The Business of Health Care

The Business of Health Care


Paul Levy 1This has been my week to discuss networks (Internet and electricity), but I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a few moments on the networks that are most likely to rob us of personal choice and increase costs: Health care networks.

Wait, didn’t President Obama promise us that the new health care law would preserve choice for us? Didn’t he promise us lower costs?  Well, in spite of much good that the law accomplished in terms of providing access to health insurance, these are two areas that have gone awry. For a variety of reasons–most of which have little to do with providing you with better care–the hospital world has grown more centralized. It’s done so to reduce competition and get better rates from insurance companies. It’s done so to create larger risk pools of patients under the “rate reform” that incorporates more bundled and capitated payments. It’s done so to keep you as a captive customer for your health care needs. It’s been aided and abetted by electronic health record companies that find a mutual advantage with their hospital colleagues in minimizing the ability of your EHR to be easily transferable to other health systems. As I’ve noted, we truly have created “business cost structures in search of revenue streams,” rather than a vibrantly competitive system focused on increasing quality and satisfaction and lowering costs.

Many people don’t even know they are part of a health care network until they discover its limitations. It might be that the insurance product they bought has different rates for in-network doctors and facilities from out-of-network doctors and facilities. It might be that their primary care physician subtly or not so subtly directs them to specialists in his or her network because they share in the financial reward of eliminating “leakage” to other systems. It might be that they discover that an MRI or other image taken in one health system cannot be transferred electronically to another, perhaps necessitating a second image and its accompanying cost.


jk-wallDonald Trump has been screaming about premiums going up this year for Obamacare health insurance policies.

But he should see what happens when they go down.

That’s what has happened in Indiana, where average premiums for 2016 health coverage on the Obamacare exchange is 12.6 percent lower than in 2015.

Because of that figure, journalists have declared Indiana the big winner, since premiums are rising by 10.2 percent on average across the country.

They could not be more wrong.

That’s because falling premiums are causing the size of the Obamacare tax credits to fall even faster in Indiana. And since 87 percent of Indiana’s exchange buyers this year received a tax credit, smaller tax credits will make the out-of-pocket cost far higher for those Hoosiers.

How much more? According to my analysis of insurer’s filing with the Indiana Department of Insurance, 30 percent, 60 percent, 90 percent and even 180 percent increases will be common for Hoosiers buying Silver plans for 2016, depending on their age and incomes.

Imagine what critics of Obamacare would be saying about those figures?

This topsy-turvy system is due to the convoluted system the Affordable Care Act set up to determine the size of tax credits in each state.


Devon HerrickA recent New York Times article profiled a pair of ultra-expensive pain medications designed to go easy on the stomach. Common pain relievers, like aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen are prone to irritate the stomach if taken repeatedly throughout the day. A newer class of pain medication, called cox-2 inhibitors, are the preferred pain relievers for those who cannot take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) on a long term basis. Celecoxib, the generic version of Celebrex, is now available at a cost of about $2 per tablet, but that can add up to about $700 to $1000 per year.

More than a decade ago researchers found that taking heartburn medications with common NSAIDs could mimic the benefits of the costly cox-2 inhibitors. However, the study found (at that time) combining heartburn medications and NSAIDS would not deliver any cost savings due to the high price of prescription heartburn treatments. A lot has changed in the years since the study. The costly proton pump inhibitors for heartburn are now available over the counter (OTC) for $0.31 cents to $0.60 cents apiece. The drugs mentioned in the Times article, Duexis and Vimovo, are based on the premise of combining NSAIDs with heartburn medications.

The catch? Each drug costs more than $1,500 for only a month’s supply. The cost per tablet is $17 and $25 respectively. Why so much? That’s a good question that doesn’t have a logical answer. Although nearly 90 percent of the drugs Americans take are inexpensive generics, a small segment – about 1 percent of all drugs prescribed – falls into a category known as “specialty drugs”.


ROGER COLLIER“The winning streak continues as employers predict another year of low health benefit cost growth in 2016.” – That’s the headline to the announcement from international benefits consultants Mercer Inc. of the preliminary findings from their latest employer survey.

Sounds good, right? Finally, healthcare costs are under control.

Unfortunately, reading the survey results gives another, very different impression.

What the survey actually found was that employers predict that health benefit costs per employee will rise by 4.2 percent on average in 2016—after they make planned changes such as raising deductibles or switching carriers.

The survey announcement enthuses about what it calls the “slow-down in the underlying cost growth”(that is, the increase ifno changes were made to employer plans). Specifically, without plan changes employer costs would have increased by 6.4 percent for 2016, and 7.1 percent in 2015. Mercer notes that the 2016 projection is the lowest rate of underlying cost growth seen since 2005, and that 2016 will be the fifth year of benefit cost growth below 5 percent.

So, is this good news?

Well, no. For three reasons.


flying cadeuciiTo understand how a landmark new report on diagnostic error breaks the mold, go past the carefully crafted soundbite ­(“Most people will experience at least one diagnostic error in their lifetime, sometimes with devastating consequences”) and rummage around the report’s interior.

