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Medicaid Unwinding Deals Blow to Tenuous System of Care for Native Americans

About a year into the process of redetermining Medicaid eligibility after the covid-19 public health emergency, more than 20 million people have been kicked off the joint federal-state program for low-income families.

A chorus of stories recount the ways the unwinding has upended people’s lives, but Native Americans are proving particularly vulnerable to losing coverage and face greater obstacles to reenrolling in Medicaid or finding other coverage.

“From my perspective, it did not work how it should,” said Kristin Melli, a pediatric nurse practitioner in rural Kalispell, Montana, who also provides telehealth services to tribal members on the Fort Peck Reservation.

The redetermination process has compounded long-existing problems people on the reservation face when seeking care, she said. She saw several patients who were still eligible for benefits disenrolled. And a rise in uninsured tribal members undercuts their health systems, threatening the already tenuous access to care in Native communities.

One teenager, Melli recalled, lost coverage while seeking lifesaving care. Routine lab work raised flags, and in follow-ups Melli discovered the girl had a condition that could have killed her if untreated. Melli did not disclose details, to protect the patient’s privacy.

Melli said she spent weeks working with tribal nurses to coordinate lab monitoring and consultations with specialists for her patient. It wasn’t until the teen went to a specialist that Melli received a call saying she had been dropped from Medicaid coverage.

The girl’s parents told Melli they had reapplied to Medicaid a month earlier but hadn’t heard back. Melli’s patient eventually got the medication she needed with help from a pharmacist. The unwinding presented an unnecessary and burdensome obstacle to care.

Pat Flowers, Montana Democratic Senate minority leader, said during a political event in early April that 13,000 tribal members had been disenrolled in the state.

Native American and Alaska Native adults are enrolled in Medicaid at higher rates than their white counterparts, yet some tribal leaders still didn’t know exactly how many of their members had been disenrolled as of a survey conducted in February and March. The Tribal Self-Governance Advisory Committee of the Indian Health Service conducted and published the survey. Respondents included tribal leaders from Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico, among other states.

Tribal leaders reported many challenges related to the redetermination, including a lack of timely information provided to tribal members, patients unaware of the process or their disenrollment, long processing times, lack of staffing at the tribal level, lack of communication from their states, concerns with obtaining accurate tribal data, and in cases in which states have shared data, difficulties interpreting it.

Research and policy experts initially feared that vulnerable populations, including rural Indigenous communities and families of color, would experience greater and unique obstacles to renewing their health coverage and would be disproportionately harmed.

“They have a lot at stake and a lot to lose in this process,” said Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families and a research professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy. “I fear that that prediction is coming true.”

Cammie DuPuis-Pablo, tribal health communications director for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, said the tribes don’t have an exact number of their members disenrolled since the redetermination began, but know some who lost coverage as far back as July still haven’t been reenrolled.

The tribes hosted their first outreach event in late April as part of their effort to help members through the process. The health care resource division is meeting people at home, making calls, and planning more events.

The tribes receive a list of members’ Medicaid status each month, DuPuis-Pablo said, but a list of those no longer insured by Medicaid would be more helpful.

Because of those data deficits, it’s unclear how many tribal members have been disenrolled.

“We are at the mercy of state Medicaid agencies on what they’re willing to share,” said Yvonne Myers, consultant on the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid for Citizen Potawatomi Nation Health Services in Oklahoma.

In Alaska, tribal health leaders struck a data-sharing agreement with the state in July but didn’t begin receiving information about their members’ coverage for about a month — at which point more than 9,500 Alaskans had already been disenrolled for procedural reasons.

“We already lost those people,” said Gennifer Moreau-Johnson, senior policy adviser in the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit organization. “That’s a real impact.”

Because federal regulations don’t require states to track or report race and ethnicity data for people they disenroll, fewer than 10 states collect such information. While the data from these states does not show a higher rate of loss of coverage by race, a KFF report states that the data is limited and that a more accurate picture would require more demographic reporting from more states.

Tribal health leaders are concerned that a high number of disenrollments among their members is financially undercutting their health systems and ability to provide care.

“Just because they’ve fallen off Medicaid doesn’t mean we stop serving them,” said Jim Roberts, senior executive liaison in the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. “It means we’re more reliant on other sources of funding to provide that care that are already underresourced.”

Three in 10 Native American and Alaska Native people younger than 65 rely on Medicaid, compared with 15% of their white counterparts. The Indian Health Service is responsible for providing care to approximately 2.6 million of the 9.7 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the U.S., but services vary across regions, clinics, and health centers. The agency itself has been chronically underfunded and unable to meet the needs of the population. For fiscal year 2024, Congress approved $6.96 billion for IHS, far less than the $51.4 billion tribal leaders called for.

Because of that historical deficit, tribal health systems lean on Medicaid reimbursement and other third-party payers, like Medicare, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and private insurance, to help fill the gap. Medicaid accounted for two-thirds of third-party IHS revenues as of 2021.

Some tribal health systems receive more federal funding through Medicaid than from IHS, Roberts said.

Tribal health leaders fear diminishing Medicaid dollars will exacerbate the long-standing health disparities — such as lower life expectancy, higher rates of chronic disease, and inferior access to care — that plague Native Americans.

The unwinding has become “all-consuming,” said Monique Martin, vice president of intergovernmental affairs for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

“The state’s really having that focus be right into the minutiae of administrative tasks, like: How do we send text messages to 7,000 people?” Martin said. “We would much rather be talking about: How do we address social determinants of health?”

Melli said she has stopped hearing of tribal members on the Fort Peck Reservation losing their Medicaid coverage, but she wonders if that means disenrolled people didn’t seek help.

“Those are the ones that we really worry about,” she said, “all of these silent cases. … We only know about the ones we actually see.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Proponen estrategia federal de salud mental para frenar muertes maternas

Bridgeport, Connecticut.- Milagros Aquino buscaba un nuevo lugar para vivir y estaba intentando acostumbrarse a la comida después de mudarse a Bridgeport, desde Perú, con su esposo y su hijo pequeño en 2023.

Cuando Aquino, que ahora tiene 31 años, se quedó embarazada en mayo de ese año, “de repente todo fue peor que antes”, dijo. “Estaba muy triste y me pasaba el día en la cama. Me sentía realmente perdida y me limitaba a sobrevivir”.

El caso de Aquino no es único.

Según estudios, la depresión perinatal afecta a un 20% de las mujeres en Estados Unidos durante el embarazo, el posparto o ambos. En algunos estados, la ansiedad o la depresión afectan a casi una cuarta parte de las madres primerizas o de las embarazadas.

Muchas mujeres en el país no reciben tratamiento porque no existe un sistema generalizado de detección de enfermedades mentales en las madres, a pesar de las recomendaciones. Expertos afirman que la falta de detección ha provocado un aumento de las tasas de enfermedad mental, suicidio y sobredosis de drogas, que ahora son las principales causas de muerte en el primer año después que una mujer da a luz.

“Se trata de un problema sistémico, médico y de derechos humanos”, afirmó Lindsay R. Standeven, psiquiatra perinatal y directora clínica y educativa del Johns Hopkins Reproductive Mental Health Center.

Según Standeven, entre las causas profundas del problema figuran las disparidades raciales y socioeconómicas en la atención materna y la falta de sistemas de apoyo para las nuevas madres.

También apuntó a la escasez de profesionales de salud mental, la insuficiente formación en salud mental materna de los proveedores y el insuficiente reembolso por estos servicios. Por último, Standeven señaló que el problema se ve agravado por la falta de políticas nacionales de licencia por maternidad y el acceso a las armas.

Estos factores contribuyeron a un aumento del 105% de la depresión posparto entre 2010 y 2021, según el American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

En el caso de Aquino, no fue hasta las últimas semanas de su embarazo, cuando empezó a hacer acupuntura para aliviar su estrés. Una trabajadora social la ayudó a recibir atención a través de la Emme Coalition, una organización que conecta a niñas y mujeres con ayuda financiera, servicios de asesoramiento en salud mental y otros recursos.

Las madres a las que se diagnostica con depresión o ansiedad perinatal durante o después del embarazo corren un riesgo tres veces mayor de comportamiento suicida y seis veces mayor de suicidio que las madres sin un trastorno del estado de ánimo, según estudios recientes, estadounidenses e internacionales, publicados en JAMA Network Open y The BMJ.

Las consecuencias de la crisis de salud mental materna son especialmente graves en las comunidades rurales que se han convertido en desiertos para la atención de la maternidad, ya que los pequeños hospitales cierran sus unidades de parto por la caída de las tasas de natalidad o por problemas económicos o de personal.

Hace pocos días, el Grupo de Trabajo sobre Salud Mental Materna —codirigido por la Oficina de Salud de la Mujer y la Administración de Servicios de Salud Mental y Abuso de Sustancias, y constituido en septiembre para dar respuesta a este problema— recomendó crear centros de atención de maternidad que pudieran servir como núcleos de atención integrada, e instalaciones de parto, aprovechando los servicios y el personal ya existentes en las comunidades.

Según Joy Burkhard, miembro del grupo de trabajo y directora ejecutiva de la organización sin fines de lucro Policy Center for Maternal Mental Health, el grupo de trabajo determinará en breve qué partes del plan requerirán la intervención del Congreso y financiación para su puesta en práctica, y cuáles serán “las opciones más factibles”.

Para Burkhard, es esencial un acceso equitativo a la salud. El grupo de trabajo recomendó que los funcionarios federales determinen las zonas en las que deben ubicarse los centros de maternidad basándose en datos que identifiquen a las desatendidas. “La América rural”, dijo, “es lo primero y lo más importante”.

Hay escasez de atención en “zonas poco probables”, como el condado de Los Angeles, donde recientemente se han cerrado algunas maternidades, explicó Burkhard. Las zonas urbanas desatendidas también podrían er elegibles para los nuevos centros.

“Lo único que piden las madres es un atención de la maternidad que tenga sentido. Ahora mismo no existe nada de eso”, añadió.

Se han diseñado varios programas piloto para ayudar a las madres con dificultades, que consisten en formar y equipar a comadronas y doulas, personas que orientan y apoyan a las madres de recién nacidos.

En Montana, las tasas de depresión materna antes, durante y después del embarazo son superiores a la media nacional. De 2017 a 2020, aproximadamente el 15% de las madres experimentaron depresión posparto y el 27% experimentaron depresión perinatal, según el Sistema de Monitoreo de Evaluación de Riesgos del Embarazo de Montana.

El estado tuvo la sexta tasa de mortalidad materna más alta del país en 2019, cuando recibió una subvención federal para comenzar a capacitar a las doulas.

Hasta la fecha, el programa ha capacitado a 108 doulas, muchas de las cuales son nativas americanas. Los nativos americanos representan el 6,6% de la población de Montana.

Según un estudio publicado en Obstetrics and Gynecology, las nativas, sobre todo las de zonas rurales, tienen el doble de morbilidad y mortalidad maternas que las mujeres blancas no hispanas a nivel nacional.

Stephanie Fitch, gestora de subvenciones de Montana Obstetrics & Maternal Support en la Clínica Billings, afirmó que la formación de doulas “tiene el potencial de contrarrestar las barreras sistémicas que afectan desproporcionadamente a nuestras comunidades tribales y mejorar la salud general de la comunidad”.

Doce estados y Washington, DC tienen cobertura de Medicaid para la atención de doulas, según el National Health Law Program. Son California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Nueva Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island y Virginia.

