Monday, August 8, 2016

Open Letter to Senator Bernie Sanders

Dear Bernie,

I was one of the gullible liberals who thought and vehemently argued for months on end that you could win the Democratic Primaries fair and square. After all if a rookie billionaire with zero political credibility and a spotted past could win the Republican nomination, why wouldn’t an unimpeachable United States Senator be able to do the same in my party? We both know the answer(s) to that, don’t we, Senator? You chose the high road when all was said and done, but was that the right road? I have no doubt that your entire career and this ill-fated campaign in particular were driven by a desire to lift the exploited, the downtrodden, the poor and the excluded to their rightful place in a government of the people, by the people, for the people. In which case, Senator, you are now squandering the opportunity of a lifetime to change history in a way no one else can, or ever could, or will ever be able to even try.

You may be telling yourself that once you failed to win from the outside, the smart choice was to fight from the inside. You may be taking great pride from that lefty progressive platform you managed to negotiate. When was the last time any President felt hamstrung or guided in any way by the party platform? Ninety-nine percent of the public doesn’t know what the party platform looks like. It’s an empty achievement, and you probably know that. There will be no fight for fifteen. There will be no free college. There will be no extended family leave, no pay equity and certainly no single payer health care. And there will be no end in sight to the steady hemorrhage of middle class jobs to slave labor countries. But I’m sure you know this too, Senator.

Nobody is going to bother the venerable Wall Street institutions hanging around our collective neck like a rock. Nobody is going to lose sleep over the Silicon Valley technology cartel, which is quickly acquiring more power than the biggest bank ever had. And there will be war, Senator Sanders, as sure as I am sitting here and you are sitting there, there will be war. With a little bit of luck, it will be an old fashioned cold war that will further impoverish the nation and strip citizens of even more civil rights. If luck runs out, and it will, Americans will again die in some God forsaken desert with an unpronounceable name, to “protect our freedom”.

How do you feel, Senator, when you watch the swarm of millionaires and billionaires coalescing around the candidate you endorsed? Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffet, Mark Cuban and now Meg Whitman, are all praising your former opponent and promising to fund her campaign. Heck, even the Koch Brothers seem sympathetic to her cause, not to mention the deluge of conservative purists crossing party lines spontaneously or after being actively wooed by the Democratic candidate running on the most progressive platform ever. Your preferred candidate said that our cause is her cause, and this must be why hedge-fund managers rewarded her with something like $50 million in campaign “donations” (so far). Do you think any of these powerful interests gives a rat’s ass about our political revolution?

Have you noticed, Senator, how the only places where your name is still spoken are Trump rallies? The much touted shift to the left in the Democratic Party ended abruptly when the television cameras were powered off in the Wells Fargo arena in Philadelphia. The impressive array of professional exploiters of humanity, and the planet we live in, who are stepping all over each other to swear allegiance to the Democratic candidate is matched only by the unbridled enthusiasm of the hired guns of the corporate media. There will be no campaign finance reform, no end to fossil fuel indecency, no end to fracking and drilling and pillaging and slashing and burning, but it will all take place with the utmost respect for stately decorum. Was this your vision for our future back in April of 2015, Senator? It wasn’t ours.

Our $27 voices have been silenced when you decided to suspend yours, and frankly Senator Sanders, I don’t think that decision was entirely up to you. This was not a regular primary season where one can barely tell the difference between campaigns before they all merge into one bland compromise. As you said many times, this was indeed a revolution. Yes, you sparked the flame, Senator, but we build the fire. It wasn’t yours to do as you please with, and you were certainly not empowered to deliver “your supporters” to the subjugation of the status-quo. To put it in terms everybody understands these days, we funded this revolutionary venture with our hard earned money and our feet, and you, Senator, had a fiduciary responsibility to your shareholders.

We lost one battle and you conceded the war. We can’t undo the loss, but you can undo the concession to some extent. You can at least try to make things right for people whose $27 investment represents a week’s worth of food. On a personal level, you have much to lose if you do this, but when you fan the flames of revolution (even a political one), personal sacrifice is baked into the cake. You should have known that, Senator, and you should have made peace with that from the start. I have to confess here that I am not entirely surprised by your decision. Your acquiescing response to subtle and not so subtle efforts to coopt this political revolution, by what I consider unsavory actors, was in my mind a harbinger of things to come. And things came.

I’m not asking you, Senator, to get out there and campaign for “the other” movement propped up by millions of small donations from people who can’t afford to donate either. I am asking you to recognize in your heart of hearts that the road of our political revolution does not go through another Clinton administration. I am asking you to recognize that eight more years of keeping people down, while fraudulently posing as their champion, are far more devastating for our revolution, this nation, and the world at large, than a Trump administration could ever be. These are desperate times for most of us, so I am asking you Senator Sanders, to remember that you have a responsibility, nay, a duty, to stand up one more time and help us keep hope alive, Sir.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Cyberwar, what is it good for?

Some wars are supposed to last forever. Lyndon B. Johnson started a war on poverty. Richard Nixon kicked off a war on drugs. Ronald Reagan initiated a war on terror. Poverty, drug use and terror are booming. It’s time to launch another good ol’ war. Let’s make it relevant, cool, hip and infinite. So how about a 21st century war on Cybertheft?  This may sound trifle by comparison to those other wars, but wars are rarely about the actual title we bestow upon them. The war on terror evolved into a war on people living under secular dictators, the war on poverty ended up being a war on poor people, and the war on drugs became a war on black people. The war on Cybertheft will be the war on all people everywhere.

The war on Cybertheft has been simmering since the banks decided to do business online. The threat of “identity theft” should have been a monumentally mobilizing battle cry. But it wasn’t. Oh sure, it spawned a bunch of fear inducing exposés and some mildly successful businesses, but all in all, it failed to generate the zombie apocalypse panic it was supposed to trigger. Luckily, our wise leaders decided to put all our medical information on the Internet. It’s one thing for a Romanian hacker to gain access to your checking account balance, and quite another if Marcel is suddenly able to peruse your history of vaginal yeast infections. It makes no sense really, but the latter seems like an unbearable and humiliating violation of who you are. Wars have been launched for much less than that.

Let me give you an example that is splashed all over the news lately. A nondescript bunch of hackers broke into Democratic Party servers, stole all sorts of documents and emails and provided them to WikiLeaks for publication. This incident proved to be an embarrassment for the global money cartel behind our democratic curtain, and at the same time a great opportunity to score some cheap points in this weird election while stoking the fires of war. Within 24 hours, and with ample assist from corporate media tools, the conversation moved from corrupt, political machinations to an alternate universe where the Kremlin is colluding with insurgents to overthrow the rightful rulers of America. Terrifying stuff.

