Vol. 44 May 1, 2011 Why Can’t Medicare Be Like Visa?

May 1, 2011

Last week I made two purchases on the same day with my Visa card, one for $293 and one for $273, but the two transactions could not have been more different.

I spent $293 for three pieces of metal to repair line cutters on the two propeller shafts of my boat. The $273 was for a shot of the shingles vaccine, Zostavax.

At the marina, I told the parts manager what I thought I needed, and after a brief exchange he went back into the large storage area, brought out what I needed, showed me how to install them, and swiped my Visa card. I left with the parts, the receipt, the confidence that the parts would solve my boat problem, and the certain knowledge that the charge would appear on my Visa statement next month.

At the doctor’s office, I filled out the short registration/information form, was greeted by the nurse who ushered me into a small exam room, gave me the injection, and sent me back out to the front desk to sign out. And that is where all semblance to my other purchase ended. The receptionist began a little speech which sounded well-rehearsed but only because she delivers it 20 times on a vaccine day,

 “If you have Medicare Part D we can not bill your insurance. You may pay today with check, Visa, or Master card, and we will give you written instructions on how to be reimbursed by your insurance carrier. Here is the detailed receipt for today’s service that you will need to send in to your insurance carrier. Also, here is the list of the numbers they will require you to provide; our tax ID number, the physician’s  NPI number, the procedure code, and the National Drug Code number of the vaccine. Please note that there are 6 physician NPI numbers on this list, and we have circled the one you should submit as the supervising physician for today’s injection. You will need to go to your insurance carrier’s website to print out a claim form, complete it, and mail it in for your reimbursement of today’s charges. Don’t forget to include todays’ detailed printout even though you have provided much of the same  information on your carrier’s claim form. Keep copies of everything that you submit. Usually the carrier will reimburse you in about 60 days. Any questions?”

I had two…no, three immediate reactions.
1) what the hell?,
2) what is so special about this service that I need to do this instead of them?,
3) what if once a year all doctor’s offices did this for all their services to all their patients?
Boy, wouldn’t that be an eye-opener for patients!  Talk about transparency! A taste of the reality of what doctors’ offices go through every working day to get paid by multiple insurance carriers with different forms, review procedures, and deadlines might jumpstart a consumer campaign for single-payer health insurance!

But, I kept quiet and handed her my Visa card. She swiped it, had me sign the slip, and gave me a copy along with a detailed encounter printout, a page of instructions, a page with the required numbers, and a wish to “Have a nice day”. I went home printed the claim form on my carrier’s website, completed it (9 digits for practice tax ID#, 10 digits for NDC#, 10 digits for physician’s NPI#, two 5-digit procedure code #, and two 5-digit diagnosis code # ). There was no line to record one of the numbers, so I just wrote it on the bottom of the form. I attached the doctor’s office printout (being careful to follow instructions to NOT staple or paperclip any of the pages together), copied all the pages, and mailed it. The carrier’s website told me to expect them to take at least 30 days to process my claim. There was no note about when I could expect payment.

By the way, $46 of the $273.21 charge that day was for the physician. The rest was for the vaccine.

Why can’t that medical service transaction be as simple as the one for my boat parts?

Medical Services are too complex, and there are so many of them?
Have you ever seen a marina chandlery or more commonly an auto parts store? Shelves stacked with myriad parts, big and small, rising right up to the ceiling and a countertop piled high with catalogs and specification books that make the ICD-9 code books look like magazines. All  sharing space with a computer terminal usually on a swivel to make it easier for the customer to help spot the picture of the one part for the boat or car model he wants. No, complexity of inventory can’t be the barrier. Just think Amazon.com.

Fear of fraud?
By the patient? My doctor’s office staff knows me by sight, but I still have to confirm my date of birth and Medicare number every time I go in. On the very first visit I had to show a picture ID. By the doctor? In 30 days I will “audit” the charges on my Visa bill. I could do it the next day on-line if I wanted to. If I don’t agree or think that something is amiss, an email or a phone call to Visa will put it on hold. If I didn’t challenge or question the charge within 30 days, Visa could let Medicare know and Medicare could transfer the same amount as a credit to my Visa account. I’ll get to see the correctness and timeliness of that credit in my next Visa bill. If several patients reported charging problems with the same physician or office, Visa would be all over them.