Medicaid paga alrededor del 41% de los partos en Estados Unidos, según los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades(CDC).

Jacqueline Carrizo, la doula asignada a Aquino a través de la Emme Coalition, desempeñó un papel importante en su recuperación. Según dijo Aquino, nunca podría haber pasado por un “momento tan oscuro sola”. Con el apoyo de Carrizo, “pude salir adelante”, afirmó.

Los factores genéticos y ambientales, o un trastorno mental previo, pueden aumentar el riesgo de depresión o ansiedad durante el embarazo. Pero los trastornos del estado de ánimo pueden afectar a cualquiera.

Teresa Martínez, de 30 años, de Price, Utah, había luchado contra la ansiedad y la infertilidad durante años antes de concebir a su primer hijo. Pero la alegría y el alivio de dar a luz en 2012 duraron poco.

Sin previo aviso, “una nube oscura se cernió sobre mí”, dijo.

Martínez tenía miedo de decírselo a su marido. “Como mujer, te sientes muy presionada y no quieres el estigma de no ser una buena madre”, explicó.

En los últimos años, se han puesto en marcha programas en todo el país para ayudar a los médicos a reconocer los trastornos del estado de ánimo de las madres y poder asistirlas antes de que se produzcan daños.

Uno de los programas más exitosos es el Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Program for Moms, que comenzó hace una década y desde entonces se ha extendido a 29 estados. El programa, financiado con fondos federales y estatales, proporciona herramientas y formación a médicos y otros profesionales para detectar e identificar trastornos, clasificar a los pacientes y ofrecer opciones de tratamiento.

Pero la expansión de los programas de salud mental materna se está produciendo en medio de la escasez de recursos en gran parte de la América rural. Muchos programas a lo largo del país se han quedado sin fondos.

El grupo de trabajo federal propuso que el Congreso financie y cree programas de consulta similares al de Massachusetts, pero no para sustituir a los que ya existen, dijo Burkhard.

En abril, Missouri se convirtió en el último estado en adoptar el modelo de Massachusetts.

Las residentes con Medicaid tienen 10 veces más probabilidades de morir en el primer año de embarazo que las que tienen seguro privado. De 2018 a 2020, un promedio de 70 mujeres de Missouri murieron cada año durante el embarazo o dentro del año posterior al parto, según las estadísticas del gobierno estatal.

Wendy Ell, directora ejecutiva del Proyecto de Acceso a la Salud Materna en Missouri, calificó su servicio como un “recurso que salva vidas”, gratuito y de fácil acceso para cualquier proveedor de atención médica en el estado que atienda a pacientes en el período perinatal.

Unos 50 profesionales de salud se han inscrito en el programa de Ell desde su puesta en marcha. En los 30 minutos siguientes a la solicitud, los profesionales pueden consultar por teléfono a uno de los tres psiquiatras perinatales. Pero mientras los médicos pueden recibir asesoramiento de los psiquiatras, los recursos de salud mental para las pacientes no son tan fáciles de conseguir.

El grupo de trabajo pidió financiamiento federal para formar a más profesionales de la salud mental y ubicarlos en zonas con grandes necesidades, como Missouri. El grupo de trabajo también recomendó formar y certificar a una plantilla más diversa de trabajadores comunitarios de salud mental, asesores de pacientes, doulas y especialistas de apoyo a colegas en las zonas donde más se necesitan.

Se ha diseñado un nuevo plan de estudios voluntario sobre psiquiatría reproductiva para ayudar a los residentes, becarios y profesionales de la salud mental con escasa o nula formación sobre el tratamiento de las enfermedades psiquiátricas en el periodo perinatal.

Un pequeño sondeo reveló que el plan de estudios mejoraba significativamente la capacidad de los psiquiatras para tratar a las mujeres en el período perinatal con enfermedades mentales, afirmó Standeven, que contribuyó al programa de formación y es uno de los autores del sondeo.

Nancy Byatt, psiquiatra perinatal de la Facultad de Medicina Chan de la Universidad de Massachusetts, que dirigió el lanzamiento del Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Program for Moms en 2014, dijo que todavía hay mucho trabajo por hacer.

“Creo que lo más importante es que hemos avanzado mucho y, en ese sentido, tengo cierta esperanza”, señaló Byatt.

Los informes de Cheryl Platzman Weinstock cuentan con el apoyo de una subvención del National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation.

Para ayuda, se puede llamar o enviar un mensaje de texto a la National Maternal Mental Health Hotline al 1-833-TLC-MAMA (1-833-852-6262) o contactar a 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline marcando o texteando “988”. Hay disponible servicios en español.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra Issues Statement on New Data Showing Continued Low Uninsurance Rate

HHS Gov News - May 17, 2024
CDC released new data showing the uninsurance rate holding steady at 7.7 percent.

Clean Needles Save Lives. In Some States, They Might Not Be Legal.

Kim Botteicher hardly thinks of herself as a criminal.

On the main floor of a former Catholic church in Bolivar, Pennsylvania, Botteicher runs a flower shop and cafe.

In the former church’s basement, she also operates a nonprofit organization focused on helping people caught up in the drug epidemic get back on their feet.

The nonprofit, FAVOR ~ Western PA, sits in a rural pocket of the Allegheny Mountains east of Pittsburgh. Her organization’s home county of Westmoreland has seen roughly 100 or more drug overdose deaths each year for the past several years, the majority involving fentanyl.

Thousands more residents in the region have been touched by the scourge of addiction, which is where Botteicher comes in.

She helps people find housing, jobs, and health care, and works with families by running support groups and explaining that substance use disorder is a disease, not a moral failing.

But she has also talked publicly about how she has made sterile syringes available to people who use drugs.

“When that person comes in the door,” she said, “if they are covered with abscesses because they have been using needles that are dirty, or they’ve been sharing needles — maybe they’ve got hep C — we see that as, ‘OK, this is our first step.’”

Studies have identified public health benefits associated with syringe exchange services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says these programs reduce HIV and hepatitis C infections, and that new users of the programs are more likely to enter drug treatment and more likely to stop using drugs than nonparticipants.

This harm-reduction strategy is supported by leading health groups, such as the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the International AIDS Society.

But providing clean syringes could put Botteicher in legal danger. Under Pennsylvania law, it’s a misdemeanor to distribute drug paraphernalia. The state’s definition includes hypodermic syringes, needles, and other objects used for injecting banned drugs. Pennsylvania is one of 12 states that do not implicitly or explicitly authorize syringe services programs through statute or regulation, according to a 2023 analysis. A few of those states, but not Pennsylvania, either don’t have a state drug paraphernalia law or don’t include syringes in it.

Those working on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, like Botteicher, say a reexamination of Pennsylvania’s law is long overdue.

There’s an urgency to the issue as well: Billions of dollars have begun flowing into Pennsylvania and other states from legal settlements with companies over their role in the opioid epidemic, and syringe services are among the eligible interventions that could be supported by that money.

The opioid settlements reached between drug companies and distributors and a coalition of state attorneys general included a list of recommendations for spending the money. Expanding syringe services is listed as one of the core strategies.

But in Pennsylvania, where 5,158 people died from a drug overdose in 2022, the state’s drug paraphernalia law stands in the way.

Concerns over Botteicher’s work with syringe services recently led Westmoreland County officials to cancel an allocation of $150,000 in opioid settlement funds they had previously approved for her organization. County Commissioner Douglas Chew defended the decision by saying the county “is very risk averse.”

Botteicher said her organization had planned to use the money to hire additional recovery specialists, not on syringes. Supporters of syringe services point to the cancellation of funding as evidence of the need to change state law, especially given the recommendations of settlement documents.

“It’s just a huge inconsistency,” said Zoe Soslow, who leads overdose prevention work in Pennsylvania for the public health organization Vital Strategies. “It’s causing a lot of confusion.”

Though sterile syringes can be purchased from pharmacies without a prescription, handing out free ones to make drug use safer is generally considered illegal — or at least in a legal gray area — in most of the state. In Pennsylvania’s two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, officials have used local health powers to provide legal protection to people who operate syringe services programs.

Even so, in Philadelphia, Mayor Cherelle Parker, who took office in January, has made it clear she opposes using opioid settlement money, or any city funds, to pay for the distribution of clean needles, The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported. Parker’s position signals a major shift in that city’s approach to the opioid epidemic.

On the other side of the state, opioid settlement funds have had a big effect for Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a harm reduction organization. Allegheny County reported spending or committing $325,000 in settlement money as of the end of last year to support the organization’s work with sterile syringes and other supplies for safer drug use.

“It was absolutely incredible to not have to fundraise every single dollar for the supplies that go out,” said Prevention Point’s executive director, Aaron Arnold. “It takes a lot of energy. It pulls away from actual delivery of services when you’re constantly having to find out, ‘Do we have enough money to even purchase the supplies that we want to distribute?’”

In parts of Pennsylvania that lack these legal protections, people sometimes operate underground syringe programs.

The Pennsylvania law banning drug paraphernalia was never intended to apply to syringe services, according to Scott Burris, director of the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University. But there have not been court cases in Pennsylvania to clarify the issue, and the failure of the legislature to act creates a chilling effect, he said.

Carla Sofronski, executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network, said she was not aware of anyone having faced criminal charges for operating syringe services in the state, but she noted the threat hangs over people who do and that they are taking a “great risk.”

In 2016, the CDC flagged three Pennsylvania counties — Cambria, Crawford, and Luzerne — among 220 counties nationwide in an assessment of communities potentially vulnerable to the rapid spread of HIV and to new or continuing high rates of hepatitis C infections among people who inject drugs.

Kate Favata, a resident of Luzerne County, said she started using heroin in her late teens and wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for the support and community she found at a syringe services program in Philadelphia.

“It kind of just made me feel like I was in a safe space. And I don’t really know if there was like a come-to-God moment or come-to-Jesus moment,” she said. “I just wanted better.”

Favata is now in long-term recovery and works for a medication-assisted treatment program.

At clinics in Cambria and Somerset Counties, Highlands Health provides free or low-cost medical care. Despite the legal risk, the organization has operated a syringe program for several years, while also testing patients for infectious diseases, distributing overdose reversal medication, and offering recovery options.

Rosalie Danchanko, Highlands Health’s executive director, said she hopes opioid settlement money can eventually support her organization.

“Why shouldn’t that wealth be spread around for all organizations that are working with people affected by the opioid problem?” she asked.

In February, legislation to legalize syringe services in Pennsylvania was approved by a committee and has moved forward. The administration of Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, supports the legislation. But it faces an uncertain future in the full legislature, in which Democrats have a narrow majority in the House and Republicans control the Senate.

One of the bill’s lead sponsors, state Rep. Jim Struzzi, hasn’t always supported syringe services. But the Republican from western Pennsylvania said that since his brother died from a drug overdose in 2014, he has come to better understand the nature of addiction.

In the committee vote, nearly all of Struzzi’s Republican colleagues opposed the bill. State Rep. Paul Schemel said authorizing the “very instrumentality of abuse” crossed a line for him and “would be enabling an evil.”

After the vote, Struzzi said he wanted to build more bipartisan support. He noted that some of his own skepticism about the programs eased only after he visited Prevention Point Pittsburgh and saw how workers do more than just hand out syringes. These types of programs connect people to resources — overdose reversal medication, wound care, substance use treatment — that can save lives and lead to recovery.

“A lot of these people are … desperate. They’re alone. They’re afraid. And these programs bring them into someone who cares,” Struzzi said. “And that, to me, is a step in the right direction.”

