Health Reform Watch: Congress Passes ‘Doc Fix,’ Revisiting McAllen
Congress gave Medicare doctors a one-year reprieve from a looming pay cut this week. On Thursday, legislators passed a bill that will stave off a 25 percent cut in the Medicare reimbursement rate, which they paid for by shifting money from insurance subsidies in the health care reform law. Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser explains how the bill works.
McAllen, Tex. Revisited
Last year, McAllen, Texas became the poster city for America’s broken health care system when New Yorker writer Atul Gawande published an article describing how Medicare paid nearly twice as much per patient for health care there as in nearby El Paso. He blamed the difference on a medical culture in which McAllen doctors ordered more unnecessary tests and treatments, at least partially for profit. Soon, the New York Times reported, the article became “required reading” for White House staffers working on health reform.
But a study published this week in the journal Health Affairs found that the private insurer Blue Cross/Blue Shield paid no more for its customers’ care in McAllen than it paid in El Paso. The study authors told NPR that the data suggest that private insurers may sometimes be better at controlling costs than Medicare.
HHS Will Waive New Requirements for Some Insurers
The Department of Health and Human Services has issued 222 waivers so far exempting “mini-med” health plans from following new requirements in the health reform law. The move has triggered debate over whether the low-cost, low-benefit plans for many workers in the fast-food and retail sector, which sometimes offer coverage limits as low as $2,000 per year, are better than no insurance at all. Those exempted so far include insurers like Aetna and fast-food chains like Waffle House and Denny’s.
Kaiser Health News reports that new federal regulations issued Thursday say that the exempted plans will have to tell their customers that the plans don’t meet the new federal requirements, and let them know by how much the plans fall short.
Life Expectancy Dip: Trend or Blip?
Life expectancy in the U.S. dropped slightly in 2008, from 77.9 to 77.8 years – a difference of about one month – according to a report released Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics. It’s the first time since 1993 that that number has fallen. But the report’s authors say its not clear whether the drop is the beginning of a trend or a statistical blip.
“I would take this with a grain of salt,” statistician Arialdi Minino, who worked on the report, told the Washington Post. “These are preliminary numbers. You can never tell whether this is a little blip or some trend that will stay there and linger there for some time. You can’t tell until you have more data points.”