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Video: Aneesh Chopra on ‘The Daily Show’ for a long interview

Everybody else has the news about CMS offering leniency with Stage 2 Meaningful Use, letting providers use EHRs with 2011 certification to meet Stage 2 standards because so few vendors have been certified to the 2014 standards previously required for Stage 2. I won’t rehash here.

I will, however, share the very extended interview Jon Stewart had last night with former White House CTO — and, before that, HHS CTO — Aneesh Chopra on “The Daily Show.” Stewart is a comedian with a known liberal bias, but he is not a bad interviewer when dealing with a serious subject.

Stewart has been hammering the VA over its backlog of new registrations, and stepped it up in the wake of the recent revelation that VA bureaucrats in Phoenix were gaming the system to make it look like waits weren’t as bad as they really were. He’s also criticized the federal government for failing to link medical records between the Military Health System and the VA — you know, what we in health IT call interoperability. (In Part 4, Chopra discusses lack of interoperability in the broader healthcare sense.)

I found out about Chopra’s appearance last night shortly before the show aired. Unfortunately, we were having heavy rain at the time, and my satellite TV got knocked out, so I missed it. It’s OK, because the Chopra interview was long — more than 22 minutes — and the version that was on TV is heavily edited. Here’s the full interview of the “Indian Clooney,” as Stewart called Chopra, from the show’s Web site.

Part 1  (4:41)

 

Part 2 (7:27)

 

Part 3 (5:19)

Part 4 (5:35)

 

May 21, 2014 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

About those Obamacare numbers and the ICD-10 delay

While I’ve been busy writing a couple of stories on different topics, you’ve probably heard two pieces of news that will affect healthcare providers nationwide: the close of the first open enrollment period for Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges and the Congressional “fix” (read “Band-Aid”) to the Medicare sustainable growth rate that statutorily delays the ICD-10 compliance deadline for another year, until October 2015.

The White House yesterday reported that 7.1 million people had signed up for health insurance through healthcare.gov or state-run exchanges, barely exceeding the Congressional Budget Office’s projection of 7 million. Independent tracking site ACAsignups.net says it’s more like 7.08 million, but still just above the goal. That site also tallies the following sign-ups as a result of the ACA:

  • 6.37 million – 12.45 million in private “qualified health plans” (plans that meet ACA standards) via private exchanges, insurance agents or direct purchases from insurers, including deductions for the estimated 3.7 million whose “noncompliant” policies were canceled;
  • 4.71 million – 6.49 million through Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program expansions;
  • 2.5 million – 3.1 million “sub-26ers,” young adults whom the ACA allows to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26; and
  • 1.8 million “woodworkers,” those who came out of the woodwork because they did not know before the Obamacare enrollment push that they were eligible for Medicaid or CHIP.

ACAsignups.net places the total range at 14.6 million – 22.1 million as of March 31, not counting the healthcare.gov numbers, though my math puts it at 15.38 million – 22.06 million. Add in the healthcare.gov sign-ups and you get about 22.5 million to nearly 29 million newly insured people. However — and this is a big however — we do not know how many of the beneficiaries are newly insured and how many were replacing previous coverage.

Personally, I bought a high-deductible, ACA-qualified health plan through an independent agent to replace a rather restrictive high-deductible plan that was grandfathered in, and should save about $70-$80 a month on premiums starting in May. The new insurer rejected me several years ago due to a pre-existing condition; the ACA assures that I can’t be denied for that reason anymore. I imagine there are millions in the same boat as I am.

The U.S. Census Bureau placed the number of uninsured for 2012 at about 48 million, or 15.7 percent of the population. (The same year, 198.8 million had private insurance.) Until we see new figures for uninsured Americans, we will still just have “gross” statistics, not a net figure to show if the insurance part of the ACA is working.

By the way, the ACA is about much more than insurance coverage, despite what the national media have focused on. I encourage you to read up on this before you say Obamacare is saving or ruining our country.

