Mandatory Posting of Hospital Charges: Rest In Peace.

I thought that before I signed the death certificate of the Posting Standard Charges Project, that I would place a mirror beneath its nostrils just to make sure it was ready to put in the ground. I was planning to add this confirmatory step as an addendum or comment to my first article, but it was clear that additional details and discussion would be necessary. My first pronouncement was based on a bedside-look at the several chargemaster databases. What did the local hospitals choose to disclose; what must they have intentionally omitted; how easy was it to find anything; and was the information useful to compare different hospitals? I did not even have to feel for a pulse to know the answers. Out of fairness and a desire not to bury the patient alive (but with certainty that my initial diagnosis was correct) I applied a more definitive diagnostic test that might been a valid real-world trial for me had these posted standard charges been available last Fall.

As I pulled away from my cardiac pit stop at Rhode Island Hospital, it was suggested I schedule a cardiac echo stress-test back home to evaluate the size and function of my heart. Using all of my wisdom and experience as a physician and Professor, I did what everybody else does– find a cardiologist who would see me as a new patient and do what they suggest! The stress-test was normal. I could not have hoped for a better result nor more competent and attentive care. The question for our present exercise is: If posted standard charges were available– and I had time to look at them– what I have found? [Spoiler alert! The effort would have been a waste of time, if not misleading.] Continue reading “Mandatory Posting of Hospital Charges: Rest In Peace.”

Federally Mandated Postings of Standard Charges by Louisville Hospitals Are Unusable for Their Intended Purpose.

(But will reveal the the unacceptable and unjust absurdity of how we pay for medical services.)

Reporter Gilbert Corsey of WDRB was, to my knowledge, first on the block locally to take public look at the implementation of a newly enforced federal law requiring hospitals to publish their Standard Charges online. Originally part of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacared) as turned into regulation last year,, the stated purpose was to allow the public to compare the cost of services and choose wisely among hospitals before they incur responsibility for payment. An overlying expectation (?dream) was to improve quality and decrease costs. Hospitals bitterly protested implementation of this law.

Mr. Corsey’s reporting verified the expectation that charges amoung neighboring hospitals can vary greatly. For example, an uncomplicated birth at one Louisville hospital was priced twice as high as another, and an injection of a drug used for prostatic cancer varied threefold. Corsey’s report also concluded that the published lists are confusing and difficult to decipher. I agree. I will go further and argue these lists are essentially worthless for their intended consumer purpose – surely knowingly so. Their value however for unintentionally making the policy point that, like pricing for pharmaceuticals, hospital pricing and billing exists in a logic-free, Alice-in Wonderland zone to the detriment of the public. Allow me to explain. Continue reading “Federally Mandated Postings of Standard Charges by Louisville Hospitals Are Unusable for Their Intended Purpose.”

Can Jewish Hospital in Louisville be Saved? Perhaps Not.

If not, what then?

Surely the end-game of the years-long efforts of Catholic Health Initiatives and KentuckyOne Health to sell some or all of their hospitals in Louisville must be coming to a climax. Transferring management of University of Louisville Hospital to KentuckyOne– a move that turned out badly for both institutions– was always as much or more about saving Jewish than ULH.  Many outside entities came to kick the tires of what KentuckyOne wanted to sell but walked off the lot.  The last acknowledged potential buyer whose keys KentuckyOne was holding was the tag-team of the private equity firm Blue Mountain and its spinoff for-profit hospital management company, Integrity Healthcare– now majority-owned by for-profit Nantworks Companies and Nantworks owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong.  Sound complicated?  It is!  Casting a very dark curtain over this potential transaction in Louisville is last week’s announcement that Blue Mountain & Co.’s first and only attempt to take over a failing non-profit Catholic hospital chain in California has failed– the hospital system has filed for bankruptcy. These six Verity Hospitals (formerly the Daughters of Charity) might be bought by their communities, taken over by others, liquidated for their assets, or otherwise close.  I cannot avoid concluding that the same result would occur in Louisville and for much the same reasons.

