health care innovators

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‘Healthy San Francisco’: A Different — Better? — Model For Health Reform

Let me tear off my provincial Massachusetts blinders for a moment to say: We’re far from the only national laboratory for health reform. And something deeply interesting is going on in that fair city on the left-coast Bay, San Francisco.

So interesting, in fact, that the program, “Healthy San Francisco,” is a finalist for a major award from Harvard Kennedy School, the Innovations in American Government Award given out by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. (Winner to be announced early next year.) The 16-minute presentation above to the award judges provides a succinct overview, but here’s my one-liner: Unlike Massachusetts, San Francisco didn’t try to get everybody insured; it just aims to provide health care to the uninsured people who need it — not just in emergencies, but long-term, primary and specialist care.

I spoke with Berkeley health economist Richard M. Scheffler, who evaluated “Healthy San Francisco” for the innovation awards, about how the program works, and it certainly has its limits — including the city limits: It doesn’t extend beyond them. But what struck me is that, beginning in 2007, the program aimed to address health care delivery issues that we in Massachusetts are only getting to in a sweeping way now, such as the question of whether everyone should have to have a primary-care “medical  home.”

It also struck me that, though employers and taxpayers foot the bill, Healthy San Francisco addresses the problem of the uninsured by focusing mainly on them, and arguably affects the broad population less than in our health-insurance-for-all state. Readers, what do you think? Would something like Healthy San Francisco work elsewhere, beyond the bounds of that famously liberal city? Would you want it to?

‘The mandate is on the employer, not the individual as it would be in Massachusetts.’

My chat with Richard Scheffler, lightly edited:

So what’s so cool about ‘Healthy San Francisco” that it merited being an award finalist? It strikes me as such a dramatically different model from Massachusetts, much more narrowly targeted…?

What’s cool about it is that, as you mention in your question, it’s a very different approach than Massachusetts — or even the Obama plan. The Massachusetts model is fundamentally based on trying to help people obtain health insurance. But it does nothing about the access problem: the plight of safety net hospitals, lack of primary care doctors, overuse of emergency rooms, uncoordinated care. So San Francisco, to compare it to an insurance approach, it’s what you’d call an ‘access approach,’ It’s actually to provide access to health care. Continue reading

From Haiti To Harvard: Crucial Foot Soldiers Of Health Make Housecalls

Fernanda Pereira, a native of Brazil, had some basic misunderstandings about the U.S. health care system. Here are two:

1. She used to take her asthmatic son, Ycaro, to the emergency room every time he needed a refill for his inhaler. She didn’t know she could simply call the doctor for a prescription and pick it up at the pharmacy.

2. She was confused and anxious when Ycaro, 11, was diagnosed with childhood depression. “Here, it’s normal for kids to be in therapy; in Brazil it’s not normal, ” Fernanda said. So, she cancelled or skipped 10 pediatric therapy appointments.

Enter Erica Guimaraes, a community health worker, and part of an ambitious program here to provide better, more effective care to poor, chronically ill patients — some who cost more than $200,000 a year to treat.

Since October, Erica has visited the Pereira’s home at least twice a month to help them deal with their medical problems, mental health struggles, cultural challenges, and anything else that comes up. On a recent visit to the family’s tidy brick apartment above a pizza place in Medford, Erica taught Ycaro how to properly use his inhaler. She explained to his mom, once again, the difference between Flovent and Albuterol. And she set up in-home therapy sessions for Ycaro. The boy has not been to the ER since Erica started visiting. “This winter, with Erica, it’s better,” Fernanda says.

Low-Tech Lessons in a High-Tech City

Here in this wealthy medical mecca of high-tech hospitals, Erica is part of an experiment to use low-tech lessons learned in the poorest of countries, Haiti. As Massachusetts, and the nation, begin to revamp a broken health care system, the need for these health workers, who fill a critical gap by supporting families in their homes, is clearer than ever before, says Partners In Health co-founder Paul Farmer, the doctor famed for developing a cadre of such workers in Haiti. “There has been more discussion about the need for innovation in this arena this year than ever before,” he said. We are finally acknowledging that “it is very expensive to give bad medical care to poor people in a rich country.”

