Tag Archives: ap

EU reviewing limits to physician work weeks

The Telegraph‘s Andy Bloxham writes that the European Union’s 48-hour-a-week average working time limit is under review, at least as far as doctors are concerned.

euPhoto by dimnikolov via Flickr

The limit has been in place since August, 2009, and doctors have a limited opt-out clause. According to Bloxham, European health providers have been hit hard by the rule, which cut back their hours “drastically.” Critics have said that “junior doctors, who used to work very long hours, were being stopped from learning or building up experience as quickly as in the past.”

The EU has committed to either reviewing or overhauling the law, and Bloxham lists a few possible modifications.

One way of altering the rules could see doctors’ hours spent on call at hospital rather than on duty counted differently to the hours spent treating patients.

It might also permit them to return from their breaks sooner than the law currently allows in cases where staff shortages are more severe.

The weekly average for American doctors is around 51, which is down from 55 in 1996.


For more European health news, see AHCJ’s Covering Europe initiative.

Fraud-busting contractors slow to refer cases

Despite recent high-profile busts, the private contractors hired by Medicare to sniff out fraud cases and refer them to law enforcement seem to be lagging, according to recent government reports. The Associated Press’ Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar reported on investigations that found that contractors took an average of 178 to refer fraud cases, and that the government was only able to recover a small fraction of the money identified as lost to fraudsters (OIG report | Testimony).

As this letter summarizing the congressional investigation shows, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is on the case. He’s looking to figure out how much the fraud hunters are paid ($102 million in 2005) and how that balances with their benefit to taxpayers ($55 million recovered by the feds in 2007). The numbers are tricky, Alonso-Zaldivar writes, because fraudulent claimants have a habit of closing up shop and disappearing as soon as they’re notified of the pending investigation. Thus, the fraudbusters can’t be blamed entirely for the collection failures, though their tardy referrals are at least partially responsible.

The contractors have widely different track records. One identified $266 million in overpayments in 2007, while another found just $2.5 million, the Health and Human Services inspector general said in May.

Earlier, the inspector general found gaping differences in the number of new cases the contractors generate for law enforcement. Some had hundreds of cases, while others were in the single digits. Most were doing a poor job at spotting new fraud trends, with “minimal results from proactive data analysis,” the inspector general concluded.

The Obama administration says it’s aware of the problem and is close to completing a reorganization of the contractors, to consolidate their work, define their jurisdictions more clearly, and help them coordinate better with claims processors and law enforcement.

The new “Zone Program Integrity Contractors” will cast a somewhat wider net, and be more closely monitored by federal health officials.


(Hat tip to Ricardo-Alonzo Zaldivar for providing a copy of the Grassley letter)

Reform may worsen ER crowding

Associated Press medical reporter Carla K. Johnson has found that, contrary to common assumptions, emergency rooms could become even more crowded with the passage and implementation of health care reform. Popular wisdom has it that, with more access to insurance thus to primary care, folks will be less likely to go to the emergency room for minor complaints or to allow illness to progress to the point where an emergency visit is necessary. Johnson, an AHCJ board member, gives three big reasons why it’s not that simple:

  • There are not (will not) be enough primary care physicians in America to deliver that preventative care.
  • At present, the uninsured are no more likely to use the ER than patients with insurance coverage.
  • “The biggest users of emergency rooms by far are Medicaid recipients,” Johnson writes. “And the new health insurance law will increase their ranks by about 16 million.”

ERs are crowded, Johnson writes, not only because of a lack of insurance but also because of obstacles inherent in their structure and mission, such as an aging population, more people with chronic illnesses, the closures of many ERs in the 1990s and the demand for beds for both emergency patients and patients scheduled for elective surgeries that bring more money.

AHCJ Immediate Past President Trudy Lieberman praised Johnson’s story and linked it to reporting by The Boston Globe on the impact of that state’s reform law upon emergency room use. So far, events in Massachusetts reinforce Johnson’s predictions.

The Boston Globe revisited Massachusetts’s ER conundrum last week, and reported pretty much what it did last year—that despite the state’s reform law, which mandated everyone have coverage beginning in July 2007, emergency room use is rising. Last year, the state’s Division of Health Care Finance and Policy cautioned that it was too early to draw any conclusions from the seven percent rise in ER visits between 2005 and 2007. Now the agency is saying that expanded coverage may be one reason for the 9 percent rise from 2004 to 2008. According to commissioner David Morales, many studies have shown that expanding coverage does not reduce emergency room visits. That’s because the uninsured “are not really responsible for significant ER use,” he told the Globe.

Outpatient inspections show serious lapses


AP medical reporter and AHCJ board member Carla K. Johnson used FOIA requests to uncover a wealth of infection-control violations at outpatient clinics in Illinois. The majority of Illinois ambulatory centers have yet to be inspected under the tough new rules, but 76 percent of those which have been inspected also have been cited. The inspections are part of a national push to increase the oversight of ambulatory care centers.

Previously, inspectors from the Illinois Department of Public Health visited the centers about every seven years. But the state last year began more vigorous and frequent inspections of outpatient surgery centers, following directives from national health officials. The state now plans to inspect a third of Illinois centers each year, said Karen Senger, a supervisor in the Health Department’s Division of Health Care Facilities and Programs.

The crackdown resulted from a hepatitis C outbreak in Las Vegas believed to be caused by unsafe injection practices at two now-closed clinics.

Johnson’s state request turned up a laundry list of specific violations, all of which she summarized in one nifty sentence: “The five-second rule appears to be alive and well in Illinois same-day surgery centers, where medical staff were observed picking up items that had fallen to the floor and behaving as if they weren’t contaminated by germs,” Johnson wrote. In an e-mail to Covering Health, Johnson said her story should be easy to localize and explained just how she obtained the inspection reports and why they are now available.

I FOIA’d state inspection reports (CMS-2567s) for ambulatory surgery centers in Illinois that were cited for deficiencies in infection control during the past 12 months. States have been directed by HHS to use a new audit tool to look for infection control problems, following an outbreak linked to two centers in Las Vegas.

AP takes on medical costs of overtreatment

The AP’s Lauran Neergaard has taken on medical overtreatment in America in the first two parts of a six-part series, both of which eschew the cost angle in favor of a more purely clinical discussion. (updated link here)

Photo by Dave McLean via Flickr

In the first installment, she focuses on the medical consequences of overtreatment, which include radiation exposure and complications. She looks at every stage of life, from cesarean births to unnecessary and painful cardiac tests performed on dying patients. In the second piece, she takes on one of the most notorious sectors of overtreatment: back surgery. Back pain is notoriously complicated, and surgeries are on the rise despite little evidence that they’re necessary or effective.

“The way medicine is so Star-Treky these days, they believe something can be done,” said Dr. Charles Rosen, a spine surgeon at the University of California, Irvine.

The reality is that time often is the best antidote. Most people will experience back pain at some point, but up to 90 percent will heal on their own within weeks. In fact, for run-of-the-mill cases, doctors aren’t even supposed to do an X-ray or MRI unless the pain lingers for a month to six weeks.