, then, that here in Lost Vegas at the ACEP Council meeting, everyone seems to be having considerable difficulty figuring out how to define value based emergency care, or how to demonstrate to policy makers, insurance plans, regulators, legislators, hospital administrators, and patients that emergency physicians provide a valuable service and deserve to be fairly and generously compensated for this service?

With the Value Based Emergency Care Task Force’s report last year, it appeared that ACEP was taking some positive steps to prepare our specialty to respond to the value based reimbursement paradigm that was represented in health care reform legislation through Accountable Care Organization and pay for quality initiatives. Unfortunately, it would appear that the development of an Emergency Care Patient Registry database, which ACEP hoped to use to quantify the value we bring to our patients and our health care system, is impractical and too expensive. It also looks like those emergency medicine episodes of care, that would have allowed emergency physicians to participate appropriately in bundled payments, are likely to be pretty complicated and difficult to develop; and might unintentionally result in EP services being ‘classified as devoid of value’. Finally, the imperative to define how emergency physicians will integrate into the risk-sharing, pay for quality, accountable hospital-health plan-medical provider delivery models (the newly designated solution to our flawed health care system in this country) has been held hostage to the lack of clear indications as to how these organizations will actually work, and the variability that will evolve under different state regulations, different hospital systems, and different insurance plans. Given these problems and uncertainties, it is difficult indeed for ACEP to, as Gretzky once suggested, skate to where the puck is going to be.

I think part of the problem is that it’s really difficult to pin down the value-based concept. Is it more about the cost of care, or more about the effectiveness of care? For example (and I am making up these numbers), EPs could spend $10,000 a patient to generate a 55% survival from sepsis, or $30,000 a patient to generate a 65% survival rate. Which is the more ‘valuable’ protocol? You might think organizations like Kaiser have the answers, but Kaiser premiums are going up too. The perception out there is that EPs spend $35,000 per sepsis patient to achieve a 50% survival rate, and $500 to treat a strep throat when primary care docs spend $40. No wonder it seems like a nearly impossible task to identify the paths to emergency medicine participation in value based purchasing. ACEP will be turning to expert consultants to help define these approaches, but really, who knows our business better than our own members? I think the solution to this problem lies in the recognition that the question of quality or effectiveness of care is assumed to be a given; and that the expectation of legislators and regulators is that we need to provide high quality care at less cost, not the best possible outcomes at the least possible cost. This may seem like a nuance, but it is much easier to address the value proposition when value is defined by the real driver here. Let’s face it, as we are faced with looming national bankruptcy, the driver is cost, and where we need to focus is on the development of cost-effective care protocols, the identification of the best opportunities for cost savings, and the wide dissemination and adoption of these protocols so as to reduce the variability in emergency medicine practice that undermines cost-effective care. Whatever we are spending to achieve survival in sepsis, or treat the strep throat, it’s probably too much.

Another part of the problem we face with value based purchasing is a perception problem. More about that soon in PART II.

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Thank You, Albany: Verbal HIV Consents

We’ll file this under “Better Late Than Never”: As of September 1, in New York State, I only require the verbal–not written–consent of a patient for HIV testing. What a godsend. And if I get stuck with a needle, and the patient is dead or comatose, I can also test them for HIV as well. Fantastic law, and it’s about time. The written consents were Yet Another Piece of Paper (YAPAP) to get lost in or separated from the chart. I often found that patients never read the attached “fact sheet” about HIV and HIV testing, either.

Next on my list: similarly severe assault sentences for Paramedics and Emergency Department staff. (We currently have mandatory jail time for transit workers, but not for emergency workers–I view us as just as “public” a good as transit workers.) Perhaps yesterday’s tragic shooting will shine a little needed light on the issue.

