National News Content

Why Native Americans Are Getting COVID-19 Vaccines Faster

WXXI US News - Fri, 02/19/2021 - 6:00am
Lila Kills In Sight lost her 81-year-old mother to COVID-19 on Nov. 23. "I really don't know who to be mad at," she said. "Who do I take my frustration to, how do I deal with it?" Kills In Sight, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, is the first to say she's not dealing with it well. She had been keeping her mom sheltered mostly in her home in the remote community of Spring Creek as the pandemic raged in South Dakota. But in September she broke her hip. Then in November she fell. "I had to make a really hard decision to take her to the hospital because I didn't know if there was anything broken," Kills In Sight said. With her mom in so much pain, she felt she had no choice but to take her to the doctor in Nebraska, then later the Indian Health Service hospital in nearby Rosebud, S.D. She's not sure where they got infected, but they both ended up with COVID-19 shortly after. Her mother went downhill fast and ended up having to be airlifted to a larger hospital in Sioux Falls,

Biden Takes His 'America Is Back' Message To The World In Munich Speech

WXXI US News - Fri, 02/19/2021 - 6:00am
Updated at 12:45 p.m. ET President Biden on Friday sought to turn the page on former President Donald Trump's "America First" ethos, declaring "America is back" and vowing to rebuild trust with European allies by working on challenges like arms control, COVID-19 and climate change. It was Biden's first speech since taking office aimed at an international audience. He spoke from the White House to a virtual crowd at the Munich Security Conference — a who's who of global national security officials — who he has met with many times in person over his decades in public life. "America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back, and we are not looking backward. We are looking forward together," Biden said. He called the partnership between Europe and the United States "the cornerstone of all we hope to accomplish in the 21st century." Biden didn't mention Trump by name, but alluded to his fights with NATO allies, and pledged his support to that alliance. "I know the past few years have

The Republican Rift Goes Far Deeper Than Just Trump And McConnell

WXXI US News - Fri, 02/19/2021 - 6:00am
The rift within the Republican Party spilled out into full view this week. After voting to acquit Donald Trump on an impeachment charge of incitement of insurrection following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said unequivocally that the former president is to blame . "There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day," said McConnell, who noted he didn't vote to convict because he believes a former official can't be tried for impeachment. Trump responded , as he likes to say, 10 times harder. In a statement Tuesday, he called McConnell "a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack" and added, "[I]f Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again." McConnell worked with Trump over his four years in the White House. The Senate leader shepherded Trump's tax cuts through Congress and got a record number of judges confirmed to the federal bench. But it was

Long-Term Studies Of COVID-19 Vaccines Hurt By Placebo Recipients Getting Immunized

WXXI US News - Fri, 02/19/2021 - 6:00am
Tens of thousands of people who volunteered to be in studies of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are still participating in follow-up research. But some key questions won't be easily answered, because many people who had been in the placebo group have now opted to take the vaccine. Even so, there's valuable information to be had in the planned two-year follow-up studies. And that motivated Karen Mott, a 56-year-old job counselor who stuck with the continuing study. "I've been taking prescription medicine for the last 25 years," she says, referring to antiseizure drugs she takes. In order to show those drugs worked, people previously volunteered to take them when they were still experimental, "so I felt it was my way of giving back." Mott, who lives in the Overland Park, Kan., got a strong reaction to the second shot, so she correctly surmised she had received the Moderna vaccine, not the placebo. She was sad to read that one of the volunteers in the placebo group did

Companies Pan for Marketing Gold in Vaccines

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Fri, 02/19/2021 - 6:00am

This story also ran on NBC News. It can be republished for free.

For a decade, Jennifer Crow has taken care of her elderly parents, who have multiple sclerosis. After her father had a stroke in December, the family got serious in its conversations with a retirement community — and learned that one service it offered was covid-19 vaccination.

“They mentioned it like it was an amenity, like ‘We have a swimming pool and a vaccination program,’” said Crow, a librarian in southern Maryland. “It was definitely appealing to me.” Vaccines, she felt, would help ease her concerns about whether a congregate living situation would be safe for her parents, and for her to visit them; she has lupus, an autoimmune condition.

