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- Marvin A. Konstam, MD⁎ ()
- ↵⁎Reprint requests and correspondence:
Dr. Marvin A. Konstam, Tufts Medical Center, Box 108, 800 Washington Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02111
The Affordable Care Act attempts to address our nation's 3 principal intertwined health care challenges: variable access, disparate quality, and spiraling costs. Many uncertainties remain regarding the characteristics of the system that will evolve as we try to meet these challenges. What will be the mix of provider funding between the public and private sectors? Will fee-for-service reimbursement continue as the principal payment model, or will payments be bundled for patient groups, driving more financial risk toward providers? How much choice will consumers have in selecting providers for specific services? Importantly, who will choose among the inevitable trade-offs in services—patients, providers, or payers—and what will be the basis behind these decisions? Rationally answering these questions will require a clear understanding of how the answers will affect health care quality and clinical outcomes. Analyses such as that of Kapoor et al. (1) in this issue of the Journal, examining relationships among payment source, quality, and outcomes in patients with heart failure, provide direction toward making the most cogent choices.
Attention on heart failure has skyrocketed because of its substantial contribution to health care costs as well as morbidity and mortality, particularly among our burgeoning older population. Optimizing quality and efficiency in caring for patients with heart failure will be a key element in any successful health care system and can provide direction toward managing other chronic conditions. Kapoor et al. (1) analyzed data from almost 100,000 heart failure hospitalizations and found significant differences across 4 payer categories: private, Medicare, Medicaid, and no insurance. Within the investigators' multivariate model, the Medicaid and no-insurance groups were less likely to receive some proven treatments, notably evidence-based beta-blockers for patients with reduced left ventricular ejection fractions. Compared with private insurance patients, Medicaid patients had a higher adjusted in-hospital mortality rate, as did the no-insurance subgroup with reduced left ventricular ejection fractions. Perhaps the most telling finding is that Medicaid and no-insurance patients with left ventricular ejection fractions ≤30% were least likely to have implantable cardioverter-defibrillators placed or prescribed at discharge. Despite their limitations, these findings provide important insights and direction toward reconstructing our health care system.
The pattern of findings was not perfectly clear. For example, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers were least likely to be prescribed to appropriate Medicare patients. The disparity in the prescription of evidence-based beta-blockers did not apply to the prescription of any beta-blockers, suggesting that patients with Medicaid and those with no insurance may have had a greater proportion of prescriptions for less expensive, less proven agents. Interestingly, patients with no insurance were most likely to receive smoking cessation counseling and discharge instructions. As Kapoor et al. (1) point out, the study's limitations included dependency on chart documentation and review and the potential influence of unmeasurable covariates, related, for example, to the severity of disease at time of hospitalization. The voluntary nature of Get With the Guidelines Heart Failure may limit the findings' generalizability.
Although investigators refer to the patient groups as differing in “payment model,” their findings do not provide much information regarding the impact of various reimbursement models on quality or outcome. Fee-for-service remains the predominant payment model across all payers. Substantial variability exists regarding the nature of the “service” unit (i.e., global hospitalization, hospital day, or specific test or procedure) and the fee schedule, which may be linked to the various diagnosis-related groups or to other service categories. Variation in these models and fee structures cut across the various government and commercial payers. The larger issue, not addressed in the current analysis, is the relative impact of reimbursing on a fee-for-service basis versus bundling payment for all services, over time, for a given patient population. The designation of “private/health maintenance organization” likely incorporates various commercial payment models, including fee-for-service and various degrees of capitation and provider financial risk.
As Kapoor et al. (1) point out, the observed associations with payer type may be partly derived through differences in socioeconomic status. The latter may influence patterns of care seeking, care delivery, and clinical outcomes. Rathore et al. (2), analyzing 25,000 Medicare beneficiaries hospitalized with heart failure, found that those with lower socioeconomic status had higher adjusted rates of 1-year mortality and readmission than those with higher socioeconomic status. Such findings may be driven through inadequacy of preventative strategies, delays in care resulting in higher disease severity at the time of admission, or lesser utilization of specialty services. Auerbach et al. (3) found that the demographic factors of age, race, income, and educational level of patients hospitalized with heart failure were strongly associated with the probability of receiving care from a cardiologist.
Issues of cost to patients and reimbursement to providers are likely to directly influence the nature of care received. Patients are unlikely to accept tests and treatments for which they are uninsured and that they cannot afford. Physicians may prescribe generic drugs rather than brand-name drugs with a stronger evidence base, in deference to patient affordability and probability for adherence. The finding that is likely linked most directly to provider concern for reimbursement is the reduced rate of implantable cardioverter-defibrillator placement or prescription in patients with Medicaid and those with no insurance. This critical finding exposes substantial risk to the delivery of appropriate care, depending on how our future health care system evolves.
In the coming years, who will decide which patients, if any, receive a given expensive treatment? Although presently there is much focus on the development of “accountable care organizations,” which will presumably be better equipped to integrate and manage care efficiently, it remains uncertain whether these organizations will continue to receive reimbursement on a fee-for-service basis or whether there will be a major shift toward bundling payments, with the accountable care organizations assuming the financial risk for the longitudinal care of populations. Under the former condition, decisions such as who receives an expensive device will be driven by payer coverage and reimbursement rulings; under the latter condition, these decisions will be left to the providers themselves.
The expansion of U.S. health care coverage is expected to occur in part through the expansion of Medicaid eligibility. An example of misguided policy that would drive severe disparities in the availability of certain therapies is the recent Arizona decision (subsequently rescinded) to deny coverage for all forms of transplantation to Medicaid recipients. The decision was driven purely by cost, without consideration of effectiveness. Although robust analyses of cost-effectiveness for heart transplantation are lacking, those analyses which have been done (4,5) support the view that these procedures fall well within the accepted cost-effective range, rendering the Arizona decision irrational. Beyond coverage decisions, payers within a fee-for-service model must reimburse cost-effective procedures at levels that at least cover cost. In Massachusetts, where the universal health care bill provides a window on where the entire nation is heading, Medicaid fees have diminished to approximately 70 cents on the dollar, with some hospitals receiving even lower payments. As the analysis of Kapoor et al. (1) suggests, the economics are certain to drive severe disparities in medical decision making between patients dependent on Medicaid and those with other forms of health coverage.
An alternative to payers issuing draconian coverage decisions or ratcheting down reimbursement below provider cost is to bundle payments for patient populations and allow providers to manage their overall costs, by improving efficiency and eliminating unnecessary utilization. Decoupling payments from specific services provided would eliminate the incentive for disparate care provision across different patient groups. Transparency in reporting performance on quality metrics and patient outcomes would incentivize providers to provide appropriate care for all patients. As for patients, consideration should be given to financial incentives, allowing them to share in the global payment in return for keeping appointments and adhering to dietary and medication prescriptions. Rather than forcing patients to settle for less expensive but less proven drugs, or to forgo drugs altogether, a financial structure can be found in which patients share in the rewards of improving their own health care quality.
Kapoor et al. (1) have provided us with insights into the complex interplay among payers, the payment structure, and the quality of care. They have also provided a window on the potential for our evolving health care system to either exacerbate or mitigate health care disparities across socioeconomic groups. Although none of the choices we face will be easy, patients and providers alike will be far better off if the system allows them to share in the rewards of quality health care, rather than incentivizing the arbitrary withholding of proven management approaches.
Dr. Konstam has reported that he has no relationships relevant to the contents of this paper to disclose.
↵⁎ Editorials published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of JACC or the American College of Cardiology.
- American College of Cardiology Foundation
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