Thursday, July 28, 2011

Here's latest quarterly report of Ky. nursing homes' deficiencies

In the second quarter of 2011, inspectors found 291 deficiencies in 49 Kentucky nursing homes, nine of which had 10 or more. Rosewood Health Care Center in Bowling Green had 19 deficiencies, followed by Mountain View Health Care Center in Elkhorn City with 18 and Christian Health Center in Louisville with 16.

Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform, a non-profit organization that advocates for nursing home residents, obtains such data regularly through open-records requests to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services and distributes it statewide.

On average, inspectors find six deficiencies in Kentucky's nursing homes, according to Medicare's nursing-home comparison data. Inspections assess a facility on the care of residents and how that care is administered; on how staff and residents interact; and on its environment. Certified nursing homes must meet more than 180 regulatory standards. The state Office of Inspector General website has more data, such as the results of inspections and the ownership of each facility.

The other nursing homes with 10 or more deficiencies in the second quarter were: Wurtland Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (15); Christian Health Center, Corbin (14); Royal Manor, Nicholasville (12); Glasgow State Nursing Facility (12); Regis Woods Care and Rehabilitation Center, Louisville (12); and Owsley County Health Care Center, Booneville (12).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Planned merger of Louisville hospitals grows more controversial; C-J devotes considerable space to it and Beshear steps in

UPDATE, July 27, 3:43 p.m.: Gov. Steve Beshear issued a statement saying "It is clear there are growing concerns within the community about issues related to the hospital’s future level of access to medical services, and those concerns need to be fully vetted before the Commonwealth takes the legal steps required to approve this merger," such as changes in leases of public property and agreements on operation of the hospital. Just as important as the legal issues, Beshear said, is "the public policy of how the University of Louisville Hospital will continue to honor its mission as a public teaching hospital that provides access and care to citizens, especially those who are indigent." The governor said his administration "will hold a series of conversations with the principals in the proposed merger and other interested parties," starting with a meeting among four of his cabinet secretaries, Mayor Greg Fischer, state Auditor Crit Luallen and Attorney General Jack Conway.

The merger that would put a Catholic health group in charge of the University of Louisville's hospital is growing ever more controversial, as demonstrated by today's edition of The Courier-Journal. The top story was about U of L President Jim Ramsey's uncertain response to a request by state legislators to answer questions of a legislative committee, accompanied online by a photograph of a somewhat sheepish-looking Ramsey, left. UPDATE, July 28: Ramsey says he will appear before the panel Aug. 17.

The paper's editorial page was mainly about the issue. The top editorial was headlined "Ramsey's silence," and it referred to the second 'editorial' on the page, actually a recitation of email correspondence between Ramsey and one of his Fern Creek High School classmates and her husband, who oppose the merger and questioned Ramsey's charcterization of an earlier C-J editorial as "not based on complete and factual information."

Next to that piece was a letter from the lawmakers: Rep. Tom Burch, chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee and a Catholic who opposes the merger because of its implications for reproductive and end-of-life procedures; and Reps. Mary Lou Marzian and Joni Jenkins of Louisville. It was illustrated by a photo of Ramsey looking thoughtful. Above it was a letter, illustrated by a photo of Pope Benedict XVI, from Eugenia K. Potter, former executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women, headined "Is it dogma or discrimination?" Conservative commentator Martin Cothran has a contrary view on his blog.

UPDATE, July 27, 8 a.m.: The C-J editorial page is again mainly about the issue, with an editorial urging the state auditor, governor and attorney general "to thoroughly scour and bring transparency to the negotiations with Catholic Health Initiatives;" an article by former University Hospital nurse Beverly Glasscock saying that the hospital wouldn't be able to perform emergcy abortions needed to save a woman's life; and a letter from former university trustee Bill Stone defending Ramsey from what he calls an "over the top" attack by the paper's editorial board.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Workshop Aug. 4-5 will help health groups with policy, programs

A two-day workshop intended to help health coalitions and organizations make progress at the policy level and implement evidence-based programs will begin Aug. 4.

On the first day, speaker Monte Roulier of Community Initiatives will speak about the art and science of building health and whole communities. On the second day, speakers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will demonstrate how to use The Community Guide, a free resource that offers guidance on what programs and policies are evidence-based for obesity, mental health, asthma, tobacco, substance abuse, violence and other health issues.

The workshop is part of the "Health for a Change: Ignite — Unite — Act" series, a program of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. It starts at 10 a.m. Aug. 4 and ends at 4 p.m. Aug. 5. at the Hurstbourne Place Office Building in Louisville. To register, click here.

Majority of Americans now support comprehensive smoking bans

For the first time since it started asking the question in 2001, a majority of Americans polled by the Gallup Organization say they support a ban on smoking in all public places. The poll showed 59 percent of Americans support such a ban. In 2001, only 39 percent of people did, The Huffington Post reports. Only 20 percent said they would support making smoking illegal, as alcohol was during Prohibition from 1920 to 1933.