If  Visa can call me within 24 hours to verify my purchase of diesel oil at a marina two states away from my home state where I had purchased oil just two days previously, I would expect them to be able to set up programs that would flag potential physician fraud. Certainly the current government and insurance carrier computer programs that have missed millions of dollars of fraudulent charges, in Florida alone, are nothing to brag about.

Too expensive?
The 7%  that Visa charges merchants and retailers for conducting transactions seems like a real bargain to me. If Citizens Bank can make enough profit on the $20 pre-payment “float” of Fast Lane, Visa could probably make an acceptable profit on the “float” from a $50 annual fee for health insurance transactions.

Lack of standard pricing?
Visa seems to be able to handle that quite well now among different airlines, hotels, catalog stores, and everyone else with a weekly special, redeemable coupons, and the like. Of course, a national standard, or at least a regional one, for health services pricing might make everyone’s life a little simpler, and easier to monitor.

Inertia, or fear of changing how we do things now?
Many hospitals, physcians and more than half of consumers currently favor a single-payer system, not because they are social liberals, or muddle-headed do-gooders, but because they are exhausted by and fed up with our current complex, inefficient, and bureaucratic payment system that is so easily manipulated by the insurance companies for their own benefit.

WHADDAYA THINK?    Take this poll to let me know.

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Vol. 38 February 1, 2011 Health Care Reform in the U.K. and U.S

February 1, 2011

 

“England and America are two great nations separated by a common language.”
-attributed to both Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw

In 1965 I spent the summer of my third year in medical school at the General Practice Teaching Unit of the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Scotland because I wanted to learn more about the National Health Service (NHS). My impression then was that both the U.K. and U.S. medical care systems were evolving toward the same end result from very different directions. (1) That viewpoint has been reaffirmed by recent events. Both countries have embarked this past year on significant health care reform. Both countries are seeking to reduce costs, improve quality, become more patient-centered, and invest in health information technology (HIT). In both countries the majority of patients are highly satisfied with the NHS or Medicare and are vigilant about not giving up any of its benefits.

Both health care reform acts are being criticized for being too timid, or too bold, or too incremental, or too radical. The U.K. plan is being attacked by some as a disastrous turn toward privatization while the U.S. plan is “another step toward socialism”, i.e. very little change in the tenor since 1965. Vocal U.K. critics on the left decry the proposed move away from regulation (NHS) toward competition and market-place economics while the vocal U.S. critics on the right warn against more regulation and movement away from reliance on competition and market-place forces.

Increased Primary Care Support
The basic foundation of the NHS has always been General Practice physicians (GPs) who have no hospital privileges and refer all patients needing hospitalization to full-time hospital specialists (Consultants). (2) In 1965, and in 1996,  such a separation of outpatient and inpatient medical practice was threatening to community physicians in the U.S. (3) Today it is difficult to recruit primary care physicians (and some specialists) to a community unless the hospital has hospitalists to care for inpatients. The community-based internist in U.S. is now more like the GP in U.K. then ever before, and that is not a bad thing.

Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs)
In the U.K. regional Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) have been responsible since 1948 for “commissioning” (purchasing) care beyond primary care; hospitals, specialists (consultants), ambulance service, maternal health. GPs advised these trusts, but did not run them. By 2013 they will. 141 GP Consortia will commission (purchase by contract) all patient care services for a defined population and will control the allocation of 80% of the NHS budget. Secondary care providers (hospitals and consultants/specialists) will be competing on quality grounds for the contracts. Prices will remain regulated nationwide by the NHS. Sounds like a physician-run Accountable Care Organization (ACO) doesn’t it? (Remember 50% of U.S. medical care services are currently paid for by our government; Medicare, Medicaid, VA, or Federal Employee Health Benefits).

Medical Home
Since most GP practices have been closely connected for years with visiting home care nurses, social workers, and other ancillary social services through the Local Health Authority and every patient needs to “register” with a GP, GP practices closely match the newly-coined U.S. definition of “A Medical Home”; i.e. a multidisciplinary primary care unit that manages, but does not provide, all aspects of the patient’s care. Now the GP referrals will more directly affect the flow of money.