As the coronavirus death toll soars and demand for the covid vaccines dwarfs supply, an army of hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and long-term care facilities has been tasked with getting shots into arms. Some are also using that role to attract new business — the latest reminder that health care, even amid a global pandemic, is a commercial endeavor where some see opportunities to be seized.

“Most private sector companies distributing vaccines are motivated by the public health imperative. At some point, their DNA also kicks in,” said Roberta Clarke, associate professor emeritus of marketing at Boston University.

Among senior living facilities — which saw their largest drop in occupancy on record last year — some companies are marketing vaccinations to recruit residents. Sarah Ordover, owner of Assisted Living Locators Los Angeles, a referral agency, said many in her area are offering vaccines “as a sweetener” to prospective residents, sometimes if they agree to move in before a scheduled vaccination clinic.

Oakmont Senior Living, a high-end retirement community chain with 34 locations, primarily in California, has advertised “exclusive access” to the vaccines via social media and email. A call to action on social media reads: “Reserve your apartment home now to schedule your Vaccine Clinic appointment!”

Although the vaccine offer was a selling point for Crow, it wasn’t for her parents, who have not been concerned about contracting covid and didn’t want to forgo their independence, she said. Ultimately, they moved in with her sister, who could arrange home care services.

This marketing approach might sway others. Oakmont Senior Living, based in Irvine, reported 92 move-ins across its communities last month, a 13% increase from January 2020, noting the vaccine is “just one factor among many” in deciding to become a resident.

But some object to facilities using vaccines as a marketing tool. “I think it’s unethical,” said Dr. Michael Carome, director of health research at consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. While he believes that facilities should provide vaccines to residents, he fears attaching strings to a vaccine could coerce seniors, who are particularly vulnerable and desperate for vaccines, into signing a lease.

Tony Chicotel, staff attorney at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, worries that seniors and their families could make less informed decisions when incentivized to sign by a certain date. “You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get moved in in the next week or otherwise I don’t get this shot. I don’t have time to read everything in this 38-page contract,’” he said.

Oakmont Senior Living responded by email: “Potential residents and their families are always provided with the information they need to be confident in a decision to choose Oakmont.”

Some people say facilities are simply meeting their demand for covid vaccines. “Who is going to put an elderly person in a place without a vaccine? Congregate living has been a hotbed of the virus,” said retired philanthropy consultant Patti Patrizi. She and her son recently chose a retirement community in Los Angeles for her ex-husband for myriad reasons unrelated to the vaccines. However, they accelerated the move by two weeks to coincide with a vaccination clinic.

“It was definitely not a marketing tool to me,” said Patrizi. “It was my insistence that he needs it before he can live there.”

The concept of using vaccines to market a business isn’t new. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic ushered in drugstore flu shots, and pharmacies have since credited flu vaccines with boosting storefront sales and prescriptions. Many offer prospective vaccine recipients coupons, gift cards or rewards points.

A few pharmacies have continued these marketing activities while rolling out covid shots. On its covid vaccine information site, CVS Pharmacy encouraged visitors to sign up for its rewards program to earn credits for vaccinations. Supermarket and pharmacy chain Albertsons and its subsidiaries have a button on their covid vaccine information sites saying, “Transfer your prescription.”

But the pandemic isn’t business as usual, said Alison Taylor, a business ethics professor at New York University. “This is a public health emergency,” she said. Companies distributing covid vaccines should ask themselves “How can we get society to herd immunity faster?” rather than “How many customers can I sign up?” she said.

In an email response, CVS said it had removed the reference to its rewards program from its covid vaccination page. Patients will not earn rewards for receiving a covid shot at its pharmacies, the company said, and its focus remains on administering the vaccines.

Albertsons said via email that its covid vaccine information pages are intended to be a one-stop resource, and information about additional services is at the very bottom of these pages.

Boston University’s Clarke doesn’t see any harm in these marketing activities. “As long as the patient is free to say ‘no, thank you,’ and doesn’t think they’ll be penalized by not getting a vaccine, it’s not a problem,” she said.

