Category Archives: Podcast

Three lesser known Democrats for Governor speak on healthcare

Three in contest for governor striving hard for visibility in today’s Boston Globe trains the spotlight on Don Berwick, Juliette Kayyem, and Joe Avellone. They are serious contenders for the Democratic nomination in Massachusetts but remain less well known than Attorney General Martha Coakley and State Treasurer Steve Grossman.

I interviewed all five of them (plus the two Republicans and two Independents) about healthcare policy for the Health Business Blog. If you’re interesting in learning more about where they stand, check out the summary post, which links to all the individual interviews.

By healthcare consultant David E. Williams of the Health Business Group

GetWellNetwork CEO speaks about patient engagement

Michael O'Neil, CEO of GetWellNetwork

Michael O’Neil, CEO of GetWellNetwork


Michael O’Neil had the misfortune to contract non-hodgkin’s lymphoma while in graduate school. His medical outcome was good but his experience as a patient was not. He founded GetWellNetwork (GWN) to provide an interactive patient engagement solution to help patients move from dependence to independence in the course of their care. The company’s solutions are found in 200 hospitals and are credited with lowering readmissions, increasing staff responsiveness, and increasing patient satisfaction with pain control.

I caught up with Michael at #HIMSS14 in Orlando and asked him to tell his story.

By healthcare consultant David E. Williams of the Health Business Group

Office of Recovery: Avellone proposes strong response to substance abuse (transcript)

Joe Avellone (D), candidate for Governor

Joe Avellone (D), candidate for Governor

This is the transcript of my recent podcast interview with Joe Avellone, Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts.

David E. Williams: This is David Williams from the Health Business Group. I’m speaking today with Joe Avellone, Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts. We spoke previously about healthcare policy in general. We’re going to speak today about substance abuse.

Joe, it’s great to have you on today.

Joe Avellone: I’m pleased to be here. Thank you.

Williams: Joe, why are you making substance abuse such a high priority issue in the campaign?

Avellone: Well, this is an issue that is quickly becoming a major healthcare crisis in our state. We’ve always had addiction problems, of course, of various types. over our history. But with the development of the new powerful health, the new powerful oral narcotics that had been in the market for the past 15 years, we’ve seen a huge acceleration of young people who are very quickly addicted to these painkillers either by using them recreationally or if it’s just happening or even starting out with sports injuries. And from there, becoming so quickly addicted they move on to other things, in particular, heroin.

And this has been a new phenomenon. Over the past 15 years, the rate of prescribing these drugs had gone up 300% and the rate of actual overdose deaths and prescription pills had gone up 300% in the same time period. So we’re seeing something that is reaching significant public health crisis proportions. It’s really being driven by the use of these powerful oral prescription drugs that then lead to other kinds of addiction.

I have seen the human face of this all throughout the Commonwealth over the last year. I’ve been running for over a year and I’ve been in 130 cities and towns. It really comes up in lots and lots of communities. So it’s affecting lots of communities all across the Commonwealth, certainly in our big cities but also in our smaller towns. And it’s in particular affecting children at relatively young ages in their early to mid-teens. So they first experience this and often are addicted within weeks of starting to take some of these kinds of oral medicines.

Williams:   Talk a little bit more about this heroin issue because I’ve heard this as well. People start with oxycontin or something similar and then when their prescription runs out and they found out how expensive it is to buy those pills on the street, they end up on heroin. Is this just something people say for shock value or is it really happening in any significant numbers?

Avellone: No, unfortunately, it’s really happening in very significant numbers. The addiction potential for these powerful oral narcotics – oxycontin, even Percocet, the other kinds of new opiates – is so strong that within weeks of either experimenting or taking for a mild medical problem, the young people in particular are often addicted. And then, they start down this road of taking them out of their parents’ medicine cabinets or their neighbors, et cetera, and using them at parties. But soon, at $30 a pill, which is about what these things cost on the street, they become so addicted that they move to heroin. And heroin to them does not hold the fear that grips all of us who are a little older. It’s much cheaper than these pills at $7 a bag versus the $30 for a pill. It’s now so plentiful and easier to use than it used to be. So there is a very quick transition and before you know it, you have a lot of young people from middle class families who were playing by all the rules and, all of a sudden, went off the rails with taking these prescription drugs and then end up on heroin within months.

And then, the heroin itself, as you know, ushers in all kinds of other issues especially if it’s using needles. You’re exposed to all the blood-borne diseases and also the heavy addiction and the need to find more heroin.

Williams: Now, clearly, the state’s been paying some attention to substance abuse. What are we doing right and what are we doing wrong on this topic in Massachusetts at the moment?

Avellone: Well, we have a substance abuse department in our public health department and we have a drug monitoring program for these prescription drugs. But all of it is not nearly enough to be effective to combat what is really an epidemic.

And I think that’s the point and that’s why I formed the Office of Recovery. In the end, we’re going to need a lot more capacity. We need to do multiple things that we’re not doing now and we’re certainly not doing on the scale in order to meet the need that is out there.

Williams: Have you seen other states or other countries that are doing things better? Are we a laggard here or is it just that the problem has come up so quickly that others have not come up with a good response either?

Avellone: No, I don’t think we are a laggard in the traditional sense. I think if we’re viewing this as a traditional problem at the level that which we all thought it was affecting our population, our Bureau of Substance Abuse is doing an adequate job. But that is not where we are. What is happening is this is mushrooming, it’s affecting many more people. And we are not at all treating it in the way that we should: dealing with it as a crisis, which is really what it is.

Williams: You’ve announced a plan for this area. What are its key components?

Avellone: I’ve announced the formation of Office of Recovery. This will have to be at the state level because it affects so many towns and cities across our Commonwealth.  It has to be high in the Office of Health and Human Services, so it will be a direct report in the Executive Office. We’ll take in the current Bureau of Substance Abuse because those traditional roles that are being played there would need to continue, but we need to expand it.

The Office of Recovery will, first of all, increase our capacity. We do not have nearly enough capacity to deal with either detox or rehab or the sober houses along the spectrum. We need to reimburse our providers more to bring more capacity on line. Increasing capacity is the first part of this.

This Office will have a whole series of regional coordinators that will, in a very publicized way, make it possible for people to have one number to call and they know to call this number when they need treatment. One of the problems of intervention is making sure that the treatment is available and that people can get into treatment right when they need it, right when that window is open.

And we know that window’s not open very long. People, when they finally get the resolve that they can actually treat themselves, they have to move on to make a big change and we need to find them and they need to find treatment then. And that’s what the regional coordinators will do.

In addition, I’d like to staff them with people who’ve been in recovery. There’s a large recovery community that can be very helpful to people who are suffering from addiction and really help them clear the course and get into treatment.

In addition to standing capacity and the regional coordinators, we need to change the way insurance coverage works. Right now, part of the problem is gaps in insurance coverage and slow approvals. And that, once again, creates roadblocks in the system where people are stuck in detox because they can’t get to rehab or they’re stuck in rehab because they can’t get into the next step. Or they have to wait for approvals and if the approvals don’t come, once again, they fall back into their addiction and are lost.

Another key component of this is to move away from putting minor drug offenders in jail. Right now, we have many thousands of people in our county jails; about 75% of them are there for drugs or drug-related problems; and a large percentage of those are addicted. The males are in jail in these county jails for approximately a year, and they cost about $46,000 a year. If we were not putting people in jail and were using that money differently, which we will in my administration, that would cover a lot of treatment.

The vehicle for doing this is drug courts. We have about 21 drug courts around the Commonwealth. We need to have about 50, people estimate. We need to make sure we have it in every jurisdiction. These drug courts operate specialized programs that help people not only not go to jail but then move through their recovery and guide them through their recovery. Specialized courts cant do that.

