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USDA loaning $2.2M to expand Maine healthcare-- Agency will provide a total of $1 billion to 41 states

Modern Healthcare | November 24, 2017

Maine's U.S. senators say the federal government is giving a northern Maine health center a $2.2 million loan that will allow it to offer more services.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen. Angus King say the loan is coming through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Community Facilities Guaranteed Loan Program. 

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue earlier in the week announced the agency would give more than $1 billion to healthcare organizations in rural areas of 41 states.

"USDA invests in a wide range of health care facilities—such as hospitals, clinics and treatment centers—to help ensure that rural residents have access to the same state-of-the art care available in urban and metropolitan areas," Perdue said. "I understand that building a prosperous rural America begins with healthy people. Ensuring that rural communities have access to quality medical care is a top priority for USDA."

This year, the USDA invested in 97 rural health care projects that served 2.5 million people, according to a press release. In Ontario, Ohio, a $91 million USDA loan allowed Avita Health System to turn a vacant section of a shopping mall into a hospital. Among the services available more here

Saving Healthcare Costs

Orlando Medical News | PL Jeter | Apr. 2017

On page 19 of Maine Gov. LePage’s proposed budget is a line item that captured the attention of lawmakers in the tiny northeastern state of 2.3 million – and of legislators in other states looking for meaningful ways to cut corners without removing social services: “Elimination of separate facility fees for hospital-based physicians: $11.4 million.”

The sizable cut reflected a significant change in the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare.

“Imagine if that scenario occurred in all 50 states … and if we stripped it out of Medicare and commercial insurance,” said Marni Jameson Carey, executive director of Orlando-based Association of Independent Doctors (AID), to the Practicing Physicians of America in the Library of Congress, in Washington DC, on Feb. 2. “Real money – hundreds of billions of dollars – could be restored instantly.”

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) has suggested that if hospital facilities charged the same as independent doctors for the same service concerning 66 groups of services, tax payers would save $900 million a year in Medicare costs alone.

 Facilities fees, Carey pointed out, are added costs that provide zero value to patient care, but shove prices upward. “By eliminating them,” she emphasized, “we could move toward site-neutral payments, and require payers to pay doctors the same amount for the same procedure, regardless of where it’s done.”

Hospitals have convinced lawmakers that facilities fees are necessary to help offset ever-rising overhead costs and operating hours.

"However, facilities fees … incent hospitals to buy independent doctors because the hospitals can then charge more, which in part makes hospitals able to pay doctors more than doctors can make in an independent practice,” explained Carey.

Compounding Factors

Hospitals have significant funds to finance practice acquisitions – and successfully lobby their arguments to lawmakers – because of the cash flow afforded by their tax-exempt status, which AID would like to see reversed in abusive situations. Nearly two-thirds of hospitals in the U.S. are tax-exempt, including Florida Hospital and Orlando Health. 

"They pay no property tax, no tangible personal property tax, no sales tax and no income tax, state or federal ... in exchange for providing charitable care," said Carey, noting the "exchange" was set up decades ago when market conditions were quite different. "If Florida Hospital and Orlando Health weren't non-profits, they would've owed a combined $50 million in taxes last year on more than $2 billion of property across five counties. Fifty million dollars buys a lot of health care, police officers, classroom teachers, and Little League fields. Buying small businesses (physician practices) that were paying taxes hurts the community."

Hospitals' buying spree of physician practices has left remaining doctors with weakened negotiating power. Circa 2000, two of three

"Excessive health-care costs will persist as long as hospitals get to charge many times more than independent doctors for the same procedures."

physicians were independent. Today, it's one in three. When it's time for doctors to renew their employment contracts, their bargaining sway is diluted because of non-compete clauses and other conditions.

"Hospitals also make more money from employed doctors because buying doctors expands hospitals' market share, which allows hospitals to negotiate higher reimbursements from payers, which contributes to the upward spiral," she explained.

Complicating matters, hospitals bargain with insurance companies and Medicare for higher reimbursements to save money, cut fees to independent doctors, and make it more difficult for independent doctors to remain in practice.

Key Factor: Transparency

Transparency in health-care costs, especially if insurance companies were mandated to post costs online for consumers to compare the wide range of prices for the same procedure, would go a long way toward addressing the unlevel playing field, said Carey.

For example, an echocardiogram in a free-standing clinic averages less than $400, compared to roughly $1,600 in a hospital outpatient setting. Consumers struggling to understand the new health-care paradigm are more prone to ask, "Do you take Blue Cross?" than to ask about fees, perhaps assuming incorrectly they are all the same for any given procedure.

For now, Connecticut is the only state with a law requiring facilities charging facilities fees to be made transparent to consumers.

"It's a vicious cycle perpetuated by bad payment policies," said Carey. "We respectfully ask the Trump administration, as they work to replace Obamacare, to require site-neutral payments and to abolish facilities fees. Such moves would level the playing field, eliminate the incentive for hospitals to create monopolies, and save Americans hundreds of billions of dollars a year ... money for other needed services."

Concerning the failure of the Obamacare replacement bill in Congress last month, Carey and AID members weren't overly surprised. "The game isn't over," she said. "Though this bill failed, another one will come along. The process will just take longer than certain members of the administration -- and many Americans -- had hoped. However, even if this bill had passed, the measures we've been asking for -- price transparency, an end to facility fees, all of which contribute to high health-care costs -- wouldn't have been addressed until the second phase of policy making. The bill that got yanked was only the budget phase of the bill. That said, excessive health-care costs will persist as long as hospitals get to charge many times more than independent doctors for the same procedures. Until we can cut the glut, and stop the abuses, largely driven by health-care consolidation, we'll continue to endure huge price differences. Although we have a long road ahead, I remain hopeful we can fix this."

Maine Leadership

David Branch, MD.

National News...

In one new Oklahoma City surgical center prices are 1/6 to 1/10 the amount charged by hospitals. Everyone pays the same price for the same procedure. Total charges are often less “than the deductibles on the Obamacare plans.” Patients are not asked: “What insurance do you have?” Real life evidence that “legitimate” pricing is the cure for a sick healthcare system. Please share and help to more here.

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