What’s In the ACA Anyway? (Part 8)

Welcome back! As always, you can follow along at congress.gov, which offers a (very dry) summary and a (even drier) full text version.

Title V: Health Care Workforce

This title was written in the context of a pending nursing shortage projected to be something like a million openings by 2022. You can see at that second link that there’s also likely to be a shortage of physical therapists, dental hygienists, pharmacists, dietitians… basically anything that isn’t as glamorous and well-paid as a doctor but still requires specialized scientific knowledge.

Subtitle A: Purpose and Definitions

This section starts out by laying out the purpose of the title: to improve access to and the delivery of health care services for all individuals, particularly low income, underserved, uninsured, minority, health disparity, and rural populations. It plans to do this by improving both the quality and the quantity of medical professionals available, particularly in low-income areas.

Subtitle B: Innovations in the Health Care Workforce

This section lays out the National Health Care Workforce Commission, which apparently has never met since it was formed. This is apparently Congress’ fault: “Although members of the Workforce Commission were appointed September 30, 2010, Congress has been unable to appropriate the $3 million requested by the administration to fund the commission.” (source). Despite being well liked, this title’s funding never got approved due to the Republican congress You can read more about it at the New York Times.

This commission was meant to, among other things, hand out grants for states to do the following:

  • Analyze State labor market information in order to create health care career pathways for students and adults
  • Identify what jobs need such pathways
  • Improve the education system to produce more people who are qualified to go into health care training programs
  • Break down existing barriers preventing people from going into these fields

Each state getting a grant has to put forth matching funds: 25% of the total they’re asking for.

This section also lays out a provision for its own assessment of the health care workforce, to devise a plan to put together a response. You can find the research findings of this center online as well. A study was also conducted specifically for Alaska, the findings of which can be found in PDF format.

Subtitle C: Increasing the Supply of the Health Care Workforce

This is where the fixing the problem part begins.

First off, there are special student loans only available to people in med school; to qualify for one, previously you had to pledge to practice medicine until the entire loan was paid off, but this amends it to require 10 years of practice instead. The penalty for noncompliance was previously a 12% interest rate, but is amended to being 2% higher than compliance, due to changing interest rates across the student loan industry. This section also specifies that you don’t need a FAFSA to get one of these loans, as parent financial information is not relevant

The next section increases the amount of federal loans available for nursing students by just straight increasing all the caps in the previous legislation.

The next section establishes student loan payments by the Federal government for anyone who is willing to work as a pediatrician in an underserved area for 3 years. Which is pretty swell. The next section establishes a similar repayment program for people who are willing to work in federal, state, or tribal agencies that are underserved, regardless of speciality. The section after that extends student loan forgiveness to people in “allied health” situations, such as emergency rooms or outpatient clinics. All of this is eligible for the grants provided in subtitle B.

The next section offers grants for mid-career training, which is where health care professionals take classes after college in order to keep current on the best practices. We’re always learning new things about health care, so most providers end up needing to do these from time to time.

The next section offers grants for nurse-run clinics. These clinics see 2 million patients per year, and often act as primary care for people who are uninsured or on Medicaid.

Did you know we have a Public Health Service Commission Corps? Apparently their job is to provide medical care to indigenous folks, prevent the spread of major diseases, improve the nation’s mental health, ensure that drugs are safe and effective, ensure that cosmetics are harmless, and support biomedical, behavioral, and health services research. The ACA removes the cap on the number of officers that can be enlisted, and adds a Ready Reserve to this force for burst capability.

Subtitle D: Enhancing Health Care Workforce Education and Training 

This subtitle allows the Secretary to pay for any of the following:

  • planning, running, or participating in professional training, such as a residency or internship, in family medicine, general medicine, or pediatric care
  • med students, interns, residents, or physicians in the above fields who cannot afford tuition
  • training people to teach the above fields
  • training physicians in community-based settings
  • training physician-assistants
  • creating professional development training
  • creating joint degree programs
  • creating more medical degree programs
  • training dentists and dental professionals
  • awarding schools and medical facilities who are doing well at training medical professionals in specific areas, such as chronic illness or underprivileged populations
  • creating training programs, awards, and fellowships in geriatric care, including geriatric dentistry
  • recruiting students for mental health, behavioral health, and social work
  • doing research and demonstration projects around prevention, cultural competency, disabilities, and reducing health disparities
  • creating nurse retention programs to prevent nurses from leaving the field

One section establishes grants for schools who are in programs to provide training and residency situations for people interested in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes (again, remember that the baby boomers are getting old enough to start needing that kind of care).

A demonstration program is put together in this subtitle to show the usefulness of non-dentist dental professionals in serving rural or underserved areas. Generally, oral hygiene is very important in a population, because poor oral health can escalate into poor overall health, but people tend to look at it as “just teeth” and not worry as much about it.

