Monday, March 30, 2015

Up to 1/3 of rural hospitals in poor financial shape, auditor finds, calling report a baseline for local decisions that could be tough

By Melissa Patrick and Al Cross
Kentucky Health News
For a video of Edelen's press conference, click here.

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- As many as one-third of Kentucky's rural hospitals are in poor financial shape, and the survival of some will likely depend on their willingness to adopt new business models, state Auditor Adam Edelen said Monday.

Unveiling a nine-month study, Edelen said 15 of the 44 hospitals examined were in "poor financial health," and warned, "Closure may be an unfortunate reality for some."
Rural hospitals in purple declined to make their financial information available to the auditor's office.
The study did not include 22 of the 66 Kentucky hospitals that are located outside metropolitan areas. Edelen said those hospitals are mainly privately owned. If they had been included, Kentucky Hospital Association CEO Michael Rust said, the financial picture "would be better, but I don't think they would be substantially different."

Gov. Steve Beshear said the report was "a dated snapshot" because its most recent data was from 2013, before federal health reform was fully implemented. "Conditions are no longer the same," Beshear said in a news release. "Hospitals received more than $506 million in 2014 through new Medicaid expansion payments, while seeing significant reductions in uncompensated care costs.  Those are huge changes to hospitals’ bottom lines that are not shown here."

Edelen, who was Beshear's first chief of staff, said the full effect of federal health reform isn't certain. His report noted that Kentucky hospitals have had higher-than-average penalties from Medicare for readmitting patients within 30 days, a newly implemented feature of the law. Forty of the 63 hospitals penalized were rural, and nine of the 39 in the U.S. that got the maximum penalty were in Kentucky.

"This report doesn't speak to causation" by the reform law or the state's relatively new managed-care system for Medicaid, Edelen said, it is "not a rebuke" of either, but provides "a baseline for monitoring" by policymakers at the state and local levels.

The report says that to survive, rural hospitals must adapt to new business models, such as merging with larger hospitals or hiring them as managers, forming coalitions with other rural hospitals, or finding a health-care niche that hasn't been served.

Edelen cited Rockcastle Regional Hospital, which has become a niche provider of ventilator dependent care and the coalition formed by Morehead's St. Claire Regional Medical Center and Highlands Regional Hospital in Paintsville to provide more efficient care, improve patient access and adapt to changes under the reform law.

Adaptations might be a hard pill to swallow for many rural hospitals because they call for yet more change in the rapidly changing health-care landscape of electronic health records, managed care, Medicaid expansion and full implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Edelen said adaptation is important for rural communities, for whom "the importance of rural hospitals cannot be understated. They provide health care to 45 percent of Kentuckians and in every community they serve they act as one of the larger employers, paying a significantly higher wage than the average the community experiences."

He also cited the many small hospitals that have formed relationships with larger networks to relieve the increased administrative burden associated with the three-year-old managed-care system. The report says half the hospitals studied have reported an increase in hours spent on administration.

The report suggested that the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services negotiate better contracts with managed-care organizations, partly to streamline MCO rules and paperwork to reduce the administrative burden. "We are optimistic that the current work of the cabinet to improve those contracts is going to bear real fruit," Edelen said.

The new contracts will start July 1. In an interview, cabinet Secretary Audrey Haynes sounded optimistic about them but said she couldn't give details.

Haynes has been saying since she became secretary three years ago that many hospitals must change the way they do business. She said in an interview that the readmission penalties have forced hospitals to change by providing better discharge planning, and utilizing outpatient services like home health, nursing homes and rehabilitation.

One Kentucky hospital, in Nicholas County, has closed in the last year. Haynes said the cabinet is working with Fulton County, whose hospital is scheduled to close March 31, to explore how to continue providing care at the facility, such as an emergency room or an ambulatory surgical center.

Haynes recommended in the interview that all nonprofit hospitals put audited financial records and their tax returns on their websites and adhere to open-meeting laws.

In a lengthy response, included in the report, Haynes rejected Edelen's suggestion that her cabinet regularly monitor the fiscal strength of rural hospitals. She said in the interview that would pose a conflict of interest, since the cabinet regulates the hospitals.

Edelen's analysis of hospitals' financial health was based on percentage of revenue kept as profit, number of days of cash on hand, debt financing and depreciation. It found that the financial condition of 68 percent of Kentucky’s rural hospitals scored below the national average.