And finally, we need to much more aggressively step up our drug monitoring. We do have a drug monitoring program but obviously, the prescribing patterns are not what they should be. We are over-prescribing either wittingly or unwittingly in a large amount. There are so many of these pills sitting around unused in medicine cabinets. That’s how the diversion occurs, especially with these young people.

I have heard so many stories from mothers and parents of addicted children, of the fact that they were getting prescriptions for wisdom teeth or other relatively minor ailments that they don’t even want. They have so many pills and would have these pills sort of sitting around. And this is a big problem.

So we have to be much more vigilant about our prescribing practices. I’m going to work with the Massachusetts Medical Society on education programs and also with the Board of Registration in Medicine to make sure we have people who are knowingly prescribing the things that they are appropriately dealt with.

So, these are the major components of my Office of Recovery but I want to go beyond that. I think we need to deal with this as a region as well.

Williams: Joe, we’ve been talking mainly about how these prescription narcotics are causing problems in terms of addiction leading to heroin. I want to ask you about two other substances and how and if they fit in here. One is alcohol, the other marijuana. I’ll separate those out.

Alcohol, often people talk about the large impact that it has relative to higher profile and scarier sounding substances. And then on marijuana, we seem to be on a path toward outright legalization as we’ve seen elsewhere, which seems to be going sort of in the opposite direction from a public health standpoint.

How would you view those substances fitting into the Office of Recovery?

Avellone: I think alcohol should be incorporated in that. I spent a fair amount of time in the treatment facilities, for example, the Dimock facility in Roxbury and also SSTAR, which is a wonderful facility in the Fall River area. And clearly, they treat alcohol as an addictive substance like the other drugs that they deal with. There are some differences but they accommodate those differences in the program. It clearly destroys lives just as surely as these powerful opiates do. So I do think that this is part of our issue and a problem that ought to be addressed to the Office of Recovery.

I feel a little bit different about the marijuana. I don’t think that would be the main focus of this right now because I want to deal with the more powerful and addictive drugs that are essentially killing people and ruining lives and destroying families right now. And that’s why, alcohol and in particular, these opiates, especially prescription drugs and then heroin.

Williams: When you put these plans in place for the Office of Recovery, what would be realistic or aspirational to expect the impact to be? Is it possible to really take this problem on or are we really just talking about taking a little bit off the edges of it?

Avellone: No, I think it really is possible. I think we have to understand how acute the problem is right now. Now, just to deal with the overdose deaths alone, which is certainly the tragic end state of this, we have had 11 overdose deaths per 100,000 of the population. So, that’s over 600 a year. And we know that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg of people whose lives are destroyed or being destroyed but are living and going through a living hell every day.

But just dealing with overdoses, those are the statistics. They’ve gone up to 11 per 100,00 from 7 1/2 per 100,000 just ten years ago. So, it’s rising rapidly. That’s a big change. We heard about the fact that we had 185 overdose deaths just in the last three or four months, and we know that was a very incomplete number because it didn’t even deal with Boston and Springfield, our major metropolitan areas. We know that even at 11 per 100,000, which has been released as statistics, it’s certainly going to be more than that next year and rising relatively rapidly.

So, I know this is an issue that we can definitely, if we treat it aggressively, do something right. We know that treatment plan works and we also know that right now, we’re not treating it adequately at all.

The biggest thing of all the Governor can do and which I would certainly do is to take the stigma away from addiction. I think part of why we treat this inadequately and why people don’t seek treatment is because of our attitude about it.

However, I think we now recognize that this is a health problem and this is something that the Governor needs to take the lead in. It’s not a moral issue. It’s a health issue and we have to treat it that way. If we can remove the stigma, then a lot of things become easier. Getting people into treatment, moving people away from jail sentences and enabling people to rebuild their lives, which they can if we can get them the right treatment.

Williams: Joe, you talked about the societal cost here and even some hards cost in terms of the cost to incarcerate someone. But in setting up an Office of Recovery like this, I’m sure there are new budgetary expenditures that are needed. What’s the order of magnitude of those and how do you finance such an effort?

Avellone: The cost is about $1,000 per person but the benefit to cost ratio of treatment is huge. Many studies show that it’s something like seven to one. And those benefits come from several different sources. First of all, let’s just start with jail. Right now, we’re putting literally thousands of mostly young people in jail for minor drug offenses related to their addiction. That’s at $46,000 a year because as I said, in the county jails, the males are there for about a year.

If we just, next year, incarcerate 500 less, then that’s a fraction of the 10,000 people that are in the county jails. That’s $23 million plus for treatment. So that covers an awful lot of treatment. Literally, incarcerating people less almost covers the whole total cost of the treatment. In addition to that, the healthcare cost is much less. If people are successfully treated, there are many fewer trips to the emergency room and they have many fewer other high costs due the healthcare issues that the population with addictions have.

So this is more about moving money in the budget that we already have because of new expenditures that we’re not incurring. And I believe that we can do this without a big increase in the budget. That’s why it has to be done as a high priority in the Governor’s Office because it’s going to take moving dollars away from some parts of our budget and into others. And doing that in a very, I would say, calculated way. It’s going to take leadership to do it but I think the analysis will bear us out that we can move the dollars and accomplish much.

Williams: Joe, you have been having a quite a comprehensive discussion here about issues of substance abuse in a Commonwealth and in your plans that will be able to address it. Are there topics that we have not addressed that we should do today?

Avellone: Thank you, David. I would like to talk about the regional initiative I’m proposing. I’m going to, once elected, pool together the other Governors and the whole Congressional delegation in the region. So with six states – that’s six governors, 12 senators and 21 congressmen – I believe that we can be more successful in some respects with this operating as a regional initiative.

And the first is to go put a lot a pressure in the FDA. The FDA needs to have a much higher safety profile when approving new narcotics. And I think this is a failing. I think they were essentially suffering now from something that they should have done ten years ago. I think going forward, we have to make sure that they’re not approving narcotics that are powerfully addictive and yet easily available. That really is what has led to this great acceleration.

I also believe we can put some pressure on the pharmaceutical industry as well.

As a region, we have a lot more clout to deal with the FDA and with the pharma industry. I also think we can work together to cut down on the smuggling of heroin. The second half of this is the fact that heroin is so available and young people in particular moved to it as prescription drugs become harder to find than the heroin. We need to shut down the heroin pipeline and I think we can do that more effectively as a region.

I think also as a region we can learn best practices from each other and potentially even share facilities to deal with the ups and downs of our capacity needs. So, I believe this is something that we can effectively treat as a region and I intend to lead our efforts to do that.

Williams: This is David Williams of the Health Business Blog. I’ve been speaking today with Joe Avellone. He’s been talking about substance abuse and has proposed an Office of Recovery to address these issues.

Joe, thank you so much.

Avellone: Thank you very much, David. It’s my pleasure to be here with you.

By healthcare consultant David E. Williams of the Health Business Group

Office of Recovery: Avellone proposes strong response to substance abuse

Joe Avellone (D), candidate for Governor

Joe Avellone (D), candidate for Governor


Dr. Joe Avellone, Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, is very concerned about the impact of substance abuse. In particular, he’s zeroed in on addictions to narcotics and heroin that have arisen out of the widespread prescribing of powerful painkillers for serious and not-so-serious conditions.

His Office of Recovery would have high visibility in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and focus on getting individuals into treatment during their window of opportunity.

In this podcast interview, Avellone describes why he’s making this issue a priority, how his plan would work, and how it compares to efforts elsewhere.

Earlier I interviewed Avellone and all other candidates for Governor about healthcare policy.