Another portion of this subtitle creates a loan repayment program for nurses the same way there are some for medical students. This includes nurse-midwives, but only if they are accredited programs, much the same as medical schools must be.

Another portion straight out establishes advanced degree programs at various schools in the fields of public health, epidemiology, and emergency preparedness and response. Furthermore, a one-year program is established to train nurse practitioners to be primary care providers, since they already are.

Subtitle E: Supporting the Existing Health Care Workforce

The first section here increases federal funds for medical schools to improve the number of minorities going into health care; we also here get some scholarships being created. The second section makes physician assistant education programs eligible for loan repayments. I’m not really sure at this point how or why they’re organizing all this; I’d have put all the loan repayment stuff together, but what do I know.

There are new grants established for med schools to not only improve diversity of skin color and background, but also diversity of specialty: promoting interdisciplinary training that includes midwifery, psychology, dentistry, and other training.

A special grant is set up for people working in underserved communities who want further education, including telelearning, conferences, and distance learning opportunities.

Grants that existed to help with retention are expanded to include bridge programs and degree completion programs, for people who were almost done with their degree but had to drop out.

A program is set up to educate primary care providers. Primary care providers are, by definition, the first line of detection in just about any field; this program educates them in chronic disease management, mental health, substance abuse, and preventative medicine. Chronic pain is often treated only with opiates, leading to substance abuse problems, and mental health problems are suspected to be widely underdiagnosed.

Subtitle F: Strengthening Primary Care and Other Workforce Improvements

This opens with Medicare payments to primary care practitioners and general surgeons in underprivileged areas. It then goes on to redistribute how many residents each hospital can have subsidized by the government, and allows for residents in non-provider settings to count those hours toward their residency requirements.

The next section allows the Secretary to pay grants for demonstration programs that will provide low-income individuals with training in fields that are likely to see shortages in the near future. This both improves employment and reduces shortages, so it’s basically a win-win here.

More money is allocated for teaching health centers to create residencies. Time that people in the National Health Service Corps spend teaching counts toward their service requirements, to provide more teachers for these centers. Furthermore, money is set aside for clinical training for nurses at hospitals as well.

Subtitle G: Improving Access to Health Care Services

More money is set aside for health centers in underserved populations. In addition, the Secretary is asked to come up with a comprehensive criteria for what an underserved population is, and the same for a health shortage area.

The Wakefield Act is extended, which provides more funding for the Emergency Medical Services for Children, whose purpose is improving pediatric emergency care.

A grant is outlined for centers where people with co-morbid chronic illness and mental illness can be treated holistically.

A commission is put together to review key national metrics in health and make suggestions as to further improvements.

Finally, a grant is put together for health centers that treat a large number of underserved people.

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What’s In The ACA Anyway? (Part 7)

Welcome back! As always, you can follow along at congress.gov, which offers a (very dry) summary and a (even drier) full text version.

Title IV:  Prevention of Chronic Disease and Improving Public Health

One of the things that leads to a high cost of care is, put bluntly, people getting sick. Especially if they’re getting sick with preventable diseases; every person who refuses a vaccine and has to be treated for measles or whooping cough takes up resources that could be used to treat someone with a broken arm or pneumonia, leading to longer waiting lists, crowded hospitals, and so on. So it makes sense to include programs to try and improve the overall health of individuals when you’re talking about health care reform.

Subtitle A: Modernizing Disease Prevention and Public Health Systems

This subtitle created the “National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council”, and appointed the Surgeon General as its chairperson. Like everything else created by this act, they have a website, so its not hard to see what they’re working on: reducing the number of smokers, preventing drug abuse and excessive drinking, “healthy eating”, active living, “injury and violence-free” living, reproductive and sexual health, and mental well-being. I won’t talk here about my feelings on our country’s emphasis on dieting to control health, but most Americans would agree that these things are generally meant to improve the health of individuals, right?

This section also created an Advisory Group. I believe the difference is that the council is made of government employees, while the advisory group is collecting non-government-employees, to ensure that there’s input from experts in the field as well.

Along with the council and advisory group are the usual slew of reports, funding, and studies. This also instructs the CDC to be involved, particularly in creating a “national science-based media campaign on health promotion and disease prevention” and a website where people can put together a personalized health plan. I am not certain what this is; I’m seeing things like this website, but I’m also seeing mentions of helping providers produce personalized plans for their patients, so this might be aimed at them instead. It’s through the CDC, so maybe it’s just this portal? The text specifies that it should be “a source of the most up-to-date scientific evidence relating to disease prevention for use by individuals”, and that it should include “a component that enables
an individual to determine their disease risk (based on personal health and family history, BMI, and other relevant information) relating to the 5 leading diseases in the United States, and obtain personalized suggestions for preventing such diseases.” If you can find that, let me know in the comments!