At least one health care provider is offering complimentary services to people eligible for covid vaccines. Membership-based primary care provider One Medical — now inoculating people in several states, including California — offers a free 90-day membership to groups, such as people 75 and older, that a local health department has tasked the company with vaccinating, according to an email from a company spokesperson who noted that vaccine supply and eligibility requirements vary by county.

The company said it offers the membership — which entails online vaccine appointment booking, second dose reminders and on-demand telehealth visits for acute questions — because it believes it can and should do so, especially when many are struggling to access care.

While these may very well be the company’s motives, a free trial is also a marketing tactic, said Silicon Valley health technology investor Dr. Bob Kocher. Whether it’s Costco or One Medical, any company offering a free sample hopes recipients buy the product, he said.

Offering free trial memberships could pay off for providers like One Medical, he said; local health departments can refer many patients, and converting a portion of vaccine recipients into members could offer a cheaper way for providers to get new patients than finding them on their own.

“Normally, there’s no free stuff at a provider, and you have to be sick to try health care. This is a pretty unique circumstance,” said Kocher, who doesn’t see boosting public health and taking advantage of an uncommon marketing opportunity as mutually exclusive here. “Vaccination is a super valuable way to help people,” he said. “A free trial is also a great way to market your service.”

One Medical insisted the membership trial is not a marketing ploy, noting that the company is not collecting credit card information during registration or auto-enrolling trial participants into paid memberships. But patients will receive an email notifying them before their trial ends, with an invitation to sign up for membership, said the company.

Health equity advocates say more attention needs to be paid to the people who slip under the radar of marketers — yet are at the highest risk of getting and dying from covid, and the least likely to be vaccinated.

Kathryn Stebner, an elder-abuse attorney in San Francisco, noted that the high cost of many assisted living facilities is often prohibitive for the working class and people of color. “African Americans are dying [from covid] at a rate three times as much as white people,” she said. “Are they getting these vaccine offers?”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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To Vaccinate Veterans, Health Care Workers Must Cross Mountains, Plains and Tundra

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Fri, 02/19/2021 - 6:00am

This story also ran on Time. It can be republished for free.

A Learjet 31 took off before daybreak from Helena Regional Airport in Montana, carrying six Veterans Affairs medical providers and 250 doses of historic cargo cradled in a plug-in cooler designed to minimize breakage.

Even in a state where 80-mph speed limits are normal, ground transportation across long distances is risky for the Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine, which must be used within 12 hours of thawing.

The group’s destination was Havre, Montana, 30 miles from the Canadian border. About 500 military veterans live in and around this small town of roughly 9,800, and millions more reside in similarly rural, hard-to-reach areas across the United States.

About 2.7 million veterans who use the VA health system are classified as “rural” or “highly rural” patients, residing in communities or on land with fewer services and less access to health care than those in densely populated towns and cities. An additional 2 million veterans live in remote areas who do not receive their health care from VA, according to the department. To ensure these rural vets have access to the covid vaccines, the VA is relying on a mix of tools, like charter and commercial aircraft and partnerships with civilian health organizations.

The challenges of vaccinating veterans in rural areas — which the VA considers anything outside an urban population center — and “highly rural” areas — defined as having fewer than 10% of the workforce commuting to an urban hub and with a population no greater than 2,500 — extend beyond geography, as more than 55% of them are 65 or older and at risk for serious cases of covid and just 65% are reachable via the internet.

For the Havre event, VA clinic workers called each patient served by the Merril Lundman VA Outpatient Clinic in a vast region made up of small farming and ranching communities and two Native American reservations. And for those hesitant to get the vaccine, a nurse called them back to answer questions.

“At least 10 additional veterans elected to be vaccinated once we answered their questions,” said Judy Hayman, executive director of the Montana VA Health Care System, serving all 147,000 square miles of the state.

The Havre mission was a test flight for similar efforts in other rural locations. Thirteen days later, another aircraft took off for Kalispell, Montana, carrying vaccines for 400 veterans.