Now, as for the temporary SGR fix, the ICD-10 delay kind of came out of nowhere last week when it got slipped into the House version of the legislation, but the Senate adopted the same language — reportedly without debating ICD-10 at all — and President Obama today signed it into law. I’ve said before that ICD-10 and other transactional elements of healthcare stopped mattering to me as I watched my dad being mistreated in a hospital due to broken clinical processes in his last month of life. I still think this way. However, this sneaky move shows that the AMA, AHA and other groups more intent of protecting the status quo than fixing healthcare still have enormous sway in Washington.

It makes me wonder whether lobbyists haven’t already started pushing hard for Congress to delay the Medicare penalties for not achieving Meaningful Use that are due to kick in next year. Actually, I don’t wonder. I’m sure it’s happening.

All delaying real reform of a broken industry does is prolong the agony, and ensure that millions more people will be affected by errors and neglect in institutions that are supposed to “do no harm.” The status quo is not acceptable.

 

April 2, 2014 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

‘Escape Fire’ leaves out IT, ultimately disappoints

I finally got the opportunity to catch the documentary film “Escape Fire,” a good 15 months after it went into limited theatrical release and became available in digital formats. I thought it would be an eye-opening exposé of all that ills the American healthcare industry, particularly for those who somehow believe we have the greatest care in the world. I excitingly ran this graphic when I first mentioned the movie on this blog back in October 2012:

The well-paced, 99-minute film interviews some notable figures in the fight to improve American healthcare — safety guru and former CMS head Dr. Don Berwick, journalist Shannon Brownlee, integrative medicine advocates Dr. Andrew Weill and Dr. Dean Ornish — as well as some lesser-known people trying to make a difference. It goes through a laundry list of all the culprits in the overpriced, underperforming mess of a healthcare system we have now, and examines approaches that seem to be producing better care for lower cost.

I expected the movie to have a liberal slant, but it really stayed away from the political battles that have poisoned healthcare “reform” the last couple of years. About the only presence of specific politicians were clips of both President Obama and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell both praising a highly incentivized employee wellness program at grocery chain Safeway that reportedly kept the company’s health expenses flat from 2005 through 2009, a remarkable achievement in an era of escalating costs.

However, filmmakers Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke did discuss all the lobbyists’ money presumably buying off enough votes in Washington and at the state level that has helped entrench the status quo. They even scored an interview with Wendell Potter, the former top media spokesman for Cigna, who became a public voice against abuses by health insurers because his conscience got the better of him. As Brownlee noted in the film’s opening, the industry “doesn’t want to stop making money.”

Other reasons given for why healthcare is so expensive, ineffective and, yes, dangerous include:

  • direct-to-consumer drug advertising leading to overmedication;
  • public companies needing to keep profits up;
  • fee-for-service reimbursement;
  • the uninsured using emergency departments as their safety net;
  • lack of preventive care and education about lifestyle changes;
  • a shortage of primary care physicians;
  • cheap junk food that encourages people to eat poorly; and
  • severe suffering among the wounded military ranks.

The filmmakers also kind of imply that there isn’t much in the way of disease management or continuity of care. Brownlee described a “disease care” system that doesn’t want people to die, nor does it want them to get well. It just wants people getting ongoing treatment for the same chronic conditions.

One physician depicted in the movie, Dr. Erin Martin, left a safety-net clinic in The Dalles, Ore., because the work had become “demoralizing.” The same people kept coming back over and over, but few got better because Martin had to rush them out the door without consulting on lifestyle choices, since she was so overscheduled. “I’m not interested in getting my productivity up,” an exasperated Martin said. “I’m interested in helping patients.”

Another patient in rural Ohio had received at least seven stents and had cardiac catheterization more than two dozen times, but never saw any improvement in her symptoms for heart disease or diabetes until she went to the Cleveland Clinic, where physicians are all on salary and the incentives are more aligned than they were in her home town. As Berwick importantly noted, “We create a public expectation that more is better.” In this patient’s case, she was over-catheterized and over-stented to address an acute condition, but not treated for the underlying chronic problems.

