June 2016

June 30, 2016

Meals influence doctors' prescibing of brand name drugsRecently, a study (read about it in our post here, and see the Wall Street Journal chart at right) found an unsurprising correlation: doctors receiving free food from pharmaceutical companies are more likely to prescribe higher-priced brand-name drugs; even when the food costs less than $20. So of course, that's how the drug companies market their pills.

Now, a Boston Globe/ProPublica analysis provides insight into the scale to which doctors are receiving payments from both the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Bottom line: a lot of docs are getting a lot of meals paid for by pharma. A few highlights:

  • Over 50% of affiliated doctors at some Massachusetts community hospitals received payments.
  • At some hospitals, almost everyone was on the take: 77% of doctors at Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield received payments, mostly in the form of meals. At Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, it was 74%; at Harrington Memorial in Southbridge, it was 71%.
  • Most meals were provided while drug industry representatives provided information on brand name medications for asthma, high cholesterol and blood clots.

The Globe reached out to two doctors who each reported over 200 meal payments during 2014 for comment, but they refused to return multiple emails and phone calls from the paper. At Mercy Medical Center, the Globe reported this non-answer answer:

Mercy Medical Center said it monitors company payments to doctors and has “confidence in our physicians to do the right thing.’’ When they don’t, its statement read, “we take action.” The hospital declined to comment further.

While state law limits drug marketers to providing "modest meals" as part of educational forums, we reiterate our call to tighten the state regulation of what's modest. After all, the state definition was drafted in consultation with pharma lobbyists, and it essentially imposes no real limits. And this new research points to the need to also curb the number of meals provided, as well as the cost per meal.

                                                                                                          - Mike DiBello

June 25, 2016

The room - actually 3 rooms combined - was packed as MassHealth held its first listening session for its federal waiver application which includes its ACO proposal and much more. The session was held in conjunction with the regular meetings of two MassHealth advisory panels. Despite it being a late Friday afternoon before the first weekend of the summer, interest in the proposal was very high. Given the number of speakers, the session, which started at 2:30 was supposed to go to 4, dragged on until almost 5. A second session will be held in Fitchburg on Monday, June 27.

MassHealth staff started with this powerpoint presentation, which summarized the waiver application.  A lot of money is at stake. MassHealth is seeking $1.8 billion over 5 years from the federal government to be used for Delivery System Reform Incentive Payments (DSRIP). These funds will support the transistion to ACOs (Accountable Care Organizations - see our blog post here for more on ACOs). Money will go to provider groups seeking to become ACOs, allowing them to pay for social services as well as medical care. Funds will also go towards integrating behavioral health and long-term care services, and other investments, In addition to the DSRIP money, the state is seeking $6.2 billion over 5 years for safety net providers and to pay for care for the uninsured.

Many speakers focused on the opportunity to expand MassHealth to provide assistance with the social determinants of health, like housing, nutrition and other social services. People representing YMCAs, the Housing and Shelter Alliance, the Pine Street Inn and other groups talked the critical role housing and other services play in promoting health. Similarly, Action for Boston Community Development suggested creating social service "hubs" to connect medical ACOs with smaller agencies which can focus on particular needs. The Boston Center for Independent Living and the Transformation Center talked about the needs of people with disabilities.

HCFA's Oral Health Integration Project spoke about the need to fully connect dental care and oral health with the primary care offered through ACOs. 

HCFA's organizational comments, copied below, focused on three areas of immediate concern. Written comments are due by July 17. In the coming weeks, we will be circulating a sign-on letter for groups to join us in expressing broad community reactions to the waiver proposal. If you are interested in this, please contact Suzanne Curry of HCFA's staff. 

Here are the comments we offered:

Health Care For All Talking Points – MassHealth Waiver Listening Session (Boston 6-24-16)

We have heard the strong emphasis from the administration on ACOs as a way to improve MassHealth’s “sustainability,” which, of course, is code for saving money.

