Reform Rodeo

November 30, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reform Rodeo 

800px-california_rodeo_salinas_lasso_bull_p105054431. Bob Laszewski at the Health Care Policy and Marketplace Review discusses the interesting bi-partisan bill recently announced by Scott Brown and Ron Wyden.

2. Brian Klepper and David Kibbe detail what would happen if employers walked away from health coverage.

3. The Health Care Blog: The Direct Project — formerly NHIN Direct — recently announced the release of its open-source software aimed at enabling secure messaging between health care providers.

4. The Health Care Economist reports on a Commonwealth Fund study which examines concentration in the Medicare Advantage market.

5. The New England Journal of Medicine has a piece on the complexity between the ACA and Medicaid expansion.


Getting Mental Health Coverage Wrong

October 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Health Reform 

jacobi_johnThanks to Frank for inviting me to review Barak Richman, Daniel Grossman, and Frank Sloan’s chapter,  Fragmentation in Mental Health Benefits and Services, in Our Fragmented Health Care System: Causes and Solutions (Einer Elhauge, ed. 2010).  The book is important and provocative.  The chapter on the fragmentation of mental health care couldn’t address a more timely issue.

People with serious mental illness, more than most other patients, struggle with health system fragmentation. As the Institute of Medicine described it,

Mental and substance-use (M/SU) problems and illnesses seldom occur in isolation. They frequently accompany each other, as well as a substantial number of general medical illnesses such as heart disease, cancers, diabetes, and neurological illnesses. *** Improving the quality of M/SU health care-and general health care-depends upon the effective collaboration of all mental, substance-use, general health care, and other human service providers in coordinating the care of their patients. *** However, these diverse providers often fail to detect and treat (or refer to other providers to treat) these co-occurring problems and also fail to collaborate in the care of these multiple health conditions-placing their patients’ health and recovery in jeopardy.

By some estimates, formerly institutionalized people with serious mental illness experience about 25 fewer years of life, mostly due to the effects of treatable physical illnesses such as cardiovascular, pulmonary and infectious diseases.  The effects of this health system fragmentation are experienced notwithstanding parity legislation, and they are felt also by people in the community with less serious mental illness, often because their primary care providers can’t find mental health providers to whom they can refer.

In Fragmentation in Mental Health Benefits and Services, the authors approach mental health system fragmentation by telling a story of the relationship between health insurance structure and income redistribution. The authors address the interrelationship between insurance “carve-outs” for mental health care and the growth of mental health parity laws. They assert that the carve out of behavioral health coverage from medical insurance provokes states to pass mental health parity laws. According to the authors, these parity laws fail to help their “intended” beneficiaries, and instead serve to redistribute resources away from low income and non-White employees.

To make their case, they mine a database of claims data for privately insured North Carolina patients. These claims data allow them to track employees’ (and, presumably, their dependents’) use of mental health services. Along the way, they raise several important issues. For example, they suggest that care provided by mental health providers may not be particularly efficacious. (299) Few would disagree that in most areas of health care — including mental health care — comparative effectiveness research is essential.   In addition, they suggest that access to and benefit from covered services varies by income and race. (298-99) It is undoubtedly true that there are class-based and race-based disparities in access to health care; this is so much discussed, in fact, that it somewhat puzzling that the authors would characterize as a “regularly overlooked question” the fact that “equal insurance and access does not translate into equitable consumption.” (279)

On some points, the authors seem to go a bit beyond their data. First, the authors assert (without citation) that mental health parity is “often” pursued “to benefit low-income and traditionally vulnerable populations.” (284) Many advocates (myself included) have argued for parity as a civil rights matter: as people with physical illness have access to insurance coverage, so should people with mental illness.  Certainly, insurance coverage is most valuable for those without the means to pay for care out of pocket, but that is as true for cardiac care as for mental health care. From this perspective, parity legislation seems no more a redistributive move than any other form of health insurance.

Second, and to distinguish parity legislation from other forms of insurance, the authors establish that the people of color and low-income insureds are less likely than others to take advantage of access to mental health practitioners. (298) Other researchers have pointed out the difficulty vulnerable populations have had gaining access to covered mental health outpatient care, even when their physicians attempt a referral, so this finding is uncontroversial. Does it follow from a finding that low-income people and people of color experience unequal use of and benefit from a covered service, that the coverage is illegitimate and should be curtailed? The logic of this assertion would call into question the continued coverage of cardiac services.  It might, rather, be wise to address the observed shortcomings in access to outpatient services for non-White and low-income patients and to seek the elimination of disparities here as elsewhere in the health finance and delivery system.

