What Will SCOTUS* Do?


Posted by Joel Wittman

After three days of hearing oral arguments on the legality of all, or parts, of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Supreme Court is hopeful of rendering its decision in June.  Based on what we’ve heard so far, it doesn’t bode well for the ACA.  The primary issue of contention is the inclusion of an “insurance mandate” whereby citizens are required to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty.  The mandate seems to be the linchpin of the reform act; without this requirement will insurance premiums skyrocket and will access to health insurance be limited?  This also raises the question of severability.  If the mandate is struck down, will the entire ACA also be invalidated or can parts of it survive?  Will the law’s popular “guarantee issue” and “community rating” provisions survive without the mandate that virtually all Americans must have health insurance?  Guarantee issue prevents insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions and community rating standardizes insurance premiums for those living in the same area.  The states that have attempted to enact guarantee issue and community rating systems without instituting mandates saw their health reforms fail – insurance premiums skyrocketed, consumers had fewer choices and the number of uninsured went up.

So, what is the insurance industry to do?  Insurers must prepare for a worst-case scenario – a ruling that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, but insurers still must provide policies for all people.  In that situation, insurers say premiums will rise sharply because of people with chronic illnesses and pre-existing conditions, for example, would buy health coverage, but healthy people would not.  Short of persuading Congress to write a new law, the insurers are considering certain contingencies including:

- Penalizing those who enroll outside of short annual windows

- Denying treatment for specific conditions, especially right after a policy is purchased

- Rewarding certain insurance buyers, such as offering much lower premiums for younger and healthier people

- Expanding employers’ role in automatically enrolling employees for health insurance

- Urging credit- rating firms to use health insurance status as a factor in determining individuals’ credit ratings.

There remains, however, a divided opinion about the exclusion or inclusion of the individual mandate in the health reform act.  Some believe that its exclusion will cripple the ACA and all of its proposed benefits, while others contend that the penalty associated with the mandate is not onerous enough to deter individuals from not purchasing health insurance.

Things are never as simple as they seem to be.  The good intention of the current administration to increase access to health insurance coverage for all individuals at affordable pricing may not be good enough to preserve the goals of the ACA.  Do you throw out the baby with the bath water if the entire plan is deemed unconstitutional?  Do you preserve part of plan and try to make the best of the remaining regulations?  Or, do you leave the ACA as is and have the first meaningful health care reform since the Great Society?  Only SCOTUS can let us know.

* Supreme Court of the United States

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 an Exchange Strategy Part II – Understanding Your Political Climate


Posted By  Errol Pierre

By 2014 there will potentially be a health benefit exchange in every state across the country. Like snowflakes no exchange will be alike and politics will play a pivotal role in the differences found between them. While the healthcare reform bill signed into law requires the establishment of exchanges, the details of operation have yet to be determined. In fact, in March 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provided 600 pages of additional guidance to the states. The guidance given was more of a framework while much of the particulars were purposefully left out. This has made the role of the individual State Governors ever important. They are now in a position of power and play a very integral role in bringing exchanges from a theoretical policy concept to a legislative and operational reality.

Right or Left
At a high level, left leaning blue states will design their exchange to be an active purchaser. This will allow the Governor to take an active role in the day to day exchange operations. Under the direction of an exchange board, most likely selected by the Governor, these states would choose precisely which insurance companies participate, the types of policies sold, the rates of the selected products, and how enrollment and eligibility of those enrolled would work. In some more aggressive instances, states could even negotiate pricings with doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies in the very same ways insurance companies do today in the private sector. This is obviously foreign territory to many of the states pursuing such a model. Nonetheless, proponents of the model see value in such an approach believing more oversight will lead to more affordability and better health outcomes in the long run.

