Monday, April 29, 2013

Bankruptcy filing by mental-health agency is a loser for Kentucky, where such services can be scarce and little used

By Molly Burchett
Kentucky Health News

The decision of Seven Counties Services Inc. to file bankruptcy to avoid paying into the Kentucky Employee Retirement System has created a "no win" situation for the state, and the issue may add yet another obstacle for Kentuckians to get the mental health care they need.

Louisville-based Seven Counties is one of the state's largest mental-health agencies, serving more than 30,000 adults and children with mental-health services, alcohol and drug-abuse treatment, developmental-disabilities services and preventive programs, according to its website.

And while Kentucky's mental-health system has received an F grade for its funding, the state pension system needs agencies like Seven Counties to pay in more because the system is just 27 percent funded. "Employers will have to ante up around 38 percent of annual payroll, compared with the 23 percent now required," Mike Wynn notes in The Courier-Journal.

Kentucky's need for mental health services is much greater than the supply, and an estimated 1.7 million Kentuckians live in areas designated as a "mental health professional shortage area," which means almost 40 percent of Kentucky residents lack proper access to such professionals, says a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. About 24 percent of residents' mental-health care needs are under-served, and this situation could be worsened by federal health reform, which will expand mental-health and substance-abuse treatment benefits to more Kentuckians without adding to the number of providers.

Bankruptcy for Seven Counties is a lose-lose proposition: It could close its doors in 2014 and stop providing services to 30,000 Kentuckians or, if the bankruptcy goes through, the state's retirement system wouldn't get anticipated agency payments into the system, reports Ryan Alessi of cn|2, a news service of the Time Warner and Insight cable-TV companies.

“The only two paths this can go is we could stay in KERS until we have given them our last nickel, which is a year (or) year-and-a-half from now … (and) we close the doors and go out of business and KERS gets no more money because we’re out of business,” Dr. Tony Zipple, president of Seven Counties, told Alessi.

In addition to funding problems for mental-health services, many people with mental-health issues don't seek treatment because of its stigma, said Sheila Schuster, executive director of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, in a recent opinion piece sent to Kentucky newspapers.  Shuster calls on elected leaders to increase funding of mental health services and highlights the prevalence of mental health illness.

"At least one-fourth of us will experience a behavioral health issues (mental illness or substance use disorder) in a given year," Schuster writes. That number, and the number of people needing treatment, will continue to grow, she says.

Schuster also writes about the societal impact of not treating mental illness: "Depression is rated as the #1 cause of disability in this country, and is a leading cause of absenteeism and decreased productivity in the work force." Because some people avoid treatment due to stigma, they may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, and "the effects of stigma and failure to treat the whole person can have catastrophic results," she writes.

In addition to calling for more mental health funding, Schuster asks all Kentuckians to get educated about mental illness so that its stigma can be erased. Click here to read more from Schuster about mental health and resources for help. For a PDF of her op-ed, click here; for a text version, here.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

W. Va. plans private-public model to provide school breakfast, improve child health, fight obesity; could this approach help Ky.?

By Molly Burchett
Kentucky Health News

Breakfast has been said to be the most important meal of the day, and it can be important in fighting obesity. Policymakers in West Virginia are pushing for breakfast food programs in schools through public-private partnerships, and a new report says similar programs could save $41 billion in federal dollars long-term by preventing obesity. Does this make sense, and does it make sense for Kentucky?

Like West Virginia, Kentucky has a high obesity rate among middle and high school students but has many children who don't always get the food they need to live a healthy life. Kentucky ranks fourth highest in food insecurity among children because 23 percent of Kentucky's children do not always know where they will find their next meal, according to Feeding America’s "Map the Meal Gap" study. (Here's a link to its interactive map, where you can see food insecurity rates by county in order to find out more about your county. One example appears below; orange dots are headquarters of regional food banks.)

A recent bill passed by West Virginia lawmakers addresses the problems of food insecurity, obesity and education simultaneously and serves as the first example for a statewide public-private funding partnership to improve school meals programs, reports David Gutman of The Associated Press. The bill would also require every county to set up a fund to collect private food donations.

The bill aims to require every school to have breakfast food programs so no student goes without it because of costs, says Gutman. Poor nutrition and diet are sometimes issues of cost and income level since healthy foods can be more expensive than unhealthy ones. For example, a bag of 10 apples may costs $4.99, but a package of Little Debbie oatmeal creme pies could be $1.79. A medium-sized apple has 93 calories and less than 1 gram of fat while an oatmeal creme pie has 318 calories and 13 grams of fat.

What does this have to do with obesity? The research-based logic is that a healthy, daily breakfast improves diet and can replace sugary alternatives such as donuts. Eating a healthy breakfast also improves education by combating hunger and aiding concentration and has been found to be associated with overall health and mental functioning. Overall, these factors may work together to improve education and diet, reports Gutman.

Such a program could help Kentucky address the state's problems related to food insecurity, obesity and education, while generating long-term savings. Similar food programs that provide meals to low-income children could generate as much as $41 billion in long-term federal saving by preventing obesity, says a new report from the Campaign to End Obesity.

The report says that the S-CHIP childhood obesity demonstration project, which combines changes in preventive care with community and school efforts to reduce childhood obesity in low-income communities, could prevent a child from becoming obese, saving an estimated $41,500 for an average female and $30,600 for an average male Medicaid beneficiary, says the report.

Three other programs were highlighted as huge cost-savers because they would prevent obesity and related chronic conditions in the long run, which would reduce health care costs and increase wages, says the report. These include increasing obesity screenings by physicians, bringing the Diabetes Prevention Program to scale and covering certain weight loss drugs under Medicare Part D. Preventive health policies aimed at obesity prevention could significantly reduce government expenditures, could save tax dollars and could improve the overall health of Kentuckians.

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

Parents should talk to children about alcohol; study shows teens do listen

Two recent studies highlight how important it is for parent to talk with their teens about the risks of alcohol use, which leads to more than 4,500 deaths nationwide every year.