Subtitle B: Increasing Access to Clinical Preventive Services

This section begins by providing funding for school-based health centers. You can find an overview of what these are, where they are, and who they serve in the census that comes out every few years.

The next section is concerned with dental disease: it asks the CDC to put together a campaign for oral health, including creating a program to provide dental sealants to schoolchildren, and public education on oral health. Oral health is also added to the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey.

Fun fact: Did you know that gum disease is linked to heart disease and low birth weight? You know, the leading cause of death in the US and one of the biggest factors for infant mortality? So dental care is definitely not something to overlook.

The next bit establishes personal prevention plan coverage for Medicare. Basically,  for free, everyone with medicare gets to have a physical (or “annual wellness visit”) with their doctor, followed by a consult to establish a plan to get them healthier tailored to their lifestyle and needs; the ACA provides for tooling to help physicians accomplish this. This plan includes a list of risk factors, and a schedule for followups to make sure you’re on track.

It also eliminates copays under Medicare for items that are recommended by the US Preventative Services Task Force, and authorizes the Secretary to continue adding anything they recommend in the future to this list. Right now this is mostly screenings for common issues, like hepatitis and tuberculosis, plus counseling for things like tobacco use, and some supplements. Vaccines are also called out by the ACA as explicitly free. Finally, there’s the usual grants to states who manage to come up with innovative new ways to improve general public health.

Subtitle C: Creating Healthier Communities

This section starts out with a carrot: money for states and cities who come up with innovative evidence-based programs for

  • create healthier school environments (including reforming school food, adding more physical activity, promoting emotional wellness, and preventing chronic disease)
  • creating infrastructure to give more people healthy food and an active lifestyle
  • developing programs for all ages that increase nutrition, physical activity, and socal and emotional wellness
  • developing programs for all ages that reduce smoking and chronic disease
  • creating workplace wellness programs
  • highlighting “healthy” food options at restaurants
  • reducing racial and ethnic disparities in health
  • meeting health needs of special populations

It also specially calls out programs for seniors aged 55 to 65 for physician screenings and referrals, probably aiming to reduce the burden of seniors 65+ by helping them get healthier earlier. The secretary is similarly asked to investigate programs for Medicare recipients to help them develop healthier habits. Another pilot program is commissioned later for people who use “community health centers” to be given access to the same kind of information.

This section also calls for the creation of standards around medical equipment to ensure it’s disability-accessible. This includes examination tables, chairs, scales, x-ray machines, and so forth.

There’s also a section on vaccines for adults, authorizing the state to purchase and deliver vaccines. An older act authorizing the states to hand out free vaccines (for adults and kids) was extended, and a study is commissioned to ensure that adults 65 and older are getting the vaccines they need. We usually talk about vaccines as though that’s something that only affects children, but flu and HPV vaccines can be enormously helpful for adults.

Do you remember when fast food places started putting calorie counts on the menu? That’s the ACA too, trying to solve the “obesity epidemic”. Their hearts were in the right places, I guess.

This is also the place where nursing mothers get a boost: employers must offer a place for them to express breast milk that is not a restroom, and must allow time to do so for a year after a child is born. However, that is not required to be a paid break.

Subtitle D: Support for Prevention and Public Health Innovation

This is where the science really kicks in! We open with funding for research into public health services and symptoms. This research specifically includes

  • evidence-based practices aimed at preventing diseases
  • how well academic models translate to reality, and
  • effective strategies for delivering services in the real world

This comes in the form of an annual report.

Next, some changes to research standards. All reports or survey for the federal government must include the following:

  • data on race, ethnicity, sex, primary language, and disability status
  • data at the smallest practical geographical level (so that comparisons of regions can be made)
  • enough data to come up with “statistically reliable estimates” grouped by racial, ethnic, sex, primary language, and disability status

Each of the demographic categories listed above are held to certain standards, to prevent gaming the data by redefining groups. There are also standards to be developed in how the data is collected, and in the interoperability of systems so that the data can be shared. All of this is considered health data, and held to high privacy standards.

The Secretary is then asked to put together tools to help employers measure how well their employee wellness programs are going; this is explicitly forbidden from becoming a standard on how employee wellness programs must be carried out, but instead just a set of tools to help employers help themselves.

$190 million dollars is set aside for grants for studies into disease management and the prevention of epidemics.

As someone with a chronic pain condition, this is my favorite part: the ACA digs into pain specifically. It begins with the Conference on Pain, the findings of which were laid out in this document. Then, a committee is created to continue researching pain after the conference. Money is laid out for education in the area of pain management, including both acute and chronic pain. More and more we’re beginning to realize that chronic pain is very different than acute pain, and is a condition in its own right, requiring more nuanced treatment than an opiate prescription. Unfortunately, we have a lot of people hooked on opiates because we didn’t realize that sooner.

Finally, funds are laid out to tackle childhood obesity.