Right leaning red states on the other hand will opt for a facilitator model. The state will merely be a marketplace for health benefit transactions between consumers and insurance companies to occur. They will set the high level guidelines and guardrails and merely outline the rules of engagement. Much of the market dynamics will be left up to private insurance and market forces to sort out. Benefit design, rate approval, distribution strategy, the “off-exchange” marketplace, and pricing will all be left up to “the invisible hand” of Adam Smith’s market forces. The idea of competition lowering healthcare costs has been refuted by the likes of many including Alain Enthoven – the father of managed competition – and Kenneth Arrow – the pioneer in research on asymmetric information as a market failure in healthcare. Nonetheless, American capitalism seems to have trumped over such doubts in these states. As a result, the role of government in these exchanges will be as minimal as the healthcare reform legislation will allow. There are already mandates that must be in place for each exchange. For example there must be four benefit categories ranked by actuarial values labeled bronze, silver, gold, and platinum for simplicity. The legislation also caps insurance company profit at 20% before operating costs are factored in. Lastly, the legislation requires health insurance companies to accept all enrollees and requires that the ratio between the pricing of the healthiest and the sickest consumer not exceed a 3 to 1 ratio. All in all, governors of these red states feel too much regulation stifles competition and the reform bill already has enough rules. As such, they are reluctant to add any further requirements on top of the federal ones. In this role the state will play referee rather than player/coach.

Politics at Play
State by state, there will be different shades of blue as states consider the ramifications of building a health benefit exchange. Health insurers must be prepared to understand how these different shades will impact the development of health policy. Vermont, for example, will be one of those very bold blue states. On May 26, 2011, Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law a historic universal healthcare bill which would cover every citizen in the state under a single payer system called Green Mountain Care. It will be in place by 2017 and the state has been drawing down federal funds from the national health reform bill as it prepares.

Like blue states, there too will be shades of red. Arkansas is a perfect example of a bright red state. Legislative opposition to a state run exchange was so great, Jay Bradford, the State Insurance Commissioner, had to  start preparing for a federally run exchange. By law, when a state cannot come up with its own legislation to run an exchange, the federal government is required to step in and set one up. Ironically, legislators that are so vehemently against Obama’s healthcare reform legislation will end up with a federally run exchange led behind Kathleen Sebelius, the current Secretary of Health and Human Services and former democratic Governor of Kansas.

Understanding the political environment of your state of operation is paramount to assessing the viability of a successful exchange strategy for a private insurance company. An active purchaser model lends itself to be a market where the constraints may be too great to be successful and sustainable. If the market is too controlled, healthcare coverage quickly becomes a commodity and erodes the levers of differentiation used to be competitive. Health insurance companies could come to the conclusion that participating in such a state will not be viable and opt to stay on the sidelines. However, the state would technically have the right to mandate (either directly or indirectly) insurance company participation, which could turn the state into a defacto-single payer.

On the other hand, a facilitator model lends itself to be the more favorable for an insurance company to operate within. However, a state that has done everything to obstruct healthcare reform progress like Arkansas is just as dangerous. It most likely will end up with a federally run exchange which could potentially be more burdensome than a facilitated one a red state would have had the option to create.

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

 


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.


Five Cost-Cutting Health Care Trends to Watch


Posted by Joel Wittman

With health care reform requiring close scrutiny of financial performance, hospital and health systems are closely examining ways to reduce spending.  Following is one person’s thoughts about how fiscal responsibility can be achieved:

1. Mergers and Consolidations

Mergers and acquisitions in the health care sector are at an all-time high in terms of dollar value.  Hospitals and physicians are no doubt integrating and other providers are combining and coordinating care delivery models in response to the current and expected changes resulting from health care reform.  There are experiments in reimbursement and payment methodologies that should lead to fiscal sanity but can also lead to a concentration among providers.  Some believe that this will lead to less expensive care while others argue that it will lead to monopoly and its attendant effects on the health care financial landscape.  What do you think?

