What’s Going On With Health Care Costs?


Posted by Joel Wittman

Egads!  Is it truly possible?  Has the increase in health care costs been at its lowest in almost four decades?  And this in spite of the Baby Boomer generation fast approaching retirement age?  What could account for such a phenomenon and is it sustainable?  All relevant questions that have health care experts scratching their heads in search of answers and have politicians scrambling to enact programs to further the slow down in the increase in health care costs.  But, perhaps inaction at this time is the appropriate response.  Can we afford to have the fractured political process impede the progress that has been achieved?  Eduardo Porter, in an article in his Economic Scene column in the New York Times, opines on his take on the subject.  The article is shown below.  I thought this would be of interest to you.  Comments, please.

 

Economic Scene

Medicare Needs Fixing, but Not Right Now

By EDUARDO PORTER

What’s the rush? For all the white-knuckled wrangling over spending cuts set to start on Friday, the fundamental partisan argument over how to fix the government’s finances is not about the immediate future. It is about the much longer term: how will the nation pay for the care of older Americans as the vast baby boom generation retires? Will the government keep Medicare spending in check by asking older Americans to shoulder more costs? Should we raise taxes instead?

Experiments by health care providers on cheaper and more efficient ways to deliver care appear to be helping push costs down.

Health Spending Slows

It might not be a good idea to try to resolve these questions quite so urgently. Partisan bickering under the threat of automatic budget cuts is unlikely to produce a calm, thoughtful deal.

“We don’t have to solve this tomorrow; not even next year,” said Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on the design of President Obama’s health care reform.

More significantly perhaps, some economists point out that the problem may already be on the way toward largely fixing itself. The budget-busting rise in health care costs, it seems, is finally losing speed. While it would be foolhardy to assume that this alone will stabilize government’s finances, the slowdown offers hope that the challenge may not be as daunting as the frenzied declarations from Washington make it seem.

The growth of the nation’s spending slowed sharply over the last four years. This year, it is expected to increase only 3.8 percent, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the slowest pace in four decades and slower than the rate of nominal economic growth.

Medicare spending is growing faster — stretched by baby boomers stepping out of the work force and into retirement. But its pace has slowed markedly, too. Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office said that by 2020 Medicare spending would be $126 billion less than it predicted three years ago. Spending over the coming decade, it added, would be $143 billion less than it forecast just last August.

While economists acknowledge that the recession accounts for part of the decline, depressing incomes and consumption, something else also seems to be going on: insurers, doctors, hospitals and other providers are experimenting with new, cheaper and more efficient ways to deliver care.

Prodded by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which offers providers a share of savings reaped by Medicare from any efficiency gains, many doctors are dropping the costly practice of charging a fee for each service regardless of its contribution to patients’ health. Doctors are joining hundreds of so-called Accountable Care Organizations, which are paid to maintain patients in good health and are thus encouraged to seek the most effective treatments at the lowest possible cost.

This has kindled hope among some scholars that Medicare could achieve the needed savings just by cleaning out the health care system’s waste.

Elliott Fisher, who directs Dartmouth’s Atlas of Health Care, which tracks disparities in medical practices and outcomes across the country, pointed out that Medicare spending per person varies widely regardless of quality — from $7,734 a year in Minneapolis to $11,646 in Chicago — even after correcting for the different age, sex and race profiles of their populations.

He noted that if hospital stays by Medicare enrollees across the country fell to the length prevailing in Oregon and Washington, hospital use — one of the biggest drivers of costs — would fall by almost a third.

“Twenty to 30 percent of Medicare spending is pure waste,” Dr. Fisher argues. “The challenge of getting those savings is nontrivial. But those kinds of savings are not out of the question.”

We could be disappointed, of course. Similar breakthroughs before have quickly fizzled. Just think back to that brief spell in the mid-1990s when health maintenance organizations seemed to beat health care inflation — until patients rebelled against being denied services and doctors dropped out of their networks rather than accept lower fees.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services already expects spending to rebound in coming years. Without tougher cost control devices, be it vouchers to limit government spending or direct government rationing, counting on savings of the scale needed to overcome the expected increase in Medicare rolls may be hoping for pie in the sky.

“It makes no sense,” said Eugene Steuerle, an economist at the Urban Institute, to expect the government will reap vast Medicare savings without having an impact on the quality of care.

The Affordable Care Act already contemplates fairly big cuts to Medicare. In its latest long-term projections published last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that under current law, growth in spending per beneficiary over the coming decade would be about half a percentage point slower than the rate of economic growth per person.