HIT Investment
A $20M (million) program started in the U.K. in 2003 to develop digital patient records and hospital administrative systems outsourced to two national major vendors its imhas been poorly implemented  . The new plan calls for incentives for more local and regional initiatives from the Trusts/Consortia to move HIT along.
“Improving IT is essential to delivery of a patient-centered NHS”..a modular approach based on”connect all” rather than “replace all”.
The government proposals call for an NHS-wide “information architecture” set around standards, improvements in data accuracy, and the opening up of records to patients online. The NHS looks to saving $32B (billion) by 2015 by implementation of the revised HIT plan. There is a concern about the Trusts/Consortia having enough HIT expertise to do this is. In the U.S. the establishment of 70 Regional Extension Centers and HIT Workforce Development Grants will help implement the “meaningful use” of HIT. Neither the U.K. nor the U.S. plans have established national standards for connectivity; standards that need to be “transparent and centrally mandated” to reduce complexity. This lack of connectivity will be an increasingly vexing problem for both providers and patients in both countries.

Bottom line: Both U.S. and U.K. are evolving toward a similar mixture of public/private health care schemes from their different historical directions. They share common objectives and common problems., and neither country is finding the path to be particularly smooth. Since EVERY country’s health care system is different, and critics of health care reform on both sides of the Atlantic are whipping up fear of the “other system”, it is time to move on and expand our vision by trying to learn more from France and Germany’s experiences.

References:
1. Mathewson, H.O.. “General Thoughts About General Practice: a medical student’s view of the future of general practice in the United Kingdom.”  J Med Educ. 1968, Jan;43(1):36-41.
2. David J. Kerr, M.D., D.Sc., and Mairi Scott, M.B., Ch.B., “British Lessons on Health Care Reform” , September 9, 2009, at NEJM.org
3.Wachter R, Goldman L. “The Emerging Role of ‘Hospitalists’ in the American Health Care System”. N Engl J Med 335 (7): 514–7. 1966


Vol. 27 August 15, 2010 No One Is Perfect, Not Even Computers.

August 10, 2010

My last post described how a precisely regimented dosage of intravenous medication delivered to me over six hours by a state-of-the art computer actually depended on the existence (and the survival for 6 hours) of a handwritten yellow Stickie hanging on my IV pole. I write this post as a recipient, certainly not a victim, since no harm occurred, of a “care error” caused by a computer.

After my first infusion I grumbled to my physician that it had taken 6 hours, and that the package stuffer the nurse gave me recommended about a 2 hour infusion for someone my weight and age. He was surprised but responded, “Those nurses are really good. They probably have more information about the drug. I would go with what they say.” So I called the Head Nurse in the Infusion Center. She told me that the infusion rates come from the computer. “How does the computer know them?”, I asked.  She responded, “The Hospital Pharmacy Committee puts them in.” I called the Chief Pharmacist, noted the difference between the package insert and the computer recommendations, and asked him to review the information because I would sure like to spend just 2 hours off my boat rather than 6 for the next treatment. He contacted me a couple of days later to tell me that that medication infusion rate had been entered into the computer several years ago and was based on data from the one manufacturer of the medication. “There are now three manufacturers and two different concentrations. Each one has different infusion rates. Yours could go in over 2 hours. I will take care of updating the computer’s recommendations for your medication before the next treatment.”

The Institute of Medicine describes a medical error as “following a wrong plan of care or not completing a correct plan of care”. My computer-associated medical error was caused by “failure to update reference information”.

Do computers cause errors? The FDA maintains a data-base that categorizes voluntarily submitted adverse events associated with thousands of medical devices. Only five of the categories have the word “computer” in it. The Huffington Post made a considerable effort to analyze the most recent year’s findings in this data base and found 237 incidents that were related to health information technology. (1)

Six deaths were associated with computer adverse events. Except for two hospital-wide computer system crashes which delayed medications (both in 2006 in Cerner installations) the events included well recognized causes of NON-computer medical errors: delay in sending an x-ray image to another facility, a physician missed reading a significant “addendum note” on another physician’s progress note, an incorrect patient identification on an xray film, and an incorrect mixing of a chemotherapy solution.