We understand and support this goal, and we also understand the need to secure federal DSRIP funds. But we see ACOs as more than cost savings. It’s an opportunity to restructure care so that the focus is on promoting the health of MassHealth members. Health is more than just what doctors and hospitals do, though they are important. ACOs open the door to a MassHealth system that treats the member as a whole person, rather than as disconnected symptoms.

We’re pleased that the proposal is aimed at:

  • Enacting payment and delivery system reforms that promote integrated, coordinated care and hold providers accountable for the quality and total cost of care;
  • Improve integration of physical health, behavioral health and long-term services and supports, and related social services;
  • Maintain near-universal coverage;
  • Support safety net providers to ensure continued access to care for Medicaid and low-income uninsured individuals;
  • Address the opioid crisis by expanding access to a broad spectrum of recovery-focused substance use disorder services.

Our comments today will focus on 3 areas where we think the waiver can be strengthened, consistent with the goals of the project.

Before I get to our three categories, I want to mention that we also have critical thoughts on the integration of oral health and dental care within the ACO structure. Those issues will be addressed by representatives of the oral health integration project which we lead. We also strongly support the comments you will receive from groups concerned with community health workers, the disability community and the public health community.

Transparency and Oversight

Our first category is transparency and oversight

We’re pleased that the proposal calls for ACOs to include members in their governance, and includes PFACs – patient and family advisory councils – as a requirement for every ACO.

June 21, 2016

Why do pharmaceutical companies pay for doctors’ meals? The answer is simple – it is a not-so-subtle form of bribery designed to influence prescribing practices. If it didn’t work, it is hard to imagine why it would be done. A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine supports a fairly intuitive notion. Doctors who are wined and dined – even when it costs less than $20 – are more likely to prescribe brand name, highly expensive medications.

Headlines: Study showsmeals influence prescribing

The study found that doctors who received industry sponsored meals were significantly more likely to prescribe brand-name medications, compared to doctors who did not receive industry sponsored meals. Sure enough, doctors who were better fed, receiving either more or pricier meals, displayed an even higher likelihood of prescribing the advertised drug. The association held for four brand-name medications, including rosuvastatin, the third most expensive drug for Medicare Part D.

At HCFA, we are dedicated to advocating for high-quality healthcare at the lowest possible cost to the consumer, which is why we were steadfastly opposed the weakening of our gift ban law in 2012. The original law forbade pharmaceutical companies from providing doctors with free meals or other forms of payment, with the goal of preventing doctors from being tempted into prescribing more expensive drugs with no additional clinical benefit. The weakened law allows for "modest meals," but the regulations effectively put no limits on what can be provided. This new research demonstrates that even modest meals are pernicious. They are not only unnecessary, they are ethically dubious.

The first issue pertains to how doctors are getting their information. Pharmaceutical companies say that the free meals are a component of educational sessions. Should doctors be learning about medications from big-pharma over a pricey steak dinner? Or should they be relying on the latest peer-reviewed scientific studies, weighing the evidence of a multitude of more objective sources? Clearly, for patients to trust their doctors, the integrity of medical information dissemination must be preserved.

The second issue regards costs. Consider a Medicare patient who is prescribed an expensive brand-name drug when a cheaper, equally effective alternative is available. We, the taxpayers, pick up the tab for that drug. Therefore, in return for a small investment in the form of free meals, pharmaceutical companies receive a generous taxpayer subsidy. The same concept applies when insurers are forced to pay for more expensive drugs. That is, they pass on the costs to their members.

With costs of MassHealth rising steadily, it is crucial we find patient-centered ways to control costs. It is time for Massachusetts to reconsider the pharmaceutical gift policy.

                                                                  - Mike DiBello

June 17, 2016

Helen Hendirckson of HCFA at Dental Hygiene Practioner Rally 6-15-16

On Wednesday, HCFA was excited to join with over 60 others gathered in Nurses Hall at the State House to advocate for the creation of a mid-level dental provider in Massachusetts, the Dental Hygiene Practitioner (DHP). The event was attended by people representing those with disabilities, seniors, immigrants, and dental providers.