In the first study, Mothers Against Drunk Driving found that fewer than a third of alcohol-related deaths among 15- to 20-year-olds are caused by drinking and driving. About 32 percent of the drinking-related deaths involved traffic crashes, while 68 percent involved incidents such as murder (30 percent), suicide (14 percent), alcohol poisoning (9 percent) and other causes (15 percent), MADD says in a press release.

"These data show that taking away the keys truly does not take away all of the risks when it comes to underage drinking," MADD national president Jan Withers said. "MADD hopes this information will inspire parents to have ongoing conversations with their kids about the dangers of drinking alcohol before age 21, especially since we know that a majority of kids say their parents are the biggest influence on their decisions about alcohol."

Another study says parents can help reduce children's excessive drinking in college by talking with them about the potential dangers of excessive drinking before they set foot on campus, and it turns out that children really do listen to their parents about drinking, says the study by Rob Turrisi of Penn State. Discussing drinking in any way before teens go to campus, including why some teens drink while others don't, as well as the potential dangers of excessive drinking, can help.

Having this type of conversation with teens about the reality of underage drinking and its risks, such as alcoholism and alcohol poisoning, and can reduce the odds that light drinkers will escalate into excessive drinkers, says the study. It can also increase the likelihood that already heavy-drinking teens cut down on their drinking or even stop completely.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also urges parents to talk with their children about alcohol. Click here for more information about doing this or to read about the risks of alcohol use and other prevention strategies.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Spring-clean the cabinet and dump your drugs Saturday, April 27

Dump your unwanted prescription drugs this Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as part of the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, which in the past has coordinated with local law enforcement to haul in more than than 2 million pounds or 1,018 tons of prescription medications.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day aims to provide a safe and convenient way to throw away unwanted or unused drugs, keeping them out of the wrong hands while also educating the general public about the potential for abuse of these medications.

This is a great opportunity for those who missed the previous events or those that have accumulated unwanted, unused prescription drugs since the last event to safely dispose of them. Click here to find the nearest collection site and here to learn more about the DEA initiative.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Poll shows more than half of Ky. adults have no dental insurance and many go without essential dental care

Routine dental care is essential to overall health, but a new poll shows 1.7 million Kentucky adults do not have dental insurance. That is more than times the number of people who will be at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, notes the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which co-sponsored the poll.

The poll also showed that many Kentucky adults are going without the dental care they need. While the poll found that few owe money for dental bills, only 61 percent said they visited a dentist or dental clinic within the past year. The national figure is 70 percent.

“Oral health is essential to overall health,” said Dr. Susan Zepeda, president and CEO of the foundation. “Yet, our research indicates a majority of Kentuckians do not have dental coverage, so it is not surprising that a large number of adults do not have a personal dentist or oral health provider.”

Poor oral health or oral pain can lead to poor nutrition and can reduce someone's quality of life by making it difficult to sleep, work or interact with others, and having dental insurance is an important factor in determining whether someone is getting the dental care they need.  More than 50 percent of poll respondents indicated not having dental insurance of any kind, and almost half of that group said they skipped getting dental care or check-ups in the past year due to its cost.

Whether or not someone has a normal source of care is also an important factor in determining health care outcomes because those with a personal dentist or doctor are more likely to seek care. Almost 40 percent of poll respondents, however, said they do not have a personal dentist or oral health provider, and almost 80 percent of those respondents said its been more than five years since they last visited a dentist or dental clinic.

The poll was funded by the foundation and the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati. The poll was conducted last year from Sept. 20 through Oct. 14 by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati. A random sample of 1,680 adults from throughout Kentucky was interviewed by telephone, including landlines and cell phones, and the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 points.

Itchy, watery eyes? Some tips to relieve spring allergy symptoms

The sunshine and bright colors of spring are here, but so are seasonal allergies from pollen, dander, smog or mold that can often lead to itchy, watery eyes. Eye irritation is the body's immune response to allergens, so when pollen comes in contact with eyes, for example, the body releases histamine, causing eye redness, burning and itching.

The Kentucky Optometric Association says discomfort from itchy, swollen or water eyes can be reduced with simple steps, such as maintaining a healthy diet full of anti-oxidants like spinach, broccoli, carrot discomfort that boost the immune system in addition to taking fish oil supplements that help reduce redness and irritation.

Other tips from the KOA include using preservative-free lubricating eye drops or re-wetting eyes with contact solution if you wear contact lenses. Applying a cold compress to eyes can also relieve itching and redness by constricting the histamine-releasing blood vessels. And remember: Do not touch or rub eyes, and be sure to wash hands with soap and water.

A local eye doctor can examine eye allergy symptoms to ensure the cause is properly identified, said Dr. Max Downey, an optometrist in Campbellsville. Optometrists' treatment could range from eye drops to prescription medicines, said Downey.

In addition to discussing allergy relief with your optometrist, the KOA recommends adults have yearly eye exams at the minimum, depending on the severity of allergies.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Business leaders discuss possibility of expanding Medicaid through private insurance

By Molly Burchett
Kentucky Health News

Some Kentucky business leaders are discussing a possible endorsement of expanding Medicaid through private insurance, in a plan similar to one the federal government approved for Arkansas.

The Health Policy Council of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce discussed the idea last Friday. A talking paper for the meeting highlighted presumed benefits of the approach, in which people newly eligible for Medicaid could use federal funds to buy private insurance through the insurance exchange that the state is constructing.

The health council has yet to decide the chamber's position on Medicaid expansion, but the council's talking paper said expanding Medicaid privately might be a better option than expansion of traditional Medicaid, considering the state's tight budget and already problematic managed care system.

The paper says a private plan would be beneficial to Kentucky because it would allow market forces to control costs and ultimately result in better health care. Private expansion would also prevent a flood of newly eligible people from entering the managed care system. "If Kentucky accepts the traditional Medicaid expansion, everyone that qualifies would be put into the already struggling managed care system, which until changes are made, cannot support the influx," the paper asserted.

