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14 questions (and answers) about health reform and you

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has ramifications for ObGyns and their patients. ACOG's director of government affairs answers our questions about the law.

July 2010 · Vol. 22, No. 07


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With passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act earlier this year, big changes are afoot in the way Americans practice medicine. In a plethora of articles, blogs, and broadcast spots, the media have focused on what the new law portends for the average employee, employers, and the uninsured—but what, exactly, does it entail for ObGyns and their patients?

To find an answer to that overarching question—and 13 others—we invited Lucia DiVenere, director of government relations at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, to join us in an extended discussion of the law and its ramifications. She offered insight into ACOG’s extensive lobbying efforts on behalf of women and the specialty and described the many ways ObGyn care will change in the near and proximal future, focusing on questions that you might find yourself asking, including:

  • Will I see a lot more patients?
  • What reforms are woman-specific?
  • How will my practice change?
  • Which of my services will be fully covered?
  • Will expanded coverage improve birth outcomes?
  • Is “femaleness” a preexisting condition?
  • What happened to tort reform?
  • Is the system repairable?

1 Will ObGyns see a lot more patients?

OBG Management: The most talked about change the new law heralds is the addition of roughly 32 million people to the insurance rolls. Is the most significant impact of the legislation for ObGyns likely to be an increase in the number of patients they will be seeing?

Lucia DiVenere: Congress wanted to increase the ranks of the insured and expand access to health care, and it addressed these goals with individual and employer mandates, state exchanges, Medicaid expansion, and insurance reforms.

But that isn’t the most significant change in store for us. Congress also wanted to reform our health care system in a number of fundamental ways, some of which are designed to change the way physicians provide care to their patients.

For example, Congress wanted to “bend the cost curve”—to reduce the expected rate of growth in health care spending over the long term. That doesn’t mean that health care costs in 2020 will be less than they were in 2018, but it does mean that annual and long-term growth rates should level off and become sustainable. To accomplish this goal, Congress created an Independent Payment Advisory Commission, which may prove to be extremely powerful in reducing health care costs and is likely to significantly affect all physicians. Greater protections against fraud and abuse, experiments with new kinds of payment and delivery systems, including “medical homes,” and increased reliance on nonphysician practitioners—all included in the law—are also expected to reduce costs.

OBG Management: What other changes are coming?

DiVenere: Congress was determined to alter the practice of health care, ensuring higher quality for each dollar spent and consistent delivery of care. It also sought to kick-start our health care system—especially in the physician arena—into greater and, theoretically, more efficient reliance on electronic health records (EHR). Medicare and Medicaid physician payments will be juggled to increase reimbursement for E&M services and for physicians who provide greater value in relation to cost. Physicians will be required to participate in the Physician Quality Reporting Initiative (PQRI) program in 2015 and beyond to avoid stiff penalties. And EHR systems are required to adopt uniform standards for electronic transactions.

2 What reforms are woman-specific?

OBG Management: What initiatives are planned for the care of women, in particular?

DiVenere: Congress recognized the importance of reforming women’s health and included many provisions advocated by ACOG in our “Health care for women, health care for all” campaign.

Probably the most important of these provisions is the guarantee of direct access to ObGyn care without need of a referral or pre-authorization from a primary care provider or insurance company. Nor can an insurance company restrict a patient’s direct access to her ObGyn to a certain number of visits or types of services.

This was a major ACOG victory. For 20 years, ObGyns have been waging battles in the states for direct access for patients. Last year, nine states did not require insurers to grant women direct access to ObGyns, and 16 states allowed insurers to restrict ObGyn visits and services. This part of the law, which is effective this year, provides national direct access to all women in all states, and is not tied to an ObGyn’s primary care designation.

Another area of reform concerns maternity care. In 2009, 13% of all pregnant women in the United States were uninsured, as were 20.4% of all women between the ages of 15 and 44, the childbearing years. The uninsured rate for nonelderly women in 2007 ranged from a high of 28% in New Mexico and Texas to a low of 8% in Massachusetts. Today, 42% of all pregnancies are covered by Medicaid. Women have been able, usually, to gain access to some kind of care—sometimes in emergency departments at the time of labor—but the nation clearly needs to do better.

Medicaid and new insurance plans will be required to offer maternity care and women’s preventive services, including mammography screening. The exact parameters of maternity care and other types of care in the essential benefits package will be determined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), based on the typical package offered to employees in group health plans. The idea behind the law is that many women who are now covered by Medicaid will transfer to private insurance in their states’ exchanges.

3 How will ObGyn practice change?

OBG Management: What are some of the opportunities and challenges ObGyns will encounter?

