All posts in Feature Articles

Location influences cost of visit to a doctor

By Donovan Slack, USA TODAY/ Gannett Washington Bureau
Updated 9:39 a.m. CDT May 5, 2014

When it comes to the price of visiting a doctor, location matters in Minnesota.

If you visit a family care physician for the first time up north in Warren, for example, the bill could run as low as $150. The average charge for the same initial visit at a suburban Minneapolis clinic? Possibly as high as $313.

Billing amounts also vary within cities and regions of the state, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the first time in 35 years. It shows what health care providers billed Medicare for services.

Although they are only for Medicare patients and just a portion of what is billed is actually paid, the billing records provide a glimpse of what top-line prices typically might be for all patients. And like sticker prices on cars, they offer a way to compare general rates.

That information is more critical than ever. With the growth of high-deductible health insurance plans, patients are paying more out of pocket, forcing them to shop around for the best deal.

A Gannett Washington Bureau analysis of the data for Minnesota found that there is indeed reason to comparison shop.

In Central Minnesota, the charge for an initial office visit by a Medicare patient to a family practitioner in 2012 ranged from an average of $125 each for a solo practitioner in Cold Spring to $263 for a pair of doctors at a HealthPartners clinic in St. Cloud.

The statewide average for such a visit was $200. Family practitioners at the Mayo Clinic — which accounted for 23,500 of the 150,000 Medicare average provider billing records released for Minnesota — charged $120 to $150.

Charges also varied among specialists around the state.

Cardiologists and thoracic surgeons submitted bills ranging from $1,200 to $3,900 to insert pacemakers and $5,800 to $10,900 to repair faulty heart valves. The single highest average physician charge was for total knee replacement surgery at a Mayo Clinic in Albert Lea, where bills for 21 such procedures averaged $11,900 each.

A starting point

The American Medical Association, which fought the release of the data for decades, argues the records do not provide enough details for people to make accurate determinations about health care providers.

“This information isn’t going to necessarily allow them to determine ‘Is my doctor good? Is my doctor not so good?’ ” AMA President Dr. Ardis Dee Hoven said. “There’s no way for them to know how this relates to quality, how it relates to health outcomes and access and all sorts of issues. Raw data simply does not give the correct determination of value.”

Hoven also noted that the accuracy of the data has not been verified with the doctors themselves. In a few cases, Gannett found mistakes in the records. For example, one doctor listed in Minnesota was actually working in another state. The data also does not include facility fees that hospital-based providers can tack on. That may make their billed rates appear artificially low.

But some industry groups say the records at least provide an important jumping-off point for asking more questions, such as why are charges high or low, and what’s included in the price?

“The unfortunate thing is consumers don’t even know where to start in asking the question,” said Carolyn Pare, president and CEO of the Minnesota Health Action Group, a coalition of companies and others that buy insurance and want to reduce costs. “And now having this out in the public, to a certain degree, gets consumers asking the question.”

Many factors affect the rates that providers set, from basic overhead expenses such as rent to the mix of patients a practice has, Minnesota health care providers say.

More Medicare or Medicaid patients might prompt a higher billing rate for other patients because federal insurance for poor and elderly people only covers a fraction of what providers say it costs to treat them. The average amount Medicare actually paid for the initial office visits in Minnesota was $65, according to the 2012 data.

At CentraCare Health, Chief Financial Officer Tom Feldhege said prices are determined in part by the resources needed to provide care at a given facility.

“These resources translate into costs, including professional fees (provider’s time, expertise and training, malpractice insurance), patient care staff (nurses, other clinical staff, imaging, front desk, schedulers, etc.), staff behind the scenes (IT, billing, medical records, cleaning, quality, administration), equipment, furniture, facility costs and overhead (water, lights, electric, etc.),” he wrote in an email.

Keeping costs down

Some providers say they have deliberately tried to keep costs low by eliminating unnecessary tests, medications and other ancillary costs and focusing on managing care efficiently. At Mayo, spokesman Bryan L. Anderson said he’s not surprised the Medicare billing records reflect comparatively low rates for Mayo providers.

“This data reflects the ‘Mayo Model Of Community Care,’ with an emphasis on a physician-led team to care for patients,” Anderson said.

Dr. Christopher Wenner, the solo practitioner who charged the lowest amount in Central Minnesota — $125 on average for a moderately complex first-time visit — said he keeps his overhead as low as possible. For example, he has only one assistant at his Cold Spring office.