The Obama administration has encouraged states to consider the Arkansas approach, the paper says.  To do so, states need to apply for a waiver, and the administration has provided information on how a state would apply. "Florida, Ohio, Louisiana, Maine and Pennsylvania are all looking into this option," the paper said.

An estimated 181,000 uninsured adults would become eligible for Medicaid in 2014, if Kentucky decides to accept the funds offered by the health law to provide coverage to those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Gov. Steve Beshear has said he will make his decision about Medicaid expansion no later than July 1. His office has declined to say whether the privatized option is under consideration, saying, "The governor is considering multiple issues as he determines whether Kentucky will expand Medicaid eligibility.  Along with affordability for the state, he is also looking at potential economic impact through jobs and investment created by possible expansion, as well anticipated changes in health outcomes for newly-eligible Kentuckians."

Baucus sees a health-reform 'train wreck,' fearing insurance exchanges won't be ready

Max Baucus (J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
Senator Max Baucus, who as Senate Finance Committee chair helped write the health-care reform law, has become the highest-ranking Democrat to publicly voice concerns about its implementation, saying he thinks it’s headed for a collision with itself.

“I just see a huge train wreck coming down,” the Montanan told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during a budget hearing.

Matt Gouras of The Associated Press notes that polls show that Americans are confused by the complex law, which is designed to cover about 30 million uninsured people through a mix of government programs and tax credits. Baucus told Sibelius he’s “very concerned” that new health insurance exchanges will not open on time in every state and residents will not have enough information to make choices even if they do open on time, as Kentucky's seems likely to do.

"The administration’s public-information campaign on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act deserves a failing grade,” Baucus lectured. “You need to fix this.” Baucus’ office later told Gouras that the senator still thinks the Affordable Care Act is a good law, but questions its roll-out.

Sebelius said that the administration is on track to fully implement exchanges in January, and to be open for open enrollment on Oct. 1, 2013, reports Gouras. Kentucky is among the states that have chosen to build a fully state-based exchange. Others have chosen a state-federal partnership exchange, or defaulted into a federally facilitated exchange. The map below shows the lay of the land about that decision. Yellow states have defaulted to a federal exchange, light blue states are planning for a partnership and blue states have chosen a state-based exchange.
Map provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

FDA requires OxyContin pills to be non-crushable to deter abuse

The Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday that it would block generic, crushable versions of OxyContin from coming to the market and approve the reformulated, non-crushable OxyContin, which deters abuse of the powerful painkiller.

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell applauded the move. “Given the public health epidemic of prescription drug abuse and the ravaging effects it has on families all across Kentucky, this announcement is great news and will prevent an influx of crushable, generic OxyContin from coming to market,” McConnell said in a release.
OxyContin is a potent drug designed to treat severe pain. Without abuse-deterrent formulas, addicts can crush the pills to get an immediate heroin-like high. The reformulated product has properties that make the tablet harder to crush, break, or dissolve and that prevent it from being injected in order to achieve a quick high, an FDA press release said.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death in Kentucky, and law enforcement, lawmakers and health providers have expressed their concerns that crushable, generic versions would worsen the problem.

The FDA decision came on the same day manufacturer Purdue Pharma’s patent on the original drug was set to expire, and McConnell has been actively meeting with federal officials on behalf of those concerned. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-5th, also lobbied for it. (Read more)

In an editorial, the Lexington Herald-Leader points out that the move means a continued OxyContin monopoly and more profits for Purdue Pharma, which "paid $600 million in fines in 2007, and three of the company's executives paid a total of $34.5 million, after they pleaded guilty to misleading doctors and the public about OxyContin's addictiveness. . . . We wonder why Rogers and McConnell aren't calling for Purdue to voluntarily share its new formulation."

Deadly, drug-resistant bacteria are becoming more common in Kentucky hospitals; key lawmaker wants to require public reporting

Nightmarish, drug-resistant bacteria that cause deadly infections are becoming more common in Kentucky hospitals, and a leading legislator on health issues says they should be required to report each case.

The state Department for Public Health and hospital officials are investigating the presence of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, at Kindred Hospital Louisville, right, a long-term and transitional care facility.

“Since July, we have identified about 40 patients in whom we have cultured the organisms from one or more body fluids,” Dr. Sean Muldoon, chief medical officer for Kindred, told Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal.

These superbugs kill about half of the patients who get infected. They have become resistant to nearly all the antibiotics available today, including drugs of last resort. CRE infections are caused by a family of germs that are a normal part of a person's healthy digestive system but can cause infections when they get into the bladder, blood or other areas where they don't belong, says the federal Centers for Disease Control. The presence of CRE in bodily fluids doesn’t mean someone is infected by the bacteria, because the patient could also be “colonized” by the bacteria without developing an infection, said Muldoon. CRE may be present in a patient before he or she is admitted to the hospital, or it can be transmitted from patient to patient at the hospital, Ungar notes.

Officials at several Louisville-area hospitals told The Courier-Journal last month that they have seen a growing number of CRE cases in recent years, reports Ungar. The CDC issued a warning report about the bacteria last month, but there has only been one "outbreak" of CRE listed for Kentucky. (Read more)

Given the threat of this bacteria, the CDC has called for quick action to stop these deadly infections, and the chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee wants to tighten up CRE reporting requirements.

Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, sent a letter to Gov. Steve Beshear proposing a new regulation that would mandate immediate reporting of CRE infection or colonization to the state. Burch said he plans to introduce a bill that would require such reporting by health-care facilities, and he is working with Dr. Kevin Kavanagh of the Somerset, Ky.-based watchdog group Health Watch USA, reports Ungar.

“If it gets in the community and spreads, we’re in trouble,” Kavanagh told Ungar. Burch emphasized this level of risk in his letter to the governor, saying that health-department involvement is crucial to preventing this deadly bacteria from "developing a foothold in Kentucky."