Back to medical records. There is a major, and very public, wringing of hands in policy and technology circles on how to safeguard the privacy and security of computerized medical records. Huge health care databases seem to get hacked almost on a daily basis. Shady hackers are advertising stolen medical records for sale on the “dark” web. The term “ransomware” is entering the health care vernacular (i.e. hackers asking health related entities to pay for keeping security breaches secret). Some experts say that thieves engage in fraudulent billing (it is a bit unclear to me how a fraudster makes money when the hospital charges you for a fake surgery, unless the hospital is stealing its own data). Other experts are hypothesizing that medical data could be used for personal blackmail (with not one shred of evidence). Hackers are posting screenshots of EMRs saying that this is the data they “stole” (although gaining access to an EMR is not equivalent to having its data). Pretty scary stuff here too, no?

But here is what is not happening. You don’t see curated lists of famous people treated for cooties. You don’t see lists of women who had abortions or of politicians suffering from palmar hyperhidrosis. You don’t really see anything that could be due to theft of strictly medical information and the “samples” posted by hackers are about Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, emails and all the stuff you can steal from a bank. Is this a big deal?  Maybe, but judging by the number and magnitude of security breaches in the last few years, there must be dozens upon dozens of copies of our financial data floating out there and frankly, people seem rather oblivious to the whole thing. We can’t have that. We need some pizzas, some fireworks, like they have in politics.

As I’m writing this, more Democratic Party servers are being hacked, prompting increasingly unhinged conspiracy theories to justify a reboot of the Cold War with Russia, and if we’re lucky a real war. You see, in this election we unfortunately have one candidate who didn’t get the memo outlining the benefits of a nuclear war with Russia. Blabbering about NATO’s lack of purpose and how nice it would be to get along with Putin is not moving us forward. Watching CNN or reading The New York Times or the neo-conservative rags, is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The Cybertheft attacks on Democratic Party servers are worse than Watergate, maybe worse than Pearl Harbor or 9/11, it’s an attack on our Nation, and there should be stern consequences (did you notice the unusual patriotic rah-rah at this year’s Democratic convention?).

America, we’re under attack. We are being Cyber-attacked on our own soil. A foreign power is attempting regime change in our country by exposing the dirty electioneering of the party currently in power. The question is not how come we have banana republic electioneering. The question is how come Putin dares to point that out. We don’t know if Putin did any such thing, but the theoretical possibility that he might have, or may do so in the future, is reason enough to perhaps slap some more sanctions somewhere, or move a few tanks or submarines closer to the missile shield we just deployed in Romania (?) to protect it from Iran (?). So Annie, get your guns, because Cyberwar is just the prelude.

In health care the war on Cybertheft of essentially financial data is a front for facilitating massive trafficking in actual medical information. The government agencies in charge of health information technology are accelerating the good fight to “protect” security and privacy with its quintessential tools of building awareness, promulgating regulations and funding the creation and enforcement of more regulations. But the war on who gets to be the king cyber thief is getting a bit more interesting, and perhaps more important to humanity, than the Russia-bad-America-good games played on the global theater stage, because while the public is being distracted by the legends of “TheDarkOverlord” who is stealing and selling disconnected phone numbers, the data cartel is emptying the vaults of our collective human dignity.

It was Google that invented the idea of data “liberation” to put a progressive face on its efforts to amass and sell access to personal information. It was the disruptive innovation lobby in health care that ported the data liberation movement to health care in the hopes of lowering the barriers to entry in an exceedingly complex and saturated market. The government bought the idea lock, stock and barrel because governments love surveillance of citizens and because our government is in bed with, or in the pocket of, giant technology companies aspiring to liberate a piece of the $3 Trillion health care market. But something strange happened on the way to data without borders. The government decided to fund Precision Medicine and it awarded the biggest chunk of money to the most vocal advocates for the creative destruction of imprecise medicine.

It didn’t take long to figure out that an academic medical center, as flush with cash as it may be, is no match for Google or Apple when it comes to stealing personal information from millions of people. And it didn’t take long to figure out that data liberation is set up to work in one direction and one direction only – from everywhere, into Google, Apple and other mega-rich Silicon Valley companies.  So after years of pushing the free-market miracles of iPhone medicine and genomic tests, it’s time to demand that government declares personal information to be a “public good” confiscated at will and freely available to tech giants and researchers, because anything else would be, wait for it, racist. Yes, racist, like in discriminatory against non-white minorities. The only thing left to ponder is whether we will be destroyed quickly by external weaponry, or extinguished slowly from the inside out.

On January 17, 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell address, warning the nation of what he called the military-industrial complex: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Note the wonderful nuance when he says “sought or unsought”. Whatever arguments, apologies, explanations, justification you may be inclined to offer, that “unwarranted influence” is undeniably here. We chose not to heed Ike’s warning and have been paying in blood and treasure ever since. The balloon payment is right around the corner.

And Ike had one more lesser known warning: “For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” He saw it clearly. He saw it coming more clearly than we, who are living in it, are seeing it today. From half a century away, Dwight Eisenhower saw the forest in which we wander, lost amongst the trees.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Brexit, MACRA and the Price of Tea in China

MACRA seems to be the talk of the town right now. MACRA and MIPS and APM and the dozens of sub-acronyms flying around like so many arrows in this Game of Thrones, Battle of the Bastards. The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) was signed into law over a year ago. That’s right, MACRA is the “law of the land” now, and it became law of the land with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and with much lobbying and cheerleading from medical associations. MACRA is not a proposal. It’s not some random regulation. It’s not something that can be stopped or changed without an act of Congress.

And MACRA is very lengthy and very detailed legislation. There is nothing surprising or unexpected in the recent publication of proposed implementation details that was not spelled out in the original MACRA text. It is possible that the degree of specificity in the CMS proposed rules for MACRA implementation finally hit home with the clarity absent from typical legislative language. It is also possible that an actual implementation date a few months down the road is more threatening than one that is a few years out. Either way, we are now witnessing a flurry of social media chatter lamenting MACRA, asking for changes in MACRA and demanding to stop MACRA altogether. I hate to say it, but all this huffing and puffing is a day late and a dollar short, folks.

Amongst the avalanche of angry articles, militant tweets, desperate conversations, calls for action (commenting on the proposed rules), apologies and condescending propaganda, perhaps the most touching post I’ve seen came from David Introcaso at The Health Care Blog, which shows in great detail how the MACRA is not really measuring “value”. Dear David, MACRA wasn’t meant to measure anything. It wasn’t meant to improve anything. It was meant solely to aid and abet the McDonaldization of health care. Submitting MACRA comments to the CMS is like bickering over the choice of rope after being sentenced to hang by the neck until you are dead.