2. Reduced Readmissions

Tied to reimbursements, readmission rates are the target of hospitals to reduce the number of patients for the same condition.  Previous studies have found that a number of things can help reduce readmissions, such as home health use after hospitalization, patient engagement and education, use of nurses for patient follow-up, and remote health monitoring.  Hospitals should be focused on reducing readmissions and unnecessary admissions for conditions that probably would not have led to an admission if the person had gotten proper primary care.  Will accountable care organizations help in this regard?

3. Comparative Effectiveness Research

As leading institutions continue to look at evidence-based medicine and patient outcomes, new research is being developed about what is most effective.  A most hopeful trend is occurring in health systems where they are really looking in detail at examining what doctors actually do and what the results are in terms of outcomes and then feeding it back into the system.  Look into Geisinger and Kaiser Permanente as leaders in this practice.  but, will this be widely accepted by physicians as their medical decisions and care are more frequently scrutinized?

4. Care Coordination

With initiatives already in motion for accountable care organizations and patient-centered medical homes, more attention will focus on outcomes from care coordination and managing the entire care spectrum of the patient.  There is a trend to reimbursing health care providers based on outcomes instead of paying for more care.  Will the government (read Medicare and Medicaid) focus on this paradigm of paying providers or will extraordinary pressure be exerted by various advocacy organizations to maintain fee for service reimbursement?

5. Collaborative Communication

With increasing requirements for compliance, hospitals and providers will need to collaborate in their communication efforts.  New ways to work together will evolve resulting in more lines of communication.  Hopefully, the expansion of health information technology will lead to virtual connections between providers.  But at what cost and in what time frame?

And so it goes.  Payors are aligning with providers either through acquisitions or other creative forms of working together.  With increased emphasis on outcomes-based medicine, companies that provide care coordination oversight and patient care management will assume more importance in the health care cycle.  Was Humana prescient in its acquisition of SeniorBridge Family of Companies with the strategy of positioning them to favorably respond to the changing health care environment?  Will others follow?  Stay tuned.

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

 


Building an Exchange Strategy Part I – Changing Your Vantage Point


Posted By Errol Pierre

Health benefit exchanges are set to be fully operational by 2014. As part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), these exchanges seek to be a marketplace for consumers to purchase affordable coverage. Subsidies to reduce both the cost of insurance and the out of pocket expenses from copayments and deductibles will be available to eligible consumers as well. Estimates suggest close to 30 million Americans will find coverage through this avenue lowering the uninsured rate to 3%.

These exchanges will revolutionize the way health insurance companies operate. Most Americans receive insurance through their employer. As such, insurance companies have built their world around marketing to them rather than directly to individual consumers. Over the years, insurance company processes, products, and strategies have all conformed to employer choice and preferences. Even the way customer service is organized and how information is shared caters to an employer-centric business model.  However, by 2014 health insurance companies will need to operate differently to capitalize on the million of new health consumers entering the market.

Consumers purchase products much differently than employers. Consumer motivation is largely based on personal preferences and emotions while companies make rational decisions based on economic value.  So business to consumer (B2C) marketing has been much more demanding and onerous than business to business (B2B) marketing. Health insurance companies as a result have gotten away with minimal efforts in advertising using business publications and newspaper ads that reach CEOs, CFOs, benefit consultants, and decision makers. Marketing campaigns targeting decisions makers has been an easier road to handle than attempting to market the average consumer.  In fact most of the insurance policies sold in the United States are through brokers or independent agents hired by a business that receives compensation from the company whose product gets sold. Consequently, the construct of this industry has kept marketing innovation and ingenuity at bay. For years the basic message segmentation for B2B advertisements has been limited to industry and firm size.