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Some Additional Thoughts on ACOs

ACOs are coming to a health care market near you. About the only real difference I can see between the ACO model and the ‘managed care model’ is that health plans (or Medicare or Medicaid) will be using incentive payments to promote cost-effective care, rather than (or in addition to) capitation payments as a risk sharing (or risk transferring) strategy. These incentive payments will include aggregate payments negotiated between the ACO and the payers, and incentive payments to individual providers within the ACO that are eligible to receive these incentive bonuses. This may seem like a new approach, but it is really not much different than the ‘risk pools’ that plans once used to incentivize medical groups and IPAs to hold down costs. I guess that everyone assumes that this risk-sharing concept has a better chance to work now that all these sophisticated tools like EMRs and chronic disease management advocates are around to help coordinate care.  Some folks might argue that ACO incentives are about promoting effective care, but trust me, the emphasis is likely to be on COST first, and effective, second.

ACOs are not just meant to exist under the Medicare program, so it is likely that many of the payment methodologies and organizational entities (like IPAs, medical groups, PHOs, and integrated health systems like Kaiser) are going to get into the ACO game on the commercial side as well as the government payer side. Consequently, there might be an opportunity here to rewrite, at the federal and especially the state level, the rules under which commercial and government sponsored managed care has been operating for the last few decades. If you have the chance to influence the way ACOs will operate, and the rules they must follow, in your State, or at the federal level, you might consider promoting some of the following suggestions, which are born of many hard lessons learned from the most abusive and inappropriate practices of managed care plans and provider groups around the country (and especially in California, where managed care took root many years ago).

• A managed care model that limits the percent or number of physicians who have equity ownership of the organization is likely to promote both practice and payment policies that preferentially derive benefits for the equity holders rather than for the providers and their patients. Also, it is easier to get physicians ‘on board the bus’ if they all have an equal stake in the success of the organization. ACOs should have broad, and preferably equal, equity participation among all participating physician providers.

• Physician leadership in ACOs should continue to provide clinical services so that they experience the impact of the clinical practice policies they develop and promote.

• When developing payment policies for different physician specialties and roles in the ACO or Foundation model, consideration should be given to whether the physicians are obligated to take on the care of the under- and uninsured as a part of their practice, and these obligations should be considered part of the practice overhead of these physicians, relative to the physicians in the ACO who can and do decline to take on these responsibilities in their practice.

• Foundations and ACOs that are initiated by, or intimately tied to, hospitals have often and particularly used coercive tactics in negotiating contracts with hospital-based providers. Coercive contracting must be countered by strict rules regarding the development of fair market discount and other payment arrangements with hospital based providers, especially those whose ability to decline participation in caring for ACO patients is limited by EMTALA or by virtue of at-risk departmental staffing contracts with hospitals.

• Carve-outs and selective enrollment and dis-enrollment policies must be strictly limited in order to ensure that ACOs and Foundations do not game government sponsored capitation programs.

• Primary care centered ACOs should not be responsible for the payment of the claims of non-contracted non-elective services, as this will encourage these ACOs to inappropriately pay claims rather than manage patient care as a means of reducing costs and increasing profits.

• ACOs that take on claims payment responsibilities for all professional services should be required to contract for non-elective as well as elective specialty care services, so that the ACO does not have to rely on the EMTALA obligation of ED on-call specialists for non-elective and after-hours care.

• ACOs should not be delegated the responsibility by a health plan for paying the commercial claims of non-participating providers: this should be the responsibility of the health plan, with cap deductions or risk pool arrangements to ensure that the ACO does not over-utilize non-par provider services.

• If an ACO becomes financially insolvent, the health plan should be responsible for unpaid commercial ACO-delegated claims, under the concept of negligent delegation.

• ACOs should be accountable to their community, and not just to their assigned patients.

• ACO administrative overhead should be counted against the 85% mandatory health plan medical loss ratio requirements under health reform.

• If an ACO does not have a nurse-advice line or similar mechanism for assisting patients in deciding whether or when to use emergency department services, it should not be allowed to retroactively deny coverage for emergency department services based on the prudent layperson standard.

• Hospitals that participate in, contract with, or develop ACOs should be required to collect data on hospital inpatient and outpatient care services and outcomes that can be accessed and reported by ACO providers in order to meet performance and reporting benchmarks.

Courtesy of a recommendation from a friend, Dr. Joel Stettner, let me also suggest you view the following video, which is very funny, and sadly all too accurate:

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