ACA rules force health insurers to increase spending on care delivery

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

The percent of premium dollars allocated to administrative costs and profit dropped in all markets since the introduction of the 80/20 rule.

The percent of premium dollars allocated to administrative costs and profit dropped in all markets since the introduction of the 80/20 rule. (Click to enlarge image.)

A new report on how health insurers are complying with the medical loss ratio rules shows insurers spent more on care delivery and less on profit and overhead in 2013 than they did in the previous two years.

The report, “Consumers Benefited From 80/20 Rule in 2013,” from the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shows that the percentage of consumers insured by companies that met or exceeded the requirements under the MLR rules has risen each year since the rules became effective in 2011. Tables accompanying the report offer some great story ideas for journalists who want to dig deeper into why insurers in their states would pay rebates to consumers rather than put those funds into care delivery.

Also called the 80/20 rules, the MLR regulations in the Affordable Care Act require insurers to spend a minimum of 80 percent of premium income on delivering care (and not on profit and overhead) in the small group and individual markets and at least 85 percent of premium income on care delivery in the large group market.

Under the MLR rules, if insurers fail to spend at least at these levels, they have to rebate the difference to consumers. Those rebates are due by Aug. 1.

“In the first three years of the MLR program, individual and employer plan enrollees received or will receive over $1.9 billion in refunds,” the HHS report said. Continue reading

Welcome to AHCJ’s newest members

Len Bruzzese

About Len Bruzzese

Len Bruzzese is the executive director of AHCJ and its Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism. He also is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and serves on the executive committee of the Council of National Journalism Organizations.

Please welcome these new professional and student members to AHCJ. All new members are welcome to stop by this post’s comment section to introduce themselves.

  • Meghan Hoyer, data journalist, USA Today, McLean, Va. (@meghanhoyer)
  • Elisa Lala, staff writer and health reporter, The Press of Atlantic City, Pleasantville, N.J.
  • Robyn Norwood, independent journalist, Long Beach, Calif. (@RobynNorwood)
  • Katja Ridderbusch, independent journalist, Atlanta
  • Gina Roberts-Grey, independent journalist, Baldwinsville, N.Y. (@GinaRobertsGrey)

If you haven’t joined yet, see what member benefits you’re missing out on: Access to more than 50 journals and databases, tip sheets and articles from your colleagues on how they’ve reported stories, conferences, workshops, online training, reporting guides and more. Join AHCJ today to get a wealth of support and tools to help you.

Reporting team scrutinizes Medicare Advantage

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in Kaiser Health News, The Atlantic.com, New America Media, AARP.com, Practical Diabetology, Home Care Technology report and on HealthStyles Radio (WBAI-FM, NYC). She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College, NYC, and a co-produces HealthStyles for WBAI-FM/Pacifica Radio.

Fred Schulte

Fred Schulte

The Center for Public Integrity’s series unearthing potential fraud and waste under the Medicare Advantage program had little help — and apparently little interest — from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The insurance program, which Congress established to help control health care costs for older adults, could leave taxpayers on the hook for more than $36 billion, as AHCJ member Fred Schulte and the rest of the investigative team uncovered.

In this “How I did it” article, Schulte explains how the series follows up on CPI’s 2012 Medicare costs investigation, the extensive lengths taken to try to obtain CMS records, work-arounds and other sources the team used to piece together a puzzle that paints a clear picture of improper billing, missed opportunities by regulators, lack of oversight, and industry influence.

Hospital survey data updated, with changes

Jeff Porter

About Jeff Porter

Jeff Porter is the special projects director for AHCJ and plays a lead role in planning conferences, workshops and other training events. He also leads the organization's data collection and data instruction efforts.

AHCJ has just updated its easy-to-use Hospital Consumer Assessment of Health Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey data to include the latest release of the data by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and reflect changes in the data by CMS.

The data include survey questions about how doctors and nurses communicate, how hospitals are controlling patients’ pain, how hospitals are keeping clean and quiet, and more. AHCJ also creates a spreadsheet file that contains a timeline of the overall ratings of hospitals, with results from October 2006 to September 2013.

Each data release now includes the beginning and ending dates covered in the survey. The latest hospital survey results cover Oct. 1, 2012, through Sept. 30, 2013.

Breaking down court rulings on Affordable Care Act subsidies

Joanne Kenen

About Joanne Kenen

Joanne Kenen, (@JoanneKenen) the health editor at Politico, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health reform and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on health reform resources and tip sheets at joanne@healthjournalism.org.

supreme-courtEven for those of us who cover the Affordable Care Act (ACA) more or less full time, July 22 was a pretty zany day. Here’s a recap and some resources to help you going forward.

First an appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled, 2-1 that people can’t continue to get subsidies in the federal exchanges – just on the state exchanges. Only it didn’t move to enforce that ruling – which would cut off millions receiving subsidies – because the three judges on that panel knew they didn’t necessarily have the last word. There are more legal fights to come in the case, known as Halbig v. Burwell. (It was v. Sebelius but the name was updated.)

Then, less than three hours later, another appeals court – also a panel of three judges – in Richmond, Va., issued the exact opposite ruling. They said, 3-0, that the subsidies in the federal exchange were fine. Well, maybe not fine – they thought the law was ambiguous. But even with the ambiguity, they said that the IRS had the right to interpret the law to allow the subsidies in the federal exchange. That case is known as King v. Burwell. (The IRS set the rules for the subsidies, which take the form of premium tax credits.)

The question in very simple terms is this: Did the ACA allow the subsidies through the federal exchanges? The plaintiffs argue no – and cite a specific section of the law that refers to subsidies for people enrolled “through an Exchange established by the State.” They say it’s clear as day – the subsidies are tied to state exchanges. The administration and its supporters say that’s far too narrow and literal an interpretation. The whole law is designed to expand coverage and the federal exchanges are meant to stand in when the states don’t stand up exchanges.