Not all insurance companies suffer from this lack of consumer centric segmentation however. The car insurance industry is a perfect example of what the health insurance industry will aspire to be by 2014. Geckos and cave men, made up stores with humorous sales representatives, over the top actors representing natural disasters and unfortunate accidents, and catchy jingles all represent the car insurance industry’s push for market share catering to consumer preferences. Geico, Progressive, Allstate, and State Farm have all used innovative TV, internet, and other media ads recently to differentiate themselves. One main reason is because car insurance is largely purchased at the consumer level. As such, the industry caters solely to the wants, needs, and desires of the personal shopper. They have developed enhanced customer service levels, easy to use online tools, and a wide array of products and services all with a focus on consumer appeal. The consumer is essentially the center of the strategy. After all, it is the consumer who has the power to terminate the policy at any time; not the consumer’s employer.

Health insurance companies have a tough road ahead if they wish to compete at the same level. Moving from an employer-centric model to a consumer-centric model is more than just a mission and a vision. It really is a shift in corporate culture. It starts from the top down as much as it does from the bottom up. The CEO must believe in the change as well as the customer service representative answering the phone. There must be a commitment to innovation, ease of use, positive public perception, and consumer preference. The products offered must allow for customization and flexibility. The policies for grievances, appeals, and complaints must be customer friendly and aimed at pleasing the client. Such attributes have unfortunately been foreign to the health insurance industry and they have less than 2 years to quickly figure it all out.

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


Strategies for the Health Care Reform Era


Posted by Joel Wittman

The Patient Protection and Accountable Care Act (PPACA) has unleashed a flurry of activity by health care providers and executives in response to some of its provisions.  While the PPACA primarily addresses the issue of access to health care services by patients, it also touches on the areas of cost-cutting, reimbursement and improvement in quality of care.  This article will refer to some strategies for hospitals to consider in adapting to the changing health care climate. Future articles  will indicate five cost-cutting health care trends to watch and will provide a list of recommendations for savings  developed by health care executives that were submitted to the now-failed “Super-Duper Congressional Deficit Reduction Committee”.

Hospitals and health systems are developing and implementing strategies to adapt to the dynamic health care environment.  The American Hospital Association Committee on Performance Improvement recently issued a report on priority strategies for hospitals and health systems of the future, which included responses from health care executives, which should be undertaken in the coming decade.  The top four are:

  1. Aligning hospitals, physicians, and other providers across the care continuum:    Described as a shifting paradigm from “competition to interdependency”, according to the report, aligning providers across the care continuum is essential to true partnerships and care coordination.  This can include shared savings incentives and sharing of data.  Wenatchee (Wash.) Valley Medical Center held meetings with all providers and acted on their suggestions.
  2. Utilizing evidence-based practices to improve quality and patient safety: Quality is directly tied to reimbursement, especially as hospitals with high readmission rates will be penalized starting in 2013.  Hospitals need to improve outcomes and should employ multi-disciplinary teams to review cases that failed with the goal of modifying processes accordingly.  Flowers Hospital in Alabama was able to achieve a more than 99% compliance rate with CMS core measures, tied to its financial reimbursements.
  3. Improving efficiency through productivity and financial management: Hospital executives are looking for ways to cut redundant efforts and standardize processed to cut costs and improve patient care.  North Mississippi Medical Center sought to improve patient satisfaction in the ED around wait times by implementing bedside triage, allowing for X-ray viewing abilities in each patient room, and installing a computerized tracking system to increase patient flow
  4. Developing integrated information systems: While health IT is critical to connecting providers with information in real time, in addition to owning the technology, hospitals and health systems must perform sophisticated data mining and analysis for continuous improvement in patient care and for the organization.  Piedmont Clinic in Atlanta, using several sources of electronic data, created a single data warehouse with information on patient satisfaction, core measures, physician quality reporting, population health statistics, and billing.  In addition, Piedmont provided daily updates about the critical data.

Change is inevitable and will occur.  What will vary is each organization’s journey to develop responses to these changes.

In next month’s column, I will suggest five cost-cutting health care trends to watch and, perhaps, what cost-cutting measures health care leaders suggested to the now-defunct Congressional Deficit Reduction Committee.

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.