CHI has played this one very close to its corporate chest. Fanned by anxiety about the future, rumors have been flying in increasingly disparate and desperate directions ranging from “Blue Mountain” has taken a second look and will sign on soon; or Blue Mountain has walked away for good; or that Nantworks and Dr. Soon-Shiong will move forward with the deal without Blue Mountain; or that CHI will give Jewish to the University for a song; and even that one or both of the sister Jewish & Sts. Mary Hospitals will soon shut its doors.  None of the potential players is in a strong place right now as I will outline below.  The one thing I am sure of is that the ground under the downtown hospital complex is going to quake hard, and that secondary seismic activity will be felt out in the county and beyond.  The Louisville Community is going to have to make some public health decisions that are both difficult and expensive. Continue reading “Can Jewish Hospital in Louisville be Saved? Perhaps Not.”

City Air Makes You Free. A Public Health Case for Sanctuary Cities.

The following is extracted (with permission) from an article first published in hasselbloger.com.


In the printed edition of the Courier-Journal on January 25, a letter-writer contributed the following:

‘Dignity of Labor’ to get healthcare is wrong.
According to your report of Jan/ 13, Gov. Bevin wants to change Medicaid requirements to enable the “able bodied” poor to learn the “dignity of labor.” It was a teaching of the Nazis that “Arbeit macht frei.”  The similarity between these two simplistic positions is too dangerous to ignore.  Stephen Schuster, Louisville.

Based on reflection over the past two years, I do not deem Mr. Schuster’s reaction to be overblown.  I submitted my own letter in response, but it appears that it was not accepted. Having my own “barrel of ink,” I publish it below.


Dear Courier Journal.
A recent correspondent to these letters drew uncomfortable attention to a similarity of phrasing used by Gov. Matthew Bevin and the German Nazis.  To obscure an ultimate goal of decreasing Medicaid enrollment, he and other governors would require “able-bodied” beneficiaries to either work or provide compulsory volunteerism [an oxymoron?] under the dissembling cover of gifting the poor with the ability to learn “the dignity of labor.”  Mr. Schuster and I were both reminded of the phrase Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free) posted by the Nazis at the entrances to their Arbeitslager (labor camps) which evolved into the death camps of Europe.

A much older German phrase entered my mind as President Trump and his acolytes scold and sue cities like Louisville for protecting their inhabitants born under other suns.  Stadtluft macht frei  (City air makes you free.) expresses a centuries-old common law concept of medieval Europe whereby slaves, serfs, or peasants who entered a self-governing city were protected against involuntary repatriation to the rural countryside or servitude by their owners or landlords.  Remaining in such a city for a defined period ruptured the physical and economic bondage of structural rural poverty. Those so sheltered could become Bürger, or citizens.  Cities were places of opportunity!  The concept of a path to citizenship in a sanctuary city has a long and honorable history.

In the late 19th century, the abstraction of Stadtluft was still being used to summarize the motivation of rural Germans wishing to escape the tyranny of their birthplace, their legitimacy, their institutionalized poverty, or limits imposed on their occupations and ability to make a living.  I am proud of the leadership in Louisville and similar cities which protects those living in their jurisdiction against the unleashing of the most ignoble of nationalistic urges.  Louisville should not reopen its workhouse of the early 20th century.

Peter Hasselbacher
Louisville
29 January 2018

Addendum:
I take the liberty of reposting this larger part of my other article in this health policy blog because I believe it is relevant.  Individuals who in the current climate of immigration stings and deportation may be justifiably afraid to respond to demands of “show me your papers,” will correspondingly  be much less likely to seek medical care when they are sick.  This is not good for anyone!  As a people, we are no healthier than the sickest among us– regardless of place of birth.

KentuckyOne Health To Sell Its Major Assets In Louisville.

Beginning last Thursday, word began trickling out to journalists and the public that KentuckyOne Health, a major regional unit of Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), was preparing to announce plans to sell almost all its hospitals and medical centers in Louisville and a handful elsewhere in the state. I had been told earlier in the week that the announcement would be made today, Monday, but there were so many leaks that KentuckyOne sent an email to its employees outlining its plans.  I presume KentuckyOne wanted take control of the message before the reportage dam broke. The email can be read here.

