Attend AHCJ’s free Rural Health Journalism Workshop for a better understanding of what’s happening – or will be happening – in rural regions, and return to work with dozens of story ideas you can pursue.
Compared with city dwellers, people in rural America have higher rates of cancer, diabetes, disabling injuries, and other life-shortening health problems.
Among the less talked about aspects of the Affordable Care Act are measures intended to help reduce rural health disparities. But health professionals working in remote small towns aren’t convinced that the well-intentioned steps will bring enough relief – and do it quickly enough – to reverse problems that many fear are getting worse, such as lack of economic opportunity for rural residents, and limited access to high-quality medical clinics and hospitals.
“There’s definitely joys, but right now the change is huge. It’s going to make it hard for many of us to survive,” said Dean Bartholomew, M.D., a family medicine physician in Saratoga, Wyo., a town with 1,700 residents that is nearly an hour’s drive away from the nearest hospital. Bartholomew was among the panelists at the Health Journalism 2014 session on rural health.
Rural health difference
For Bartholomew, the joys include the rich relationships he’s been able to build with patients and the community. He’s found himself serving as the volunteer team physician for the local high school, for instance, and taking care of sick pets on occasion. Continue reading
AHCJ hosted a webcast
about the CMS data, featuring several CMS officials and Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica and member of AHCJ’s board of directors.
The federal government is expected Wednesday to release data on the services provided by – and money paid to – 880,000 health professionals who take care of patients in the Medicare Part B program. For 35 years, this data has been off limits to the public – and now it will be publicly available for use by journalists, researchers and others.
While the data offers a huge array of stories, which could take weeks or months to report out, it also has some pitfalls. Here are six things to be aware of before you dig in:
Have a strategy for storing and opening the data. This data set is big. About 10 million rows, from what I hear. Because of that, you won’t be able to analyze it in Microsoft Excel and you might not be able to open it in Microsoft Access. You’ll want to upload it onto a data server and analyze it in a more powerful program such as SQL or SPSS. This could well serve as a barrier to entry for smaller news organizations. You may want to partner with an academic institution or another news outlet to analyze the data. Continue reading
Image by Amanda M Hatfield via flickr.
Perhaps the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) learned a lesson over the past few weeks when it tried to make changes in its Part D prescription drug program. The lesson: Don’t mess with Part D in an election year.
On Monday, CMS withdrew its proposal to revise the Part D program, a proposal that drew widespread criticism from congressional Republicans and Democrats and from groups of patients, among others. Those in opposition said the proposal would undermine Part D, which members of Congress called a successful and popular program. More than 36 million elderly and disabled Americans get prescription drug coverage through Part D.
“Late last week, more than 370 organizations representing insurers, drug makers, pharmacies, health providers and patients urged CMS to withdraw changes it had proposed for Medicare Part D,” wrote David Morgan of Reuters. “The Republican Party had already begun to look for ways to leverage popular anger over the changes into campaign attacks on Democratic incumbents who could be vulnerable in November’s election showdown for control of Congress.” Continue reading
Hospitals and post-acute care providers, Medicare drug providers, and older adults could see substantial changes in payments and benefits if President Obama’s 2015 fiscal year budget proposal is passed as presented.
The president’s $3.9 trillion plan includes more than $400 billion in cuts over the next decade in Medicare and Medicaid spending, as well as changes in provider reimbursement to place greater emphasis on quality. As Politico reported, additional savings would come from higher premiums of wealthier beneficiaries, changes in Medicare Part D payments to drug companies, and reimbursement cuts to post-acute providers like skilled nursing facilities and home health care agencies.
AARP criticized the proposal for “simply cost shifting.”
“We know that brand name prescription drugs are one of the key drivers of escalating health care costs, so we appreciate the President’s inclusion of proposals to find savings in lower drug costs, said AARP Executive Vice President Nancy A. LeaMond in a statement. “But instead of shifting additional costs onto Medicare beneficiaries, we must look for savings throughout the entire health care system, as the rising cost of health care threatens people of all ages.” Continue reading
Members of the Senate Finance Committee are urging the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to reconsider a proposal to revise the Medicare Part D prescription drug program for seniors.
In a letter sent on Friday to Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), 20 of the 24 members of the committee wrote to say the proposal would disrupt the care for millions of Part D beneficiaries.
According to an article by Lisa Gillespie of Inside Health Policy (free trial subscription available), only Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not sign the letter. Continue reading
The recently released 2014 work plan sets up how the Inspector General’s office of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will scrutinize claims CMS pays to hospitals, nursing homes, and home care agencies, as well as for prescription drugs, medical equipment and other care services. Continue reading
An agreement has finally been reached in both houses of Congress that replaces the Medicare physician sustainable growth rate formula, or SGR, with plan that provides stable funding updates based pay-for-performance and increases reimbursements by 0.5 percent annually for the next five years. The SGR, part of the 1997 Balanced Budget amendment, essentially ensured that the yearly increase in the expense per Medicare beneficiary does not exceed the growth in GDP.
However, as health care costs began to outpace inflation, the SGR began to fall short of the actual cost of health care services and Congress has repeatedly stepped in to suspend or adjust the payments (“doc fix”). Many physicians groups, including the AMA, have called for a more permanent, less formulaic, solution. Continue reading
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released interim financial results for its various ACO and bundled payment initiatives today which show savings in excess of $488 million.* These included cost savings analyses for Medicare Accountable Care Organizations, Pioneer ACOs, the Physician Group Practice demonstration and expanded participation in the Bundled Payments for Care Improvement Initiative. Many of those programs are discussed in detail in the AHCJ tip sheet “Latest innovations in Medicare.”
“These innovative programs are showing encouraging initial results, while providing valuable lessons as we strive to improve our nation’s health care delivery system,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. “Today’s findings demonstrate that organizations of various sizes and structures across the country are working with their physicians and engaging with patients to better coordinate and deliver high quality care while reducing expenditure growth.”
CMS said that In their first 12 months, nearly half (54 out of 114) of the ACOs that started program operations in 2012 already had lower expenditures than projected. Of the 54 ACOs that exceeded their benchmarks in the first year, 29 generated shared savings totaling more than $126 million. These ACOs generated a total of $128 million in net savings for the Medicare Trust Funds. Medicare shares in any ACO savings generated from lowering the growth in health costs while meeting high quality care standards.
Final performance year-one results will be released later this year. Continue reading
The Medicare Rights Center, a national, nonprofit consumer service organization, just released its first report analyzing the top issues facing people who called its national consumer help line in 2012.
“Medicare Trends and Recommendations: An Analysis of 2012 Call Data from the Medicare Rights Center’s National Helpline,” details stories representative of the problems faced by older adults, their families, and those caring for them.
According to a press release, three major trends emerged from more than 14,000 questions fielded on the helpline: Continue reading
As Charles Ornstein pointed out, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it will release payment information for individual physicians in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, beginning in March. The move will increase transparency while still protecting the privacy of Medicare beneficiaries, according to a blog post by Jonathan Blum, principal deputy administrator.
According to a story in Modern Healthcare, the AMA has warned the Obama administration that it will be walking a thin line between balancing physician privacy rights with release of payment data – and that poor execution of the policy could lead to an unfair breach of confidentiality for providers and patients. Continue reading