Category Archives: public health

The Affordable Care Act is Good for Colorado (and Repeal is Not)

The effects of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 in each state depend on various factors, such as the number of uninsured individuals in the state and the governor’s receptiveness to the law’s provisions. In this post, I focus on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in Colorado, primarily from the perspective of my job as an emergency department (ED) physician, in support of my argument that the ACA must not be repealed–instead, I recommend that it be strengthened. In a prior post, I summarized estimates of the impact of the GOP’s proposed ACA repeal/replace plans on coverage and consumer costs.

Effects of the ACA on Uninsurance Rate in Colorado

In Colorado, the number of uninsured individuals declined by 25.5%, from 729,000 individuals in 2013, or 14.1% of the population, to 543,000 individuals in 2014, or 10.3% of the population. colorado-uninsurance-rate

Colorado was one of 32 states (including DC) that had expanded Medicaid as of 1/1/2017. In fiscal year 2014, annual Medicaid enrollment in Colorado increased by 26.1%. Average monthly enrollment increased 59% from 783,420 to 1,244,031 pre-ACA to post-ACA.

Drivers of Healthcare Cost and Utilization from the Emergency Department Perspective

Healthcare access and coverage–so improved under the ACA–drive a lot of what happens in the emergency department (ED). We can think of this in 3 categories:

  1. How the ACA has impacted who comes into the ED (and the hospital).
  2. How the ACA has decreased the amount of services we ED physicians provide to patients while they are in the ED (and hence the cost).
  3. How the ACA has impacted what happens at the end of the ED visit (should I stay or should I go?)

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How the ACA has impacted who comes into the ED (and the hospital)

In Colorado, the number of ED visits has declined with ACA implementation. This varies state, by state, but in Colorado, we have seen a clear decline in the rate of ED visits per insured person–a trend driven by the expansion of Medicaid insurance.

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The trend is also apparent when we restrict the analysis to children only:decline-ed-visits-children-co

(This and other data are available from the Colorado All Payer Claims Data summary tools, at Colorado Medical Price Compare, available at https://www.comedprice.org/#/reports )

The decline in population rate of ED visits among Medicaid patients did not result in a net decline in the number of ED visits–in 2014, the overall number of Medicaid ED visits went up, largely because more patients were on Medicaid. But, among those on Medicaid, during the ACA rollout, population rates of ED visits went down. As expected, the number of un-insured ED visits declined in Colorado as the number of Medicaid visits rose.

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Increasingly, patients are more likely to visit their medical home (primary care provider) because they are more likely to have one, thanks to the ACA.  When we do see patients in the ED, patients are more likely to have had started treatment before coming in (saw or called their medical home). Diverting more ED visits to the medical home is good for many reasons, not the least of which is cost. cost-ed-vs-pcp

The decline in ED visits is also a Colorado Medicaid performance metric for Colorado’s seven Regional Care Collaborative Organizations (RCCOs)–RCCOs received payment incentives if they achieved a 3% decline in ED visits per patient in their RCCO. Although most RCCOs did not achieve this decline, all achieved some decline in 2016:rcco-level-ed-visit-reduction-medicaid

How the ACA has decreased the amount of services we ED physicians provide to patients while they are in the ED (and hence the cost)

If we know a patient in the ED has no coverage (no financial access to primary care), the ED visit costs more for many reasons, including:

  • The patient is more likely to have tests done in the ED because there is no primary care provider to order tests and follow test results
  • The patient is more likely to have subspecialty consultations instead of office follow-up visits with primary care providers
  • The patient is more likely to get more conservative (more aggressive) treatment in the ED, rather than waiting a day or two to see if the patient really needs more aggressive testing/treatment, because there is no medical home to provide that testing/treatment in a day or two.