In Alaska, another rural state, Anchorage Veterans Affairs Medical Center administrators finalized plans for providers to hop a commercial Alaska Airlines flight on Thursday to Kodiak Island. There, VA workers expected to administer 100 to 150 doses at a vaccine clinic conducted in partnership with the Kodiak Area Native Association.

“Our goal is to vaccinate all veterans who have not been vaccinated in and around the Kodiak community,” said Tom Steinbrunner, acting director of the Alaska VA Healthcare System.

VA began its outreach to rural veterans for the vaccine program late last year, as the Food and Drug Administration approached the dates for issuing emergency use authorizations for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, according to Dr. Richard Stone, the Veterans Health Administration’s acting undersecretary. It made sense to look to aircraft to deliver vaccines. “It just seemed logical that we would reach into rural areas that, [like] up in Montana, we had a contract with, a company that had small propeller-driven aircraft and short runway capability,” said Stone, a retired Army Reserve major general.

Veterans have responded, Stone added, with more than 50% of veterans in rural areas making appointments.

As of Wednesday, the VA had tallied 220,992 confirmed cases of covid among veterans and VA employees and 10,065 known deaths, including 128 employees. VA had administered 1,344,210 doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, including 329,685 second vaccines, to veterans as of Wednesday. According to the VA, roughly 25% of those veterans live in rural areas, 2.81% live in highly rural areas and 1.13% live on remote islands.

For rural areas, the VA has primarily relied on the Moderna vaccine, which requires cold storage between minus 25 degrees Centigrade (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit) and minus 15 degrees C (5 degrees F) but not the deep freeze needed to store the Pfizer vaccine (minus 70 degrees C, or minus 94 degrees F). That, according to the VA, makes it more “transportable to rural locations.”

The VA anticipates that the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, if it receives an emergency use authorization from the FDA, will make it even easier to reach remote veterans. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech both require two shots, spaced a few weeks apart. “One dose will make it easier for veterans in rural locations, who often have to travel long distances, to get their full vaccination coverage,” said VA spokesperson Gina Jackson. The FDA’s vaccine advisory committee is set to meet on Feb. 26 to review J&J’s application for authorization.

Meanwhile, in places like Alaska, where hundreds of veterans live off the grid, VA officials have had to be creative. Flying out to serve individual veterans would be too costly, so the Anchorage VA Medical Center has partnered with tribal health care organizations to ensure veterans have access to a vaccine. Under these agreements, all veterans, including non-Native veterans, can be seen at tribal facilities.

“That is our primary outreach in much of Alaska because the tribal health system is the only health system in these communities,” Steinbrunner said.

In some rural areas, however, the process has proved frustrating. Army veteran John Hoefen, 73, served in Vietnam and has a 100% disability rating from the VA for Parkinson’s disease related to Agent Orange exposure. He gets his medical care from a VA location in Canandaigua, New York, 20 miles from his home, but the facility hasn’t made clear what phase of the vaccine rollout it’s in, Hoefen said.

The hospital’s website simply says a staff member will contact veterans when they become eligible — a “don’t call us, we’ll call you,” situation, he said. “I know a lot of veterans like me, 100% disabled and no word,” Hoefen said. “I went there for audiology a few weeks ago and my tech hadn’t even gotten her vaccine yet.”

VA Canandaigua referred questions about the facility’s current phase back to its website: “If you’re eligible to get a vaccine, your VA health care team will contact you by phone, text message or Secure Message (through MyHealtheVet) to schedule an appointment,” it states. A call to the special covid-19 phone number established for the Canandaigua VA, which falls under the department’s Finger Lakes Healthcare System, puts the caller into the main menu for hospital services, with no information specifically on vaccine distribution.

For the most part, the VA is using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to determine priority groups for vaccines. Having vaccinated the bulk of its health care workers and first responders, as well as residents of VA nursing homes, it has been vaccinating those 75 and older, as well as those with chronic conditions that place them at risk for severe cases of covid. In some locations, like Anchorage and across Montana, clinics are vaccinating those 65 and older and walk-ins when extra doses are available.

According to Lori FitzGerald, chief of pharmacy at the VA hospital in Fort Harrison, Montana, providers have ended up with extra doses that went to hospitalized patients or veterans being seen at the facility. Only one dose has gone to waste in Montana, she said.