“It’s nice to have a lot of administrators and a lot of people to do things,” said Wenner, who worked at a multispecialty provider before opening his solo practice. “But medicine is so inflated with different levels of administrators and bureaucrats, and I’m very convinced that it contributes to the overall cost of medicine.”

The provider with the highest average charge statewide for an office visit by a new patient, Allina Health’s Sports and Orthopaedic Specialists in Edina, said the family practitioner who billed $313 each for initial visits, on average, has additional certification in sports medicine.

“The visits in question are sports injury or other types of orthopedic visits,” Allina spokesman David Kanihan said. “It is therefore not appropriate to compare her to regular family practice doctors.”

That doctor’s average billed rate, however, was also higher than the average billed for sports medicine specialists in the state ($180), orthopedic surgeons ($215) and neurosurgeons ($220).

In the central part of the state, a spokesman for HealthPartners Central Minnesota Clinics said he could not explain the average $263 billed by two doctors at a clinic in St. Cloud.

“Without knowing more about an actual patient visit, we can’t speculate further as to the type of care provided by our physician and the associated expense for that care,” spokesman Adam R. Bauer said.

He also said that first-time office visits can include various levels of service in a wide array of settings, including retail clinics, urgent care clinics and home visits.

Pare of the Minnesota Health Action Group said the conversation about cost previously has been almost exclusively between insurers and providers. Getting more consumers involved now — because they have “skin in the game” with high-deductible plans — is an important step forward.

“We’re trying to move from a totally opaque system to something that is a little brighter,” she said. “And I think this information should be used to ask questions, not necessarily to say everything’s bad, but to start asking questions and having an honest dialogue about how we’re going to change.”

At MN Community Measurement, a nonprofit dedicated to improving quality and value in health care, President Jim Chase said his organization has long known there are variations in pricing. MNCM posted data on clinics and hospitals in the state on mnhealthscores.org.

“You still need to look at your own plan’s data to be able to see what you might pay or what your variation might be,” he said. “But we were doing it mainly to raise awareness that cost matters, and the pricing in costs matters, because there’s a lot of differences.”

Read the full article: http://www.sctimes.com/story/news/local/2014/05/05/location-influences-cost-visit-doctor/8711029/

 

More

Sexually transmitted diseases rose 10 percent in Minnesota last year

Article by Jeremy Olson, Star Tribune
Updated: April 16, 2014 – 9:48 PM

Health professionals worry that the risks are being ignored, doctors slow to promote testing.

A 10 percent increase in sexually transmitted infections last year has Minnesota health leaders concerned that people are unaware of the risks and that doctors aren’t pushing testing hard enough.

A record 18,724 chlamydia infections were reported last year, a 4 percent increase from 2012, the Minnesota Department of Health reported Wednesday. Infections involving gonorrhea and syphilis aren’t as common, but the number of reported cases increased last year by 26 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

More than half of the chlamydia and gonorrhea infections involved teens and young adults ages 15 to 24, and health officials suspect there are many more whose infections are undiagnosed and are either unaware of the risks or afraid to get tested because it would mean disclosing they are sexually active to doctors and parents.

“They are basically silent carriers who can infect other people,” said Dr. Andrew Zinkel, associate medical director for health plan quality at HealthPartners, a Bloomington-based medical provider. “That’s why the rates are going up everywhere,” including in urban, suburban and rural parts of the state.

While an increase in chlamydia cases could be due to more frequent testing, state clinic performance data suggest the opposite: that a lack of testing allows people to spread their infections to new sexual partners. Only 40 of the 138 clinic groups reporting to Minnesota Community Measurement test more than half of their young, sexually active females for chlamydia.

Read the full article >> http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/255507901.html?page=1&c=y

More

Medicare data: Minnesota providers collect less on average than peers

By Christopher Snowbeck
csnowbeck@pioneerpress.com

The federal Medicare health insurance program winds up paying the fare for many of the ambulance rides provided by the city of St. Paul.

That’s why the city in 2012 was one of the largest single recipients of the program’s payments among nonhospital health care providers in Minnesota, according to data released this month by the federal government.

Of more than 19,000 providers who in 2012 cared for Medicare patients in Minnesota, St. Paul’s take of more than $2 million was the ninth-largest individual sum.

Whether they were providing ambulance rides or treating illnesses, the state’s nonhospital providers collected less money on average in 2012 than their peers across the country, according to a Pioneer Press analysis of the data.

Health care experts say relatively low payments in Minnesota make for a familiar story, since low use of health care services here means doctors and other providers tend to collect less overall from Medicare.

“We tend to not only have lower prices here, we tend to have lower utilization,” said Mark Sonneborn, vice president for information services at the Minnesota Hospital Association.