To understand how ambitious this is, consider that Medicare spending per beneficiary since 1985 has exceeded the growth of gross domestic product per person by about 1.5 percentage points per year. Slowing down that spending would require deep cuts in doctor reimbursements that, though written into law, Congress has never allowed to happen — repeatedly voting to cancel or postpone them.

Under a more realistic situation, the Budget Office projected that the growth of Medicare spending per capita over the next 10 years would be in fact 0.6 percentage points higher than under current law and accelerate further after that.

Yet despite the ambition of these targets, they would not be enough to stabilize future Medicare spending as a share of the economy. A report by three health care policy experts, Michael Chernew and Richard Frank of Harvard Medical School, together with Stephen Parente of the University of Minnesota, concluded that to do that would require limiting the growth of spending per beneficiary at 1.25 percentage points less than the growth of our gross domestic product per person.

“The Affordable Care Act places Medicare spending on a trajectory that is historically low,” Mr. Chernew said, noting his opinion was not an official statement as vice chairman of Medicare’s Payment Advisory Commission, which advises Congress on Medicare. “Could we do better? Of course. Will we? That requires a little more skepticism.”

Yet even if it is unrealistic to expect that newfound efficiencies will stabilize Medicare’s finances, the slowdown in health care spending suggests that politicians in Washington calm down. It offers, at the very least, more breathing room to carefully consider reforms to the system to raise revenue or trim benefits in the least damaging way.

There are many ideas out there — from changing Medicare’s premiums, deductibles and coinsurance to introducing a tax on carbon emissions to raise revenue. Some of them are not as good as others. Until recently, President Obama favored increasing the eligibility age for Medicare. Then research by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that raising the age would increase insurance premiums and cost businesses, beneficiaries and states more than the federal government would save. The nation would lose money in the deal.

“As we do this, there are smarter and dumber ways to do it,” Mr. Gruber said. “It would be a problem if we were to do things in a panic mode that set us backward.”

                                                                                                                                               

 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.


Health Reform to Stay the Bumpy Course


Posted by: Joel Wittman

As this is my first post since the presidential election, I thought that this would be a good time to look at how the ACA may play out.  Fierce Healthcare published an article about this soon after the election.  I thought it would be of interest to you.

Reelected for a second term, President Barack Obama is expected to carry out the landmark Affordable Care Act of 2010–but not without some resistance from a split Congress.

Many health reform provisions that hung in the balance during election season could see implementation in 2013 and 2014. The Democratic presidential win particularly confirms the forth-coming health insurance exchanges, the phasing out of annual insurance limits and protections for those with pre-existing conditions. However, it also leaves certain controversial provisions–namely, Medicaid expansion and the Independent Payment Advisory Board–in the hands of a divided Congress that may slow reform.

According to the Healthcare.gov timeline, the healthcare industry can expect:

Higher Medicaid payments for primary care physicians – Jan. 1, 2013
Under the Affordable Care Act, primary care physicians can expect Medicaid payments that resemble reimbursements for Medicare. Family doctors, internists and pediatricians next year will see Medicaid payments increase by up to 7 percent, estimated at $11 billion, although specialists have complained they are largely left out of the increased payments.

Medicaid expansion – Jan. 1, 2014
Perhaps one the most contentious issues that could see continued partisan politics is Medicaid expansion. Individuals who earn less than 133 percent of the poverty level (approximately $14,000 for an individual and $29,000 for a family of four) will be eligible to enroll in Medicaid. Although the Obama administration envisioned Medicaid expansion would be implemented across the country, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June left it up to the states. Red, Southern states, in particular, have been particularly resistant to Medicaid expansion.

“The surprise Medicaid ruling by the Supreme Court will put hospitals in direct conflict with Republican governors who may want to not participate in the Medicaid expansion for political reasons,” Kent Bottles , senior fellow at the Thomas Jefferson University School of Population Health in Philadelphia and FierceHealthcare editorial advisory board member, told FierceHealthcare in an interview. “States not participating will be terrible for hospitals that are depending on the increased coverage to offset the decreased revenue from the federal government contained in the PPACA,” Bottles said.

With an expected 16 million uninsured Americans to enter the Medicaid system, provider reactions have been mixed, with some saying greater coverage for all will be a welcome relief, while others worry the patient volume will tax already overburdened staffs and resources.