To determine eligibility for the vaccine, facilities are using the Veterans Health Administration Support Service Center databases and algorithms to help with the decision-making process. Facilities then notify veterans by mail, email or phone or through VA portals of their eligibility and when they can expect to get a shot, according to the department.

Air Force veteran Theresa Petersen, 83, was thrilled that she and her husband, an 89-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, were able to get vaccinated at the Kalispell event. She said they were notified by their primary care provider of the opportunity and jumped at the chance.

“I would do anything to give as many kudos as I can to the Veterans Affairs medical system,” Petersen said. “I’m so enamored with the concept that ‘Yes, there are people who live in rural America and they have health issues too.’”

The VA is allowed to provide vaccines only to veterans currently enrolled in VA health care. About 9 million U.S. veterans are not enrolled at the VA, including 2 million rural veterans.

After veterans were turned away from a VA clinic in West Palm Beach, Florida, in January, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) wrote to Acting VA Secretary Dat Tran, urging him to include these veterans in their covid vaccination program.

Stone said the agency does not have the authorization to provide services to these veterans. “We have been talking to Capitol Hill about how to reconcile that,” he said. “Some of these are very elderly veterans and we don’t want to turn anybody away.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Spurred by Pandemic, Little Shell Tribe Fast-Tracks Its Health Service Debut

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Fri, 02/19/2021 - 6:00am
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Linda Watson draped a sweater with the words “Little Shell Chippewa Tribe” over her as she received the newly recognized tribal nation’s first dose of covid-19 vaccine.

“I wanted to show my pride in being a Little Shell member,” Watson, 72, said. “The Little Shell are doing very good things for the people.”

Watson has diabetes and a heart condition. The shot brought some peace of mind during a time when that isn’t fully possible. One of her sons is among those who have died of covid.

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana is building its health services largely from scratch roughly a year after becoming the United States’ 574th federally recognized Indigenous tribe. Because of the pandemic, it’s doing it on hyperdrive.

The long-sought recognition came just months before the pandemic took hold, arriving in time to guarantee the right to crucial health care and a tribal supply of protective covid vaccines. Federal pandemic relief dollars are speeding up the Little Shell Tribe’s ability to build its own clinic.

Without the CARES Act funds, Indian Health Service and Little Shell officials said it would have likely taken years using only IHS resources to establish a clinic. The IHS already has a list of new and replacement health care facility projects nationwide estimated to cost more than $14.5 billion, yet it reported in 2019 it receives roughly $240 million each year to get that work done. At that pace, it would take 60 years to get through its current needs.

Now, in Great Falls, roughly 2 miles from where Watson got her shot, a brick building under renovation bears a banner announcing the Little Shell Tribal Health Clinic: “Coming 2021.” The former animal hospital site that the tribe purchased will provide medical, dental, vision and behavioral care, alongside traditional medicine, a pharmacy and a lab. The goal is to open the clinic by late summer.

When Watson drives by the future clinic’s site on her way to work as the tribal nation’s enrollment officer, she said, she feels proud.

“To have a Little Shell name on it, to see the results of what our ancestors had worked so hard for,” Watson said. “It’s their descendants that are now experiencing it.”

The Little Shell have advocated for their place as a sovereign nation for more than 150 years. Although Montana formally recognized the tribe in 2000, not having federal recognition until December 2019 kept it from accessing many vital services and programs.

And without a recognized homeland, the tribe’s more than 5,700 members had scattered across Northern Plains states and Canada. The vast majority live in Montana.

Because of the federal recognition, Little Shell tribal enrollment has surged and its Ojibwe language course has a lengthening waitlist.

But this newfound strength is tempered by the deep challenges of the pandemic. The coronavirus has stalled in-person celebrations and planning in the tribe’s first year of federal recognition.

Worst yet, covid has disproportionately infected and killed Indigenous people nationwide, exposing long-standing health inequities caused by a history of colonization and underinvestment in Indian Country. In Montana, Native Americans make up roughly 7% of the population yet account for 11% of the state’s covid cases and 17% of related deaths.