Subtitle E isn’t worth a heading; the senate concludes that the effects of wellness programs are hard to measure, and allocated some funds toward fixing that in the future.

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Let’s talk about gender

(I promise, I’m going to get back to the ACA bill real soon now. This is just some collected thoughts I’ve been meaning to write about)

Let’s start here: When I was little, I don’t think I was a little girl. My parents did, but I’m not so sure.

I didn’t want to join Girl Scouts, I wanted to join Boy Scouts. I played with Barbies, but they went on adventures to rescue Ken while riding on my stuffed animals (I used hairbands to attach them to the stuffed dogs). I played with army men and Legos and lincoln logs, making forts and staging large sieges. I created rules for how far you could move an army man in a turn using a ruler, so we could play out fair battles in the backyard. I wanted to be a dog. I rode bikes, and played pretend fantasies. I loved Pokemon. I wrestled, and I threw rocks, and I kicked and bit and fought dirty. I triumphed over my enemies, and I played with the boys more than I played with the girls. I wasn’t a tomboy; tomboys liked sports. But I didn’t really feel like a girl either.

I’ve described myself in the past as a failure of a girl. Literally, that’s been my gender: I’m a girl, but I suck at it so badly I barely qualify.

I’ve described myself as a nerd tomboy: like a tomboy, but with geekery instead of sports. And that mostly fits me. Most of the time.

Sometimes I see something depicting women or depicting men and I just don’t want to be a woman anymore. Sometimes I have dysphoria. Always, I really wish I had a penis. It just seems so much cleaner, so much less fussy, so much easier to deal with.

(To be fair: always I have some kind of dysphoria, but it changes from day to day)

Sometimes I put on my corset and I put on my dresses and I love how I look and feel. Sometimes I wear makeup. Mostly I can’t be bothered, but sometimes I do.

But sometimes I look at binders and long for something that would flatten my breasts so I can get the right silhouette.

I crossdress, daily, for work: I wear men’s clothing, despite presenting female. This started out of fear and incompetence: I didn’t and don’t know how to dress like a woman in 2017. I can dress like a woman in a time when gender roles were more rigid, but I can’t seem to get the hang of the fluidity in dress expression, where the rules are firm yet subtle, hard to tease out. Off the clock I wear jeans and t-shirts.

I want to be androgynous. But you can’t look androgynous and be fat. Everyone who you see androgynous is thin, so they don’t have much in the way of breasts, and keeps their hair short enough to be ambiguous. I would love to play with gender, but I feel trapped into a female expression.

I don’t know what words to use for myself other than queer. This is one of the things I was thinking about when I changed the name of my blog: my gender is “Other” and I’m not sure how to specify.

This hasn’t been an article so much as a word dump, a feelings vomit about gender. Is anyone out there who feels like me? Does anyone relate? Sometimes I feel alone. I don’t want to be.

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What does Alabama Senate Bill 20 say?

I got into a discussion today about Alabama Senate Bill 20, so I figured I’d do a piece on this bill in the same vein as the ACA ongoing series. The full text is available for this bill online as well.

This is a nice, short, concise bill. I’m skipping the synopsis because I don’t believe that part would be legally binding, and we’re keeping an eye out for loopholes here.

This bill amends the existing legislature Sections 22-9A-17, 30-1-5, 30-1-12, and 23 30-1-16 of the Code of Alabama 1975. It removes sections with the following effects:

  • The Office of Vital Statistics will record all marriages
  • A Probate Judge will prepare the form to give to the OVS
  • The officiant who performed the marriage will fill out and return the form to the judge within 30 days of the marriage ceremony
  • The judge must forward the completed marriage forms to the OVS on or before the 5th of each month
  • The entire current process for amending a marriage recorded in the above manner

If this bill becomes law, all of that ceases to exist. It is replaced with the following:

  • “the only requirement for a marriage in this state shall be for parties who are otherwise legally authorized to be married to enter into a marriage as provided herein.” This literally states that anyone who wants to be married can, provided they pass a few tests
    • The judge still gets to collect the same recording fee as before, though. This bill does not affect the civil costs of marriage
  • This bill creates a “marriage document” that contains the following:
    • Identifying information about both parties (as laid out elsewhere in existing legislature). I think this is a circular reference: it says 22-9A-6, but that just says that each document is spelled out below, and 22-9A-17 (the bit pertaining to marriages) is what’s being amended here.
    • The full legal names of both parties
    • A notarized affidavit (basically a legally binding statement) from both parties that states the following:
      • The person signing is not already married
      • The person signing is at least 18, or is at least 16 with parental consent
      • The person signing is legally competent (not under guardianship or something like that)
      • The parties are not related legally (with a reference to the laws that pertain)
      • The person signing is not being coerced
    • A signature from each party
  • A  marriage is valid as of the date it was “executed”, so long as the court is informed within 30 days. This appears to mean that signing the form makes you legally married.
  • A ceremony may be conducted. However, the state may not require that a ceremony be conducted.
  • The forms mentioned above are considered a “legal record of the marriage of both parties”
  • A copy of the form will be sent to the OVS
  • If there’s an error on the form, a corrected version may be filed, and the costs are the same as filing the original. The amended versions will say they have been amended, and the judge will file them and forward them to OVS. If the two parties disagree on what the amendment should be, they have to settle it in court.
  • This bill does not affect divorce, child custody, child support, or spousal support. (It says that right on page 10)
  • All requirements to obtain a marriage license are repealed
  • The requirement to hold a ceremony is repealed
  • The Alabama Law Institute will create a form to meet the needs above
  • This bill will take effect 30 days after it is signed