At her nonprofit in western Pennsylvania, Botteicher is hoping lawmakers take action.

“If it’s something that’s going to help someone, then why is it illegal?” she said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

This story was co-reported by WESA Public Radio and Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds power to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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The Lure of Specialty Medicine Pulls Nurse Practitioners From Primary Care

For many patients, seeing a nurse practitioner has become a routine part of primary care, in which these “NPs” often perform the same tasks that patients have relied on doctors for.

But NPs in specialty care? That’s not routine, at least not yet. Increasingly, though, nurse practitioners and physician assistants are joining cardiology, dermatology, and other specialty practices, broadening their skills and increasing their income.

This development worries some people who track the health workforce, because current trends suggest primary care, which has counted on nurse practitioners to backstop physician shortages, soon might not be able to rely on them to the same extent.

“They’re succumbing to the same challenges that we have with physicians,” said Atul Grover, executive director of the Research and Action Institute at the Association of American Medical Colleges. The rates NPs can command in a specialty practice “are quite a bit higher” than practice salaries in primary care, he said.

When nurse practitioner programs began to proliferate in the 1970s, “at first it looked great, producing all these nurse practitioners that go to work with primary care physicians,” said Yalda Jabbarpour, director of the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies. “But now only 30% are going into primary care.”

Jabbarpour was referring to the 2024 primary care scorecard by the Milbank Memorial Fund, which found that from 2016 to 2021 the proportion of nurse practitioners who worked in primary care practices hovered between 32% and 34%, even though their numbers grew rapidly. The proportion of physician assistants, also known as physician associates, in primary care ranged from 27% to 30%, the study found.

Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants are advanced practice clinicians who, in addition to graduate degrees, must complete distinct education, training, and certification steps. NPs can practice without a doctor’s supervision in more than two dozen states, while PAs have similar independence in only a handful of states.

About 88% of nurse practitioners are certified in an area of primary care, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. But it is difficult to track exactly how many work in primary care or in specialty practices. Unlike physicians, they’re generally not required to be endorsed by a national standard-setting body to practice in specialties like oncology or cardiology, for example. The AANP declined to answer questions about its annual workforce survey or the extent to which primary care NPs are moving toward specialties.

Though data tracking the change is sparse, specialty practices are adding these advanced practice clinicians at almost the same rate as primary care practices, according to frequently cited research published in 2018.

The clearest evidence of the shift: From 2008 to 2016, there was a 22% increase in the number of specialty practices that employed nurse practitioners and physician assistants, according to that study. The increase in the number of primary care practices that employed these professionals was 24%.

Once more, the most recent projections by the Association of American Medical Colleges predict a dearth of at least 20,200 primary care physicians by 2036. There will also be a shortfall of non-primary care specialists, including a deficiency of at least 10,100 surgical physicians and up to 25,000 physicians in other specialties.

When it comes to the actual work performed, the lines between primary and specialty care are often blurred, said Candice Chen, associate professor of health policy and management at George Washington University.

“You might be a nurse practitioner working in a gastroenterology clinic or cardiology clinic, but the scope of what you do is starting to overlap with primary care,” she said.

Nurse practitioners’ salaries vary widely by location, type of facility, and experience. Still, according to data from health care recruiter AMN Healthcare Physician Solutions, formerly known as Merritt Hawkins, the total annual average starting compensation, including signing bonus, for nurse practitioners and physician assistants in specialty practice was $172,544 in the year that ended March 31, slightly higher than the $166,544 for those in primary care.

According to forecasts from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurse practitioner jobs will increase faster than jobs in almost any other occupation in the decade leading up to 2032, growing by 123,600 jobs or 45%. (Wind turbine service technician is the only other occupation projected to grow as fast.) The growth rate for physician assistants is also much faster than average, at 27%. There are more than twice as many nurse practitioners as physician assistants, however: 323,900 versus 148,000, in 2022.

To Grover, of the AAMC, numbers like this signal that there will probably be enough NPs, PAs, and physicians to meet primary care needs. At the same time, “expect more NPs and PAs to also flow out into other specialties,” he said.

When Pamela Ograbisz started working as a registered nurse 27 years ago, she worked in a cardiothoracic intensive care unit. After she became a family nurse practitioner a few years later, she found a job with a similar specialty practice, which trained her to take on a bigger role, first running their outpatient clinic, then working on the floor, and later in the intensive care unit.

If nurse practitioners want to specialize, often “the doctors mentor them just like they would with a physician residency,” said Ograbisz, now vice president of clinical operations at temporary placement recruiter LocumTenens.com.

If physician assistants want to specialize, they also can do so through mentoring, or they can receive “certificates of added qualifications” in 10 specialties to demonstrate their expertise. Most employers don’t “encourage or require” these certificates, however, said Jennifer Orozco, chief medical officer at the American Academy of Physician Associates.

There are a number of training programs for family nurse practitioners who want to develop skills in other areas.

Raina Hoebelheinrich, 40, a family nurse practitioner at a regional medical center in Yankton, South Dakota, recently enrolled in a three-semester post-master’s endocrinology training program at Mount Marty University. She lives on a farm in nearby northeastern Nebraska with her husband and five sons.

Hoebelheinrich’s new skills could be helpful in her current hospital job, in which she sees a lot of patients with acute diabetes, or in a clinic setting like the one in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she is doing her clinical endocrinology training.

Lack of access to endocrinology care in rural areas is a real problem, and many people may travel hundreds of miles to see a specialist.

“There aren’t a lot of options,” she said.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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HHS Mental Health Accomplishments by the Numbers

HHS Gov News - May 16, 2024
HHS Mental health accomplishments

KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': Bird Flu Lands as the Next Public Health Challenge

The Host Julie Rovner KFF Health News @jrovner Read Julie's stories. Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News’ weekly health policy news podcast, “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “Health Care Politics and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

Public health officials are watching with concern since a strain of bird flu spread to dairy cows in at least nine states, and to at least one dairy worker. But in the wake of covid-19, many farmers are loath to let in health authorities for testing.

Meanwhile, another large health company — the Catholic hospital chain Ascension — has been targeted by a cyberattack, leading to serious problems at some facilities.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Rachel Cohrs Zhang of Stat, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, and Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call.

Panelists Rachel Cohrs Zhang Stat News @rachelcohrs Read Rachel's stories. Alice Miranda Ollstein Politico @AliceOllstein Read Alice's stories. Sandhya Raman CQ Roll Call @SandhyaWrites Read Sandhya's stories.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Stumbles in the early response to bird flu bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the early days of covid, including the troubles protecting workers who could be exposed to the disease. Notably, the Department of Agriculture benefited from millions in covid relief funds designed to strengthen disease surveillance.
  • Congress is working to extend coverage of telehealth care; the question is, how to pay for it? Lawmakers appear to have settled on a two-year agreement, though more on the extension — including how much it will cost — remains unknown.
  • Speaking of telehealth, a new report shows about 20% of medication abortions are supervised via telehealth care. State-level restrictions are forcing those in need of abortion care to turn to options farther from home.
  • And new reporting on Medicaid illuminates the number of people falling through the cracks of the government health system for low-income and disabled Americans — including how insurance companies benefit from individuals’ confusion over whether they have Medicaid coverage at all.

Also this week, Rovner interviews Atul Grover of the Association of American Medical Colleges about its recent analysis showing that graduating medical students are avoiding training in states with abortion bans and major restrictions.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too: 

Julie Rovner: NPR’s “Why Writing by Hand Beats Typing for Thinking and Learning,” by Jonathan Lambert.  

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Time’s “‘I Don’t Have Faith in Doctors Anymore.’ Women Say They Were Pressured Into Long-Term Birth Control,” by Alana Semuels.  

Rachel Cohrs Zhang: Stat’s “After Decades Fighting Big Tobacco, Cliff Douglas Now Leads a Foundation Funded by His Former Adversaries,” by Nicholas Florko.  

Sandhya Raman: The Baltimore Banner’s “People With Severe Mental Illness Are Stuck in Jail. Montgomery County Is the Epicenter of the Problem,” by Ben Conarck.  

Also mentioned on this week’s podcast:

Credits Francis Ying Audio producer Emmarie Huetteman Editor

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to KFF Health News’ “What the Health?” on SpotifyApple PodcastsPocket Casts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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HHS Statement on DOJ Action Today

HHS Gov News - May 16, 2024
HHS Statement on DOJ Action Today

Addiction Treatment Homes Say Montana’s Funding Fixes Don’t Go Far Enough

Kaiser Health News:States - May 16, 2024

Montana health officials have started a voucher system to help people with substance use disorders move into transitional housing as they rebuild their lives. But those who run the clinical houses said the new money isn’t enough to fix a financial hole after a prior state revamp.

Residential treatment facilities are usually nondescript homes tucked into neighborhoods. The state’s lowest-intensity homes can provide people with alcohol and drug addiction leaving inpatient care a bridge to independent living. They’re the final option of four tiers of clinical housing and aim to offer residents stability amid daily stressors.

But these particular houses have been disappearing — down to 10 sites today from 14 in 2022. That was the year the state started paying providers a blanket rate for their services through Medicaid, the state-federal program for people with low incomes and disabilities. At the same time, the state increased the homes’ staffing requirements.

State health department officials lauded the 2022 change as an expansion in access to care, saying it increased the houses’ pay and matched the cost to operate. But providers warned at the time that it could backfire because the rates weren’t high enough to cover the new staffing rules.

Terri Russell, who runs John “Scott” Hannon House, a treatment home in Helena, said it has been hard to break even since, and she’s watched other sites close under financial pressure.

“It’s the hardest thing in the world to watch a person leave treatment and go back down to the homeless shelter, or go on the street,” Russell said.

The new voucher program could help fill in some of the gap, Russell said. Approved by the state in April, it pays low-intensity treatment residences to house uninsured people as they sign up for Medicaid or other health coverage. The idea is to reduce barriers to care for vulnerable patients at a key point in their recovery. But the money is capped at $35 a day, with a $1,000 limit per resident a year.

“It’s like it was somebody’s idea for a band-aid,” said Demetrius Fassas, who runs Butte Spirit Homes, which has two eight-bed facilities.

He said the payments fall well below the cost of providing care. And, because of the vouchers’ cap, the aid could run out weeks before someone knows whether they qualify for Medicaid coverage.

Low-intensity programs vary in how long patients stay; it could be a few months or more than a year. Fassas said when things go as intended, clients find stable jobs. That success can lead to residents earning too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford the full cost of care.

Providers have said funding issues are widespread for substance use disorder programs but that shortfalls especially hit these low-intensity homes. The tension in Montana mirrors challenges elsewhere around how to fund transitional treatment so that patients don’t fall off a cliff in their recovery because care is unavailable.

As of 2022, at least 33 states were using money from Medicaid to help run residential treatment programs, KFF found. Federal rules prohibit Medicaid dollars from going to room and board at transitional homes, though states can chip in their own money. In North Dakota, for example, lawmakers set aside state funds for a voucher program that addresses treatment barriers, which include the cost of room and board.

Montana once was among the states that let providers seek help covering room and board costs for its poorer residents. The money came from federal grants the state manages for addiction treatment and prevention.

But those room and board grants stopped when Montana’s health department shifted to higher, bundled Medicaid rates in 2022. According to a state report last year, reducing the block grants to the low-intensity homes allowed officials to put that money toward other “prevention priorities.”

