Do Health Care and Profits Mix?


Posted by: Joel Wittman 

The debate continues: can a social service such as health care operate in a profit-generating mode?  Undoubtedly, there are fierce opinions on both the pro and con aspects of this question.  Those who support the notion that health care can operate as for-profit entities point out that the financial difficulties encountered by not-for-profit health care providers.  Their mantra is “No Margin, No Mission”; the patient population will receive fewer, or no, services if health care companies are not managed in financially responsible and profitable ways.  On the other hand, those who favor the realm of the non-profit universe contend that the quality of care is compromised and patients not receiving care because of the emphasis in the profit mentality.  So, who’s correct?  It’s a difficult conundrum to address.

An article in the January 8, 2013 edition of the New York Times focused on this issue.  The article appears below:

Health Care and Profits, a Poor Mix

By EDUARDO PORTER
Published: January 8, 2013

Thirty years ago, Bonnie Svarstad and Chester Bond of the School of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered an interesting pattern in the use of sedatives at nursing homes in the south of the state.

Patients entering church-affiliated nonprofit homes were prescribed drugs roughly as often as those entering profit-making “proprietary” institutions. But patients in proprietary homes received, on average, more than four times the dose of patients at nonprofits.

Writing about his colleagues’ research in his 1988 book “The Nonprofit Economy,” the economist Burton Weisbrod provided a straightforward explanation: “differences in the pursuit of profit.” Sedatives are cheap, Mr. Weisbrod noted. “Less expensive than, say, giving special attention to more active patients who need to be kept busy.”

This behavior was hardly surprising. Hospitals run for profit are also less likely than nonprofit and government-run institutions to offer services like home health care and psychiatric emergency care, which are not as profitable as open-heart surgery.

A shareholder might even applaud the creativity with which profit-seeking institutions go about seeking profit. But the consequences of this pursuit might not be so great for other stakeholders in the system — patients, for instance. One study found that patients’ mortality rates spiked when nonprofit hospitals switched to become profit-making, and their staff levels declined.

These profit-maximizing tactics point to a troubling conflict of interest that goes beyond the private delivery of health care. They raise a broader, more important question: How much should we rely on the private sector to satisfy broad social needs?

From health to pensions to education, the United States relies on private enterprise more than pretty much every other advanced, industrial nation to provide essential social services. The government pays Medicare Advantage plans to deliver health care to aging Americans. It provides a tax break to encourage employers to cover workers under 65.

Businesses devote almost 6 percent of the nation’s economic output to pay for health insurance for their employees. This amounts to nine times similar private spending on health benefits across the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, on average. Private plans cover more than a third of pension benefits. The average for 30 countries in the O.E.C.D. is just over one-fifth.

We let the private sector handle tasks other countries would never dream of moving outside the government’s purview. Consider bail bondsmen and their rugged sidekicks, the bounty hunters.

American TV audiences may reminisce fondly about Lee Majors in “The Fall Guy” chasing bad guys in a souped-up GMC truck — a cheap way to get felons to court. People in most other nations see them as an undue commercial intrusion into the criminal justice system that discriminates against the poor.

Our reliance on private enterprise to provide the most essential services stems, in part, from a more narrow understanding of our collective responsibility to provide social goods. Private American health care has stood out for decades among industrial nations, where public universal coverage has long been considered a right of citizenship. But our faith in private solutions also draws on an ingrained belief that big government serves too many disparate objectives and must cater to too many conflicting interests to deliver services fairly and effectively.

Our trust appears undeserved, however. Our track record suggests that handing over responsibility for social goals to private enterprise is providing us with social goods of lower quality, distributed more inequitably and at a higher cost than if government delivered or paid for them directly.

The government’s most expensive housing support program — it will cost about $140 billion this year — is a tax break for individuals to buy homes on the private market.

According to the Tax Policy Center, this break will benefit only 20 percent of mostly well-to-do taxpayers, and most economists agree that it does nothing to further its purported goal of increasing homeownership. Tax breaks for private pensions also mostly benefit the wealthy. And 401(k) plans are riskier and costlier to administer than Social Security.

From the high administrative costs incurred by health insurers to screen out sick patients to the array of expensive treatments prescribed by doctors who earn more money for every treatment they provide, our private health care industry provides perhaps the clearest illustration of how the profit motive can send incentives astray.

By many objective measures, the mostly private American system delivers worse value for money than every other in the developed world. We spend nearly 18 percent of the nation’s economic output on health care and still manage to leave tens of millions of Americans without adequate access to care.

Britain gets universal coverage for 10 percent of gross domestic product. Germany and France for 12 percent. What’s more, our free market for health services produces no better health than the public health care systems in other advanced nations. On some measuresinfant mortality, for instance — it does much worse.

In a way, private delivery of health care misleads Americans about the financial burdens they must bear to lead an adequate existence. If they were to consider the additional private spending on health care as a form of tax — an indispensable cost to live a healthy life — the nation’s tax bill would rise to about 31 percent from 25 percent of the nation’s G.D.P. — much closer to the 34 percent average across the O.E.C.D.

A quarter of a century ago, a belief swept across America that we could reduce the ballooning costs of the government’s health care entitlements just by handing over their management to the private sector. Private companies would have a strong incentive to identify and wipe out wasteful treatment. They could encourage healthy lifestyles among beneficiaries, lowering use of costly care. Competition for government contracts would keep the overall price down.

We now know this didn’t work as advertised. Competition wasn’t as robust as hoped. Health maintenance organizations didn’t keep costs in check, and they spent heavily on administration and screening to enroll only the healthiest, most profitable beneficiaries.

One study of Medicare spending found that the program saved no money by relying on H.M.O.’s. Another found that moving Medicaid recipients into H.M.O.’s increased the average cost per beneficiary by 12 percent with no improvement in the quality of care for the poor. Two years ago, President Obama’s health care law cut almost $150 billion from Medicare simply by reducing payments to private plans that provide similar care to plain vanilla Medicare at a higher cost.