Efficient, quantifiable, homogenized, controlled and dehumanized, that’s what health care must become, and when it does, health care will be plentiful, easily accessible and affordable for all poor people everywhere. Like Happy Meals. So how do we fight this? If you’re a physician in a leadership position, you don’t. Why should you? The more money we can save by cutting down “inappropriate utilization”, and the more money we can save by penalizing working doctors, the more cash will become available for executive bonuses. If you are a physician entrepreneur, you have bigger fish to fry. This is your once in a lifetime opportunity to invent a Zuckerberg platform for health care or a Bezos venue for online health care. If you just see patients from dawn to dusk, well, why are you doing that? There are leadership programs and entrepreneurial classes for doctors sprouting everywhere.

If you’re old fashioned or driven by idealistic notions, get over it. We live in a globalized economy. We don’t live on Planet Earth. We don’t live in a global village, or even a globalized society. We don’t even live in the Matrix. We live in the economy. It’s the economy, stupid. It’s like the Serengeti, dumbass. Migratory herds of wildebeests, zebras, antelopes, whose sole purpose in life is to be eaten by big cats. Is there a way out? Can the wildebeests, stop as one, turn around as one, and vanquish the predators? They tried that in Great Britain the other day. They called it Brexit. The globalized economy is still reeling from that blow, and every fat cat, every hyena, every vulture and every maggot, mobilized to define the Brexiters as a bunch of racist, bigoted, uneducated, mentally challenged, Luddite, toothless old farts, too stupid to appreciate the majestic beauty of the Serengeti.

On my Twitter stream some of the more frustrated physicians suggest that perhaps doctors should take a page from the Brits and stage a Drexit. True, revolution is contagious, but what does the doctor plight have to do with Brexit and globalization?

Post Brexitum Ante Drexitum

On June 23rd the people of Great Britain decided by referendum that European Union technocrats, congregating in Brussels Belgium, shall no longer be empowered to dictate which tea kettle an Englishman can or cannot use. The Brexit was essentially a vote against globalization, against a common regulatory framework and against the free movement of labor to support a common market where the rich get richer, the middle classes gets poorer, and the poor get to work for a bowl of thin gruel. Globalization has been excellent for the elites and not too shabby for a slice of society immediately under the elites, while gutting the vast majority below. And the gutted majority was supposed to meekly accept the inevitability of this new world order. Is this starting to ring your liberty bell?

There are approximately one million medical school graduates in the U.S. Of those, a small number are considered elites. These are the CEOs of big companies, the CMOs and CMIOs, the board members of every kooky startup, those who give keynote addresses at industry shindigs, those who write books, give interviews and do podcasts, those who shape and promote government agendas. Then come the thousands of highly specialized physicians who make money by the boatloads and are shielded from reality (for now).  At the lower end are all other working doctors, with primary care bringing up the massive rear. The distribution of riches and pain seems similar to the UK, the US, and frankly, to a host of other third world countries.

Whereas working people are told that they suffer from “anxiety” and various “phobias” (and stupidity), doctors are labeled “burned out” or “suicidal” (or disruptive) when failing to live up to the McDonaldization of life in the global economy. The elites of course are immune to these afflictions due to their superior visionary intellect. The rest of us need to be gently “nudged” to alter our “behavior”. Physicians need to have their “culture” and “readiness to change” evaluated. We all seem to need remedial education for how to “communicate”, how to “transform” or “adopt change”, how to be “sensitive”, and how to be grateful for all the unearned “privileges” we enjoy while billions of others are worse off. My grandma used to make similar arguments for why we should eat her revolting creamed spinach, but let’s go back to globalization.

Globalized Health Care

Remember when we used to say that all health care is local? We don’t say that anymore. Now we have centers of excellence far away from home and small rural hospitals that are all but doomed. Dr. Phil and Sir Richard Branson want me to get medical advice from strangers in other states. My TV frequently advertises state of the art hospitals in Dubai. Transcription services, claims processing, utilization reviews, and even radiology services have been globalized already. As technology pushes itself into medicine, with apps and artificial intelligence and even those pedestrian EHRs, remember that computers, tablets, phones and such, are all made in China’s slave labor camps, software is largely made in India or Pakistan or by imported slave laborers, maintenance and help desks are mostly overseas and some are in private American jails.

The lethal combo of HITECH/ACA/MACRA is essentially a redistribution of payments from local doctors (and the local people they employ) to cheaper semi-skilled and unskilled labor across state lines and across the globe. The benefits accrue to global corporations directly and indirectly, because profits in globalized business models are much larger, and the locus of power is shifted from geographically anchored professional expertise to global technocrats. This is not a disruptive innovation. From the days of Nebuchadnezzar to the East India Company and beyond, those who wished to rule the world understood that commandeering and destroying local infrastructure and uprooting people are the best ways to foster compliance with centralized governments far away.

Hard Drexit vs Soft Drexit

Unlike the Brexiters, physicians have no country of their own, and the Gomer Blog notwithstanding, there is no mechanism for a referendum. There is no Union or Guild or national body that could allow doctors to organize a serious Drexit that will pull all doctors, or at least a critical mass of practitioners, out of the acronym games. But even if a Physician Union existed, it is not clear what doctors would want to exit. Do they opt out of Medicare and Medicaid en masse? Do they opt out of all insurance contracts, because they are essentially the same? Not likely. Perhaps a small number of physicians who provide the least expensive services could survive in cash only practices, but the vast majority could not. And the producers of HITECH/ACA/MACRA know too well that this kind of Drexit is not an option.

But there is a softer type of Drexit. One choice is to pay for protection. This is a time honored method for keeping bad guys from raiding your small business. There are companies, health systems and even insurers that will bundle physicians of all specialties into large organizations to better cope with large regulatory climates designed for the global economy. Theoretically, you can remain independent in such arrangements. Theoretically. The other choice is an equally time honored method for standing your ground. Civil disobedience.

You don’t have to comply. Nobody is going to take your medical license away, and considering the meager ratio of physicians to population, nobody is going to prevent you from seeing patients. They will however pay you a bit less than if you complied with HITECH/ACA/MACRA. Think of it as an independence tax (low single digit percentages) over the next decade or so. If you sit down and calculate the price you’d have to pay for compliance with regulations, including opportunity costs, you will find that civil disobedience puts you slightly ahead or, at the very least, it breaks even with compliance.