For those of us in Louisville, the only major facility not being sold is Our Lady of Peace, a psychiatric hospital.  Both of KentuckyOne’s acute care hospitals, (Jewish Hospital and Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital), the Frazier Rehabilitation Institute, and all four outpatient Medical Centers (Jewish East, South, Southwest, and Northeast) are on the chopping block. Nearby Jewish Hospital Shelbyville, which recently underwent a critical review by the Inspector General for an EMTALA violation, is also for sale.  KentuckyOne employs many physicians. The fate of individual owned- or contracted medical practices in Louisville and elsewhere is not clear to me from the email. Continue reading “KentuckyOne Health To Sell Its Major Assets In Louisville.”

What Is Happening To Our Downtown Louisville Medical Center?

A number of threads that I have been following this past year or so came to a head this last month. These include a guilty verdict in federal court for a cardiologist in Ashland, Kentucky who had been accused of falsifying billing records to secure payment for performing medically unnecessary invasive procedures. The Leapfrog organization published its updated list of hospital safety grades. Additionally, and certainly not least, there are worsening signs of a dysfunctional and perhaps disintegrating relationship between the University of Louisville and KentuckyOne Health, the unit of Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) that in Louisville owns Jewish and Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospitals, and manages the University of Louisville Hospital and its James Graham Brown Cancer Center. Although these themes are not necessarily unrelated to each other, in this article I will comment on the UofL/KentuckyOne situation and deal with others subsequently. First some background for what promises to be a major change in the alignments of the downtown medical center. Continue reading “What Is Happening To Our Downtown Louisville Medical Center?”

KentuckyOne Poised To Announce Layoffs of Senior Executives.

I have been advised by two sources that KentuckyOne Health will soon announce the elimination of several system-wide or senior executive positions designed to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and emphasize local leadership.  The as-yet unconfirmed names of the individuals currently in those positions include clinical and operational executives at the highest level.  I am unaware if the names of included leadership comprise a complete list or represent the tip of the iceberg of things to come.  Perhaps as an early indicator, the senior physician executive at Jewish and Sts. Mary & Elisabeth Hospitals left that position a few weeks ago.  As a company outsider, it is impossible to know all the reasons for changes in personnel.  These often include the personal career plans of the employee, but also concerns about the fit between employer and employee in meeting the goals of the particular corporation.  KentuckyOne may well once again be feeling financial pressures that cannot be denied. It has laid-off employees in the past to decrease expenses – a strategy that in the longer run was not entirely successful at University Hospital.

On the other hand.
One of the most common complaints I hear from my University of Louisville colleagues reflects what is considered to be unwanted and disruptive outsourcing or other “outsider intrusion” on the part of Catholic Health Initiatives or KentuckyOne management that does not allow for appropriate local initiative or control, or which treats all hospitals the same no matter where they are located, or fails to acknowledge the particular needs of their patient population. From this perspective, a diminution of the role of system-wide executives might be considered a worthwhile result. On the other hand, I suppose it is possible that a state-level KentuckyOne system control might be replaced by even more direct CHI control from Colorado!  The desire for local control is, however, at odds with current national and local policy, or financial pressures for hospital and health system consolidation and coordination.  The health of KentuckyOne and its partnership with the University of Louisville is a matter of critical concern for Jefferson County and the Commonwealth.  Things have not been going well so far. Continue reading “KentuckyOne Poised To Announce Layoffs of Senior Executives.”

A Herd of Humans – A Murder of Mosquitoes.

Revenge of the Aztecs- Part II

Lessons and challenges from the outbreak of Zika virus.

Although it was discovered 69 years ago in the Zika Forest of Uganda, even as a physician I had not previously known of the Zika virus. I first read about it a month ago in the daily two-page news brief on a cruise ship as it left the harbor of San Juan, Puerto Rico – one of the very places we were now warned by pubic health authorities to avoid!  Additional concern was generated by the fact that our cruise itinerary included two other islands in the Caribbean where the disease was breaking out.

The Zika virus belongs to the flavivirus family which includes Yellow Fever, West Nile Virus, and Dengue – serious players. It did not help matters that I had lost a friend to hemorrhagic Dengue fever on the Caribbean island of St. Croix a few years earlier. Like its sister viruses, Zika appeared to be transmitted primarily by mosquitoes carrying blood from one bitten person to another – the usual mechanism of arthropod vector transmission.