“The ACA will increase the number of Medicaid beneficiaries, but it does not guarantee access to primary care,” Jesse Pines, director of the Center for Health Care Quality and associate professor of emergency medicine and health policy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told FierceHealthcare. Pines, a FierceHealthcare editorial advisory board member, noted many primary care physicians are turning away Medicaid patients, opting for higher-yielding patients who have commercial insurance or are on Medicare. “So it may be difficult for people to get in to see primary care doctors. With no other option (but with insurance), many will come to the ED,” he said.

Jeremy Tucker, medical director of the emergency department at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown, Md., and FierceHealthcare advisory board member, added his area already has physician shortages that may push newly insured patients to turn to emergency departments and urgent care centers to get their care.

“We are already seeing tertiary care hospitals that we transfer patients to asking us insurance status questions, and while they do not refuse to accept the patient, they will absolutely limit what they do for the patient [by simply stabilizing and discharging].”

He also said the physician shortage, coupled with increased patient volume, will lend to a higher reliance on non-physician providers, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

Divided Congress could slow reform
With the Democratic hold on the Senate and Republicans maintaining the House, Congress will look much like the past four years–a political landscape that worries some in the industry.

“We should see more of the same–stalemates and gridlock in Washington,” Tucker told FierceHealthcare when asked the possibility of a Republican repeal.

A bitterly divided Congress could mean delays in appropriating money to fund the health law’s provisions.

The American Medical Association, while congratulating the President, also took the opportunity to point to the lingering question about the ever-present fiscal cliff–what will happen with the doc fix?

“The AMA is … committed to working with Congress and the administration to stop the nearly 27 percent cut scheduled to hit physicians who care for Medicare patients on Jan. 1, [2013],” AMA President Jeremy Lazarus said in a Wednesday statement. “It is time to transition to a plan that will move Medicare away from this broken physician payment system and toward a Medicare program that rewards physicians for providing well-coordinated, efficient, high-quality patient care while reducing healthcare costs.”

What are your thoughts about the ultimate success of the health care reform act?  Can a split Congress put aside their partisanship for the betterment of those in need of health care services who otherwise could not afford coverage?  While not perfect, the ACA is at least a start in the right direction.  Your comments are always welcome – let me hear from 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


What’s Behind the Slowdown in Health Care Costs?


Posted by Joel Wittman

In my article in the September blog, I wrote about a systemic approach to containing health care spending.  I thought this article about the slowdown in health care spending would also be of interest. 

Democrats on the campaign trail have warmed up to health care in recent months, touting the benefits of their mammoth 2010 law. While trumpeting popular provisions such as coverage for preexisting medical conditions, Democrats are also linking the Affordable Care Act to a recent slowdown in the rise of health care costs.

Former President Clinton delved into the subject at his convention speech in Charlotte, N.C., suggesting that President Obama’s health care law produced the slower-than-average growth in health care spending in 2010 and 2011.

“Health care spending has been under 4 percent in both years, for the first time in 50 years,” Clinton said.

Health care spending increased by just 3.9 percent in 2010 and 3.8 percent in 2009. And within Medicare, the spending slowdown has been even more dramatic: Instead of the program’s average 6 percent annual increase per beneficiary in recent years, 2010’s rate was 0.2 percent. In 2011, it was 2.8 percent. This benefits household budgets but also the government’s coffers since the longer-term costs of Medicare and other health entitlements pose huge fiscal challenges for the nation.

But economists on both sides of the political spectrum say that a variety of forces are at work in the more restrained increases in health care spending. One factor is a weak economy, which means Americans might opt to postpone elective procedures like cataract or knee surgery to avoid out-of-pocket costs that aren’t covered by insurance. Or they might skimp on costs like prescription drugs. When fewer people visit the doctor or when people cut back on prescription-drug purchases, insurance companies see lower costs and that can eventually translate into cheaper premiums for consumers.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average family premium for employer-sponsored health insurance rose to nearly $16,000 a year, about a 4 percent increase from last year. The numbers might give many Americans sticker shock, but it was a smaller rise than expected. KFF President Drew Altman said that it’s too soon to tell what the cause is, exactly.

David Cutler, a Harvard economist and frequent adviser to the Obama campaign, told the New York Times this week that the Affordable Care Act’s efforts to control costs were contributing to the slowdown.

“The slow economy is only part of it,” he told The Times.

