Readers Call on Congress to Bolster Medicare and Fix Loopholes in Health Policy

Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.

Occupational Therapists Change Lives. CMS Must Better Support Them.

Occupational therapists are critical in helping patients adjust to new circumstances, empowering them with the tools they need to overcome barriers and regain control over their lives. Whether you’re transitioning from homelessness into a home (“In Los Angeles, Occupational Therapists Tapped to Help Homeless Stay Housed,” Jan. 24) or relearning how to do everyday tasks following a stroke, OTs are key to patients’ care plan.

But the critical care provided by OTs is being threatened by another year of payment cuts imposed by Medicare, our nation’s health care program for people age 65 and up. Many older patients treated by OTs access insurance coverage through Medicare, which typically reimburses providers at a lower rate than private insurers. And now, with payment cuts that went into effect on Jan. 1 — despite warnings and backlash from lawmakers, patients, and providers — OTs are struggling to deliver care with lower Medicare payment.

Investing in occupational therapy improves health outcomes for patients, has the potential to reduce the burden on hospitals and other health care clinicians, and keeps individuals healthy and independent. Medicare’s payment cuts only compromise the ability of providers to deliver comprehensive, compassionate care. Medicare must recognize the long-term patient benefits occupational therapy has to offer.

Luckily, Congress is considering a bill that would reverse these harmful payment cuts. The Preserving Seniors’ Access to Physicians Act of 2023 (HR 6683), would reverse the cuts that went into effect on Jan. 1, alleviating financial stress for occupational therapists and preserving patient access. I strongly urge lawmakers to prioritize and protect occupational therapy services and immediately pass HR 6683 for America’s Medicare patients.

— Doug Fosco, an occupational therapist practicing at Two Trees Physical Therapy in Ventura, California

An assistant professor at Ontario’s Western University weighed in on X.

Great to see the role of #occupationaltherapy with persons who experience #homelessness profiled in @latimes. Thanks #deborahpitts for your work in LA with @USC and #skidrowhousingtrust . Check it out @CAOT_ACE @OSOTvoice ! @CAEHomelessness

— Carrie Anne Marshall, PhD (@cannemarshall) January 24, 2024

— Carrie Anne Marshall, Sydenham, Ontario

Congress Must Finish the Job on Site-Neutral Payments

There’s an obvious solution to rein in government spending and patient out-of-pocket costs: Pay identical prices for identical care (“In Fight Over Medicare Payments, the Hospital Lobby Shows Its Strength,” Feb. 13).

As a community oncologist, it is clear to me how Medicare favors hospitals by paying more for services provided in hospital outpatient departments (HOPDs) than the same care delivered in community-based facilities. For example, last year, Medicare paid over 2.5 times as much in an HOPD as in a free-standing office for drug administration services. It’s not just Medicare paying too much; patients also face higher out-of-pocket costs for care provided in HOPDs. If the Lower Costs, More Transparency Act is signed into law, cancer patients would immediately pay less for treatments like chemotherapy.

One unintended consequence of current payment disparities is consolidation. To leverage higher reimbursements, health systems scoop up independent practices — a growing problem that is particularly pronounced in oncology. From 2008 to 2020, 435 community cancer clinics closed, while 722 contracted with or were acquired by hospitals. This consolidation is reducing patient access, particularly in rural areas, where many independent clinics operate small satellite sites that tend to be the first to close when hospitals acquire a community-based practice.

It’s time for Congress to finish the job through bills like the Lower Costs, More Transparency Act and the SITE Act, which would help level the playing field once and for all.

— Scott Rushing, Vancouver, Washington

The chief marketing officer of SKYGEN cut to the chase on X.

In the battle to control healthcare costs, hospitals are deploying their political power to protect their bottom lines.

— Donald H. Polite (@DonaldPolite) February 15, 2024

— Donald H. Polite, Milwaukee

The ‘Gold Card’ Shuffle

Prior authorization, by definition, creates delays in care and bureaucratic barriers for physicians — which is why it is so troubling that many insurers now require prior authorization for large categories of procedures with no evidence of overuse or inappropriate use. With health insurers increasingly implementing questionable prior authorization policies, state and federal lawmakers are racing to erect safeguards that ensure patients’ access to timely care (“States Target Health Insurers’ ‘Prior Authorization’ Red Tape,” Feb. 12).