According to the American Lung Association, 27 states and the District of Columbia have passed comprehensive smoke-free laws. Kentucky is not among them, but 31 Kentucky communities have passed such laws. A poll conducted by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky released earlier this year showed 44 percent of respondents said they were strongly in favor of a statewide smoking ban. Another 15 percent said they were somewhat in favor of it. (Read more)

Program serving young, blind children hit hard by state budget cuts

A program that helps educate blind preschoolers throughout Kentucky has had its state funding drastically cut. Louisville-based Visually Impaired Preschool Services, also known as VIPS, will only receive $10,000 from the state this year, compared to $80,000 three years ago, The Courier-Journal's Deborah Yetter reports. (C-J photo by Michael Hayman)

The program provides free, at-home education for children who are considered legally blind until they turn 4. "The impact is that we won't be able to serve them as often," said Diane Nelson, the program's executive director. "It's so sad."

While the cut will not affect VIPS' preschool in Louisville, it will affect parents and children in more rural parts of the state because fewer specially trained teachers will be sent from Louisville and Lexington to help them. The program serves about 300 children in Kentucky and southern Indiana. Last year, about 50 of those children were outside Louisville and Lexington. This year, only 22 rural children are being helped. "We don't have the money to go out and find these kids," Nelson said.

The funding reduction is the latest in a series of cutbacks that have affected Kentucky public health in the past several years. All told, public health funding has been cut $12 million in recent years. (Read more)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

State health commissioner retiring after seven years in the job, fighting for public health and expanding its role

By Tara Kaprowy
Kentucky Health News

After dealing with the aftermath of 9/11, an anthrax scare, H1N1 flu, the worst ice storm in Kentucky's history and a series of budget cuts, it's been a busy decade for Dr. William Hacker at the state health department. But after 10 years at the agency, seven as its boss, Hacker will retire at the end of the month.

He is getting great reviews for his work as commissioner, which has included expanding the role of public health beyond its traditional roles, including disaster response and prevention.

"Dr. Hacker has always provided quality leadership," said Scott Lockard, president of the Kentucky Public Health Association. "He has been a great advocate for public health. He has been well respected both in state and on the national level and he will be deeply missed."

"Dr. William Hacker has been an exemplary leader for public health and has led by example with his professional and genteel leadership style," said Linda Sims, director of the Lincoln Trail District Health Department and president of the Kentucky Health Department Association. "Dr. Hacker has been instrumental in helping local health departments during budgetary challenges with guidance and support. The development of new services and screenings for children have increased under his efforts that will make a difference for many years to come."

Hacker, a native of Manchester, joined the department in February 2001 to work in the maternal and child health division. He'd practiced as a pediatrician in Corbin for 18 years and subsequently spent six years with Appalachian Regional Health Care.

Just eight months after he came on board at the health department, his role expanded drastically. "On 9/11, we were asked how many burn beds we had available in Kentucky because they felt they would be flying burn victims to us," he said. "We had never had funding to establish the ability to actually track the beds available. Public health did not have a role to play in critical health care. But they called on public health that day."

Three weeks later, suspicious white powder started appearing in the mail, and public health offices nationwide were called again. Though anthrax spores were not found in Kentucky, envelopes containing white powder were, and they needed to be tested by public-health officials.

Dr. Rice Leach, then the commissioner, asked Hacker to establish the Public Health Preparedness Branch of the Division of Epidemiology and Health Planning, marking a major shift for the department. Traditionally, public health had not been involved in incident management, which occurs when first responders are sent in to handle a crisis. "We were the backup to deal with consequence management," Hacker said. "But when you're dealing with bioterrorism, public health needs to step in. There was a lot of learning that went on between law enforcement, emergency medical services and public health. That was a cultural shift. We were forced through the natural evolution of events to step up to the plate."

In 2004, following Leach's retirement, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher named Hacker commissioner. He established the Kentucky Outreach and Information Network, which expanded the department's ability to reach vulnerable populations like senior citizens and people with language, hearing or motor difficulties. Partnerships are still in place with other state agencies, Family Resource Youth Service Centers, literacy programs and faith-based organizations such as the Christian Appalachian Project. "We'd say, 'Here's the message we need to get out, whether we were talking about a hot weather advisory or how long is it safe to eat food out of your refrigerator if your electricity is out," he said.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, prompting several thousand people to come to Kentucky. "We had to figure out how to take care of these people without any resources and many times without any family connections," Hacker said. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike followed, presenting similar challenges.

The next major disaster was the 2009 ice storm. The role of public health was to provide shelter, which Hacker called "a major challenge." But emergency stockpiles obtained by the Public Health Preparedness Branch proved useful. "We use cots, satellite radios and generators that were supposed to be used for an inflatable hospital," he said. "That provided power in Elizabethtown."

Emergency stockpiles were also tapped for items like face masks in 2009-10, when people started getting sick with H1N1. "We responded efficiently because of the training we had been planning for," Hacker said. In 2006, department officials prepared extensively for a bird flu "that is still smoldering," Hacker said, but has never reached the ability to spread quickly from person to person.

In the middle of all this, the state changed governors, but not health commissioners. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who took office in December 2007, appointed a new secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, but showed confidence in Hacker by keeping him as commissioner of the cabinet's Department of Public Health. "I was prepared for Gov. Beshear to select someone else, but I was very pleased when he gave me the opportunity to continue to serve," Hacker said. Apart from Leach and Dr. Carlos Hernandez, Hacker has served one of the longest terms of any commissioner in the past 40 years.