The good numbers are fodder for Democrats on the campaign trail to argue that Obama’s health care law did, in fact, slow down health care costs. The law primarily saves money by slashing $716 billion from Medicare payment rates to hospitals and private Medicare plans. Those cuts just went into effect this year, and at least on the hospital side, they are contributing to the slower-than-expected growth in Medicare spending in 2012. But those cuts were largely put in place to offset the cost of helping an additional 30 million people get insurance coverage, not to stem the rising cost of health care.

There are also several pilot programs in the Affordable Care Act that reward hospitals and doctors with federal funding if they successfully save money by using new delivery methods, most of which emphasize greater coordination between health care providers. Many of those programs just started in the past year and haven’t been operating long enough to see savings.

As far as consumers’ pocketbooks are concerned, the law also included a new rule for insurance companies that limits how much they can spend from premiums on things like advertising and salaries. That went into effect in 2011, and consumers started seeing the dividends of that rule last month: the Obama administration reports that insurance companies paid back more than $1 billion to American consumers this year.

Gail Wilensky, a former top health official in the George H.W. Bush administration, said she hoped it was true that the health care law was contributing to a lasting trend of lower health care inflation. But Wilensky said in an interview, “Whatever is going on, it’s very hard to attribute it to anything in the ACA. It was starting before that.”

Wilensky said that though the slowdown in health spending outpaces the decline in incomes tied to the recession, that calculation does not include other losses in wealth that impact how much people spend on health care.

“It was not just job loss, but in a way that has been unusual, it was wealth loss, as reflected by the decline of the stock market and, for many people, the decline in their home values. That is such a big, big part of middle-class American’s wealth position, and we underestimate if we only look at income loss,” Wilensky said.

She also pointed to a slowdown in spending that occurred in the 1990s as health-maintenance organizations restricted health services. Eventually that spending slowdown was reversed as doctors, hospitals, and patients pushed back against insurance-company restrictions.

Robert Berenson, a fellow at the liberal-leaning Urban Institute, said that the talk of health care reform in general, and not the specific policies of the Affordable Care Act in particular, could potentially be credited with the spending slowdown.

“I do think it’s more of an environmental phenomenon that the world is going to change,” Berenson said in an interview. “I think something real is going on related to all the proposals for new payment models, and physicians and others are getting the message.”

In other words, the health care industry has seen the writing on the wall: They will no longer get paid for every single test and procedure they do.

Berenson, who spent 20 years practicing as an internist, said it might be that doctors are tired of getting criticized for not paying attention to costs.

“I suspect physicians are tired being criticized for not being able to restrain themselves,” Berenson said. “It’s more health reform in general, rather than specific provisions that are associated with ACA.”

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.


A Systemic Approach to Containing Health Care Spending


Posted by Joel Wittman

In this election year, U.S. national spending on health care will reach $2.8 trillion, or about 18% of total spending on all goods and services. This high level of spending reduces the ability to invest in other important parts of the economy and also adds to the national debt. There is wide agreement that ways must be found to bend the health care cost curve.

National health spending is projected to continue to grow faster than the economy, increasing from 18% to about 25% of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2037.1 Federal health spending is projected to increase from 25% to approximately 40% of total federal spending by 2037. These trends could squeeze out critical investments in education and infrastructure, contribute to unsustainable debt levels, and constrain wage increases for the middle class.

Although the influx of baby boomers will increase the number of Medicare beneficiaries, growth in per capita health costs will increasingly drive growth in federal health spending over the long term. This means that health costs throughout the system drive federal health spending. Reforms that shift federal spending to individuals, employers, and states fail to address the problem. The only sustainable solution is to control overall growth in health costs.

Although the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will significantly reduce Medicare spending over the next decade, health costs remain a major challenge. To effectively contain costs, solutions must target the drivers of both the level of costs and the growth in costs — and both medical prices and the quantity of services play important roles. Solutions will need to reduce costs not only for public payers but also for private payers. Finally, solutions will need to root out administrative costs that do not improve health status and outcomes.

The Center for American Progress convened leading health-policy experts with diverse perspectives to develop bold and innovative solutions that meet these criteria.  See the following solutions below that were recommended:

Promote Payment Rates within Global Targets

Under the current fragmented payment system, providers can shift costs from public payers to private payers and from large insurers to small insurers. Since each provider negotiates payment rates with multiple insurers, administrative costs are excessive. Moreover, continued consolidation of market power among providers will increase prices over time. For all these reasons, the current system is not sustainable.