A provision to authorize DHPs is before the House-Senate conference committee debating the final state budget for fiscal year 2017.

Endorsed by twenty-seven organizations across the state, DHPs are dental hygienists who – after completing additional training – are able to deliver basic but critically necessary care to underserved populations. Services include filling cavities, placing temporary crowns, and extracting loose teeth. DHPs will work under the general supervision of a dentist, using telehealth technology to share X-rays and patient records with the dentist and consult on complicated cases. This will allow DHPs to bring care directly to people in schools, nursing homes, and other community settings.

The bill’s sponsors Senator Harriette Chandler and Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli both spoke passionately about the importance of passing this bill to Massachusetts residents. Both legislators represent areas of the state that experience a disproportionate burden of dental disease and face significant challenges in dental care access.

Maura Sullivan, government relations director at the ARC and mom to two children with autism, spoke of the difficulty she’s had accessing dental care for her kids.  Finding a provider who is trained to treat a patient with autism is difficult – but Amendment EHS # 479 includes a requirement that DHP are trained in strategies to treat patients with developmental disabilities.

HCFA’s Oral Health Manger, Helen Hendrickson, stressed the strong and diverse support for this bill by a broad and diverse set of groups who see the need for better dental care for all. 

For more information, check out this post by HCFA Oral Health Policy Analyst Kelly Vitzthum, on the Harvard Petrie-Flom Center's blog, Bill of Health, and read the letter delivered to the legislative leadership by 30 organizations supporting this bill following the rally.


                                                                                                                       - Kelly Vitzthum

June 16, 2016

Assister helping client with health care enrollment

Last week, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) released the results of its annual survey of enrollment assistance programs nationwide. The report highlights the critical importance of, and on-going need for, enrollment assisters if states want to continue to build on, as well as sustain, gains in insurance coverage. You can read the report here.

Here are some key findings from the report:

  • The need for in-person assistance remains strong and won’t go away any time soon.
    • An estimated 30,400 assisters helped about 5.3 million people during the third Open Enrollment period.
  • A majority of consumers lack confidence to apply for, or to select, coverage on their own.
    • About 8 in 10 assister programs said most to nearly-all consumers sought help because they lacked the confidence to apply for coverage and financial assistance on their own.
    • About eight in ten programs also said most-to-nearly-all consumers needed help evaluating their plan choices.
  • Enrollment assisters play a critical role in consumer health insurance literacy.
    • Most assister programs (61%) said most or nearly all consumers had difficulty understanding basic insurance concepts.
  • There is strong demand for enrollment assistance programs even outside of Open Enrollment.
    • Increasingly, programs are serving a mix of new and renewing consumers – evidence that consumers need help to remain covered, not just to enroll for the first time.

KFF’s report is clear - enrollment assisters are critical in ensuring people get and stay covered in health insurance coverage. Insurance marketplaces’ on-going investment in consumer assistance enrollment programs will help to increase enrollment and keep people covered.

Here in Massachusetts, there approximately 1,700 enrollment assisters, including 10 HCFA staff Navigators, trained and certified to help residents apply for free and lower-cost MassHealth and Health Connector coverage. If you, or someone you know, needs free health insurance help, please contact our HelpLine at 800-272-4232.


                                                                                 - Kate Segel

June 14, 2016

On Thursday, the Connector Board met to discuss Health Connector open enrollment operational readiness, outreach and messaging efforts, and the Student Health Insurance Program. Materials from the meeting are posted here

Executive Director’s Report
First, Louis Gutierrez, the Executive Director of the Health Connector, shared some updates:

  • Massachusetts received approval from CMS to maintain small-group rating practices.
  • The Health Connector plans to transition the market-wide risk adjustment program they had been administering to CMS beginning in 2018 (for plan year 2017).
  • The Health Connector is entering into a contract with Dell (which will be acquired by Japanese firm NTT) to modernize their customer relations management system.
  • The Health Connector is looking at metrics to evaluate the impact of their upcoming outreach efforts to reach the uninsured.
  • Health Connector enrollment as of June 1, 2016:
    • Total non-group medical: 223,778
    • Unsubsidized and APTC: 52,503
    • ConnectorCare: 171,275
    • Non-group dental: 59,471
    • Small group medical : 5,922
    • Small group dental: 831