The new rules the state added at the same time brought the residential facilities up to American Society of Addiction Medicine standards. That included having on-site clinical services, a clinical director for each home, and an employee working anytime a resident was in the home, including night shifts.

Fassas, of Butte Spirit Homes, called the rules bittersweet. They increased the quality of care. But, Fassas said, he had to hire six additional workers to comply with the rules and the company now runs at a loss if he doesn’t find additional grants.

Jon Ebelt, a spokesperson with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the new rates, $143 a day per Medicaid resident, were developed by a state-paid contractor as part of Montana’s effort to match the cost of care.

Ebelt said administrative costs were factored into the state’s Medicaid rate, and that traditional room and board expenses typically fall into that category.

Low-intensity homes’ rates haven’t increased since they went into place in 2022.

Malcolm Horn, chief behavioral health officer for the Rimrock Foundation, said the facilities need more help in covering expenses like the mortgage, repairs to the home, or feeding residents.

The Rimrock Foundation, which is based in Billings, is one of Montana’s largest mental health providers. Horn said after the new rules were implemented, Rimrock converted one of its two low-intensity homes for women with children into high-intensity housing, which pays more. The switch displaced families in the low-intensity program.

“We couldn’t actually sustain having both those houses,” Horn said.

Montana officials set aside $300,000 for the voucher program and estimated that money would help cover initial housing for 329 people in 2024.

Terri Todd, who runs the nonprofit Gratitude in Action in Billings for people in recovery, advocated for the program during the 2023 legislative session. She said the goal had been to follow North Dakota’s model to help cover addiction care for people facing barriers. But Montana lawmakers scaled that back, which Todd attributed to concerns about cost.

Todd said that while what survived the legislature is less than what she had hoped for, the voucher program is still a start in addressing barriers to care.

State Rep. Mike Yakawich, the Republican who proposed the program, said it was initially so broad, he learned, it overlapped with some existing efforts. But he said state staffers told him the low-intensity group homes’ room and board costs were an area that could use more funding.

Yakawich said securing any money felt like a win in a funding tug-of-war. More help to stabilize the state’s mental health system is coming.

Money for the vouchers is coming out of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s HEART Fund initiative, which is due to invest about $25 million a year toward behavioral health programs. Separately, state officials recently announced that they’re creating grants to increase Montana’s bed capacity across residential facilities, including for substance use treatment providers. That money could go toward reopening closed facilities.

But Yakawich said even that infusion of money won’t provide enough to go around.

“Everybody wants a chunk of the pie, and not everyone’s going to get it,” he said.

The voucher program is scheduled to expire in three years, Yakawich said. By then, he said, maybe he can persuade lawmakers to renew the program — with more money.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Medics at UCLA Protest Say Police Weapons Drew Blood and Cracked Bones

Kaiser Health News:States - May 16, 2024

Inside the protesters’ encampment at UCLA, beneath the glow of hanging flashlights and a deafening backdrop of exploding flash-bangs, OB-GYN resident Elaine Chan suddenly felt like a battlefield medic.

related coverage from 2020 Less-Lethal Weapons Blind, Maim and Kill. Victims Say Enough Is Enough. Read More We Want to Hear From You

What are you seeing at protests on your college campus? We want to hear from you. Send tips to NewsTips@kff.org.

Police were pushing into the camp after an hours-long standoff. Chan, 31, a medical tent volunteer, said protesters limped in with severe puncture wounds, but there was little hope of getting them to a hospital through the chaos outside. Chan suspects the injuries were caused by rubber bullets or other “less lethal” projectiles, which police have confirmed were fired at protesters.

“It would pierce through skin and gouge deep into people’s bodies,” she said. “All of them were profusely bleeding. In OB-GYN we don’t treat rubber bullets. … I couldn’t believe that this was allowed to be [done to] civilians — students — without protective gear.”

The UCLA protest, which gathered thousands in opposition to Israel’s ongoing bombing of Gaza, began in April and grew to a dangerous crescendo this month when counterprotesters and police clashed with the activists and their supporters.

In interviews with KFF Health News, Chan and three other volunteer medics described treating protesters with bleeding wounds, head injuries, and suspected broken bones in a makeshift clinic cobbled together in tents with no electricity or running water. The medical tents were staffed day and night by a rotating team of doctors, nurses, medical students, EMTs, and volunteers with no formal medical training.

At times, the escalating violence outside the tent isolated injured protesters from access to ambulances, the medics said, so the wounded walked to a nearby hospital or were carried beyond the borders of the protest so they could be driven to the emergency room.

“I’ve never been in a setting where we’re blocked from getting higher level of care,” Chan said. “That was terrifying to me.”

Three of the medics interviewed by KFF Health News said they were present when police swept the encampment May 2 and described multiple injuries that appeared to have been caused by “less lethal” projectiles.

Less lethal projectiles — including beanbags filled with metal pellets, sponge-tipped rounds, and projectiles commonly known as rubber bullets — are used by police to subdue suspects or disperse crowds or protests. Police drew widespread condemnation for using the weapons against Black Lives Matter demonstrations that swept the country after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. Although the name of these weapons downplays their danger, less lethal projectiles can travel upward of 200 mph and have a documented potential to injure, maim, or kill.

The medics’ interviews directly contradict an account from the Los Angeles Police Department. After police cleared the encampment, LAPD Chief Dominic Choi said in a post on the social platform X that there were “no serious injuries to officers or protestors” as police moved in and made more than 200 arrests.

In response to questions from KFF Health News, both the LAPD and California Highway Patrol said in emailed statements that they would investigate how their officers responded to the protest. The LAPD statement said the agency was conducting a review of how it responded, which would lead to a “detailed report.”

The Highway Patrol statement said officers warned the encampment that “non-lethal rounds” may be used if protesters did not disperse, and after some became an “immediate threat” by “launching objects and weapons,” some officers used “kinetic specialty rounds to protect themselves, other officers, and members of the public.” One officer received minor injuries, according to the statement.

Video footage that circulated online after the protest appeared to show a Highway Patrol officer firing less lethal projectiles at protesters with a shotgun.

“The use of force and any incident involving the use of a weapon by CHP personnel is a serious matter, and the CHP will conduct a fair and impartial investigation to ensure that actions were consistent with policy and the law,” the Highway Patrol said in its statement.

The UCLA Police Department, which was also involved with the protest response, did not respond to requests for comment.

Jack Fukushima, 28, a UCLA medical student and volunteer medic, said he witnessed a police officer shoot at least two protesters with less lethal projectiles, including a man who collapsed after being hit “square in the chest.” Fukushima said he and other medics escorted the stunned man to the medical tent then returned to the front lines to look for more injured.

“It did really feel like a war,” Fukushima said. “To be met with such police brutality was so disheartening.”

Back on the front line, police had breached the borders of the encampment and begun to scrum with protesters, Fukushima said. He said he saw the same officer who had fired earlier shoot another protester in the neck.

The protester dropped to the ground. Fukushima assumed the worst and rushed to his side.

“I find him, and I’m like, ‘Hey, are you OK?’” Fukushima said. “To the point of courage of these undergrads, he’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s not my first time.’ And then just jumps right back in.”

Sonia Raghuram, 27, another medical student stationed in the tent, said that during the police sweep she tended to a protester with an open puncture wound on their back, another with a quarter-sized contusion in the center of their chest, and a third with a “gushing” cut over their right eye and possible broken rib. Raghuram said patients told her the wounds were caused by police projectiles, which she said matched the severity of their injuries.

The patients made it clear the police officers were closing in on the medical tent, Raghuram said, but she stayed put.

“We will never leave a patient,” she said, describing the mantra in the medical tent. “I don’t care if we get arrested. If I’m taking care of a patient, that’s the thing that comes first.”

The UCLA protest is one of many that have been held on college campuses across the country as students opposed to Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza demand universities support a ceasefire or divest from companies tied to Israel. Police have used force to remove protesters at Columbia University, Emory University, and the universities of Arizona, Utah, and South Florida, among others.

At UCLA, student protesters set up a tent encampment on April 25 in a grassy plaza outside the campus’s Royce Hall theater, eventually drawing thousands of supporters, according to the Los Angeles Times. Days later, a “violent mob” of counterprotesters “attacked the camp,” the Times reported, attempting to tear down barricades along its borders and throwing fireworks at the tents inside.

The following night, police issued an unlawful assembly order, then swept the encampment in the early hours of May 2, clearing tents and arresting hundreds by dawn.

Police have been widely criticized for not intervening as the clash between protesters and counterprotesters dragged on for hours. The University of California system announced it has hired an independent policing consultant to investigate the violence and “resolve unanswered questions about UCLA’s planning and protocols, as well as the mutual aid response.”

Charlotte Austin, 34, a surgery resident, said that as counterprotesters were attacking she also saw about 10 private campus security officers stand by, “hands in their pockets,” as students were bashed and bloodied.

Austin said she treated patients with cuts to the face and possible skull fractures. The medical tent sent at least 20 people to the hospital that evening, she said.

“Any medical professional would describe these as serious injuries,” Austin said. “There were people who required hospitalization — not just a visit to the emergency room — but actual hospitalization.”

Police Tactics ‘Lawful but Awful’

UCLA protesters are far from the first to be injured by less lethal projectiles.

In recent years, police across the U.S. have repeatedly fired these weapons at protesters, with virtually no overarching standards governing their use or safety. Cities have spent millions to settle lawsuits from the injured. Some of the wounded have never been the same.

During the nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, at least 60 protesters sustained serious injuries — including blinding and a broken jaw — from being shot with these projectiles, sometimes in apparent violations of police department policies, according to a joint investigation by KFF Health News and USA Today.

In 2004, in Boston, a college student celebrating a Red Sox victory was killed by a projectile filled with pepper-based irritant when it tore through her eye and into her brain.

“They’re called less lethal for a reason,” said Jim Bueermann, a former police chief of Redlands, California, who now leads the Future Policing Institute. “They can kill you.”

Bueermann, who reviewed video footage of the police response at UCLA at the request of KFF Health News, said the footage shows California Highway Patrol officers firing beanbag rounds from a shotgun. Bueermann said the footage did not provide enough context to determine if the projectiles were being used “reasonably,” which is a standard established by federal courts, or being fired “indiscriminately,” which was outlawed by a California law in 2021.

“There is a saying in policing — ‘lawful but awful’ — meaning that it was reasonable under the legal standards but it looks terrible,” Bueermann said. “And I think a cop racking multiple rounds into a shotgun, firing into protesters, doesn’t look very good.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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California’s $12 Billion Medicaid Makeover Banks on Nonprofits’ Buy-In

TURLOCK, Calif. — For much of his young life, Jorge Sanchez regularly gasped for air, at times coughing so violently that he’d almost throw up. His mother whisked him to the emergency room late at night and slept with him to make sure he didn’t stop breathing.

“He’s had these problems since he was born, and I couldn’t figure out what was triggering his asthma,” Fabiola Sandoval said of her son, Jorge, now 4. “It’s so hard when your child is hurting. I was willing to try anything.”

In January, community health workers visited Sandoval’s home in Turlock, a city in California’s Central Valley where dust from fruit and nut orchards billows through the air. They scoured Sandoval’s home for hazards and explained that harsh cleaning products, air fresheners, and airborne dust and pesticides can trigger an asthma attack.

The team also provided Sandoval with air purifiers, a special vacuum cleaner that can suck dust out of the air, hypoallergenic mattress covers, and a humidity sensor — goods that retail for hundreds of dollars. Within a few months, Jorge was breathing easier and was able to run and play outside.