 


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


Alleviating Our Value Deficit


Posted by Elaine Purcell

Fortunately, cutting healthcare costs is hardly a partisan issue. Especially during this time of economic downturn, policymakers and taxpayers alike are looking to cut costs anywhere they can. Regardless, where and by how much these expenses should be cut remains a major point of contention among policymakers across the political spectrum. Given the increasingly high costs associated with the healthcare system, it is not surprising that government healthcare programs have become low-hanging fruit for budget cuts—less than two years after the enactment of costly healthcare reform legislation.

Following the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that the bill would increase total national health expenditures by more than $200 billion from 2010-2019. In a statement by the Congressional Budge Office (CBO) in May 2010, they stated: Rising health costs will put tremendous pressure on the federal budget during the next few decades and beyond. In CBO’s judgment, the health legislation enacted earlier this year does not substantially diminish that pressure.

ACA’s prospects of cutting costs may appear grim. In 2010 alone the United States spent$2.6 trillion on healthcare – over $8,000 per American. For more than 30 years now, healthcare costs have been growing at a rate 2% greater than the general economy. As an additional portion of the U.S. population gains insurance through expanded government healthcare programs, can we actually afford this new legislation?

A simple answer to this question is derived from basic financial principles: in order to achieve a return on an investment, one must actually make an investment. Nevertheless, the stakes are high and the nuances lie in how to not only achieve a return, but the greatest return from our $200 billion/year investment in the healthcare system.

To achieve the greatest return, we cannot only focus on reducing costs – we must strive to also improve quality. Ranked by the World Health Organization as the highest in costs but 37th in overall performance, the U.S. healthcare system is evidently experiencing a ‘value-deficit,’ which is truly at the crux of our nation’s healthcare problems.

One of the strongest themes pervasive throughout ACA is the generation of more information. More information on the top hospitals and the best doctors. More information on the medications that are most effective for treating certain conditions and patient populations. More information on how health plans’ benefit packages compare to others. According to basic market principles, additional and more accessible information will drive competition, which in turn, will force the suppliers of healthcare services to lower their costs and improve quality.

Regardless, in order to achieve greater competition, healthcare consumers must also change their behavior. They need to better understand their purchasing decisions. It’s ironic that with a commodity as priceless as good health, so many patients passively accept or deny treatments and services provided based on limited information. Patients must have the gumption to research their condition and choose providers or medication based on unbiased and comprehensible information.

Nevertheless, due to the nature of healthcare insurance, few patients are cognizant of healthcare costs. To alleviate this moral hazard, the financial burden must be extended to either the patient or the provider. ACA focuses primarily on the provider through carrot and stick approaches, such as pay-for-performance (P4P) programs, which reward physicians for providing the best care. Further, P4P penalizes physicians for over- providing care, thus making them more accountable for costs associated with the care they deliver.

To alleviate moral hazard on the patient side is more complicated and risky. Healthcare consumers are often more price elastic than one would predict, given that they currently lack the information and training to predict the consequences of foregoing certain preventive measures and early interventions. Nevertheless, applying co-payments on certain procedures and not others (such as mammograms) may encourage patients to be more wary of the amount and type of healthcare they consume.

Ultimately, the simplest equation for alleviating the value-deficit is this: costs divided by quality. Although this is undoubtedly more difficult to achieve than simple division, this basic equation should be the basis for solving the problems of our healthcare system.

Elaine Purcell is a second year graduate student in Wagner’s Health Policy and Management Program focusing on Healthcare Management and Administration. Prior to Wagner, she worked in Washington, DC analyzing healthcare policy during the passage of national healthcare reform.