Edelen's office also surveyed rural hospital administrators, held 11 public hearings and met with representatives of all five Medicaid managed-care companies. His report found that:
  • Rural hospitals that were geographically well-positioned, such as Pikeville Medical Center, scored high while geographically-isolated hospitals, like those in Clinton and Wayne counties, scored low. The Clinton County Hospital is in bankruptcy to restructure debt incurred for an expansion and modernization.
  • The Pikeville hospital, formerly Pikeville Methodist, was one of only three judged to be in excellent financial health. The others were critical-access hospitals in Franklin and Morganfield.
  • Critical-access hospitals, which limit their beds, services and patient stays to qualify for federal reimbursement at 101 percent of cost, scored better than regular acute-care hospitals. They accounted for seven of the 14 that were above the national average and thus were rated "good."
  • Fifteen hospitals were rated "fair" and 15 were rated "poor." Westlake Regional Hospital in Columbia, which is in bankruptcy, was at the bottom, far worse than the next highest, St. Joseph Mount Sterling.
  • The number of health-care providers across the state – particularly in rural Kentucky – dropped significantly between 2013 and 2014. The cabinet disputed that finding, based on different measurements.
Here are the rankings (click on the image for a slightly larger version):

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Researchers discuss physical activity as a way of maintaining or improving health; daily walking is still the best exercise

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Obesity worsens the damage that arthritis does to joints, but simply telling patients to go home and diet and exercise is not working, and health care providers must proactively monitor their patients and help them find affordable solutions to succeed. And daily walking is still the best exercise.

Those were examples of research findings discussed at the 10th annual Center for Clinical and Translational Science conference sponsored by the University of Kentucky on March 25. More than 700 researchers, students, policymakers and guests discussed research with a focus on physical activity across the lifespan.

Stephen Messier, professor and director of a biomechanics laboratory at Wake Forest University, said obesity has a significant effect on joint health, particularly osteoarthritis, which he said is quite painful. He called for closer attention to obese patients with arthritis.

He said a study found that a combination of diet and exercise over an extended period of time offers the best results for less pain and less disability. He said that a separate study found those who lost 10 percent of their body weight had the most "significant outcomes" related to function, which included walking speed.

The conference featured 31 oral presentations and 270 poster presentations, addressing a vast array of topics including physical inactivity in children, physical inactivity in chronic disease and biomedical informatics.

"The conference was designed to raise awareness of the science behind the benefits of exercise and the dangers of physical inactivity," Charlotte Petterson, professor and associate dean of research in the College of Health Sciences, who chaired this year's conference, said in a UK press release.

The keynote speaker, Duke University medicine professor William E. Kraus, encouraged walking as a proven and simple activity that can improve health and actually extend life. "Fitness always trumps fatness," he said, noting that a "culture of convenience" and conditions of built environments, such as absence of sidewalks, deter people from physical activity.

Research on fourth and fifth graders in two Clay County schools, while in the early stages of analysis, found that obesity and inactivity begins early.

Karyn Esser, professor of physiology at the UK College of Medicine, said her research was examining the circadian rhythms and physical activities of students because changes in natural circadian rhythms "can create pre-cursors to disease" in just seven days, even in healthy young people. She said her study is intended to help schools improve students' health by adjusting meal times and offering physical activities to best coincide with circadian rhythms.

The data for Esser's study was gathered through electronic devices that the 136 students wore for seven days to measure activity, heart rate and skin temperature. The students also kept a daily journal to record their activities. So far, Esser said, the data show 33 percent of the students are considered obese, their initial blood pressure measurements are on the high end of normal, and the students are less active on weekends and nights than during the school week.

Another UK study found that students who are more active during the school day do better in mathematics.

Alicia Fedewa and Heather Erwin of the College of Education said they found that increased physical activity levels "significantly improved" math scores and slightly improved reading scores of the students who got an extra 20 minutes of movement on each school day. They recommended two short 15-minute recesses per day, rather than one long one. They also said that classroom "energizers" and stability balls also help students with these behaviors.

