On health performance, Mass. is not a shining star

[Commonwealth Magazine published this analysis and commentary on May 4 2019.]

Many Bay State health care cognoscenti and politicos like to brag about Massachusetts health statistics. For years now, Massachusetts has performed well, at or near the top, in surveys of key health indicators among the 50 US states.

For example, the United Health Foundation’s 2016 America’s Health Rankings had Massachusetts in 1st place (though we dropped to 7th in 2018). We were 2nd in the Commonwealth Fund’s State Health System Performance Scorecards in 2018. And we showed up 5th in the U.S. News & World Report’s Best States survey. Not too shabby.
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Maybe we should limit the self-congratulations. Perhaps we’re not as good as we like to believe. What if comparing ourselves with retrograde US states sets the bar too low? By contrast, the Massachusetts education policy community routinely examines benchmarks comparing our state’s performance with that of other advanced nations, not with US states where looking smart is no big challenge. Here’s a recent example:

“If Massachusetts were a nation, it would share the top spot in reading with eight other nations worldwide. In science, the state’s students and those from 10 nations came in second, trailing only students from Singapore. In math, 11 other nations were ahead of the Commonwealth. The results come from the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial international survey designed to assess how well 15-year-old students can apply their knowledge and skills.”

So, how does Massachusetts compare on key health statistics with those of other advanced nations? Are we tops? Do we win the crown or not?

Not.

With research assistance from a diligent graduate student, I examined 12 key health performance indicators for Massachusetts and matched them with comparable stats from 11 advanced nations: the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. I included core public health measures often included in international and US comparative performance studies:

Obesity among adults
Adult smoking
Population with health insurance
Infant mortality
Life expectancy at birth
Share of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on medical care
Maternal mortality
Suicide mortality
Having a regular physician or place of care
Mortality attributable to health care
Population experiencing cost-related access problems
Population with out-of-pocket health care costs greater than $1,000 in past year

Some argue that it is illegitimate to compare a nation as large as the US with comparatively puny competitors. For comparative purposes, the US population in 2017 was 325.7 million, and the 10 non-US comparators’ combined population was 322.8 million. For this analysis, I examined the 10 non-US nations as a group and individually with the US and with Massachusetts – 12 categories in all. The accompanying table provides data and rankings for Massachusetts, the US, and the average of the other 10 nations. (To see the full table with sources and with details on all 11 examined nations and Massachusetts, click here.)

How does the US come out? On the 12 measures among 12 nations (treating Massachusetts as a nation), the US ranks 12th worst on 8 measures, 10th worst for 2 measures, and 9th and 7th worst for 1 measure each. Looking at the three units – 10 nations, US, and Massachusetts – our nation comes in last on 11 of 12 measures, and best on zero.

What about Massachusetts? On 8 of the 12 measures, we’re in the bottom half; on 4 of those, we come in at #11, one rank better than the US, and worse than everyone else. We’re 11th best out of 12 on health insurance coverage, life expectancy, share of Gross Domestic Product spent on medical care, and having a regular physician or place of care. We are 9th best on maternal mortality and infant mortality.

On the other hand, we are best among the 12 on having a low suicide rate, and 2nd best on mortality attributable to medical care. On the rest, we are in the middle of the pack. When just looking at the 10 non-US nations collectively, the US, and Massachusetts, we are best on 5 indicators, and worse than our competitor nations on 7, though better on all of these than the US.
Surprises? I incorrectly expected that Massachusetts would be better than 4th on adult smoking. I did not realize that the Massachusetts suicide rate would be so positive. It is remarkable that while Massachusetts has the highest rate of health insurance coverage among all 50 states, at 97.3 percent, our rate is lower than the rates in all 10 non-US nations.

Because Massachusetts has such a high level of spending on medical care, I expected we would spend a larger proportion of our state’s GDP on health care than the US and come in dead last. Instead, we’re 11th. What explains this? It’s not so much the numerator (health care spending), as it is the denominator (the state’s high total GDP) which reflects a far more affluent state than most of the other 49. Even though our spending looks high, it is lower than the US average in its burden.

