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homeless-oneIn 2014, county and city leaders decided that something needed to be done about central Florida’s alarming homeless population. The issue plagued not just the region’s streets, but also emergency rooms (ERs), health centers and first responders, as homeless people turned to ERs for regular care. Some of the region’s homeless visited the hospital dozens of times in a single year, racking up millions of dollars in services ultimately paid by the hospital systems and taxpayers.

Florida Hospital’s answer: an unprecedented $6 million to support the “housing first” model to end chronic homelessness.

Traditionally, the battle against homelessness has been fought by tracking down the homeless wherever they could be found (if, indeed, they could be found) and offering basic needs (food, water, clothing, first aid) and services such as case management and counseling. In fact, Florida Hospital created a special program, the Homeless Outreach Partnership Effort (H.O.P.E.) Team, to do just that. But the traditional approach put adequate, permanent housing down the list as a “maybe” rather than a “must.”

“Housing first” flips this model, where those who qualify are first given a home and then offered wraparound services aimed at better health, job training and eventually re-entering the workforce to be able to sustain themselves. Those who suffer from severe mental illness and are unable to work also receive priority because they are the highest users of health and public services.

As of last month, 79 formerly homeless Floridians have been placed into permanent housing. And while only a quarter of the $6 million pledged has actually been spent, Florida Hospital and its partners have already seen significant change. Residents now see primary care physicians on a regular basis, are able to manage their chronic conditions and have case managers checking in to make sure they are able to afford their medications. No longer having to worry about where to sleep, they focus on their health, their skills and thriving with dignity.

It’s notable that Florida Hospital, with 2,200 beds and nearly 18,000 employees, is one of the largest in the US, which may cause rural-state hospital leaders to scoff at trying to duplicate the housing first model. Suffice to say, like hospital size, the homeless problem – and the broader adequate housing problem – is relative to location, as would be any response. What’s not in contention is how firmly connected access to housing is to health, overall quality of life and the cost of health care.

Can hospitals solve the homeless problem? No, not even a giant like Florida Hospital can. But that’s not the point. Effective health care is moving steadily from the reactive – trying to fix what homelessness breaks – to proactive – mitigating homelessness as a health issue with preventive care or, ultimately, by supplying permanent, adequate housing.

Of course hospitals can’t fix homelessness, but along with countless other upstream health issues – from childhood trauma to drug abuse to education to nutrition – hospitals are best positioned to form and lead the coalitions necessary to implement lasting solutions. In fact, in the new health care paradigm, there really is no other option.

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Children in Chariton learn basic CPR from Lucas County Health Center staff.

Children in Chariton learn basic CPR from Lucas County Health Center staff.

Results of IHA’s 2015 Community Benefits Survey have been released and show Iowa hospitals provided community benefits valued at more than $1 billion including more than $246 million in charity care. All 118 of Iowa’s community hospitals participated in the statewide survey which is distributed by IHA annually.

Community benefits are activities designed to improve health status and provide greater access to health care and include services and programs such as health screenings, support groups, counseling, immunizations, nutritional services and transportation programs. The total value of these services, as reported in the survey, reaches nearly $172 million.

“Iowa hospitals are uniquely positioned to deliver these programs and services,” said IHA President and CEO Kirk Norris. “No other public or private entity could possibly fill in for hospitals in terms of both assessing and responding to specific community needs.”

Uncompensated care (which is made up of both charity care and bad debt) also plays a role in overall community benefit for services provided by hospitals. Total uncompensated care in 2015 was valued at nearly $520 million. The survey also showed total Medicare and Medicaid losses (at cost) of nearly $370 million.

The community benefits reports display the social and economic importance of Iowa hospitals and health systems. Hospital leaders are encouraged to share hospital-specific data and details of their community benefit services and programs with local media, business leaders and community groups. These efforts help ensure the financial stability of hospitals, making it possible for them to provide the services and programs most needed by their communities.

More information about Iowa hospital community benefits, as well as other hospital quality, safety, economic and utilization data, is available at IHA’s health care consumer website, www.iowahospitalfacts.com.

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(This column was written by Pam Matthews, a diabetic who lives in Humboldt. Matthews shared her story last month when UnityPoint Health-Fort Dodge hosted United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell at Trinity Regional Medical Center. The visit included a round-table discussion focused on the successes of the Pioneer Accountable Care Organization and how it has helped improve care coordination in the Fort Dodge region.)

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Pam Matthews and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell

I’m a widow and I don’t have children, but I’m an aunt, a great aunt and a great-great aunt. About two years ago, I tried to fully retire, but I just grew fatter and grouchier, so I started working part-time, taking care of people with intellectual disabilities. I love that work.