Under a model of self-regulation, public and private payers would negotiate payment rates with providers, and these rates would be binding on all payers and providers in a state. Providers could still offer rates below the negotiated rates.  The privately negotiated rates would have to adhere to a global spending target for both public and private payers in the state.

Accelerate Use of Alternatives to Fee-For-Service Payment

Fee-for-service payment encourages wasteful use of high-cost tests and procedures. Instead of paying a fee for each service, payers could pay a fixed amount to physicians and hospitals for a bundle of services (bundled payments) or for all the care that a patient needs (global payments).

Use Competitive Bidding for All Commodities

Evidence suggests that prices for many products, such as medical equipment and devices, are excessive. Instead of the government setting prices, market forces should be used to allow manufacturers and suppliers to compete to offer the lowest price. In 2011, such competitive bidding reduced Medicare spending on medical equipment such as wheelchairs by more than 42%. The ACA requires Medicare to expand competitive bidding for equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies to all regions by 2016.  It is suggested that Medicare expand the current program nationwide to include all commodities and extend to all federal health programs, including the insurance exchanges that will start in 2014.

Require Exchanges to Offer Tiered Products

The market dominance of select providers often drives substantial price variation. To address this problem, insurers can offer tiered plans. These insurance products designate a high-value tier of providers with high quality and low costs and reduce cost sharing for patients who obtain services from these providers.

Require All Exchanges to Be Active Purchasers

If exchanges passively offer any insurance product that meets minimal standards, an important opportunity will be lost. As soon as reliable quality-reporting systems exist and exchanges achieve adequate scale, it is critical that federal and state exchanges engage in active purchasing — leveraging their bargaining power to secure the best premium rates and promote reforms in payment and delivery systems.

Simplify Administrative Systems for All Payers and Providers

The United States spends nearly $360 billion a year on administrative costs, accounting for 14% of excessive health spending.  It is suggested that payers and providers electronically exchange eligibility, claims, and other administrative information as soon as possible and public and private payers and providers should use a single, standardized physician credentialing system.  Electronic health records should integrate clinical and administrative functions — such as billing, prior authorization, and payments.

Require Full Transparency of Prices

Price transparency would allow consumers to plan ahead and choose lower-cost providers, which may lead high-cost providers to lower prices. Although price transparency could facilitate collusion, this risk could be addressed through aggressive enforcement of antitrust laws.

Make Better Use of Nonphysician Providers

Eliminate restrictive state scope-of-practice laws prevent non-physician providers from practicing to the full extent of their training and provide adequate reimbursement for those services.

Expand the Medicare Ban on Physician Self-Referrals

It is suggested that the Stark law should be expanded to prohibit physician self-referrals for services that are paid for by private insurers. In addition, the loopholes for in-office imaging, pathology laboratories, and radiation therapy should be closed. Physicians who use alternatives to fee-for-service payment should be exempted because these methods reduce incentives to increase volume.

Leverage the Federal Employees Program to Drive Reform

It is suggested that the FEHBP align with Medicare by requiring plans to transition to alternative payment methods, reduce payments to hospitals with high rates of readmissions and hospital-acquired conditions, and adjust payments to hospitals and physicians on the basis of their performance on quality measures. In addition, the FEHBP should require carriers to offer tiered products and conduct competitive bidding on behalf of plans for all commodities. Finally, the FEHBP should require plans to provide price information to enrollees and prohibit gag clauses in plan contracts with providers

Reduce the Costs of Defensive Medicine

Regardless of whether a claim results in liability, the risk of being sued may cause physicians to practice a type of defensive medicine that increases costs without improving the quality of care.  A promising strategy would provide a so-called safe harbor, in which physicians would be presumed to have no liability if they used qualified health-information-technology systems and adhered to evidence-based clinical practice guidelines that did not reflect defensive medicine. Physicians could use clinical-decision support systems that incorporate these guidelines.

Conclusions

Although many in the health industry perceive that it is not in their interest to contain national health spending, it is a fact that the current spending patterns cannot continue. In the absence of any meaningful change, payers could simply shift costs to individuals. As those costs become more and more unaffordable, people would severely restrict their consumption of health care and might forgo necessary care. Alternatively, governments could impose deep cuts in provider payments unrelated to value or the quality of care. Without an alternative innovative strategy, these options could become the default. They are not in the long-term interests of patients, employers, states, insurers, or providers.

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.

 


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

 


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.