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Iowans Supported by Outstanding Health System

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The Commonwealth Fund recently released its 2016 Scorecard on Local Health System Performance and Iowa communities were consistently ranked among the top in the nation on all measures of performance.

The latest in the series and the second to examine care at the local level, this scorecard compares health care access, quality, avoidable hospital use, costs of care and health outcomes for local areas around the country from 2011 through 2014. Using the most recent data available, the scorecard ranks 306 regional health care markets known as “hospital referral regions” on four main dimensions of performance: access to care, prevention and treatment, avoidable hospital use and cost and health lives.

The Upper Midwest has consistently fared well on these reports, but several Iowa cities stand out in this scorecard, demonstrating how Iowa hospitals continue improving health care in their communities. On overall performance, Dubuque was ranked number 10 with Cedar Rapids following at number 11, while Mason City, Iowa City and Des Moines were ranked 24th, 27th and 32nd respectively.

Drilling down the dimensions used in the scorecard, access to health care is an area where Iowa especially excels. In this dimension, Waterloo was ranked number 6 with Mason City close behind at number 7. Meanwhile, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Des Moines were all in the top 25. Similar Iowa results can be found across all four dimensions used in the scorecard.

Overall, the report found that in Iowa, health care has improved significantly since 2011. With several cities ranked in the top 50 of the 306 regional health care markets and nearly the entire state in the top quartile for overall performance, it is clear that Iowa is doing something right with when it comes to health care.

At least some of Iowa’s success can be attributed to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Medicaid expansion which, since implemented in 2013, has given more than 150,000 Iowans access to health insurance. According to the report, the ACA’s major coverage expansions seem to have led to some of the most visible gains in performance.

“This scorecard provides an in-depth look at how the health care system is working overtime in local communities and how that impacts peoples’ health,” said David Radley, researcher for the Commonwealth Fund’s Tracking Health System Performance program and lead author of the report.

“There is still a lot of variation and every community has room to improve. But it is striking to see the early effects of the Affordable Care Act at the local level as people increasingly get coverage and care and quality improves.”

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Family Caregivers Center Opens Doors to Support

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Kathy Good (center)

Twelve years ago, Kathy Good and her husband, Dave, were looking forward to the adventures of retirement together – Dave was a district court judge; Kathy was a therapist and licensed social worker.

“Dave started having vision problems,” Kathy recalls. “He was having trouble reading jury instructions. He got new glasses; he had cataract surgery, all to no avail. Eventually it was determined by a neural ophthalmologist that he had something called the visual variant of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Alzheimer’s disease – he was 56 years old.

Suddenly, both of their lives changed dramatically. Kathy began plans to care for David in their home – she became a family caregiver. Caregivers are often thrust into their new roles unexpectedly, with no understanding of services available or how to navigate the systems they’ll encounter.

Kathy was fortunate; she had a background in social work and knew where to start. Using her professional know-how, she assembled what she called the “committee” (services that helped Dave remain independent at home). She considered herself very lucky to have had the means to create a support system for Dave – she knew a vast majority of family caregivers had no help at all. She carried the thought of those caregivers with her as Dave’s needs changed and she adapted to meet those needs for over a decade before he passed in May 2015.

Today, she is well-known in the Cedar Rapids community as a resource for family caregivers. This prompted Tim Charles, Mercy Medical Center-Cedar Rapids President and CEO, to call upon her for insights into an idea for a new program – a community-focused family caregivers center that would offer a wide range of services to improve the overall well-being of family members caring for a chronically ill loved one.

Mercy_Caregivers_3-16_4135“The stress of caring for someone with a chronic condition like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart problems –all chronic diseases – can cause caregivers to be depressed and anxious, to develop their own chronic conditions,” Kathy states. “They may have weakened immune systems. They may be at risk for their own mental decline. That’s just a few of the major things that could happen to a family caregiver when they start having to live life for, in essence, two people.”

She jumped at the opportunity to help other caregivers.

Since 2014 she has dedicated hundreds of hours to research, workshops and networking to bring the idea of a family caregivers center to life. She has met with caregivers to talk about their needs and human service agencies to talk about their existing support systems, determining gaps in services and formulating a plan to bridge those gaps through the center, ensuring services are not duplicated.

The Family Caregivers Center of Mercy is the product of her work – a unique, first-in-the-state initiative that will be funded through generous gifts to the Mercy Foundation’s Family Caregivers Center Endowment. October 2015 kicked off the foundation’s fundraising efforts with the goal of raising $2.5 million to fully endow the center. A full endowment means the center can offer services at little-to-no cost to the caregiver – a critical need.

The innovative center will be one of the few in the nation (and the only one in Iowa) using a community-based model, meaning that no matter where a loved one receives care – home, assisted living or hospital – the caregiver can find support. Some components of the Family Caregivers Center of Mercy include respite care; therapeutic outlets of journaling, massage and art; along with a 24/7 care line to answer any kind of question the caregiver might have. A resource library will be available and education sessions will be held on a variety of topics. The center celebrated its opening in December 2015.