Bottom line here is that you need to do your own math. Ignore the rhetoric. Ignore the doomsayers and the saviors of mankind. Every single person who opens their mouth on this subject has a vested interest that may or may not align with your interests, and the interests of your patients. Remember that the technocrats at the CMS are forecasting that you will be taxed no matter what you do, so why spend money and effort on a rigged game?

Instead, turn it around. Refuse to serve in the army of globalization on moral and ethical grounds. Wear it like a badge of honor. Advertise your Drexit. Make a poster for your clinic. Put it on your website. Stand with your patients. Let them know that you put patients first and money a distant second. Be a conscientious objector to a world order where we the people don’t matter anymore.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Confession of a Liberal

TRIGGER WARNING: Long read, Trump

I am a woman and I am an immigrant to this country. I am Jewish by birth and atheist by faith. I am fairly well educated, borderline socialist and straight Democratic ticket voter. I have no use for guns, I despise hunting, and I believe the death penalty is state sponsored murder. I think abortions are perfectly fine and I think everybody should be free to choose how they use their own body for their own happiness and joy. I have no respect for authority, strength, power or large wads of cash. Come to think of it, I have no respect for anything or anyone in particular.
On November eighth, barring any natural disasters, I will be voting for Donald Trump and according to my liberal bible, I will be doing so for all the wrong reasons.

Reason #1: Feeling the Bust

There was a brief moment there when I thought Bernie Sanders may just pull it off. He didn’t, and I should have known he wouldn’t. The first time I heard Bernie speak, it felt like he was reading my mind. The billionaire class, big corporations, a rigged economy, tax funded college and health care, and the list goes on and on. It was too good to be true. Bernie did not speak about foreign policy that day, and when he finally did, I found some things I could disagree with. I have a feeling that Bernie himself may disagree with some of his own foreign policy positions.

I was fairly sure that a President Sanders would have been able to cross off very few, if any, items on his to-do list, but that was not the point. A political revolution (unlike the real one coming down the pike) takes time, and I was willing to be patient, because I thought I would sleep better at night knowing that the person in the White House is on my side, and sleep is very important. In addition to nuclear codes and veto power, the President of the United States has that nifty tool invented by Theodore Roosevelt and named after his own self: the bully pulpit. Can you imagine a President Sanders State of the Union address, blasting the billionaire class and the greed of Wall Street? No? Try it. It’s very therapeutic. Well, that’s all over now, so what’s next?

Reason #2: I’m not with HER

This may be one of those divisive cultural issues, but in the place where I come from, an American woman became Commander in Chief almost half a century ago, and all across the globe many other women have served or are currently serving in similar positions. I must beg forgiveness for my lack of appreciation for this historic moment when America came one step closer to catching up with Bangladesh. If you believed in Bernie Sanders’ words long before you heard Bernie speak, and I mean really and truly believed, with both your heart and your brain, there is absolutely no way you can wake up one morning and be with HER, because she is the embodiment of everything you want to blow to smithereens.

Yes, President Obama endorsed HER because he doesn’t “think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office”, and yes, I wholeheartedly agree, because the last few decades have transformed the United States Presidency into “this office”, which fits HER like a glove. Obviously, HER unique, and truly historic, qualification is that, according to President Obama’s own spokesman, she is currently under “criminal investigation” by the FBI. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump has anything remotely as qualifying as that little jewel. Unfortunately, I am not looking for someone to “hold this office”, but for someone to refurbish and restore “this office” to its Teddy Roosevelt condition.

Reason #3: I’m a Racist

I didn’t think I was a racist, but it seems that I am. If I say that black lives matter, I’m a racist because how about white lives and Asian lives and Native American lives? Don’t they matter? Of course they do. All lives matter. Oops. Now I’m a racist because all lives matter is code words for black lives don’t matter. If I say “radical Islam” instead of “radical Islamism”, I’m a racist, because without the “ism” I’m offending our friends and allies in the fight against terror (i.e. the largest clients of our military industrial complex). If I support school vouchers, I’m a racist, because I propose to defund inner city schools where children are mostly black. If I oppose school vouchers, I am also a racist because I am trying to deny black children the same opportunities that privileged white children have. So I must be a racist. I don’t think I know what racist means anymore, but I hear that Bernie Sanders is a racist and Mr. Trump is also a racist, so as a racist, I should probably stick with my own kind.

Reason #4: The Copperheads

Let me tell you a little story, folks. Back when Abe Lincoln was leading the nation through its most painful fight for survival as a truly free nation, a group of conservative Democrats, called the Copperheads, came within inches of destroying everything Lincoln and his Republican party ultimately achieved. The Copperheads were strict constitutional constructionists espousing a philosophy practically identical to that of sanctimonious conservative ideologues who are viciously fighting the Trump candidacy today.  The party of Lincoln, and the party of Teddy, has been slowly and stealthily hijacked by the Copperheads.  To my immense delight, Donald Trump, who during a recent rally blurted out that “this is called the Republican Party, it's not called the Conservative Party”, is prying the party of Lincoln out of the cold grip of the Copperheads, and they loathe him for it.

Reason #5: FDR said so

The other President Roosevelt asked the country to judge him, not by his deeds, but by the enemies he has made, and that was good advice. Donald Trump has accumulated the most excellent team of enemies I have ever seen in modern politics (by my liberal standards, of course). Here is just the latest statement from Mr. Trump, after being snubbed by the Grand Copperhead and his brother: “I think the American public will be happy to know that the Koch brothers will not have influence over a Trump administration or the lives of the American people”, and this is just the cherry on top.

From the corporate raider who used 47 percent of our nation as his personal spittoon, to the avid Ayn Rand disciple who proposed to give old people two dollars for health care and let them go figure it out, to the Silicon Valley artificially intelligent extraction machine, and all the way through the calcified remains of the Copperheads themselves, the righteous indignation coalition for the preservation of global capital rights is raining fire and brimstone on Donald Trump and anyone who won’t publicly disavow him. Without knowing anything else about Mr. Trump, this would be sufficient information for me, but there is more. When the stars of corruption align so perfectly, there is always more.

Reason #6: The Media

Throughout history, the press was never impartial. It was never just about reporting the news. In fact the First Amendment reference to the press is precisely about protecting the freedom of journalists to attack politicians as they see fit. From the dawn of the Republic, there has never been a President or a candidate for political office that has not been chewed up, or promoted and endorsed, by this or that media outlet. This was all fine and dandy when each newspaper was a small business, and when public TV stations maintained a modicum of decorum in return for being granted free use of public airwaves. But the framers of the constitution did not and could not foresee a day when all media is owned by a handful of global corporations, and that’s where we are today.

