Category Archives: Health care reform

More on understanding – and unearthing – health care costs

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.

The post we did on Clear Health Costs got a lot of positive reaction so we asked the team involved in a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation-funded project involving two California public radio stations and the cost-tracking group to tell you more about it in their own words.

In the tip sheet, Lisa Aliferis of KQED, Rebecca Plevin from SCPR and Jeanne Pinder of clearhealthcosts.comgive you a glimpse under thehood of health care costs. “Health care costs both lack transparency and are wildly variable, not just from region to region but sometimes from block to block within the same city,” they begin.

They explain a few basics: what you pay, what insurers pay, what providers are paid, and what almost no one (except some of the uninsured) pays – the Chargemaster price.  Even if you can’t build a data collection project, you can write about the variability in your community. “Put a human face on these dollar figures. Talk to people who have felt burned by the cost of a medical procedure, or confused by a huge bill. “ You might be able to find a handful of people who have had the same procedure in the same place – or the same procedure at two facilities just blocks apart in a city, or in adjacent counties in a more rural setting – and find how their experiences differed.

The “How I Did It” article by Lisa Pickoff-White, senior news interactive producer, KQED; Joel Withrow, product manager, KPCC/SCPR; and Pinder is more nitty-gritty. Your organization may not be able to do something on this scale, but it’s still worth a read to see how they approached it, what worked, and what tools they used (not just on the technical side – see the bottom of the post for other project management and collaboration tools). Facing an eight-week deadline they had to coordinate a far-flung team of journalists, data crunchers and developers scattered in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Bialystok, Kiev and Tahiti. (yes, Ukraine and Tahiti.)

How to understand 2015 exchange plan insurance rate changes

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.

Image by 401(K) 2012 via Flickr

Image by 401(K) 2012 via Flickr

It’s rate increase season, and as we head into the second ACA enrollment season, it’s hard to understand why some rates are going up, some down – sometimes in the same place.

Also, some of the rates we’re hearing about are proposals. Depending on how much regulatory oomph state insurance officials have, the rates may change.

This post give you some ideas on what to watch for and how to think about rate increases in individual states, and what questions to ask the health plans and the regulators in your state. Remember that even in states using the federal exchange, HealthCare.gov, state insurance officials still have a role.

The Alliance for Health Reform (an invaluable resource on this issue) recently held a briefing on rate changes. The full briefing (webcast, transcript, background materials, source list) can be found online here.  A recent Health Affairs blog post by Christopher Koller and Sabrina Corlette provides another important resource.

Here are some key points outlined in these two resources: Continue reading

Six (or more) things to remember when reporting on health care costs

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.

health-care-costs-reportersHealth care costs lack transparency and are wildly variable, not just from region to region but sometimes from block to block within the same city.

It is a complex topic, with chargemaster prices, what insurers paid and what consumers pay (if anything). Then there are the administrative rules set by Medicare and Medicaid and the negotiated rates between insurers and providers.

It’s daunting, but Lisa Aliferis of KQED, Rebecca Plevin of SCPR and Jeanne Pinderof clearhealthcosts.com have teamed up to offer guidance for reporting on health care costs in this new AHCJ tip sheet.

Webcast: How value-based insurance design breaks down financial barriers to care

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.

Covering health care requires writing about the cost of care. Determining if costs are rising or falling and by how much is an integral part of the beat. After all, cost control is one of the primary concerns behind health care reform.

Mark Fendrick, M.D.

Mark Fendrick, M.D.

But A. Mark Fendrick, M.D., the director of the Center for Value-Based Insurance Design at the University of Michigan, suggests it’s time to shift the discussion from how much the United States spends on care to how well we spend money on health care. Focusing closely on costs leads health systems to use a one-size-fits-all approach to cost sharing, and requiring consumers to pay more for needed services may have a perverse effect of becoming a barrier to care, he explains. Conversely, VBID encourages a more clinically nuanced approach to financial incentives that involves setting consumers’ out-of-pocket costs for health care services and medications to motivate patients to do what research proves will help keep them healthy.

Fendrick will explain V-BID and the role it should play in the health care system during an AHCJ webcast, “How value-based insurance design breaks down barriers to care,” on Aug. 14, 1-1:30 pm ET.

V-BID seeks to align patients’ out-of-pocket costs, meaning their copayments, deductibles, and premium payments, with the value of health services, the center says. “This approach to designing benefit plans recognizes that different health services have different levels of value. By reducing barriers to high-value treatments (through lower costs to patients) and discouraging low-value treatments (through higher costs to patients), health systems that incorporate the concepts of V-BID can improve patient outcomes,” it says. Continue reading

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

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

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

Early trends emerge following Medicaid expansion

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.

Image by Colin Dunn via flickr.

Image by Colin Dunn via flickr.

A couple of stories have begun to trickle out from states about the impact of Medicaid expansion on hospitals.

This one from the Arizona Daily Star by Stephanie Innes, for instance, reports that uncompensated care dropped by a third in the first four months of 2014 from the prior year – a pretty significant number. The hospitals in that period wrote off $170 million in 2014, versus $246 million from Jan through April in 2013.

She uses data from the state’s hospital industry to report on uncompensated care (both bad debt and uncompensated care) and the hospitals’ bottom line.

“The Arizona hospital report shows the average operating margin of Arizona hospitals has gone up from 4 percent in 2013 to the current rate of 5.2 percent — a signal to some health experts that the Affordable Care Act will be a net positive for hospitals’ bottom lines,” she wrote. Continue reading

Documents yield true cost of Illinois’ PR campaign for insurance coverage

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.

Carla K. Johnson

Carla K. Johnson

When Illinois awarded a $33 million contract to a high-priced PR firm to promote insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, Carla Johnson began filing open records requests under the state’s Freedom of Information law.

Eventually Johnson, a medical writer for The Associated Press, filed 10 FOIA requests while reporting on how public money was spent to promote the health law.

She says the “88-page contract, obtained through a records request, contained clues about other existing documents, such as monthly detailed explanations of invoices and a ‘work plan’ required by the contract.” She continued filing requests until she had enough documentation to detect some trends.

Read more about how Johnson reported the story, what she learned and tips for other reporters.