Forty-three injuries associated with computer adverse events were reported. Many of these involved incorrect manufacturing of intravenous solutions rather than incorrect computer-directed delivery as well as incorrect dates, patient identification, or study type in radiology filing systems (PACs). These radiology “errors” became “injuries” when the errors were not perceived by human readers using multiple display screens, multiple screens,  screen short-cuts, etc.

Studies to date of computer errors in clinical care have by and large identified the computer/human interface as the most frequent cause of error: transcription errors, misreading of displays, mis-navigation among screens,  ignoring alerts, overriding warnings or alerts, failing to update reference and resource information. It is comforting to know that very few of these have led to harm because most of these are recognized as errors by trained clinicians before harm occurs. There is little data currently to suggest that we are just seeing the “tip of a gigantic iceberg.” Even the harshest critic of UK’s attempt to implement a nationwide EHR has been focussed on the business plans, difficulties of implementation, and cost. (2)

Several years ago a banker spent a day shadowing both an internist and a surgeon at our hospital as part of a Doctor-For-A-Day program and summed up his impression as: “A doctor’s  job seems to be a day-long search for credible data.” As long as we have well-trained clinicians providing our care, the help that computers will give them, and us as patients, in finding credible data will far out weigh any of the “new-found errors” (3) that will surely emerge as the new technology is implemented. The greatest threat to medical safety from computers will come from our trust in them, thinking that they are always right. A vigilant, skeptical clinician, and patient, is still the best defense against any subsequent harm from “computer error”.

References:

1. The Health Care Blog, “Do EHRs Kill People”, June 11, 2010, Margalit Gur-Arie
2. http://hcrenewal.blogspot.com/ – Health Care Renewal – a blog “addressing threats to health care’s core values, especially those stemming from        concentration and abuse of power”.
3.National Research Council, January 2009


Vol. 26 August 1, 2010 The YELLOW STICKIE Ain’t Dead Yet.

August 1, 2010

I’m sure that many of us “old timers” can remember the early days of computer implementation in our hospitals. At that time you couldn’t help but notice the dozens (or more) yellow Stickies plastering the nurses’ station computers, usually around the monitor’s edges, filled with keywords, short cuts, new jargon, and other information helpful to them as they strived to give up their dependence on paper. Well, thirty years later, the yellow Stickie ain’t gone just yet.

I had to go into my hospital last week to get an intravenous infusion to help me with the effects of a neuropathy. The receiving desk at the IV Infusion Center had three computer monitors with two people sitting at them. My physician’s orders were already printed out and were attached to my computer printout encounter form. After receiving my computer generated ID bracelet with bar code, I was lead into a room with four chairs, each one next to a computerized infusion pump with blinking lights and various sounds to convey different messages to the nurses caring for me. Each pump had  touch-screen data entry and a multiple color display combined, was capable of at least three distinct alert sounds, and was neatly packaged to fit on a standard IV pole. The combination of four such poles, two automatic blood pressure machines with their display screens and alert sounds, the usual wall of oxygen, suction, electrical outlets, and signal lights, a R2D2-size  mobile air conditioning unit standing in the middle of the floor with its coiled, white PVC exhaust duct winding to the wall, and four brand new baby blue Barca Loungers made me think that this is what a passenger cabin on a space ship would look like.

I was to receive intravenous medication following a protocol of precisely increasing amounts over several hours, so I lay back, opened my book, and relaxed while surrounded by all this reassuring technology.

And then I saw it. There stuck to the top of my chart…right there next to my chair… hardly noticeable…seemingly insignificant in the midst of all this electronic wizardry…nicely framed by electric wires and IV tubing…was a small piece of yellow paper.

A YELLOW STICKIE!

On it was written the settings for the proscribed stepwise increase of my medication.The physician’s orders were computerized. The pharmacy’s filling of that order was computerized. My registration and ID bracelet were computerized. My clinical record for the day was computerized. The correct step-wise increase of medication for my weight had been calculated and displayed by the computer at the nurse’s desk. …But, that computer couldn’t “talk to” the infusion pump computer, so the actual entry of correct information into that infusion pump by a nurse for each of 10 stepwise increases depended on that yellow Stickie.

