Tag: "health care quality"

Innovation and Self-Insured Employer Plans

About 175 million people are covered by an employee health plan through their job or the job of a loved one.  More than half of people in employee health plans work for an employer that is self-insured or partially self-insured.  Self-insured plans are ones that are subject to federal law rather than the patchwork of state regulations that insurers must follow.  When employers self-insure, they take on the risk of their employees medical needs and generally have stop loss coverage to guard against any one worker or dependent have exceptionally high medical bills. Whereas insurance is somewhat of a stodgy business, employers themselves are looking for solutions rather than premium hikes year-after-year.  Most of the innovation that occurs in health coverage are experiments being conducted by self-insured employers. These include decision-support tools to make enrollees more informed consumers of medical care. Employers are dumping a ton of money into employee Health & Wellness programs, health risk assessments and chronic disease management.  A few employer plans, like North Carolina-based like HSM Solutions, are outsourcing some medical care for high cost procedures to countries abroad.  CalPERS, the public employee union, has initiated experiments in reference pricing to provide beneficiaries an incentive to seek out lower-cost providers.  These are all examples of self-insured plans looking for solutions to the problem of high medical costs.

The “Unaffordable” Care Act Turns Six

This week marks the sixth anniversary of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). But it’s hardly anything to celebrate. The average bad marriage that ends in divorce lasts about eight years in the United States. So maybe there’s still time to end this ill-conceived union of bad health economics and income redistribution.

The ACA was intended to make health coverage affordable using an age-old strategy — other peoples’ money. For instance, ACA regulations require insurers to accept all applicants — including unprofitable ones — at rates not adjusted for their health risk. Premiums can vary somewhat based on age, but not health status. A plethora of new taxes — mostly on medical care and health insurance — are supposed to somehow make coverage more affordable. For those who don’t understand economics, taxing something raises its cost, not lowers it. Other funding mechanisms include draconian cuts to Medicare and higher deficits to expand Medicaid.

In an attempt to transfer wealth from medical low-spenders to big-spenders, Obamacare has purposely undermined affordable coverage. In the process it also removed the incentives health plans use to encourage healthier lifestyles. Healthy Middle-class folks, who don’t qualify for subsidies, have largely shunned Obamacare Marketplace plans. The inevitable result is that the exchange has become an expensive high-risk pool for people who are poorer or sicker than average. Obamacare is a bad deal for all but the most costly enrollees or those receiving lavish subsidies. Indeed, 83 percent of exchange enrollees are ones who receive subsidies. A report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found all but the most heavily subsidized Obamacare enrollees would still be better off financially if they skipped coverage and pay for their own medical care out of pocket.

People often make the mistake of assuming that everyone needs comprehensive coverage that protects them from medical problems that are exceptionally rare. But most people covered by health insurance actually experience very low claims in any given year. About half the population spends less than $500 annually on medical care. Thus, health plans with benefits less generous than Obamacare would be both affordable and meet the typical medical needs of most Americans. But to accomplish the goal of making generous health coverage affordable to people with health concerns, the ACA had to force Americans to purchase health coverage and limit their choice of health plans. Health insurance that does not cover a plethora of preventive care, plans that cap benefits at predetermined levels and plans that reward Americans for having led healthy lifestyles are no longer allowed.

Prior to ACA, health plans with limited benefits (or high deductibles) were less expensive than coverage with onerous mandates and costly regulations. Those who could not afford comprehensive coverage could choose to either self-insure for day-to-day medical needs (now illegal), enroll in a limited benefit plan (now banned under Obamacare) or enroll in a high-deductible plan. Of those three options the only option left are high-deductible plans. Prior to the ACA, high-deductible plans were very affordable. Premiums were low enough to have money left over to fund Health Savings Accounts to cover a portion of the costs below the deductible. Since Obamacare high-deductible plans have become costly even though they cover almost none of Americans’ day-to-day medical needs.

Consider this: according to the comparison website, HealthPocket.com, a family who receives no subsidies pays nearly $1,000 per month for a bronze plan with a high deductible. I priced Bronze plans for my own family and premiums would run $12,000 per year and require deductibles of $6,750 apiece. A family deductible of $13,500 means that despite sending $12,000 to a health insurer, all of our health care needs must be paid out of pocket. That akin to throwing money down a rat hole to most sensible Americans.

I’ve talked to people who say they’ve made the conscious decision to forgo health coverage and just pay the penalty and pay cash for medical care. A few even think they can get out of the penalty. One lady I talked to suggested she’d be far better off just taking the money she would have spent on largely worthless insurance coverage and using it to pay for actual medical care. She will pay out of pocket for her physician visits. She will use a discount pharmacy card for her prescription drugs. She will pay for laboratory testing out of pocket.

Many enrollees remain uninsured despite the mandate — only signing up for coverage if they become sick or need expensive medical services. Eager to grow exchange plans as much as possible, the Obama Administration foolishly created multiple special enrollment categories that allows just about anyone to sign up long after the open enrollment deadline has passed. Individuals signing up using special enrollments aren’t just slackers who lost track of time during open enrollment. Late enrollees use more medical care than those enrolling during open enrollment. They are also more likely to drop coverage soon after receiving expensive medical care.
Many of those enrolled in Obamacare are gaming the system, cheating insurers and driving up the costs for honest folks who just want affordable coverage. It’s rather sad when you realize the Affordable Care Act made health care unaffordable for millions of middle-class families and left many formerly-insured better off with no coverage. Obamacare is hardly a legacy to celebrate. It’s time for Congress to go back to the drawing board and work together to find a solution that creates the appropriate incentives for all stakeholders.