While Fernanda’s daughter Katherine, 4, watches a Dora video, Erica and Fernanda chat in Portuguese, intimately, like sisters (they are from the same state in central Brazil) about the challenges of dealing with the new 4-month-old baby. Continue reading

Poster Child For Coming Health Reform: ‘Better Care Is Cheaper’

For a glimpse of the future of Massachusetts health care as Gov. Deval Patrick envisions it, consider Phyllis Minsky.

CommonHealth’s interview with Phyllis Minsky, whose story suggests big potential savings in health care costs in Massachusetts.

At 82, Phyllis is complex. Medically, that is. Widowed young and veteran of 35 years in the financial services industry, she comes across as a resilient spirit, all backbone and humor and gratitude for small favors. But there’s no denying she’s up against a lot: diabetes, asthma, chronic lung disease, a blood pressure problem that leaves her prone to sudden blackouts. At one point, she was on 20 different medications.

Luckily, Phyllis has a secret weapon these days: Wendy Atamian. A nurse with 35 years of experience, Wendy is Phyllis’s “nurse care manager,” which means that she stays on top of Phyllis’s health: She helps coordinate her doctors’ visits and medications; sets up home-based services after hospital stays; advises her if she’s in pain or can’t sleep. Wendy even suggested a simulator test to help determine whether Phyllis should still be driving.

“Wendy is always there when I need her,” Phyllis said. Together with Phyllis’s primary care physician, Dr. Michael Bierer, “I think they’ve saved me many trips to the emergency room and urgent care” — “which is a blessing.”

15 percent of Medicare patients make up over 75 percent of health care spending.
It’s not just a blessing for Phyllis — it’s a money-saver for the health care system. Older patients with multiple chronic diseases are the biggest consumers of health care; some 15 percent of Medicare patients make up over 75 percent of health care spending. Cutting the costs of their care is a must if the relentlessly rising health cost curve is ever to be bent — the goal of the next phase of Massachusetts reform.

Multiply Phyllis Minsky by 3,200. That’s the number of patients in the five-year-old pilot project that she’s part of, the Mass General Care Management Program. Begun at Mass General, the care management program has now expanded to Brigham & Women’s Hospital and the North Shore Medical Center, for a six-year total of more than 8,000 patients.

And that may be only the beginning.
Continue reading

5 Things You Need To Understand About Looming Health Care Changes

Dr. Marc Bard of Navigant

In case you missed the news, Gov. Deval Patrick put the state on notice last week that over the next five years, he wants the entire Massachusetts health care system to shift to a new way of working. The current system, he said, provides financial incentives for more care rather than better care. “By most accounts, better-quality care — meaning integrated, whole-person care — equates to lower cost. From now on, we propose to pay for that rather than the fragmentary system we have today,” he said.

At the center of that shift, the buzzword of all buzzwords in the months to come, is “ACOs,” or Accountable Care Organizations. We offer a rudimentary guide to ACOs here. The bill that the governor filed last week briefly defines ACOs as “connected or integrated groups of health care providers that achieve improved health outcomes and lower the cost of care.”

But what does that mean? What is this shift going to look like? CommonHealth spoke today with Dr. Marc Bard, chief innovation officer in Navigant’s health care practice and author of a forthcoming book: “Accountable Care Organizations: Your Guide to Strategy, Design and Implementation.” He kindly boiled it down for us into five main points:

1. In the current system, you are your own health care general contractor. An ACO would be more like a package tour.

“American health care system” is actually an oxymoron. There is no system of care. If it resembles a system at all, it resembles an ecosystem. That’s an important concept because an ecosystem is an essentially competitive system in which each element is fighting for survival, and there’s no attempt to organize an ecosystem, it just evolves. In the US health care system, each patient — individually operating in an an entirely transactional and fragmented environment — is essentially his or her own general contractor for care.