Beshear told Kentucky Health News in July 2011, "Dr. Hacker’s commitment to public health and education is unassailable, and he provided great leadership and vision for our Department of Public Health. Dr. Hacker built teams, mentored, encouraged and connected organizations and people to achieve better outcomes for Kentuckians’ health. His success is largely driven by his belief in inclusion -- that bringing together many organizations can improve health in Kentucky. Kentucky will miss him."

Beshear's retention of Hacker greatly pleased Al Smith, who had just concluded 33 years as producer and founding host of "Comment on Kentucky" on KET. A former newspaper publisher in London and Western Kentucky, Smith helped Hacker campaign for a comprehensive hospital to serve Corbin and London. "He was ahead of his time, as usual, and we lost the political game," Smith recalled. "Fortunately, his great gifts have been appreciated by the state and other health providers who have kept him in leadership for many years. I hope there will be other opportunities for his influence and service at another time. . . . In or out of public service, Dr. Bill Hacker is a leader who always seeks the best for Kentucky."

Asked his biggest accomplishment, Hacker named two: leaving behind a capable team and establishing the Preparedness Branch, which he said is now deeply embedded. "I have a personal relationship with senior FBI agents that did not exist before," he said. "We have a very close partnership with emergency management officials. And we're close with the Department of Agriculture because of the correlation between animal diseases and human diseases. All those partnerships have positioned Kentucky's government entities to be more responsive."

That responsiveness, however, has a lot to do with funding, which Hacker said is his biggest worry, because public health tends to be invisible. "If you ask, most people think public health just takes care of poor people. We, in fact, take care of all forms of people. It's just we do our jobs well and so it's invisible to those folks unless they need a public health service."

Already, Hacker has dealt with several rounds of budget cuts and is worried that "political leaders and the public don't really understand the impact of what the future may look like" with a less well funded public health system. "It could mean slower response to diseases, slower response to disasters, less cervical cancer screening, less prenatal care. There's a whole host of services being provided but they cost money," he said.

Still, though it's not without concern for the future of the department, Hacker, 64, said it's time to head home. He will continue to live in Lexington. "My wife has some health problems and for 44 years she's made sacrifices to support my career. I think the time has come to reverse the equation," he said. "My decision to leave was a difficult one because I love the mission of public health. But it became clear to me that this was the right time to transition from employment to retirement. I will continue to support the mission of public health in any way I can contribute."

Dr. Steve Davis, longtime deputy commissioner of the department, will take over as interim commissioner Aug. 1. He called Hacker "a good doc and a good man. Simply put, we have been blessed to have him for many years."

Louisville hospital merger could thwart some patients' final wishes

More concerns are being raised about the merger that would put a Catholic hospital group in charge of the University of Louisville's hospital. First, it was the prospect that women getting Caesarean sections would not be able to get their tubes tied at the same time. Now, "A growing chorus of protest from local residents, doctors and others has erupted over the fact that Catholic doctrine could override patients' end-of-life wishes," Laura Ungar and Patrick Howington report for The Courier-Journal.

"While many wealthier patients could simply choose a different hospital, indigent patients have little choice but University Hospital for treatment, including end-of-life care," the reporters note. "That has left some worried about how end-of-life decisions will be affected if living wills and decisions to remove a feeding tube, for example, will not be honored if they are 'contrary to Catholic teaching'."

Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives told the newspaper that advance directives such as living wills would be honored “in the vast majority of cases” but “There may be the rare situation, such as a patient in a persistent vegetative state who is not in the dying process, when what the patient is requesting through his or her advance directive is not consistent with the moral teaching of the Church. In those few cases, a Catholic health care facility would not be able to comply, and with the family's guidance, the patient would be transferred to another facility, or to their home under hospice and family care.” (Read more)

UK center probes the science of muscles and exercise

Exercise is good for you. But it's not that simple. "Doctors and scientists have a lot of questions about why exercise is so beneficial, how muscles work and the role muscle strength plays in overall health," columnist Tom Eblen writes on the front page of today's Lexington Herald-Leader, and reports that some of those questions are being addressed by the University of Kentucky Center for Muscle Biology, which was created three years ago. "With outside grants of more than $12 million, center researchers are looking at everything from injury prevention in young athletes to rehabilitation for elderly stroke patients," he writes.

"Physical activity and muscle strength seem to contribute to everything from better memory to disease prevention. For example, even moderate exercise can help Type 2 diabetes, which has become epidemic among overweight Kentuckians. Muscles store most of the body's insulin." The center's director, Karyn Karyn Esser, told Eblen, "When you exercise and make muscles work, it creates a separate path for absorbing glucose." (Eblen photo: Caitlyn Kerins demonstrated equipment for measuring muscle control as faculty member Patrick McKeon watched.)

Two researchers are studying how to strengthen diaphragm muscles, which are essential in breathing, "to help patients get off ventilators. It is a huge problem: about 60,000 Americans are on ventilators at any given time, and it costs billions of dollars to care for them," Eblen writes. "The longer most people are on a ventilator, the more likely they are to die." And "muscle weakness is the main culprit in about 70 percent of ventilator patients." Other researchers are investigating why lifting weights can improve memory in the elderly, why certain patients lose muscle strength soon after being hospitalized, how injuries caused by repetitive motion can be avoided, and exactly how massage and ice help repair and strengthen muscles.