Health departments raise, or try to raise, tax rates to offset state cuts, higher benefit costs and Medicaid payment problems

Some county health departments are trying, and others may try, to increase property-tax rates to make up for Medicaid shortfalls, program cuts and the rising costs of employee benefits so they can continue providing essential public health services for their communities.

Anderson County Health Department Director Tim Wright has proposed a 33 percent rate increase from 3 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 4 cents per $100. The increase would add an estimated $150,000, which Wright says he would use to end employee furloughs and make up for $200,000 that has not been paid by the Kentucky Spirit managed-care company, reports Editor Ben Carlson of The Anderson News.

Many departments have already cut positions and implemented furloughs to compensate for Medicaid shortfalls, state program cuts and employee benefit costs, said Scott Lockard, past president of the Kentucky Public Health Association and director of the Clark County Health Department. Most departments have done everything possible to increase efficiency of the departments' resources, he said.

A recent tax increase in Boyle County will make property owners pay a little more to help fund the county health department. The fiscal court recently voted to raise the county's health tax from 2.4 cents per $100 to 2.5 cents.

As funding streams have changed, departments need additional revenue sources, said Brent Blevins, director of the Boyle County Health Department. Blevins said without the rate increase, the already short-staffed department would have to cut services.

Declining property values during the recession have decreased tax revenue, said Marcia Hodge, director of the Garrard County Health Department. It proposed a tax rate increase from 4 cents to 4.25 cents in September that was estimated to bring in about $21,000, but the fiscal court did not approve it, she said.

Another problem that health departments face, Hodge said, is that they are required to participate in the state's insurance and retirement system. Over the 12 years she has been at the department, retirement contributions have increased from 4 percent to 25 percent, while costs of fringe benefits have more than doubled while salaries have only increased 10 percent, she said.

The Floyd County Health Department increased its tax rate last September for the first time in 20 years, primarily because of increased costs of employee benefits and department funding cuts, said Thursa Sloan, director of the department.

Sloan said she anticipates a big change in the services that health departments provide over the next 10 years.  Primary care will take a much more preventive approach, she said, and health departments will have to pull back in such services and go back to the basics.

New website for after-school programs promotes 'Drink Right, Move More and Snack Smart' to fight childhood obesity

To combat the country's childhood obesity epidemic, ChildObesity180, a new initiative from Tufts University, has launched Healthy Kids Hub, a website with resources for out-of-school-time programs, encouraging kids to develop and adopt three universal nutrition and physical activity principles: "Drink Right, Move More and Snack Smart."

The Hub offers free activity, nutrition and equipment support to volunteers, coaches and leaders in out-of-school-time programs, which serve tens of millions of children and have been identified as a promising area for obesity prevention efforts, the site says.

In Kentucky, almost 18 percent of middle-school-age children and 16 percent of elementary-age kids are obese, says a recent report from the University of Kentucky's College of Public Health.

Research shows that foods and beverages, as well as opportunities for physical activity, vary greatly in out-of-school programs, so the Hub promotes greater consistency in such programs and provides resources to help children follow healthy habits while out of school.

The website was launched at the National Afterschool Association convention in Indianapolis last week, according to a release. Visitors to the website can complete a brief survey to get resources tailored to their specific needs. Click here for the website.

National Rx Drug Abuse Summit, a Kentucky product, seeks to make the nation face up to its problem

The second annual National Rx Drug Abuse Summit, organized by Eastern Kentucky's Operation UNITE, called for a national commitment to combating the country's drug-abuse problem

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-5th District
"People of great passion and perspective are here wanting to make an impact in their communities," said U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who first funded Operation UNITE. "The first step is we have to admit there is a problem. I don't think the country is there yet. We've got to face up to it. We've got to make this known ... and that we're not going to hide from it." Rogers was quoted in a news release.

UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education) serves 32 counties in Eastern Kentucky. It was created to fight illegal drug use through a comprehensive approach that includes educating youth and the public and coordinating substance abuse treatment while providing support for families affected by abuse.

In Kentucky, drug overdose is the leading cause of death and is more fatal than motor vehicle accidents, and the number of Kentucky drug-overdose deaths nearly quadrupling from 2000 to 2010. The nation has seen a similar trend, with the number of overdose deaths more than tripling over the decade.

“We can stop this epidemic,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the summit. “But we need everyone working together in an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

Themes highlighted at the summit included the need to provide better education about drug abuse, the need for greater use and seamless integration of state prescription-monitoring programs, the need to facilitate effective treatment and recovery programs, and the need for abuse-deterrent narcotic formulations.

“We were extremely pleased that so many individuals representing such a broad cross-section of interests shared their knowledge and expertise,” said Karen Kelly, who is leaving Operation UNITE to become district director on the Rogers congressional staff. To read more about the summit, click here.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Beshear says he will decide in four to five weeks, or July 1 at the latest, whether or not to expand Medicaid

By Al Cross
Kentucky Health News
This story has been updated.

Gov. Steve Beshear said Monday that he will decide within the next four to five weeks, or maybe by July 1, whether to expand the Medicaid program under federal health-care reform.

Beshear, who has said he would expand Medicaid if the state can afford it, told reporters that he is considering other factors, which he did not name. He said his administration has not calculated the cost of expansion, which the state would not pay immediately.

The federal government pays about 71 percent of Medicaid's cost in Kentucky, and would pay the full cost of covering those newly eligible in 2014-16. The state would have to pay 3 percent in 2017, rising to 10 percent by 2020.

About 830,000 Kentuckians are covered by Medicaid, and at least 400,000 more could be added if Beshear expanded it to include households earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, as required by the reform law.

Another possibility is that Beshear would seek approval from the federal government to use federal money to subsidize purchase of private health insurance by the poor, which has been approved in Arkansas but not in Tennessee.

The governor's office, asked if the administration was considering that option and what other factors Beshear is considering, has not responded had this response: "The governor is considering multiple issues as he determines whether Kentucky will expand Medicaid eligibility.  Along with affordability for the state, he is also looking at potential economic impact through jobs and investment created by possible expansion, as well anticipated changes in health outcomes for newly-eligible Kentuckians."

