Category Archives: healthcare

Telemedicine and the unstated reason it can save money for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and other providers

You may have read that Walgreens is is shuttering some of its in-store clinic, because the clinics are expensive to operate and, in addition, telemedicine services are taking off. Telemedicine competes with minute clinics, urgent cares, and some primary care offices; right now telemedicine is being vended through a variety of platforms, some of them independent of traditional medical providers (Teledoc is a relatively famous one), while others are affiliated with traditional providers, like FQHCs. The most interesting aspect of telemedicine services might be the one, unstated reason why they’re popular.

The official push towards telemedicine is justified by greater convenience and lower cost. So far, so good: those things are real, as is the nominal improvement in patient satisfaction, but the hidden reason is also revealing: a lot of in-person medical visits aren’t medically necessary and are generated by non-medical desires. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler talk about this in The Elephant in the Brain: Chapter 13 describes how a lot of medicine seems to be generated by patients wanting reassurance from high-status people (doctors) and doctors wanting to enjoy the status that comes from people seeking out their expert knowledge. To be sure, “a lot of medicine” is not the same as “all medicine,” so you need not leave comments about broken bones being mended or cancers being treated.

A lot of medical office visits are costly for patient and doctor, so telemedicine can reduce the waste. In effect, telemedicine often ends up being triage: the distant provider tries to figure out whether something is genuinely wrong with the patient, and whether that thing needs to be seen in person. Almost all primary care providers have seen lots of patients who come in more for hand holding and an encounter with a sage doc than treatment of underlying condition. I haven’t seen studies describing exactly how many medical visits are really boredom, fear, craziness, improbable uncertainty, and the like, but anecdotally it seems to be high, and Hanson and Simler cite estimates in the 20 – 50% range. This is the sort of thing most of your healthcare provider friends won’t admit to strangers or acquaintances, but they may admit it to close friends or after a couple drinks. FQHC CEOs, who we work for, will sometimes admit this to us, their trusted grant writers (in our own way, we are the “trusted sages” in these conversations, reversing the roles).

So telemedicine can save money because it lets people with common colds, loneliness, and similar real or imagined ailments have a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physicians assistant tell them that they’re okay, bill them maybe less than they’d be billed for an in-person office visit, and then the provider can hang up and talk to another person who is also likely okay. Many people with chronic conditions also just need reassurance, direction to a specialist, or a prescription refilled. That can be done in a few minutes over the phone or via a videoconference. Because it’s socially undesirable and even unacceptable to admit that a lot of medicine is not what we typically think it’s about, not much can be done to substantially improve the system at current levels of technology, but offering telemedicine can be an improvement. HRSA has noticed something like this and is now pushing for FQHCs to offer telemedicine. Healthcare now consumed about 18% of GDP, in a $20 trillion economy, or about $3.7 trillion dollars. There’s enormous pressure on almost every player to try and lower costs as a consequence of these unbelievable numbers. One way or another, the average worker is paying about one in every five dollars earned into medicine—whether that dollar is paid to insurance companies, hospitals, or levels of government via taxes. Strangely, though, regulators are letting hospitals merge and form local monopolies and oligopolies, which is an important exception to the lower-cost trend. Telehealth, however, is right on trend.

Funders sometimes force grantees to provide services they don’t want to: FQHCs and Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

We often remind clients that those with the gold make the rules. Accepting a government grant means the applicant must sign a grant agreement, in which the applicant agrees not only to provide wherever services were specified in the proposal, but also abide by a myriad of regulations and laws. While many applicants will tussle with a funder over the budget, there’s rarely any point in trying to modify the boiler plate agreement—just like one can’t modify Apple or Facebook’s Terms of Service.

In addition to the specific terms of the grant agreement, grantees quickly become subject to other influences from the funder—when the Godfather makes you an offer you can’t refuse, you know that eventually you’ll be told to do something you’d otherwise not much want to do. While a federal agency is unlikely to place a horse’s head in a nonprofit Executive Director’s bed, the grantee might end up having to provide an unpalatable service.

A case in point is HRSA’s relatively recent (and divisive) endorsement of Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for treating opioid use disorder (OUD). Since HRSA is the primary FQHC funder, it is essentially their Godfather and has great influence over FQHCs. In the past few years, HRSA has strongly encouraged FQHCs to provide MAT. The CEOs of our FQHC clients have told us about HRSA pressure to start offering MAT. It seems that, even after several years of cajoling, only about half of our FQHC clients provide MAT, and, for many of these, MAT is only nominally offered. Other clients see offering MAT as a moral imperative, and we’ll sometimes get off the phone with one client who hates MAT and then on the phone with another client who sees not providing MAT as cruel.