Eblen, who took up bicycling at 35 to lose weight and is still an enthusiast in his mid-50s, is writing a lot lately about exercise in response to Lexington's designation by Men's Health magazine as the nation's most sedentary city. And the center's Esther Dupont-Versteegden is even researching inactivity: "We know that people feel better when they exercise regularly, but why is that?" she asked. "What is inactivity doing to people?" (Read more)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Optometrists, ophthalmologists renew battle over optometrists' ability to perform medical procedures

Ophthalmologists renewed their fight yesterday against new rules "that would allow optometrists to perform more complex procedures that critics say will endanger patients," Mike Wynn of The Courier-Journal reports. The Kentucky Board of Optometric Examiners held the hearing on regulations that would implement a law passed quickly by the General Assembly after a years-long lobbying effort by optometrists and their trade group's executive director, Darlene Eakin, left. (C-J photo by Pam Spaulding)

The law allows optometrists to do limited laser treatments, "injections of medicine and removal of benign lesions from eyelids," Wynn writes. The only other state that allows them to do so is Oklahoma, but critics say no problems have been reported in that state and have noted that only 41 Kentucky counties have ophthalmologists.

Ophthalmologists "charged that the rules are not stringent enough to ensure optometrists — who are not medically licensed — can perform the treatments without causing harm," Wynn writes. The rules would require optometrists who want to expand their practice to take classes on more than 20 medical topics, pass tests, get clinical experience and "demonstrate competency to a board-approved expert," Wynn notes. "Lexington ophthalmologist Ken Weaver said wording in the draft resembles 'vague ideas,' rather than medical standards, and could allow an optometrist to perform eye surgeries after a 16-hour course from an unqualified instructor." (Read more)

Former boss of troubled personal-care home is indicted

"Another former administrator of a troubled Letcher County personal care home has been indicted on charges of witness tampering and theft," Beth Musgrave reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

A county grand jury indicted Jonah Tackett, former administrator of Golden Years Rest Home, on two charges of bribing a witness, two of tampering with a witness, and three of theft by failure to make required disposition, all felonies punishable by one to five years in prison.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jack Conway, whose office is prosecuting the case, declined to tell the Herald-Leader whether the charges "relate to ongoing criminal and civil cases involving the Jenkins home that houses more than 34 people," Musgrave reports. A circuit judge barred the Tackett family and members of the home's board of directors from having contact with the facility.

The indictment was "the latest in a history of legal troubles at the facility and for the Tackett family," Musgrave reports. "Conway’s office has said that the office would like to keep Golden Years open but its primary concern is the safety of the residents at the facility." (Read more)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Patients in isolated rural areas have higher rates of death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease living in isolated rural areas "seem to be at greater risk" of death from COPD than those living in urban areas, even when "hospital rurality and volume" are taken into account, says a new study published in the latest issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers from Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center collected data from COPD patients at 129 veterans' hospitals measuring first, 30-day mortality and then adusting for patient rurality, hospital volume, and hospital rurality. The results indicate "mortality was significantly elevated in patients living in isolated rural areas compared with those living in urban areas," regardless of patient and hospital characteristics, reports Doctors Lounge, an online medical resource for physicians, students and allied clinical professionals. (Read more)

Justice Dept. accuses Erlanger nursing home of collecting on 'worthless services;' suit is first of its kind in Kentucky

The U.S. Justice Department has filed a civil complaint against Villaspring Health Care and Rehabilitation in Erlanger and its parent company, Carespring Health Care Management, claiming they "billed Medicare and Medicaid for services purportedly provided to its residents despite knowing that the services were so inadequate that they were essentially worthless," Valarie Honeycutt Spears of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

The complaint was the first in Kentucky alleging that a nursing home violated the federal False Claims Act. "Today's filing represents an important milestone in the effort to ensure effective care for Medicare and Medicaid recipients in long-term care facilities," U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey said.

The list of allegations include failures to follow physicians' orders, treat wounds and pressure sores, update resident care plans, give enough to drink, give regular baths and monitor diabetics' blood-sugar levels, Spears reports. The complaint alleges there were numerous injuries and at least five deaths from 2004 to 2008 due to improper care.

Officials of the nursing home officials invited journalists to tour the facility and denied any wrongdoing. "We do not feel that the government's case has any merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously," Carespring spokeswoman Kim Majick said. "Villaspring has consistently provided high-quality care to the residents of Kenton County and looks forward to doing so in the future." (Read more)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Louisville hospital merger probably means poor women won't get their tubes tied at University Hospital any more

Women who deliver through Caesarean sections at the University of Louisville Hospital may no longer be able to get their fallopian tubes tied at the same time, Patrick Howington of the The Courier-Journal reports. This rule may be one of many the hospital plans to adopt if the proposed merger with Catholic Health Initiatives, parent company of Lexington-based St. Joseph Health System, goes through.

The hospital has agreed to honor the Roman Catholic Church's rules against sterilization as a part of the merger agreement. University "President James Ramsey said reproductive procedures that can't be done at University Hospital will be performed at U of L's outpatient center on Chestnut Street, which isn't part of the merger," Howington writes. This would require an additional surgery for women seeking tubal ligations since the outpatient center does not deliver babies. "That's really inappropriate," said Dr. Marcello Pietrantoni, a Louisville obstetrician who specializes in high-risk pregnancies. "You're going through a second procedure, and the risks of complications . . . are doubled." (Read more)

Medical risks and additional costs are not the only concerns Louisville residents and neighbors have about the proposed merger. An editorial in today's Courier-Journal reminds readers of the hospital's missions to provide care for indigents in the city and train doctors, and questions the level of care from a public hospital guided by a religious organization. To read the editorial, click here.