The film also examined how the U.S. military turned to acupuncture as an alternative to narcotics because so many wounded soldiers have become hooked on pain pills. One soldier, a self-described “hillbilly” from Louisiana, got off the dozens of meds he had become addicted to and took up yoga, meditation and acupuncture to recover from an explosion in Afghanistan that left him partially paralyzed and with a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder. The only laugh I had in the movie was when he told the acupuncturist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, “Let’s open up some chi.”

I kept waiting and waiting for some evidence of information technology making healthcare better, but I never got it. After leaving the Oregon clinic, Martin took a job at a small practice in Washington state where she was seen toting a laptop between exam rooms, but, for the most part, I saw paper charts, paper medication lists and verbal communication between clinicians.

What really bothered me, however, is the fact that there was no discussion of EHRs, health information exchange or clinical decision support, no mention of the problem of misdiagnosis, no explicit discussion of patient handoffs, continuity of care, medication reconciliation and so many other points where the system breaks down. You can’t truly fix healthcare until you address those areas.

 

January 21, 2014 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Top 10 things wrong with Fox News smear job on EHRs

Today, FoxNews.com published a hit job on health IT and EHRs in the guise of another hit job on Obamacare. I found out about it courtesy of this tweet:

First off, it’s clear that Mostashari feels unshackled from having to watch his words now that he’s no longer national health IT coordinator. Secondly, he’s right. This story contains so many errors and misleading statements that it’s almost funny. Let’s count down the top 10.

10. “Under a George W. Bush-era executive order, all Americans should have access to their medical records by the end of 2014, part of a concept referred to as e-health. President Obama then made electronic medical records (EMRs) central to the success of the Affordable Care Act”

When Bush issued the executive order in 2004 that created the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, he set as a goal interoperable EMRs for “most” Americans. The “all” part came after Barack Obama took office in 2009.

9. Though Obama did reiterate the 2014 goal and up the stakes by saying “all Americans,” nobody realistically thought it could happen. After all, the HITECH Act, which created Meaningful Use, didn’t pass until March 2009 and Meaningful Use didn’t even start until 2011. Before the HITECH Act, ONC barely had any funding anyway. For five years, Congress failed to pass much in the way of health IT legislation, even though a federal EHR incentive program had bipartisan support, symbolized by an unlikely alliance between Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton.

8. “Doctors, practitioners and hospitals, though, have been enriching themselves with the incentives to install electronic medical records systems that are either not inter-operable or highly limited in their crossover with other providers.”

Meaningful Use was never intended for enrichment, or even to cover the full cost of an EHR system.

7. While systems mostly are not interoperable yet, that wasn’t the intent of Stage 1 of Meaningful Use. Stage 1 was meant to get systems installed. Stage 2, which has barely started for the early adopters among hospitals and won’t start for 2 1/2 months for physicians, is about interoperability. That’s where the savings and efficiencies are supposed to come from.

6. We’re years away from knowing whether Meaningful Use program did its job, though I don’t fault members of Congress such as Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) for putting pressure on the administration to demand more for the big taxpayer outlay.

5. “‘The electronic medical records system has been funded to hospitals at more than $1 billion per month. Apparently little or none of that money went to the enrollment process which is where the bottle neck for signing up to ObamaCare’s insurance exchanges appears to be,’ Robert Lorsch, a Los Angeles-based IT entrepreneur and chief executive of online medical records provider MMRGlobal, told Fox News.”

The money wasn’t supposed to go to the insurance enrollment process. The Meaningful Use incentive program was from the HITECH Act, part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, came a year later. Again, someone is confusing insurance and care. They are not the same thing.

4. “Lorsch, at MMRGlobal, offered the U.S. government what it describes as a user-friendly personal health record system for one dollar per month per family – a fraction of what it has cost the taxpayer so far.”

MMRGlobal’s product is an untethered personal health record. No untethered PHR anywhere is “user-friendly,” which is why adoption has been anemic. Without data from organizational EHRs, PHRs are worthless. Besides, the direct-to-consumer approach in healthcare has failed over and over, since people are used to having someone else — usually an insurance company — pick up the tab.