Today, again, entitlements are at the center of the national debate. Our elected officials are consumed by slashing a budget deficit that is expected to balloon over coming decades. With both Democrats and Republicans unwilling to raise taxes on the middle class, the discussion is quickly boiling down to how deeply entitlements must be cut.

We may want to broaden the debate. The relevant question is how best we can serve our social needs at the lowest possible cost. One answer is that we have a lot of room to do better. Improving the delivery of social services like health care and pensions may be possible without increasing the burden on American families, simply by removing the profit motive from the equation.

 

Granted this is one person’s view of the matter. What are your thoughts?  In my course, “The Business of Health Care”, this issue is a key component of the subject matter.  Care to learn more and hear both points of view?  Register for the class.  I look forward to meeting you.

Joel Wittman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University.  He is the proprietor of both Health Care Mergers and Acquisitions and The Wittman Group, two organizations that provide management advisory services to companies in the post-acute health care industry. He can be reached at joel.wittman@verizon.net.


Building a Health Exchange Strategy – Part III


Understanding Your Operational Readiness – Step 1
Posted by Errol Pierre

In Part I of Building a Health Exchange Strategy the discussion centered on how payers will have to be more consumer centric in their approaches to delivering health care. Part II focused on being aware of the political climate and how that will impact strategic decisions on whether to enter a Health Exchange market and upon entrance how to operate within one. Both dynamics, though critical, outlined external factors. Part III dives into internal factors; particularly around operational readiness.

It is clearly recognized that Health Exchanges offer a tremendous opportunity for health insurance companies to broaden their consumer base and expand their market share. By making health coverage more affordable it is likely that 30 million of the 45 to 50 million uninsured Americans will enter the market and purchase coverage through a Health Exchange.  Despite this opportunity, there is a high degree of complexity behind implementing and operating a Health Exchange book of business. The work in 2012 and 2013 provides a barrier to entry for smaller firms who may not have the financial and human capital to build the necessary tools and operational foundation to effectively compete with the larger players. Additionally, there are many interdependencies that exist with heavy reliance on each individual state as well as select Federal agencies to coordinate the coverage and manage the financing of the Health Exchange. The three main areas of concern that health insurance companies are grappling with are (1) product and plan design, (2) subsidy calculations and premium collection, and (3) eligibility and enrollment. Today’s article, (Part III, Step 1) will focus specifically on products and plan designs.

Product and Plan Design
Health Exchanges require at a minimum four levels of benefit offerings; bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. The different metals denote the level of coverage each plan must provide. For example, a bronze plan must cover up to 58% and no more than 62% of the health care costs for the health benefits a state deems “essential “ for a health insurer to provide. Likewise, a platinum plan must cover up to 88% and no more than 92% of the health care costs. These plan designs may be dictated by the individual state depending on the type of Health Exchange the state decides to run. Active Purchaser states like New York would be more inclined to create standard plan designs while Facilitator state like Utah would allow health insurance companies to come up with products and plan designs independently.

Within the “Silver” plan offerings the Health Exchanges will require the reduction of cost-sharing levels such as deductibles, co-payments, coinsurance, and out of pocket maximums depending on the consumer’s federal poverty level (FPL). For example, a silver plan may have a $1,000 deductible before coverage from the health plan kicks in. However, if a consumer with a FPL below 250% purchases a silver plan, the $1,000 deductible would need to be lowered by up to $500. This provides a level of complexity for health plans that has not been seen before. Lowering the deductible actuarially increases the price of the plan since the plan will provide more coverage. However, that cost of lowering the deductible is returned back to the health plan by the Federal government and not the purchasing consumer.

Additionally, the silver plan created by a health plan will have to be replicated up to 4 times over to accommodate for the variations in cost-sharing reductions that change the plan design of the product for each FPL level. Operationally, this inevitably means multiple people can buy the same exact silver plan. However based on their income level, they will have very different plans and very different utilization trends. Accumulator calculators that help health plans count up health care dollars will be imperative to ensure that physicians, hospitals, health plans, and most importantly health care consumers know when they have reached their deductibles and coinsurance maximums. The costs of administering such a complex set of plan designs are still unknown to many health plans; however this has not deterred them from pursuing the Health Exchange opportunity. However, the bigger impact to the cost of administration is how it will work in parallel with minimum loss ratio requirements that mandate the percentage of health care revenue that must be spent on providing health care as opposed to administrative costs; particularly if administrative costs increase due to the complexity of administering these plans.  This undoubtedly eats away at the profit margins of health care plans that already operate with very low margins (2-4% on average).

Basic Health Option
In addition to the four metal plans a state may opt to offer a Basic Health Option. This basically extends the state’s current Medicaid plan eligibility from beyond the 133% FPL up to 200% FPL. It behooves a state to pursue such an option because the Federal government would reimburse 95% of the costs. Today, the Federal government only pays 50% of a state’s Medicaid costs. As a result, states could potentially realize huge savings by shifting a portion of its Medicaid population to this Basic Health Option.

However, this route is very complex. The nuances here are that the Basic Health Option must have the essential health benefits deemed by the state even though the current Medicaid plans do not. So the population over and above the 133% FPL level will have a similar product however the underlying benefits could be substantially different. This poses complexity to the providers with coding and claim submissions. The states will be free to choose the methodology for their essential health benefit package as long as it represents (1) the most popular small group health plan, (2) the most popular HMO health plan in the state, (3) the health plan offered by the State to its employees, or (4) the health plan offered by the Federal Government to its employees in that state. There is also added complexity to the Basic Health Option when it comes to cost sharing. Deductibles and coinsurance levels are regulated within the health care reform bill to be based on FPL as well. So a health plan would have to administer two different types of Basic Health Plans based on whether a consumer is 133% to 150% of the FPL or if they are 150% to 200% of the FPL. These intricacies cause added complexity when it comes to administering a health plan, accumulating consumers’ deductibles and out of pocket maximums, and ensuring the plan designs receive actuarially sound price increases and adjustments year to year.

