JONATHAN J. COOPER
SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber will brief other state leaders this weekend on his plan to lower Medicaid costs, touting an overhaul that President Barack Obama highlighted in his State of the Union address for its potential to lower the deficit even as health care expenses climb.
The Oregon Democrat leaves for Washington, D.C., on Friday to pitch his plan that changes the way doctors and hospitals are paid and improves health care coordination for low income residents so that treatable medical problems don't grow in severity or expense.
Kitzhaber says his goal is to win over a handful of other governors from each party.
"I think the politics have been dialed down a couple of notches, and now people are willing to sit down and talk about how we can solve the problem" of rising health care costs, Kitzhaber told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Kitzhaber introduced the plan in 2011 in the face of a severe state budget deficit, and he's been talking for two years about expanding the initiative beyond his state. Now, it seems he's found people ready to listen.
Hospital executives from Alabama visited Oregon last month to learn about the effort. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday that it's giving Oregon a $45 million grant to help spread the changes beyond the Medicaid population and share information with other states, making it one of only six states to earn a State Innovation Model grant.
Kitzhaber will address his counterparts at a meeting of the National Governors Association. His talk isn't scheduled on the official agenda, but a spokeswoman confirmed that Kitzhaber is expected to present.
"The governors love what they call stealing from one another -- taking the good ideas and the successes of their colleagues and trying to figure out how to apply that in their home state," said Matt Salo, director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors.
There's been "huge interest" among other states in Oregon's health overhaul, Salo said, not because the concepts are brand new, but because the state managed to avoid pitfalls that often block health system changes.
Kitzhaber persuaded state lawmakers to redesign the system of delivering and paying for health care under Medicaid, creating incentives for providers to coordinate patient care and prevent avoidable emergency room visits. He has long complained that the current financial incentives encourage volume over quality, driving costs up without making people healthier.
Obama, in his State of the Union address this month, suggested that changes such as Oregon's could be part of a long-term strategy to lower the federal debt by reigning in the growing cost of federally funded health care.
"We'll bring down costs by changing the way our government pays for Medicare, because our medical bills shouldn't be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital -- they should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive," Obama said.
The Obama administration has invested in the program, putting up $1.9 billion to keep Oregon's Medicaid program afloat over the next five years while providers make the transition to new business models and incorporate new staff and technology.
In exchange, though, the state has agreed to lower per-capita health care cost inflation by 2 percentage points without affecting quality.
The Medicaid system is unique in each state, and Kitzhaber isn't suggesting that other states should adopt Oregon's specific approach, said Mike Bonetto, Kitzhaber's health care policy adviser. Rather, he wants governors to buy into the broad concept that the delivery system and payment models need to change.
That's not a new theory. But Oregon has shown that under the right circumstances massive changes to deeply entrenched business models can gain wide support.
What Oregon can't yet show is proof the idea is working -- that it's lowering costs without squeezing on the quality or availability of care. The state is just finishing compiling baseline data that will be used as a basis of comparison.
One factor driving the Obama administration's interest in Oregon's success is the president's health care overhaul. Under the Affordable Care Act, millions more Americans will join the Medicaid rolls after Jan. 1, and the health care system will have to be able to absorb the influx of patients in a logistically and financially sustainable way.
The federal government will pay 100 percent of the costs for those additional patients in the first three years before scaling back to 90 percent in 2020 and beyond.
"There are a lot of governors who are facing the same challenges we're facing in Oregon," Kitzhaber said. "They recognize that the cost of health care is something they're going to have to get their arms around."
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