By healthcare consultant David E. Williams of the Health Business Group

Juliette Kayyem, candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, speaks with the Health Business Blog

Juliette Kayyem (D), candidate for Governor

Juliette Kayyem (D), candidate for Governor


In this podcast interview, Juliette Kayyem, Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts discusses her views on healthcare with healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of the Health Business Group. This is the last in a series of nine in-depth interviews with the candidates. For a complete schedule and an explanation of the questions visit the intro post.

Excerpts from the interview are below. The full transcript is available here.

Question 1: Does Chapter 224 represent the right approach to addressing rising health care costs? If not, where does it miss the mark and what would you do differently?

“It’s absolutely the right approach in terms of Massachusetts being the first state to try to crack the nut of rising healthcare costs.”

“While it is a great start, there’s no way we can think that we’re done with the challenge of healthcare, both in terms of the burden that places on our state budget, but also in terms of looking at other ways to relieve a healthcare system that’s under stress.”

Question 2: Certain provider systems in Massachusetts are reimbursed significantly more than others for the same services even though there are virtually no differences in quality. Does the state have a part to play in addressing these disparities?

“There’s more that the state can do. But we need to realize that it’s a competitive field and that there are going to be limitations to what the market can correct. Transparency is good, and litigating or having causes of action against abuses is good. Then let the market begin to drive some better behavior, which I do believe it will.”

Question 3: More than a dozen state agencies have a role in health care. Is there an opportunity to consolidate or rationalize them?

“There is no question that rationalizing and consolidating them is important.”

“We need to work through all those different layers to ensure that agencies are working together. What we need to do, what the new Governor needs to do is to ask, can the delivery of service become more efficient?”

Question 4: Government policy has encouraged adoption of electronic medical records. However many providers complain about the systems and the benefits have been slow to materialize. Should state government play a role in helping to realize the promise of health information technology?

“Medical data is the most private and therefore must be the most secure. It’s understandable that medical records have taken some time to catch up. The state can do a lot to encourage hospitals to adopt and invent new storage protocols and transfer protocols while protecting privacy.”

“This is eminently doable with state government, both providing the best practices, the R&D, and the support for private and public hospitals to do this. In the next couple of years this will begin to come to fruition.”

Question 5: Hepatitis C is 3 or 4 times more common than HIV. New drugs that can cure the infection are coming on the market this year but they are very expensive. What role should the state play in ensuring that residents are tested, linked to care, and have access to these new medications?

“We can make things, we can buy them in bulk, we can get them down to the right hospitals or community health centers, but can we actually get them to individuals? I’m committed to finding ways in which we can do what we call that ‘last mile,’ which is most important.”

“Most importantly, we need to look at prevention of Hepatitis C. That’s only going to occur with strong public health education programs, and strong commitment to community health centers and other public education providers that are out in communities helping people live healthier lives.”

Question 6:  There are multiple health care related ballot questions. What are your thoughts about them? 

“I prefer ballot initiatives going through the legislature. Ballot initiatives don’t allow for the kind of negotiations that are often required for proper implementation.”

“I would support both the fixed nurse-patient staffing ratio and the hospital financial question. If the citizens of the state passed them, I’m not going to oppose them. On the other hand, I would also like to work with the nurses’ union, with hospitals and others to get the legislation that is necessary to ensure that nurses have adequate staffing levels, and whatever other legislation might be appropriate for this space.”

Question 7In your campaign platform, you talked about reducing health disparities in the Baystate’s underprivileged communities. Are there specific steps you have in mind to achieve this? 

“I want to do more in terms of supporting our community health centers, not just empowering them, but actually helping to grow the partnerships between them and hospitals. This will allow hospitals to adapt policies to properly accommodate changing populations in the state, such as the impoverished.”

“I want an ecosystem of the delivery of services that go from the most elite hospitals in the state, which we are incredibly grateful for having, to the community health centers, which are really at the forefront of the delivery of services to our underprovided communities.”

Question 8:  Much of the emphasis in health care reform is on adult patients. Is there a need for a specific focus on children’s health?

“It’s about public education. People have to understand that the health and livelihood of our children is dependent on responsible behavior of other parents about their children.”

“If you think of the burden on our healthcare system, a lot of that can be relieved by focusing on our children, and then being healthier in the future.”

“I am into risk reduction. That is what Homeland Security is about. One of the risks that I see coming down our way is the challenge of climate change and how that’s going to impact our children’s health.”

Question 9: Is there anything you’d like to add?

“Campaigns have a tendency to make us have a healthcare policy, and an education policy, and then an employment and a criminal justice policy. Part of what I bring to this race, in conflicts and crisis management in both state and federal government, is a capacity to think about solving the problems of our time in a way that is very holistic.”

“We should begin to view healthcare not as a separate issue reserved for the professionals in the health businesses and the healthcare providers, but one that is intimately tied to educating our children, the delivery of health services through our infrastructure, and that is tied to our economy and economic growth.”

—-

By health care business consultant David E. Williams, president of the Health Business Group.

Transcript of podcast interview with Juliette Kayyem, candidate for Governor of Massachusetts

This is the transcript of my recent podcast interview with Juliette Kayyem, Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts. Visit the original post to listen to the podcast and read a summary. This is part of a series of interviews with all nine candidates for Governor. The full schedule is available here.

David E. Williams: This is David Williams from the Health Business Blog. I’m speaking today with Juliettte Kayyem, candidate for Governor of Massachusetts.

Juliette, thanks for your time today.

Juliette Kayyem: Thanks for having me, David.

Williams: Juliette, does Chapter 224 represent the right approach to addressing rising healthcare costs? And if not, where does it miss the mark and what would you do differently?

Kayyem: It’s absolutely the right approach in terms of Massachusetts being the first state to try to crack the nut of rising healthcare costs. It’s a great start.

People who see me on the trail know we’re never done. There’s no finish line, we just keep pushing. The legislation is a start to continue and strengthen our efforts: whether it’s through transparency; whether it’s through causes of action against healthcare industries; whether it’s through capping healthcare cost. While it is a great start, there’s no way we can think that we’re done with the challenge of healthcare, both in terms of the burden that it places on our state budget, but also in terms of looking at other ways to relieve a healthcare system that’s under stress.

I am on the trail a lot. Part of my campaign – and maybe also as a mother – is to really focus on public health issues. If you think about the biggest costs of the healthcare system, it’s individuals with chronic and yet preventable illnesses, whether it’s diabetes, or obesity, or congestive heart failure. There are things that we can do on the front end to relieve the burdens that we’re addressing in Chapter 224.

Williams: Juliette, there are certain provider systems in Massachusetts that are reimbursed significantly more than others for the same services, even though there are virtually no differences in quality. Do you think the state has a part to play in addressing these disparities?

Kayyem: I do. I think that part of what the state is doing in terms of transparency is a start. Anyone who is in the system, and certainly has children or family members in the system, knows that those bills you get that actually say “this is not a bill” in the mail are, completely incomprehensible to the average person, even someone running for Governor.

There’s more that the state can do. But we need to, realize that it’s a competitive field and that there are going to be limitations to what the market can correct. Transparency is good, and litigating or having causes of action against abuses is good. Then let the market begin to drive some better behavior.

Williams: There are more than a dozen state agencies that have a role in healthcare. Is there an opportunity to consolidate or rationalize them?

Kayyem: Yes. I have been in state government and executive roles, and I have been in federal government. I’m actually the only candidate who’s been in both. There is no question that rationalizing and consolidating them is important. I have done that in the past in state government, whether it was in my space, which is Homeland Security, which had a lot to do with healthcare preparedness and public health preparedness. We were looking at SARS at that time and H1N1.