Access to healthy food: A local angle is available on a national event tomorrow, and here's a Kentucky example

Update, July 21: First Lady Michelle Obama announced Wal-Mart and other retailers plan to open or expand 1,500 stores in the next five years in areas that do not have access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods. "Make no mistake about it. This is a big deal. It is a really big deal," Obama said. Nearly 24 million people, including 6.5 million children, live in these areas, which have been coined food deserts. Wal-Mart plans to open 275 to 300 stores in urban and rural areas by 2016 and expand "food options in more than 700 food deserts," The Huffington Post reports.

The White House says First Lady Michelle Obama will make a major announcement tomorrow afternoon about her Task Force on Childhood Obesity's recommendations to make healthy, affordable food more accessible to all Americans. Using the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Desert Locator, community journalists can localize this story.

A food desert is a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Many rural areas are considered food deserts, and the USDA locator not only has data that can inform a story, but maps that can illustrate it. Reporter Tonya S. Grace of the Todd County Standard used it to localize the Healthy Food Initiative, a partnership between the U.S. Treasury, the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. To read her article, click here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Website helps journalists, community planners, other Kentuckians in search of county-specific health data

A treasure trove of health data about every county in Kentucky is available to journalists and community planners looking to draw a statistical picture of their area. That was the message of a webinar hosted by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky Wednesday.

"We really hope the information we have on will start a conversation," said Sarah Walsh of the foundation's "Local Data for Local Action" Initiative.

The website features a map of the state that is broken down by county. By clicking on a county, a plethora of information pops up, including information on a county's:
• demographics, such as graduation rates and per capita personal income;
• social and behavioral indicators, such as lack of physical activity and prevalence of smoking and obesity;
• health outcomes, such as infectious disease rates, motor vehicle deaths and premature death rates;
• access to care, such as flu vaccination rates, and number of available health care providers and physicians;
• maternal and child health, such as infant mortality, teen birth rates and low birthweight rates;
• senior health, such as the percentage of the senior population in a community.

The data can be compared to the rest of the state, the rest of the country or other counties, and users can create tables, bar graphs, line graphs or maps suitable for publication. "There's a lot of information here," Walsh said. (Graph created online shows obesity declining in Laurel and Pulaski counties after three years of increase, but still rising in Knox County and holding steadier in Rockcastle County. Up to six counties can be placed in one such graphic.)

The site is especially valuable to journalists, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. "These are the hard facts that local news media need to report as they hold up a mirror to their communities and help them address community problems," Cross said. "In most Kentucky counties, one or more facets of health are a community problem. They need more attention." Kentucky Health News is a service of the institute, funded by the foundation.

Much of the data come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, a nationwide, random telephone poll that is conducted each year. Because there may not be enough survey responses from residents in some counties, much of the data on the site have been developed by looking at three or four counties that are near each other and demographically similar, which Walsh said makes the data more "stable and robust." Statisticians have reconfigured the data so that they are all based on a population of 100,000 people, enough to have confidence in the percentages.

While encouraging community planners to use the site, Walsh said the Kentucky Cancer Registry website is "one of the best in the nation" and has cancer-specific data that may not be available on She also pointed listeners to the Kids Count website, an Annie E. Casey Foundation-funded project that has statewide data specific to children.

What surfers won't find, however, are Kentucky numbers on the childhood obesity or childhood diabetes. "Different school districts and communities are collecting data but in different ways and at different ages," she said, adding those disparities make comparison analysis difficult. A bill to make schools collect and report body-mass-index data failed in the last session of the General Assembly.

The goal of Wednesday's webinar was to disseminate information so community planners can identify and address health needs in their area. "At the foundation we take a lot of inspiration from the words of Arthur Ashe, 'Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can'," Walsh said. "We believe communities can do a lot to change their health status." The webinar was part of the foundation's "Health for a Change: Ignite — Unite — Act" initiative and was the first in an ongoing series. The next session, July 27, will focus on how to plan a community health needs assessment. For more information about the series, click here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Defenders of small, rural hospitals take issue with study that found poor patient outcomes

A recent study that concluded small, rural "critical access hospitals" have poorer patient outcomes and lower quality of care is making waves in the medical community. A federally funded monitoring team from three universities issued a response noting certain weaknesses of the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this month.

It's not news that critical-access hospitals "have room for improvement," the team wrote. "What the JAMA authors fail to report is how much CAH scores on the process of care measures have improved over time," it writes. "Our most recent trend analysis, for example, shows that CAH scores on each of the pneumonia measures increased between 9 and 22 percentage points between 2005 and 2009."