The Little Shell tribal health care system is so new, it doesn’t have electronic health records set up and hasn’t tracked the statistics.

In October, the tribal nation hired its first health director, who had to create a covid vaccination plan while juggling other immediate needs, such as helping establish a transportation service for members to get to doctor appointments. Setting up infrastructure for a sovereign nation without a reservation presents challenges. The tribe’s service area encompasses four counties — Blaine, Cascade, Glacier and Hill — that together would span an area larger than Maryland. Only two of those counties share a border, so the distances are even greater.

Little Shell members now have access to any IHS facility nationwide, but, until their clinic is ready, some services such as dental and vision care are far-flung even for those close to the nation’s Great Falls headquarters.

“Without our clinic, members would have to drive 118 miles one way to get some basic services — and try doing that in January and February in Montana,” Tribal Chairman Gerald Gray said.

In the meantime, the tribe is partnering with the Cascade City-County Health Department to administer about 100 vaccine doses each week, according to the tribal health department. The effort has attracted tribal members from out of state.

Many questions remain as to how the new clinic will operate. Gray said the tribe has been told IHS will operate the clinic for at least three years before the tribal nation has the chance to completely run its services. Bryce Redgrave, the Billings-area IHS director, said in a statement the agency is discussing the possibilities but “no plan has been finalized at this time.”

Little Shell leaders plan to model the clinic after an Alaska Native-owned nonprofit called Southcentral Foundation that has been emulated by other tribes, including the Eastern Cherokee in North Carolina.

“The model is about treating the whole person and prioritizing Indigenous interventions,” said Little Shell tribal council member Kim McKeehan.

What that looks like for the Little Shell is still being decided, said Molly Wendland, the Little Shell tribal health director. She said one idea is to grow plants for traditional medicines behind the clinic. The tribe also plans to have a smudge room, she said, in which members can burn sage and ask for healing.

Linda Wilmore, 51, a Little Shell member who lives in Great Falls, said the new clinic would mean she wouldn’t put off care such as going to the dentist anymore. Without an option close to home, she said, she has often waited until she’s in enough pain to warrant the three-hour round trip to an IHS health care facility that offers dental care, where her insurance won’t leave her with unwieldy out-of-pocket costs.

She is also excited about having a clinic designed for, and by, the Little Shell Tribe. Growing up, Wilmore remembers her family having to ask permission to use IHS facilities in Montana before state recognition in 2000 guaranteed it.

“You felt like the redheaded stepchild asking, ‘We’re Little Shell, can we use your clinic?’” Wilmore said.

The Great Falls clinic will also fill gaps in care for other Indigenous people in nearby rural communities and the city itself.

Little Shell members who live far from Great Falls are sorting through how to tap into newly granted services or how to access specialty treatment they can’t get at an IHS clinic.

Little Shell member Jonni Kroll, 55, lives in Deer Park, Washington, some 380 miles from the tribe’s future clinic. Her closest IHS alternative is a roughly 50-minute drive. Her first call was to book an eye appointment, only to find the clinic doesn’t have an optometrist.

“So then I go to the next clinic on my list,” Kroll said. “That’s a problem across the board with IHS nationwide, and I think that will affect Little Shell people trying to figure out: How do we utilize this when we are scattered?”

Little Shell people are spread out largely because they weren’t recognized, she noted, and now they’re having to play catch-up to understand how to access the services that recognition ensures. She said members, some of whom have never met, are connecting by phone or online to work through those questions together.

“The Little Shell are so resilient,” Kroll said. “We’ve gotten to the point of federal recognition and so now we find a way to come past that. There are lots of doors that opened, but we have a lot to learn.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Medicare Cuts Payment to 774 Hospitals Over Patient Complications

Latest Updates From Kaiser Health News - Fri, 02/19/2021 - 6:00am
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The federal government has penalized 774 hospitals for having the highest rates of patient infections or other potentially avoidable medical complications. Those hospitals, which include some of the nation’s marquee medical centers, will lose 1% of their Medicare payments over 12 months.