2017 Open Enrollment Preparations 
Based on Department of Revenue tax-filing data,  the remaining uninsured people in the state (approximately 3.6%, or 240,000 residents)  are almost evenly divided between chronically uninsured and temporarily uninsured; evidence shows that Hispanics are the most likely population to remain chronically uninsured, both in Massachusetts and nationally. Connector Board and staff members spent a good portion of the meeting discussing how to best target the remaining uninsured.

In preparation for the next open enrollment period, which begins in November, the Connector Board approved a contract with Dell, who provides customer service for the Connector, to re-launch temporary walk-in centers throughout the Commonwealth for the 2017 open enrollment period. These walk-in centers complement the permanent walk-in centers in place in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield. During the 2016 open enrollment period, the “pop-up” walk-in centers – co-located with community health centers – served 15,000 consumers, helping with issues that only customer service can address, such as billing and payment.

The Connector Board also approved outreach and marketing contracts with Weber Shandwick and Archipelago Strategies Group, to conduct outreach and media campaigns to better reach the remaining uninsured.  Weber Shandwick will conduct general outreach and marketing, while Archipelago will focus on ethnic outreach and media. 

Student Health Insurance Program
Lastly, the Board discussed the Student Health Insurance program (SHIP). Since 1989, all students in the Commonwealth have been required to have health insurance, and each school is required to offer a SHIP. Students are able to waive the coverage if they have comparable coverage elsewhere, such as a parents’ employer plan or, since the passage of the ACA, MassHealth. Since the passage of the ACA, fewer students have been enrolling in SHIPs, in large part likely due to newly-gained access to MassHealth. In an effort to keep premiums in SHIP plans reasonable, and retain access to MassHealth, the Commonwealth has begun a pilot program to enroll MassHealth students into Premium Assistance. Like other MassHealth Premium Assistance programs, students enroll in their private plan (in the case, the school’s SHIP), and MassHealth helps them pay for their premiums and cost-sharing. MassHealth plans to roll this out to all full-time college students receiving MassHealth coverage in coming months and years.

The next Connector Board meeting is scheduled for Thursday, July 14th from 2-4pm at 1 Ashburton Place, 21st floor, Boston. 

- Sara O’Brien

June 13, 2016

Pie chart of state budgetThe House-Senate conference committee on the Fiscal Year 2017 state budget held its first meeting last week to negotiate a final budget based on the House and Senate budgets passed in each branch. The new state fiscal year will begin on July 1.

HCFA is pleased that each budget proposal includes a number of provisions that fund MassHealth and other key health programs, and advance consumer health interests. However, there are important differences between the two versions, and HCFA distributed the following statement to the legislative leadership indicating our priorities for the budget process:

The challenges facing our Commonwealth are significant. Recent revenue declines mean difficult funding decisions. The budget proposals put forward by both the House and the Senate reflect the commitment by the Legislature to not retreat from effective, innovative government policies that promote the health of all Massachusetts’ residents, and we should collectively be proud of the many provisions that will benefit health care consumers.   

As you work to develop the final FY 2017 budget, HCFA urges you to prioritize these goals:

  • Protect the Health Safety Net Program;
  • Expand access to dental care through Dental Hygiene Practitioners;
  • Provide unbiased information about the cost and efficacy of prescription drugs;
  • Streamline public benefit program applications to improve health and decrease health costs;
  • Plan care improvement for infants exposed to substances;
  • Complete the study on drug copay coupons before changing policy;
  • Examine the impact of limited MassHealth dental coverage; and
  • Adequately fund the statewide dental program for people with disabilities.