That is also the case with There has still been no response from Humana Inc., which does much of its business through government-financed health plans. The Louisville-based insurance company was asked if it has had discussions with the Beshear administration about the idea of a Medicaid expansion that would use federal money to buy, or subsidize the purchase of, private health insurance.

"Beshear said Monday that he is getting a lot of pressure from the medical field – particularly hospitals – to green-light the expansion," Beth Musgrave of the Lexington Herald-Leader writes. "Hospitals will lose additional money they receive through Medicaid on Jan. 1 as part of the Affordable Care Act. Hospitals in Ohio and other states have also put pressure on state governments to expand Medicaid rolls."

Beshear said, “I think they look at the expansion as a means to at least replace some of that (money) that they are going to lose.”

Many Republicans have opposed expansion, "saying that the state could not afford it," Musgrave writes. "The Republican-led state Senate passed a bill during the legislative session that would have required that the two-term Democratic governor get legislative approval before expanding the health care program. But the measure died in the Democratic-controlled House. Beshear could expand the program via executive order."

Beshear said today, “We have a very large uninsured population and we have a very unhealthy population. Anything that we can do — that we can afford — to make our population more healthy, I”m certainly in favor of doing.” He added, “We are looking long-term as well as short-term from a financial standpoint to see if it makes sense for us.”

While he said he would act within four to five weeks, Beshear gave himself some wiggle room, saying also that he would make the decision by July 1, the beginning of the state's fiscal year. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Poll shows health care costs are a burden for many Kentuckians

A recent statewide survey shows health-care costs are a burden for many Kentuckians, especially for those who are poor and don't have insurance and put off getting care they need because they can't afford it.

More than 60 percent of Kentucky adults in the poll said high costs forced them or a family member living in their home to delay getting care in the past year. Not surprisingly, almost 90 percent of uninsured respondents reported going completely without care in the past year.

The Kentucky Health Issues Poll also showed that 48 percent have relied on home remedies when they are sick instead of going to a doctor, 43 percent have postponed care they needed, 37 percent have not filled a prescription or skipped a dental visit or checkup, 36 percent skipped a recommended medical test or treatment, and 16 percent have cut pills in half or skipped doses of medicine for financial reasons. Overall, 64 percent answered "yes" to at least one of those questions.

“Although our economy is improving, many Kentucky families are still struggling financially. Our research shows healthcare costs have a significant impact on Kentuckians’ actions,” said Dr. Susan Zepeda, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which co-sponsored the poll. “Timely access to quality, affordable healthcare is important to restore and maintain Kentuckians’ health and productivity. When we delay or go without care, illness severity and costs can escalate. Based on the KHIP results, many Kentuckians are taking risks with their overall health because of the expense.”

Rising costs of health care do not affect all Kentuckians in the same way; almost 40 percent of Kentucky adults reported that paying for health care and health insurance is not a financial burden. Those who did say costs were a burden said they were burdened equally by the costs of doctor visits, prescription drugs and insurance premiums or deductibles.

The poll was funded by the foundation and the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati. The poll was conducted Sept. 20 and Oct. 14 of last year by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati. A random sample of 1,680 adults from throughout Kentucky was interviewed by telephone, including landlines and cell phones, and the poll has a margin of error of plus or 2.5 points.

Lawsuit alleges state health insurance exchange is unauthorized

Tea Party activist David Adams filed a lawsuit Monday challenging Gov. Steve Beshear's legal authority to create Kentucky's health insurance exchange without approval from the General Assembly. The governor created the exchange by executive order to offer health insurance plans for Kentuckians under federal health reform, but did not ask the legislature to approve it.

Adams claims state law requires the exchange to get legislative approval, and he seeks an injunction against it. The law allows the governor to temporarily reorganize units of state government and calls for them to be approved by the General Assembly.

Beshear's office says he exercised his constitutional authority to meet the requirements of federal law, reports Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Adams said in a telephone interview, "There is nothing in the constitution that allows him to set up a new bureaucracy that taxes, gains fees or spends money without legislative approval." He added, "This isn't about politics. It is simply about gubernatorial authority in the absence of legislative approval."

Kentucky has received about $250 million from the federal government to cover the initial costs of exchange, but Adams said that is being spent rather quickly and funds will be exhausted by 2014, he said. The state will be responsible for all funding for the exchange beginning in 2015; it plans to fund it with fees from participating insurance companies.

Kentucky is one of 17 states that the federal government approved to build its own exchange, which will be operated by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and is expected to help insure more than 600,000 Kentuckians. (Read more)

To keep kids from getting fat, use smaller plates and portions, limit TV viewing and make sure they get 10 hours of sleep a night

Kentucky ranks high in child obesity. Parents can make sure their children maintain a healthy weight with three simple suggestions highlighted in recent studies: Serve them meals on smaller, child-size plates, pay attention to what they watch on TV, and make sure they get enough sleep.

In Kentucky, almost 18 percent of middle-school-age children and 16 percent of elementary-age kids are obese, and every third child born who was in the U.S. in 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes if current trends continue, says a recent report from the University of Kentucky's College of Public Health.

The three suggestions are based on three new studies in the April issue of Pediatrics.

One study found first-graders served themselves larger food portions and consumed almost 50 percent of the extra calories they put on their plates when using adult-sized dinner plates instead of child-sized salad plates, reports Michelle Healy of USA Today.
A second study examined the relationship between heavy use of media  and increased body mass index,  a measure based on height and weight that can classify someone as being overweight or obese. It found that TV usage is the most problematic and leads to higher BMI scores, reports Healy. One reason for this may be that TV advertising includes commercials for unhealthy snack foods. Or, perhaps kids are missing out on exercise because they watch so much TV. 

A new sleep study adds to research saying that insufficient sleep may contribute to the rise in adolescent obesity because it changes hormone levels that could lead to overeating and weight gain, reports Healy.