The problem is not that the media is too liberal. Just ask Bernie Sanders how well the liberal media served his liberal campaign. The media looks and sounds liberal because it is targeting liberals. People who consider themselves conservative are already indoctrinated into corporate servitude. Liberals need to be cajoled by other liberals pointing to imaginary streams of racism, bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia, punctuated by indignant exhortations of “this is not who we are”, until they internalize the egalitarian benefits of free trade and open borders (i.e. an endless just-in-time supply of cheap slave labor for global corporations). I don’t know about other liberals, but I oppose slave labor, which leaves me very little wiggle room here.

Reason #7: Health Care is like Football

I work in health care. Health care is like football now, and I play on the losing team. We lose every time we show up, and we show up every day. We used to win most of the time, but they changed the rules. They change the rules in mid game now, in mid pass even. My favorite rule is where they get to move the goalposts two years after we kick the ball. The guys on the other team are big and strong and they are legion. Our team is shriveling and dwindling and aging rapidly. Nobody wants to join our team and I can’t blame them.  I run interference for a dying breed of quarterbacks. We pretend to know the rules and some of us pretend to like the rules. It’s a rigged game of survival of the crookedest.

We don’t have universal health care. We are not on the road to universal health care. These are not growing pains. These are not unintended consequences that need to be incrementally tweaked. This is not incompetence of well-meaning, but clueless, bureaucrats. Nobody can possibly be that incompetent. Donald Trump wants to win with health care. I am fairly confident that Mr. Trump knows very little about the health care football right now, but he seems to be an obsessive-compulsive winner, and I want him on our team. No football team can win with lousy management (believe me, I’m from St. Louis). We want Mr. Trump to manage our team, and we’ll leave it all on the field for America.

Reason #8: I Love our Conmen

Thomas Jefferson was elected President based on his very public opposition to strong Federal government. Then he went and bought half a continent without asking anybody’s permission. I guess he was a conman. Teddy Roosevelt was put in the White House by his wealthy buddies, and then he turned around and chose to throw them under the bus in favor of the “working man”. He must have been a conman too. Abraham Lincoln was most certainly not elected President based on his promise to launch a civil war that will kill half a million Americans, but he did that anyway. He was the ultimate conman. I voted for Bill and I got NAFTA and “the era of big government is over”. I voted for Barack Obama twice, and I got no hope and barely any change. I think I have a peculiar predilection for conmen, and my liberal friends say that Mr. Trump is a conman.

I’m a little worried about this conman thing though. I made it my business to watch dozens of Trump rallies, interviews and press conferences. Daniel Webster would be rolling on the floor laughing at Mr. Trump’s oratory skills, because he has this plebeian way of talking to his audience, instead of directing soaring sophistry down at them. His body language is concerning too, because he seems way too relaxed and comfortable chatting away (gaffes and foot-in-mouth and all that) in front of thousands of regular people, but tenses up like crazy during media interviews or when they bring out those godawful teleprompters for more upscale audiences. I fear that he may not be a genuine conman after all, but at this point I’m running out of options.

Reason #9: Teddy made me do it

So come November I will be voting for a xenophobe who is married to an immigrant, a racist bigot whose grandchildren are little Jews, an old fashioned misogynist who calls strange women “darling” and puts his daughter in charge of his own company, a dangerous man who wants to build schools and hospitals and bridges instead of financing foreign wars, a rabid Republican who wants to preserve and strengthen Medicare and Social Security, an authoritarian who wants to negotiate good deals, a sleek conman who couldn’t finesse his message if his life depended on it. And I will be voting for a bully, because whereas being a bully in third grade is a bad thing, bullying from the pulpit is in the President of the United States job description. Teddy put it there, and I adore Teddy. I want a Bull Moose for President this year.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Heart and Soul of MACRA

Ms. Jeannie is a 65 years old woman, slightly overweight with mild hypertension that is perfectly controlled. Ms. Jeannie is the office manager at Dr. Abrams, the pediatrician down the hall, who’s been taking care of your kids since you moved here. Ms. Jeannie called earlier because her allergies are killing her today and she’s out of refills for her blood pressure meds anyway. After an uneventful 15 minutes, and a brief chat in the hallway, Ms. Jeannie pays her $15 copay and heads back to work. Medicare will pay you another $60 in a few weeks. On to Bob Burns who is here for his DOT physical and his BP is through the roof… again…

Somewhere in our nation’s capital, someone has decided that when you go about your day like this, you’re doing a lousy job, because you provide very little bang for the buck they pay you. Maybe Jeannie could have seen your nurse instead of wasting your time with trivial things. Maybe she could have just stayed at her desk in Dr. Abrams’ office and talked to your nurse over Skype or email. And why is it that you can’t get a grip on Bob’s blood pressure and make him take his meds and understand that driving a truck is not a form of exercise? You need to provide value, instead of just counting volumes and volumes of expensive visits that may or may not work. This is wasteful. You need to learn how to do better with less money.

This is the heart and soul of MACRA. This is what 962 pages of gibberish are trying to elucidate for those who have the time to read 962 pages of government regulations on a Wednesday morning. You can certainly try to set aside time to pore over the intricacies of how Medicare plans to not pay you the $60 it owes you for seeing Jeannie, but if you have twenty to forty hours to read, I’d suggest taking another shot at Ulysses which may be a more rewarding and less frustrating choice. In Medicare’s defense though, it’s not that they don’t want to pay you anything for seeing Jeannie. No, that would be dumb. The 962 pages of labyrinthine regulations are about $3 that Medicare may be withholding from or adding to your $60 remittance for similar visits with Ms. Jeannie in 2019.

There are plenty of good summaries of MACRA out there (here is a great one), so I’m not going to repeat any of that here, because frankly, it doesn’t really matter. First, the SGR formula which MACRA is supposedly replacing was never implemented. Chances are good that the furious mathematics at the fraying edges of medicine described in the latest notice of proposed rulemaking will suffer a similar fate. Second, even if Medicare spends the prerequisite billions of dollars to implement a national mechanism for withholding your $3, booking one more patient per day will completely neutralize any effects on your practice and your personal income. Alternatively, and particularly if you are “of a certain age” this may be a great opportunity to spruce up your golf game, as Dr. Halamka himself is suggesting.

The Doctor Whisperers

Have you ever trained your pooch to walk nicely on a leash, to sit and stay and rollover whenever you tell him to? If so, chances are that you used those little bits of liver treats to reward good behavior. You don’t reward your pup in training with huge T-bones because he will ignore you for the next hour or two as he enjoys his bone. For obedience training, you use cheap, tiny morsels over and over again, along with profuse words of encouragement, until Rover gets the idea, and then you replace the liver bits with a pat on the head, and then you just assume that the dog is conditioned to always do what you want him to do, without rewards. And that’s how Rover becomes a good dog. The $3 Medicare incentive is your liver bit. Using it repeatedly, every 15 minutes or so, all day every day, is how you will be trained to become a good doctor.