Much of the legislation to address this growing problem centers around the use of “Gold Cards” that exempt providers whose previous requests for prior authorization have been approved for a certain period. In general, these laws are important for patients who can’t afford to wait for care — especially in the field of gastroenterology where severe abdominal pain or blood in the stool could indicate a serious condition like cancer.

However, some insurance companies are co-opting the “Gold Card” term to justify new prior authorization requirements instead of streamlining existing ones. Consider the case of UnitedHealthcare, which announced it would roll out a “Gold Card” prior authorization program this year for most colonoscopies and endoscopies. No other insurer has levied such a policy, nor does the research suggest there is an overutilization of these vital services. Despite nearly a year of good faith efforts to seek transparency and guidance from UHC, the company has failed to release any data or justification that these services are improperly utilized.

If anything, diagnostic and surveillance colonoscopies and endoscopies may be underutilized. New research from the American Cancer Society shows an alarming spike in the number of younger Americans being diagnosed with and dying from colorectal cancer. Since symptoms of colorectal cancer don’t often appear until the disease is at a more advanced stage, early detection is key. Any disruption to surveillance colonoscopies (which follow removal of a precancerous polyp and are part of the screening continuum) caused by UHC’s forthcoming prior authorization policy would be dangerous for the company’s 27 million commercial beneficiaries.

The American Gastroenterological Association strongly urges UHC to rescind its “Gold Card” prior authorization policy. Policymakers must monitor how insurers are co-opting concepts meant to protect patients, in particular UHC’s faux “Gold Card,” which threatens patient access to a procedure proven to save lives.

— Barbara Jung, president of the American Gastroenterological Association, Seattle

In an X post, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute pointed out the value in requiring prior authorization.

Case-by-case prior authorization is never fun, but surely preferable to most other methods of eliminating needless spending (ex post denials of reimbursement, higher cost-sharing, capped global budgets, etc…)

— Chris Pope (@CPopeHC) February 12, 2024

— Chris Pope, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, New York City

Hospice in Prison: A Transformative View

I was so impressed with Markian Hawryluk’s exceptionally well-written article “Death and Redemption in an American Prison” (Feb. 21). I was privileged to serve as an inaugural member of the American Hospital Association’s Circle of Life Award committee, from 1999 to 2004. The awards were established to recognize the most outstanding hospice and palliative care programs in the U.S. The very first year, we received an application from the country’s largest maximum-security prison in Angola, Louisiana, the subject of Mr. Hawryluk’s wonderful article. The prison was one of the five finalists chosen for a site visit in 2000. I volunteered to be on team to visit and evaluate the prison’s hospice services.

Twenty-four years later, I still remember my conversation with one of the inmate volunteers who had just returned from bathing and feeding a dying prisoner. He told me the inmate said, “I love you.” Then the inmate volunteer stated, “I never heard those words before — not from my father, who I never met, nor from my mother.” In 2000, if one were sentenced to life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, there was no chance for parole. When we met with the warden, he mentioned there was a waiting list of prisoners who wanted to be hospice volunteers.

Please convey my deep appreciation to Mr. Hawryluk for his outstanding article.

— Paul Hofmann, president of the Hofmann Healthcare Group, Moraga, California

A digital storyteller shared the article on X.

Your one, long read for today – it’s beautifully and thoughtfully written and reported”Sometimes when you’re in a dark place, you find out who you really are and what you wish you could be,” Steven Garner said. “Even in darkness, I could be a light.”

— Ameera B. ا ميرة بت 🪬 (@meerabee) February 19, 2024

— Ameera Butt, Los Angeles

Feeling Insecure Because of Social Security Tactics

When will you continue your series on the overpayments to the Social Security Administration (“Overpayment Outrage”)? People are still suffering without benefits because the agency says people were overpaid and wants the money back. Why is nobody else asking more questions?

People in this country worked hard and paid taxes. And when it is time to retire, the Social Security Administration refuses to pay if, all of a sudden, it discovers you have been overpaid. They have told me I owe them $30,000 from over 20 years ago, and I do not know what they are talking about, but they want to take my retirement money until it’s paid off. Or they want you to say it is OK to take a percentage out. Doing that would say you’re guilty and you owe the money — to me, that’s blackmail.