Medicaid Health Homes – The New York Story – Part 1


Posted by Professor John Billings

New York, like most states, is moving rapidly to implement a new initiative to provide care coordination/management to high risk Medicaid patients.  Stimulated by the 90-10 federal match rate that was established in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the New York Health Home Initiative is initially targeted at more than 700,000 Medicaid recipients who have at least two chronic conditions or a serious and persistent mental health condition.  In 2009, New York spent more than $8.7 billion for these patients, and the goal of the initiative is to improve health outcomes and reduce costs through improved care management and coordination that lowers rates of hospitalization and emergency department use.

In New York, the Medicaid program will pay a monthly fee to a “Health Home” to manage and coordinate care for each qualifying patient.  The fee is expected to range from about $50-$350 per patient per month depending on the level of risk as determined by the patient’s CRG acuity score and predictive modeling on the risk of a hospital admission in the next 12 months.  As currently envisioned, for patients enrolled in managed care, the fee will paid to the managed care plan where the patient is enrolled, and the plan will determine where the “Health Home” will be located and how the care coordination fee will be distributed.  For fee-for-service patients, the state has asked for submission applications from providers interested in qualifying as a Health Home, and the state will assign patients to a Health Home based on prior outpatient utilization patterns (based on a “loyalty” analysis), or based ED/inpatient use or geographically for patients with no recent outpatient utilization.  The program will be implemented in three phases beginning with 12 counties (including Brooklyn and the Bronx) in January, 2012, with an additional 14 counties expected in April, 2012, and the remaining 35 counties expected in June, 2012.  For further information on New York’s plans, see:  http://www.health.ny.gov/health_care/medicaid/program/medicaid_health_homes/.

From a policy perspective, this initiative and its roll-out are of significance along multiple dimensions.  First the level of interest among providers has been enormous – the State received more than 200 letters of intent for applications to become a Health Home, with more than 90 in New York City alone.  Of course, with new money on the table in a time of Medicaid cutbacks, perhaps that’s not all that surprising.  But of more policy import is the extent to which the letter of intent process generated an unprecedented level of dialogue among medical, behavioral health, and social service providers, many of whom had no prior history of interaction.  Again, perhaps this is not so surprising – these are complex patients, with multiple conditions, often with a history of substance abuse or mental illness, many with housing problems, and many isolated with little or no social support structure.  Some potential applicants went solo or brought and handful of providers and community based organizations together.  But most applicants listed scores of medical provider organizations, behavioral health providers, social service providers, and other community based organizations, with four from New York City listing more than 100 organizations coming together for a potential Health Home application.

On one level, watching this diverse group of providers crawl out of their silos and begin to talk about what would be needed to coordinate the health and social needs was quite exciting.  But it also demonstrates the extent to which the current “system” is fragmented, with little integration within the medical care sector, but also little existing coordination (forget integration) between and among medical care providers, behavioral health providers, and community based organizations interested in the health and welfare of this vulnerable population.

This response also illustrates some of the challenges facing prospective Medicaid Health Homes (and the rest of health care services for that matter).  What will it take to be successful?  Optimally Health Homes would have the following capabilities and characteristics:

  1. A multidisciplinary approach for individualized needs assessment and care planning for participating patients;
  2. Integrated/organized/coordinated health and social service delivery system;
  3. Some sort of care/service-coordinators/arrangers, with a reasonable caseload size, a clear mission (to improve health and to reduce costs), an ability to engage and build trust with the patient, and a capability of respond to non-medical issues/needs
  4. Core IT and care coordination support capacity to track patient utilization in close to real time and to mine administrative data to help target interventions/outreach, provide feed-back to participating providers, and to examine utilization patterns that will allow continuous improvement and re-design intervention strategies;
  5. Ability to provide real time support at critical junctures, including ED visits (to help prevent “social admissions”, hospital discharge (to help develop effective community support/management planning), and or patient initiated contact for help for an emerging crisis; and
  6. Incentives/reimbursement policies to encourage and reward “effective and cost efficient care”, most notably to reduce hospital admissions and ED visits.