“MAT” generically refers to the use of medications, usually in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, for the treatment of substance use disorders (SUD). For OUD, this usually means prescribing and monitoring a medication like Suboxone, in which the active ingredients are buprenorphine and naloxone. While Suboxone typically reduces the cravings of people with OUD for prescribed and street opioids (e.g., oxycontin, heroin, etc.), it is itself a synthetic opioid. While MAT replaces a “bad opioid” with a “good opioid,” the patient remains addicted. Many FQHC managers and clinicians object to offering MAT for OUD, for a variety of medical, ethical, and practical reasons:

  • Like its older cousin methadone, as an opioid, Suboxone can produce euphoria and induce dependency, although its effects are milder. Still, it’s possible to overdose on Suboxone, particularly when combined with alcohol and street drugs. So it can still be deadly.
  • While MAT is supposed to be combined with some form of talking or other therapy, few FQHCs have the resources to actually provide extensive individual or group therapy, so the reality is that FQHC MAT patients will likely need Suboxone prescribed over the long term, leaving them effectively addicted. We’re aware that there’s often a wide gap here between the real world and the proposal world.
  • Unless it’s combined with some kind talking therapy that proves effective, MAT is not a short-term approach, meaning that, once an FQHC physician starts a patient on Suboxone, the patient is likely to need the prescription over a very long time—perhaps for the rest of their life. This makes the patient not only dependent on Suboxone, but also dependent on the prescriber and the FQHC, since few other local providers are likely to accept the patient and have clinicians who have obtained the necessary waiver to prescribe it. Suboxone users must be regularly monitored and seen by their prescriber, making for frequent health center visits.
  • As noted above, prescribed Suboxone can, and is often, re-sold by patients on the street.
  • Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, most FQHC health centers prefer to look like a standard group practice facility with a single waiting room/reception area. Unlike a specialized methadone or other addiction clinic, FQHC patients of all kinds are jumbled together. That means a mom bringing her five-year old in for a school physical could end up sitting between a couple of MAT users, who may look a little wild-eyed and ragged, making her and her kid uncomfortable. Since FQHCs usually lack the resources for anything beyond minor paint-up/fix up repairs, there is simply no way around this potential conflict.

Given the above, many FQHC CEOs remain resistant to adding the challenges of MAT to the many struggles they already face. Still, the ongoing pressure from HRSA means that most FQHCs will eventually be forced to provide at least a nominal MAT program to keep their HRSA Program Officer at bay. The tension between a typical mom and her five-year old against a full-fledged behavioral and mental health program is likely to remain, however. Before you leave scorching comments, however, remember that we’re trying to describe some of the real-world trade-offs here, not prescribe a course of action. What people really want in the physical space they occupy and what they say they want in the abstract are often quite different. You can see this in the relentless noise around issues like homeless service centers; everyone is in favor of them in someone else’s neighborhood and against them in their own neighborhood. Always pay attention to what a person actually does over a person’s rhetoric.

“Health insurance security” and FQHCs

I hesitate to post this, because it’s a bit more political than the topics we typically cover, but it’s explanatory more than partisan: “The 2018 Elections Were Not About Obamacare–They Were About Health Insurance Security.” In it, Bob Laszewski describes how “In March of 2016, there were 20.2 million people covered in the individual health insurance market,” but by “March of 2018 the count was 15.7 million.” Why? Because individual market “premiums and deductibles are sky high–for all but the lowest income participants.” Consider this data:

In Northern Virginia, for example, the cheapest 2019 Obamacare individual market Silver plan for a family of four (mom and dad age-40) making a subsidy eligible $65,000 a year costs $4,514. That plan has a $6,500 deductible meaning the family would have to spend $11,014 on eligible health care costs before collecting other than nominal first dollar benefits.

That same family, but making too much for a subsidy, as 40% of families do, and a typical family in the affluent Virginia 10th, would have to spend $19,484 in premiums plus a $6,500 deductible, for a total of $25,984 in eligible costs before they would collect any meaningful benefits.

Those are shocking numbers, no? Yet we rarely see them, or numbers like them, in the larger media landscape. Many people have individual experiences of such things, including me; I’m covered by a small group employer plan, not an individual market plan, but my own deductible is now about $5,000. Two years ago, it was $4,500, and when I had a minor procedure to fix a toe I’d dropped a pan on, I spent $4,500 out of pocket almost immediately. Not only that, but when I saw podiatrists to get fee quotes on the procedure, most could not or would not give them to me. Even people who say they want to pay in cash often cannot find out how much a particular service will cost. When I inquired about the price of an office visit, most receptionists were confused but could eventually get an answer, and prices varied hugely, from as little as $40 to as much as $350. Why? I don’t know.