Other parts of the bill change parts of the existing legislature:

  • Parental consent for 16 year olds is still required, but the requirement changes to being an affidavit that is notarized and filed
  • Instead of keeping a record of marriage licenses issued, the judge now keeps a record of marriages recorded

And that’s it. That’s the bill.

Now for my editorializing: I think this is a good bill, on the face of it. The current concept of how marriage works is that the government checks if the marriage is legal, then issues a permission to get married (the “license”). Then, an officiant performs an actual ceremony; this officiant has to be registered with the courts, making the choices in many areas only consist of a clerk or a Christian pastor. Religious officiants often put extra requirements on the couple, like marriage counseling or religious tests; civil clerks require you to get married in a small ceremony at the courthouse, since they don’t usually travel. So it makes you conform to what is “normal” in your marriage ceremony. Furthermore, the law requires a ceremony; you can’t just decide to be married on your own, you have to have the big hoopla. Under this bill, you decide what you want the event of your marriage to look like, and then tell the court “by the way, we got married”. This is less burdensome to the couple, and allows for a wider variety of ceremonies — if you wanted to have a handfasting in your backyard, and you don’t have a Wiccan officiant, you would have to also go to the courthouse, and that courthouse visit is considered your “real” wedding since that’s the official date your marriage began. Under this bill, you just do it, and tell the court “we were married on X date”. It’s getting the government out of the business of legitimizing religious ceremonies, and I approve.

I hope that helps.

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What’s in the ACA anyway? [part 6]

Welcome back! We’ve gotten through the general reforms and are ready to tackle the exchange. As always, you can follow along at congress.gov, which offers a (very dry) summary and a (even drier) full text version.

Title III (continued)

Specific Medicare Part Reforms

Subtitle C: Provisions Relating to Part C” talks about reforms to Medicare Part C. Part C is also called “Medicare Advantage Plans”; it’s basically a private company subcontracting for Medicare itself, so that your Medicare benefits are actually served through this company. This section implements the following reforms:

  • (It’s the return of the bulleted list! Are you excited?)
  • For each market, the amount paid out is set to the average of the bids in the area. This could be problematic if they join forces to raise the bids, but that’s illegal I’m pretty sure, so they figure that won’t happen and it’ll keep the rate competitive. Plus the Secretary is asked to set up some rules to keep the playing field fair, so there you go, problem solved I guess.
  • But the plan does add performance bonuses for doing well at providing service, including paying out more if you save Medicare money and paying bonuses if you provide particularly high quality care or manage the care in a particularly efficient way
  • Plans are now forbidden from charging more to the beneficiary for chemo, dialysis, or nursing than the original Medicare plans would have charged, so they can’t save money by making it back from people with cancer and charging them more copays
  • If things are coded differently for these plans vs the original plans, the Secretary is tasked with adjusting the payouts to handle that. This I think is meant to reduce fraud?
  • It also provides a mechanism where you can quit your MA plan and go back to the original Medicare every year, between January and March. That way if your MA plan stinks, you can get out of it
  • The Special Needs Plans are extended, so those continue existing
  • A new type of MA plan is created that only applies to people in nursing homes
  • The Secretary is not required to accept any bid for a plan that would increase costs for beneficiaries or decrease benefits. I think this means those plans don’t get created if the bid isn’t accepted, so that the ones that are available are more likely to be fair.
  • The National Association of Insurance Commissioners is created

Subtitle D deals with Medicare part D: “Medicare Part D Improvements for Prescription Drug Plans and MA-PD Plans”. Part D is the part that covers prescriptions.