The analysis in question was performed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. It focused on nearly 1,300 critical access hospitals and looked at the outcomes of Medicare patients who have congestive heart failure, heart attacks and pneumonia. For all three conditions, CAHs performed at a lower standard. Patients at CAHs were more likely to die, and the facilities were behind in implementing electronic health records. It also found CAHs had a smaller number of specialists like cardiologists working at them than at non-CAHs. "That doesn't sound like news to us, either," said Al Cross, director of the Institiute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

"Issues such as the limited supply of primary care providers, home health and hospice services, rather than the supply of specialists, should be the focus of interventions to improve rural health quality," said the Flex Monitoring Team, named after its assignment, to evaluate the Medicare Rural Hospital Flexibility Grant Program. The team is made up of researchers from the University of Southern Maine, the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. (Read more)

Writing for the Daily Yonder, Dr. Robert C. Bowman, family-medicine professor at the A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona, also took issue with the study, in part because its findings ran counter to an article that was also published in JAMA last year. That article concluded that "greater proportions of underinsured, minority, and non-English-speaking patients were associated with lower quality rankings for primary-care physicians," Bowman quotes.

"Now JAMA has an article this year claiming lower quality of care in certain types of rural hospitals that are completely different in location, population, funding, and workforce," Bowman writes. "So what happened between last year, when patients made the difference in quality, and this year when it was location of the hospital? ... Why do sophisticated researchers, reviewers, and editors maximize the context of care sometimes (in 2010) and minimize it at other times (in 2011)?"

Bowman, founder of the Rural Medical Educators Group of the National Rural Health Association, took a jab at the researchers. "Do Harvard University researchers associated with hospitals with the most sources of income and the highest reimbursement rates even have the perspective to write about hospitals with the least lines of funding and the lowest reimbursement in each line?"

Though he takes issue with the article, Bowman said the topic "about high and lower quality critical access hospitals" is worthy of research. "Perhaps one of the problems with attempting such research is that there is little variation across rural hospitals. Perhaps that's because the system is designed to spend uniformly less on health care across rural America. . . . The end result is less care and less economic impact from health care in 30,000 zip codes with 65 percent of the U.S. population. And more care delivered in 3,400 zip codes in 4 percent of the land area." (Read more)

All students at many Kentucky schools will get free lunches, regardless of household income

All students in as many as 102 of Kentucky's 174 school districts will get a free lunch every day starting next month. Kentucky is one of three states to be chosen for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Universal Meal Service pilot program, which is to run for the next four years.

To be in the program, a school must have at least 40 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch through regular USDA programs, based on household income. Schools must also be certified with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program (KTAP), the successor of welfare. Districts containing eligible schools must notify the Kentucky Department of Education's Division of School and Community Nutrition of their intent to participate by July 29. Parents "don't have to do anything to make this happen," said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for KDE.

"Really what this program is designed to do is cut down on the bureaucracy," Gross said." "If a school is identified as eligible, that takes care of a lot of reporting. It's designed to cut down on the red tape." Tennessee and Illinois are the other two states chosen to participate. By 2014, all states will be eligible for it, under requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The Covington and Owsley County school districts have the highest percentage of students — 88 percent — eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. Magoffin County has the second highest with 86 percent followed by Newport (85%); Bell County (83%); and West Point Independent in Hardin County (81%). To see a list of all 102 eligible districts, click here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Small, rural hospitals with 'critical access' designation have poorer patient outcomes and lower quality of care, study finds

A study has found that small, rural hospitals with the "critical access" designation have poorer patient outcomes and lower quality of care.

The analysis, performed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, focused on nearly 1,300 critical access hospitals, a designation is given to facilities that have 25 or fewer acute-care beds and are more than 35 miles away from another hospital. In return for such concessions as limiting patient stays, CAHs get extra Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. The Rural Assistance Center reports there are 30 CAHs in Kentucky.

The study looked at the outcomes of Medicare patients who have congestive heart failure, heart attacks and pneumonia. For all three conditions, CAHs performed at a lower standard. For patients treated for heart attacks, CAHs provided care in keeping with Hospital Quality Alliance standards 91 percent of the time, compared to 98 percent at other hospitals. The difference was even larger for patients with congestive heart failure patients (80.6 percent vs. 93.5 percent) and smaller "but still significant" for pneumonia (89.3 percent vs. 93.7 percent), the report says.

Patients at CAHs were also more likely to die. They had higher 30-day risk-adjusted mortality rates for all three conditions than patients admitted to other hospitals. The study also found CAHs behind in the implementation of electronic health records, 6.5 percent to nearly 14 percent.

"Despite more than a decade of concerted policy efforts to improve rural health care, our findings suggest that substantial challenges remain," the study authors write. "Although CAHs provide much-needed access to care for many of the nation's rural citizens, we found that these hospitals, with their fewer clinical and technological resources, less often provided care consistent with standard quality metrics and generally had worse outcomes than non-CAHs." (Read more)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Overweight people tend to cluster with those who are likewise

The adage "birds of a feather flock together" seems to apply when it comes to the obesity, with a study concluding that overweight people tend to befriend others who are overweight. Obesity also tends to run in families, with obese parents raising obese children, research-reporting service Newswise reports.

The Arizona State University study didn't conclude why obese people tend to "cluster," but did provide "some important information about trends in obesity and the public health implications," said Dian and Tom Grisel, who wrote TurboCharged: Accelerate Your Fat Burning Metabolism, Get Lean Fast and Leave Diet and Exercise Rules in the Dust.

"Obese families and friends usually have two things in common: food choices and activity levels or more accurately, lack of activity. Obese parents tend to raise obese children. Obese family and friends hang out and eat the same kinds of detrimental foods and participate in the same kinds of detrimental habits," the Griesels said.