3. For that matter, MMRGlobal is a bad example to use as an alternative to EHRs. (The Fox story is correct in saying that other vendors do have close ties to the Obama administration, though the former Cerner executive’s name is Nancy-Ann DeParle, not “Nance.”) I could be wrong, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence that MMRGlobal isn’t much more than a patent troll.

2. “But this process could have been easier if a nine-year, government-backed effort to set up a system of electronic medical records had gotten off the ground. Instead of setting up their medical ID for the first time, would-be customers would have their records already on file.”

Actually, as I wrote in a story just published in Healthcare IT News, we could have had national patient identifiers 15 years ago, as called for by the 1996 HIPAA statute. But Congress voted in 1998 not to fund implementation of a national patient ID and President Bill Clinton signed that into law. Since then, interoperability and patient matching have been mighty struggles.

1. “‘Plus, unlike under ObamaCare, the patient would be in control of their health information and, most importantly, their privacy,’ Lorsch said.”

Where in Obamacare does the patient lose control of health information? Less than a month ago, I was in Washington listening to HHS Office for Civil Rights Director Leon Rodriguez say, ““There is a clear right [in the HIPAA privacy rule] not only of patient access, but patient control over everything in their records.” This may come as news to some people, but patients own and control the information. They might not know it, but the language is pretty clear.

Already, the Fox story has been reposted in a number of blogs shared all over the Internet, so it’s being accepted as fact in some quarters. If you want the truth, you sometimes have to do the work yourself.

October 15, 2013 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

ACA decision is a beginning, not an end, to health reform

I’ve spent a lot of time on social media since Thursday morning debating the meaning of the Supreme Court’s rather stunning decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It was stunning in that Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, sided with the four liberal-minded justices, but also stunning in that the court went against conventional wisdom by upholding the individual mandate on the grounds that it was a legal exercise of Congress’ constitutional right to levy taxes.

I had to remind a lot of people that this decision neither solves the crisis, as supporters have claimed, or turns us into the Soviet Union, as some on the lunatic fringe have suggested. Expanding insurance only throws more money at the same problem. This was my first tweet after I learned of the decision:

Breaking news: American #healthcare still sucks. It's quality, stupid. #ACA #hcr #SCOTUS #Obamacare
@nversel
Neil Versel

The cynic in me likes to point out that the individual mandate was an idea first conceived by the conservative Heritage Foundation and championed in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. Both somehow now oppose the idea. The law that ultimately passed Congress was written by Liz Fowler, a top legal counsel to Max Baucus’ Senate Finance Committee who previously was a lobbyist for WellPoint. Her reward for doing the bidding of the insurance industry was for Obama to appoint her deputy director of the Office of Consumer Information and Oversight at HHS. This was insider dealing at its finest, as much a gift to insurers as the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act was a gift to Big Pharma.

Of course, I initially was misinformed about the Supreme Court ruling because CNN jumped the gun (as did Fox News) and erroneously reported that the court had struck down the individual mandate on the grounds that it violated the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution. But so were millions of others.

I suppose that was fitting, since the national media have for more than two years been misinforming the public about what is really in the law. There are small but real elements of actual care reform — not just an insurance expansion — in there, but very few have been reported. The actual reform has been drowned out by ideologues on both sides. Here’s a handy explanation of most of what’s really there (it’s a good list but not exhaustive). The insurance expansion, the only thing people are talking about, really is just throwing more money at the problem. There is a lot more work to be done to fix our broken system.

What I consider real reform in the ACA includes accountable care organizations and the creation of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. Along with the innovation center, CMS also gets the power to expand pilot programs that are successful at saving money or producing better outcomes. In the past, successful “demonstrations” would need specific authorization from Congress, which could take years.

Notice that there isn’t a whole lot specific to IT. That’s because the “meaningful use” incentive program for EHRs was authorized by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Another key element of real reform that also is not part of the ACA is Medicare’s new policy of not reimbursing for certain preventable hospital readmissions within 30 days of discharge.

We need more attention to quality of care. Many have argued that tort reform needs to be part of the equation, too, because defensive medicine leads to duplicative and often unnecessary care. Perhaps, but lawsuits are a small issue compared to the problem of medical errors. Cut down on mistakes and you cut down on malpractice suits. Properly implemented EHRs and health information exchange — and I do mean properly implemented — will help by improving communication between providers so everybody involved with a patient’s care knows exactly what’s going on at all times.