Looking to education policy as a model, Massachusetts should be less concerned with comparisons to other states’ performance, and more attuned to comparing our results with those of other advanced nations. Massachusetts policy experts would do well to pay closer attention to factors that influence the superior performance of these nations to ours. If other nations can kick our butts so convincingly on maternal and infant mortality, life expectancy, health care spending, and other essential measures, then we should focus more on how we can close the gap with these nations than comparing ourselves with our fellow states.

For the past decade, since passage of the state’s 2006 universal health care law and the 2012 cost containment law, Massachusetts has focused on controlling health care cost increases. While this has been a valuable and successful effort, I believe it also has crowded out attention to key determinants of health, especially obesity, that drive up health care spending substantially and harm public health. Perhaps it is time for the Commonwealth to reassess its core health system priorities.

Why a “No” Vote on Question 1 on Nurse Staffing Ratios

[I co-wrote this opinion column with Paul Hattis for Commonwealth Magazine.]


SHOULD MASSACHUSETTS 
establish mandated nurse-to-patient ratios in law for all the state’s acute care hospitals? This 25-year-old conflict between the Massachusetts Nurses Association and Massachusetts Hospital Association will be determined at the polls on November 6 as Question 1.

We think not.

We are university professors who care about Massachusetts health care policy. We both connect with Massachusetts’ leading health care consumer advocacy organizations who worry about access, cost, and quality in Massachusetts’ health care system—and we don’t speak for them.

We have advocated publicly for better pay, working conditions, and training for health care workers in hospitals and nursing homes. We know the vital importance of organized labor as representatives of health care workers to meet their needs and to promote a higher quality care for patients. We are not eager to take a position opposed to the Massachusetts Nursing Association.

After seeing data advanced by groups on both sides, especially data and analysis from the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, we believe the evidence, the better policy choice, and the more socially just result—especially for lower income households and communities—points to a no vote. The Legislature should demand that both sides come together to create a more workable set of solutions to improve quality of care in our state’s hospitals. Continue reading “Why a “No” Vote on Question 1 on Nurse Staffing Ratios”

What Does the Beth Israel/Lahey Health Merger Tell Us?

FOR THE BETTER part of this decade, Massachusetts had been on a roll regarding its health system’s performance. Since passage of the 2006 universal health insurance law, we’ve been tops in having the lowest number of uninsured the nation. Recent national surveys on cost, quality, access, and public health from the Commonwealth Fund, the United Health Care Foundation and others show the Bay State to be best or among them. As Michael Widmer noted in his October 7 Upload piece, over the past five or so years, even the state’s performance on controlling costs has also been a national standout.

Still, history teaches that these trends can turn downward on a dime. And self-congratulations can obscure lingering and insidious system weaknesses. The current controversy over the proposed merger of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Lahey Health, and other hospitals and physician organizations into “Beth Israel Lahey Health” (BILH) brings into sharp relief underlying systemic problems that are getting worse, not better.

Last week, the state’s Health Policy Commission released its final analysis of the cost, quality, and access impacts of the merger. They estimate $158.2 to $230.5 million in added annual costs above current projections from this deal. Also last week, the health commission reported on the projected annual costs of Question 1, the November Massachusetts ballot initiative that would set statutory nurse-patient ratios in all acute care hospitals – estimating $679 to $949 million in new annual costs in our $61.1 billion state health system. Continue reading “What Does the Beth Israel/Lahey Health Merger Tell Us?”

Revisiting the Land of the Individual Mandate

[This new commentary was just published by the Milbank Quarterly.]

The years 2013 through 2016 were excruciating for the Massachusetts Health Connector. In 2013, the Connector was among the nation’s most troubled federal/state health insurance exchanges, as it endured an epic collapse of its new website to help consumers purchase individual health insurance. Since then, it has taken a step-by-step and low-key “no news is good news” approach to rebuilding trust and credibility with its 252,000 clients.

Now the silent period is ending. In 2006, Massachusetts was the first and only state to enact an individual health insurance mandate, the essential model for the federal individual mandate included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 and implemented in 2014. In last December’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, President Trump and Congress neutered the ACA mandate by reducing the financial penalty to 0. Despite widespread reports to the contrary, the mandate was not repealed, and the law, with its mandatory reporting requirements, remains on the books.