Oh, and the podiatrist billed my insurance for something like $12,000, beyond the $4,500 I paid, and she got $900 out of the insurance company. So her net benefit from the procedure was $4,500 in cash (from me) plus $900 from the insurance company. It is almost impossible to read this paragraph and not think, “Something is horribly wrong here.”

And I am not alone: almost anyone not covered by a very large employer plan, Medicaid, or Medicare has had similar experiences.

There is also an absurdly common misconception among normal people: that “insurance” is what matters for healthcare. Insurance is only part of the puzzle, but “insurance” is only as good as the healthcare we can access with it. Many doctors, for example, don’t accept Medicaid patients. So someone on Medicaid who counts as “having insurance” may not have access to care. Laszewski points out that many people “have insurance” (which is fine), but if the insurance never kicks in for the average person, then it is not functioning like true insurance, but not as the pay-all system that health insurance means to most Americans.

Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), which are federally funded nonprofits, have supersized in part because of the strange path of the US healthcare markets. Either by accident or design, FQHCs have become the default Medicaid providers in many parts of the country at the same time that the ACA significantly expanded Medicaid eligibility. Policy wonks in DC, along with some politicians, know that “insurance” is not the same as “health care” (as I myself said above). Even if politicians don’t know that, many of their constituents and voters who are on Medicaid know it. FQHCs are a partial solution, because they accept Medicaid patients and self-pays on sliding fee scales. FQHCs have also become front-line purveyors of Patient Navigation services (which link patients with Medicaid or ACA plans). Still, FQHCs usually do not have enough slots for everyone who seeks care, and waits can be long; FQHCs also often have trouble recruiting clinicians and in particular specialties like OB/GYN and psychiatrist.*

So the convoluted and intertwined health insurance and care access problems remain; the present situation likely cannot hold forever; and I do not know what will happen, politically speaking. But I would surmise that, if a family of four making $65,000 a year must pay $10,000 or more in true costs for healthcare before some manner of insurance kicks in, something has to give.

Single-payer is popular in some American political circles, though it’s not my preferred outcome and seems unfeasible financially; I’d rather see price transparency and mandatory health savings accounts coupled with true insurance for catastrophic care. Unfortunately, no one but me and a handful of healthcare wonks desire this outcome, or something adjacent. It’s hard to explain in a soundbite and normal voters have no idea what “price transparency and mandatory health savings accounts coupled with true insurance for catastrophic care” means. It doesn’t map well onto political ideologies. In healthcare, no one wants to talk about or admit to trade-offs. We write many grant proposals for FQHCs, but we never mention trade-offs. Seliger + Associates is a grant writing firm, so we’re firmly in the proposal world. All FQHCs should be in the proposal world when writing HRSA or SAMHSA or foundation applications. In the real world, however, just saying it’s so, doesn’t make it so. Trade-offs are real and pervasive. It may be socially undesirable to acknowledge them, but they are real.

The most likely political outcome will be more kludges on top of existing kludges. Fortunately, “price transparency” would fit this general paradigm. Unfortunately, there seems to be no political constituency for it. I cannot say what will happen next. I did not think Obamacare would happen, and I was wrong about that. I also did not realize that the feds would re-purpose FQHCs in the way that they have, as Medicaid providers, yet here we are. In healthcare, it seems, almost anything is, or has become, possible.


* This is largely due to barriers to entry imposed by existing doctors and especially the powerful American Medical Association. Many things could be done to increase the supply of doctors, including integrating med school into undergrad; shortening med school; allowing foreign doctors to practice without residency; or creating a special one-year residency for foreign doctors. None, however, are on the political horizon.

Preventive care doesn’t save money, bankruptcies aren’t widely caused by lack of insurance, and FQHCs

Preventive Care Saves Money? Sorry, It’s Too Good to Be True” tells you everything you need to know in the headline, though you should of course read the article. The point is important because a lot of Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) is premised on the idea that more primary preventive care will save money and slow the seemingly inexorable rise in healthcare costs. There’s an intuitive, seductive logic to the argument: it seems like it should be true that prevention is superior to treatment.

But we, collectively, don’t actually know if most healthcare is good for most people most of the time. The Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler book The Elephant in the Brain has a chapter on medicine that demonstrates most medical care is actually wasted and unnecessary. We still pursue costly, low-importance care for status reasons that are too long to describe in this post, but interested readers are directed to the book. The idea that preventive care doesn’t reduce costs and may do little to improve health is congruent with the Hanson-Simler idea that most healthcare is not actually about health.