Catastrophic Plan
Lastly, individual states will also have the ability to create catastrophic plans that can only be offered to health care consumers under the age of 30. Many industry insiders refer to this population as the “young invincibles”. These plans must also meet the essential health benefit requirements, however the deductibles and out of pocket maximums are allowed to be higher. As a safeguard against consumers forgoing care because of high out of pocket healthcare expense there are a number of protections put in place as well. For example, preventive care and particular routine care must be covered in full and not be subject to the deductible. Additionally, three to four primary care office visits must also be covered in full and not subject to the deductible as well. Pricing for these plans provides a unique opportunity for health insurers since the risk pool and experience of the population will reflect a younger demographic. This means that pricing should in theory be more affordable and subsidies from the Federal government potentially could go a longer way.

In the End
Health Exchanges present standardization of plan designs to the health care consumer market with the potential of commoditization of health insurers as they compete for market share. As a result, the emphasis on products and plan designs becomes imperative. How an insurer operationally administers health care products in this space will be the differentiator to the consumer. Innovation in finding the ability to be unique in a very regulated space produces an opportunity for insurers to make product development the focal point of their Health Exchange success strategy.

Errol Pierre is the Assistant Vice President of Product Management at a regional health insurance company focused on business development, sales, and strategy planning around Health Exchanges. He is currently pursuing a degree in Health Policy and Management with a specializing in health finance. He can be reached at errol.pierre@nyu.edu


The Hidden Healthcare Election


Posted by Errol Pierre

It’s Healthcare, Stupid!
James Carville famously coined the phrase “The Economy, Stupid!” while he was a campaign strategist for the 1992 Clinton Presidential campaign. Fast-forward to 2012 and for good reason both campaigns seemed to take heed to Carville’s advice. For good reason, the unemployment rate hovers around 8%.  On top of that 40% of the unemployed have been jobless for more than 6 months. The labor force participation is barely 64%. Lastly, more than 8 million people last month were employed only part-time specifically due to economic reasons.

However, there seemed to be an undercurrent of Healthcare specific issues in this election that never really surfaced or was given its due attention.  Many of these issues revealed themselves in the exit polling of the most contentious battle ground states.

Obamacare & Florida
16% of the U.S. population lacks health coverage. Obamacare would provide substantial subsidies to individuals that otherwise could not afford insurance. Even though Mitt Romney has proven experience with health care by being the first Governor to ever pass universal healthcare legislation in a state, he ran to repeal President Obama’s healthcare bill even though it closely mimicked the Massachusetts bill Romney himself signed into law just 3 years prior.

Florida has the highest uninsured rate and uninsured population of any battleground state standing at 20% and 4 million people respectively. Over 90% of the uninsured population falls below the 500% federal poverty level ($55,000 for an individual). In Florida roughly 50% of the electorate earns below $55,000 a year. Exit polling showed Obama carried 60% of that population with Romney winning only 40%.

Auto Bailout & Ohio
November 18, 2012 will mark the 4 year anniversary of Mitt Romney’s infamous New York Times Op-Ed entitled Let Detroit Go Bankrupt. Romney called for a managed bankruptcy for General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler standing in strong opposition to a pure bailout. He also called for the heads of the companies to step down and acknowledged that autoworker benefits, including health care, would need to be reduced in order to alleviate the $2,000 burden of additional costs Detroit cars had that made their cars foreign counterparts did not.  During the last leg of the Presidential election, Mitt Romney became unpopular in parts of Ohio for this stance. In fact, President Obama ran on the auto bailout with his Vice President claiming, “Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is Alive!”

The Obama administration ended up moving forward with a plan that very much resembled the Romney Op-Ed. The Obama plan called for the heads of the car companies to step down, sought to have GM and Chrysler pursue Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings, and acknowledged that auto unions would face “belt-tightening in wages, healthcare, and retirement benefits”.  In the end, based on Ohio exit polling, 56% of Ohio voters approved of Obama’s auto bailout and Romney was never able to properly articulate how close his auto plan was to the President’s.

Minority Unemployment Rates & Ohio/Nevada/Colorado/Virginia
The majority of the country receives their health insurance from an employer-sponsored program. That means a job is more than just a paycheck, it’s a means to get health coverage as well. The unemployment rate for African Americans is 14%; six percentage points higher than the national average. Obama won 89% of the African American vote in Nevada, 93% of the African American vote in Virginia, and 96% of the African American vote in Ohio. The unemployment rate for Hispanics is 10%; two percentage points higher than the national average. In the battleground state of Colorado, Obama won 74% of the Hispanic vote. In Nevada  Obama won 69% of the Hispanic vote. In the end, Minorities were convinced that President Obama could grow jobs that offer comprehensive benefits like healthcare better than Mitt Romney.

Abortion & Ohio
Abortion is indeed more than a religious issue. It’s a healthcare issue as well.  Mitt Romney went on record vowing to defund Planned Parenthood during a campaign stop in Ohio. This was after Republican candidate, Todd Akin, interjected the phrase “Legitimate Rape” into the American lexicon justifying it as information he garnered from physicians. Overlay these two instances with Ohio exit polling and we witness that 56% of voters believe Abortion should either always or mostly be legal.  As a result, Obama won 80% and 63% of those votes leaving Romney on the losing end of an important Ohio issue.

Errol Pierre is the Assistant Vice President of Product Management at a regional health insurance company focused on business development, sales, and strategy planning around Health Exchanges. He is currently pursuing a degree in Health Policy and Management with a specializing in health finance. He can be reached at errol.pierre@nyu.edu


Free Market Lessons from Sweden’s Single Payer System


Posted by Errol Pierre

The United States with a population of over 313 million people spends over 17% of its GDP on health expenditures while over 14% of its population lack health insurance. This has led to runaway costs, access to care issues, and in the face of recent healthcare reform efforts, worries of severe physician shortages come 2014. On the contrary, Sweden, with a much smaller, homogenous population of 9.4 million people has been able to keep health expenditures less than 10% of its GDP while covering all of its population. If efficiency of health dollars were the metric to compare health systems internationally, Sweden would lead the U.S. in this regard for the last 30 years. Despite their successes, like all developed nations, Sweden faced threats of increasing costs in the 1990’s due to an economic downturn. Additionally, Sweden also saw an aging population with a longer life expectancy from advancements in technology and modern medicine. When healthcare is government run it inevitably will succumb to rationing when tax dollars are scare. However, Sweden has been able to achieve sustainable results through policy and market reforms focused on (1) the decentralization of healthcare management, (2) cost containment measures, and (3) physician and hospital competition.