The people who run programs like the MACRA are not stupid. They know, and the math is pretty straightforward, that the $3 training morsels won’t make any difference in Medicare finances, but at the end of the day you will learn to always pay attention to the handlers and respond to nonverbal cues in a reliably consistent manner. For example, many EMRs today have special markings for data fields that must be captured for Meaningful Use or PQRS. Some are color coded, others are marked with little stars and practically all have lists of items that were “satisfied” or not. Those are equivalent to yanking Rover’s choke collar, quickly, gently and ever so slightly. Nobody wants to hurt their “best friend”. We train docs for their own good, because well trained, obedient dogs are happy dogs.

Unfortunately, not all dogs are created equal. Great Pyrenees for example were bred for centuries to work independently, mostly alone, mostly at night, to protect their sheep from big bad wolves. Having shared my home with a few great ones over the years, I can tell you that they find fetching sticks a rather uninteresting proposition. Buried deep in the bowels of the 962 pages is a cute little table forecasting whose chain will be yanked and who will be getting those $3 bits most of the time (page 676). As you would expect, 9 out of 10 solo docs and 7 in 10 docs practicing in groups of less than 10 will be penalized, while over 80% of those working in very large systems, or rather their employers, will get rewarded. The heart and soul of MACRA has no room for independent doctors. They either submit themselves to employment in the service of big corporations, or go their separate way.

Other People’s Money

A century ago, under similar circumstances as we are experiencing today, Louis D. Brandeis railed against the "curse of bigness", and particularly the bigness of bankers who used “other people’s money” to exert undue influence (control) over the nation’s economy solely for their personal benefit and with complete disregard for the welfare of the people. To be sure, Justice Brandeis, as Thomas Jefferson before him, was disgusted with big corporations and big government as much as he was appalled by big banks. Both before and after his Supreme Court appointment, Brandeis experienced significant success in his crusade against bigness, but a century of American politics as usual managed to destroy practically everything he achieved, and to add insult to injury, today it’s not just the big banks that get to play games with other people’s money.

The 962 pages (with more to come) of MACRA regulations are how big government is creating a set of financial instruments that nobody understands (including the authors) to affect 20% of the American economy, not to mention the lives of 300 million people, using other people’s money to benefit the bottom lines of big corporations and for the personal aggrandizement of political appointees. I may be wrong, but I believe Justice Brandeis would be irate at the mere thought that the Federal government is proposing to award 7.5 cents to medical doctors who are “registered for a minimum of 6 months as a volunteer for domestic or international humanitarian volunteer work”. Thomas Jefferson would probably observe that our tree of liberty is long overdue for some refreshments, but I digress.

From its inception, health care reform has been focused on diverting physicians’ attention from patient care, which comes naturally to most of them, to counting things supposedly representing patient care. First came counting scripts sent electronically to pharmacies, then came counting the number of times the mammogram box was checked, the number of times the Pacific Islander box was ticked, the number of times one glanced at this or that list, culminating with the number of dollars patients are costing the insurance company. The MACRA is just the next step in the succession of incremental steps designed to transition Medicare to a Medicount program.  The problem with this strategy is that you are counting other people’s money.

Every dime the Federal government spends on obedience training (or culling) for doctors, is our money. Every nickel Medicare is spending on managing the largest accounting exercise known to mankind, is our money. Every penny commercial insurers spend on adopting the Medicount method, is our money. We are the true risk bearers for this experimentation, and so far we are seeing nothing but downside. Public health expenditures are going up. Private insurance premiums are going way up. Out of pocket expenses are going up. Our life expectancy is going down. Suicide rates are up. Addiction rates are up. Mental distress levels in general are up. And yet we are all compelled by taxation laws to fund our own demise without honest representation, without informed consent and without any legal recourse.

Maybe not this summer, and maybe not this fall, but what do you think comes next?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Health Care is Not a System

The Merriam-Webster dictionary has many definitions for the term system, but the most straightforward, and arguably the most applicable to our health care conversation is “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole”. The common wisdom is that our health care system is broken and hence our government is vigorously attempting to fix it for us through legislation, reformation and transformation. We usually work ourselves into a frenzy arguing how the government should go about fixing the system, but I would like to take a step back and question the assumption that health care is, or should be, a system. This is not about splitting the hairs of semantics. This is about proper definition of the problem we wish to solve.

You could argue that we use the term system loosely to refer to everything and there are no nefarious implications to calling health care a system. We have a transportation system, an education system, a legal system, a financial system, a water system, a political system and so forth. Note however that we rarely talk about our food system or auto system, fashion system, hospitality system, etc. We call those industries. Starting to see a difference here? Good. Our government obviously regulates both systems and industries, but it regulates them differently. And systems have distinct characteristics that industries seldom have, such as built-in (systemic) mechanisms for discrimination, and institutionalized (yep, systemic) corruption aplenty.

When we begin by assuming that health care is a system, we assume that health care should possess those same characteristics. We assume that health care in Beverly Hills will be, by design, different than health care in Flint, Michigan. We assume that health care delivered in private settings will be different than health care accessed in public settings. We assume that some areas will have sprawling, on demand health care hubs, while others will have none. We assume that public engagement in health care is for show only, while the billionaire class and its carefully constructed echo chamber get to make all our health care decisions. We assume that health care is, and always will be, rigged. And based on these assumptions, we proceed to fix our health care “system”.

You may be tempted to dismiss these thoughts as specious demagoguery, strawmen, soapbox arguments or just plain exaggerations. After all, health care system fixing includes such socially beneficent endeavors as expanding “coverage” for the poor (Medicaid expansion), subsidizing insurance for the less poor (Obamacare exchanges), granting insurance to the sick (preexisting conditions), and a steady drumbeat of accountability, measurement and reduction in “disparities” for “vulnerable populations”. To that I would respond by pointing you to several recent utterings from public figures empowered to effect health care reforms.