All of these facts lead me to conclude that true healthcare reform hasn’t really happened yet. Look at this Supreme Court ruling as a beginning, not an end, to reform.

 

June 29, 2012 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Gingrich on EHRs in the 2009 stimulus

I don’t like to get political on this blog, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how the Newt Gingrich we’ve seen on the campaign trail of late is quite different from the Newt Gingrich who was a tireless advocate for health IT and EHRs from about 2004 to 2009.

Lately, Gingrich has, as primary candidates are wont to do, been pandering toward the more ideologically pure elements of his party, not addressing the center, as will be necessary during a general election. Notably, Gingrich has jumped on the “repeal Obamacare” bandwagon, essentially making the ridiculous argument that America does not need healthcare reform. That’s interesting, because Gingrich, after he left Congress, founded the Center for Health Transformation to push for technology-enabled health system improvement.

Back in 2004, Gingrich joined with strange bedfellow Hillary Clinton to advocate for a national, government-funded strategy to support adoption of health IT. That idea eventually morphed into the HITECH Act section of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus legislation. Gingrich, like most Republicans, opposed the bulk of the stimulus, but he was an ardent supporter of HITECH. Here’s the proof: Read more..

January 29, 2012 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Is it even possible to seem unbiased when mentioning politics?

Is it even possible anymore to seem unbiased when reporting on politics or the workings of government? As hard as I try sometimes, there’s always someone who thinks I’m taking a particular side.

The latest example came today in a story I wrote for InformationWeek about the Obama administration’s new White House Rural Council. Created by executive order last week, the council “will focus on actions to better coordinate and streamline federal program efforts in rural America, and to better leverage federal investments,” according to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, chair of the council.

That’s obviously the Obama administration’s line. Yet within a couple of hours of the story being posted, someone offered this comment:

Okay, let me see if I got the right? The government is spending more money than ever before, the economy is lagging, and a recession is hanging over our heads and won’t go away. What would the most intelligent man in the world do about this? Spend more money to take better heathcare to rural areas. Wow, were is the logic is this? This whole thing smells fishy, it doesn’t pass the smell test to me.

Thanks for the ‘I love Obama’ speech buddy, but I ain’t buyin’ it. Let’s see how many do come November.

Huh? How is a news story an “I love Obama” speech? All I did was report what the administration said, and included a short, unspecific comment from one of the few interest groups, the National Rural Health Association, that has said anything at all related to the healthcare aspects of this executive order. I don’t see any editorializing there.

Take issue with the administration’s plan all you want, though at least get your facts right. The White House has been pretty vague about the council to this point, but nobody has said anything about spending more money beyond what’s already been allocated for other programs. But don’t call a straightforward, fairly bare-bones news story an “‘I love Obama’ speech.”

I think it’s fair to say that some news organizations are thinly veiled cheering sections for certain political viewpoints. InformationWeek is not one of them. Has our political culture become so poisoned that it’s impossible to come off as objective anymore?

 

June 15, 2011 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

More reasons why CMS needs Berwick

On Jan. 28, Ron Pollack, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Families USA, introduced President Obama at a Families USA event by saying, “Numerous presidents over many decades tried to secure health reform legislation that would move us toward high-quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans. You, Mr. President, actually achieved it.”

The crowd ate it up.

During the contentious debate over health reform in 2009 and 2010, countless lobbyists, pundits and politicians touted “quality healthcare” as a reason to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Some called for the same “Cadillac” health plans that members of Congress provided for themselves. Many opponents of the legislation countered by saying the U.S. already has the “best healthcare in the world.”

The problem was not one of philosophical differences. The problem was a misunderstanding of a basic fact: health insurance is not the same thing as health care.

Still, politicians keep making the same mistake over and over, and the mass media keep giving them a free pass.