The in-home consultation and supplies were paid for by Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid health insurance program for low-income residents. Gov. Gavin Newsom is spearheading an ambitious $12 billion experiment to transform Medi-Cal into both a health insurer and a social services provider, one that relies not only on doctors and nurses, but also community health workers and nonprofit groups that offer dozens of services, including delivering healthy meals and helping homeless people pay for housing.

These groups are redefining health care in California as they compete with businesses for a share of the money, and become a new arm of the sprawling Medi-Cal bureaucracy that serves nearly 15 million low-income residents on an annual budget of $158 billion.

But worker shortages, negotiations with health insurance companies, and learning to navigate complex billing and technology systems have hamstrung the community groups’ ability to deliver the new services: Now into the third year of the ambitious five-year experiment, only a small fraction of eligible patients have received benefits.

“This is still so new, and everyone is just overwhelmed at this point, so it’s slow-going,” said Kevin Hamilton, a senior director at the Central California Asthma Collaborative.

The collaborative has served about 3,650 patients, including Sandoval, in eight counties since early 2022, he said. It has years of experience with Medi-Cal patients in the Central Valley and has received about $1.5 million of the new initiative’s money.

By contrast, CalOptima Health, Orange County’s primary Medi-Cal insurer, is new to offering asthma benefits and has signed up 58 patients so far.

“Asthma services are so difficult to get going” because the nonprofit infrastructure for these services is virtually nonexistent, said Kelly Bruno-Nelson, CalOptima’s executive director for Medi-Cal. “We need more community-based organizations on board because they’re the ones who can serve a population that nobody wants to deal with.”

Newsom, a Democrat in his second term, says his signature health care initiative, known as CalAIM, seeks to reduce the cost of caring for the state’s sickest and most vulnerable patients, including homeless Californians, foster children, former inmates, and people battling addiction disorders.

In addition to in-home asthma remediation, CalAIM offers 13 broad categories of social services, plus a benefit connecting eligible patients with one-on-one care managers to help them obtain anything they need to get healthier, from grocery shopping to finding a job.

The 25 managed-care insurance companies participating in Medi-Cal can choose which services they offer, and contract with community groups to provide them. Insurers have hammered out about 4,300 large and small contracts with nonprofits and businesses.

So far, about 103,000 Medi-Cal patients have received CalAIM services and roughly 160,000 have been assigned personal care managers, according to state data, a sliver of the hundreds of thousands of patients who likely qualify.

“We’re all new to health care, and a lot of this is such a foreign concept,” said Helena Lopez, executive director of A Greater Hope, a nonprofit organization providing social services in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, such as handing out baseball cleats to children to help them be active.

Tiffany Sickler runs Koinonia Family Services, which offers California foster children mental health and other types of care, and even helped a patient pay off parking tickets. But the program is struggling on a shoestring budget.

“If you want to do this, you have to learn all these new systems. It’s been a huge learning curve, and very time-consuming and frustrating, especially without adequate funding,” she said.

Brandon Richards, a Newsom spokesperson, defended CalAIM, saying that it was “on the cutting edge of health care” and that the state was working to increase “awareness of these new services and support.”

For nonprofits and businesses, CalAIM is a money-making opportunity — one that top state health officials hope to make permanent. Health insurers, which receive hefty payments from the state to serve more people and offer new services, share a portion with service providers.

In some places, community groups are competing with national corporations for the new funding, such as Mom’s Meals, an Iowa-based company that delivers prepared meals across the United States.

Mom’s Meals has an advantage over neighborhood nonprofit groups because it has long served seniors on Medicare and was able to immediately start offering the CalAIM benefit of home-delivered meals for patients with chronic diseases. But even Mom’s Meals isn’t reaching everyone who qualifies, because doctors and patients don’t always know it’s an option, said Catherine Macpherson, the company’s chief nutrition officer.

“Utilization is not as high as it should be yet,” she said. “But we were well positioned, because we already had departments to do billing and contracting with health care.”

Middleman companies also have their eye on the billions of CalAIM dollars and are popping up to assist small organizations to go up against established ones like Mom’s Meals. For instance, the New York-based Nonprofit Finance Fund is advising homeless service providers how to get more contracts and expand benefits.

Full Circle Health Network, with 70 member organizations, is helping smaller nonprofit groups develop and deliver services primarily for families and foster children. Full Circle has signed a deal with Kaiser Permanente, allowing the health care giant to access its network of community groups.

“We’re allowing organizations to launch these benefits much faster than they’ve been able to do and to reach more vulnerable people,” said Camille Schraeder, chief executive of Full Circle. “Many of these are grassroots organizations that have the trust and expertise on the ground, but they’re new to health care.”

One of the biggest challenges community groups face is hiring workers, who are key to finding eligible patients and persuading them to participate.

Kathryn Phillips, a workforce expert at the California Health Care Foundation, said there isn’t enough seed money for community groups to hire workers and pay for new technology platforms. “They bring the trust that is needed, the cultural competency, the diversity of languages,” she said. “But there needs to be more funding and reimbursement to build this workforce.”

Health insurers say they are trying to increase the workforce. For instance, L.A. Care Health Plan, the largest Medi-Cal insurer in California, has given $66 million to community organizations for hiring and other CalAIM needs, said Sameer Amin, the group’s chief medical officer.

“They don’t have the staffing to do all this stuff, so we’re helping with that all while teaching them how to build up their health care infrastructure,” he said. “Everyone wants a win, but this isn’t going to be successful overnight.”

In the Central Valley, Jorge Sanchez is one of the lucky early beneficiaries of CalAIM.

His mother credits the trust she established with community health workers, who spent many hours over multiple visits to teach her how to control her son’s asthma.

“I used to love cleaning with bleach” but learned it can trigger breathing problems, Sandoval said.

Since she implemented the health workers’ recommendations, Sandoval has been able to let Jorge sleep alone at night for the first time in four years.

“Having this program and all the things available is amazing,” said Sandoval, as she pointed to the dirty dust cup in her new vacuum cleaner. “Now my son doesn’t have as many asthma attacks and he can run around and be a normal kid.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Federal Panel Prescribes New Mental Health Strategy To Curb Maternal Deaths

For help, call or text the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline at 1-833-TLC-MAMA (1-833-852-6262) or contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting “988.” Spanish-language services are also available.

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Milagros Aquino was trying to find a new place to live and had been struggling to get used to new foods after she moved to Bridgeport from Peru with her husband and young son in 2023.

When Aquino, now 31, got pregnant in May 2023, “instantly everything got so much worse than before,” she said. “I was so sad and lying in bed all day. I was really lost and just surviving.”

Aquino has lots of company.

Perinatal depression affects as many as 20% of women in the United States during pregnancy, the postpartum period, or both, according to studies. In some states, anxiety or depression afflicts nearly a quarter of new mothers or pregnant women.

Many women in the U.S. go untreated because there is no widely deployed system to screen for mental illness in mothers, despite widespread recommendations to do so. Experts say the lack of screening has driven higher rates of mental illness, suicide, and drug overdoses that are now the leading causes of death in the first year after a woman gives birth.

“This is a systemic issue, a medical issue, and a human rights issue,” said Lindsay R. Standeven, a perinatal psychiatrist and the clinical and education director of the Johns Hopkins Reproductive Mental Health Center.

Standeven said the root causes of the problem include racial and socioeconomic disparities in maternal care and a lack of support systems for new mothers. She also pointed a finger at a shortage of mental health professionals, insufficient maternal mental health training for providers, and insufficient reimbursement for mental health services. Finally, Standeven said, the problem is exacerbated by the absence of national maternity leave policies, and the access to weapons.

Those factors helped drive a 105% increase in postpartum depression from 2010 to 2021, according to the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

For Aquino, it wasn’t until the last weeks of her pregnancy, when she signed up for acupuncture to relieve her stress, that a social worker helped her get care through the Emme Coalition, which connects girls and women with financial help, mental health counseling services, and other resources.

Mothers diagnosed with perinatal depression or anxiety during or after pregnancy are at about three times the risk of suicidal behavior and six times the risk of suicide compared with mothers without a mood disorder, according to recent U.S. and international studies in JAMA Network Open and The BMJ.

The toll of the maternal mental health crisis is particularly acute in rural communities that have become maternity care deserts, as small hospitals close their labor and delivery units because of plummeting birth rates, or because of financial or staffing issues.

This week, the Maternal Mental Health Task Force — co-led by the Office on Women’s Health and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and formed in September to respond to the problem — recommended creating maternity care centers that could serve as hubs of integrated care and birthing facilities by building upon the services and personnel already in communities.

The task force will soon determine what portions of the plan will require congressional action and funding to implement and what will be “low-hanging fruit,” said Joy Burkhard, a member of the task force and the executive director of the nonprofit Policy Center for Maternal Mental Health.

Burkhard said equitable access to care is essential. The task force recommended that federal officials identify areas where maternity centers should be placed based on data identifying the underserved. “Rural America,” she said, “is first and foremost.”

There are shortages of care in “unlikely areas,” including Los Angeles County, where some maternity wards have recently closed, said Burkhard. Urban areas that are underserved would also be eligible to get the new centers.

“All that mothers are asking for is maternity care that makes sense. Right now, none of that exists,” she said.

Several pilot programs are designed to help struggling mothers by training and equipping midwives and doulas, people who provide guidance and support to the mothers of newborns.

In Montana, rates of maternal depression before, during, and after pregnancy are higher than the national average. From 2017 to 2020, approximately 15% of mothers experienced postpartum depression and 27% experienced perinatal depression, according to the Montana Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System. The state had the sixth-highest maternal mortality rate in the country in 2019, when it received a federal grant to begin training doulas.

To date, the program has trained 108 doulas, many of whom are Native American. Native Americans make up 6.6% of Montana’s population. Indigenous people, particularly those in rural areas, have twice the national rate of severe maternal morbidity and mortality compared with white women, according to a study in Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Stephanie Fitch, grant manager at Montana Obstetrics & Maternal Support at Billings Clinic, said training doulas “has the potential to counter systemic barriers that disproportionately impact our tribal communities and improve overall community health.”

Twelve states and Washington, D.C., have Medicaid coverage for doula care, according to the National Health Law Program. They are California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Medicaid pays for about 41% of births in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jacqueline Carrizo, a doula assigned to Aquino through the Emme Coalition, played an important role in Aquino’s recovery. Aquino said she couldn’t have imagined going through such a “dark time alone.” With Carrizo’s support, “I could make it,” she said.

Genetic and environmental factors, or a past mental health disorder, can increase the risk of depression or anxiety during pregnancy. But mood disorders can happen to anyone.

Teresa Martinez, 30, of Price, Utah, had struggled with anxiety and infertility for years before she conceived her first child. The joy and relief of giving birth to her son in 2012 were short-lived.

Without warning, “a dark cloud came over me,” she said.

Martinez was afraid to tell her husband. “As a woman, you feel so much pressure and you don’t want that stigma of not being a good mom,” she said.

In recent years, programs around the country have started to help doctors recognize mothers’ mood disorders and learn how to help them before any harm is done.

One of the most successful is the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Program for Moms, which began a decade ago and has since spread to 29 states. The program, supported by federal and state funding, provides tools and training for physicians and other providers to screen and identify disorders, triage patients, and offer treatment options.

But the expansion of maternal mental health programs is taking place amid sparse resources in much of rural America. Many programs across the country have run out of money.

The federal task force proposed that Congress fund and create consultation programs similar to the one in Massachusetts, but not to replace the ones already in place, said Burkhard.