These findings support existing recommendations to help children attain and keep a healthy weight according the UK report. Portion sizes should be a third of adult portions for younger children and two-thirds of adult portions for older children; children's TV screen time should be limited to two hours per day; and children should get 10 hours of sleep each night.

Survey shows most rural doctors in Southern Kentucky aren’t ready for electronic health records; grant will help them switch

A recent survey found that 63 percent of rural health providers in Southern Kentucky have not installed electronic health records software, so more than 280 of the small and rural doctor practices surveyed could face financial penalties from Medicaid and Medicare if they do not install it by 2015. Federal grant money will help them make the switch.

Many rural Kentucky providers are near retirement and are deciding between making the necessary investment of capital and personnel that is required to make the switch to electronic records or to just close their practice, according to a release from Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., which led the effort to get the grant

Decisions to close practices and to avoid using electronic health records could be problematic to rural areas in Kentucky, since the state already has doctor shortages, especially in rural areas. If the state expands the Medicaid program under federal health reform, the number of insured patients could increase much more than the number of physicians in Southern Kentucky, an area where many people are uninsured.

“Large hospitals in the region such as ARH, Baptist Regional and others have successfully installed this software, and they are using the system with quality results,” Richard Murch, an IT consultant who specializes in electronic health records and is working on the project, said in teh release. But he said the process is complicated and requires extra staff and resources that are sometimes difficult to find in the area.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has funded a project called Stronger Economies Together to improve the biomedical and life-science practices in the region. SET plans to provide resources and training to help providers and health systems make a successful switch to electronic health records, which the release said could create about 100 jobs over the next few years.

The survey showed 73 percent of doctors’ practices have asked for help transferring to and using electronic records. “SET reviewed industry sector research to determine health care and health related businesses as the fastest growing business segment of our rural economy,” said Jerry Rickett, president and CEO of Kentucky Highlands. For more information about SET and its partner programs, click here.

Monday, April 8, 2013

U of L dean says $50 billion in annual health costs could be saved if Americans just walked more

Small changes in health behavior can have a huge impact on the public's overall health and well-being, and during National Public Health Week discussions last week, Dr. Craig Blakely, the new dean of the University of Louisville School of Public Health and Information Sciences, talked about the important role played by public health in promoting healthy behavior, preventing disease and saving both lives and money.

Blakely pointed to obesity as an example of an emerging health-related crisis, which can be addressed with behavioral changes that make a significant difference like adding more physical activity to your day, according to a U of L release.

“If we all took exercise seriously by just walking, we could save $50 billion in cardiovascular disease-related costs,” Blakely said. “A 10 percent weight loss equals a $5,000 savings in health-related complications. A typical desk worker could lose a pound a month by standing two hours a day.”

Blakely also addressed smoking bans, which are becoming popular in Kentucky, even though the state has the highest share of smokers (29 percent) of any state, leads the nation in high-school smokers (24 percent) and spends only a minuscule portion of its tobacco revenues to fight tobacco use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If every state adopted comprehensive smoke-free policies, said Blakely, $2 billion would be saved in smoking-related deaths, lung cancer treatments and care for related health complications over the course of several years, says the release.

Blakely highlighted several other examples of public health’s potential return on investment. For example, says the release, every dollar spent on childhood immunizations saves $18 on vaccine-preventable disease-related costs, every dollar spent in prenatal care translates to $6 in health care cost savings and for every dollar spent on fluoridated water saves $20 in dental care.

Public health research will continue to find effective ways to generate these cost savings, such as finding researching how to modify environments to encourage exercise or how to send strong messages that promote regular physical activity (Read more)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Beshear vetoes prompt-pay bill but takes several steps to address problems in Medicaid; he and Haynes say it's working

Gov. Steve Beshear has vetoed the bill designed to make Medicaid managed-care firms pay health-care providers more quickly, but is taking administrative steps to address the issue.

Beshear said he agreed with the intent of House Bill 5 but it might have interfered with the contractual relationship between the state and the four managed-care companies. The bill would have subjected that relationship to the state Department of Insurance's review and investigation process for private-insurance payment complaints. 

"That language would have resulted in excessive costs for state government and taxpayers due to the expansion of the review process beyond the current parameters used for private insurance," Beshear's office said in a press release.

Instead, Beshear ordered the department to take over responsibility for review of prompt-payment complaints from the Department for Medicaid Services. "If improper payment practices are discovered, DOI can impose sanctions," the release said. He also ordered the department to audit each of the managed-care firms operating statewide – Wellcare, Coventry Cares, and Kentucky Spirit – at their cost.

Meanwhile, the firms have agreed to meet with every hospital they have under contract to reconcile outstanding accounts.  "This effort will begin immediately and continue until every hospital’s accounts receivable has been reconciled," the release said.  "The results will . . . be made public, in order to provide transparency and accountability." The firms have  agreed to meet with any other provider who wants a meeting.

Also, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services will hold eight regional forums for providers, managed-care firms, and Insurance Department representatives to discuss concerns and how to improve the system. Part of this effort will focus on "emergency room management that meets community needs without an ER operating as a de facto primary-care office," the release said. "A key component of controlling costs and improving health in a healthcare system is to provide the right treatment in the most cost-effective setting."

CHFS Secretary Audrey Tayse Haynes said the switch to managed care, made in November 2011, is working. “We are already seeing a tremendous increase in the use of preventive services, which improve health-care outcomes, while also reducing the enormous costs for treating chronic health conditions” such as diabetes-related amputations, she said.

Beshear said his plan would solve "lingering implementation problems" with managed care "while preserving the significant improvements in patient care and health care cost savings."

"Getting our people healthy and keeping them that way is not just good health policy, it’s good economics," Beshear said. "That’s why we will never return to the old fee-for-service system.  This is a significant cultural shift in medical care that has already happened across the country in both the private insurance market and in the Medicaid system."

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Confused or concerned about the impact of health reform on Kentucky businesses? There's a seminar for that.