We are a home-rule state with 351 cities and towns and each of them has healthcare leaders. Each of them has NGOs working in the space, private facilities, and a lot of players. We need to work through all those different layers to ensure that agencies are working together. What we need to do, what the new Governor needs to do is to ask, can the delivery of service become more efficient?

That doesn’t necessarily mean a czar in the governor’s office. Are we, the state government, more transparent for patients and for other government entities who are clearly much more intimate in the space?

Williams: You mentioned working both in the federal and the state government. Well, both federal and state government policies have encouraged adoption of electronic medical records. However, there are many providers that complain about the systems and some of the benefits have been slow to materialize. Do you think that state government should play a role in helping to realize the promise of health information technology?

Kayyem: Absolutely. Look, nothing happens in a day. I’m pretty honest about that on the campaign, and I’ll be honest about that in government. Just think about the anniversary we just celebrated at Facebook. Ten years ago it was founded, and in that decade the way we manage data has fundamentally changed. Dropbox and Facebook have shown that cloud-based data storage is really a viable option for both public and private data, with all sorts of complications. I’m not washing over it, but with all sorts of complications.

Medical data is the most private and therefore must be the most secure. It’s understandable that medical records have taken some time to catch up. The state can do a lot to encourage hospitals to adopt and invent these new storage protocols and transfer protocols while protecting privacy. This is eminently doable with state government, both providing the best practices, the R&D, and the support for private and public hospitals to do this. In the next couple of years this will begin to come to fruition.

Williams: Hepatitis C is three or four times more common than HIV. There are new drugs that can cure the infection that are coming on the market this year, but they’re very expensive. What role should the state play in ensuring that residents are tested, linked to care and have access to these new medications?

Kayyem: That question is about different pieces of the trajectory of Hepatitis C. My experience is not as a doctor in this space or in the healthcare space. When I was in the federal government, we responded to what was then the H1N1 outbreak, and realized the challenges of drug distribution – in that case a vaccine – and the challenges of getting it to the most people, what we call the “last mile”. We can make things, we can buy them in bulk, we can get them down to the right hospitals or community health centers, but can we actually get them to individuals? I’m committed to finding ways in which we can do what we call that “last mile”, which is most important.

As a state, we have been at the forefront of advocating and pushing for access to affordable healthcare, and Hepatitis is no different. We need to look at whether the 97% that are covered can access these very expensive drugs. Most importantly, we need to look at prevention of Hepatitis C. That’s only going to occur with strong public health education programs, and strong commitment to community health centers, and other public education providers that are out in communities helping people live healthier lives.

Williams: Juliette, there are multiple healthcare-related ballot questions. What are your thoughts about them?

Kayyem: As a general rule – and people know this about me and I think probably maybe most politicians are this way – I prefer ballot initiatives  going through the legislature. Ballot initiatives don’t allow for the kind of negotiations that are often required for proper implementation.

That being said, I would support both the fixed nurse-patient staffing ratio and the hospital financial question. If the citizens of the state pass them, I’m not going to oppose them. On the other hand, I would also like to work with the nurses’ union, with hospitals and others to get the legislation that is necessary to ensure that nurses have adequate staffing levels, and whatever other legislation might be appropriate for this space.

Williams: In your campaign platform, you talked about reducing health disparities in the Baystate’s underprivileged communities. Are there specific steps you have in mind to achieve this?

Kayyem: Homeland Security –which we think of in terms of safety and security and terrorism and hurricane–,is really about buttressing preparedness through our various systems that protect people. That includes public health and citizen’s health. As I’ve mentioned before, they’re not in the spaces of threats that come from viruses that we don’t have vaccine for – for example, H1N1. When you think about any crisis or any disaster that hits a community, the burden on public health and the health community are equally felt. It’s not just the police issue or fire issue. We can think of any disaster with Mother Nature.

I am committed to buttressing public health preparedness. Not only is that good for all communities, but also in underprivileged communities. It is, going back to these words, the community health centers that are really the most intimate in the relationship between the patient and the community to health and healthy living.

I want to do more in terms of supporting our community health centers, not just empowering them, but actually helping to grow the partnerships between them and hospitals. This, will allow hospitals to adapt policies to properly accommodate changing populations in the state, such as the impoverished. I want an ecosystem of the delivery of services that go from the most elite hospitals in the state, which we are incredibly grateful for having, to the community health centers, which are really at the forefront of the delivery services to our underprovided communities.

Williams: Much of the emphasis in healthcare reform is on adult patients. Do you think there is a need for a specific focus on children’s health?

Kayyem: Absolutely. I have three kids, 12, 10 and 8. A couple of things, one is vaccinations, flu vaccines, educating parents of the necessity of doing this. It’s about public education. People have to understand that the health and livelihood of our children is dependent on responsible behavior of other parents about their children. As a mother, you keep them home, you make sure that they’re vaccinated against harm, you teach them healthy living about drugs and alcohol. As a parent, and if I were to be Governor, I can speak honestly about the challenges that we need to address in our child population. It runs the gamut depending on what population you’re talking about.

In addition, you’re looking at a system that is a huge burden on the state, and we’ve got to begin to relieve that burden. Healthy living for our children; the numbers I’ve seen – a million teenagers enter emergency rooms a year, nationally, for just drug and alcohol abuse – if you think of the burden on our healthcare system, a lot of that can be relieved by focusing on our children, and then being healthier in the future. Healthier now so that they are healthier adults.

Finally, and I’ll just say this because this is a big issue for me, I am into risk reduction. That is what Homeland Security is about. One of the risks that I see coming our way is the challenge of climate change and how that’s going to impact our children’s health. We have to begin to really focus on climate change adaptation because our kids are outside and have increased asthma. Access to healthy food becomes harder if the weather’s changing too much. Just think about all the parts of healthy living that would be impacted by climate change. Climate change is a public health issue and that’s why we need to begin to adapt to it as well for our children.

Williams: Juliette, you’ve been very patient in answering my specific questions that I have on healthcare. I’d like to give you an opportunity if there’s anything that you’d like to add that we haven’t covered so far.

Kayyem: I really appreciate this time. Campaigns have a tendency to make us have a healthcare policy, and an education policy, and then an employment and a criminal justice policy. Part of what I bring to this race, in conflicts and crisis management in both state and federal government, is a capacity to think about solving the problems of our time in a way that is very holistic. We should begin to view healthcare not as a separate issue reserved for the professionals in the health businesses and the healthcare providers, but one that is intimately tied to educating our children, the delivery of health services through our infrastructure, and that is tied to our economy and economic growth.  If we are healthy, businesses will want to come here.

While I appreciate all these questions and the opportunity to answer them, part of what we need to do through the campaign, as well as a Governor, is to help people understand how all these things are related, in order to build a stronger, more prepared and more resilient Massachusetts. That’s what I’m in the race for. So I appreciate the time.

Williams: Juliette Kayyem, candidate for governor. Thank you very much.

Kayyem: Thank you.

Steve Grossman, candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, speaks with the Health Business Blog

Steve Grossman (D), State Treasurer and candidate for Governor

Steve Grossman (D), State Treasurer and candidate for Governor


In this podcast interview, Steve Grossman, State Treasurer and Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts discusses his views on healthcare with healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of the Health Business Group. This is the eighth in a series of nine in-depth interviews with the candidates. For a complete schedule and an explanation of the questions visit the intro post.

Excerpts from the interview are below. The full transcript is available here.

Question 1: Does Chapter 224 represent the right approach to addressing rising health care costs? If not, where does it miss the mark and what would you do differently?

“It’s a solid approach to curb the rising cost of healthcare. By limiting the growth of healthcare cost to the growth of the state economy, it gives a very achievable target”

“It’s going to take several years to really assess how effective it is, and how effective the various ingredients contained in it are at achieving the desired for results.”