The researchers said many studies show that students who participate in recess and physical education during the school day are more focused and less fidgety, show less listlessness, and have better overall classroom behavior. They said more controlled studies need to be conducted, but said most studies to date have found that fit kids have less anxiety and better overall well-being. Also, a regimen of consistent physical activity is best for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Washington Post columnist looks at data, talks to experts and concludes Obamacare is working, at less cost than expected

The federal health-reform law "has accomplished its goal of expanding coverage — at a significantly lower cost than expected," columnist Ruth Marcus writes for The Washington Post "after talking to numerous health-care experts and examining the data."

Marcus writes up front, "There is a legitimate ideological debate about whether it is a wise use of federal power to require individuals to obtain health insurance or a wise use of federal resources to spend so much on subsidizing coverage. What’s more puzzling, and more disturbing, is the still-raging division over the real-world effect of the ACA."

She says President Obama "over-promised when he told people that, if they liked their health insurance, they could keep it; by its own terms, the law set new standards for required coverage. Certainly, some individuals, particularly younger and healthier customers, find themselves paying more; again, such winners and losers were an inevitable consequence of the individual mandate and minimum-coverage rules. Meantime, the scariest warnings — of employers rushing to drop coverage and insurance markets ensnared in death spirals of ever-rising premiums — have not come to pass.
Where the law has yet to fully deliver on its promises — and some wonder whether it will — is in the area of cost containment and quality improvement."

Marcus backs up her assessment with facts. For example, "Health-care costs and premiums for employer-sponsored insurance (the way most of us obtain coverage) have been rising at their lowest levels in years. On the exchanges, premium increases during the law’s second year mirrored that modest growth — averaging 2 percent on some mid-range plans and 4 percent on the lowest-cost ones, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation."

Woman needing lung transplant falls through cracks of health-care system, says she's treated as nothing more than a 'price tag'

Katie Prager, a 24-year-old cystic fibrosis patient from Ewing in Fleming County, needs a lung transplant, but has been denied one because she has met her lifetime maximum on Medicare, Christy Hoots reports for The Ledger Independent in Maysville.

Photo from The Ledger Independent
"They've put a price tag on my name. That's all I am to these people right now," Prager told Hoots from her hospital bed at the University of Kentucky's Chandler Medical Center.

Prager has had cystic fibrosis her entire life, but it was a diagnosis of an infection called burkholderia cepacia in 2009 that caused her lung function to rapidly decline and caused the need for a lung transplant. She was told in 2013 that the UK Center for Cystic Fibrosis does not do transplants on cystic fibrosis patients with this infection, so she was sent to the University of Cincinnati hospital, Hoots reports.

She and her husband Dalton Prager, who also has cystic fibrosis, were then sent to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center because it is only one of two hospitals that will transplant a lung into a patient with this infection. They began evaluations in January 2013.

Dalton Prager was quickly approved and successfully received a double lung transplant in November 2013. Katie Prager wasn't approved until June 2013. While waiting for a donor lung, she was discharged to spend Christmas with her family, only to hear from the hospital that she could not return there because the Medicare maximum had been reached.

"At first, I thought I might be able to use Medicaid, but was told that it wouldn't cover my transplant due to UPMC being out of network," Katie Prager told Hoots. "After explaining to Medicaid that there are only two places in the country who would operate, due to cepacia, they still refused to work together to help me. In January 2015 I filed an appeal with Medicaid to have them reconsider. The appeal was denied."

She was recently told she would never be eligible to return to UPMC for a transplant and there was nothing else they could do for her, Hoots reports.

"They told me to basically stop wasting my time," she told Hoots. "These are people who we're trusting with our lives and they say that. Most people have no problems when they have to have medical treatments or transplants, and I'm being given the runaround. I'm not trying to be a burden on the system -- that isn't what I want. If I could work and get my own insurance, I would. All I want is a normal chance at life. I want to get my bachelor's degree, get up every day and go to work, run a 5K and have a normal life with my husband. I want to do all the things that young people in love get to do. Is that so much to ask?"

Kentucky is one of three states to get Walmart Foundation money to expand farm-to-school programs

Kentucky will use money from The Walmart Foundation to partner with the National Farm to School Network to expand efforts to get more local foods into schools.

A project called Seed Change will “jump start” programs that get local foods into schools and enhance food education for more than 1.8 million school children at 100 sites in Kentucky, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, the network said in a news release. Each site will get $5,000 grants, with applications to be accepted later this spring.