DiVenere: There are three key areas of challenge and opportunity:

  • Development of the “medical home.” A medical home is a practice designed to provide and coordinate comprehensive patient care. State Medicaid agencies are authorized to require certain beneficiaries, including those who have two or more chronic conditions, to join a medical home. Medicare will also experiment with medical homes, and both Medicaid and Medicare medical home practices will receive additional payments. Most medical homes are expected to be family practice, internal medicine, or pediatric care providers, but ObGyn practices can participate, too. ObGyns should look carefully at the opportunities this paradigm provides and consider having their practice designated as a medical home.
  • Increased use of nonphysician providers. The new law strongly encourages this practice, including in the ObGyn specialty. Congress is determined to experiment with non-ObGyn deliveries in response to patient demand and midlevel assurances that nonphysicians can deliver babies with better outcomes at significantly lower cost. Our specialty’s cesarean delivery rate is under intense scrutiny. Skewed studies “prove” happier and healthier deliveries in homes and other out-of-hospital locations without an ObGyn in attendance. And midlevel practitioners are offering vaginal birth after cesarean delivery in many cases where ObGyns are restricted by hospital rules.
  • The law extends Medicaid payments to free-standing birth centers and birth attendants and does not specify which kinds of practitioners can qualify as birth attendants. Free-standing birth centers can provide high-quality care if they are appropriately accredited and have an established transfer relationship with a nearby hospital. The law does not specify these criteria, either.
  • Increasing payments to nonphysicians. Medicare payments to certified nurse midwives (CNMs) will reach the rate paid to physicians for the same services in January 2011, up from 65% of the physician rate. Medicare will also pay CNMs a 10% bonus if primary care services account for at least 60% of their allowed charges. And the law requires health plans in the state exchanges to pay for covered health services provided by any practitioner recognized under state law, whether or not the plan contracts with that individual or type of provider. Certified professional midwives (lay midwives) are licensed in 21 states, and this provision may give them significant new entry.

ObGyns stop delivering babies at increasingly early points in their career, and only 13% of family physicians deliver babies today. So we need to find ways to extend our care—and increasing collaborative practice between ObGyns and CNMs and certified midwives may help close this gap. The increased focus on midlevel providers in the law may present us with both a challenge and an important opportunity.

4 What services will be fully covered now?

OBG Management: Beginning this year, health plans will be required to provide a minimum level of coverage without cost-sharing for preventive care and screenings for women, among others. What will this requirement encompass?

DiVenere: Congress emphasized prevention in the reform law as part of its strategy to bend the cost curve, investing in prevention in order to reduce higher spending on illness.

Beginning in September 2010, all plans—including those that existed before this law was passed—must cover preventive health services without any patient cost sharing, whether copayments or deductibles. These services include women’s preventive care and screening included in comprehensive guidelines supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), even if they are more extensive than services recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Breast cancer screening, mammography, and prevention services are covered as though the November 2009 USPSTF recommendations suggesting limits on mammography screening for certain age groups did not exist.

The mammography screening coverage was a big win for ACOG. We worked closely with Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) on this amendment, and it was the first Democratic amendment offered. It passed on the Senate floor during a contentious floor fight.

ACOG continues to recommend screening mammography every 1 to 2 years for women 40 to 49 years old; annual screening for women 50 and older; clinical breast examination every year for women 19 years and older; and regular breast self-examination.

The Senate bill that was brought to the floor would have limited women’s preventive care to USPSTF recommendations only. Working with Senator Mikulski, we made sure that women younger than 50 will be covered for mammography every 1 to 2 years.

OBG Management: Are there other important benefits for women included in the law?

DiVenere: Yes. One provision will improve research, screening, and treatment for postpartum depression, a signature issue of ACOG President Gerald F. Joseph Jr., MD, during his presidential year. ACOG and Dr. Joseph worked closely with Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to introduce the Moms Act and win its inclusion in the health reform law.

Under this section, HHS will:

  • conduct research into the causes of, and treatments for, postpartum conditions
  • create a national public awareness campaign to increase knowledge of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis
  • provide grants to study the benefits of screening for postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis
  • establish grants to deliver or enhance outpatient, inpatient, and home-based health and support services, including case management and comprehensive treatment services for women with or at risk of postpartum conditions.

5 Will expanded coverage improve birth outcomes?

OBG Management: Do you expect that guaranteed coverage of pregnancy will increase the number of women who seek prenatal care—as opposed to waiting until labor begins—to see a doctor? Will guaranteed coverage of pregnancy improve birth outcomes over the long term?

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