Decentralization of Healthcare Management

While Sweden is a model for a single payer system, many of their reforms can be applicable to the United Stated. In Sweden the Health and Sickness Care Law of 1982 decentralized the Swedish government’s control of healthcare to keep it “accessible, efficient, and equitable.”  Counties within the country were given more autonomy to set up boards and administer health services. In turn, many of the national rules dissolved. This decentralization gave more power for regional decisions within the counties of Sweden. This is unlike America where the answer to the uninsured population in its most recent healthcare reform efforts was to use the national approach of health exchanges and essential health benefits rather than delegating the particular solutions to individual states and localities. For example the Department of Health & Human Services mandated that every state have a health benefit exchange by 2014 or the Federal government would create one within the state.

Lesson Learned: Place the burden of the uninsured into the hands of local governments to formulate strategies to address the issues that are sensitive to the local values.

For example, in the U.S. one third of the uninsured find insurance within 6 months. In Sweden, many counties pay for insurance costs for citizens up to 6 months until they find a new job. This would eliminate 15 million of the 45 million uninsured. Additionally, 50% of the uninsured work part-time. A U.S. state resolution would be a sickness fund (similar to Medicaid) that caters to individuals that work less than 40 hours a week with multiple employers, which would lower the uninsured rates to ~20 million. Lastly, 43% of the uninsured are located in only 4 states (New York, Florida, Texas and California). A focus on local initiatives to answer a national problem similar to Sweden could have potentially been a better use of resources and national funds than a Federal law impacting all 50 states.

Cost Containment

In 1984, with the passage of the Dagmar Reform of 1984, national revenues were divvied up and doled out to counties as block grants based on population size. As a result, private providers could no longer directly bill the national healthcare system for medical services rendered. This is very similar to how physicians who treat Medicare enrollees operate today. From 1984 to 1985 the count of practicing physicians went from well over 5,000 to just over 2,000 greatly controlling costs. Block grants also declined the percentage of GDP in Sweden spent on health expenditures. Sweden is one of the few countries that have been able to lower the percentage of health expenditures.

Additionally, as the economy worsened in the early 1990’s, the Swedish government froze taxes from 1991 until 1994. During this time 22% of the country’s beds for acute bed care were eliminated. Also self referrals received a higher copayment. This is very different in the U.S. where economic downturns cause private insurance enrollment decreases due to cost containments that occur in the private sector. However, since all health care cost controls are not vested in local state government, public spending and public health expenditures balloon during such times. For example, Medicaid spending increased by one third from 2000 to 2003 during the U.S. economic down turn. It grew by 10% between 2010 and 2011 representing 25% of all expenditures for states. U.S. healthcare reform efforts plan to reduce Medicare and Medicaid by 500 billion respectively which is likely to get caught up in the same political stalemate as the Medicare “doc-fix” since these decisions have not been decentralized and delegated to local governments. Since Sweden represents close to 80% of all health expenditures compared to less than 50% in the U.S., they are more sensitive to cost containment measures which lead to quicker reaction and better results.

The Federal government in the U.S. has continued to push off a fix to Medicare reimbursement reductions due to lobbying from physicians and trade groups. If these decisions were made at a local level to handle local concerns, States would have the ability to better control costs. Additionally, 50% of the Medicaid spend is handled by the states. This allows the states conversely to only handle 50% of the costs.

Lesson Learned: Medicare and Medicaid should be handled purely at the state levels since many states have balance budget amendments, cannot run deficits, and it is very costly for states to borrow funds.

Lastly, in 2002, Sweden introduced reference pricing and generic substitution for pharmacy coverage. This meant that when a drug was purchased, the health system would pick up 110% of the lowest priced drug. If a brand name drug was requested over a generic, the consumer would be responsible for the difference. From 2002 through 2005 Sweden realized $7 billion in savings which was close to 10% of total drug spend.

Lesson Learned: Adopt reference pricing and generic substitution in both Medicare and Medicaid programs across the U.S. to sharply cut pharmacy growth rates.

Physician & Hospital Controls

The United States is quickly facing a physician shortage when 20 million or more Americans will enter the insurance market in 2014 through Health Benefit Exchanges. In 1993 Sweden passed a law called The Point of Service Primary Care Reform which answered concerns of primary care shortages. The law made counties responsible for making sure every Swede had access to primary care. Additionally, it capped the amount of specialty training that occurred outside general medicine. It set ceilings and floors for the amount of patients treated by a single practice (1-3k patients per year). It provided credits and loan forgiveness to primary care doctors who started a new practice. And finally, the law allowed pay for performance measures that reduced the reimbursement to physicians who underperformed. Such controls including other initiatives has led to the use of electronic medical records for 94% of Swedish primary care physicians as compared to only 45% in the U.S. Additionally, 49% of Swedish physician practices have the capacity for advanced electronic health information compared to only 26% in the U.S. Lastly, 54% of Swedish practices will see patients after hours as compared to 29% in the U.S.

Lesson Learned: Strong controls on physicians at the local government level can greatly eliminate the potential of primary care shortages and improve the quality of care.

Conclusion

There are feasible lessons to be learned from recent healthcare reforms in Sweden particularly in the areas of decentralization, cost containment, and physician controls. In particular there are four lessons to be learned that are viable in the U.S. despite the current political climate and threat of the unconstitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Lesson 1: decentralize the burden of the uninsured to the individual states. Lesson 2: Allow individual states to budget for health care through block grants. Lesson 3: adopt reference pricing and generic alternative scripting. Lesson 4: place strong controls on physicians to eliminate shortages and increase access to care.

Despite America’s strong dislike for government run healthcare, roughly 40% of the population (125M Americans) is enrolled in a federally facilitated health program. Specifically there are 44M Medicare recipients, 62M Medicaid recipients, 10M Tricare recipients (health insurance for the U.S. military) , and 8M Federal Employee Health Benefit recipients. Sweden has been able to use free market principles within a government run system to manage care and cost. And yes, with any balance between quantity and quality, rationing of care does exist. But in a free market, when does rationing based on supply and demand not exist outside of anomalies like luxury and inferior goods?