The state Department of Agriculture’s farm-to-school program connects schools with local farmers and food producers and helps students "learn to appreciate the importance of local foods and grow into well-informed consumers who demand local foods as adults," the release said. The program served an estimated 364,000 children in about 700 schools in 84 districts in the 2011-12 school year. For more information on the program, go to or contact Tina Garland at 502-382-7505 or

Saturday, March 28, 2015

New health-related laws deal with heroin, dating violence, end-of-life care, prescriptions, colon-cancer and newborn screening

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. – The Kentucky General Assembly passed several health-related bills this session, including high-profile measures on heroin and dating violence. It did not pass many others, including one that would have a great influence on the state's health: a statewide smoking ban, which passed the House for the first time ever, but never got out of an unfavorable committee in the Senate. Here's a roundup:

Heroin: Kentucky's heroin-overdose epidemic was caused partly by a 2012 legislative crackdown on prescription painkillers, which steered users to the illegal drug. Last year's bill died because of deadlock over sentences for traffickers and needle-exchange programs for addicts, and Gov. Steve Beshear and legislators gave this year's bill top priority. It was not finally negotiated until a few hours before passage, but Beshear signed Senate Bill 192 into law less than 12 hours after it passed so that its emergency clause could put it into effect immediately.

SB 192 includes both a needle-exchange program and harsher penalties against traffickers, the main points of contention between the House and Senate, but requires local governments to approve needle exchanges and allows judges to be lenient in sentencing addicts, to help them get treatment. It allocates money for drug-treatment programs, allows increased access to Naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose, and allows jailers to provide medically assisted treatment for inmates with opiate addiction.

Dating violence: After 10 years of lobbying and debate, the dating violence bill will allow dating partners to get interpersonal protective orders from a judge if they have been the victim of dating violence, sexual abuse or stalking. This year's bill largely dissolved social conservatives' opposition by creating a new chapter in the law for dating violence, with the same protections as the domestic-violence law. Kentucky is the last state to offer protection to dating-violence victims. House Bill 8 was sponsored by Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, who also sponsored the House heroin bill.

Beshear has signed these bills into law:

Prescription synchronization: SB 44, sponsored by Sen. Julie Raque Adams,R -Louisville, will allow patients with multiple prescriptions, in consultation with their health-care provider and their pharmacist, to synchronize prescriptions so that they may be picked up at the same time.

Medical order scope of treatment: SB 77, sponsored by Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville. will create a medical order scope of treatment (MOST) form that specifically directs the type of treatment a patient would like to have, and how much intervention he or she would like to have, during end-of-life care.

Colorectal cancer screening: SB 61, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, will require that a fecal test to screen for colon cancer, and any follow-up colonoscopy, be considered preventive measures that health insurance is required to cover without imposing additional deductible or co-insurance cost. The governor also signed a similar measure, HB 69, sponsored by Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, which contains an amendment by Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, for a Medicaid savings study.

Newborn screenings for fatal disease: SB 75, sponsored by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, will require all newborns to be tested for Krabbe disease, a neurological disorder that destroys the protective coating of nerve and brain cells and is fatal once symptoms occur.

Spina bifida: SB 159, sponsored by Adams, will require medical providers to supply written, up-to-date, accurate information to parents when their unborn child is diagnosed with spina bifida so they can make informed decisions on treatment.

Emergency care for strokes: SB 10, sponsored by Sens. Stan Humphries, R-Cadiz, and David Givens, R-Greensburg, requires that local emergency services have access to a list of stroke-ready hospitals, comprehensive stroke centers and primary stroke centers in Kentucky. Emergency medical providers will set their own protocols for assessment, treatment and transport of stroke patients.

Alcohol and drug counselors: HB 92, sponsored by Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, creates an enhanced licensing program to recognize three levels of certified alcohol and drug counselors, with different levels of education. The goal is to increase the number of counselors in the state.

UK cancer research centerHB 298, sponsored by Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, revises the state budget to authorize $132.5 million, half of the cost, for a new medical research center at the University of Kentucky. The university says it will raise money to cover the other half.

These health bills awaited the governor's signature Monday morning:

Physician assistants: HB 258, sponsored by Rep. Denver Butler, D-Louisville, to allow physicians to supervise up to four physicians at the same time, rather than two.