And how much of this currently exists?  How much is achievable in the short run?  Well, items 1 and 3 seem do-able.  The care coordination fee can help support the needs assessment and the costs of care coordinators.  The rest, not so much.  The biggest challenge will be coping with the fragmented medical, behavioral health, and social service delivery non-system.  It’s fine to come together on a letter of intent (talk remains fairly cheap) – it’s another matter to actually function as at least a quasi-organized, coordinated “system”.  The challenges of exchanging data among the non-integrated Health Home participants will be also daunting – just sharing and updating a patient care plan is likely to be difficult for some orgnaizations.  Assuring that the care coordinator knows in real time that a patient is in the ED or about to be discharged from the hospital present much bigger challenges, especially for the 30% or more Health Home patients not currently enrolled in managed care.  Of course, when the Medicaid card is swiped, Albany knows, but getting that information to the Health Home and its care coordinator is not currently including in the planning.

And what about incentives?  Clearly hospitals have the most to lose here, since the goal is to knock out hospital and ED visits.  In a managed care world where the hospital is included in some global capitation arrangement, incentives are somewhat aligned since the hospital can share in the savings.  But that sort of arrangement is relatively rare for most of managed care, and for fee-for-service patients, it is not existent.  Some form of shared savings arrangement for the Health Home Initiative is contemplated by the State, but currently it is just that:  contemplated.  Progress here will be critical to success of the initiative.

And as to success, what do we know about similar initiatives?  Well, another important policy issue related to Health Homes is that once again we are embarking on a major initiative without much evidence that it is likely to work.  It certainly sounds good on paper – care coordination makes sense and there is plenty of evidence that a lot of hospitalizations and ED visits are preventable/avoidable.  But less is known about how to do the preventing and avoiding.  This faith-based approach to policy making is actually pretty typical for Medicaid and most of health care.  Think back over the last 10-15 years for the last great Medicaid initiative:  enrollment of massive numbers of Medicaid patients in managed care.  What did we know about the effectiveness of managed care in improving outcomes and reducing costs then?  About as much as we know now for Health Homes.  And what do we know about how Medicaid managed care has worked so far:  shockingly little on some dimensions.

What is a bit frustrating on Heath Homes is that New York currently has an initiative that looks and smells a lot like Health Homes:  the Chronic Illness Demonstration Project (CIPD).  A monthly fee is paid to six demonstration sites to coordinate and manage care for fee-for-service patients at high risk of future hospitalization.  There is even a shared savings pool for projects that actually reduce costs (after including the costs of the intervention care coordination fee).  Unfortunately, the federal funding for Health Homes came along before we know how well and for whom CIDP is working.  We are going from a demonstration with a couple thousand patients to a ramp-up that ultimately may involve more than 700,000 patients.  Pretty classic.

This is not to say moving ahead with the Health Home Initiative is a bad idea.  The State has moved forward in a refreshingly open and transparent way, trying to keep the health community well-informed and trying to respond where possible to concerns of those likely affected as it rolls out the initiative.  And new federal money is new federal money.  And more coordination can’t be a bad thing.  And getting a broad range of medical, behavioral health, and community based social services providers to work together is fabulous, and it may stimulate more lasting and broader integration or at least coordination among these providers.  Perhaps even the first baby steps toward something that feels like an Accountable Care Organization?  One can only hope.  But what is fairly certain is that things are likely to get a bit messy along the way.  With the magnitude of change required to make Health Homes work, no one will get it all right the first time.  The goal should be to learn as much as possible along the way.  And it is important the State remain flexible and make necessary adjustments as the initiative is rolled out – the speed at which the initiative is being implemented should not be allowed to foreclose opportunities to encourage more lasting and fundamental change.  But stay tuned, it will be an interesting ride.

John Billings is an Associate Professor of Health Policy and Public Service, and the director of Wagner’s Health Policy and Management Program.  His research focuses on understanding  the nature and extent of barriers to optimal health for vulnerable populations.  He can be reached at john.billings@nyu.edu.