Anyone in the healthcare industry knows that the United States does not have the best healthcare in the world. We have the most expensive care in the world. (Another myth often passed off as truth is that more care and more expensive care automatically equals better care.) Having a “Cadillac” health plan won’t assure you better care, either. Just ask the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who, as a member of Congress had such a plan, but still likely died as a result of a surgical error last year.

Another such episode occurred last week. James C. Tyree, chairman and CEO of financial services firm Mesirow Financial, died Wednesday at the University of Chicago Medical Center at age 53. Though Tyree had stomach cancer and pneumonia, the official cause of death was an intravascular air embolism, the result of an improperly removed catheter. That’s one of the National Quality Forum’s so-called “never events.”

As the chief executive of a financial firm, Tyree no doubt had the resources and the insurance to get what some people might call “good, quality care.” He also happened to be on the board of the U of C Medical Center, the very same institution that was so proud of being named one of U.S. News and World Report’s best hospitals in America. Yes, even at the “best” hospitals, mistakes happen, and they happen to people with money and connections.

This is yet another reason why CMS needs someone with a long record of quality improvement, even at institutions with supposedly sterling reputations. Someone like Don Berwick.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the defense of Berwick that I wrote last week so you understand why politics is hijacking better healthcare in America.

March 20, 2011 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Berwick political saga is a tragic attack on better healthcare

President Barack Obama has made plenty of mistakes in his first two-plus years in office, but none may be more serious for the future of America than his decision to install Donald M. Berwick, M.D., as a recess appointment to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in July 2010.

Berwick really is a great choice to head CMS, but the underhanded nature of the recess appointment has provided fodder for all kinds of uninformed ideologues and assorted nut jobs to attack Obama’s healthcare reform efforts. Just as CMS is gearing up to release widely anticipated proposed regulations for Accountable Care Organizations, we get the sad news that that Berwick’s days are numbered.

After refusing to allow Berwick to testify before the Senate last year, Obama renominated Berwick on Jan. 26. Newly empowered Republicans went on the attack. “The White House’s handling of this nomination—failing to respond to repeated requests for information and circumventing the Senate through a recess appointment—has made Dr. Berwick’s confirmation next to impossible,” the widely respected Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said, according to American Medical News.

On March 4, Politico reported that Senate Democrats had given up on the nomination, despite the fact that Berwick had the support of the Medical Group Management Association, the American Hospital Association, the American Public Health Association and, notably, the Republican-leaning American Medical Association and America’s Health Insurance Plans.

How did this happen?

As I wrote last November when Republicans proposed de-funding of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, a key element of real reform in the widely misunderstood “healthcare reform” legislation (the main misunderstanding is that insurance is not the same thing as care):

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as “healthcare reform” and mocked by some as a government takeover of healthcare, aka “ObamaCare,” is not popular in Republican circles. That’s no secret.

It’s also well known that, in their drive to repudiate everything Obama, many Republicans, giddy over their victory in last week’s midterm election, have said they want to repeal the PPACA in its entirety, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (You know, our healthcare system is wonderful the way it is, so we didn’t need any changes in the first place.)

What really got me was the news that some of the more conservative and libertarian elements of the GOP are specifically threatening to pull the $10 billion in funding already authorized for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, a CMS program created by the PPACA. This is a center that CMS Administrator Dr. Donald Berwick has called “the jewel in the crown” of the reform bill, and Berwick has unfairly been labeled a socialist, granny-killing pariah by some right-wing zealots who have no idea of his life-saving work at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

The new Republican-majority House of Representatives could not make a bigger mistake than defunding the Center for Health Innovation. For years, conservatives have complained of Medicare’s plodding bureaucracy impeding innovation—you know, the very thing the program is intended to foster.

What the PPACA does is allow CMS, via this new innovation center, to try new ideas without having to make sure their experiments are budget-neutral from the start. (The requirement for budget neutrality is why Medicare pay-for-performance and pay-for-prevention initiatives have never really gotten off the ground.) And CMS no longer has to be content with small demonstrations. Instead, the Center for Medicare Innovation is authorized to run wider-scale pilots and then seek congressional appropriations to ramp up any program that proves successful in producing better care for less money.