In other healthcare news, at least one expert wonders: “Are Hospitals Becoming Obsolete?” One hopes so: many are dysfunctional and won’t reveal prices to patients, leading to wild cost inflation and the “mystery bill” phenomenon many of us, myself included, have been subjected to. In healthcare, it seems that the prices are the problem, and most healthcare players are working to maintain price opacity. At the same time, there’s very little political or media noise about this issue.

Americans read and hear a lot about insurance issues and almost none about prices and transparency. Mandating price transparency would be a huge win for patients and, maybe, for cost. Yet politicians of all stripes show little interest in this obvious (and very cheap) policy choice. I don’t know why. I have only a very small platform, but I’m going to use it to propose price transparency. Small-scale studies like “Research finds nearly 8-fold price differences at Minnesota hospitals” show that the price of healthcare varies enormously. But it’s hard if not impossible for patients to gather information about pricing (as I discovered recently).

When you get a shockingly high mystery bill, just try getting an explanation about why the price is the price. I have. Good luck. Hospital bureaucracies are enough to make one wonder if single payer really is next: the healthcare experience for many Americans is already so close to the DMV, why not just go all the way?

I’m not advocating for single payer as a political position: this is a non-political space devoted to analyzing grant writing, grant source research, and grant makers. But it is worth analyzing how the world works, how that relates to larger political questions, and what those larger questions mean for practitioners on the ground.

In the first section of this essay I wrote about primary preventive healthcare access doesn’t appear to lower costs. That’s a common idea that doesn’t appear to be true; there are other things we think we know that just aren’t true. During the ACA debate, for example, many claimed the medical bills bankrupted vast numbers of people. Turns out it just ain’t so:

The fraction of bankruptcies caused by medical events is just 4 percent. And even among those bankruptcies, it seems that medical bills may be less of a problem than the other things associated with an illness, such as lost labor income. […]

That jibes with what’s evident in the bankruptcy data since Obamacare passed. If medical bills really were driving so many people into bankruptcy, then we would have expected filings to plummet after 2013, when millions of people gained health insurance coverage. Instead we see a smooth decline from the recession-era peak.

So if we’re worried about poverty, as many of us in the nonprofit world are, health insurance access may not be the most important way to tackle that issue. The data on bankruptcy filings from 2013 to the present are particularly compelling. It may be that lost income is the bigger issue for people who get sick. Or some other factor may be at work. It’s hard to know.

Perhaps the best way to save money and improve health as an individual is to quit eating sugar and get sufficient exercise. Those things would also be good for the larger society, but “we” (the mandarin know-it-alls like myself and those who dictate healthcare policy) have no way to make that happen. Despite decades of effort—much of it misguided, granted—we have no way of improving people’s habits on the macro level. It turns out that “American Adults Just Keep Getting Fatter:” “New data shows that nearly 40 percent of them were obese in 2015 and 2016, a sharp increase from a decade earlier, federal health officials reported Friday.” Obesity is not a perfect proxy for health, but it’s a useful starting point.

Much of this essay won’t make it into the proposals we write for FQHCs and other primary care providers. Proposals are about mythology, not actuality, unless the funder specifically demands reality (most don’t). But it’s good for applicants to keep the grant world and proposal worlds straight. Reading widely and deeply is still one of the open secrets of good grant writers—and good writers of all kinds. The information is out there. Whether you choose to access it is up to you.

“Your methods are unorthodox”

As GWC readers know, getting information about state and local grants is often tricky. Every state and municipality is different, and, like foundations, few if any make any effort at standardization or the user experience; most just assume that the usual suspects will apply for grants, and consequently they end up forming de facto cartels. In theory, too, all government grant information is also public information, but that’s a little like the theory that DMV employees are public servants who work on behalf of taxpayers: connecting theory to practice can be hard or nonexistent—naive visitors to the DMV learn.

Anyway. I spent some time attempting to get into the Wisconsin “Division of Public Health Grants and Contracting (GAC) Application” page, which is stashed behind a password wall for no reason I can discern. In the process I ended up emailing “Yvette A Smith,” a contracting specialist, to request access, and in reply, she told me that “Your request is unorthodox.” While not quite as good as “Your methods are unsound,” I did actually laugh out loud; I do like to imagine I’m the grant-world equivalent of Captain Willard talking to Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

And Yvette is right: our methods are unorthodox and we do disturb the fabric of the grant/proposal world. That’s part of the reason we’re effective.

Still, I had no idea that there’s an orthodoxy in the State of Wisconsin. And if there is, what is that orthodoxy? Is it John 16:10 that describes how users should access GAC Application information? Or does orthodoxy emerge from other texts?