That has serious implications for Kentucky, which has the sixth highest obesity rate in the country. More than 67 percent of adult Kentuckians are either obese or overweight and Kentucky was one of just six states whose obesity rate has increased two years in a row, the recently-release report "F as in Fat" found.

Though people may tend to find others who are like-minded when it comes to food, that doesn't mean they want to be overweight. "Study participants revealed that if given the choice, they would select some pretty serious diseases like alcoholism, depression or herpes instead. In fact, 25.4 percent preferred sever depression and 14.5 percent actually preferring total blindness over obesity," Newswise reports. (Read more)

Kentucky 6th in obesity; state rate rises for 2nd consecutive year

"It's official: Kentucky is a mecca for blubber," The Courier-Journal's Darla Carter reports. The state has the sixth highest rate of obese adults, is one of just six states whose obesity rate has risen for the second year in a row, and is one of a dozen states with above 30 percent. The findings are in the 2011 "F as in Fat" report released by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Kentucky's obesity rate is 31.5 percent. Mississippi had the highest rate with 34.4 percent and Colorado was lowest with 19.8 percent. The problem is biggest in the South, which has nine of the 10 fattest states; Michigan also ranks. Fifteen years ago, no state had an obesity rate of more than 15 percent, the report notes. "Today, the state with the lowest obesity rate would have had the highest rate in 1995," said Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health. "There was a clear tipping point in our national weight gain over the last 20 years, and we can't afford to ignore the impact obesity has on our health and corresponding health care spending."

The problem is largest for racial and ethnic minority adults — the obesity rate for blacks in Kentucky is over 43 percent — and for those with less education and lower incomes. Almost 33 percent of adults who didn't graduate from high school are obese, compared to 21.5 percent of people who have college or technical college degrees. More than 33 percent of adults who earn less than $15,000 per year were obese, compared to nearly 1 in 4 adults who earn at least $50,000 each year.

The obesity epidemic is having an effect on people's health. Since 1995, diabetes rates have doubled in eight states, including Kentucky. In 1995, Kentucky had a diabetes rate of 4.2 percent. Now it is 10.5 percent. The hypertension rate 15 years ago was 22.2 percent. Now it is 31.6 percent. (Read more)

The rates only reflect adults who are defined as obese, not overweight. Taking both figures into account means 67.1 percent of Kentucky adults are either obese or overweight. For county-by-county data, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and Kentucky Health Facts, click here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Louisville's University Hospital limits care for non-local patients

University Hospital in Louisville has been forced to stop providing some free or deeply discounted care to patients who live outside Jefferson County. The number of low-income patients coming to the hospital from surrounding counties created a $20 million shortfall last year, "jeopardizing University's primary obligation to treat Louisville's poor," The Courier-Journal's Patrick Howington reports.

Out-of-town patients who want elective procedures such as colonoscopies now have to pay up to 70 percent of the charge. They also must show that they tried to get care in their home county first and may have a longer wait than Jefferson County patients. The changes do not affect patients who come seeking care for trauma, high-risk pregnancies, strokes or cancer care.

University Hospital is generally the facility of last resort for low-income patients in the region. The training hospital for the University of Louisville, it receives extra state funding to help pay for patients who can't pay for themselves. Last year, the university got nearly $69 million to cover indigent care, but that care cost it $89 million. The $20 million shortfall is five times higher than 2005's shortfall of $3.7 million.

Last year, University gave treatment to 767 Hardin County patients, compared to 441 five years ago; 221 Warren County patients compared to 134 in 2005; and 200 Hart County patients, almost twice the number from 2005. (Photo of patient DeEdra King and physical therapist Cathy Gerrish by Aaron Borton) The economy is likely to blame, Howington reports. "The economic downtown cost many people their jobs, and thus their health insurance, and contributed to a surge in uncompensated care at many Kentucky hospitals." (Read more)

Medicaid matters, and makes people healthier, study finds, contradicting argument that it's worse than no coverage

Though the overhaul of Kentucky's Medicaid program has its critics and could potentially be confusing to patients, the program itself is very important, acording to a new study. It found that people on Medicaid, compared to those with no insurance, "had better access to and used more health care; they were less likely to experience unpaid medical bills; they were more likely to report being in good health; and they were less likely to report feeling depressed," National Public Radio's Julie Rovner reports.

"What we found in a nutshell is that having Medicaid makes a big difference in people's lives," said Amy Finkelstein, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and one of the study's main researchers. "We report almost a one-third increase in the probability that you report yourself as being happy."

The study also concluded that Medicaid recipients got outpatient care 35 percent more often than those who don't have insurance. They also responded their had own doctor 55 percent more often and a regular office or clinic they went to 70 percent more often than people without Medicaid coverage.