Third, the authors examine whether outpatient mental health treatment (as opposed to mental health treatment by primary physicians) is associated with a reduction in the rate of hospitalization for mental health services. They conclude that care from outpatient mental health providers does not reduce the rate of hospitalization for mental health care. (294) The authors here seem to argue that it would be unwise to “fix” the observed inequalities in access for the disadvantaged group, as the lack of association between outpatient mental health care and reduced hospitalization is weak. The authors, however, candidly acknowledge the limitations on using claims data to draw clinical conclusions, noting “unobservable heterogeneity of underlying health status” (294) and the possible “problem of unobserved severity.” (297) That being the case, it might be that the race and income disparities observed in access to outpatient mental health providers has carried though to other aspects of the mental health care system. For example, vulnerable low-income patients and patients of color might be unengaged in care, and therefore suffering with untreated mental health symptoms. Some employees or their dependents might be treated by the parallel public mental health system. It may be, in other words, that low-income people and people of color are poorly served by the mental health care system for reasons that have little to do with the efficacy of outpatient mental health care, notwithstanding their location in a university town.

The fragmentation of care for people with mental illness is an enormous public health and health finance problem. Much research needs to be done to approach the problem from all angles. The authors have done substantial work with an interesting set of claims data, and have creatively drawn links between patterns of usage and mental health outcomes.  As can be said of many forms of mental health treatment, their analysis fails to address the core issues.  But in such a difficult area of research, any advances are welcome.

Cross Posted at Concurring Opinions


Reform Rodeo

October 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Health Reform, Reform Rodeo 
Photo by David Monniaux

Photo by David Monniaux

1. The American Medical Association: In the face of new health reform requirements that are now in effect, many of the top insurers have dropped child-only health plans.

2. Kaiser Health News Daily Report: Health Care reform’s elimination of discrimination based on pre-existing conditions has not fully materialized; In a sign of what could be a backlash against health care reform, the 3M corporation announced that it will stop offering its health insurance plan to retirees. Click here for the Daily Report.

3. In a sea of pessimism, the New England Journal of Medicine explores the lessons of a health care success story: Grand Junction, Colorado — one of the cities that Atul Gawande detailed in his celebrated article in the New Yorker.

4. At the Health Care Blog, Michael Lake explores recent trends in HIT, while providing many helpful links.

5. Webcast 1: On Tuesday, October 5th: Maggie Mahar and others will be participating in a webcast where they will discuss health care reform. Click here for Mahar’s overview on her Health Beat blog, including a link to the freely-accessible live stream.


Reform Rodeo

September 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reform Rodeo 
Photo by David Monniaux

Photo by David Monniaux

[Ed. Note: HRW welcomes back Jordan Cohen from his work in Washington at HHS this summer-- the place just wasn't the same without him]

Waste: The New York Times provides an overview of a new study detailing health care wastefulness — which the Times reports as being the first study to quantify the problem.

Berwick’s Pilots: Newly appointed Medicare director Donald Berwick is pushing for hundreds of new pilot programs that would seek to innovate the delivery of health care.

Prognostication: The Health Care Blog’s David Kibbe and Brian Klepper look beyond meaningful use and distill five future trends of patient health data and clinical health information technology.

Meaningful Use FAQs: For those with questions on meaningful use, John Halamka has created FAQs.

PPACA and Employees: Researchers at RAND have published a study predicting PPACA’s effect on workers’ health insurance coverage.

Medicaid Outside the Box: Health Affairs’ Michael O’Grady and Jennifer Baxendell Young have published a post that discusses new ideas for Medicaid financing.