Medicaid for America

Let’s begin with the all-powerful Acting Administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Mr. Andrew Slavitt. The “acting” prefix is there, because for some reason, Mr. Slavitt is running the largest (taxpayer financed) health care insurance entity in the country without proper Congress confirmation. In a recent string of tweets, Mr. Slavitt refers to our “beloved modern Medicaid program” as “America’s healthplan”, proudly reminding us that Medicaid is 72 million strong (“Working people, families, majority white...”) and growing. I think it’s safe to assume that Mr. Slavitt himself is not receiving his medical care through "America’s healthplan", and neither does anybody he associates with.  It is also safe to assume that an accomplished executive like Mr. Slavitt, who is Harvard and Wharton educated, understands all too well that the size of Medicaid is inversely proportional to the prosperity of the American people. If the sheer notion of a senior political appointee in the Obama administration being ostentatiously proud to see working families forced to beg for public charity is not triggering a fire alarm in your head, then I don’t know what will.

One could argue that since Obamacare expanded Medicaid to people above official poverty levels, perhaps a bigger Medicaid does not necessarily imply more poor people, but a more generous society. One could make such argument, if federal poverty levels were a realistic measure of poverty, or if we didn’t have other sources of information. The grim reality is that even middle class Americans are now lacking the ability to purchase decent medical care, or insurance instruments for the same, and hence the Obamacare exchange subsidies for cheap insurance, which is marginally better than Medicaid in some ways, and substantially worse in other ways.

In another insightful tweet, Mr. Slavitt observes that “In exchanges, consumers vote with their feet and with their feet they say unaffordable care is a deal breaker”. Note how elegantly, inability to pay for nice things due to being destitute in general, is now framed as a preference, something you vote for with your feet. This is precisely how establishment henchmen convinced us that we vote with our feet when we shop at Walmart while decently paying jobs are being vacuumed from underneath our very same feet. Being poor and unable to afford eclectic amenities prized by the elites is a consumer preference, one very short step away from arguing that being on food stamps or sleeping under a bridge are merely choices some consumers make.

Health care in America is expensive. Expensive, though, is a relative term, and if America’s working class didn’t see its income consistently go down the 1% drain, perhaps health care would seem more affordable. But American health care is also expensive in absolute terms. Mostly it is expensive because each service and each item is priced higher than anywhere else in the world. Tackling the pricing problem is guaranteed to upset the masters of establishment henchmen, so they worked hard and found a couple of other alternatives to generate cheapness, just in case the voting with feet thingy blows up in their face (as it seems to be the case right now). The trick is to deflect scrutiny from real issues, and assign responsibility (blame) to doctors and the people in general.

The Return of the Broccoli

I’ve written compulsively about the apparent war on doctors in the past, and I am certain I will be writing more, but the war on people is a much more intricate subject. It’s relatively easy to separate a quarter of one percent of people from the herd, paint them as for-profit mass murderers and sic the hungry mobs on them. But then how do you subdue the mobs? For that, my friend, we have government. We have behavioral economics. We have the experts and pundits in that echo chamber. And we have the righteous souls who innocently light the fuse of every calamity.

I’m old enough to remember the debates preceding the Obamacare litigation in front of the Supreme Court, culminating with both Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts pondering whether the government has it within its enumerated powers to make you buy broccoli. Before the broccoli debacle, the same libertarian lunatic fringe wondered if government can order Americans to lose weight, or if the government can mandate that we buy certain products from certain manufacturers. Of course Obamacare and its mandate to buy health insurance or be penalized by the IRS survived these outlandish challenges, and the IRS is doing its best to rake in those penalties. It must be doing a great job too, because it sounds like IRS services for mankind could be drastically expanded.

Steven Findlay is an expert health care policy journalist, with an illustrious record working for the Consumers Union, and one of the handpicked advisors who shaped the Meaningful Use program. Mr. Findlay recently commented on The Health Care Blog, making the following statement: “Hell, I’d support tax breaks for people who quit smoking and/or can document to the IRS that they exercise 3 times a week for an hour each time!” Hell, indeed! But if the IRS can collect penalties for failure to purchase insurance, and grant tax credits for buying Pella windows, why not offer tax breaks for making your body more productive and more efficient?

Was Mr. Findlay writing in jest? Perhaps, but note that Obamacare is already empowering health insurers and employers to offer “incentives” and “discounts” for a variety of wellness schemes, which are essentially paycheck penalties on sick and “non-compliant” people. And note also that these types of shell games are only effective if you are poor enough and forced to vote with your feet every time someone reaches for your empty wallet. I wonder if voting with your feet would be an IRS approved form of exercise…
This is the glorious power of systems. This is the power of a “regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole”. This is why health care must become a system where the “items” regularly interact in formulaic pathways. This is why free range actors randomly affecting the system cannot be tolerated by the centrally installed array of levers and signaling networks.

This is why independent medical practice must die, small hospitals must be euthanized, and managed population health must encompass the entire nation (minus the elite caretakers) down to the minutest detail. This is why each one of us must be systematically tagged, numbered and catalogued in the vast repositories of “precision medicine”. And this is precisely why health care must never be allowed to become a system.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Comprehensive Primary Charade +

The most powerful persuasion tool in enlightened human society is language. The most powerful manipulation tool in any human society is language. Whereas in ancient times the pen was considered mightier than the sword, now the keyboard can be said to be mightier than any weapon of mass destruction, and nobody is mightier than the government of these United States. When our government wanted to strip citizens of privacy, it passed the Patriot act, because no one could oppose patriotism after 9/11. When it set out to facilitate corporate procurement of foreign slave labor, it enacted a set of XYZ Free Trade agreements, because this is the land of the Free. When it decided to ration health care services for the middle class, it put in place the Affordable care act, because we are all broke. Now that the U.S. government has decided to do away with the medical profession, it is feverishly rolling out Comprehensive primary care initiatives.

Comprehensive primary care is not a fuzzy, in the eye of the beholder, type of concept. Perhaps the most celebrated primary care advocate in recent times, Dr. Barbara Starfield, defined comprehensive primary care as “dealing with all health-related problems or interventions except those too uncommon to maintain competence”, where “common” means “encountered in at least one per thousand patients in a year”. The term comprehensive is an adjective intended to describe the spectrum of problems addressed in primary care without referrals to outside specialists. Comprehensive primary care is what country doctors used to provide to their patients from cradle to grave, and some still do. Comprehensive primary care is what family medicine was supposed to be all about, but it rarely is.

Taken at face value, encouraging primary care physicians to practice at the top of their license (to use a dumb cliché) sounds like a welcome nudge (to use another dumb cliché) towards longitudinal, high quality, relationship based, and lower cost health care.  Comprehensive primary care should mean treating most patients in house, expanding the spectrum of primary care procedures, and avoiding the often disastrous descent into specialty, sub-specialty and invasive care that may add nothing to ultimate outcomes, except grief accompanied by hefty price tags. It also means a return to having one’s personal physician in attendance if and when hospitalization is needed, replacing random hospitalist care and rendering specialty care a truly consultative service in most circumstances.