First and foremost, an accountable care organization is designed to be a system of care, an organized, integrated system of care. It’s a little bit like booking a package tour: You sign up and it’s all coordinated for you. You don’t have to worry about booking your airfare, your hotels, the sites you’ll see. It’s all integrated because they anticipated what your needs are — it’s a package tour with a purpose, and the purpose is optimizing your health in an efficient way.

2. ACOs are organized around the patients’ needs, not the providers’. Continue reading

Introducing…Massachusetts Health Care Reform, Part Two

Gov. Deval Patrick

By Carey Goldberg and Rachel Zimmerman

Let the history books record: On Feb. 17, 2011, Massachusetts officially launched Health Care Reform II, seeking to go where no state had gone before and stem the relentless growth in medical costs by transforming the system of health care.

Amid a sea of dark business suits Thursday morning, Gov. Deval Patrick presented his plan to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce at the InterContinental Hotel (the proposed legislation is here). Speaking so emphatically that at one point his voice broke to a high note, he told the gathering:

“Universal health care in Massachusetts has been a resounding success, and rightly serves as a model for what’s possible for the rest of the nation, but it costs too much. Health care in Massachusetts is now universally accessible but it is not universally affordable.”

Later that day, the governor filed a bill on containing health costs and transforming the system of payment, and also held his first meeting with a “working group” of health care, business and other leaders on his plan.

Patrick described his bill as consisting of four main pieces:

1. It proposes to provide a set of standards and benchmarks for the formation of Accountable Care Organizations and other alternative payment methodologies. (That is, ways to shift the system from “fee for service,” in which providers are paid for each procedure,” to a system of “global” or “bundled” payments that put a provider on a budget for a patient’s overall care and give bonuses for quality.)

2. It empowers the commissioner of insurance to consider a wider array of factors when deciding whether to approve premium increases, including the underlying provider rates and how they compare to medical cost inflation. (Read: the state has more power to crack down on high premiums and costs.)

3. It creates an advisory council of stakeholders and consumers to monitor how payment reform is implemented.

4. The bill seeks to redirect the system of medical malpractice in favor of apology and prompt resolution, to deemphasize so-called defensive medicine.

An additional point: It sets up a new state office to act as a “one-stop shopping” point to help “innovators in the medical community” with pilots and other experiments. And its overarching aim is for new-style health care organizations with incentives for healthier patient outcomes to predominate by 2015.

Overall reaction among attendees in the hubbub after the speech appeared largely positive, but this phrase kept popping up: “The devil is in the details” and the details aren’t clear yet. You can listen to some initial thoughts from health care leaders who were there here, here, here and here. And click here for the skeptical morning-after reaction.

Excerpts of Gov. Patrick’s remarks are here, and WBUR is scheduled to air the governor’s speech in its entirety this Sunday.

Special Report: ‘Menu’ Lets Patients Choose End-Of-Life Treatments

Horror stories about end-of-life care abound. Here’s mine. After a terrible car accident at age 56, my beloved mother lay in a vegetative state for nearly two years. She’d always been very outspoken about choosing death over life as a vegetable, so when all hope for any sort of recovery was gone, we brought her home to die.

It is illegal to kill. We couldn’t just give her an overdose. But we could “withhold care,” so we stopped her tube feedings to let her effectively starve to death. She lay in a hospital bed at home for nine days, slowly fading. Even knowing her wishes, and with support from the most saintly and sensitive hospice workers, it was a nightmare.

At one point, a hospice doctor told us that if my mother showed any signs of discomfort, her morphine dose could be increased. I remember snapping at him something like: “Why in the world would we wait for her to show ‘signs of discomfort’? Crank the morphine all the way up now! Why let there be even a chance of pain? The point here is for her to die, and if the morphine depresses her breathing and hastens that along, so much the better!”