Where did it come from?
Although the primary infection itself may be asymptomatic, Zika’s usual symptoms are relatively mild and include fever, headache, joint pains, and conjunctivitis (red-eye). The first well documented epidemic of Zika in humans occurred on the Pacific island of Yap in 2007, and then in French Polynesia in 2013.  Impressive was the high proportion of individuals infected. On the French islands, a possible connection was made to an increased incidence of the reactive and probably auto-immune Guillain-Barré syndrome which can cause life-threatening paralysis by attacking the nervous system . In 2015, some traveler, perhaps attending a world cup soccer match, probably brought the virus to South America where it exploded to infect over a million individuals so far. Additional millions are expected to become ill as the epidemic runs its course. Public anxiety and my own was amplified by the fact that so little is known about the disease and its natural history. Continue reading “A Herd of Humans – A Murder of Mosquitoes.”

Big-Change or No-Change in Post-Election Kentucky Healthcare?

I have been out of the country these last two weeks and am trying to catch up. Perhaps the biggest news item while I was away happened just as I left town – the election of Matt Bevin as our next Governor.  I had only just learned of this fact when I was contacted by an out-of-state reporter who asked whether people in Kentucky who gained coverage through Medicaid expansion or through our KYNECT state insurance exchange should be concerned.  If so, why would people who only so recently obtained healthcare coverage vote for Mr. Bevin – as they obviously must have in winning fashion?

Of course they should be concerned!
I responded that based on Mr. Bevin’s campaign promises and comments alone, as reported by our local press, current KYNECT and Medicaid expansion recipients have every reason to worry about their future coverage and access to healthcare.  I would certainly worry if I were in their shoes and not the satisfied Medicare beneficiary that I am.  In the heat of the campaign, and to appeal to virulent anti-Obama haters, Tea-Partiers, and other conservative voters; Mr. Bevin unequivocally promised to undo as much as possible of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) implemented in Kentucky by Governor Steve Beshear.  At least that is what I heard.

Real promises or campaign maybes?
Campaign promises included unwinding Kentucky’s successful KYNECT insurance plan, or switching it from a state-run plan to a federal plan.  It also seemed clear to me that Mr. Bevin promised to end or roll back the Medicaid expansions that have numerically provided the most coverage to previously uninsured Kentuckians. (Mr. Bevin later apparently hedged his promise to something short of a full roll-back.)  Much was made during the campaign of Mr. Bevin’s possible confusion of Medicare and Medicaid, and statements about whether beneficiaries of publicly-financed healthcare should be required to submit urine tests for illegal drugs.  I took some of this to be red-meat stuff thrown Trump-style by both parties to their admiring crowds.  I would rather see Governor-elect Bevin improve what we have rather than walk away from it solely to satisfy his political base. Continue reading “Big-Change or No-Change in Post-Election Kentucky Healthcare?”

Potpourri of Health Policy Issues in June.

My cup runneth over with potential issues to explore.

June has been a busy month both locally and nationally insofar as things I like to write about. The shame-on-me is that I have not carved out enough time to do so!  In part I am still picking up the pieces after my early spring travels. Exploring how to unpack and deal with the new Medicare prescription drug data base also took a lot of time.  The truth is that I am a slow writer handicapped by a default and probably over-wordy professorial style.  I haven’t even been able to update the Institute’s Facebook and Twitter pages!  What follows is a list of things that occured during the month that I wanted to write about and hope to do so in more detail later.  These are not necessarily in chronological order or of importance.

The Supremes Rock & Rule!
We were presented with two back-to-back major decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The first, King v. Burwell, allows federal subsidies of health insurance premiums for low income individuals and their families to continue even if their insurance was purchased in states that chose to allow the federal government to operate their health insurance exchanges.  The lawsuit brought by Obama/Obamacare-haters to limit premium support to insured individuals in states like Kentucky that chose to operate their own exchanges would have essentially gutted the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and tossed millions back into the uninsured category. For the time being, Obamacare stands intact for at least the next year and a half, despite promises by opponents to throw up additional challenges. All our legislators should be working together to deal with a major remaining deficiency of the ACA.  The Act has been very successful in decreasing the number of uninsured people, but it makes little headway against the exploding costs of unnecessary, marginally effective, or for that matter even necessary medical care.  Continuing to forbid the federal government to negotiate over the prices of drugs is a case in point. Subsidies were deemed necessary for a reason! Continue reading “Potpourri of Health Policy Issues in June.”