“Where a physician somewhere else might see a patient six times per year, we see a similar patient four times — it’s just our way.”

Read the full article >> http://www.twincities.com/news/ci_25571498/ambulance-rides-a-costly-chunk-of 

More

Massive doctor data release aimed at helping consumers

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. – It is considered the mother lode of doctor information and up until recently consumers did not have access to it.

Once the clock strikes midnight on the east coast, Medicare plans to release billing records for more than 800,000 physicians across the country.

RELATED from USA Today: Medicare data release puts scope on payments, reach

“It’s the market place of ideas. Don’t keep the data bottled up,” said Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers’ Checkbook.

Krughoff said the release is a big win for consumers. Since 2005 his advocacy group has been fighting to make this type of data public, even suing the government.

“I hope it will be a part of a wider trend for information to be available to consumers,” he said.

The data will show payments to doctors for their services and how those payments compared to other physicians.

While the federal government is only releasing data from 2012, Krughoff believes the information will eventually allow consumers to look up how often a doctor has performed a certain procedure.

“Doctors who have done more cases with certain types of procedures on average are going to do better in terms of their results,” he said.

There has been some push back by the American Medical Association, according to the Associated Press.

A spokesperson told the AP, a “broad approach to releasing physician payment data will mislead the public into making inappropriate and potentially harmful treatment decisions and will result in unwarranted bias against physicians that can destroy careers,” said AMA president Ardis Dee Hoven.

The AP also reports the access could change the way medicine is practiced in America by combining billing data with other sources of information which would allow people to focus in on a certain doctor.

Just because the information is available, however does not mean it will make it easier for consumers.

Geoff Bartsh, a vice president at Medica told KARE 11, the information the government plans to release Wednesday will be vast and unfiltered, which is why he doesn’t call this a game-changer, at least not yet.

“I think we’re a ways away from again finding a way to display the data, that is will be a game-changer for the consumer,” said Bartsh.

A Medicare official told KARE 11 a website could be set up for consumers as soon as later this week allowing people to look up individual doctors as it relates to their billing records.

Bartsh said Minnesota has been a head of the “transparency curve” as it relates to medical information. He points to Minnesota Community Measurement, a website that allows consumers to learn more about health care providers in the state.

Read the full story: http://www.kare11.com/story/news/health/2014/04/08/data-release-medicare-consumers/7493537/

More

A Focus on Quality and MNCM Data Improve Patient Care Results

A community makes a difference in providing effective health care

Two poor communities have contrasting approaches to  healthcare. One takes a collaborative approach to medicine, creating better outcomes for residents receiving treatment.

By  Noam N. Levey
Photography, video by Carolyn Cole
March 9, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. — Patients begin lining up outside Capitol City Family Health Center before the doors open at 7:30 a.m.

The clinic, on a ragged stretch of the boulevard that separates the black and white sections of town, is a refuge for thousands of this old southern capital’s poorest and sickest residents. They come seeking relief from diabetes, heart disease and other debilitating illnesses.

Twelve hundred miles up the Mississippi River, in the shadow of a public housing tower in St. Paul, Minn., the waiting room at the Open Cities Health Center also fills daily with the city’s poorest.

But the patients in Minnesota receive a very different kind of care, which  leads to very different outcomes. They are more likely to get recommended  checkups and cancer screenings. If very ill, they can usually see specialists.  Their doctors rely on sophisticated data to track results.

Diabetics at the St. Paul clinic are twice as likely as those in Baton Rouge  to have their blood  sugar under control. That can slow the onset of more serious problems such  as kidney failure and blindness.

Young patients with asthma also benefit from Minnesota’s more comprehensive  medical system. Asthmatic children in the state’s poorest neighborhoods are 37%  less likely than those in Louisiana to end  up in a hospital.

And poor seniors in Minnesota are half as likely to be prescribed  a high-risk drug and 38% less likely to go to the  emergency room for an ailment that could have been treated in a doctor’s  office.

Read the full article >>

More

AF4Q Highlights MNCM’s Composite Diabetes Measures

Composite Measures: A New Gold Standard in Diabetes Care

Type II diabetes has become a national public health threat. As a chronic disease, diabetes is one of the leading causes of death and disability.  As rates of diabetes increase, so, too, do associated direct and indirect costs.  Aligning Forces for Quality communities that have implemented customized diabetes composite measures into their public reporting structures are already experiencing success in both clinical outcomes and improved performance. Synthesizing indicators of good diabetes management has helped simplify the challenges of chronic care management while improving efficiency and performance.

Read the full article >>

More