What Can Be Done About Hospital Readmissions? – Is Home Care Part of the Solution


posted by Joel Wittman

A comprehensive analysis of Medicare claims data demonstrates that Medicare payments more than double when the beneficiary’s care contains at least one hospital visit.  A report by the Alliance for Home Health Quality and Innovation examined the effects of hospital admissions and readmissions on Medicare expenditures.

Hospital readmissions play a key role in the amount Medicare spends per patient per episode.  The research aims to more fully explain how hospital readmissions affect the Medicare episode payment and to provide guidance on the Medicare home health benefit.  The data will provide information on to lawmakers as they look to revamp the Medicare fee-for-service payment system and eliminate unnecessary spending on avoidable hospitalizations.

In post-acute care episodes, patients whose episodes contained at least one readmission cost Medicare twice as much – roughly $33,000 compared to $15,000.  When the number of chronic conditions per patient increases, so does the average number of readmissions, suggesting that a more complex patient is more likely to be readmitted.  Services such as home health may be able to reduce the number of unplanned readmissions for some clinically appropriate patients by caring for them in home health and improving coordination and continuity of care.

There are interesting trends when an episode contains an admission.  With regard to chronic conditions, the severity of the primary chronic condition, rather than the number of conditions, plays a more significant role in the impact on Medicare payment for the episode.  For example, an episode with a primary chronic condition of diabetes and a prior admission generates a Medicare episode payment nearly three times that of a diabetes episode without a prior admission.  This suggest that better management of low-severity chronic conditions (as well as high-severity conditions), which can be provided by home health care, may limit prior admissions for pre-acute episodes or even prevent some hospital admissions and subsequent post-acute care.  As the severity of a chronic condition increases, so does the proportion of episodes in non post-acute care episodes.  However, when patient with low-severity chronic conditions require a hospital admission, the payment per episode nearly quadruples since the cost of caring for these patients is relatively low without the readmission.

The data suggest that better management of chronic disease through home health intervention could enable more patients to remain out of the hospital following an initial admission.  With clinically appropriate and effective care, patients have the potential to avoid some unnecessary admissions altogether, ultimately saving Medicare and taxpayers a significant amount.  Home health care combines the right mix of care management, prevention training, and close observation to significantly reduce hospital admissions.

A program conducted in upstate New York generated some positive results.  See below:

A group of hospitals in upstate New York have been able to cut inpatient readmissions by 25 percent as the result of a home visit program, reported the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

The collaboration between Rochester General Hospital and three other area facilities not only cut readmissions over 30 days but also cut down readmissions over a 60-day period, the article noted.

Reduction of readmissions is critical particularly for hospitals as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services intends to cut payments for excess numbers of patients readmitted within 30 days of discharge for congestive heart failure, heart attacks and pneumonia. According to research, up to 75 percent of hospital readmissions may be avoidable, Consumer Reports magazine noted.  Specific cost savings from the initiative were not immediately disclosed but could be as much as $100 saved for every dollar invested. “The cost of the intervention is measured in hundreds of dollars,” said Martin Lustick, corporate medical director for Excellus BlueCross Blue Shield. “The cost of a readmission is upward of $10,000.”

The program, known as Care Transitions Intervention, was conducted in coordination with the hospitals, local home health agencies, Excellus and the Monroe Plan for Medical Care, a Medicaid managed care program, according to the article. State and federal grants will allow the initiative to expand.

Joel Wittman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University.  He is the proprietor of both Health Care Mergers and Acquisitions and The Wittman Group, two organizations that provide management advisory services to companies in the post-acute health care industry. He can be reached at joel.wittman@verizon.net.


Four Recommendations to Achieve Health Care Savings


Posted by Joel Wittman

The now-defunct so-called congressional “super committee” that was charged with the task of identifying deficit reductions received several recommendations that would create significant health care savings over a ten year period.  Despite the failure of the committee to successfully achieve its mandate, it is well worth exploring the cost reduction suggestions the committee received from health care executives.  These chief executives of both for-profit and not-for-profit health care companies, members of the Healthcare Leadership Council (HLC), presented a set of reform proposals that would not only generate $410 billion in savings over 10 years, but would also strengthen Medicare’s long-term sustainability.  In fact, according to Mary R. Grealy, president of HLC, “the reform recommendations will contribute to deficit reduction without placing an unfair or disproportionate burden on patients, healthcare consumers, or our most vulnerable citizens.”

HLC’s recommendations to the “super committee” included:

Create a new “Medicare Exchange” in which private insurance plans would compete on the basis of cost, quality, and value.  

While acknowledging that this recommendation would be compared to the Medicare reform concept contained in Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, the HLC indicated that the differences include the fact that there Medicare beneficiaries would have the option of staying in traditional fee-for-service Medicare and there would be a more generous inflation factor – growth in GDP plus one percent – for premium subsidies.

The thought behind this proposal is that Medicare beneficiaries should have the same freedom of choice as Medicare Part D prescription drug program participants, federal employees and members of Congress participating in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, and those who will utilize the new state-level insurance exchanges created as part of the Affordable Care Act.  The competitive environment will require healthcare providers, plans, manufacturers, and distributors to achieve greater cost-efficiencies while still offering quality and value to beneficiaries.

As Ms. Grealy stated: “ If given the choice between deeper provider cuts, which will reduce patient access to care, and reducing costs by using consumer choice to incentivize  cost-effective innovation, it doesn’t seem like a difficult decision.”  However, does it seem similar to the public option plan that was vigorously opposed when being considered as part of the ACA?  And, can competition be the driver of health care cost reductions in an imperfect market place?

Gradually increase the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.