In April, Missouri became the latest state to adopt the Massachusetts model. Women on Medicaid in Missouri are 10 times as likely to die within one year of pregnancy as those with private insurance. From 2018 through 2020, an average of 70 Missouri women died each year while pregnant or within one year of giving birth, according to state government statistics.

Wendy Ell, executive director of the Maternal Health Access Project in Missouri, called her service a “lifesaving resource” that is free and easy to access for any health care provider in the state who sees patients in the perinatal period.

About 50 health care providers have signed up for Ell’s program since it began. Within 30 minutes of a request, the providers can consult over the phone with one of three perinatal psychiatrists. But while the doctors can get help from the psychiatrists, mental health resources for patients are not as readily available.

The task force called for federal funding to train more mental health providers and place them in high-need areas like Missouri. The task force also recommended training and certifying a more diverse workforce of community mental health workers, patient navigators, doulas, and peer support specialists in areas where they are most needed.

A new voluntary curriculum in reproductive psychiatry is designed to help psychiatry residents, fellows, and mental health practitioners who may have little or no training or education about the management of psychiatric illness in the perinatal period. A small study found that the curriculum significantly improved psychiatrists’ ability to treat perinatal women with mental illness, said Standeven, who contributed to the training program and is one of the study’s authors.

Nancy Byatt, a perinatal psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts Chan School of Medicine who led the launch of the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Program for Moms in 2014, said there is still a lot of work to do.

“I think that the most important thing is that we have made a lot of progress and, in that sense, I am kind of hopeful,” Byatt said.

Cheryl Platzman Weinstock’s reporting is supported by a grant from the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Statement from HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra on New Drug Overdose Death Data

HHS Gov News - May 15, 2024
This new data confirms that our efforts are driving results.

The Psychedelics-As-Medicine Movement Spreads to California

Kaiser Health News:States - May 15, 2024

Ecstasy, “magic mushrooms” and other psychedelic drugs could soon be recognized as therapeutic in California — one of the latest states, and the biggest, to consider allowing their use as medicine.

Legislation by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D) and Assembly member Marie Waldron (R) would allow the therapeutic use of psilocybin, mescaline, ecstasy and dimethyltryptamine — a chemical that occurs in the psychoactive ayahuasca plant mixture — in state-approved locations under the supervision of licensed individuals. It would also regulate the production, distribution, quality control and sale of those psychedelics.

The bill is intended to get across the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who vetoed broader decriminalization legislation last year while calling psychedelics “an exciting frontier” and asking for “regulated treatment guidelines” in the next version.

While most psychedelics are prohibited under federal law, research has shown them to be promising treatments for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. Several large cities including D.C., have effectively decriminalized their use, as has Colorado. Oregon, which previously decriminalized personal possession of all illegal drugs, including psychedelics, rolled back that policy but created a system to regulate the use of psilocybin mushrooms.

Leanne Cavellini, 49, of Pleasanton, Calif., attended a psychedelic retreat in Mexico this year. She said the experience helped her overcome deep-rooted trauma.

“The person I was before was a wound-up tight ball of rubber bands who kept everything in and felt a lot of fear and worry,” Cavellini said. “The person I am today is very free. I live in the present moment. I don’t live other people’s lives, and I don’t take on their emotions.”

State regulation, though, doesn’t always mean easy access. Oregon permits consumption of psilocybin mushrooms only under the guidance of state-licensed facilitators in “psilocybin service centers.” Sessions can cost more than $2,500; they’re not covered by insurance.

Colorado is building regulated “healing centers,” where people will be able to take psilocybin mushrooms and some other psychedelics under the supervision of licensed facilitators.

In California, one obstacle is the state’s $45 billion budget deficit. Its elected leaders are already looking for programs to cut. One that doesn’t yet exist could be low-hanging fruit.

Under the pending legislation, anyone hoping to be licensed to supervise people using psychedelics will need a professional health credential.

Bills pending in several other states would ease access to psychedelics or relax current laws against them.

Some first responder and veterans groups are among legalization’s biggest boosters, and there is significant public support. A survey out of the University of California at Berkeley last year showed 61 percent of registered voters in the United States support regulated therapeutic access to psychedelics — though nearly half of those respondents said such drugs were not “good for society.”

Ken Finn, the former president of the American Board of Pain Medicine, said although the science around psychedelics is promising, the California legislation is premature “pending more robust and rigorous research to protect public safety.”

This article is not available for syndication due to republishing restrictions. If you have questions about the availability of this or other content for republication, please contact NewsWeb@kff.org.

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Tribal Nations Invest Opioid Settlement Funds in Traditional Healing To Treat Addiction

Kaiser Health News:States - May 15, 2024

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Outside the Mi’kmaq Nation’s health department sits a dome-shaped tent, built by hand from saplings and covered in black canvas. It’s one of several sweat lodges on the tribe’s land, but this one is dedicated to helping people recover from addiction.

Up to 10 people enter the lodge at once. Fire-heated stones — called grandmothers and grandfathers, for the spirits they represent — are brought inside. Water is splashed on the stones, and the lodge fills with steam. It feels like a sauna, but hotter. The air is thicker, and it’s dark. People pray and sing songs. When they leave the lodge, it is said, they reemerge from the mother’s womb. Cleansed. Reborn.

The experience can be “a vital tool” in healing, said Katie Espling, health director for the roughly 2,000-member tribe.

She said patients in recovery have requested sweat lodges for years as a cultural element to complement the counseling and medications the tribe’s health department already provides. But insurance doesn’t cover sweat ceremonies, so, until now, the department couldn’t afford to provide them.

In the past year, the Mi’kmaq Nation received more than $150,000 from settlements with companies that made or sold prescription painkillers and were accused of exacerbating the overdose crisis. A third of that money was spent on the sweat lodge.

Health care companies are paying out more than $1.5 billion to hundreds of tribes over 15 years. This windfall is similar to settlements that many of the same companies are paying to state governments, which total about $50 billion.

To some people, the lower payout for tribes corresponds to their smaller population. But some tribal citizens point out that the overdose crisis has had a disproportionate effect on their communities. Native Americans had the highest overdose death rates of any racial group each year from 2020 to 2022. And federal officials say those statistics were likely undercounted by about 34% because Native Americans’ race is often misclassified on death certificates.

Still, many tribal leaders are grateful for the settlements and the unique way the money can be spent: Unlike the state payments, money sent to tribes can be used for traditional and cultural healing practices — anything from sweat lodges and smudging ceremonies to basketmaking and programs that teach tribal languages.

“To have these dollars to do that, it’s really been a gift,” said Espling of the Mi'kmaq tribe. “This is going to absolutely be fundamental to our patients’ well-being” because connecting with their culture is “where they’ll really find the deepest healing.”

Public health experts say the underlying cause of addiction in many tribal communities is intergenerational trauma, resulting from centuries of brutal treatment, including broken treaties, land theft, and a government-funded boarding school system that sought to erase the tribes’ languages and cultures. Along with a long-running lack of investment in the Indian Health Service, these factors have led to lower life expectancy and higher rates of addiction, suicide, and chronic diseases.

Using settlement money to connect tribal citizens with their traditions and reinvigorate pride in their culture can be a powerful healing tool, said Andrea Medley, a researcher with the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health and a member of the Haida Nation. She helped create principles for how tribes can consider spending settlement money.

Medley said that having respect for those traditional elements outlined explicitly in the settlements is “really groundbreaking.”

‘A Drop in the Bucket’

Of the 574 federally recognized tribes, more than 300 have received payments so far, totaling more than $371 million, according to Kevin Washburn, one of three court-appointed directors overseeing the tribal settlements.

Although that sounds like a large sum, it pales in comparison with what the addiction crisis has cost tribes. There are also hundreds of tribes that are excluded from the payments because they aren’t federally recognized.

“These abatement funds are like a drop in the bucket compared to what they’ve spent, compared to what they anticipate spending,” said Corey Hinton, a lawyer who represented several tribes in the opioid litigation and a citizen of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. “Abatement is a cheap term when we’re talking about a crisis that is still engulfing and devastating communities.”

Even leaders of the Navajo Nation — the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States, which has received $63 million so far — said the settlements can’t match the magnitude of the crisis.

“It’ll do a little dent, but it will only go so far,” said Kim Russell, executive director of the Navajo Department of Health.

The Navajo Nation is trying to stretch the money by using it to improve its overall health system. Officials plan to use the payouts to hire more coding and billing employees for tribe-operated hospitals and clinics. Those workers would help ensure reimbursements keep flowing to the health systems and would help sustain and expand services, including addiction treatment and prevention, Russell said.

Navajo leaders also want to hire more clinicians specializing in substance use treatment, as well as primary care doctors, nurses, and epidemiologists.

“Building buildings is not what we want” from the opioid settlement funds, Russell said. “We’re nation-building.”

High Stakes for Small Tribes

Smaller nations like the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in southern Alabama are also strategizing to make settlement money go further.

For the tribe of roughly 2,900 members, that has meant investing $500,000 — most of what it has received so far — into a statistical modeling platform that its creators say will simulate the opioid crisis, predict which programs will save the most lives, and help local officials decide the most effective use of future settlement cash.

Some recovery advocates have questioned the model’s value, but the tribe’s vice chairman, Robert McGhee, said it would provide the data and evidence needed to choose among efforts competing for resources, such as recovery housing or peer support specialists. The tribe wants to do both, but realistically, it will have to prioritize.

“If we can have this model and we put the necessary funds to it and have the support, it'll work for us,” McGhee said. “I just feel it in my gut.”

The stakes are high. In smaller communities, each death affects the whole tribe, McGhee said. The loss of one leader marks decades of lost knowledge. The passing of a speaker means further erosion of the Native language.

For Keesha Frye, who oversees the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ tribal court and the sober living facility, using settlement money effectively is personal. “It means a lot to me to get this community well because this is where I live and this is where my family lives,” she said.

Erik Lamoreau in Maine also brings personal ties to this work. More than a decade ago, he sold drugs on Mi’kmaq lands to support his own addiction.

“I did harm in this community and it was really important for me to come back and try to right some of those wrongs,” Lamoreau said.

Today, he works for the tribe as a peer recovery coordinator, a new role created with the opioid settlement funds. He uses his experience to connect with others and help them with recovery — whether that means giving someone a ride to court, working on their résumé, exercising together at the gym, or hosting a cribbage club, where people play the card game and socialize without alcohol or drugs.

Beginning this month, Lamoreau’s work will also involve connecting clients who seek cultural elements of recovery to the new sweat lodge service — an effort he finds promising.

“The more in tune you are with your culture — no matter what culture that is — it connects you to something bigger,” Lamoreau said. “And that’s really what we look at when we’re in recovery, when we talk about spiritual connection. It’s something bigger than you.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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After a Child’s Death, California Weighs Rules for Phys Ed During Extreme Weather

Kaiser Health News:States - May 15, 2024

LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — Yahushua Robinson was an energetic boy who jumped and danced his way through life. Then, a physical education teacher instructed the 12-year-old to run outside on a day when the temperature climbed to 107 degrees.

“We lose loved ones all the time, but he was taken in a horrific way,” his mother, Janee Robinson, said from the family’s Inland Empire home, about 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles. “I would never want nobody to go through what I’m going through.”

The day her son died, Robinson, who teaches phys ed, kept her elementary school students inside, and she had hoped her children’s teachers would do the same.