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(This article, by Shefali Luthra, was provided by Kaiser Health News.)

Encouraging doctors and nurses to wash their hands frequently has always been considered an easy and effective way to curb the spread of infection in hospitals and other health facilities.

But a new research letter published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine points to another key group of people who aren’t always keeping their hands so clean and, it turns out, probably should: patients.

Researchers focused on inner-city Detroit and examined patients who went from hospitals to post-acute care facilities — places like rehabilitation centers, skilled-nursing facilities, hospice and long-term care hospitals. They found that almost one in four adults who left the hospital had on their hands a superbug: a virus, bacteria or another kind of microbe that resists multiple kinds of medicine. While in post-acute care, about 10 percent of patients picked up another superbug. Of those who had superbugs, 67 percent still had them upon being discharged, even if they hadn’t gotten sick.

These findings add to a growing body of research about hand hygiene and the patient’s role in infection transmission, and speak to an underlying problem with health care facilities — they can increase the odds of getting sick. The paper’s authors suggest it highlights a potential, so far underused strategy for addressing that concern: getting patients to wash their hands.

Conventional wisdom has long held that doctors and nurses — who go among sick patients — are most likely to transmit germs. As a result, few health care settings really make patient hand-washing a major priority, said Leah Binder, president of the Leapfrog Group, a nonprofit organization that grades hospitals on patient safety.

The paper, she said, “really requires an immediate response” from safety advocates.

“We have to revise hand hygiene policies to include patients. One of the main strategies on hand hygiene is to make it easy to wash hands,” she said. “Most hospitals have either sinks or dispensers near the door of every room, so that it’s very easy for a provider walking in to immediately wash their hands. Do we make it easy for patients to wash their hands? I doubt it.”

Beyond that kind of architectural change, signs should be visible around facilities to remind patients about hand washing, she said.

But just because patients are carriers of superbugs it doesn’t mean they will get sick, said Lona Mody, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and the study’s corresponding author. There needs to be more research to measure the relationship between carrying germs and falling ill, she added.
If you have superbugs on your hands, though, you probably have them elsewhere too — in your skin or in your gut, said Louise Dembry, president of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America and a professor of medicine, infectious diseases and epidemiology at Yale. Having them on your hands makes them easier to spread.

Plus, the patients in these kinds of facilities are, almost by definition, more vulnerable to infection, Binder said — they’ve just come out a hospital where they needed a high level of care.

“I find it not difficult to imagine” that a number of these patients will end up with serious infections, she said.

Spreading germs is also easier to do in post-acute settings, Dembry noted, since patients are more likely to interact with each other. Patients are encouraged to move around more and, as a result, more likely to touch medical equipment and furniture, among other things, which can spread the germs, Mody said. Overall, these circumstances increase the odds of transmitting germs and up the need for better hand-washing protocols.

Dembry added that hand washing can be only one part of any strategy to prevent infection. Medical tools and machines need to be kept clean. Culturally, patients should feel comfortable asking each other if they’ve washed — and steer clear if they might be infectious.

As health care facilities are increasingly evaluated on how well they care for patients, they should be rewarded for things like promoting clean hands, Mody said.

For instance, “if an institution has a program that enhances patient hand hygiene, the quality of that place should be considered higher,” she said.

The findings call for more research, Mody said, to see how widely they might apply. Researchers will want to examine how the settings examined here compare to transmission among patients within hospitals, she added, and study geographic regions other than inner-city Detroit — though she anticipated they might find similar results.

“This particular finding to us, from a public health standpoint has opened a whole new line of inquiry,” she said. Meanwhile, “From a policy perspective, we need to design and test the effectiveness of and implement novel programs that reinforce patient hand hygiene.”

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(This article by Stuart Taylor Jr. was made available for reprint by Kaiser Health News.)

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to issue a decision this month in a case that could again threaten a key aspect of President Barack Obama’s health law.

But this time around, unlike three years ago when the court rejected a constitutional challenge to the law’s individual mandate, the case, King v. Burwell, focuses primarily on statutory interpretation.

The issue is whether section 36B means what it seems to say if read literally and in isolation from the rest of the law: that Affordable Care Act subsidies are available only to people “enrolled … through an exchange established by the state.”

And the different interpretations have proven dicey — so much so that each side in the case is having trouble explaining away the evidence supporting the contrary position.

Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and other defenders of the subsidies have failed to suggest any very plausible reason — other than sloppy draftsmanship, on which Verrilli has not much relied — why Congress said “established by the state” if it intended that subsidies also be available in the federally established exchange.