  • This section opens strong by instructing the secretary to create a program where people on medicare pay less for brand-name drugs, and spells out the incentives for manufacturers to partake (their brands won’t be covered if they don’t).
  • It also creates rules where widows get longer after their spouse’s death before they have to deal with the paperwork to re-assess their eligibility for medicare (1 year)
  • If and when the Secretary moves people around between plans, the ACA lays out the information they are required to be presented with so they can understand their new coverage
  • The plan allows the Secretary to define classes of drugs, such as antipsychotics or immunosuppressants, that are of particular concern to the overall health of the American people; all drugs in those classes must be covered by medicare part D
  • To pay for a lot of this, people who qualify for Part D but at a higher income level pay more in premiums
  • The Secretary is asked to enforce reforms in drug dispensing for long-term support care facilities to eliminate waste involved with 30-day refills
  • The Secretary is asked to create a complaint system to efficiently resolve complaints and retain the information associated with them
  • All sponsors of prescription plans have to provide a uniform appeals process with a toll-free number and a website
  • Drugs used to treat AIDS count toward the out-of-pocket limit

Subtitle E deals with “Ensuring Medicare Sustainability“. This funds a lot of the other reforms; first, it adjusts the costs of everything up to compensate for inflation, and secondly, it increases the premiums by income level. It also establishes a board to keep an eye on medicare spending over time. Weirdly enough, it also sets up a study to measure the quality of psychiatric hospitals; I guess those are expensive?

Subtitle F is back to “Health Care Quality Improvements“. It creates the following programs:

  • This funds the Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety to carry out research and create grants according to that research
  • It creates grants for establishing community-based interdisciplinary teams to support primary care doctors
  • It creates grants for medication management services for chronic illness
  • It creates grants for innovation in emergency care services
  • It creates grants for trauma centers on tribal lands
  • It creates grants for “patient decision aids” to help people make health care decisions
  • A study is funded for researching if better labelling of prescriptions would be useful
  • It creates an Office of Women’s Health to study women’s health needs

Subtitle G, “Protecting and Improving Guaranteed Medicare Benefits“, is one of those CYA protections: it states that nothing here can accidentally reduce benefits, and any money saved by the above measures goes right back into Medicare to increase the solvency.

And that’s the end of Title III!

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What’s in the ACA anyway? [part 5]

Welcome back! We’ve gotten through the general reforms and are ready to tackle the exchange. As always, you can follow along at congress.gov, which offers a (very dry) summary and a (even drier) full text version.

Sorry for the gap between parts. Self-care is really important right now, and as you well know, there’s been a lot of draining news coming from the Republican administration the past couple weeks. I’m still plugging away, but as the parts get longer, it’s going to stay fairly slow because I can only do it in small chunks. Stay well, and let me know if you’re interested in helping 🙂

Today we’re starting with “Title III: Improving the Quality and Efficiency of Health Care”. Spoiler alert: there are TEN titles. TEN. We’re on THREE. So this is going to be a long series.

Transforming Health Care

This section is all about “Subtitle A: Transforming the Health Care Delivery System”. This subtitle has three parts.

Linking Payment to Quality Outcomes

The first part is an effort to link payments made by Medicare to quality outcomes; in essence, you do a better job, you get more money. The first of these reforms is for hospitals: hospitals that do well with heart attacks, heart failure, pneumonia, surgeries (presumably reducing post-surgical infections, judging by the name of a previous act that this is expanding), and healthcare-associated infections (as in, you go to a hospital, you come away with an infection) get more money as an incentive. The exact details are left for the Secretary to come up with. The Secretary was commanded to make the details available at the Hospital Compare website, and also to make the overall website more accessible, since apparently it was pretty poorly designed at the time. There are also a few reports about hospital care commissioned by this act.

The next reform puts together some demonstration programs for value-based purchasing around inpatient critical access hospital services and for hospitals excluded based on not having enough case studies. This changes the way hospitals are paid by Medicare overall, so that they are paid based on the quality of care rather than the quantity of services. Furthermore, programs are established (a little later in the act) for value-based purchasing in nursing centers, home health agencies, and ambulatory surgery centers. I find myself at a loss to comment really, since I don’t understand the nuances of hospital billing, but the link above is a great place to start learning about it if you want.

The existing Physician Quality Reporting System was extended by the ACA, and more penalties were added for physicians not reporting their stats, so I guess that was working well.

Long-term care hospitals, inpatient rehabs, and hospice programs are a particular focus of the ACA, as we saw in part four;  here, they’re asked to start reporting quality metrics the same way physicians were, along with cancer hospitals. The Secretary gets to define what measures they report on.

Finally, the bottom quartile (so, worst 25%) of hospitals for hospital-acquired conditions (or, in essence, the ones that are the least clean and sanitary) get a penalty on their payment rates for procedures: they lose 1% of their fees for every patient coming through.

Strategy to Improve Health Care Quality

Part two is the “National Strategy to Improve Health Care Quality”, which is pretty straightforward. This isn’t particularly exciting; it’s all about putting up funds to create programs to actually do things, which is pretty much how the government usually works.