Unfortunately we cannot take anything our government says or does at face value. Back in 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rolled out the Comprehensive Primary Care (CPC) initiative. Medicare in collaboration with private insurers invested funds upfront and increased ongoing payments to primary care physicians who provide comprehensive care to their patients. There was only one small problem. The CMS redefined comprehensive care to mean the usual and customary concoction of patient engagement, coordination, risk management, same-day access and quality measures, sprinkled with technology fairy dust.

In what must have been a seismic shock to CMS experts (just kidding), the latest evaluation of the CPC initiative, concludes that very little, if anything, has been achieved during the first two years of this sprawling program. The study, commissioned and funded by the CMS, found that neither utilization nor overall costs were favorably impacted by this type of “comprehensive” care. As to “quality”, the study measured a handful of processes (i.e. timely diabetes testing and such) as surrogates for outcomes and found no changes there either. The net cost/saving analysis did not include the initial hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the CMS on consulting services for rolling this particular initiative out. The CMS evaluators concluded their analysis expressing hope that future studies of this ongoing initiative may be helpful to policy makers.

And as is always the case with CMS initiatives, when something is shown not to work as intended, the next step is to double down and do more of the same. One day before the CPC evaluation was published, the CMS announced a brand new, bigger and better, CPC+ initiative. Presumably the + stands for an increase in the size of the initiative, or alternatively, an increase in its comprehensiveness. So let’s count the ways….

Comprehensive Risk+

Risk is the new compassion. All these initiatives, programs, reforms, transformations, innovations, that you see floating around, are intended to train doctors to view patients as risks. All the technology flooding the health care market right now, with much more to come, is aimed at reducing every single patient walking through your door to a risk number. You have a 4.5 at 10am and a 2.0 at 10:30. Risk score will not become the sixth vital sign. It will become the only vital sign, the wonder measure that simplifies health care to something a third grader can understand. You want to pay doctors for value instead of volume? Pay them for reducing their risk scores. We can’t really measure processes or outcomes, but we can measure financial risk, a.k.a. value, or rather lack thereof, and by incorporating big data from all sources, we can calculate risk scores to the second or third decimal place.

Average risk scores for your assigned population are an okay indicator of the value you provide, but can be misleading. A better indicator would be the size of risk percentile groups. For example, on a scale of 1 to 5, if you have no patients above 4.5, and only a handful above 4, you are an excellent value provider. If you can reduce the number of above fours next year, you’ll get a big fat bonus and a whole bunch of stars in some public provider directory, which is a great thing too, because sick people (who are not stupid), will quickly figure out that they need not apply for appointments with 5 star doctors. So you have this virtuous cycle going on now. Eventually the 4.5 and above population will dwindle out by natural attrition (maybe 5’s should be flagged as auto-DNR…) and your historical propensity to inadvertently get in trouble will plummet.  

To the immense delight of pundits everywhere, health care will become more like flying aeroplanes. You, and your computerized team, will run through standardized checklists before anything is done for a patient. If the slightest risk is identified, you get a new aircraft. Only perfect planes ever leave the runway. Only perfect patients get medical care. And health care will become more like the banks too. When you want to buy a car or a house, all that matters is your credit score. If your credit score is good, you get good financing. If your credit score sucks, you get bubkes. You only get a bank loan if you can prove you don’t need it in the first place. Health care will be similarly reserved for the healthy. As to CPC+, you can’t get a dime from anybody unless you slap a risk score on every single patient, which brings us to the next epiphany.

Comprehensive Finance+

More than anything else, CPC+ is a master class in finance. The CPC+ initiative offers two distinct financing tracks, one for less technology savvy beginners and one for savvier participants. Whereas currently you get paid a certain number of dollars per service, with CPC+ Medicare will be providing three distinct payment streams, with the third one signaling the way of the future:
  • Fixed care management fees commensurate with patients’ risk scores and ranging between $6 and $100 per patient per month, which must be used to hire more people, buy technology or pay for training.
  • Performance-based incentive payments ($2.50-$4 per patient per month) will be paid prospectively (before performance is measured) in full, but will be subject to partial recoupment if the practice fails to meet a predefined threshold score for quality and cost/utilization measures. For practices that fall under a predefined minimum score, performance-based payments will be recouped in their entirety.
  • Technologically advanced practices can select to have a portion of their estimated Medicare fee-for-service revenue made payable upfront as well, followed by reduced payments on ongoing claims. The maximum upfront payment is 65% of historically estimated E&M services, and this bulk payment will be marked up 10% (for an overall gain of 6.5%). This upfront capitation is subject to reconciliation on the other side and to recoupment if your patients increase use of outside primary care services, such as the much encouraged retail clinics.
But wait, there is more… The CPC+ is a multi-payer initiative and all participating commercial payers are free to devise their own payment schemes. A practice could easily find itself juggling half a dozen payment methodologies, with dozens of splintered revenue streams, each with its own rules, idiosyncrasies and accounting systems. Not only you have to continue submitting claims as before, but Medicare will eventually require documentation of previously non-billable activities (e.g. phone calls, portal messaging) and categorical proof that all the funds bestowed upon you are used as Medicare wants you to use them.

Yes, you read that right. The CMS, which is a government agency, will not only decide how much to pay you (or if to pay you), but also what you are allowed to do with those payments, which are essentially provisional and subject to recoupment on a whim. Why? Because aversion to loss, is a much more powerful motivator than desire for incentives when mindless conformance and subservience are the ultimate goals.

Comprehensive Acquaintanceships+

As was the case with CPC and practically all health care reform initiatives, CPC+ is encouraging, nay demanding, that the inconveniently personal one-to-one patient-doctor relationship is broken up and replaced by less intense acquaintanceships with care team members. There are good reasons to change the relationship model in health care. First, patients must be rendered receptive to a constant barrage of messaging regarding prevention, compliance and frugality, which is something you want to delegate anyway. Second, and the CPC+ proposal specifically suggests this, you can take on more patients if you don’t have to actually care for them. Third, the more random people you can have buzzing around each patient, sending messages, checking dashboards, managing lists, and conducting meetings to discuss all of the above, the more comprehensive the entire thing appears to be.

One of the few measurable successes of the CPC initiative was a 3% reduction in primary care visits, attributed to the “comprehensiveness” of “wrap-around” electronic and ancillary services. Same amounts of referrals and specialty services, same levels of inpatient and emergency services, and markedly less interaction with one’s personal physician. This is how the CMS defines comprehensive primary care. I know what my thoughts are, and I see how practicing docs feel, but sometimes I wonder what Barbara Starfield would have said about this inexplicable charade…