As more Americans remain healthy over a longer period of time, this transition would mirror the increase in the Social Security retirement age and reflect today’s longer average lifespans.  The increase would be implemented over roughly a decade, raising the eligibility age by two months annually.  The shrinking ratio of active workers to Medicare beneficiaries makes this change inevitable.  The Affordable Care Act makes such a change possible in that Americans in their mid-60s not yet eligible for Medicare would be able to purchase health insurance on the new state exchanges without their health status affecting their ability to acquire coverage.  But at what cost?  More than the price of Medicare Part B premium coverage?

Reform Medicare’s cost-sharing structure.

This reform would involve making the Medicare Part A and B beneficiary cost-sharing uniform, with a reasonable deductible and co-pays as well as a cap on annual out-of-pocket costs.  This would make Medicare costs more predictable and consistent for beneficiaries while also ensuring that seniors wouldn’t be devastated by catastrophic care costs or faced with limits on hospital stays.  Another part of this proposal would be a requirement that individuals with incomes of $150,000 and greater pay their full premium costs for Medicare Parts B and D.  Supposedly, this would affect less than 3% of Medicare beneficiaries and would generate budget savings while protecting financially vulnerable beneficiaries.  Uh-oh.  Is this an “us against them” issue?

Implement medical liability reform.

HLC members recommended liability reform measures including a cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, a one-year statute of limitations from the point of injury to the filing of litigation, and a “fair share” rule to have defendants pay damages commensurate with their responsibility for the injury involved.  Acknowledging the partisan difficulty in advancing tort reform legislation, alternative approaches including linking liability protections to healthcare providers’ use of health information technology and practice of evidence-based medicine should be considered.

The above four recommendations would generate just over $410 billion in budget savings over a ten-year period, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates and other published budget projections.  Alas, the “super committee” wasn’t so super after all and could not generate a program acceptable to the partisan participants. But, should that mean that some worthwhile recommendations not be explored further with the thought of strengthening our healthcare system?  Or do we slowly move along and be subject to on-going sequestration reimbursement rate reductions?

Joel Wittman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wagner School of Public service of New York University.  He is the proprietor of both Health Care Mergers and Acquisitions and The Wittman Group, two organizations that provide management advisory services to companies in the post-acute health care industry. He can be reached at joel.wittman@verizon.net.


SOTU: What Obama Didn’t Say


Posted By Errol Pierre

President Obama filled up close to 90 minutes of TV airtime giving his 3rd State of the Union Address last week. With 6,953 words (about 12 pages) to choose from political pundits filled the airwaves all across the country with animated reactions commenting on everything from the details of his plans to his tone, his demeanor, and overall performance. But all too often we forget that with great orators, it is more important to focus on the words that were not said than the ones that were….

Here are the facts:

- “Health” was used only 7 times during his speech (roughly 0.001% which takes up less than 1 line on a page).

- His comments regarding Healthcare made up only 332 words. That represented 4.7% of his speech (about a page and half). A little better but still severely lacking in substance.

How can that be?

- Health expenditures in this country represent more than 16% of our GDP while the average percentage among high income nations is roughly 10%.

- 13.1 million Americans lack a job but more than 50 million Americans in this country lack health insurance. Doesn’t healthcare deserve more attention?

- Since inauguration, he has spent 60% of his time in office getting what he called his #1 domestic policy agenda, healthcare reform, passed through Congress. If you recall, he entered office on January 20, 2010 and healthcare reform was passed on March 23, 2011. So 15 out of his now 25 months were dedicated to the pursuit of universal healthcare.

- Lastly, most of the popular provisions of the law have already been instituted. Millions of young adults in their twenties have been able to get insurance through their parents. And even more promising, no child under 18 can be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions.

So why were there so few words on healthcare? Discussing income inequality yet avoiding healthcare is not having an honest discussion about the problem. America spends more money on healthcare than any country on the planet. What is not widely known are the percentages spent by the government versus the private sector and how that impacts the American pocketbook. This country is actually on par with other high income nations spending 7.4% of their GDP on government health expenditures like Medicare, Medicaid, and Veteran healthcare. For a comparison, countries like France (8.7%) and Germany (8.1%) are at higher levels with government run universal healthcare. However, when it comes to expenditures from the private sector, America spends an additional 8.5% of its GDP representing almost half (52.2%) of total health costs for the entire country. That is 4 times higher than most like nations. In fact those private sector figures put us in 50th place between Rwanda (49th) and Gambia (51st) according to the World Health Organization.

WHY IT MATTERS

Most Americans get health insurance through their employer leaving American businesses on the hook for large portions of the country’s private health expenditures. It’s been the catalyst for corporations moving jobs overseas. It’s why the United States Postal Service is teetering on the edge of insolvency. It’s why America bailed out General Motors and restructured their Union contracts to be the #1 car company in the world again.

Most Americans work for businesses with 200 or more employees. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 99% of the time these businesses are offering health insurance to those employees. The foundation goes on to highlight that the cost of these employer health plans have gone up by 113% over the past 10 years with employers paying close to 73% of those costs on behalf of their employee population. As a result they have shielded much of the exorbitant healthcare increases from their employees. This has had grave repercussions to the average American salary. You cannot talk about income inequality and ignore non-salaried benefits like health insurance. These increases have poked huge holes in the bucket of funds that corporations use to payout employee compensation. You also cannot blame health insurance companies for these increases either. Their profit margins barely surpass 4% compared to pharmaceutical companies that enjoy 15% margins. The blame really goes to the actual cost of providing healthcare.

The U.S Social Security Administration has tracked the national average wages in this country since 1951. In 2001 it was $32,921. In 2010 it is $41,673. So despite the increases in health insurance costs, wages have still gone up 27% in the past 10 years. American employees however have seen 131% growth in the amount of money they must contribute to their health plan. It has gone from $1,787 in 2001 to $4,129 in 2010. So Americans have literally went from paying 5% of their salary on health insurance to 10% in 10 years not even accounting for the increase in co-payments, deductibles, and out of pocket costs.