The first thing is the creation of the eponymous National Strategy, which you can read in its entirety at the link I provided. To summarize, the Secretary suggested:

  • Reducing the harm done in the delivery of care, such as hospital-acquired infections (1.7 million per year, costing $5 billion annually)
  • Improving communication and coordination between providers and patients
  • Ensuring that care is not only lead by the patient but also their family
  • Promoting effective treatments for common diseases, starting with cardiovascular disease (1 in 3 deaths, costing $500 billion annually)
  • Working with communities to improve healthy living
  • Making care more affordable

Yet another website is commissioned; for basically all the initiatives in the ACA, someone has to make a webpage explaining it. Better than the alternative, I suppose. Furthermore, a workgroup was created with members of 24 different agencies to create a holistic plan of action to streamline activities relating to public health concerns.

At least once every three years, the Secretary is asked to look over the existing quality measures and search for gaps where more attention is needed. They are able to create grants and government contracts to reward people based on these extra measures. A multi-stakeholder group  is set up to allow various interested parties to discuss and recommend quality measures to be implemented. And finally, the Secretary is charged with gathering reports and publishing them on a public website.

New Patient Care Models

The next part is “Encouraging Development of New Patient Care Models”. When the act was written, the best recommendations were incorporated and rewarded, to try and bring our care up to the current recommended level. But what about the future? This part allows for the creation of a Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to test out new payment and service delivery models to see if they improve the standard of care. These models include:

  • Payment and practice reform for primary care, including centers that specialise in particular types of care
  • Using comprehensive care plans to coordinate multiple physicians for geriatric care
  • Using home-“telehealth” technology and a chronic disease registry to better treat people who are likely to need hospitalization
  • Rewarding doctors who use imaging technology by paying them more
  • Paying doctors more who use tools to help patients manage their own care
  • Paying more for hospitals who use the latest recommendations for cancer treatments
  • Allowing patients to coordinate their own outpatient care, such as physical therapy, without needing a referral

This part also includes the creation of a shared services program for Medicare . Best I can tell, this is meant to convince suppliers and providers to work together for the good of the patients, improve accountability, and encourage investment in infrastructure that both sides need. Basically, a bunch of medicare suppliers and providers get together in an organization, and if they report that they’ve saved money and become more efficient, they get money from the government as a reward.

The next program is a pilot on payment bundling. Okay so, basically, sometimes you have an incident and you have to go to the hospital, right? For the three days leading up to the hospital, the length of the hospital stay, and the month after the hospital, you’re likely going to need care for the whatever it was. This might include inpatient services, outpatient services, doctor visits, nursing, rehab, stuff like that. This program sets up bundles of services, so like, a torn ligament hospital trip plus the PT you need to rehabilitate after plus a few visits to a sports medicine specialist to check on how well the function is coming back might be one bundle, with one set price for Medicare to pay. They also would have to report a whole bunch of metrics about whether this helps you rehabilitate faster or better than someone who doesn’t have this bundle. I guess the idea is that people’s copays stack up and they drop out of the program.

There’s another program set up to determine whether a model that allows a physician and/or nurse practitioner to treat certain patients continuously at home would prevent hospital readmissions, reduce emergency room visits, improve health outcomes, and improve patient and family satisfaction. This is aimed at people with two or more chronic illnesses who have been hospitalized and who require help with basic necessities like dressing, feeding, and toileting. Rather than rely on untrained family members, having a nurse come by frequently might help reduce the overall cost of care if it reduces hospital visits.

Another program, called the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program, penalizes hospitals that have “excessive” readmissions of patients, implying that they are not giving them good care to begin with. It also allows for the Secretary to create programs to help those hospitals reduce their readmission rates, and one to transition high-risk patients to non-hospital care. This last program specifically calls out Depression as one of the eligible conditions, implying that this can be a suicide prevention tactic; presumably, being release from the hospital prematurely after a suicide attempt can lead to a second attempt and hospitalization, while support groups and the like can help prevent relapse.

Finally, to help with the budgeting, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 is extended in the ACA.

Improving Medicare

The next subtitle is “Subtitle B: Improving Medicare for Patients and Providers”. Here we have, as before, three parts.

Access to Care

Part one is about “Ensuring Beneficiary Access to Physician Care and Other Services”. The first thing it does is tweak the calculations on how expensive a physician is relative to other physicians in the area, amending the Social Security Act that created Medicare. I think that means you’re allowed to see a more expensive doctor, but I’m not 100% on that; again, as with all the bits that amend other bits, I find myself at a bit of a loss to explain, as I am not a lawyer and have little understanding of what the previous amendments were.

The next few pieces have all expired: they extended a few existing exceptions to rules until 2010 or 2011. This includes paying labs directly when they’re being outsourced to from rural hospitals, paying for air ambulance rides in urban areas, and increasing the bonuses paid to ground ambulances. I have no idea if they were extended again or have totally expired.

They also allow a physician assistant who is collaborating with a physician instead of working under them to certify that a patient needs extended post-hospital care. This closes a loophole about who can sign off on the paperwork to make it easier to get care.