 

How the ACA has impacted what happens at the end of the ED visit

If we, as ED physicians, know a patient has financial access to primary care, we are more likely to discharge them home rather than admit them to the hospital. This is reflected in the decrease in hospital admissions relative to the rate of ED visits among all ages:

decline-ed-admit-rate-all-ages-co

The same trend is seen among children only:decline-ed-admit-rate-children-co

As an example of how this works, one of the most common reasons young children are admitted to the hospital in Colorado (and nationwide) is for a common lower respiratory viral syndrome called bronchiolitis. Several of my colleagues at Children’s Hospital of Colorado have performed the research (here and here) to show the circumstances under which a child is safely discharged home on home-oxygen therapy. This is cost-saving in that hospitalizations are expensive, and also result in many missed days of work for parents. The criteria for discharge to home (rather than hospital admission) in our hospital’s evidence based guideline include access (within 24 hours) to a medical home for a follow up check:

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Before the ACA permitted so many more access to a medical home, patients with common conditions like bronchiolitis were more likely to be admitted. Discharging more to home means fewer inpatient stays:

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Thus, for Colorado consumers, the ACA has helped improve coverage, thereby reducing the per-insured rate of ED visits, the per-ED-visit rate of inpatient admissions and the overall rate of inpatient admissions, both for adults and children. It has primarily done this by allowing more Coloradans to access care where they should be able to: in a medical home. By reducing these costly forms of healthcare utilization, EDs are less crowded for those who truly need ED care. By reducing the proportion of uninsured visitors to the ED and hospital, the ACA has also decreased the amount of uncompensated care, permitting more hospitals to remain in business.

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Retail Urgent Care Clinics Do Not Decrease Emergency Department Visits

A study published online today in Annals of Emergency Medicine (“Association Between the Opening of Retail Clinics and Low-Acuity Emergency Department Visits”) demonstrated that, contrary to expectations, retail clinics had little effect on rates of low-acuity visits to nearby emergency departments (EDs). This contradicts the popular theory that retail clinics would reduce ED visits.  A 2015 report “Building a Culture of Health: The Value Proposition of Retail Clinics“, found that consumer use of retail clinics was rising, with consumers citing convenient hours/location and perceived lower cost as the main reasons for choosing retail clinics for care. Another study projected that 13% to 27% of US ED visits could be treated in retail clinic settings, with an estimated cost savings of $4.4 billion.

However, this theory did not align with the new study’s findings. During the study period (2007-2012), the number of retail clinics grew from 130 to nearly 1,400 in the 23 states studied. During the same period, the rate of retail clinic penetration – in other words, the proportion of each ED’s catchment area that overlaps with a 10-minute drive radius of a retail clinic – more than doubled (8.1 to 16.4).

In the 2,053 emergency departments in these states, more retail clinics did not correlate with fewer low-acuity ED visits; however, increased retail clinic density did correlate with a slight reduction in the subset of low-acuity visits, albeit only among the privately insured. As an example, for an ED with 40,000 annual visits and 50% private insurance, there would be approximately 8 fewer visits per year for each 10% increase in retail clinic density.

 

The accompanying editorial offers three theories as to why retail clinics increase health care use:

  1. They meet unmet demands for care. The demand for episodic acute care often exceeds the supply of physicians or facilities in many communities, and retail clinics attempt to meet this need.
  2. Motivations for seeking care differ in EDs and retail clinics. A patient who might otherwise not seek care for a cough would stop by the neighborhood retail clinic but would not invest the time and travel to schedule an appointment with their medical home or risk a long ED wait.
  3. Groups of people who are more likely to use EDs for low-acuity conditions–particularly patients withMedicaid and ED super-users–do so because they have little access to other types of care, including retail clinics. Retail clinics follow the money–they locate in affluent areas in which few Medicaid patients live. Also, Medicaid plans often do not cover retail clinic use.  ED superusers commonly have Medicaid insurance and infrequently live in affluent neighborhoods, and often have complex medical/mental health conditions that cannot be cared for in retail clinics.

As an ED physician, my primary concern is that these clinics introduce added fragmentation into an already fragmented health care system. I treat many patients who have sought care for an illness from 1-2 different retail clinics in the past week, without seeing their regular doctor, and then end up in my ED with no record (other than the patient’s recollection) of what happened at those clinics and why. I do my best to reconstruct the story–the antibiotics given for the sore throat on Monday at one retail clinic where they did not check a strep test, followed by a visit to a second retail clinic on Wednesday for the ongoing sore throat where they sold them different antibiotics from the co-located pharmacy and where they did check a strep test and some type of blood test that were both negative–and make a coherent decision based on guessing why each retail clinic did what it did and how the patient is today.