On the other hand, ACA opponents who read “established by the state” literally have produced little evidence that the law’s drafters deliberately and quietly planted in an obscure subclause the words that could become the seeds of the law’s destruction.

Plaintiffs in the case suggest that the drafters inserted these four words in order to pressure states to establish their own exchanges. But the legislative history offers scant evidence of this intent. And the three dozen states in question either failed to notice or disregarded it.

How these explanations sway the justices — or at least five of them — will determine whether the language drafted by Congress means that nearly 6.4 million low-and-middle-income people are not eligible for the overhaul’s tax subsidies because they live in a state that chose to rely on the federal government’s, rather than establish its own online insurance marketplace. The subsidies make insurance affordable to many of the people who seek Obamacare coverage because they don’t get health coverage through their employers.

If the court rules that the subsidies are available only in states — mostly blue — that established their own exchanges, insurance markets in the other three dozen or so states might collapse. Unless Congress or the states reliant on were to move fast to limit the damage, few people in those states would buy individual insurance. Those who did would likely have health problems and premiums would soar.

Many ACA opponents say that section 36B “means what it says,” as conservative Justice Antonin Scalia implied at the March 4 oral argument, even if the wording “may not be the statute [Congress] intended” and even assuming that it might “produce disastrous consequences.”

To the contrary, say Verrilli and other supporters, the law’s overall text, structure, design and history make clear that Congress intended to make subsidies available in all 50 states. They say the challengers’ interpretation would defeat the law’s purpose of making health insurance widely affordable. The Internal Revenue Service came to the same conclusion in an interpretive rule, to which Verrilli argued the justices should defer if in doubt.

As in 2012, the stakes in King v. Burwell are so high that Obama has made it clear that he would attack any decision that would cripple the health law as legally indefensible and politically motivated.

“[T]his should be an easy case,” Obama said June 8. “Frankly, it probably shouldn’t even have been taken up … based on a twisted interpretation of four words. … I’m optimistic that the Supreme Court will play it straight.” The next day, he added (without specific reference to the court) that “it seems so cynical to want to take health care away from millions of people.”

These shots across the court’s bow came even though Scalia and Justice Samuel Alito had strongly suggested during the argument that they would vote against the administration’s position.

Alito also suggested the possibility of delaying until 2016 the effective date of any decision against the administration. Such a delay, he said, would give the states and Congress time to avoid the disruption that would be caused if the court ruled the premium subsidies now available in the three-dozen states using are illegal.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who was silent as usual during the arguments, is expected to vote with Scalia and Alito. The four liberal justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — seemed poised to line up with Obama. So the president will win if either Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Anthony Kennedy sides with him.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

While Kennedy’s vote is still up in the air, ACA supporters were cheered by his assertion to the lawyer challenging the subsidies that “there’s a serious constitutional problem if we adopt your argument.” Kennedy reasoned that the states are being unconstitutionally “coerced” if, as the challengers argue, the law requires them either to establish their own exchanges or see their residents disqualified from the subsidies.

The only way to avoid constitutional problems, suggested Kennedy, may be to resolve any ambiguities in Obama’s favor. This seemed inconsistent with the suggestions by Scalia, Alito and the challengers that the relevant language is free of ambiguity and without constitutional problems.

Roberts was sphinxlike during the argument in King v. Burwell. The case puts him in an unenviable position.

Chief Justice John Roberts

When Roberts stunned court-watchers by joining the four liberal justices and upholding the individual mandate in the 2012 decision, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, he was bitterly assailed by his usual allies — Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Alito — and was called a traitor by many other conservatives.

This barrage was intensified by a well-sourced news report that Roberts had initially voted to strike down the individual mandate and changed his mind — provoking a huge battle inside the court — after liberals led by Obama had preemptively denounced any decision to strike down the law as politically motivated, conservative “judicial activism.”

The conservative denunciations of Roberts will be even more bitter if he sides with Obama this time, too. On the other hand, if Roberts votes with the other four Republican appointees to gut the Democratic president’s signature accomplishment, it will feed the kind of attacks that the chief justice dreads on the Roberts court’s conservative majority as a bunch of robed politicians.

Looking to the future, a ruling against Obama could be extremely awkward politically for Republican members of Congress, presidential candidates and officials in the mostly red, affected states, even though it might be cheered (at least initially) by Republican voters.

In this scenario, the president and other Democrats would immediately demand that Republicans help them save the subsidies of millions of people at risk of losing their health insurance, by adopting new legislation.

Some Republicans say this would be an opportunity to extract compromises from Obama such as more choices for consumers – especially less expensive, less comprehensive health insurance options; the elimination of the mandate to buy insurance; or restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits.

Others predict a humiliating and internally divisive Republican cave-in to avoid being blamed for the “disastrous consequences” that Justice Scalia hypothesized.

Whatever the outcome, the chief justice, in his tenth year on the Court, is in for a long, hot summer.

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