The penalties, based on patients who stayed in the hospitals anytime between mid-2017 and 2019, before the pandemic, are not related to covid-19. They were levied under a program created by the Affordable Care Act that uses the threat of losing Medicare money to motivate hospitals to protect patients from harm.

On any given day, one in every 31 hospital patients has an infection that was contracted during their stay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infections and other complications can prolong hospital stays, complicate treatments and, in the worst instances, kill patients.

“Although significant progress has been made in preventing some healthcare-associated infection types, there is much more work to be done,” the CDC says.

Now in its seventh year, the Hospital-Acquired Condition Reduction Program has been greeted with disapproval and resignation by hospitals, which argue that penalties are meted out arbitrarily. Under the law, Medicare each year must punish the quarter of general care hospitals with the highest rates of patient safety issues. The government assesses the rates of infections, blood clots, sepsis cases, bedsores, hip fractures and other complications that occur in hospitals and might have been prevented. The total penalty amount is based on how much Medicare pays each hospital during the federal fiscal year — from last October through September.

Hospitals can be punished even if they have improved over past years — and some have. At times, the difference in infection and complication rates between the hospitals that get punished and those that escape punishment is negligible, but the requirement to penalize one-quarter of hospitals is unbending under the law. Akin Demehin, director of policy at the American Hospital Association, said the penalties were “a game of chance” based on “badly flawed” measures.

Some hospitals insist they received penalties because they were more thorough than others in finding and reporting infections and other complications to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the CDC.

“The all-or-none penalty is unlike any other in Medicare’s programs,” said Dr. Karl Bilimoria, vice president for quality at Northwestern Medicine, whose flagship Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago was penalized this year. He said Northwestern takes the penalty seriously because of the amount of money at stake, “but, at the same time, we know that we will have some trouble with some of the measures because we do a really good job identifying” complications.

Other renowned hospitals penalized this year include Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles; UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center in Boston; NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York; UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside in Pittsburgh; and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

There were 2,430 hospitals not penalized because their patient complication rates were not among the top quarter. An additional 2,057 hospitals were automatically excluded from the program, either because they solely served children, veterans or psychiatric patients, or because they have special status as a “critical access hospital” for lack of nearby alternatives for people needing inpatient care.

The penalties were not distributed evenly across states, according to a KHN analysis of Medicare data that included all categories of hospitals. Half of Rhode Island’s hospitals were penalized, as were 30% of Nevada’s.

All of Delaware’s hospitals escaped punishment. Medicare excludes all Maryland hospitals from the program because it pays them through a different arrangement than in other states.

Over the course of the program, 1,978 hospitals have been penalized at least once, KHN’s analysis found. Of those, 1,360 hospitals have been punished multiple times and 77 hospitals have been penalized in all seven years, including UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, which reports to Congress, said in a 2019 report that “it is important to drive quality improvement by tying infection rates to payment.” But the commission criticized the program’s use of a “tournament” model comparing hospitals to one another. Instead, it recommended fixed targets that let hospitals know what is expected of them and that don’t artificially limit how many hospitals can succeed.

Although federal officials have altered other ACA-created penalty programs in response to hospital complaints and independent critiques — such as one focused on patient readmissions — they have not made substantial changes to this program because the key elements are embedded in the statute and would require a change by Congress.

Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess said in a statement that “we employ a broad range of patient care quality efforts and use reports such as those from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to identify and address opportunities for improvement.”

UCSF Health said its hospital has made “significant improvements” since the period Medicare measured in assessing the penalty.

“UCSF Health believes that many of the measures listed in the report are meaningful to patients, and are also valid standards for health systems to improve upon,” the hospital-health system said in a statement to KHN. “Some of the categories, however, are not risk-adjusted, which results in misleading and inaccurate comparisons.”

Cedars-Sinai said the penalty program disproportionally punishes academic medical centers due to the “high acuity and complexity” of their patients, details that aren’t captured in the Medicare billing data.

“These claims data were not designed for this purpose and are typically not specific enough to reflect the nuances of complex clinical care,” the hospital said. “Cedars-Sinai continually tracks and monitors rates of complications and infections, and updates processes to improve the care we deliver to our patients.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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