The Riverside County Coroner’s Bureau ruled that Yahushua died on Aug. 29 of a heart defect, with heat and physical exertion as contributing factors. His death at Canyon Lake Middle School came on the second day of an excessive heat warning, when people were advised to avoid strenuous activities and limit their time outdoors.

Yahushua’s family is supporting a bill in California that would require the state Department of Education to create guidelines that govern physical activity at public schools during extreme weather, including setting threshold temperatures for when it’s too hot or too cold for students to exercise or play sports outside. If the measure becomes law, the guidelines will have to be in place by Jan. 1, 2026.

Many states have adopted protocols to protect student athletes from extreme heat during practices. But the California bill is broader and would require educators to consider all students throughout the school day and in any extreme weather, whether they’re doing jumping jacks in fourth period or playing tag during recess. It’s unclear if the bill will clear a critical committee vote scheduled for May 16.

“Yahushua’s story, it’s very touching. It’s very moving. I think it could have been prevented had we had the right safeguards in place,” said state Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D-Bakersfield), one of the bill’s authors. “Climate change is impacting everyone, but it’s especially impacting vulnerable communities, especially our children.”

Last year marked the planet’s warmest on record, and extreme weather is becoming more frequent and severe, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Even though most heat deaths and illnesses are preventable, about 1,220 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Young children are especially susceptible to heat illness because their bodies have more trouble regulating temperature, and they rely on adults to protect them from overheating. A person can go from feeling dizzy or experiencing a headache to passing out, having a seizure, or going into a coma, said Chad Vercio, a physician and the division chief of general pediatrics at Loma Linda University Health.

“It can be a really dangerous thing,” Vercio said of heat illness. “It is something that we should take seriously and figure out what we can do to avoid that.”

It’s unclear how many children have died at school from heat exposure. Eric Robinson, 15, had been sitting in his sports medicine class learning about heatstroke when his sister arrived at his high school unexpectedly the day their brother died.

“They said, ‘OK, go home, Eric. Go home early.’ I walked to the car and my sister’s crying. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I can’t believe that my little brother’s gone. That I won’t be able to see him again. And he’d always bugged me, and I would say, ‘Leave me alone.’”

That morning, Eric had done Yahushua’s hair and loaned him his hat and chain necklace to wear to school.

As temperatures climbed into the 90s that morning, a physical education teacher instructed Yahushua to run on the blacktop. His friends told the family that the sixth grader had repeatedly asked the teacher for water but was denied, his parents said.

The school district has refused to release video footage to the family showing the moment Yahushua collapsed on the blacktop. He died later that day at the hospital.

Melissa Valdez, a Lake Elsinore Unified School District spokesperson, did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Schoolyards can reach dangerously high temperatures on hot days, with asphalt sizzling up to 145 degrees, according to findings by researchers at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. Some school districts, such as San Diego Unified and Santa Ana Unified, have hot weather plans or guidelines that call for limiting physical activity and providing water to kids. But there are no statewide standards that K-12 schools must implement to protect students from heat illness.

Under the bill, the California Department of Education must set temperature thresholds requiring schools to modify students’ physical activities during extreme weather, such as heat waves, wildfires, excessive rain, and flooding. Schools would also be required to come up with plans for alternative indoor activities, and staff must be trained to recognize and respond to weather-related distress.

California has had heat rules on the books for outdoor workers since 2005, but it was a latecomer to protecting student athletes, according to the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut, which is named after a Minnesota Vikings football player who died from heatstroke in 2001. By comparison, Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, this spring signed a law preventing cities and counties from creating their own heat protections for outdoor workers, has the best protections for student athletes, according to the institute.

Douglas Casa, a professor of kinesiology and the chief executive officer of the institute, said state regulations can establish consistency about how to respond to heat distress and save lives.

“The problem is that each high school doesn’t have a cardiologist and doesn’t have a thermal physiologist and doesn’t have a sickling expert,” Casa said of the medical specialties for heat illness.

In 2022, California released an Extreme Action Heat Plan that recommended state agencies “explore implementation of indoor and outdoor heat exposure rules for schools,” but neither the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, nor lawmakers have adopted standards.

Lawmakers last year failed to pass legislation that would have required schools to implement a heat plan and replace hot surfaces, such as cement and rubber, with lower-heat surfaces, such as grass and cool pavement. That bill, which drew opposition from school administrators, stalled in committee, in part over cost concerns.

Naj Alikhan, a spokesperson for the Association of California School Administrators, said the new bill takes a different approach and would not require structural and physical changes to schools. The association has not taken a position on the measure, and no other organization has registered opposition.

The Robinson family said children’s lives ought to outweigh any costs that might come with preparing schools to deal with the growing threat of extreme weather. Yahushua‘s death, they say, could save others.

“I really miss him. I cry every day,” said Yahushua’s father, Eric Robinson. “There’s no one day that go by that I don’t cry about my boy.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Why One New York Health System Stopped Suing Its Patients

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Jolynn Mungenast spends her days looking for ways to help people pay their hospital bills.

Working out of a warehouse-like building in a scruffy corner of this former industrial town, Mungenast gently walks patients through health insurance options, financial aid, and payment plans. Most want to pay, said Mungenast, a financial counselor at Rochester Regional Health. Very often, they simply can’t.

“They’re scared. They’re nervous. They’re upset,” said Mungenast, who on one recent call worked with an older patient to settle a $143 bill. “They do think ‘I don’t want this to affect my credit rating. I don’t want you to come take my house.’”

At Rochester Regional Health, that won’t happen. The nonprofit system in upstate New York is one of only a few nationally that bar all aggressive collection activities. Patients who don’t pay won’t be taken to court. Their wages won’t be garnished. They won’t end up with liens on their homes or be denied care. And unpaid bills won’t sink their credit scores.

American hospital officials often insist that lawsuits and other aggressive collections, though unsavory, are necessary to protect health systems’ finances and deter freeloading.

But at Rochester Regional, ditching these collection tactics hasn’t hurt the bottom line, said Jennifer Eslinger, chief operating officer. The system has even been able to move staff out of its collections department as it spends less to go after patients who haven’t paid.

Eslinger said there’s been another benefit to the change: rebuilding trust with patients.

“We think and talk a lot and strategize a lot about where is the distrust in health care,” she said. “We have to remove that as a barrier to meaningful health care. We have to get the trust with the populations that we serve so that they can get the care that they need.”

‘Folks Cannot Afford This’

Rochester Regional, a large health system serving a wide swath of communities along the south shore of Lake Ontario, is big, with more than $3 billion in annual revenue.

But in a place where once-mighty employers like Kodak and Xerox have withered, finances can be challenging. In 2022, Rochester Regional finished nearly $200 million in the red.

Patients have their own challenges. Unable to afford their bills, many ended up in collections, or even on the receiving end of lawsuits. “We would go to court,” acknowledged Lisa Poworoznek, head of financial counseling at Rochester Regional.

Then, before the pandemic, hospital leaders looked more closely at why patients weren’t paying.

The barriers became clear, Poworoznek said: confusing insurance plans, high deductibles, and inadequate savings. “There are so many different situations that patients have,” she said. “It’s really just not as simple as demanding payment and then filing legal action.”

Nationally, nearly half of adults are unable to cover a $500 medical bill without going into debt, a 2022 KFF poll found. At the same time, the average annual deductible for a single worker with job-based coverage now tops $1,500.

Instead of chasing people who didn’t pay — a costly process that often yields meager returns  — Rochester Regional resolved to find ways to get patients to settle bills before collections started.

The health system undertook new efforts to enroll people in health insurance. New York has among the most robust safety-net systems in the country.

Rochester Regional also bolstered its financial assistance program, making it easier for low-income patients to access free or discounted care.

At many hospitals, applying for aid is complicated — long applications that demand extensive information about patients’ income and assets, including cars, retirement accounts, and property, KFF Health News has found. Patients applying for aid at Rochester Regional are asked to disclose only their income.

Finally, the health system looked for ways to get more people on payment plans so they could pay off big bills over a year or two. Importantly, the payment plans are interest-free.

That was a change. Rochester Regional, like some other major health systems across the country such as Atrium Health, used to rely on financing companies that charged interest, which could add thousands of dollars to patients’ debts.

“Folks cannot afford this,” Poworoznek said.

Ending ‘Extraordinary Collection Actions’

Working more closely with patients on their bills allowed Rochester Regional to stop taking them to court.

The health system also stopped reporting people to credit bureaus, a practice many medical providers use that can depress consumers’ credit scores, making it harder to rent an apartment, get a car loan, or even get a job.

In 2020, Rochester Regional adopted a written policy barring all aggressive collections by the system or its contracted collection agencies.

That put Rochester Regional in select company. A 2022 KFF Health News investigation of billing practices at 528 hospitals around the country found just 19 that explicitly prohibit what are called extraordinary collection actions.

Among them are leading academic medical centers, including UCLA and Stanford University, but also community hospitals such as El Camino Hospital in California’s Bay Area and St. Anthony Community Hospital outside New York City.

Also barring extraordinary collection actions: the University of Vermont Medical Center; Ochsner Health, a large New Orleans-based nonprofit; and UPMC, a mammoth system based in Pittsburgh. Like Rochester Regional, UPMC officials said they were able to scrap aggressive collections by developing better systems that allow patients to pay off their bills.

Elisabeth Benjamin, a vice president at the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit that has led efforts to restrict aggressive hospital collections, said there’s no reason more hospitals shouldn’t follow suit, particularly nonprofits that are expected to serve their communities in exchange for their tax-exempt status.

“The value is to promote health, to care about a population, to promote health equity,” Benjamin said. “Suing people for medical debt or engaging in extraordinary collection actions is really anathema to all those values,” she said. “Forget about your ‘cancer-mobile’ or your child vaccination clinic.”

Rochester Regional’s approach doesn’t eliminate medical debt, which burdens an estimated 100 million people in the U.S. And payment plans like those the system encourages can still mean big sacrifices for some families.

But Benjamin applauded Rochester Regional’s ban on aggressive collections. “I give them big props,” she said. “It never should have been allowed.”

New laws in New York now prohibit all medical bills from being reported to credit bureaus and restrict other collection tactics, such as wage garnishments.

Many hospital finance officials nevertheless say they need the option to pursue patients who have the means to pay.

“Maybe it’s on a very specific case where there is an issue with someone just not paying their bill,” said Richard Gundling, a senior vice president at the Healthcare Financial Management Association, a trade group.

But at Rochester Regional’s finance offices, officials say they almost never find patients who just refuse to pay. More often, the problem is the bills are simply too big.

“People just don’t have $5,000 to pay off that bill,” Poworoznek said.

On her calls with patients, Mungenast tries to reassure the patients on the other end of the line. “Put yourself in their shoes,” she said. “How would it be if that was you receiving that?”

About This Project

“Diagnosis: Debt” is a reporting partnership between KFF Health News and NPR exploring the scale, impact, and causes of medical debt in America.

The series draws on original polling by KFF, court records, federal data on hospital finances, contracts obtained through public records requests, data on international health systems, and a yearlong investigation into the financial assistance and collection policies of more than 500 hospitals across the country. 

Additional research was conducted by the Urban Institute, which analyzed credit bureau and other demographic data on poverty, race, and health status for KFF Health News to explore where medical debt is concentrated in the U.S. and what factors are associated with high debt levels.

The JPMorgan Chase Institute analyzed records from a sampling of Chase credit card holders to look at how customers’ balances may be affected by major medical expenses. And the CED Project, a Denver nonprofit, worked with KFF Health News on a survey of its clients to explore links between medical debt and housing instability. 