It would have been good to be able to register a request for “absolutely maximal pain relief.” But there was no mechanism for that. There was no formal way to lay out our end-of-life instructions.

That is very likely to change soon. The coming thing for patients near the end of life in Massachusetts is a new official form that lets them discuss and document their choices for “life-sustaining treatments” — based on their own needs, their own preferences and what is medically appropriate. I think of it as “the final menu.”

Far more specific than a “Do Not Resuscitate” order, it asks: Would you want to be intubated? Put on a ventilator? How about dialysis? Do you want to be brought to the hospital, or remain at home? How about tube feedings? Anything else? (Personally, I think I’d write: “Please drug me up so intensively that I float into death in a happy morphine haze.” Doctors might not be able to comply, but I’d still ask. )

The form is not for everyone — unlike the health-care proxy form that everyone over 18 should fill out to designate a backup medical decision-maker. But if you have a chronic, advancing illness with no hope of recovery, you can choose to talk about your options with your clinician. Then together, and perhaps with your family as well, you convert that conversation into checks in boxes on the shocking pink form, called a MOLST, Medical Orders for LIfe-Sustaining Treatment.

The MOLST becomes a valid medical order, to be honored by all who treat you, whether the ambulance crew or nursing home staff or hospital physician. If you change your mind, you can always change your MOLST.

I call the MOLST the coming thing for two reasons: One, it’s not here yet. The form is available only in a small pilot project that has been running for just six months in Worcester, training hundreds of doctors, nurses and social workers to use the forms. The project’s managers are still evaluating it, and if it gets approval for use statewide, they want to roll it out carefully, possibly as soon as next year.

But two, those managers are already fielding frequent requests for the form, suggesting how popular it may become. The MOLST eliminates guess-work about a patient’s wishes, both for medical personnel and for families. And it is simply, appealingly explained in this 13-minute video.

MOLST in Massachusetts from Commonwealth Medicine on Vimeo.

“A lot of people hear about it, they see it, they want it,” said Andy Epstein, who co-chairs the MOLST steering committee as special assistant to the state public health commissioner. It involves “a process of discussing and communicating and ultimately honoring the patient’s wishes. and it’s very comprehensive — that’s the beauty of it.”
Continue reading

Field Test: Does Bob Master Hold The Secret To Better Health Care?

As part of our ongoing coverage of health reform and the cost of care, CommonHealth will periodically investigate novel approaches to delivering high quality, affordable medical care. We begin the series with a look at Bob Master’s Commonwealth Care Alliance, a nonprofit that has reduced the hospitalization rate of its chronically ill, elderly patients by nearly half since the first enrollee signed on in 2004.

Bob Master, CEO, Commonwealth Care Alliance, a unique health care delivery organization

Step into the downtown Boston office of Commonwealth Care Alliance, and the first thing that hits you are the walls — they’re a screaming, deliciously bright shade of orange — not the typical palette for a health care business. But that’s the point.

As CEO of this unorthdox hybrid — part health care provider, part HMO, part payer — Dr. Bob Master must take on multiple roles. “We have to play the insurance game,” he says. “But that’s not our primary role.”

Reinventing Primary Care

Dr. Master’s ultimate role has been to re-imagine health care delivery. Commonwealth Care front-loads primary care and supports physicians in its network with a dedicated team of nurse practitioners, mental health and behavioral specialists, geriatric social workers and “every medical and surgical specialist known to man.”

The organization is essentially a full-service provider of medical care and social support for chronically sick, elderly and sometimes disabled people on Medicare, Medicaid, or both. From the moment a patient signs on, he or she has access — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — to a nurse practitioner who is armed with up-to-date electronic medical records and has the authority to call in other specialists as needed. Patients can choose from 25 primary care sites around the state, and for the homebound, house calls are also part of the plan. Continue reading