Alas, I didn’t inquire that far, and I also never quite got access to the GAC Application Page, but I was able to find the information I needed elsewhere. Still, I did learn just a little about the quality of governance in Wisconsin. A famous paper looks at “Cultures of Corruption: Evidence From Diplomatic Parking Tickets,” and the authors find that “diplomats from high corruption countries (based on existing survey-based indices) have significantly more parking violations, and these differences persist over time.” I wonder if my own experiences interacting with local and state governments are similar: the worse the quality of random bureaucrats, the worse the overall level of governance.

FQHCs, Reproductive Health/Family Planning Services, and Planned Parenthood: An Uneasy but Symbiotic Relationship, Centered on Title X Funding

We often write about Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), in part because we often work for them in part because FQHCs illustrate many challenges facing other nonprofits. This post discusses a service that FQHCs could provide but mostly choose not to—a common circumstance among certain classes of nonprofits, like foster family agencies and substance abuse treatment providers.

To understand the dilemma, you have to know that the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) funds FQHCs under Section 330 of the Public Health Services Act and FQHCs are sometime referred to as “Section 330 providers.” While FQHCs do collect copays and most take insurance, a large chunk of their funding comes directly and indirectly (via Medicaid) from the feds. FQHCs are mandated to provide “integrated full life-cycle care” (HRSA-lingo here), including reproductive health/family planning services. Still, many of our FQHC clients are skittish about promoting these services and are consequently reluctant to seek other grants to support family planning.

Thus, FQHCs have effectively ceded the huge pot of Title X family planning grants ($288 billion in 2016) to specialized family planning clinics, which are mostly but not exclusively operated by local affiliates of Planned Parenthood. While Planned Parenthood provides great women’s reproductive and related preventative health care, with an emphasis on low-income women and girls, unlike FQHCs, their clinics do not provide full life-cycle care.

From what we can tell, FQHCs and Planned Parenthood clinics seem to operate in a symbiotic, but parallel manner, in which both stay out of each other’s turf (if you have even more specialized knowledge about this situation, feel free to leave a comment). There are about 650 Planned Parenthood clinics, which serve about 2.5 million women annually with family planning services (this does not include abortions). In contrast, there are about 1,400 FQHCs, which serve about 17 million patients annually, and these numbers are growing rapidly due to the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. More than 50% of FQHC patients are women, so let’s call it 9 million. FQHCs serve many more women than Planned Parenthood, but readers would never know this from the media.

While I don’t know this for sure, one presumes this is because, bureaucratically speaking, there are at least two parts to Planned Parenthood that are structured separately: the family planning side, which is touted by progressives, and the abortion side, which is demonized by some conservatives. The nascent FY ’18 federal budget battle between the Trump administration/Republicans and Democrats is being fought partially over Title X funding. The media usually obfuscates the Tile X grant aspect, focussing instead on the much more sensational issue of Planned Parenthood funding.

I assume that, if Congress passed legislation making Planned Parenthood ineligible for Title X (unlikely but possible), other providers, like FQHCs, would start applying for Title X grants. In other words, no matter what happens, as far as I know, there are no proposed cuts to Title X (again, if you have specialized knowledge, leave a comment). It’s just a question of which agencies will provide Title X funded services and how those agencies will link with Planned Parenthood, which presumably would continue as the nation’s main abortion provider.

I know the potential competition between FQHCs and Planned Parenthood clinics is a big issue for Planned Parenthood, as Title X provides more or guaranteed funding to keep the lights on—a concern for all nonprofits. This basic issue was confirmed by several interesting pieces I found and that the Alan Guttmacher Institute published (it’s more or less the research affiliate of Planned Parenthood).* For example, this article makes the curious argument that FQHCs couldn’t expand to provide family planning service now being provided by Planned Parenthood:

FQHCs are an integral part of the publicly funded family planning effort in the United States, but it is unrealistic to expect these sites to serve the millions of women who currently rely on Planned Parenthood health centers for high-quality contraceptive care.

As a grant writer, I admire the carefully crafted but entirely specious reasoning, which reminds me of our needs assessments, I’m pretty confident that FQHCs would have no trouble picking up the slack and the Title X grants—if they wanted to. We have some FQHC clients with over 40,000 patients, and at that size they can begin to resemble something larger than a community clinics. At the moment, they’re mostly reluctant to tangle with Planned Parenthood—but, again, they could.

And they might.


* The Guttmacher Institute is a great source, albeit one with a point of view, for studies and data relating family planning, teen pregnancy, and the like. We sometimes use their citations in writing needs assessments. If you’re curious about research organizations with a point of view, Daniel Drezner’s book The Ideas Industry is good.