Protect the Health Safety Net Program

The Health Safety Net (HSN) lives up to it name. It is our last resort program to meet critical health needs of low income residents of the Commonwealth without any other source of assistance. Senate Section 77A (redrafted amendment 369) delays proposed eligibility reductions through April 1, 2017, giving the Legislature, Administration, and stakeholders the opportunity to better understand the impact of the cuts and develop appropriate policy responses. HCFA opposes the cuts proposed by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), and urges reconsideration of their implementation. The eligibility cuts would shift costs to providers and leave many low-income people with substantial medical debt.

The HSN is primarily funded by an assessment on hospitals and payers, while the state customarily contributes $30 million of federal reimbursement it receives from revenue generated by the assessment. The Administration’s FY2017 budget did not include any state funds for the HSN. Both the House and Senate provide $15 million in funding, though the House budget includes “up to” language that could potentially result in less funding being transferred to the Health Safety Net (House Section 42). We urge the conference committee to support the Senate budget approach that specifies a firm $15 million for the program (Senate Section 72).

We urge the Conference Committee to include a provision delaying implementation of eligibility cuts in the Health Safety Net program until April 2017 and specify $15 million in state funding for the HSN.

Expand Access to Dental Care through Dental Hygiene Practitioners

One in ten Massachusetts residents does not have access to a regular dental provider. Only 35% of dental providers accept MassHealth, making it even harder for seniors, children, and other vulnerable populations to access basic dental care. Dental care must be more easily accessible.

A dental hygiene practitioner is similar to a nurse practitioner and would improve access to dental care. Dental hygiene practitioners could work in settings such as schools and nursing homes to make care accessible. They may also work directly with dentists, allowing practices greater financial flexibility to see more MassHealth patients. Sections 35A-35D and Section 77A of the Senate budget (redrafted amendment 479) authorize dental hygiene practitioners in Massachusetts.

We urge the Conference Committee to include provisions authorizing Dental Hygiene Practitioners to be licensed as a new midlevel dental provider.

Provide Unbiased Information about the Cost and Efficacy of Prescription Drugs

Health care providers are confronted with an overwhelming amount of new clinical research, making it difficult to stay current about which treatments are most effective and have the best patient outcomes. At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry spends billions on marketing directly to doctors to promote their products. This influence results in higher costs for patients and the Commonwealth as pharmaceutical representatives typically promote their newest, most expensive brand-name drugs, regardless of whether or not they offer improved outcomes.

June 7, 2016

Boston Globe editorial: Proceed with caution on drug copay discounts

At first glance, discounts on prescription drug copays via “coupons” seem like an enticing offer. Many patients struggle to afford their copays. Until 2012, Massachusetts banned drug coupons for fear that they would ultimately result in higher costs for the whole healthcare system. When the ban was lifted, the plan was to allow drug coupons temporarily, until 2015, and to conduct a study on the cost ramifications. 

What happened next is typical: the study never happened, and the sunset date was extended to 2017. And now, a rider was added in the House version of the 2017 state budget that would allow coupons indefinitely. The Senate version does not have the provision.

The issue is now before the House-Senate conference committee reconciling the budget versions. HCFA strongly opposes the provision removing the sunset clause, and urges the legislature to press the state to conduct the study in order to make an informed decision.

The Boston Globe’s lead editorial on Saturday supported our approach. The Globe wrote:

There are good reasons to proceed cautiously on drug discounts, starting with pharmaceutical companies’ motives for offering them. … [K]eeping the status quo in place allows patients to continue reaping short-term savings on prescription drugs while the long-term ramifications are sorted out.

The editorial cites a statement from the head of the state’s Biotechnology Council, who supports removing the sunset clause immediately, and skipping the study. Why are they so opposed to doing a study first? Perhaps, it’s because existing evidence indicates that drug coupons may not be a cost-effective as they seem.

Drug coupons are offered as a marketing tactic to increase sales of high-price drugs when there is a less expensive alternative. The cost of paying for these more expensive, brand name drugs eventually gets passed on to us, though higher premiums. And then insurers respond by barring certain drugs from coverage. For example, according to a recent STAT article, Express Scripts excluded 80 medications from coverage in 2016 due to cost, 67% more than in 2014. And guess what - 90% of these excluded medications had drug coupons available for them. All the while, drug coupon offers have been on the rise continuously – from 86 in 2009 to almost 750 today.