To address possible confusion or concern of business people and the public about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," health-care reform experts will address its impact on small and large companies across Kentucky at half-day seminars in Lexington and Louisville on May 8 and 9.

The Kentucky Health Care Reform Seminar will include specific discussions about expected cost increases and tax implications for businesses once reform is implemented, including the role of the health insurance exchange and the changing ways that coverage premiums will be determined. The seminar will be presented by The Iasis Group Inc., The Lane Report and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, says a chamber release.  

Guidance to employers will be provided on complying with the new rules surrounding insurance reforms and insight to whether Kentucky companies can truly afford it. The seminar is part of a statewide partnership that includes Commerce Lexington, Greater Louisville Inc., the Kentucky Society for Human Resource Management and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce (Click here for more details or to advance register)

Death rates for heart and pneumonia patients at critical-access hospitals are rising nationally, study finds

Death rates are rising at rural critical-access hospitals for Medicare patients who have heart attacks, heart failure and pneumonia, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Hospitals designated as critical-access get slightly higher Medicsare and Medicaid reimbursements in exchange for limiting their size, procedures and patient stays. In 2002, they had a death rate of 12.8 percent for such ailments, under the 13 percent rate at other hospitals. But from 2002 to 2010, mortality rates at critical-access hospitals increased 0.1 percent each year, to 13.3 percent, while the rates at other hospitals fell 0.2 percent each year, to 11.4 percent.

There are 1,331 hospitals in the critical access program, Jordan Rau reports for USA Today. "Congress started the critical access program in 1997 to stave off hospital closures in places where patients had no good alternative because the next hospital was at least 35 miles away by regular roads or 15 miles by secondary roads. To qualify hospitals need 25 or fewer beds."
The authors of the study "suggested that the hospitals' care may suffer because they don't have the latest sophisticated technology or specialists to treat the increasingly elderly and frail rural populations," Rau reports. "Since hospitals are not required to submit performance evaluations to Medicare, the government may not realize that facilities could need additional assistance in caring for sicker patients."

Brock Slabach of the National Rural Health Association told Rau that the statistics don't always tell the complete story and that "The association's own research has found that rural hospitals do better in patient satisfaction surveys than do urban hospitals," Rau writes.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

It's Autism Awareness Month; do you know the warning signs?

The University of Kentucky hosted the state's first Light It Up Blue event by illuminating Memorial Hall with blue lights on April 2nd, and this event is a unique global initiative that kicks-off Autism Awareness Month and helps raise awareness about autism.

This is the sixth year for Light It Up Blue, but the Autism Society has been celebrating National Autism Awareness Month since the 1970's in order to highlight the need for awareness about autism. Autism is increasing in prevalence, and according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 50 school-age children in the United States has autism; that number increased from 1 in 88 in 2012.

Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a spectrum disorder that affects individuals differently. Typically, autism appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others, says the CDC. While there is no known single cause of autism, it is treatable, and studies show that early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes for families.

With individualized interventions, says the CDC, parents can minimize challenges their child faces. From birth to 5 years, children should reach certain milestones in how he or she plays, learns, speaks and acts, and delays in any of these areas could be a sign of a developmental problem. Therefore, it is important to talk to a doctor as soon as possible children display some of the warning signs below.

From the CDC's Learn the Signs, Act Early campaign
Kentucky is one of 12 states with existing autism care insurance requirements, meaning that private insurance must cover autism treatment. Fortunately, there are many treatment options for autism in Kentucky that can generally be divided into four categories: behavioral and communication approaches, dietary approaches, medication and alternative medicine approaches. Click here for a full list of treatment resources or here for more Autism signs and symptoms.

In addition to when a parent is concerned, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be screened for general development using standardized, validated tools at 9, 18, and 24 or 30 months and for autism at 18 and 24 months. While autism spectrum disorders occur in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, they are almost five times more common among boys than girls, says the CDC.

In order to make sure your child reaches his or her full potential, it is very important to get help as soon as possible if your child shows concerning symptoms, according to the CDC's Learn the Signs, Act Early campaign.

UK Healthcare says it must get even bigger, and expand its market area, to provide needed services to Kentucky

By Molly Burchett and Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

The University of Kentucky's health-care system has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade, becoming one of the state's largest businesses, but its boss says it must expand its geographical reach to maintain its newly raised national status and to ensure access to quality care for Kentuckians.

Over the last decade, UK HealthCare’s caseload has increased 85 percent, and its annual hospital budget has increased from $300 million to $922 million, Dr. Michael Karpf, executive vice president for health affairs, said in an interview.

This explosive growth, in addition to the growth of the UK medical school, has jacked up the enterprise's national ranking. It has grown from about the 85th largest academic hospital in the U.S. to approaching the 35th largest in terms of total discharges, the benchmark it uses. That means it has jumped from the bottom third to the top third in less than a decade. (For a more precise measurement over time, based on a Council of Teaching Hospitals standard, see chart.)

The push for growth and development began in 2003, after UK's caseload hit a plateau even though the 1998 General Assembly had mandated it to become a top 20 public research institution. Karpf came aboard and combined the Chandler Medical Center, clinics, faculty practice plans and the College of Medicine into a single integrated system of care -- branded as UK HealthCare -- which he commands. Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington was added in 2007.

"Ten years ago people viewed this a safety-net hospital," Karpf said of the Chandler facility. "We've had to redo the brand." Now more people are choosing the hospital, as suggested by who's paying the bills. Medicare now covers a plurality of the patients; a decade ago, it trailed Medicaid, the program for the poor and disabled. In that time, the total caseload grew 7.2 percent; Medicare cases rose 10.9 percent.

But despite the huge growth in the last decade, the enterprise is still not big enough, Karpf said.

"We want the hospital to be the first choice when it comes to complex care,” he said. “We must advance to better serve the health-care needs of Kentucky.” To do this, he said, UK HealthCare is rejuvenating its brand as "Kentucky's Best Hospital," with a broad range of advanced specialties to keep Kentuckians from leaving the state for care, and is moving to expand its geographic reach to Western Kentucky and out-of-state markets.