In-home care: HB 144, sponsored by Burch, to establish a 60-day, hospital-to-home transition program through an approval waiver from the Department for Medicaid Services.

Pharmacist-practitioner collaboration: HB 377, sponsored by Rep. Dean Schamore, D-Hardinsburg, to allow collaboration between pharmacist and practitioners to manage patients' drug-related health needs.

Tax refund donations: SB 82, sponsored by Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, to put an income tax check-off box on tax forms to allow people the option of donating a portion of their tax refund to support pediatric cancer research, rape crisis centers or the Special Olympics.

Health related bills that were left hanging:

The smoking ban, HB 145, sponsored by Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, never got a hearing in the Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee, and neither did the Senate companion bill, SB 189, sponsored by Adams.

Three bills challenged Medicaid managed-care companies. SB 120, sponsored by Alvarado, would have created a process for health-care providers to appeal the companies' decisions to the state passed the Senate, but not the House.  And the following two bills that never got out of the Senate: SB 88, also sponsored by Alvarado, which challenged the $50 "triage fees" MCOs pay for emergency-room visits that they conclude were not emergencies, and would have required them to pay contracted fees instead and SB 31, sponsored by Buford, which would limited the amount of co-payments. Also not getting House action was Alvarado's SB 6 would have created review panels for lawsuits seeking damages from health-care providers.

Friday, March 27, 2015

You can volunteer for medical research by signing up through a national registry that connects volunteers and researchers

Have you ever wondered how you could volunteer for medical research?

ResearchMatch provides this opportunity through a national registry that brings together volunteers who are interested in research, and researchers who are looking for participants for their studies, University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto said in a letter of invitation to participate.

"Too often, studies end early because there are not enough volunteers, leaving important questions unanswered and new treatments undiscovered. But you can help make a difference," Capilouto said in the letter.

ResearchMatch is an easy-to-use, secure registry where anyone can sign up to volunteer to participate in studies. It needs both healthy participants as well as those with medical conditions to sign up. Specific medical conditions and studies can be searched for on its "About" or "Volunteer" pages. The list of current research studies at UK can be found by visiting or e-mailing

Participation might involve filling out a questionnaire, maintaining a diary, taking new medications or using a new device. The choice to participate in the study is always up to the volunteer and your name can be removed at any time. The registry has more than 74,000 participants and is operated by Vanderbilt University, a partner of the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science.  

How has the federal health-reform law changed your care?

Despite the controversy that continues to surround the Patient Protection and Affordable Act five years after its passage, it has probably changed the way your health care is delivered as it drives new models of payment, forces providers to approach care differently, and changes how health care is evaluated, Kavita Patel and Domitilla Masi report for the Brookings Institution.

Here are five ways the authors say that your health care might be different than it was five years ago because of the reform law:

Your physician might be part of a patient care team. New payment models in the ACA encourage an interdisciplinary team-based approach, which evidence shows "can lead to higher quality care and better health outcomes for patient." This approach allows the physician to spend more time diagnosing and devising a treatment plan, while the patient may spend more time interacting with non-physician staff for support care.

Prevention and wellness are more important than ever. The ACA requires health plans to cover all preventive screenings, immunizations and well visits for women at no cost, as part of the minimum benefits required in order for health-insurance plans to participate in exchanges like Kynect. The new payment models also pay physicians who work toward keeping their patients healthy, instead of just treating them when they are sick. " Since the policy took effect in September 2010 it is estimated that an additional 76 million people now receive preventive care," the authors write.

You may have better access to care on evenings and weekends. New payment models are driving this change as practices are often required to offer extended hours to decrease the overuse of emergency departments. Many offices now offer clinical advice around the clock with a clinician who has immediate access to their medical records.

Chances are your health information is being stored in an electronic health record, not a paper file. A separate law encouraged the use of EHRs, but "participation in the new ACA-promoted delivery models is practically impossible" without them. And while EHRs can be used to greatly improve patient care, not all EHRs are created equal and it will take time before patients see seamless integration and exchange between different doctors and settings in "real-time".