If you truly want to tackle income inequality, look no further than tackling the increases in healthcare spending. Healthcare reform did not go far enough on this issue. It increased access via health exchanges, protected more patients via insurance regulations like profit ceilings and mandated benefits. But it did nothing to tackle costs. Even worse, our healthcare system will continue to shield costs from the consumer by giving subsidies to lower income Americans so that insurance can be more affordable. But these subsidies are paid for by taxes and fees levied on health insurance companies ($60 billion), on Americans with rich “Cadillac” type health plans ($32 billion), on pharmaceutical companies ($27 billion), and on high income earners use of hospitals ($210 billion). The only problem with these types of revenue streams are the laws of economics. Since individual Americans and large businesses will be required by law to purchase insurance by 2014, they as consumers will be more inelastic than their suppliers. In the end most of these taxes and fees will be passed on to the most vulnerable consumers further eating away at their hard earned income.

President Obama concluded his healthcare remarks conceding that he was “willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year — medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.” The only problem is here is the sad reality. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation only 11,000 malpractice claims were paid in 2009 amounting to $3.6 billion. That sounds like a big number but it is only 0.2% of total U.S. health costs. So the only question left is how much medical malpractice reform could help to actually close the income inequality gap. Well, the average malpractice suit is only $11.99 per capita, putting $12 bucks back in everyone’s pocket. I guess the good news is this kind of policy change would help fight the common cold giving every American the extra disposable income to buy a bottle of Robitussin from CVS.

Errol Pierre works at a large insurance company focused on business development, sales, and strategy for employee benefits. He is currently pursuing a degree in Health Policy and Management with a specializing in health finance. He can be reached at errol.pierre@nyu.edu

 


Working for the Federal Government


Posted by Debbie Koh

Welcome to 2012! Moving forward, I will alternate my posts between more career development-focused entries and more general musings on the public service field (similar to last month’s “The Business of Non-Profits”).So, let’s get started.

A Non-Official Guide to Possibly Working for the Federal Government

I’ve talked to enough people curious about how to crack into this area, so here’s my quick and dirty primer for Wagner students looking to work for the federal government. My disclaimer: I am not an expert. This is based on my personal views and experience at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and only the tip of a very large iceberg. While at Wagner I did attend an excellent overview by someone who is an expert: Paul Binkley, Director of Career Development Services at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy at George Washington University. His presentation, “U.S. Federal GovernmentCareer Opportunities,”is still available via Career Services.

1. Identify your agency: for many people with a desire to work in international health and/or development, USAID is the logical first step. But other “domestic” agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, also do internationally focused work.(HHS recently developed its own Global Health Strategy). Or, consider smaller agencies like the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Lesson learned: government agencies are huge and may do work in your area of interest, despite first impressions. Start with the big names, but don’t overlook less obvious opportunities.

2. Do you really want to work for the government: getting a job working directly for the government (known in DC parlance as a “direct hire” position) is harder than it sounds.There is a whole science and strategy to applying to usajobs.gov or avuecentral.com that I won’t even attempt to broach. The best-case scenario is to identify some sort of fellowship or program that will narrow down the application pool of thousands; eligibility is typically based on current enrollment in a graduate program. Below are a few starting points:

  1. Presidential Management Fellows (PMF): though still highly competitive, PMF is a two-year fellowship that allows for appointment into a government position upon completion. I came across PMFs at USAID who completed their two years there and others who began working there after completing their fellowships at other agencies. Check in with Career Services for instructions on the application process, as schools are only allowed to nominate a certain number of applicants. You may only apply during your final academic year.
  2. Student Temporary Employment Program and Student Career Experience Program (STEP/SCEP): I knew a USAID summer intern who returned to her masters program in the fall, returned to USAID as a SCEP intern and then converted to a position at the Agency. I know the least about these programs because I wasn’t eligible, but USAID details its own STEP/SCEP opportunities.
  3. Other fellowships/internships: this is where you have license to use creative Internet searches and your networks. For example, the USAID Indonesia Mission is recruiting interns in Health, Education, Democratic Governance, and Economic Growth (application deadline February 2012) but the announcement didn’t make the main website. A good start for those thinking about international health is the Global Health Fellows Program. Eligibility requirements may vary.

Lesson learned: current Wagner students should take advantage of their status and look for opportunities now. Don’t wait until after graduation!

3. So you don’t really want to work for the government: recent grads haven’t missed the boat. A better strategy may be to identify some of the many organizations and companies (“contractors”) that won government contracts and are looking to hire. I won’t mention any specific contractors but to start, here’s a list of 2011’s Top 100 Contractorsvia Washington Technology and one of many international development coalitions. Again, start big but try to identify smaller companies where competition may be less fierce. Many people jump between contract and direct hire work; it’s all about getting your foot in the door at first.

A not-so-recent grad with at least a couple years of experience, including work in developing countries, and a willingness to be based overseas may also consider a direct hire option at USAID called the Development Leadership Initiative (DLI). This initiative is meant to double USAID’s Foreign Service workforce. I saw new batches of DLIs coming in fast and furious, but the program is scheduled to end this year.

Lesson learned: decide whether one’s best option is to work direct hire or contract and proceed from there.

My advice is to pursue several strategies at once. I failed at one of PMF’s many elimination rounds and received rejections or no responses from multiple internships. When I landed an internship and got to Washington D.C., I attended workshops and presentations, volunteered at conferences and talked to as many people as I could about how they got where they were. Eventually, I transitioned into a contract position. It just took some perseverance.

Debbie graduated from Wagner in 2010 with her MPA in Health Policy and Management, International Health. She returned to her native California in 2011 and currently works for Venture Strategies Innovations. Follow her on Twitter at @thedebkoh or connect via LinkedIn. All views expressed are her own.


The Curious Case of Kansas


Posted by Errol Pierre

On April 28, 2009, Kathleen Sebelius joined the Obama Administration as the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It was one month and five days after the President signed his landmark healthcare legislation into law. Sebelius’ primary task would be to lead the massive implementation effort of a very complex bill with multiple phased in milestones that run through 2018. Throughout her first two and half years she has been vocal about her commitment to transparency and affordability for the American healthcare consumer. She is no stranger to the underlying issues in our system. In fact her dealings with healthcare started in America’s heartland way before this cabinet appointment. It started in Kansas; the Sunshine state. Ironically, the same state where President Obama’s mother grew up.

