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Journalists tackle major healthcare cost, quality issues at national gathering

April 16, 2011 | 10:51 am

Call it all-healthcare, all the time.

Hundreds of journalists are huddling in Philadelphia this week to examine major healthcare issues facing the nation as Washington and states grapple with rising medical costs and new requirements in federal law to expand health coverage.

Among the topics before reporters at the annual meeting of the Assn. of Health Care Journalists: the future of President Obama’s year-old healthcare law.

Will it be repealed or tossed out by the courts? A lot will depend on the 2012 election, and whether congressional Republicans are able to hold up funding, leading experts told reporters. Adding to the uncertainty: No one can predict the outcome of several legal challenges around the country, although legal scholars at the meeting said they do not expect the Supreme Court to immediately weigh in.

And what about Massachusetts, whose own healthcare reforms –- including a requirement for individuals to have health insurance and the introduction of a marketplace “exchange” -- have served as a blueprint for the federal law?

Healthcare advocates told reporters Saturday that Massachusetts has seen an increase in the number of people with insurance –- to 98% from 89% -- since the state introduced its health insurance exchange about five years ago. 

But they also said that the Massachusetts reforms still have not halted the rapid increase of healthcare costs –- a problem that may be a harbinger of things to come on the national front.

“The cost issue is going to make it or break it for us,” said Robert Restuccia, executive director of the Boston consumer advocate group Community Catalyst.

The four-day meeting in Philadelphia has focused on other issues as well. Among them: spotting fraud in scientific research and the challenge of stemming hospital–acquired infections that affect about 1.7 million people annually, according to federal officials.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s top Medicare administrator highlighted a new website he said is designed to make health information more accessible to the public.

The Health Indicators Warehouse provides a look at more than 1,000 characteristics -- such as life expectancy, mortality and disease prevalence –- that describe the health of populations. The website allows viewers to search by topics or areas of the country.

“What’s neat about this data is that you are the driver,” Donald Berwick, head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told journalists. “It’s not perfect. It’s really just the beginning. I think it’s a chance to get us all on the same page regarding variation.”

To see what else journalists are talking about in Philadelphia, go to the healthcare journalist association’s home page. The conference wraps up Sunday.

-- Duke Helfand