Meaningful Use Regulations, CMS, HRSA FQHCs and the Stalled Push to Electronic Medical Records (EMRs)

According to Mother Jones, the United States has spent billions on electronic medical records (EMRs)* and we’ve got little to show for it. Digitizing healthcare records was supposed to save time, money, and lives. It hasn’t. That news resonates with us because we’ve written dozens of proposals, mostly for Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) RFPs that either explicitly or implicitly require a discussion of our clients’ use of EMR systems. These clients are usually hospitals, Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) or other primary care providers. From them we’ve heard numerous heard off-the-record stories about the fiascos that ensued for providers that have implemented EMRs. For example, we worked for a hospital in Southern California that interfaced with a much larger, nationally known hospital that attempted to implement a comprehensive EMR system. The large, famous hospital eventually scrapped a $30 million EMR system because the doctors simply refused to use it.

There seems to be no good solution to the EMR problem. EMRs have been touted for at least the last 15 years as a tech-based way of improving patient outcomes, while reducing healthcare costs or at least bending the cost curve downward (as health policy wonks like to say). EMRs got a got big push with huge amounts of EMR funding included in the 2009 “Stimulus Bill.” The advent of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA,” or, colloquially, “ObamaCare”) escalated the EMR drive. Various Federal and state agencies advocated and then effectively mandated EMRs.

But this well-meaning concept has at best moved sideways. HealthIT.gov promulgates the wonderfully bureaucratically named “Meaningful Use” regulations, which use a combination of incentives (e.g., higher Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements) and threats. The carrots are offered and the threats enforced primarily by CMS. Everyone is supposed to get to Stage 1 of Meaningful Use (data capturing and sharing) on a supposedly smooth trajectory to Stage 3 (improved outcomes). Stage 3 turns out to be like the intergalactic instantaneous travel through spacetime. We’ve yet to find an hospital, FQHC or other client that has reached Stage 3. Most are stuck at Stage 1, with a few bravely claiming Stage 2. We’ve never seen a client hit Stage 3, though they may be out there, perhaps in a galaxy far far away.

The problem is that EMRs are trying to map the extraordinary complexities of the real world into software. The complexity can be seen in the new International Classification of Diseases, ICD-10 Codes, published by our old friend CMS. ICD-10 codes are used by medical providers and billers to track patients and payments, based on the code or codes of the patient’s particular situation. When we talk to FQHCs, they invariably say that coding errors are among their major problems. ICD-10 has an astounding 68,000 individual codes, compared to only 14,000 codes in the previous ICD-9. In recent years, humans have invented or discovered an enormous number of new ways to get hurt. No one can remember more than a few hundred of these mysterious codes, which are easy to mistype into an EHR and/or be misunderstood by harried doctors and mid-level practitioners. The complexity of the codes, combined with human diversity and frailty, inherently generates huge numbers of mistakes.

Folks with too much time on their hands have published various funny ICD-10-CM codes. Some choice ones (we are not making these up) include: “V97.33XD: Sucked into jet engine, subsequent encounter;” Y92.146: “Swimming-pool of prison as the place of occurrence of the external cause” (how many prisons have swimming pools?); and my personal favorite, “R46.1: Bizarre personal appearance.” You can tweet your favorite bizarre ICD-10 codes to @healthcaredive.

Ask your doctor about their EMR system and you’ll likely here a lot of invective. I live with a doctor and so have heard the horror stories from her and her colleagues. Isaac’s primary care physician (PCP) hates EMRs but is more or less forced to use eClincalWorks, an EMR system that is also popular with our FQHC clients. Epic is another popular one. Still, however you feel about whether EMRs is efficacious or horrible or brilliant or whatever, pretty much every healthcare-related proposal has to mention EMRs, statistics, and tracking. That could be as minor as a project that works on childhood obesity or as major as a hospital chain implementing some new facet of EMRs.

Anyway, EMRs are a specialized case of a more general problem described in “Why Software Fails: We waste billions of dollars each year on entirely preventable mistakes.” EMRs, like other forms of software, have numerous moving parts and numerous human users. Anyone working in or around EMRs needs to read “Why Software Fails.” At Seliger + Associates, we expect to keep writing about EMRs for FQHCs and similar clients for years if not decades to come. In the real world, doing EHRs right is simply a Hard Problem—so hard that it deserves capital letters. EMRs are almost impossible to do “right” and yet have to be done right. They’re so hard that we don’t have a solution. “Why Software Fails” explains why a solution may not exist, no matter how badly HRSA or CMS wants one. As the Soviet Union discovered, mandates from above, no matter how strong, do not automatically translate into fixing problems from below.

* EMRs are alternatively referred to as Electronic Health Records (EHRs), particularly in HRSA and CMS RFPs. In ones types “EHR” into Word, or any other word processor, and the autocorrect feature will change it to “HER.” This in annoying, but does result in some unintentionally funny typos. When finished with proposal draft involving EHRs, always do a find and replace for “HER”.