You can access care remotely, wherever you are. Doctors are using mobile technology and tele-health in rural and remote areas to provide more efficient care to patients. Insurance companies and employers are beginning to recognize this mode of treatment not only as a way to save money, but to also provide timely access to care, that does not involve the emergency room.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Federal dietary guidelines recommend cutting back on red and processed meat, sugar and refined grains

The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services have released proposed 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines, released every five years, "provide authoritative advice about consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices, and being physically active to attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health," says USDA.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the 2015 guidelines recommend eating healthier foods, while cutting back on less healthy alternatives. "The committee basically recommended Americans take up a diet that is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy products, seafood, legumes and nuts," Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. "We should cut back on red and processed meats and sugar-sweetened foods, drinks and refined grains. And we should be moderate in our alcohol."

Recommended cutbacks of certain foods have not gone over well with those food producers, who met this week to give feedback on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's recommendations, Clayton writes. The North American Meat Institute argued that "lean meat, poultry, red and processed meats should all be part of a healthy dietary pattern because they are nutrient-dense protein."

Shalene McNeill, a nutritionist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, "told the committee that its recommendation to exclude lean meat ignores decades of nutrition science," Clayton writes. McNeill said Americans should be encouraged to eat more lean meat, along with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Grain, sugar and milk producers also expressed displeasure with the proposed rules.

Most nutritionists have embraced the proposed rules, but say the key is getting people to adopt them, Andrea McDaniels reports for The Baltimore Sun. Among those rules is limiting sugar intake to 200 or less calories, or 10 percent of total calories, per day. Currently, Americans get about 13 percent of their calories, or 268 calories, from added sugar.

"On the flip side, some foods once shunned are now accepted," McDaniels writes. "Research has found that cholesterol-high foods are no longer believed to contribute to high blood cholesterol, so people can now indulge in shrimp, eggs and other foods that were once off limits, the panel said. Rather than focus on cholesterol, people should curb saturated fat to about 8 percent of the diet."

The panel also said "up to five cups of coffee a day are fine, so long they are not flavored with lots of milk and sugar," McDaniels writes. "The panel also singled out the Mediterranean diet—rich in fish and chicken, fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, olive oil and legumes—for its nutritional value."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Heroin bill finally passes and is signed into law; Naloxone program put into motion; dating-violence bill sent to Beshear

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The long-negotiated bill to tackle Kentucky's heroin-overdose epidemic passed in the final hours of the 2015 legislative session.

Almost immediately after the heroin bill passed the Senate, a bill to offer immediate civil protections to dating partners who are victims of dating violence was passed after being held in the chamber since February 13 -- likely because Democratic Rep. John Tilley of Hopkinsville, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, was the original sponsor of both bills.

Tilley told reporters that the passage of the two bills meant it had been a successful session.

Gov. Steve Beshear signed the heroin legislation, Senate Bill 192, into law Wednesday, March 25, less than 12 hours after it passed, so that its emergency clause could put it into effect immediately. The dating violence bill, House Bill 8, has been delivered for his signature.

"Senate Bill 192 is tough on traffickers who bring these deadly drugs into our communities, but compassionate toward those who report overdoses or who admit they need help for their addiction," Beshear said in a release. "I applaud our legislators for putting aside partisan interests for the greater good of all Kentuckians who have been affected by this devastating drug."

The bill passed the Democrat-controlled House 100-0 and the Republican-controlled Senate 34-4. Republican senators John Schickel of Union, Joe Bowen of Owensboro, Chris Girdler of Somerset and Paul Hornback of Shelbyville voted against it.

The stickiest issues were a needle-exchange program, which many senators opposed, and tough new penalties for drug traffickers, which Tilley and many House members said would not be effective. The new law allows needle-exchange programs of approved by local governments, and the tough penalties, but allows the judge to be lenient in sentencing if the defendant is an addict.

The bill also allocates money for drug treatment programs; includes a "good Samaritan" provision that allows a person to seek medical help for an overdose victim and stay with them without fear of being charged; access for addicts and their families to the drug Naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose; and allows the Department of Corrections to provide an approved medication to inmates to prevent a relapse in their addiction.

"The bill includes provisions that are important to law enforcement and me: increasing penalties for large volume traffickers, expanding access to treatment, and getting heroin overdose reversal kits into the hands of our first responders. I know this legislation will save lives," Attorney General Jack Conway said in a news release.

Hornback argued that "forced rehab doesn't usually work," providing addicts with Naloxone and free needles simply enables them and the bill does not allow addicts any "consequences for their actions."