There’s No Place like Home

After receiving a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Kansas, Sebelius moved to Kansas and pursued politics. This led her to an eight year stint as the state’s Insurance Commission from 1995 to 2003. It was historic for Kansas. Sebelius was the first woman to ever hold the post. She was later profiled as a public official of the year in 2001 noted for her balance between tough regulations and her promotion of business. In full manifestation of her principles, she publically battled healthcare giant, BlueCross BlueShield of Kansas. She successfully blocked the sale of the company to an even larger out of state insurance conglomerate noting her determination to keep healthcare costs low for Kansans. The move was unprecedented and proved to be very timely. It happened one year before the Kansas gubernatorial election of 2002. Sebelius would win that election handedly with 53% of the vote.
Despite her victory, she was a Democrat governing in a bright red Republican state. Nonetheless she reached across the aisle and signed several bipartisan healthcare reform bills in her first two terms. Her work increased the number of health professionals in underserved areas, expanded health coverage for children, and relaxed Medicaid eligibility rules covering more Kansan families. She also established the Kansas Business Health Policy Committee which found ways to the lower the number of the uninsured and increase the number of businesses that offered health benefits to their employees. The committee’s most important work however was the creation of a program that provided health premium assistance to low and modest waged employees ensuring affordability.

We’re not in Kansas Anymore

The Governor’s work on healthcare quickly caught national attention. She also publically supported Obama’s healthcare legislation prior to her cabinet post noting benefits the bill would have on her state. 13% of Kansas lacked health coverage but she believed those 360,000 Kansans could be covered through Obama’s bill. So it made perfect sense for Obama to have Sebelius continue her work on healthcare but on a much larger stage. Rather than worrying about the coverage of 2.8 million Kansans, as head of HHS, she now worried about 49 of the 308 million Americans that lacked insurance and the 40 or so insurance companies across the country she now had the power to regulate.
Sebelius brought along her expertise. Kansas had the prelude to health exchanges – the staple of the healthcare reform legislation. Health exchanges create a marketplace where individuals and small businesses can shop for coverage similar to the way they purchase airplane tickets from online websites. Subsides are also made available through these exchanges to anyone who cannot afford coverage. Exchanges must be in place by 2014 and will be equipped with navigators and a toll-free support line to assist with enrollment questions. HHS recently launched a 50 state version of such a website on November 21st (www.HealthCare.gov). As a former Governor, Sebelius realized that execution of exchanges would be a huge undertaking for the states though. So to nudge tem along, her office provided grants to states that act early. More than $241 million was awarded to seven states that were called early innovators. Secretary Sebelius’ own home state of Kansas was one such recipient; winning a $31.5 million grant

Ding-Dong Reform is Dead

After Sebelius’ departure from Kansas though, things quickly began to change. Her successor, Mark Parkinson, indicated he would not run in 2010. Sam Brownback, a Kansas household name, won the election convincingly with 63% of the vote. As a Republican Senator for Kansas prior to winning, Brownback was one of the strongest challengers to federal healthcare reform not only voting against the bill but calling for its repeal.  One of his first acts as Governor was a very public and symbolic gesture. He returned the $31.5 million grant Kansas received from Sebelius’ office prior to his election.  It was a politicized move that reiterated his firm belief that healthcare reform placed a heavy financial burden on states just like Kansas. The reasons are surprising.

Mandates Are Costly - Kansas already requires thirty seven different health benefits be added to every health plan sold in the state regardless if the consumer wants it or will use it. Mandates like the coverage for Alzheimer’s disease regardless of a person’s age, or the coverage of child annual check up’s for policy holders without children, increase the cost of healthcare for everyone. Additionally, in 2014 when exchanges are implemented; Kansas will not receive federal funds for any mandated benefits that exceed the federal ones. This could potentially be a budget crisis for Kansas if not managed properly. Brownback would prefer to have consumers build their own health plans allowing the free market to dictate what sells and what does not.

Subsidies Shift Costs to the States – Brownback also fears that exchange subsidies will spur employer ‘dumping’. There are about 70,000 businesses in Kansas but the healthcare reform law only requires that roughly 7,800 of them offer health coverage because they are considered large employer. The remaining smaller employers representing close to half a million Kansas workers will not have to offer coverage even though their employees will face financial penalties if they are uninsured. Since these employees will receive lower prices through exchanges, the incentive for small employers to offer insurance in the state will naturally decline, a worry for the Governor. Kansas already has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation at 6.2%. Yet the uninsured rate in the state is more than double that.  Kansans are already working for employers that do not offer insurance and exchanges have the potential to widen that gap.

As a result of these issues, Brownback has yet to introduce a health exchange bill for his state; but he’s not alone. Only 14 states currently have legislation passed. However inaction by a state could prove to be costly. Kansas runs the risk of defaulting to federally facilitated exchange which would essentially give power to Sebelius to create an exchange in his state. Brownback acknowledges this ironic twist of events in a letter sent to Sebelius’ office with signatures from 19 other governors stating that unless he receives complete flexibility in handling healthcare reform, he vows to not to act at all.
Brownback has even questioned whether the healthcare bill infringes on the rights of the people of Kansas. In another letter signed by 27 other governors, Brownback strongly requested President Obama to speed up the ruling from the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law. The court is due to make its ruling by next summer, but in the meantime the Governor has has taken matters into his own hands. On May 26, 2011, he signed bill HB 2182 into law. The bill created the Kansas Health Care Freedom Act which sets out to protect the rights of Kansas citizens to either participate (or not participate) in any healthcare system freely. It is clearly a preemptive move attempting to block the portion of the healthcare reform law that would require citizens of his state to purchase health coverage from a private insurance company.  Despite all these actions, Kansas has made some progress with regard to healthcare reform. A sanctioned work group of leaders from government and the private sector discuss the implementation of several provisions of the reform bill monthly.  Their work thus far can be view at http://www.ksinsurance.org/consumers/healthreform/hcr.htm.

Errol Pierre works at a large insurance company focused on business development, sales, and strategy for employee benefits. He is currently pursuing a degree in Health Policy and Management with a specializing in health finance. He can be reached at errol.pierre@nyu.edu