Thought of the Day: Funders Could Provide Proposal Templates in Word

Federal, state, local and foundation funders could save everyone, including themselves, a lot of grief and heartache by including a Word proposal narrative template with every RFP.

Let me explain: this may not be the most compelling way to start a post, but if you don’t like to waste your time, energy, and precious life on this planet you’ll stay with me even when I write about how last week I was formatting a particularly tedious HRSA proposal. This proposal’s narrative instructions alone have more than ten pages of headers, sub-headers, sub-sub-headers, inconsistent number/bullet patterns, and instructions. I followed the model Isaac wrote about in “What Does a Grant Proposal Look Like Exactly? 13 Easy Steps to Formatting a Winning Proposal:”

Learn to love outlines. If the RFP has an outline format, reproduce it. If not, develop a simple outline format of your own, indenting .2 or .25 inches as the outline descends. It is easy to do this in Word by using paragraph styles. Make Outline 1 “A” with no indent, Outline 2, “1″ with a .2 indent, Outline 3 “a” with .4 indent and so forth.

Not surprisingly, I succeeded in creating an attractive outline.* But I also spent many hours creating styles, copying and/or rewriting header text, and deciding on the formatting necessary to reproduce this relentlessly, tediously verbose HRSA RFP. Towards the end of the process I realized: HRSA didn’t have to make me do all this! HRSA doesn’t have to make each applicant use subtly different sub-heading text, as is currently the case. They could offer an optional proposal template in Word that already has all the narrative headers in a style that’ll make proposals easier for HRSA to read and easier for applicants to write. Everyone wins!

Standardized proposal templates would be slightly bad for our business, because plenty of people see the byzantine narrative structure, become distressed, and think hard about how quickly they can pay someone else to make the pain go away. But they’d be a net win for humanity, and, at heart, I am a humanitarian. Think about it, funders: a tiny amount of work on your end could be a great virtue for all mankind.


* Don’t underestimate the value of instant attraction in just about any domain. Publishers spend a lot of time and money getting book formatting right for a reasons. They know that readers judge a book based not only on the particular words used but on the way those words are shaped and presented. We’ve seen many, many clients who turn in sloppily formatted proposals or who sacrifice readability for more words. Those are mistakes.

The HRSA Health Infrastructure Investment Program (HIIP) Illustrates Why It’s Hard to Handicap Chances of Getting a Grant

Anyone who’s been to a race track or Vegas knows that the odds of a given race or sporting event are being constantly updated by pros who seem to know how to handicap future events. Prospective clients often ask me to handicap their chances of winning a grant competition (and we’ve written before about why grant writing is not like the Olympics). Trying to handicap a particular grant competition is like trying to handicap a horse race in which you don’t know the horses, riders, or venue until after the race is completed. If grant writing was really like a horse race, you’d just pick the cutest horse or jockey with the best colors and hope for the best.*

A prospective client raised the odds issue on Friday, regarding the recently issued Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Health Infrastructure Investment Program (HIIP) FOA. HIIP has $150,000,000 available, with about 175 grants up to $1,000,000, for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs). FQHCs are sometimes called “Section 330 grantees” and provide primary health care to publicly (Medicaid) and uninsured patients. HIIP is a great opportunity for FQHCs: there’s a lot of money up for grabs, the grants are large, and the money is for facility improvements (facility improvements are always hard to fund).

Not surprisingly, we’ve received a number of inquiries from FQHCs. On Friday, a FQHC CEO in rural Montana called. I learned a bit about his agency and provided a fee quote. Then he popped the question: “So, what are my chances of being funded?” As I was starting my standard reply to this standard question, he interrupted. He said he didn’t think his chances were very good, because “thousands of FQHCs would apply.”

I said that’s not true, since there aren’t that many FQHCs. We got into a bit of a tiff over this, so I double checked after the call. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation says there were only 1,202 FQHCs as of 2013. I would’ve guessed closer to 1,000, but the numbers are in the same ballpark. While new FQHCs are created every year, there are likely less than 1,300 today. Thousands of FQHCs can’t apply for HIIP because not that many exist. My caller was trying to talk himself out of applying.

Let’s try estimating the likely competition.

For various reasons, not every FQHC will want to apply for a HIIP grant. Some are already happy with their current facilities, while others are undergoing leadership changes. Let’s assume that 1,000 FQHCs want to apply and that HRSA will ultimately make about 175 grants. This would mean around a 20% chance of any given application being funded, which is pretty good odds in submitting a grant proposal or buying a lotto ticket.