Like most sales, drug coupons are often temporary. When the sale ends, consumers are then hit with copays full force. By this time, patients are often attached to the medication, unaware of cheaper, equally effective options. Drug companies also extract personal information from consumers in exchange for the coupon, giving them free rein to bombard them with further advertising. The end result is more and more high-cost drug consumption, fueling significant cost increases for payers – costs which will then be passed on to all patients.

Due to these concerns, it is critical that the Center for Health and Information Analysis do the study it was charged with conducting in 2012. If drug coupons are really having no negative impact on costs and health care system in general, the pharmaceutical industry should have nothing to fear. Clearly, companies want to sell as much of their most expensive products as possible. An individual patient may very well receive a good deal from an individual coupon. But the sword cuts both ways. The larger structural implications of drug coupon schemes must be assessed.

                                                                                                                             -- Mike DiBello

June 5, 2016

The debate over authorizing “dental hygiene practitioners,” to improve access to good oral health, just heated up a lot more this week.

Background: Dental Hygiene Practitioners (DHPs) are dental hygienists who – after completing additional training – are able to deliver basic but critically necessary care to underserved populations in the state. DHPs work under the supervision of a dentist, and can bring care directly to people in schools, nursing homes, and other community settings. Access to oral health care is a particularly difficult for older adults, for people with disabilities, for children with MassHealth coverage, and for rural communities. Licensing this new oral health care clinician, as is done successfully in several other states, would expand access to essential health care for these underserved people.

With our strong support, the state Senate unanimously voted to include a provision creating DHPs in its version of the budget. But there’s no corresponding provision in the House budget, so the issue is up to the joint House-Senate budget conference committee which begins meeting this week.

However, the Mass Dental Society has come out strongly against the proposal, spending many tens of thousands of dollars to convince the public to oppose the provision. 

Meanwhile, objective experts are weighing in strongly in favor of the proposal.

Two weeks ago, Dr. Don Berwick, former president of the Institute for Health Care Improvement, an evidence-based center devoted to quality care, and a former national administrator of Medicare and Medicaid, wrote a detailed review in the Globe of studies supporting DHPs. He cited over 1,100 studies which found that DHP care is certainly comparable, and often superior, to care from a dentist. Berwick, who also sits on the state's Health Policy Commission, concluded,

“Proper dental care is as much a human right and as smart an investment as is proper medical care. By passing the Dental Health Practitioner legislation, Massachusetts now has a chance to add access to dental health to its list of proud commitments.”

This was amplified at a meeting of the state’s Health Policy Commission on Wednesday. The HPC revisited key findings on emergency department visits for preventable oral health conditions, noting that almost half of all preventable ED visits for oral health were paid for by MassHealth, while just 35% of all licensed dentists in Massachusetts accept MassHealth. In light of these glaring numbers, the HPC pointed to licensing DHPs as proven solution:

Health Policy Commission Support for Dental Hygiene Practitioners


Commissioners enthusiastically supported the proposal. Commissioner David Cutler stated that he was “convinced” of the model and Commissioner Berwick reiterated that establishing mid-level dental providers is a “slam dunk” policy that expands access, potentially decreases costs, and also serves as an opportunity for economic growth by providing a new health care career path. Although Commissioner Carole Allen admitted she was initially cautious as some providers have indicated concerns about establishing a “2-tiered system of care,” after further studying the significant amount of evidence affirming the quality of care delivered by mid-levels and their potential for expanding dental access, she is now a firm supporter of the model, she said.

Health Care For All rejects the calls for more study and delay.  The evidence is overwhelming that DHPs would provide high-quality dental care to people who need it the most. We urge people to contact their state representative and ask them to contact the House members of the budget conference in support of this “slam-dunk” policy.

                                                                      -- Kelly Vitzthum