July 15,2014

Press Contact:

Ken Willis (Wyden) (202) 224-4515

Senate Finance Committee Begins Effort to Address Chronic Illness

Senators Hear Personal Stories about Navigating Health Care Maze

WASHINGTON – Taking its first step toward improving care for the millions of Americans dealing with chronic illness, the Senate Finance Committee today heard personal stories from people directly affected, and testimony on innovative strategies and solutions from employers, providers and health plans.

“All of us are touched by the American health care system eventually,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said. “Those suffering with chronic disease are hurt the most by its flaws.”

“I appreciate Chairman Wyden’s work on this important issue and look forward to working with him on finding fiscally-responsible and sustainable solutions that target our existing health care dollars to maximize quality outcome for our patients,” Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said.

Wyden, the co-author of the bipartisan Better Care Lower Cost Act, also said that “the way health care in America is delivered has to change. Let me repeat that – it has to change.”

In the months ahead, Wyden said he expects the Finance Committee to find bipartisan solutions to meet the challenges of chronic disease and strengthen the American health care system.

Witnesses included Stephanie Dempsey, a heart disease patient from Georgia; Mary Margaret Lehmann, a Minnesota caregiver to her husband who suffers from Alzheimer’s; Dr. William Bornstein, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Quality Officer at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, Ga.; and, Cheryl DeMars, President and CEO of The Alliance, a Wisconsin-based cooperative of employers focused on delivery health care benefits. The final witness, Chet Burrell, President and CEO of CareFirst Blue Cross based in Baltimore, Md., was delayed by weather but submitted written testimony.

Dempsey gave emotional testimony about battling multiple, chronic medical conditions for much of her life. She described the devastating chain of events that that started with a heart disease diagnosis at 21. Dempsey, now 44, explained that she has lost her independence, financial security and family.

“Although my doctors are all well-intentioned, they often don’t talk with each other or share information about my care,” Dempsey said. “This ultimately leaves me to be my own health care coordinator.”

Lehmann, testified on the many challenges of caring for her husband, Ken, who was diagnosis with Alzheimer’s in 2009.

“Throughout this experience I have learned that there are deficiencies in our health system when it comes to dealing with Alzheimer’s,” Lehmann said. “Far too many physicians are not familiar with how to properly advise patients and their caregivers. Additionally, there is a lack of coordination between Ken’s various physicians.”

Bornstein said that too often the current rules make it difficult to provide the best care for patients.

“Our physicians and staff desperately want to take better care of these patients—that’s why we practice medicine,” Bornstein said. “Current structures create frustration among our providers as well as our patients.  Our primary care teams feel these frustrations most acutely.” 

Burrell’s testimony said that a promising and innovative CareFirst model is being used to improve care through better coordination.

In written testimony, he explained that the CareFirst model is one of the largest patient-centered medical home programs in the country, serving over one million people through over 4,000 primary care providers. After three years, he said that the program has accounted for $267 million in avoided costs, a 6.4% reduction in hospital admissions, an 8.1% reduction in all-cause readmissions, and improvements in other quality measures.

However, Burrell also warned that “at every turn, we have found that we are confronted by the limits in law, rule, policy and custom that thwart the doing of these common sense things, which limit access to needed ongoing services and lead to new levels of noncompliance. For example, Medicare payment rules often do not cover the cost of developing and maintaining care plans.”

DeMars described the efforts employers are taking to “improve health and health care delivery through transparent data that is both comparable and actionable.”

She said that employers “need the flexibility to innovate to help more employees make the most of their employer-sponsored health care. Data-driven innovation holds great promise for improving the value and quality of our health care system.”

Wyden’s opening statement can be found here.