But, of the hypothetical 1,000 or so applicants, many will not finish their applications, so perhaps 700 applications will actually be submitted. Of these, a fair number, say 100, will be technically incorrect and will not even be scored. Now the pool is down to 600. Many of these will be poorly written, fail to demonstrate need, etc., and will not score high enough to be funded. Let’s assume that 350 – 400 score high enough to be funded.

Now the odds are close to one in two!

Still, grant handicapping is more complex than this simple analysis. Of my theoretical 400 potential grantees, some will be urban, some rural, some will serve special populations (e.g., homeless, Native Americans, etc.). Some will serve African Americans, some Hispanics and so on. Since, like all governmental funders, HRSA is a semi-political entity, the organization wants to spread the sugar. Even if the top 200 applications, based on points alone, were somehow clustered in the Northeast, applicants in other areas would still be funded.

My 400 possible grantees are actually competing against similar applicants, rather than all applicants, because not all applicants are equal in the eyes of HRSA administrators. If your FQHC is the only highly scored applicant that serves rural Native Americans, your chances of being funded could be 100%. If your FQHC serves a general population in a large city like New York or LA, you might be one of ten possible grantees in that city. HRSA will likely make multiple awards in a given big city, but not ten. Now your odds could be one in three. This particular exercise can be played ad infinitum, but it doesn’t mean much because no one outside of HRSA knows the organization’s subjective priorities in advance and because you don’t know who else is going to apply.

Not knowing who else is going to apply really counts. If four other FQHCs similar to yours operate in a given region, they may all say they’re going to apply—just to scare you, or intimidate you, or impress you, or for any number of other reasons. Will they? Maybe, maybe not. You can’t control them, and we recommend that you not be dissuaded by their rhetoric. They may claim to have juice with power players in Washington, or any number of other advantages. You don’t know and can’t know if they’re telling the truth.

My advice to all callers is the same: if your agency is eligible and you want to provide the service, you should disregard real or imagined odds and apply. The logic is similar to seeking a new job. In most cases, you don’t know the other job applicants. Most people apply for jobs they want to do in places they want to live. Say you’re a highly qualified lion tamer and there is a great job open at a circus in Seattle. You should only apply if you like rain, coffee, and tech / nerd culture. If you like sunshine, Cubano sandwiches, and salsa dancing instead, wait for a circus opening in Miami.

The same is true for HIIP: FQHCs who need facility improvements should complete technically correct and compelling proposals that are submitted on time. Worrying about the odds is an interesting but pointless enterprise.


* This is actually the way I bet at horse races, which is why I’m not much of a gambling man.

“You Can’t Shovel Tens Pounds of Shit in a Five Pound Bag:” The New York Times Ignores CHCs, Section 330 Providers, and HRSA

In “For Many New Medicaid Enrollees, Care Is Hard to Find, Report Says,” Robert Pear discovers something that has long been obvious to our many Community Health Clinic (CHC) clients: having insurance doesn’t mean you can see a doctor. Many if not most doctors won’t see Medicaid patients. CHCs, however, are a class of primary care organization designed specifically for Medicaid patients and the uninsured. We’ve written numerous Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) proposals for CHCs, and everyone one of those proposals is supposed to expand access to care. This year’s New Access Point (NAP) program, for example, has $100 million available. Pear apparently does not know that CHCs exist and are funded through HRSA mostly to serve Medicaid patients.

The bigger problem regarding real-world healthcare is the number of doctors. Any discussion about the difficulty of finding care that doesn’t mention the limits on the supply of doctors is specious at best. There have been around 100,000 residency slots since the 1980s. Medical schools stopped expanding long ago. These facts are well-known to experts. Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners are to some extent filling in the gap, but in most states they still must practice under a doctor.

Our CHC clients’ biggest problem is rarely recruiting patients—when you subsidize goods or services, people consume more—it’s finding doctors. CHCs usually serve a high-need, difficult-to-treat population. Consequently, physicians often prefer to seek higher pay and lower stress jobs. Although there are lots of people trying to go to medical school—in Educating Physicians: A Call for Reform of Medical School and Residency, the authors note that 42,000 people applied for 18,000 medical school spots, and that at least 30,000 were likely qualified to become doctors—med school and residency act as bottlenecks to this process.

You can give every person health insurance without ensuring that they’ll actually get care, much like you can give everyone a degree without ensuring they have a brain. In the United Kingdom, care gets rationed through wait times. In the U.S., a similar dynamic is happening via provider shortages. While it is laudable that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) significantly increased the number of Americans covered by Medicaid, the landmark legislation did little to increase the number of providers to serve the newly insured. Or, as they used to say in the old days, you can’t shovel ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag. It’s a vulgar phrase but applicable to this article and the overall challenge of helping the newly insured actually access affordable, quality healthcare.