“I would like some thought given to how we can reduce the cost of prescription drugs. As I look at the community health centers and see the pharmacies contained in the community health centers, it’s clear that they have been successful at using the authority they have legally to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.”

“One of the weaknesses of the Affordable Care Act is the failure to include the multiplicity rating factors that Massachusetts was using to help reduce the cost of healthcare for small businesses.”

“I have made it clear that single payer should be on the table and should be examined very, very carefully”

Question 2: Certain provider systems in Massachusetts are reimbursed significantly more than others for the same services even though there are virtually no differences in quality. Does the state have a part to play in addressing these disparities?

“It has a role to play. One of the roles is to drive transparency as a very, very important ingredient, to the extent that the consumer, the customer, knows of the differences in reimbursement rates for various and sundry procedures.”

“The state has a responsibility to make sure that people are aware of the differences in cost. By trying to balance quality and cost, you can demonstrate to the consumer that they are just as well-off, if not better, going to a local medical institution for care they may have sought from a higher-cost provider over a period of time.”

“As a fundamental principle we need to consistently articulate that equity and fairness in payments that protect both teaching hospitals and community hospitals, is something we care about.”

Question 3: More than a dozen state agencies have a role in health care. Is there an opportunity to consolidate or rationalize them?

“The answer, in principle, is unquestionably yes. In other parts of state government I’ve seen a number of issues that are being dealt with by a multiplicity of state agencies. Oftentimes, we are harmed by a silo approach to problem-solving: different agencies maintaining their role, holding on to their role fiercely when more collegiality and collaboration would be an entirely appropriate approach.”

“If you want to utilize taxpayers’ funds wisely, you’ve got to think about how we can be fast, flexible and entrepreneurial in terms of the way we solve problems.”

Question 4: Government policy has encouraged adoption of electronic medical records. However many providers complain about the systems and the benefits have been slow to materialize. Should state government play a role in helping to realize the promise of health information technology?

“Unquestionably, yes. State government should play a role and is playing a role.”

“Presumably, a portion of the investment that we’re making with struggling community hospitals will give those community hospitals the tools they need to be 21st century institutions dealing with health information technology.”

“The fact is that the cost of implementing health information technology can drive smaller medical institutions into the arms of the larger ones. They simply can’t afford the health information technology that they must purchase or acquire in order to be competitive.”

Question 5: Hepatitis C is 3 or 4 times more common than HIV. New drugs that can cure the infection are coming on the market this year but they are very expensive. What role should the state play in ensuring that residents are tested, linked to care, and have access to these new medications?

“I don’t think a caring society can afford in any way, shape, or form not to play a significant role.”

“State budgets have been cut in almost every area over the past five years. State funding for HIV/AIDS, and viral hepatitis have been cut dramatically, by nearly 40% over the past 10 to 15 years. It’s hurting us. We have to find a way to make additional investments in the health of our citizens, because we will get a return on investment in the long term, and because it’s the right thing to do.”

Question 6:  There are multiple health care related ballot questions. What are your thoughts about them? 

On compensation for hospital executives:

“I’m an opponent of extravagant compensation. I would join most citizens of Massachusetts in opposing that.”

“Institutions that deliver healthcare are using taxpayer dollars in a very significant way, whether it’s state dollars or federal dollars, so it is a valid initiative.”

“By requiring hospitals to be far more transparent, it will require them to limit compensation and claw back excess profits, to make sure that taxpayer dollars are used to provide safe patient care and necessary services.”

“That’s a ballot question that I have no doubt will pass and represents good common sense.”

On nurse staffing ratios:

“We’ve got to carefully consider whether rigid ratios are practical at a time when we’re in a period of great transition.”

“Knowing that roughly one in every six jobs in Massachusetts is directly or indirectly related to healthcare, the question is whether we can afford tight and rigid ratios at a time when these institutions need to maintain their financial balance and economic health and well-being.”

Question 7: What have you learned in your business and government career that will be useful as Governor?

“To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only Democrat running for Governor who has spent a lifetime creating jobs in the private sector. I have a track record, a long track record of 35 years. I took that successful track record into the Treasurer’s Office.”

“I understood that small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy, needed help. Help meant access to capital, and access to capital meant a small business banking partnership that’s poured over $350 million into business loans all over the state.”

“What I have learned in business and in my government career as State Treasurer is that job creation, while complicated, is about investing wisely and about creating incentives that will make it easier for businesses – including businesses that are owned by women, people of color, immigrants and veterans – to flourish.”

“People who believe that you are willing to invest in them are going to invest in you. It’s a win-win partnership that I’ve created in my own business, that I’ve created at Treasury, and that will be useful as Governor.”

Question 8:  Much of the emphasis in health care reform is on adult patients. Is there a need for a specific focus on children’s health?

“Let me focus on the issue of emotional health and well-being of our kids. Massachusetts is a national leader in screening children for behavioral health issues. Now, whether the children are getting the care they need once they’ve been screened, that’s another question, and it’s worthy of a lot of time, effort, and attention.”

“Without diagnosis, you don’t get treatment. Making sure that we actually deliver the treatment is a critical ingredient here. That is one of the things that we should focus on. If they don’t catch issues early, they become crises. They become more difficult to manage. They result in more heavy-duty medications that children may not really need. Once the federal judge mandated that we had failed to provide early diagnosis and treatment for poor children of mental illness, our aggressiveness [in Massachusetts] moved us significantly forward.”

“I take a holistic approach to children’s health. It’s about their physical health, their mental health, and it’s about their education. I’m a big believer in universal pre-K, and all four year-olds having an opportunity to learn to read by the time they are in the third grade.”

“The instability of the family unit – substance abuse being a factor in so many families – hurts the health of children.”

“As more resources are invested in research, and more resources are spent –not just financial resources but human resources– in understanding how to deal with children on the autism spectrum, we will have a really positive impact on those children who are on that spectrum.”

Question 9: Is there anything you’d like to add?

“Rather than only focusing on income and economic disparity, we should talk in the same conversation about healthcare disparities.”

“We’ve done an extraordinary job at covering a vast majority of people in Massachusetts, particularly children. As we grapple with wrapping our arms around healthcare cost and cost containment, we need to make sure that those communities and those citizens who live in older industrial cities – neighborhoods in Boston even and also rural areas – have a level playing field. Leveling the playing field and leaving no one behind in terms of healthcare access and quality is a hugely important issue.”

—-

By health care business consultant David E. Williams, president of the Health Business Group.

Transcript of podcast interview with Steve Grossman, candidate for Governor of Massachusetts

This is the transcript of my recent podcast interview with Steve Grossman, State Treasurer and Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts. Visit the original post to listen to the podcast and read a summary. This is part of a series of interviews with all nine candidates for Governor. The full schedule is available here.

David E. Williams: This is David Williams from The Health Business Blog. I’m speaking today with Steve Grossman, Treasurer of Massachusetts and candidate for Governor.

Steven Grossman: David, I appreciate your time and look forward to the conversation.

Williams: Steve, does Chapter 224 represent the right approach to addressing rising healthcare costs? And if not, where does it miss the mark and what would you do differently?

Grossman: It’s a solid approach to curb the rising cost of healthcare. By limiting the growth of healthcare costs to the growth of the state economy, it gives a very achievable target. There are some key things we have to remember about this: namely, that it’s going to take several years to really assess how effective it is, and how effective the various ingredients contained in it are at achieving the desired results.