KFF Health News journalists worked with KFF public opinion researchers to design and analyze the “KFF Health Care Debt Survey.” The survey was conducted Feb. 25 through March 20, 2022, online and via telephone, in English and Spanish, among a nationally representative sample of 2,375 U.S. adults, including 1,292 adults with current health care debt and 382 adults who had health care debt in the past five years. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample and 3 percentage points for those with current debt. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher.

Reporters from KFF Health News and NPR also conducted hundreds of interviews with patients across the country; spoke with physicians, health industry leaders, consumer advocates, debt lawyers, and researchers; and reviewed scores of studies and surveys about medical debt.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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An Arm and a Leg: Digging Into Facility Fees

Facility fees are charges tacked on for visiting a doctor’s office or even a telehealth visit. They’re becoming increasingly common and they can add hundreds of dollars to your bill.

“An Arm and a Leg” host Dan Weissmann wants to know how often this happens, where, and how much it costs patients. If you’ve ever seen a charge for a facility fee on your medical bill — especially for a visit or service that didn’t take place in a hospital — “An Arm and a Leg” wants to hear from you.Click here to share your story. It may be featured on an upcoming episode.

Dan Weissmann @danweissmann Host and producer of "An Arm and a Leg." Previously, Dan was a staff reporter for Marketplace and Chicago's WBEZ. His work also appears on All Things Considered, Marketplace, the BBC, 99 Percent Invisible, and Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Credits Emily Pisacreta Producer Adam Raymonda Audio wizard Ellen Weiss Editor

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of KFF Health News and Public Road Productions.

To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow the show on Facebook and the social platform X. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

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KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Olvídate del botón para llamar a la enfermera. Un dispositivo que usa IA adherido a tu pecho permite que controlen tus signos a distancia

Kaiser Health News:States - May 14, 2024

Houston, Texas. – Los pacientes internados en el Hospital Metodista de Houston llevan adherido al pecho un dispositivo de monitoreo del tamaño de medio billete, desempeñando sin saberlo un papel en el uso cada vez más frecuente de la inteligencia artificial (IA) en la atención médica.

Este delgado dispositivo, que funciona con baterías, se llama BioButton y registra los signos vitales de los pacientes, incluidas la temperatura, y las frecuencias cardíaca y respiratoria. Esos informes se envían —de manera inalámbrica— al personal de enfermería, que puede estar tanto en la sala de control del hospital, que funciona las 24 horas, como en sus propias casas.

El software del dispositivo utiliza la IA para analizar la abrumadora cantidad de datos que registra, y también para detectar señales que indiquen que la salud del paciente está empeorando.

Autoridades del hospital afirman que desde comenzaron a usarlo el año pasado, el BioButton ha mejorado la calidad de la atención y reducido la carga de trabajo de las enfermeras.

“Como detectamos las cosas antes, a los pacientes les va mejor, ya que no tenemos que esperar a que el equipo de cabecera se dé cuenta si algo anda mal”, dijo Sarah Pletcher, vicepresidenta del sistema en Houston.

“Sin embargo, algunas enfermeras temen que esta tecnología termine sustituyéndolas en lugar de respaldar su trabajo, lo que podría perjudicar a los enfermos. El Hospital Metodista de Houston, uno de los muchos hospitales estadounidenses que emplean el BioButton, es el primero en utilizar este dispositivo para monitorear a todos sus pacientes excepto los que están en cuidados intensivos”, explicó Pletcher.

“Existe una publicidad engañosa y exagerada que afirma que estos dispositivos proporcionan cuidados a gran escala con menores costos laborales”, afirmó Michelle Mahon, enfermera titulada y directora adjunta de National Nurses United, el mayor sindicato del personal de enfermería del país. “Esta tendencia nos parece preocupante”, añadió.

La implementación del BioButton es uno de los ejemplos más recientes del modo en que los hospitales utilizan la tecnología con el fin, por un lado, de optimizar la eficiencia y, por el otro, de hacer frente a la escasez de enfermeras, un problema que se ha agudizado con el tiempo.

Sin embargo, esa transición ha generado otras preocupaciones, entre ellas el uso de IA para operar el dispositivo. Las encuestas muestran que el público desconfía de que los proveedores de salud dependan de la IA para atender a los pacientes.

En diciembre de 2022, la Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos (FDA) autorizó el uso del BioButton en pacientes adultos siempre que no estuvieran en terapia intensiva. Es una de las muchas herramientas de IA que ahora se usan en los hospitales para resolver un gran número de tareas, como por ejemplo interpretar los resultados de diagnósticos por imagen.

En 2023, el presidente Joe Biden le encargó al Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos (HHS) la formulación de un plan para regular el uso hospitalario de la IA que incluyera la recopilación de informes de pacientes perjudicados por su uso.

James Mault es el director general de BioIntelliSense, la empresa que desarrolló el BioButton. Desde su sede en Golden, Colorado, Mault afirma que este dispositivo supone un enorme avance si se lo compara con el trabajo tradicional de las enfermeras, que iban varias veces al día a las habitaciones para monitorear los signos vitales de los pacientes.

“Con la IA hemos pasado de preguntarnos ‘¿por qué este paciente empeoró repentinamente?’ a decir ‘podemos prevenir la crisis antes de que se produzca e intervenir adecuadamente’”, afirma Mault.

El BioButton se pega a la piel mediante un adhesivo, es resistente al agua y su batería tiene una vida útil de hasta 30 días. La empresa asegura que el pequeño dispositivo, que permite que los profesionales detecten rápidamente el deterioro de la salud a partir del registro de más de un millar de mediciones diarias por persona, se ha utilizado en más de 80,000 pacientes hospitalizados en todo el país durante el último año.

Los hospitales le pagan a BioIntelliSense una cuota anual por los dispositivos y el software.

Las autoridades del Hospital Metodista de Houston no quisieron revelar cuánto paga la institución por esta tecnología, aunque Pletcher dijo que la suma equivale a menos de una taza de café al día por paciente.

Para un sistema hospitalario que atiende a miles de personas simultáneamente —el Metodista, en sus ocho hospitales del área de Houston, tiene 2,653 camas fuera de la UCI—, esa inversión podría traducirse en millones de dólares al año. Sin embargo, los directivos del hospital aseguraron que no hubo ningún cambio en la dotación del personal de enfermería por la implementación del BioButton ni tienen previsto que lo vaya a haber.

Una mañana reciente unas, 15 enfermeras y técnicos en uniforme estaban sentados en el centro de control de monitoreo virtual del hospital frente a grandes monitores. Allí veían el estado de salud de cientos de pacientes.

Una marca roja junto al nombre de uno de esos pacientes indicaba que el software de IA había detectado una tendencia fuera de lo normal. Los profesionales pudieron, entonces, hacer clic en el historial médico de ese paciente y comprobar cómo habían sido sus signos vitales a lo largo del tiempo así como otros antecedentes médicos.

Estas “enfermeras virtuales”, por así decirlo, pudieron ponerse en contacto con las enfermeras de planta por teléfono o por correo electrónico, e incluso hacer una videollamada directamente a la habitación del paciente.

Nutanben Gandhi, una técnica que esa mañana vigilaba a 446 pacientes en su monitor, dijo que cuando recibe una alerta consulta el historial médico de esa persona para ver si la anomalía puede explicarse fácilmente por su situación de salud o si es preciso que se ponga en contacto con las enfermeras de planta que la atienden en la sala.

En muchas ocasiones, el llamado de atención puede ignorarse. Pero identificar signos de deterioro de la salud puede ser difícil, afirma Steve Klahn, director clínico de Medicina Virtual del Metodista de Houston. “Estamos buscando una aguja en un pajar”, explica.

Donald Eustes, de 65 años, ingresó al hospital en marzo para someterse a un tratamiento contra el cáncer de próstata pero allí le detectaron un accidente cerebrovascular. Está contento de llevar el BioButton.

“Nunca se sabe lo que nos puede pasar, y tener un conjunto de ojos extra observándonos es algo bueno”, reflexionó desde la cama del hospital. Después que le explicaron que el dispositivo utiliza IA, este hombre de Montgomery, Texas, dijo que no tiene ningún problema en que esta tecnología ayude a su equipo médico. “Parece un buen uso de la inteligencia artificial”, opinó.

Tanto los pacientes como el personal de enfermería se benefician de un monitoreo a distancia como el que realiza el BioButton, aseguró Pletcher.

También contó que el hospital ha colocado pequeñas cámaras y micrófonos en el interior de todas las habitaciones, lo que habilita a las enfermeras del centro de monitoreo a comunicarse con los pacientes y colaborar en ciertas tareas como las admisiones y las instrucciones de alta. “Los pacientes pueden incluir a sus familiares en las llamadas a distancia con el personal de enfermería o el equipo médico”, agregó.

La tecnología virtual libera a los enfermeros de guardia de modo que puedan prestar una ayuda más directa, como colocar una vía intravenosa, explicó Pletcher. Con el BioButton, las enfermeras pueden espaciar el control de los signos vitales y realizarlo cada ocho horas en lugar de cada cuatro, como lo hacían habitualmente, explicó.

Pletcher sostiene que el dispositivo reduce el estrés que genera en las enfermeras el monitoreo de los pacientes y permite que algunas trabajen con horarios más flexibles porque la atención virtual también puede hacerse desde sus propias casas. En última instancia, esto ayuda a retener al personal de enfermería, no lo ahuyenta, dijo.

Sheeba Roy, jefa de enfermería del Metodista de Houston, dijo que, sin embargo, a algunos miembros del personal de enfermería los ponía nerviosos depender del dispositivo y no comprobar ellos mismos los signos vitales de los pacientes con tanta frecuencia. Pero las pruebas han demostrado que el dispositivo proporciona información precisa.

“Cuando lo pusimos en marcha, al personal le encantó”, afirma Roy.

Serena Bumpus, directora ejecutiva de la Asociación de Enfermeras de Texas, dijo que su preocupación ante cualquier innovación tecnológica es que pueda ser más gravosa para las enfermeras y quitarles tiempo con los pacientes.

“Tenemos que estar muy atentos para asegurarnos de que no nos estamos apoyando en esta tecnología para sustituir la capacidad de las enfermeras de pensar críticamente, de evaluar a los pacientes y para que puedan corroborar que lo que este dispositivo está informando es lo correcto”, advirtió Bumpus.

Este año, el Hospital Metodista de Houston tiene previsto enviar a los pacientes a su casa con el BioButton para que el hospital pueda efectuar un mejor seguimiento de su evolución en las semanas posteriores al alta, medir su calidad de sueño y comprobar la estabilidad con la que se mueven y caminan.

“No vamos a necesitar menos enfermeras en la atención sanitaria, pero nuestros recursos son limitados y debemos utilizarlos de la forma más inteligente posible”, dijo Pletcher.

“Si tenemos en cuenta la demanda proyectada y los recursos con los que realmente contamos, ya sabemos que no serán suficientes para satisfacerla, así que todo lo que podamos hacer para devolverles tiempo a las enfermeras es beneficioso”, concluyó.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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Biden-Harris Administration Announces Maternal Mental Health Task Force’s National Strategy to Improve Maternal Mental Health Care Amid Urgent Public Health Crisis

HHS Gov News - May 14, 2024
Biden-Harris Administration Announces Maternal Mental Health Task Force’s National Strategy to Improve Maternal Mental Health Care Amid Urgent Public Health Crisis

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