New immigrants get free phones, medical care, debit cards, food assistance, schooling … that comes to more than my little amount of retirement money. It seems the government can afford to take care of them, but not their own. Everyone who has had their Social Security taken away should be entitled to the free services they get, as we are in the same position — now we have nothing either.

— Thomas Troy, New York City

Lifelong Minnesotan and epidemiologist Eric Weinhandl chimed in on X.

Relatively severe incompetency. Social Security Chief Apologizes to Congress for Misleading Testimony on Overpayments

— Eric Weinhandl (@eric_weinhandl) December 27, 2023

— Eric Weinhandl, Victoria, Minnesota

A Balanced View of the Law Curbing Surprise Bills

KFF Health News’ Elisabeth Rosenthal has long advocated for quality, patient-centric medical care. However, her recent article, “The No Surprises Act Comes with Some Surprises” (Feb. 14), falls short in its analysis of surprise medical billing and the federal No Surprises Act (NSA). While she places blame on physicians, the reality is more complicated.

Patients with health insurance should not be burdened with paying more than their normal in-network cost-sharing amount for unexpected out-of-network care. This is not controversial. The legislative debate was never about whether to act on surprise billing, but rather how to act. While insurers favored policies that would allow them to calculate the payment rate medical providers receive, with the NSA, Congress instead chose an approach intended to protect sustainable payment rates that would preserve patients’ access to care. The NSA removes patients from payment disputes between insurers and providers and is intended to encourage negotiations between insurers and providers, with an option for neutral arbitration.

Rosenthal’s article implies a “greedy doctor” narrative, omitting discussion of insurers as contributing to the problems with the NSA’s implementation. While the article notes that many requests for arbitration came from private equity-associated provider organizations, it neglected to note that a single insurance company (UnitedHealthcare) was involved in almost 40% of arbitration disputes. That is more than the rest of the top five insurance organizations combined. The article also quotes and references papers by Zack Cooper, whose undisclosed connections with UnitedHealthcare came to light through litigation. As reported, UnitedHealthcare not only provided data to Cooper, but helped frame the narrative of the work.

NSA rulemaking has financially incentivized insurers to leverage the NSA to unilaterally reduce existing contracted rates and push physicians out-of-network. As for the projected number of requests for arbitration in 2022 (which underestimated “providers’ ire by an order of magnitude”), that projection ignored existing data. In just the first six months of 2021, Texas alone had more than twice as many arbitration submissions for its state law as the federal government projected for the nation for a full year. More importantly, the article ignores the issue of why doctors request arbitration. Since arbitration is baseball-style and “loser pays,” there is a strong disincentive to request it without a solid reason. In the second quarter of 2023, providers won nearly 80% of disputes, reflecting the fact that doctors are going to arbitration when insurers’ actions are unreasonable.

Further, while it is true that before the NSA too many patients were receiving bills for unexpected out-of-network care, a report from the Department of Health and Human Services noted that out-of-network billing was actually declining prior to the NSA. Physician survey data suggests that post-NSA out-of-network care is now increasing due to some insurers’ actions.

The bipartisan NSA is a balanced solution to a complicated problem. Difficulties with the law’s implementation, including the volume of dispute submissions and backlog of cases, are due to unintended consequences from rulemaking. Addressing these challenges requires an honest conversation about their cause. Going forward, rulemaking is needed to promote fair network contracting, limit the need for arbitration, and, most importantly, protect patients’ access to care.

— Rich Heller, a pediatric radiologist and the associate chief medical officer for health policy, Radiology Partners, Chicago

Anesthetist-emergency physician-family doctor David Moniz, in an X post, warned of the “unseen consequences” of the No Surprises Act.

Check out the surprising outcomes of the No Surprises Act, designed to protect patients from unexpected medical bills. While it’s successfully shielded many patients, there are unseen consequences. Read the full article here:, #healthpolicy, #he

— David Moniz (@DavidMoniz15) February 14, 2024

— David Moniz, Chilliwack, British Columbia

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