I look forward to seeing the mechanisms that are put in place to work and to assess them to the extent that approaches that are taken need fine-tuning. Obviously, we can deal with that down the road. I’m very much focused on not only the overall numbers relating the healthcare cost growth benchmark, but also interested in how the investments in prevention and wellness are working and how quickly – how the investments that we’re making in struggling community hospitals are having a desired effect and if not, why not.

I’m a big believer that the way we make this work is to incentivize consumers to move from the acute care hospitals for many medical situations to community health centers. The network of community health centers in Massachusetts is working extremely well and there’s no reason why they cannot appeal to a broader demographic than they have appealed to at this point. As they expand that network from the 285 locations to a higher number and more people use them, that will help to reduce cost without undermining quality of care.

I am concerned about struggling community hospitals and whether those community hospitals will have the resources to invest in what is increasingly expensive technology. So, I’m glad that some money has been put to work in health information technology and in the community hospitals.

If you look at ways in which we could improve on Chapter 224, at least examine things that are extremely important to me, I would like some thought given to how we can reduce the cost of prescription drugs. As I look at the community health centers and see the pharmacies contained in the community health centers, it’s clear that they have been successful at using the authority they have legally to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.

A dollar invested in wellness programs can save $3.27 in medical cost, which is a heck of a return on investment. I’d like to see us do our best over time to deal with that.

One of the weaknesses of the Affordable Care Act is the failure to include the multiplicity of rating factors that Massachusetts was using to help reduce the cost of healthcare for small businesses. I know the Governor has been back and forth to Washington on multiple occasions. We’ve been turned down. We’ve been given a ramp up over time. Nevertheless, there are ways in which we can help small businesses reduce the cost of healthcare and I’m hoping that we will eventually get some additional relief from the feds, even though it’s not, by any means, guaranteed.

When you asked earlier, is Chapter 224 the right approach to addressing the rising cost, the legislature and the Governor, together, did a credible job. I don’t know if there’s a perfect approach, but it is essential to look at other ways in which healthcare is being delivered and paid for in other communities. Pete Shumlin is a friend of mine. I know him well. I look forward as Governor to working with him to very carefully examine how Vermont implements single payer. I, have made it  publicly clear that single payer should be on the table and should be examined very, very carefully. And I’ll be watching Vermont’s experiment closely and try to learn from that as to what role single payer might potentially play in dealing with our healthcare challenges here in Massachusetts.

Williams: Steve, there are certain provider systems in Massachusetts that are reimbursed significantly more than others for the same services, even though there are virtually no differences in quality. In your opinion, does the state have a part to play in addressing these disparities?

Grossman: It has a role to play. One of the roles is to drive transparency as a very, very important ingredient, to the extent that the consumer, the customer, knows of the differences in reimbursement rates for various and sundry procedures. More transparency lets the market work more effectively, coupled with incentives to stay local for many procedures that are more expensive in higher-cost medical institutions.

That’s an important factor that we need to take into account. The state has a responsibility to make sure that people are aware of the differences in cost. Ultimately, there are all kinds of policies offered by various insurance companies that will allow people to go on a virtually unlimited basis to any institution, regardless of the cost issues or to be more limited in terms of what they’re willing to or able to do. Reducing premiums and cost to businesses, and through that to the consumer, people tend to be incentivized by reducing cost and maintaining quality.

By trying to balance quality and cost, you can demonstrate to the consumer that they are just as well-off, if not better, going to a local medical institution for care they may have sought from a higher-cost provider. Over a period of time that will drive customer behavior. As a fundamental principle we need to consistently articulate that equity and fairness in payments, that protect both teaching hospitals and community hospitals, is something we care about.

We want high quality care. We wanted to be delivered the lowest cost, with more information, and more transparency.  We also want greater knowledge on the part of every citizen in Massachusetts in terms of making his or her decisions about where they go and what it costs. Those were all critical factors in the role the state, and the Governor has to play a role in addressing these disparities. This is not meant to be punitive; it’s meant to create incentives and information. Knowledge is power on the part of consumers.

Williams: There are more than a dozen state agencies that have a role in healthcare. Is there an opportunity to consolidate or rationalize them?

Grossman: My father once said to me: “Steve, when you don’t know the answer, don’t make one up.” So, the answer, in principle, is unquestionably yes.  I have a track record in the government – I’ve been Treasurer for the past three-plus years. In other parts of state government I’ve seen a number of issues that are being dealt with by a multiplicity of state agencies. Oftentimes, we are harmed by a silo approach to problem-solving: different agencies maintaining their role, holding on to their role fiercely when more collegiality and collaboration would be an entirely appropriate approach.

I talk to employers all the time in Massachusetts, and a team approach is how they flourish. They’re looking for employees who are oriented toward teamwork. When you have agencies within state government (and I emphasize, I have not looked carefully at how each of these agencies deals with its particular niche in healthcare delivery, cost containment, analysis, et cetera), if you want to utilize tax payers funds wisely, you’ve got to think about how we can be fast, flexible and entrepreneurial in terms of the way we solve problems.

I have no doubt that there’s an opportunity to consolidate or in some way rationalize [state agencies]. I haven’t looked at them in enough detail to be able to give you an answer as to what I mean by that. But if healthcare is anything like some of the more complicated issues that I deal with in the financial affairs of government, I know that when agencies within government have a philosophy of no surprises, sharing information, working together on common problems, sharing credit when the solutions are adopted, that ensures the people of Massachusetts that the right approach is taken to problem solving. I suspect in healthcare, we have a long way to go in that regard.

Williams: Government policy both at the federal and the state level has encouraged adoption of electronic medical records. However, there are many providers that complain about the systems, and the benefits have been slow to materialize. Should state government play a role in helping to realize the promise of health information technology?

Grossman: Unquestionably, yes. State government should play a role and is playing a role. We talked earlier about some elements of Chapter 224 that deal with health information technology. Presumably, a portion of the investment that we’re making with struggling community hospitals will give those community hospitals the tools they need to be 21st century institutions dealing with health information technology. As the simulation at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center showed last month, electronic medical records clearly can save lives in emergencies.

While the benefits may have been slow to materialize – and sometimes painfully slow – we know from publicity over the past few months how hugely difficult it has been to implement new laws in the ways that were contemplated. The fact is that the cost of implementing health information technology  can drive smaller medical institutions into the arms of the larger ones. They simply can’t afford the health information technology that they must purchase or acquire in order to be competitive.

I would like to see us play an even more significant role and I don’t know what the dollars and cents are, but I suspect they are greater than we actually have been able to invest. The Mass HIway Health Information Exchange, the old HIE, will allow healthcare providers to deal with medical records on a more secure, interconnected basis. That is a step forward. Something like 70% of physicians, if I’m not mistaken, are using these HIEs. Massachusetts may have been fairly slow to invest its initial funds and get this initiative off the ground over the past couple of years when it was transferred to Health and Human Services. Winning and gaining some additional supplemental Medicaid grants was a positive step and implementation sped up.

It’s a big, complicated area. Most citizens have read about the websites. It’s just an example of how technology failed to serve the needs that were assigned to it. Many people are probably skeptical that the technology is moving as quickly as it can. Over the long haul I believe by investing these monies we’ll see very significant dividends earned as a result of these investments. I’m a big believer in it, and I suspect we’re going to have to revisit whether or not we have put enough money to work in health information technology broadly shared.

Williams: Hepatitis C is three or four times more common that HIV. There are new drugs that can cure the infection that are coming on the market this year but they are very expensive. What role should the state play in ensuring that residents are tested, linked to care, and have access to these new medications.

Grossman: When you’ve got roughly over a hundred thousand people living with Hepatitis C, this is a public health issue and we have to offer care to our most vulnerable citizens. I don’t think a caring society can afford in any way, shape, or form not to play a significant role.