You can’t get much more medical establishment than the Institute of Medicine (IOM), also called the National Academy of Medicine, author of the just-released Improving Diagnosis in Health Care. Yet in a chapter discussing the role played in diagnostic accuracy by clinician characteristics, there’s a shockingly forthright discussion of the perils of age and arrogance.

“As clinicians age, they tend to have more trouble considering alternatives and switching tasks during the diagnostic process,” the report says. Personality factors can cause errors, too: “Arrogance, for instance, may lead to clinician overconfidence.”

Wow. Sure, both those assertions are extensively footnoted and hedged later with talk of the importance of teams (see below). Still, given the source, this practically qualifies as “trash talking.”

Of course, those quotes didn’t make it into the press release. There, inflammatory language was deliberately avoided so as not to give opponents any easy targets. (Disclosure: I was an advocate of an IOM report on this topic while consulting to an organization that eventually helped fund it. After testifying at the first committee meeting, I had no subsequent involvement.)


John GoodmanBeginning in 2018, high-cost, private sector health plans will be subject to a special levy, popularly known as the “Cadillac plan” tax. Under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, health plans must pay a tax equal to 40 percent of each employee’s health benefits to the extent they exceed $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage

In many ways, the Cadillac Plan tax is a stealth tax. It doesn’t even become effective until eight years after the Affordable Care Act passed Congress. And back in 2008, the thresholds were so high that it must have seemed like the tax would apply only to a handful of employers. But health care inflation has a way of escalating base line costs through time.

So much so that a Kaiser Family Foundation study estimates that the first year it is applicable, one in four employers will be subject to the Cadillac plan tax unless they change their benefits. Going forward, the thresholds are indexed to the rate of general inflation – which historically is well below the rate of medical cost inflation. As a result, the study estimates that the share of employers potentially affected could grow to 30 percent by 2023 and 42 percent by 2028.


flying cadeuciiA new report from the usually sensible Commonwealth Fund got lots of media attention this past week. The report –“Competition Among Medicare’s Private Health Plans: Does It Really Exist?” –quickly led to headlines like “Is private-sector Medicare becoming a monopoly? [PBS]” and “Robust Medicare Advantage competition almost non-existent [Modern Healthcare],” and “Health insurance is staggeringly uncompetitive in America, and is poised to get even worse for everybody [Quartz].”

It sounds like Medicare Advantage is headed for disaster, but is this really the case?

The Commonwealth report’s major findings are summarized in one sentence, likely the one that grabbed media attention: “Using a standard measure of market competition, our analysis finds that 97 percent of markets in U.S. counties are highly concentrated and therefore lacking in significant [Medicare Advantage] plan competition.”


Joseph KvedarEarlier this summer, I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the recent AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) conference in Nashville. This is an annual gathering of health insurers and it was my first time attending. My experience there, and a few recent news items, got me thinking about about how health care is evolving and whether we once again will ignore Santayana’s admonition, “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”

As we continue our journey to change provider reimbursement to a “Pay for Value” system, the lines between health insurers and health care providers are blurring. Physician/hospital systems, like Partners HealthCare, where I work, are taking on risk for populations of patients through contracts with the Federal government and local payers. According to Secretary of Health & Human Services, Sylvia Burwell, this trend is going to continue. She stated recently that HHS set a goal of tying 85% of all traditional Medicare payments to quality or value by 2016 and 90% by 2018. Since the whole insurance industry is based on risk, we inevitably have to start thinking more like insurers if we’re going to be taking on risk.


Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 12.22.43 PMHealth care pricing is like the Wild West and it is only a matter of time before it catches up with us. In July, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) confirmed what many consumers, employers and health plans already knew: there is no cost and quality standard in the American health care system.
Improving our system starts with driving payers and consumers to high value providers. But first, we must know who is charging what. Price transparency tools offer that important information, enabling people to actually comparison shop for their health care services.

In early July, CMS released a proposed rule aiming to address price variation by starting with joint replacements. According to CMS, there were more than 400,000 Medicare inpatient joint procedures, resulting in more than $7 billion in hospitalization costs in 2013. The average Medicare expenditure for surgery, hospitalization and recovery ranged from $16,500-$33,000 depending on geography, with widely varying rates of infection and implant failure post-surgery.

To address this variation, CMS outlined a new payment model that would make some hospitals accountable for the costs and quality of care from the time of surgery through 90 days after.


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No one knows how Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to the top of the GOP primary race ends, its impact on Campaign 2016 or its domestic and foreign policy implications for the U.S. will play out. What we know is the man knows how to get a crowd, spark discussion, and steal media attention from his 16 GOP primary rivals. He has built his brand as a straight shooter on tough issues and unapologetic foil of political correctness.

Friday night, the Donald show flew into Mobile, AL, and lit up a crowd estimated at 20,000 at the University of South Alabama football stadium. He left town on Trump Air dominating the weekend’s media coverage, perplexing the pundits who were betting the Donald show would flame out.

Political theatre is prone to big stories like “the Donald”. He’s brash, cocky and unfiltered as he talks about dicey issues. He has simple solutions to immigration reform and the threat of ISIS. He promises to be a tough commander in chief in war zones and fierce negotiator in trade pacts. Healthcare is on his list as well.