A second concern is illustrated by my patient anecdote. Retail clinics tend to compete with primary care providers for patient business, and, in so doing, they prescribe more antibiotics to meet patients’ expectations.

If patients continue to vote with their feet, using convenient retail clinics in lieu of their primary care providers, my hope is that we find a way to better integrate them into the healthcare system so that we are all working collaboratively to best serve the patient.

 

Paid Sick Leave Lowers Costs

An Upshot column “The High Costs of Not Offering Paid Sick Leave” argues that employees and their co-workers may be better off with an incentive to take time off when sick. About 45 percent of the American work force does not have paid sick leave; that’s about 50 million workers. Families with less ability to afford unpaid time off are more likely to lack paid sick leave. According to a study in Health Affairs, 65 percent of families with incomes below $35,000 had no paid sick leave, while the same was true of only 25 percent of families with annual incomes above $100,000. Those without sick leave were farm ore likely to go to work sick (“presenteeism”), as well as to forgo seeking medical care for themselves or for an ill family member. Although expanding health insurance helps people pay for health care, it does nothing to help them afford to take time off to get it.

Another study in Health Services Research by a Cornell economist supports the theory that paid sick leave could reduce the spread of contagion. This study found that each week, up to 3 million U.S. employees go to work sick. Females, low-income earners, and those aged 25 to 34 years have a significantly elevated risk of presenteeism behavior.

The Upshot column presents the benefits of paid sick leave for one illness, flu, although morbidity and mortality from other contagious conditions would also be reduced:

Paid sick leave slows the spread of disease. Cities and states that require employers to offer paid sick leave — Washington, D.C.; Seattle; New York City; and Philadelphia, as well as Connecticut, California, Massachusetts and Oregon — have fewer cases of seasonal flu than other comparable cities and states. Flu rates would fall 5 percent if paid sick leave were universal. According to one estimate, an additional seven million people contracted the H1N1 flu virus in 2009 because employees came to work while infected. The illnesses led to 1,500 additional deaths.

Beyond reducing flu deaths, paid sick leave is associated with

Though a few cities and states mentioned above mandate employers provide paid sick leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act requires only unpaid sick leave be provided by employers with more than 50 workers. A new Obama administration rule is extending paid sick leave to ~300,000 private-sector employees working on government contracts starting on Jan. 1.  Policy makers should consider the potential public health implications of their decisions when contemplating guaranteed sick leave benefits.

Obamacare Succeeds in Expanding Insurance Coverage

Amidst news of the increasing premiums and decreasing choice of plans in some healthcare markets, the New York TimesUpshot column brings us this visual display of the impressive and varied impact of Obamacare on insurance coverage rates from 2013-2016. States that decided to expand their Medicaid programs saw much larger declines in their uninsured rates compared with those that didn’t. The proposed mechanisms for this effect were that Medicaid expansion

  • provided a new coverage option for childless adults below or near the poverty line
  • helped spur many people who were already eligible for the program to sign up
  • boosted enrollment in Obamacare’s marketplace plans.

The column analyzed the difference in insurance coverage expansion between states that did and did not take the Medicaid expansion:

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-5-01-03-pm

A Medical Degree in Paperwork

A recent study in Annals of Internal Medicine found that physicians in four office-based specialties spent the majority of their time on documentation and paperwork:

  • Overall, physicians spent 27.0% of their total time on direct clinical face time with patients and 49.2% of their time on documentation (paper and electronic).
  • While in the examination room with patients, physicians spent 52.9% of the time on direct clinical face time and 37.0% on documentation.
  • Physicians reported 1 to 2 hours of after-hours work each night, devoted mostly to electronic health record tasks.