State budgets have been cut in almost every area over the past five years. State funding for HIV/AIDS, and viral hepatitis have been cut dramatically, by nearly 40% over the past 10 to 15 years. It’s hurting us. We have to find a way to make additional investments in the health of our citizens, because we will get a return on investment in the long term, and because it’s the right thing to do.

There’s a whole wave of alternative treatments going on now including: therapy and weekly injections for Hepatitis C; approval of daily pills that have demonstrated some real effectiveness; other drugs that are looking for FDA approval; and oral regimens. All these may be very expensive, but in the long run we benefit significantly and the cost will come down over a period of time.

Our cuts have hurt us, reinvesting will help us. Obviously, they should lay out a whole series of priorities having to do with health. We are talking about health, mental health, behavioral health, substance abuse, Hepatitis C, and a range of other things that are part of Chapter 224. We’re going to have to figure out our priorities and how much we can invest, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that this is an area that requires our involvement. I’m hoping we can find new approaches that will make the treatments for these infections far less expensive.

Williams: There are multiple healthcare-related ballot questions coming up in November. What are your thoughts about them?

Grossman: The citizens of Massachusetts are being treated to a rich array of ballot questions. There’s a thirst out there for citizens being stakeholders in the process by which decisions are made.

On the issue of ratios, we’ve got to carefully consider whether rigid ratios are practical at a time when we’re in a period of great transition. What I mean by that is we’ve got Chapter 224 being implemented along with the Affordable Care Act. Significant dollars are going to be taken out of the revenue stream of our healthcare institutions, particularly our major health care institutions, including our acute care hospitals. Knowing that roughly one in every six jobs in Massachusetts is directly or indirectly related to healthcare, the question is whether we can afford tight and rigid ratios at a time when these institutions need to maintain their financial balance and economic health and well-being.

The Patient Safety Act is one that ought to be carefully looked at. I don’t know if it could be able to be implemented in this environment without some serious damage done to healthcare employment, particularly in our major hospitals, in all hospitals and for that reason, I’m concerned about it.

I’m familiar with the Hospitals Profit Transparency and Fairness Act because I chair the state’s pension board. I’m an opponent of extravagant compensation. I would join most citizens of Massachusetts in opposing that. Healthcare is a cause of the Commonwealth, and it is for everyone. Institutions that deliver healthcare are using taxpayer dollars in a very significant way, whether it’s state dollars or federal dollars, so it is a valid initiative. By requiring hospitals to be far more transparent, it will require them to limit compensation and claw back excess profits, to make sure that taxpayer dollars are used to provide safe patient care and necessary services. That’s a ballot question that I have no doubt will pass and represents good common sense.

Williams: What have you learned in your business and government career that will be especially useful as Governor?

Grossman: The most important issue we face, if you were to have a roundtable of citizens on the call, is jobs and economic security, broadly and widely shared. Too many regions of the state have been left out and left behind, too many communities have been left out and left behind. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only Democrat running for Governor who has spent a lifetime creating jobs in the private sector. I have a track record, a long track record of 35 years. I took that successful track record into the Treasurer’s Office. Because of that, I understood that small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy, needed help. Help meant access to capital, and access to capital meant a small business banking partnership that’s poured over $350 million into business loans all over the state.

What I have learned in business and in my government career as State Treasurer is that job creation, while complicated, is about investing wisely and about creating incentives that will make it easier for businesses – including businesses that are owned by women, people of color, immigrants and veterans – to flourish.

What I have learned in my business career, and in my government career as a State Treasurer, is that hiring the best people for every job is an essential ingredient to successfully delivering services, whether it’s to customers or the 6.7 million people who live in the state who are also customers. If you give your customers great service, quality, value, and professionalism, you’re going to flourish.

When I was sworn in as a Treasurer, I said two things. I said, first of all, I’m going to hire the best person I can find for every job. Second, employment within Treasury is going to reflect the diversity of the society in which we live. If we truly want to be a society that leaves no one behind, we have to give people economic opportunity, and that’s jobs. That’s opportunities for businesses to grow and develop and flourish.

In my company, in my family business, we had a union shop for 62 years. We had earned sick times for more than 25 years. I don’t come to these issues just in the campaign because they’re popular. I come to them as a matter of our values and a sense as to what builds great organizations. So, treating workers and colleagues by providing them great benefits, by providing them with workforce training. We were one of the first companies that offered interest free loans for our employees to purchase a home. When they worked for other company for a certain period of time, they were able to get that loan discharged in its entirety.

These are practices that I think create empowerment on the part of working people. Working with people who believe that you are willing to invest in them are going to invest in you. It’s a win-win partnership that I’ve created in my own business, that I’ve created at Treasury, and that will be useful as Governor.

Finally, I’ll just share with you a quick anecdote. When I was chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1997, I was sitting in Philadelphia one day with Bill Clinton. We were waiting for the Mayor and he was a little bit late, and so I looked at the President and I asked him a question. I said, “Mr. President, what’s the most important thing you’re trying to accomplish as president of the United States?” And he said, “Steve, I’m in the solutions business.”

I never forgot that conversation because fundamentally, in business, in politics, in my non-profit work and now as State Treasurer, I’ve been in the solutions business all my life. If you see that as your number one responsibility, I think you will be well-served, and will serve well, the people of Massachusetts.  Solutions, business, leadership, all bound up together in solving common problems that improve the quality of people’s lives.

Williams: Steve, much of the emphasis in healthcare reform is on adult patients. Do you think there’s a need for a specific focus on children’s health?

Grossman: Absolutely. I would take it both specifically around health and then specifically around other investments that will also improve the quality of children’s health.

Let me focus on the issue of emotional health and well-being of our kids. Massachusetts is a national leader in screening children for behavioral health issues. Now, whether the children are getting the care they need once they’ve been screened, that’s another question, and it’s worthy of a lot of time, effort, and attention.

Back in 2007, when the federal court mandated a new program for annual checkups for the children and young adults of Massachusetts by Mass Health by the Medicaid program, we moved forward and implemented it. Its numbers are something like 70% of Massachusetts children under six in low-income families were screened by 2011 and 2012. That’s more than double the rate in the United States as a whole.

That’s a good thing. Without diagnosis, you don’t get treatment. Making sure that we actually deliver the treatment is a critical ingredient here. That is one of the things that we should focus on. If they don’t catch issues early, they become crises. They become more difficult to manage. They result in more heavy-duty medications that children may not really need. Once the federal judge ruled that we had failed to provide early diagnosis and treatment for poor children of mental illness, our aggressiveness [in Massachusetts] moved us significantly forward.

More broadly, I take a holistic approach to children’s health. It’s about their physical health, their mental health, and it’s about their education. I’m a big believer in universal pre-K, and all four year-olds having an opportunity to learn to read by the time they are in the third grade. We’ve been leaving something on the order of 25,000 kids out of that currently. I think it’s a huge dividend in terms of their ability to read fluently by the time they finished the third grade, by the time they’re eight years old.

As our children become far more proficient in reading, it will improve their ability to learn longer term. It will make them far more effective members of the workforce eventually, whether it’s after high school, voc/tech schools, or four-year degrees or whatever. By providing young people with the kind of educational skills that they need, it will have a very positive impact on their emotional health and well-being long term.

Finally, it’s true that more broadly spoken, Massachusetts has unfortunately cut its investment in mental health, behavioral health and substance abuse programs dramatically since 2009. The instability of the family unit – substance abuse being a factor in so many families – hurts the health of children; their physical health, the mental health – and could result in much higher level of domestic violence. That of course is a key ingredient in keeping children safe

I’ve worked closely with colleagues to understand how to  deal effectively with the autism spectrum. As more resources are invested in research, and more resources are spent, not just financial resources but human resources in understanding how to deal with children on the autism spectrum, we will have a really positive impact on those children who are on that spectrum. My colleague, Barbara L’Italien who is our director of Government Affairs, was both the architect of and still chairs the Autism Commission. That’s an important issue for us to focus on, and we got more work to be done in that area.