He said that while he knows there are people dying from heroin overdoses,"I didn't make that decision for them and I for one, and a lot of my constituents are tired of paying for people's bad decisions and that is what this (bill) does."

Tilley said in an interview after the vote that needle exchange programs are proven to work, will save taxpayers money and are absolutely necessary to "stem the tide of two tidal-waves that are headed Kentucky's way: HIV and Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B."

"The cost of treating someone with HIV is $350,000. The cost of treating someone with Hepatitis C is $85,000. The budget now had a $55 million hit just with the explosion of Hepatitis C last year. We can't afford that in Kentucky," he said. Advocates say the programs can be a gateway to treatment and rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, Conway and first lady Jane Beshear announced that funding for Naloxone kits would be made available to the hospitals in Kentucky with the highest rates of heroin overdose deaths. The kits will be provided free to every treated and discharged overdose victim at the pilot-project hospitals.

They made the announcement at the University of Louisville, which treated 588 people in 2013 for heroin overdoses, a news release said. In 2013, the latest data available, 230 of the 722 autopsied overdose deaths, or 32 percent, were caused by heroin, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

Tilley and Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, also of Hopkinsville, "forged a friendship that allowed the two men to work out differences on a pair of high profile bills fraught with political pitfalls," Adam Beam reports for The Associated Press. "Westerfield, a former prosecutor, is running for attorney general against the son of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, giving Democrats all the reason in the world not to work with him."

The AP notes that Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel wrote the first draft of the heroin bill that passed the Senate in January, but it omits McDaniel's other role: candidate for lieutenant governor on a slate headed by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. As the Senate prepared to give the final bill final passage, Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer accused the House of not passing McDaniel's bill because of his candidacy.
Read more here:

County Health Rankings look familiar, but show that some counties overcame bad factors to have encouraging outcomes

The 2015 County Health Rankings for Kentucky, compiled by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, have been released. For the fourth year in a row, Oldham County ranked highest in Kentucky for health outcomes. Statistical differences among closely ranked counties are very small, so rankings are arranged in quartiles (quarters) in the maps below.

The rankings fall into two categories: factors and outcomes. Health factors, left, include the health behaviors (with factors such as adult smoking), clinical care (with factors such as the ratio of population to primary-care physicians), social and economic factors (such as the percentage of children under 18 in poverty) and physical environment (with factors such as the percentage of workforce that drives alone to work). Oldham County was followed by Boone, Woodford, Scott and Anderson counties. Clay County ranked last, preceded by Martin, Leslie, Wolfe and Knott. Generally, health factors and outcomes reflect income and education levels.

Health outcomes, right, include premature death, poor or fair health, poor physical health days, poor mental health days and low birthweight. Boone County ranked first, followed by Oldham, Shelby, Fayette and Jessamine. Owsley County ranked last, preceded by Floyd, Leslie, Clay and Perry.

Some counties, such as Morgan and Wayne, overcame their poor health factors to have better-than-average outcomes. To see the full, specific list of county rankings, click here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Health reform law has been good for hospital finances, health-care costs, Obama administration says

U.S. hospitals have saved billions of dollars because the federal health-reform law has provided coverage for patients who were once charity cases, the Obama administration announced Monday, the fifth anniversary of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

"Hospitals also saw fewer emergency room visits, which rack up far higher costs and often leave hospitals with the tab," Sarah Ferris writes for The Hill, which covers Congress. "The government’s report, which focuses on the benefits of Medicaid expansion, is an effort to entice states that have been politically resistant to expanding the program."

Kentucky hospitals have acknowledged that the law has reduced their losses from "uncompensated care," but say other aspects of the law have created a mixed effect, depending partly on hospitals' ability to adapt. The increase in coverage has brought hospitals much more money, but they say continued problems with managed-care Medicaid have cause them financial difficulty.

From paying patients' point of view, the law appears to have reduced inflation in health-care costs, but has not achieved advocates' goal of reducing costs. A White House report said, "Since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, health care prices have risen at the slowest rate in nearly 50 years. Thanks to exceptionally slow growth in per-person costs throughout our health care system, national health expenditures grew at the slowest rate on record from 2010 through 2013."

For the White House's Kentucky-specific list of benefits of the law, click here.