The next item offers more choice to vets and their families. This is a bit complicated, but essentially, Original Medicare has two parts: hospital-only emergency coverage (part A), and regular medical insurance (part B). There’s also something called TRICARE, which is available to military retirees, their spouses, and their children. If you are on TRICARE and eligible for Medicare Part A,  and you have declined part B, you get a year to change your mind and go on Part B.

The next item sets the payment for bone density tests to 70% of what it was in 2006, and commissions a study to look into the ramifications of doing so. I believe this is related to a 2009 recommendation that fewer women get the tests; my hunch is that medicare stopped paying for them around then, and this restores the coverage. I could be wrong here.

The Medicare Improvement Fund was defunded by this act.

Another demo project is created here as well, this one measuring a way to pay for complex lab services separately.

Finally, the payments for midwife services is increased to 100% of what a physician would be paid for the same service; previously, it was 60%.

Rural Protections

Part II: Rural Protections” must not exist, given Obama never did anything for rural white folks. I kid, I kid.

The first thing it does is extend an existing “hold harmless” agreement, giving extra money to hospitals who would receive less payments under the newer Outpatient Prospective Payment System than they did under the cost-based payment systems (up to 85% of the difference). Furthermore, it removes the 100-bed minimum for hospitals that are the only hospital in a given area to qualify.

The ACA extends a lot of existing agreements, actually. It extends an existing act that provides more reimbursement for small (under 50-bed) hospitals for clinical diagnostic laboratories. It extends and expands the Rural Community Hospital program to continue testing its effects on small rural hospitals. It extends the Medicare-Dependant Hospitals program, which adjusts payments for small hospitals who do most of their business with medicare. It extends and expands the Community Health Demonstration Project to pay more for hospitals that provide critical care but don’t get enough patients to keep them solvent on their own, and adds more payments for them for ambulance rides and outpatient care. It extends the FLEX program to pay for more preventative services at these hospitals. And finally, it establishes a program to study how well rural hospitals are being paid.

Payment Accuracy

Part III: Improving Payment Accuracy” starts out strong, commanding the Secretary to adjust payments for in-home services based on the average cost of providing care, as well as the number, type, and level of intensity of services seen in a typical episode. It also commands the Secretary to study and report on Medicare beneficiaries who are in “medically underserved” areas with varying severities of illness, and put together a program to help them.

The next few revisions are around hospice care: the Secretary is asked to study and come up with a plan to revise the way hospices are paid in a budget-neutral way. There is also a medical review requirement put in place for any hospice stay of over 180 days.

To reflect the lowered cost of acute hospital care, the price Medicare will pay for it is reduced in this act. The Secretary is authorized to reduce payments for other services if physicians are being overpaid, or increase them if they are underpaid. Generally, though, care costs have been skyrocketing, so it’s likelier to reduce the payments than increase.

The next bit gets complicated. Basically, when calculating how much use a hospital should get out of a specific imaging machine, like an x-ray machine, previously, the government assumed it was in use 50% of the time; half the session, someone’s using the machine. The ACA increases that to 75%, though only for high-tech imaging systems (meaning not x-rays or ultrasounds, but yes on fMRI and so on). This affects how much is paid for the imaging session, but I can’t tell if it goes up or down; most of the sources I’ve found assume you know how this is billed already. I think it goes up, because it pays for 45 minutes worth of machine use out of a 1 hour appointment? But I’m not sure. It also reduces the payout on second and third body parts you scan in the same session, because it doesn’t actually take that much work to set up the machine to run the same patient a few times compared to a few different patients, so they can’t scam the system by claiming the full price.

When purchasing power wheelchairs, Medicare is required now to pay in installments over time instead of in a single lump-sum, except for the most high-end wheelchairs.

There is some weird shell game involving temporarily reclassifying a hospital in a low-payment area as being in a high-payment area so it gets paid more; the ACA extends it.

The Secretary is charged with coming up with a plan to reform the hospital wage index. This appears to be a big index that spells out how much each type of physician in each area should be paid, so Medicare can tell if they’re being paid fairly or not.

There’s a study to see if cancer-related hospitals that do not qualify to be paid for inpatient services are charging more for outpatient services and, if so, what should be done about it.

For antibodies, enzymes, and other non-vaccine biological products, the ACA created a rate at which Medicare will pay for what is basically a generic version as opposed to the brand-name.

Another experiment is set up where patients who are in hospice can also receive other services under Medicare at the same time, to see if that’s effective. There’s another study commissioned to see if urban hospitals require more payment for inpatient services. And finally, there’s an extra protection for home health benefits, so that nothing here can reduce them on accident.

I was going to go further in this post, but I’m ill at the moment, ironically, and I want to keep forward momentum. So stay tuned for more. 

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Brief Interruption: Climate Change

I’m still working on the next ACA post. I just wanted to leave this here before it was purged from the internet on Trump’s orders:

National Park Services Report: Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy

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