An ERISA Defense Conference with Nine “Renowned Federal Judges”

August 10, 2010 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Ethics 
A mosaic, "Law." Fredrick Dielman (1847-1935)

A mosaic, "Law." Fredrick Dielman (1847-1935)

On Health Reform Watch we’ve written quite a bit about transparency, accountability and gifts as it regards Pharma and Physicians. I saw this today on Illness and Insurance Hell, a rather wide ranging and interesting blog devoted to procuring assistance to a spouse with multiple sclerosis. The author takes a macro view, however, and this wound up in her web: A conference held, it seems, yearly now, in October:

“ERISA LITIGATION: Expert defense strategies for leading outside counsel and in-house counsel on litigating today’s key issues involving benefit plans and fiduciaries”

For those of you who don’t know, ERISA stands for the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. (Pub.L. 93-406, 88 Stat. 829, enacted September 2, 1974. Erisa is a

federal statute that establishes minimum standards for pension plans in private industry and provides for extensive rules on the federal income tax effects of transactions associated with employee benefit plans. ERISA was enacted to protect the interests of employee benefit plan participants and their beneficiaries by requiring the disclosure to them of financial and other information concerning the plan; by establishing standards of conduct for plan fiduciaries; and by providing for appropriate remedies and access to the federal courts.

There can be major implications for worker benefits, including  health care benefits, in cases brought against employers under ERISA. It is a complex area of law, to say the least. And it is entirely understandable that those charged with the oversight of such plans, should want to meet to discuss how best to discharge their complex duties; how best to comport themselves in a manner in accord and compliance with law; how best, as is their duty if they are attorneys, to zealously represent their clients.

The conference provides a veritable smorgasbord of effective strategies and interesting panels presented by what seems  to be a truly stellar faculty of practitioners:

Senior in-house counsel, top outside defense litigators and renowned

jurists will provide you with winning strategies and practical information on:

  • Preventing improper parties from being named as defendants and identifying available remedies

under §502(a)

  • Using the claims review process to set up, control and strengthen the defense
  • Effective strategies to strengthen the administrative record and memorialize the decision-making


  • Addressing evidence outside the administrative record, standards of review, conflicts of interest

& discovery once a suit is filed

  • The newest theories of liability in 401(k) fee cases and what to do when your plan discovers it has

paid unknown fees

  • Defending against stock drop suits and other defined contribution plan claims
  • Tibble v. Edison: the trial, theories of the defense, selection of experts, and other practical insights
  • ERISA fiduciary litigation: The newest plaintiffs’ liability theories, substantive defenses and trends

in defense pleadings and motions

  • How to structure your fiduciary’s role to minimize risk
  • Underwriting of fiduciary liability insurance and strategic ideas for litigating and settling cases

when a fiduciary (and their insurance plan) is involved

  • Judicial communication: Explaining plan documents and ERISA nuances to the court
  • New areas of liability as a result of healthcare reform
  • ERISA preemption - the procedural and substantive aspects of the defense
  • Defending against age-based and other “recessionary economy” ERISA claims: Cash balance plans,

early retirement, reductions in force, multi-employer plan funding and beyond

If you’re a law geek (I am), a legal practitioner in this area of the law, a representative of an insurer, or a member of a corporation bound by these laws, this conference looks absolutely fascinating (click here, for an overview, download pdf for the full view). And I have no doubt that attendance will be rewarded with a great deal of newly acquired knowledge and an important grasp of methodology. But the faculty also includes nine “renowned federal judges,” who “will help you convey ERISA complexities to a court.”

Having had the benefit of a legal education, I have some idea of the complexity of the matter at hand ( a quick look here will give you some idea as well)  and can fully understand how judges would want to educate practitioners defending claims so as to better execute and expedite the process.  A case, court system or retirement plan riddled with ignorance is in no one’s best interest. And a knowledge of the law enables compliance with the law.

But I would suggest, humbly, that it just doesn’t look good.  It is, after all, a conference designed to “defend against” ERISA claims. I would be at least somewhat surprised if these federal judges were speaking at a conference for impoverished workers who were deprived of their retirement benefits. If am wrong, I am gladly so. And one could make the case that the many federal judges who teach as adjuncts at law schools across the United States are doing just that–taking time out of an arduous schedule to teach law, compliance and process to what will be both defense and prosecution– because we all benefit from an effective legal system. But this conference seems a bit more–or less– than that; at least in the eyes of smart non-lawyers like the author of Illness and Insurance Hell. To her it just looks like “the fix is in.” Like Big Money is courting the Law and those inviolable robes, the buttresses of justice, have shown a slip. I have a great deal more faith in the Law than that. I capitalize the word without apology. And I have no doubt that this is just a matter of appearances–and that appearances can be misleading. But despite my efforts here, I really don’t think she, who has struggled in the legal system against an insurer to get medical help for her very sick husband, and people like her, will believe me. Or the judges. And that’s a problem.


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