A Forbes commentary noted there was a steady increase in the proportion of physician time taken up by paperwork. Reasons for this trend include

  • The multitude of diverse stakeholders requiring increasing amounts of documentation in the paperwork, including administration, lawyers and insurance companies. For example, for a patient with a broken arm, insurance companies require that we ask about at least ten organ systems (a “review of systems“) and document our findings completely. So at least part of that clinical face time is spent asking the patient with the broken arm about things like pain with urination and visual change.
  • The stakeholders, and not the physicians, design the forms, and so they are not designed in a way that fits a medical way of thinking about a patient encounter and are often redundant. For example, when I transfer a patient from one hospital to another, I fill out a form for the lawyers (the EMTALA form, explaining the medical necessity of the transfer) and a form for the insurers explaining the medical necessity of the transfer. These contain a lot of the same information.
  • Hospitals and clinics do not seem to be investing in clerical and administrative support for doctors, sometimes because of regulations requiring a physician complete the forms. For example, 90% of the information on the two transfer rationale forms I mentioned above both could be completed by clerical personnel, or could be copied by a non-MD from one form onto the other.

The Forbes piece notes that the trend pushing ever increasing paperwork burdens onto physicians is a recipe for low career satisfaction and burnout.

Waiting for perfect science on antimicrobial resistance is a dangerous excuse for policy inaction

A discussion paper newly released by the National Academy of Medicine–Antibiotic Resistance in Humans and Animals–marks the 40 year anniversary of the first definitive evidence  that antibiotic usage in livestock results in the direct spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to humans. In releasing the report, the authors pull no punches:

Thus, we have known definitively for more than 40 years that antibiotic usage in livestock results in the direct spread of antibWhatIsDrugResistanceiotic-resistant bacteria to humans. The complete failure of our society to address this concern in the United States is profoundly disappointing and alarming to providers who increasingly struggle to care for patients infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Apologists abound. Excuses are rampant. As alluded to by the British report, “more science” is the often-heard refrain. Those who espouse the need for yet further study before action can be taken typically have close links to farms that continue to use antibiotics. Yet we are past the scientific tipping point.

The issue at hand is one of policy. All policy issues are matters of choosing between pros and cons, risks and benefits. Policy makers almost never have a perfect understanding of all variables at play, nor is it necessary for them to have such precision of information to make choices. Waiting for perfect science is not possible either, because science is constantly in a state of evolution of knowledge based on changing research. Thus, we seek here to summarize the state of the problem in human terms and to inform policy makers of the risks and benefits of taking action or not.

CDCinfographicANTIBIORESISTANCEThis report joins the increasingly urgent public calls for global collective policy action to address the threats posed by antimicrobial resistance to worldwide public health. A World Health Organization (WHO) report released April 2014 called for action against the “serious threat” posed by antimicrobial resistance, a threat that is “happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country. Antibiotic resistance—when bacteria change so antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections—is now a major threat to public health.” 

The report is timely as well as urgent. Earlier this year, scientists discovered the first United States cases of a gene that renders infectious bacteria resistant to the “last-resort” antibiotic drug colistin, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official testified last week during a congressional hearing on the danger posed by “superbugs”.  Although the NAM report focuses on livestock antimicrobial use as a top priority, antimicrobial use in humans is still an important focus, especially in light of a report last month finding that at least 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed to humans in the United States are unnecessary.

 

Medical ecology: tending the microbiome

Today, the Obama administration announces the new National Microbiome Initiative, intended to create scientific tools, discoveries and training techniques related to the human microbiome, the 100 trillion microbes that live in the human body. Tending the human microbiome may help in the treatment of infections, as well as disorders that would seem unrelated to microbes, including obesity and diabetes.

The microbiome represents the only organ that can be replaced without surgery,” said Jo Handelsman, a microbiologist at the White House. “Just by eating differently, taking drugs, exercising and other things, you can have fairly immediate effects on your microbiome and your health, if we only knew how.”

Microbiome research also has important public health implications. New research, for instance, suggests that much of the world’s childhood malnutrition arises not from a lack of food, but from problems with children’s intestinal microbiomes caused by poor sanitation.India-Sanitation-web-Artboard_1