When my chart got covered by a discarded newspaper the yellow Stickie was temporarily “lost” which caused a brief flurry of nurse concern. It was moved to the blue plastic of the infusion pump which repelled the yellow Stickie in a few minutes. It was next moved to the center of the IV pole itself, and there it stood, prominently and proudly revealing its data for the nurse as she entered the numbers every half-hour or so on the touch screen below. …That is, until the Stickie became unstuck while I was in the bathroom and fluttered silently to the floor, just missing the toilet bowl. An extra piece of scotch tape solved the problem of a Stickie not being sticky enough.

The medication was delivered as on the protocol, so all is well that ends well. My next post in two weeks will review some of the new data on clinical errors associated with computer use. I may title it, “THERE  AIN’T NO FREE LUNCH.”


Vol. 25 July 15, 2010 “Meaningful Use” of Electronic Health Records (EHRs)

July 15, 2010

Incentive payments via Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals and clinicians for implementing electronic medical records under the 2009 HITECH Act (Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health) require the “meaningful use of EHRs to achieve specified improvements in care delivery”, not just adoption of a hardware and software system.

On July 14, 2010 the ONC (Office of National Coordinator) of HIT (Health Information Technology) of DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) released “The Final Rule” of “meaningful use” criteria/regulations that will have to be met by both hospitals and clinicians to receive HITECH incentive money.

Number of pages of regulations/criteria in “The Final Rule”:  846

Number of years The Final Rule will actually “rule”: 2

  • The Final Rule is no where near “final”. It will merely govern the first two years of HITECH incentive payments and will be revised as the ratcheting up of EHRs standards and implementation occur over the 10 years covered by the HITECH Act.

Total amount of money estimated to be paid out over the 5 years of HITECH incentives: $27 Billion

Amount per clinician estimated to be paid out for HITECH incentives over 5 years by Medicare and Medicaid respectively: $44,000 / $63,750

Deadline for EHR implementation by clinicians to obtain the maximum incentive payments: October 2011

Year in which incentive payment is replaced by a reduction in reimbursement rates (“penalties”) for hospitals which have not implemented “meaningful use” of EHRs : 2015

Number of core measures (“data elements”) that are mandatory for “meaningful use”: 15

  • These measures are basic identification and demographic data elements that are essential to any medical record and represent a reduction from the original 23 measures. (ex. vital signs, allergies, medication list, problem list, smoking history, etc.)

Per cent of patient EHRs that must have these mandatory measures by 2011:  30 – 80% depending on the data element

  • This represents a major change from the initial draft that called for 100 % compliance in the first two years.
  • CPOE (computer provider order entry) will be required only for medication orders and the compliance threshold will be at least one CPOE medication order for 30% of the patients.

Number of optional measures to be chosen by the clinician or hospital for inclusion: 5 out of a list of 10

  • Ex. incorporate lab data as a structural data element, produce summary of care for referrals or transfers, summit immunization data to registries, etc. Many of these also have less than 100% compliance requirements.
  • Recording of advance directive status (Health Care Proxy) in 50% of patients 65 years or older is one optional measure specifically for hospitals.
  • Patient access to their records via PHR (Personal Health Record) or a Patient Portal is NOT a listed criteria yet.

Number of quality measures that are mandatory under HITECH to report to DHHS electronically in 2011-12: 6

  • The three mandatory ones, blood pressure level, tobacco use, and adult weight screening, and three additional ones chosen by the clinician from a myriad of “quality measures” represent a marked reduction in the “burden of quality reporting” contained in the initial draft.

Number of Regional Extension Centers to be established by DHHS to help hospitals and clinicians implement EHRs:  70

  • See article by Atul Gawande, MD proposing the application of the successful agricultural “extension agents” model of 1914 to health care reform of 2010 in New Yorker magazine 12/14/09. See also Alain Enthoven’s critical rebuttal of the model in Health Affairs 12/22/09.

Words from the letters of the acronyms of EHRs, ONC, and HIT:   “RECON THIs”

  • Loose translation: Keep your eyes posted for many future developments.
  • Also, better than “CHRIsT, NO!”

References:
1. Health Care Blog, July 14, 2010, “Meaningful Use” Margalit Gur-Arie
2. NEJM online, Health Care Reform Center, “Meaningful Use Regulations”, July 13, 2010, David Blumenthal


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