Karpf said UK must expand because its traditional market, approximately the eastern half of the state, is not large enough to provide the number of cases that UK will need to receive certification as a federal “Center of Excellence” for complex services like brain surgery and heart, liver, kidney and lung transplantation. He said such a designation will be necessary to get enough referrals from doctors and smaller hospitals to maintain these services and to guarantee that Kentuckians can get the care they need inside the state. "What we make money on is the complex stuff," he said.

Unless UK secures half the available business from out-of-state competitive areas over the next 10 years, Karpf said, "It becomes an issue of access for Kentuckians."

He said the out-of-state institutions that are large and advanced enough to effectively compete with UK as a major referral center include Vanderbilt University, Washington University in St. Louis, Indiana University, Ohio State University, Cleveland Clinic, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the University of Virginia. Vanderbilt is the nation's 10th largest academic medical center and gets many patients from Western and Southern Kentucky. 

UK HealthCare map shows out-of-state markets and institutions it targets for its expansion.
What about Louisville, Cincinnati, Knoxville and other cities? Karpf said the University of Louisville, the University of Tennessee, the University of Cincinnati and West Virginia University are too small and too far behind to be Centers of Excellence. U of L's hospital ranks 88th in total discharges among academic medical centers.

All hospitals are facing challenges from federal health-care reform, but Karpf said at UK it has prompted a culture change centered on quality of care, which the reform law is designed to reward. As UK tries to expand its market, he said, it is critical to stay focused on, safety, service and patient satisfaction. One issue Karpf is dealing with now is the hospital's cardiothoracic surgery program for children, which has been suspended pending an internal review.

As UK seeks more referrals, Karpf said, it is building better relationships with smaller hospitals. "in the past, academic medical centers have been seen as predatory," he said. "We concluded that we need to be seen as in another line of business. . . . We have very strong relationships with community hospitals in Western Kentucky."

For example, UK is  training a cardiologist who is dedicated to practicing in Paducah once his training is complete, and kidney specialists from the area are in its transplant network. The specialists evaluate patients, send them to Lexington for transplants, and provide follow-up care upon their return. Such coordination helps community hospitals keep patients and recruit professional staff, and helps UK capture the cases it might lose to Vanderbilt and other out-of-state hospitals.

Baptist Hospitals Inc. has a large facility in Paducah and recently bought the Trover Health System hospital in Madisonville, making Baptist the largest hospital system in Kentucky, but Karpf said UK has a strong relationships with Baptist and the Norton Healthcare hospitals in Louisville. "They do not compete with us for complex care," he said. "We don't go after the bread-and-butter cases."

Complex care, for which insurance companies pay well, accounts for 5 to 7 percent of UK's cases but almost all its profits. Karpf said UK loses money on another 5 to 7 percent and breaks about even on the rest. He said the profits are invested in buildings, technological equipment and attracting nationally recognized specialists.

The most visible evidence of that is the hospital's new bed tower, part of $1.4 billion UK Healthcare has spent revitalizing itself, mostly with its own profits. But the larger impact is probably in expansion of good-paying jobs.

Dr. Michael Karpf
"We've been the most important growth engine in this region," said Karpf. UK HealthCare went from paying $350 million in salaries and benefits in 2004 to more than $700 million last year. The College of Medicine went from 1,810 employees in 2004 to 2,337 in 2012. The hospital grew from 2,562 full time employees in 2004 to 5,544 in 2012, a 116 percent increase.

The medical school's full-time faculty has expanded from 443 a decade ago to 625 now. "We know the stronger you are clinically, the better your research profile," Karpf said. UK Healthcare hopes to achieve National Cancer Institute designation for the Markey Cancer Center, and it must continue to evolve in its clinical, education and research missions, Karpf said.

If UK HealthCare can do that, it will continue to be a major economic driver for Kentucky while ensuring that all Kentuckians have access to quality care.

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Attorney general says UK should hand over records on children's heart surgeries, which have been suspended pending review

Attorney General Jack Conway has ruled that the University of Kentucky hospital violated the state Open Records Act by refusing to give a reporter for the university-owned radio station records relating to the work of the chief of cardiothoracic surgery, who has stopped doing surgery on children. UK refused to let Conway's staff examine the records to evaluate UK's claimed need for confidentiality.

After inquiries by Brenna Angel of WUKY, "UK announced that the hospital had stopped performing pediatric cardiothoracic surgeries pending an internal review," John Cheves writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Angel reports that she sought records on Dr. Mark Plunkett, left, who was also director of the pediatric and congenital heart program: "the date of Plunkett’s last surgery, the mortality rate of pediatric heart surgery cases, and documentation related to the program’s review." She sought no patient-specific information.

UK denied her request, citing the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and arguing that release of the information could lead to the identification of one or more patients because Plunkett was doing so few surgeries on children. It also cited HIPAA in refusing to let Conway's staff review the records. Conway rejected that argument, noting that HIPAA does not supersede state laws and even make allowances for them.

Because it deals with the Open Records Act, Conway's decision has the force of law. UK can appeal the decision to circuit court within 30 days of March 27, the date of the decision. "UK spokesman Jay Blanton says officials are considering whether to file an appeal," Angel reports. The decision was publicly released Monday, the same day UK held a press conference about "the progress UK Healthcare has made in cardiology," she notes. "Yet the pediatric cardiothoracic surgery program remains under review, and patients from Central and Eastern Kentucky are being referred to hospitals out of state. Dr. Mark Plunkett remains on staff."

When Angel asked Dr. Michael Karpf, UK's executive vice president for health affairs, to comment, he replied, “We’ll have something to say about that in a little while.” Cheves notes, "UK recruited Plunkett, a noted surgeon at the University of California at Los Angeles, in 2007 to strengthen its pediatric heart program. He makes $700,000 a year, one of the highest salaries at UK." (Read more)

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