That’s how you bend the cost curve, a favorite term in policy circles. Killing the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation would just perpetuate the ugly status quo.

That commentary drew five responses on the site, four of which were negative. And every last one of the negative comments were written anonymously. The only commenter to list a name also happened to be the lone supportive response.

I am in no way surprised. Politically motivated lies abound about Berwick, and few of the critics want to be held accountable for misleading the public.

The week before last, I was somewhat critical of the Lucidicus Project and Jared M. Rhoads, who hosted the most recent Health Wonk Review. He did a fine job hosting HWR, but in scanning some earlier posts on the Lucidicus site—hewing closely to confused, angry, misguided ideology of the tea party—I noticed something that got my blood boiling.

On Jan. 27, Rhoads wrote that Berwick was “on a one-way path,” a path that leads to socialism and a government takeover of healthcare. “Without free-market solutions on the table, the one-way march to an NHS-like system will continue. Berwick has just one solution in mind for the problems created by government: more government.”

He also wrote, “Berwick is openly enamored of the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) model, in which the government essentially makes decisions for people about the care that they receive, and in which patients can be penalized for attempting to pay for additional care out of their own pockets. The system is characterized by bureaucracy, rationing, and redistribution of wealth and resources.”

At least give Rhoads credit for not cowardly hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.

Yes, it is true that Berwick has publicly spoken of his admiration for the NHS, but it was more about the British decision to make quality improvement a key element of healthcare than it was about a desire to bring an entirely government-run system to the United States. In my post about that edition of HWR, I asked if Berwick hadn’t done more to prevent needless deaths and adverse events than pretty much anyone else alive today.

That’s the same question I asked in an e-mail to the anti-reform (read “crackpot”) group called Docs4PatientCare. Why do I say crackpot? The Atlanta-based organization contacted me last fall with links to a series of videos, including one from group representative Scott Barbour, M.D. According to the original pitch to me, “Utilizing quotes from Dr. Berwick, Dr. Barbour exposed that, ‘He is not interested in better health care. He is only concerned about implementing his socialist agenda.’”

In another video, Docs4PatientCare Vice President Fred Shessel, M.D., said of Berwick, “This is a man who has made a career out of socializing medicine and rationing care for the very young, the very old and the very sick. It is a backdoor power grab. It is dragging our country down the road to socialism and we should resist it.”

I responded to this pitch with a short question: “Berwick isn’t interested in better care? Do you know anything about his work at IHI?” I never got a response. Docs4PatientCare seemingly was trying to hoodwink media that don’t know any better and/or care more about politics than facts.

Here are the facts, from another piece I wrote last year:

A longtime champion of patient safety, Berwick co-founded the Institute of Healthcare Improvement in 1989 and led it until he became CMS administrator by virtue of a controversial “recess appointment” in July 2010, preventing the Senate from questioning him about his views. At IHI, Berwick created and championed the 100,000 Lives Campaign, an effort to prevent that many deaths in an 18-month period by getting thousands of U.S. hospitals to follow simple, preventive safety measures voluntarily. The program later turned its focus to nonlethal adverse events and became the 5 Million Lives Campaign. Berwick is a pediatrician who also holds a master’s degree in public policy.

In kicking off the 100,000 Lives Campaign in December 2004, Berwick made the following audacious challenge to American hospitals: “I think we should save 100,000 lives. I think we should do that by June 14, 2006. 9 a.m.” At that appointed hour 18 months later, he announced that the campaign had prevented 122,300 unnecessary deaths. Berwick was careful not to make IT a prerequisite for participating in either campaign, but he’s come to see the benefits of EMRs and clinical decision support. Now, as head of CMS, he effectively leads the “meaningful use” incentive program. Though the Stage 1 rules were mostly done by the time he took the reins, you can be sure Berwick will be pushing for true quality improvement in subsequent stages of meaningful use.

The key word in the above passage is “voluntary.” There were no mandates when the private-sector IHI encouraged hospitals to do what is right for patients.

Months later, Berwick has indeed been pushing for true quality improvement in meaningful use. I’ll have more on that later in the week.

March 14, 2011 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.