The findings run counter to arguments by critics of Medicaid, including Scott Gottlieb, who wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal headlined, "Medicaid Is Worse Than No Coverage At All."
While conservatives have long been critical of the program and liberals supportive of it, the study, being published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, seems above political gaming; one of its researchers was an economic advisor to President George W. Bush and another an advisor to the Obama administration. (Read more)

State awards Medicaid managed-care contracts to 4 firms, including Passport; networks to be established by Oct. 1

In an effort to save $1 billion in the next three years, and fill a hole in the current state budget, Gov. Steve Beshear announced Thursday that Kentucky's Medicaid program will be run by four companies, including the beleaguered Passport Health Plan. (Associated Press photo by Ed Reinke)

The move will affect 815,000 Kentuckians who qualify for Medicaid, a program for the poor and disabled. Despite the changes, they will not see a cut in services, and the moves are expected to create nearly 550 jobs, Beshear said. For his press release, click here. For audio of his press conference, go here. He plans to fly around the state Friday to get the word out about the changes, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

The companies are Coventry Health Care, based in Bethesda, Md.; WellCare Health Plans of Illinois; and Centene Corp. of St. Louis. As it has been doing already, Passport will serve Jefferson and 15 neighboring counties, but its contract was renewed for only one year. The other companies were awarded three-year contracts. Passport was the subject of a scathing audit earlier this year by state auditor Crit Luallen, who uncovered unnecessary spending. The other organizations operate in at least seven states each.

Now that the contracts have been awarded, the companies will start establishing provider networks, which they have until Oct. 1 to do, Jill Midkiff, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, told Kentucky Health News. Initially, Medicaid recipients will be matched with a company based on what network their doctor is part of. "But if they don't want to stay with that company, they can change immediately or change after they've been with them for a little while," Midkiff said.

Unlike with Passport, Midkiff said, Coventry, WellCare and Centene will not be responsible for a specific number of counties; they will simply serve their in-network doctors, wherever they happen to be. "Which doctors are in which networks in which counties is not a question I can answer," Midkiff said. "It will be something the companies will be working to establish."

Moving to managed care is the Beshear's administration's answer to fill a $166 million hole in the Medicaid budget, created by a lack of expected federal funding. The federal government pays more than 70 percent of Medicaid costs, bringing the expected savings to $1.3 billion over three years.

Lawmakers vigorously butted heads over how to resolve the issue, making it the most contentious of this year's legislative sessions. The Democratic House sided with Beshear's plan, but the Republican-led Senate fought it, saying managed care would not save the money Beshear promised. They instead proposed making across-the-board cuts, even to the basic school-funding formula. The issue went to a special session, with Beshear warning that, without a compromise, Medicaid reimbursement to hospitals and providers would have to be cut 35 percent. When he promised House Democrats that he would line-item-veto the Senate's spending cuts, the House passed the bill and he made the vetoes.

The bill gave state officials had until July 1 to get contracts in place, a deadline they missed by almost a week. The plan must now be approved by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The waiver was submitted to CMS June 11. CMS officials have 90 days to review and approve or disapprove the submission.


A managed care organization "in the broadest context is an organization that is responsible for managing patient care as opposed to just paying the bills that come in," explained Robert Slaton, who was executive vice president of University Healthcare, now known as Passport, from 1998 to 2006. In the traditional Medicaid setup, the doctor or hospital bills the state and the state pays the bills. "With an MCO, the doctor or hospital bills the managed care company and they have a lump sum from Medicaid and they pay the bills," Slaton explains.

Before the contracts were signed, Slaton said the MCOs likely studied Kentucky demographics carefully and came up with a lump sum they would like to be paid per patient based on the Medicaid members in the state. "Our experience was they had a very sophisticated information system and over time they were able to drill down to understand exactly where expenses were being incurred, more so than a total statewide system," Slaton said.

Because the lump sum it receives for each patient stays static, unlike in the fee-for-service model in which the state pays for whatever bills are incurred, there is incentive for the MCO to keep costs down. That can mean requiring more preventive care, like screenings or dental checkups, in order to save money in the long run; and analyzing care to prevent duplication of services. And it can involve sending case managers to visit repeatedly ill patients to help them get their health issues in check. "It's the kind of thing where it's doing the right thing and also, in the long run, saves money," Slaton said. "If someone who is a diabetic gets sick, you don't want to just pay for them to go to the doctor. You want somebody to help them figure out how to live a healthier lifestyle."

Because there is incentive for MCOs to keep costs down, does that also create incentive to deny care? Slaton said no. "It used to be probably true that there was too much emphasis on denying care," he said. "Now what they try to do is provide appropriate and necessary care, but eliminate duplication ... The old ways of cutting fees and denying care just won't fly. You'll have such a political backlash that you end up losing your contract."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Webinar next week will spotlight county-by-county health data

How can you find by-county health statistics and other other key health resources? That will be the focus of a July 13 webinar, hosted by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

The free webinar, which starts at 3 p.m. EST next Wednesday, will teach listeners how to navigate the Kentucky Health Facts website and point listeners to other resources like the Kentucky Cancer Registry.

It will be hosted by Sarah Walsh, the senior program officer at the foundation's Local Data for Local Action Initiative. The goal of the intiative is to provide access to key state and local health data to help decision making at the local level. "At the foundation, we take a lot of inspiration from the words of Arthur Ashe, 'Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can'," Walsh said. "I love that the data on our Kentucky Health Facts website can help local health advocates understand where they are starting from, so they can really do something to make their community a healthier place to live."

Under the moniker "Health for a Change: Ignite — Unite — Act," this is the first in a series of webinars hosted by the foundation. On July 27, Walsh will discuss how to plan a community health needs assessment. For more information about future webinars, click here.

To register for the webinar, click here.