In 1997, I wasn’t feeling well. I was thirsty all the time. I knew something was wrong, but I really wasn’t committed to taking care of my health. I shopped around for doctors and each one told me that I had diabetes. But I did not want to hear what they were saying. I was clearly in denial.

I finally had a good moment of clarity with myself in 2011. One day, I had heart failure and an ambulance took me to the hospital. I realized that if I wanted to live and enjoy all my nephews and nieces, I had to take care of my health.

My sister had been seeing Dr. Dustin Smith at the UnityPoint Eagle Grove family health clinic for two years and was happy with him, so I made an appointment.

He told me that I definitely was diabetic and he said a lot more, but he wasn’t just talking at me. When I talked, I realized that he was listening to me. My health care would be a “we decision.”

His manner was very comforting and reassuring. I was obese, but he didn’t harp on my weight. He said he wanted to see me every three months, and he suggested a diabetes education program that would arm me with the knowledge of how to manage my condition. I was paired with a nurse and a care manager out of UnityPoint in Des Moines, who would call and check up on me from time to time. Working with my team, I set realistic goals.

I go to the clinic in Eagle Grove regularly for my blood work and I get the results from the nurse usually within two days. The goal of the clinic was to get patients’ A1C level, which measures blood sugar, down below 7. My number is now 5.8!

It’s so important to keep an open dialogue with your doctor. Dr. Smith respects my opinion. When I told him that I was feeling more than simply tired, he did some tests and found that I was anemic.

When I felt really sick this winter, he determined that a change in my medications had led to a fluid buildup around my heart. He put me back on diuretics and I’m feeling good now. And he made sure that I met with a cardiologist.

The clinic in Eagle Grove, a rural family medicine practice, is part of the UnityPoint Health Accountable Care Organization. I’m told it’s designed to improve communications between health care providers and their patients and provide more coordinated care to people enrolled in Medicare. It’s one of the ways the Affordable Care Act is promoting smarter care and lower costs all while putting patients first.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell came to Fort Dodge recently to hear about the UnityPoint ACO experience and I was able to tell her about my story. I don’t know a whole lot about how ACOs work. But I like how I’m part of my health care team. I have a voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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school_of_fishAt a recent meeting of the Iowa Senate Human Resources Committee, Medicaid beneficiaries and providers were asked to testify regarding the transition to Medicaid managed care. Their universal response? Not so great. Virtually everyone who testified complained of slow and inaccurate payments, significant increases in denial rates and consumer difficulty navigating incredibly complex regulatory waters.

More specifically for hospitals, members of the IHA finance group evaluating managed care concerns indicated in its separate meeting that many providers are not yet loaded into the managed care organizations’ (MCOs) systems, despite contracts being signed last spring; in many cases, remittances are being sent to the wrong hospitals; claims for Medicare/Medicaid deductibles and ambulance services are routinely being denied and there’s widespread inability to connect with MCO provider representatives to resolve questions.

In response to the Senate committee meeting, Governor Branstad was quoted in the Quad-City Times as saying that complaints are coming from providers who are upset “because we’re checking on them now.” He then added, “The Democrats don’t like it and the Des Moines Register hates it. These great so-called progressives are the ones that are the most against progress. They want to keep doing it the expensive, old-fashioned way that doesn’t work as effectively and efficiently as what we’re doing today and we’re not going to be deterred.”

So it’s all in the spin. Evidence from other states suggests that Medicaid privatization is not less expensive than traditional state-run Medicaid programs. Over time, these private insurance companies will most certainly come back to the Iowa General Assembly to ask for more money to manage our Medicaid program. And “efficient” was not a word uttered by one person at the Senate committee meeting. Even the CEOs of the managed care companies who testified at the meeting indicated the “transition period” to get things working smoothly could take as long as 12-18 months.

What is clear is that as data emerges in the coming weeks and months, we’ll all have more and more comparative information upon which to base our opinions. For example, the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) released its initial dashboard the evening before the Senate hearing. And while administration representatives touted the fact that the MCOs have processed and paid 3.47 million claims since the April 1 enactment of Medicaid privatization, they didn’t spend a lot of time highlighting the 1.5 million claims that have been denied, suspended or rejected in that same time period (and those are DHS figures). That’s a 30 percent rejection rate, unheard of under traditional Medicaid.

Senator Liz Mathis (D-Cedar Rapids), who chairs the Senate committee, said “I think the transition has been rugged, it’s been sloppy and there’s a disconnect between what we’re hearing from state officials and what the providers are telling us.” That’s putting it mildly.

One would think that even the supporters of Medicaid privatization would acknowledge that the MCOs have to get to a point of paying claims responsibly and correctly before their vision of a transformative Medicaid program is actually operating. Until then, that vision only exists for those who are closing their eyes and wishing it were so.

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