Americans Think Their Health Care Is Fine, But “American” Health Care Is Not

doctor-mom-and-sonNational Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health have released findings of a February survey, Patients’ Perspectives on Health Care in the United States:

Even though most (55%) Americans reflect positively on their state’s health care system, saying it is excellent or good, few give their state top marks. Just one in six (17%) say the health care system in their state is excellent, while more than two in five (42%) adults in the U.S. say it is fair or poor.

Americans are much more negative about the nation’s health care system than they are about the health care system in the state where they live. Only 38 percent of adults in the U.S. had positive things to say about the country’s health care system, and fewer than one in ten (9%) gave it top marks. In contrast, more than three in five (61%) U.S. adults say the nation’s health care system is fair or poor.

Almost half the people who believe their own state’s health care is excellent deny that it is excellent elsewhere!

400 Percent Cost Difference to Treat Prostate Disease

UCLA researchers have for the first time described cost across an entire care process for a common condition called benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH) using time-driven activity-based costing. They found a 400 percent discrepancy between the least and most expensive ways to treat the condition.

The finding takes on even further importance as there isn’t any proven difference in outcomes between the lower and higher cost treatments, said study first author Dr. Alan Kaplan, a resident physician in the UCLA Department of Urology.

“The rising cost of health care is unsustainable, and a big part of the problem is that health systems, health care providers and policy makers have a poor understanding of how much health care really costs,” Kaplan said. “Until this is well understood, taxpayers, insurers and patients alike will continue to bear the burden of soaring health care costs.”(UCLA Health)

From the study itself: “Although listed as ‘optional’ in practice guidelines, invasive diagnostic testing can increase costs by 150% compared with the standalone urology clinic visit. Of five different surgical options, a 400% cost discrepancy exists between the most and least expensive treatments.

We know why this happens: Patients are not involved in forming prices in U.S. health care. One solution is reference pricing. Why that has not yet taken of like wildfire is a question that we will be addressing in future entries.

The Kline-Ryan-Upton Republican Off-Ramp from Obamacare

Tomorrow is the day the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in King vs. Burwell, and all the talk is about what Congress will do if the Supreme Court directs the Administration to obey the law by not paying subsidies in the majority of states, which have declined to establish their own Obamacare exchanges and defaulted to the federal one.

The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed (available by subscription) by John Kline, Paul Ryan, and Fred Upton, who chair committees of jurisdiction in the House of Representatives that will be tasked with proposing a Congressional response to this decision. Here’s what they write:

Let people buy insurance across state lines. Stop frivolous lawsuits by enacting medical-liability reform. Let small businesses band together so they get a fair deal from insurance companies.

5 Myths about Cancer Care

PIC2In this month’s Health Affairs, leading health economists Dana P. Goldman and Tomas Philipson challenge five myths about cancer care. To the right we have an infographic that explains them very clearly.

The most economically interesting one is the fourth. This appears to challenge the notion that we should be skeptical about paying high prices for therapies that might buy only a short time of good life. (In health-economics, we use terms like Quality-Adjusted Life Year [QALY] and Disability-Adjusted Life Expectancy [DALE].)

The classic approach to these calculations was illustrated by Professor Christopher Conover in a recent article:

…[M]ost of the gains were concentrated in the 35-64 age group, which narrows the plausible range of what the average gain in life expectancy might be. Someone who is 60-64 is 7.3 times as likely to die in a given year as someone age 35-39. The reason this matters is that there are reasonably well-accepted rules of thumb about the value of what’s called a quality-adjusted life year (QALY).

Half of Doctors Give Obamacare D or F

Confident DoctorsThe Physicians Foundation and Merritt Hawkins (a physician recruiting firm) have just published their biennial physicians’ survey. The survey interviews over twenty thousand physicians in all fifty states and multiple specialties:

  • Only 19 percent say they have time to see more patients.
  • 44 percent plan to take steps to reduce services or find non-clinical employment.
  • Only 35 percent describe themselves as “independent practice owners,” down from 62 percent in 2008.
  • 53 percent describe themselves as hospital or medical-group employees, up from 38 percent in 2008.

Paying Doctors for Performance Does Not Work

Aaron Caroll, in the New York Times:

doctor-xray-2“Pay for performance” is one of those slogans that seem to upset no one. To most people it’s a no-brainer that we should pay for quality and not quantity.

In Britain, a program was begun over a decade ago that would pay general practitioners up to 25 percent of their income in bonuses if they met certain benchmarks in the management of chronic diseases. The program made no difference at all in physician practice or patient outcomes, and this was with a much larger financial incentive than most programs in the United States offer.

States Spent $7.7 Billion on Prisoners’ Heath Care in 2011

GOV065A new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts reports that 41 states experienced growth in their correctional health care spending from fiscal 2007-2011, with a median increase of 13%. Further:

…state spending on prisoner health care increased from fiscal 2007 to 2011, but began trending downward from its peak in 2009. Nationwide, prison health care spending totaled $7.7 billion in fiscal 2011, down from a peak of $8.2 billion in fiscal 2009. In a majority of states, correctional health care spending and per-inmate health care spending peaked before fiscal 2011. But a steadily aging prison population is a primary challenge that threatens to drive costs back up. The share of older inmates rose in all but two of the 42 states that submitted prisoner age data. States where older inmates represented a relatively large share of the total prisoner population tended to incur higher per-inmate health care spending.

Hits and Misses