Finally, we’ve got a crisis in Massachusetts. The crisis is in primary care physicians. We talked to people in rural communities and our gateway communities and there aren’t enough primary care physicians. There aren’t enough nurse practitioners for that matter.

Longer term, we need to think about how do we incentivize graduates of medical school to go into a rural area or to a gateway community. I would suggest that we create an initiative that looks a little bit like Teach for America, but it’s a five-year program in public service. A graduate of medical school, who may be lugging around debt – something on the order to $200,000 to $250,000 – is told: “look, you go to an area of the state which is hurting for primary care and we will, if you stay five years, we will wipe out your debt.”

Taxpayers investing in doctors who will serve them well and will improve the quality of primary care. I’m including the nurse practitioners and others who don’t have medical degrees, but can be enormously valuable in terms of improving the quality of healthcare, not just on adult patients, but on all patients. Pediatric primary care physicians are probably on that same spectrum. They are endangered species in some communities and we need to deal with that.

Williams: Steve, I appreciate very much your answering all the questions I’ve laid out here. I want to give you an opportunity in case there are other topics that I haven’t asked you about, if there’s anything else you’d like to add.

Grossman: We have enormous disparities in terms of income and economic circumstances. Everybody’s aware of that as a topic of conversation almost on a daily basis. When it comes to healthcare, I think we have the same disparities. Rather than only focusing on income and economic disparity, we should talk in the same conversation about healthcare disparities. If you’re not healthy, nothing else is possible. If you have your health, then everything is possible.

Seventy-seven years ago, in the middle of the worst economic times in decades, at the Second Inaugural, Franklin Roosevelt said: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, but if we provide enough for those who have too little.” He was talking about jobs, education, healthcare, hope, and dignity.

We’ve done an extraordinary job at covering the vast majority of people in Massachusetts, particularly children. As we grapple with wrapping our arms around healthcare cost and cost containment, we need to make sure that those communities and those citizens who live in older industrial cities – neighborhoods in Boston even and also rural areas – have a level playing field. Leveling the playing field and leaving no one behind in terms of healthcare access and quality is a hugely important issue.

I appreciate the chance to have this conversation with you.

Williams: Steve Grossman, Treasurer of Massachusetts and candidate for governor. Thank you very much.

Grossman: David, thank you and I hope we’ll talk again.

Joe Avellone, candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, speaks with the Health Business Blog

Joe Avellone (D), candidate for Governor

Joe Avellone (D), candidate for Governor


In this podcast interview, Joe Avellone, Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts discusses his views on healthcare with healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of the Health Business Group. This is the seventh in a series of nine in-depth interviews with the candidates. For a complete schedule and an explanation of the questions visit the intro post.

Excerpts from the interview are below. The full transcript is available here.

Question 1: Does Chapter 224 represent the right approach to addressing rising health care costs? If not, where does it miss the mark and what would you do differently?

“It does several things very well. First it allows for data collection, which is absolutely important to understand the true patterns of care. It also allows a process for setting targets. That’s an important thing as well. It calls for corrective action plans to bring outliers back towards the targets, which is also very important.”

“Something that will occur more down the road is the idea of having accreditation for these large integrated organizations.  As they take on new kinds of contracts, global payments, and bundled payments, this will be incredibly important.”

“The Health Policy Commission could have a more active role in ascertaining appropriate levels of care in these larger systems. They should continue to take on a vigorous role in taking a hard look at the cost impact of mergers as they occur in our systems over time.”

Question 2: Certain provider systems in Massachusetts are reimbursed significantly more than others for the same services even though there are virtually no differences in quality. Does the state have a part to play in addressing these disparities?

“We have a mixed model system, with private payers and public payers. What the state should continue to do is have more transparency around these contracts, so as consumers choose among providers, they have a better understanding [of the contracts]”

“As a companion with the pricing, we should continue to focus on building up the quality measures, even with all of the challenges around that, so that people can do more value pricing, and choose more on the basis of value than just the straight price itself.”

Question 3: More than a dozen state agencies have a role in health care. Is there an opportunity to consolidate or rationalize them?

“There is ‘silo-ization’ in our state government. We have to continue to look at it, especially as we’re moving towards a more integrated approach to healthcare.”

“What I see are disconnects between our mental health system and our substance abuse capabilities of the state, which are in the public health department.”

”Public health itself is pretty much divorced from health and human services. We ought to address that from an organizational standpoint.”

“Substance abuse has to have a higher profile in our Commonwealth.  We should think of it more as a medical problem than a criminal justice problem.”

Question 4: Government policy has encouraged adoption of electronic medical records. However many providers complain about the systems and the benefits have been slow to materialize. Should state government play a role in helping to realize the promise of health information technology?

“Despite the frustrations of implementing electronic medical records, they have a huge impact on both quality and cost of healthcare overall.”

“Electronic medical records create the means by which doctors can operate and collaborate in teams, in which better planning for after-discharge of the hospital can be done.  It’s absolutely important for the future.”

“The state ought to continue to be supportive and push for full use of electronic medical records. The state should continue to push for inter-operability, so that the systems can talk to each other.”

Question 5: Hepatitis C is 3 or 4 times more common than HIV. New drugs that can cure the infection are coming on the market this year but they are very expensive. What role should the state play in ensuring that residents are tested, linked to care, and have access to these new medications?

“This is a scourge that is going to be a huge problem for us down the road.”

“In my administration I’m going to propose widespread access to testing, perhaps even anonymous testing, like  was done in HIV to encourage people to get tested.”

“We definitely need to have more widespread public education about this disease and more identified places for treatment.”

Question 6:  There are multiple health care related ballot questions. What are your thoughts about them? 

“I agree with the idea of the staffing ratios that are inherent in the ballot initiative.”

“The way to save money in our healthcare systems is not to jeopardize the safety of patients and hospitals by understaffed wards. It’s really to take the inefficiency out of the delivery system itself and coordinate the care more.”

Question 7: What have you learned as a surgeon and health care executive that will be useful as Governor?

“Having been a practicing surgeon, I understand the absolute sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship. Even though we talk about the health system all the time, it really is built around maintaining that inviolate doctor-patient relationship. That is at the core of our profession.”

“I’ve learned the importance of preventive medicine – it actually works. It’s very difficult for most organizations to invest in it because of the long-term time horizon, but the state is the appropriate level.”

“The modern killers are obesity, especially childhood obesity, smoking, and Hepatitis C. The state is the only entity that can really make the appropriate investments, given that the return in health and all the cost to all of us is far down the road.”

Question 8:  Much of the emphasis in health care reform is on adult patients. Is there a need for a specific focus on children’s health?

“We all have to recognize that children are not just small adults. What that means for drug treatment or other kinds of therapy is still an active area to learn about. We have to make sure that our health system understands and is sensitive to that.”

“In our Commonwealth we’ve underserved children in mental health needs, especially adolescents. This is a too-forgotten part of our system, and as we improve the mental healthcare system we have to pay special attention that adolescent mental health issues in particular are addressed.”

Question 9: Is there anything you’d like to add?

“Healthcare is the most intimate and important of all services, and it’s something that affects everybody, from birth to death and all of our families. It’s also becoming a bigger and bigger part of our political life.”

“The health profession itself, all aspects of it, needs to understand that they have to get engaged in the political process, that people like me need to run for office and participate in it.”

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By health care business consultant David E. Williams, president of the Health Business Group.