Thus, Massachusetts now returns to the spotlight as the nation prepares to examine the impact of the federal action, testing 1 state’s experience against that of the other 49. In 2015, the last year for which tax data is publicly available, only 3% of adult tax filers in Massachusetts reported not having insurance meeting state standards, corroborating other data sources indicating that it has the lowest rate of uninsurance in any state (the most recent US Census data shows Massachusetts at 97.5% coverage). Depending on an uninsured person’s household income, the monetary penalty ranges between $21 and $96 for each month without coverage. As of early February, at least 9 other Democratic-leaning states are considering adopting a similar mandate. Continue reading “Revisiting the Land of the Individual Mandate”

MassHealth’s New World of ACOs — and a Mighty Upstart

[I wrote this commentary for the spring issue of Commonwealth Magazine.  I am watching the new crop of 17 Accountable Care Organizations — ACOs — with great interest.  This is a nationally important demonstration that also holds risks for the medical care of many MassHealth enrollees.]

ON MARCH 1, the state’s Medicaid program—known as MassHealth—entered a new era with the launch of 17 accountable care organizations, or ACOs, aiming to provide better coordinated care at lower costs to its low-income enrollees. It’s an ambitious effort with lots of risk and big potential rewards. Within this is another compelling effort to redefine how community health centers fit into the changing health care landscape of Massachusetts and the nation.

Christina Severin, CEO of C3, the new accountable care organization formed by community health centers.

It began with a serendipitous encounter at a grocery store. Sometime in the fall of 2014, Christina Severin bumped into Lori Berry at the seafood counter of the Brighton Whole Foods market. Severin, a long-time leader in the MassHealth scene, had been mulling the creation of a community health center-based non-profit to join the cohort of ACOs being planned for as many as two-thirds of the 1.9 million Massachusetts residents who rely on the program. Continue reading “MassHealth’s New World of ACOs — and a Mighty Upstart”

5 Takeaways from Baker’s New Health Reform

[This commentary was published on June 24 on the Commonwealth Magazine website.]

PHASE 2 OF THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION’S ambitious health reform agenda emerged this past week.  It contains good and smart proposals – and worrisome ones needing attention.

Phase 1 is an ambitious effort to transform much of the state’s Medicaid program, known as MassHealth, into “accountable care organizations.” ACOs aim to focus hospitals, physicians, and other providers on improving population health, care integration, and efficiency.  That effort, blessed by the outgoing Obama administration last November, is well underway – unless congressional Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act throw everything into a tailspin.

Phase 2 came last week, when the Baker administration released a set of proposals to Senate and House leaders, a package of changes to MassHealth and other health programs aiming to save $314 million in fiscal year 2018, which starts July 1, and more beyond. All the proposals need state law changes (to be incorporated in the nearly finished FY 2018 state budget) and/or federal approval. Continue reading “5 Takeaways from Baker’s New Health Reform”

MassHealth Dives into Accountable Care

[I wrote this commentary for the Spring Issue of Commonwealth Magazine to profile Massachusetts’ new move into accountable care organizations, an experiment that deserves watching.  Dr. William Seligman co-wrote with me.]

IN A WILDLY uncertain national health care environment, something new, audacious, and risky is happening in MassHealth, the Medicaid program that provides health coverage to 1.9 million people who are poor, elderly, and persons with disabilities in Massachusetts. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration is betting that an emerging health care delivery and payment model, called “accountable care organizations,” can restrain rising costs by keeping enrollees healthy and out of expensive settings, especially hospitals. Positive results will have big consequences for the state, for medical providers, and for hundreds of thousands of MassHealth enrollees who will become part of ACOs this year and into the future.

The ACO scheme is the major part of a massive new federal Medicaid waiver that Team Baker won from the outgoing Obama administration days before the November 8

MassHealth spending 17

election that put Donald Trump in the White House. The Obama administration liked the Baker plan because it fit with their mission to move US health care away from expensive fee-for-service payment and toward value-based financing that rewards quality and efficiency. Though no one knows for sure which way the Trump administration will move, right now it’s full speed ahead at MassHealth on the ACO agenda. Continue reading “MassHealth Dives into Accountable Care”