Now what? Continue reading

What do you really know about the social determinants of health?

Joe Rojas-Burke

About Joe Rojas-Burke

Joe Rojas-Burke is AHCJ’s core topic leader on the social determinants of health. To help journalists broaden the frame of health coverage to include factors such as education, income, neighborhood and social network, Rojas-Burke will hunt for resources, highlight excellent work and moderate discussions with journalists and experts. Send questions or suggestions to joe@healthjournalism.org or tweet to @rojasburke.

It’s hard to think clearly about health reform if you ignore the social determinants of health, that is, how each person’s place in the hierarchy of self-determination and power, educational opportunity, neighborhood quality, working conditions, job security, income and wealth shape their vulnerability to illness and premature death. Check your knowledge by taking this true-or-false quiz: Continue reading

$200,000 grant strengthens project-based reporting fellowship

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

AHCJ Reporting Fellowships on Health Care PerformanceThe Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, the educational arm of the Association of Health Care Journalists, has been awarded a grant of $200,000 to continue a fellowship program that helps journalists understand and report on the performance of local health care markets and the U.S. health system as a whole.

The AHCJ Reporting Fellowships on Health Care Performance were launched in 2010.

The program, supported by The Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based private foundation, allows experienced print, broadcast and online reporters to pursue significant reporting projects over a year’s time related to the U.S. health care system. The reporters concentrate on the performance of health care systems – or significant parts of those systems – locally, regionally or nationally. The fellows are able to examine policies, practices and outcomes, as well as the roles of various stakeholders.

“Too often, the finances and inner workings of hospitals and health systems are black boxes,” said Karl Stark, president of the AHCJ board of directors and the health editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer“Through this generous grant, the fellowship provides reporters with the resources and tools to shine light into dark places and pursue stories that serve the public interest.”

Read more about the program and the grant.

Health costs, journalism and transparency: One site opening door to price data

Joanne Kenen

About Joanne Kenen

Joanne Kenen, (@JoanneKenen) the health editor at Politico, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health reform and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on health reform resources and tip sheets at joanne@healthjournalism.org.

clearhealthcomHere’s a resource for health care costs – and a creative journalistic model of crowdsourcing, data collection, mapping, reporting and blogging.

ClearHealthCosts.com was started by former New York Times reporter and editor Jeanne Pinder. She received start-up funding from foundations (Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY and others listed on the website) and ClearHealthCosts now has a team of reporters and data wranglers chipping away at some of the difficult questions that patients need answered: How much is this treatment going to cost me? Can I find a better price?

It’s about shedding light on a health care cost and payment system that, to use Pinder’s word, is “opaque.” Some of what they are doing is specific to a half-dozen cities; other projects are building out nationally.

The data collected by ClearHealthCosts focuses on elective or at least nonemergency procedures such as imaging, dental work, vasectomy, walk-in clinics, screening (mammograms and colonoscopy) and blood tests. Much of the data is crowdsourced, and focused on New York area, including northern New Jersey and other suburbs; the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas; and Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio in Texas.

A recent grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation via its Prototype Fund will let ClearHealthCosts collaborate with KQED in San Francisco and KPCC/Southern California Public Radio in Los Angeles to crowdsource Califoria prices. Earlier, Pinder’s team did a crowdsourcing partnership with the Brian Lehrer Show at WNYC public radio in which hundreds of women shared mammogram payment information, and their thoughts. It led to a series of blog posts including here and here. Continue reading

Welcome AHCJ’s newest members

Len Bruzzese

About Len Bruzzese

Len Bruzzese is the executive director of AHCJ and its Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism. He also is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and serves on the executive committee of the Council of National Journalism Organizations.

Please welcome these new professional and student members to AHCJ. All new members are welcome to stop by this post’s comment section to introduce themselves.

  • Stefanie R. Bryant, morning anchor/medical reporter, KTAL-Shreveport, Bossier City, La.
  • Lisa Chamoff, independent journalist, New York (@lchamoff)
  • Michelle R. Charles, reporter, Stillwater News Press, Stillwater, Okla.
  • Rebecca C. Jeffrey, reporter/anchor, KNWA/KFTA-Fayetteville, Ark. (@RCJeffrey)
  • Alexa Z. Ura, reporter, The Texas Tribune, Austin, Texas (@alexazura)

If you haven’t joined yet, see what member benefits you’re missing out on: Access to more than 50 journals and databases, tip sheets and articles from your colleagues on how they’ve reported stories, conferences, workshops, online training, reporting guides and more. Join AHCJ today to get a wealth of support and tools to help you.

Tennessean reporter investigates complaints over Medicaid dental provider

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on oral health resources at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Tom Wilemon

Tom Wilemon

Quite a few folks in Tennessee are upset right now with DentaQuest, the giant dental benefits company that took over the contract to provide oral health services to poor kids under the state’s Medicaid program earlier this year.

Two hundred black dentists are riled that they were cut from the provider network. The state dental association has withdrawn its support for DentaQuest’s contract. And some consumers (including a group home operator) are saying the company is making it harder for patients to get the care they need.

Meanwhile, company officials insist that no child with TennCare benefits has lost access to dental care under their watch. They defend their performance in Tennessee, saying that screenings have increased and that the state network of 864 providers – one for every 857 patients – exceeds nationally recommended standards.

What is going on? The Tennessean’s Tom Wilemon has been working to find out. His story last month offered a look at the situation.

In this Q&A, he gives an update and some additional insights into his reporting. He also shares some wisdom with others who might find themselves tackling a similar story.