NEW @ THCB PRESS: Surviving Workplace Wellness. Spring 2014. Al Lewis and Vik Khanna. e-book edition. # LIGHTHOUSE Healthcare. Illuminated.

The Business of Health Care

flying cadeuciiIn September 2012, I said that Republican governors should be expanding their Medicaid programs under Obamacare.

I argued that Republicans have long called for state block grants and the flexibility to run their own Medicaid programs in what are the state “laboratories of democracy.”

I made the point that, given the then recent Supreme Court decision enabling states to opt out of the expansion, the Obama administration would be hard pressed to deny any reasonable proposal from Republican governors.

If Republicans really believed in state responsibility and flexibility for how they run their Medicaid programs, this was the opportunity to prove it. (See here.)

Since then, a few Republican governors have taken that tack and the Obama administration has been very cooperative and flexible.

This is a good place to recognize outgoing HHS Secretary Sebelius for her leadership by being willing to work with state Republicans in order to get millions of people covered who wouldn’t be getting coverage otherwise.

Good faith Republican Medicaid proposals have led to good faith responses from Sebelius’ Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and a few done deals and other deals still in the works.

Many Republicans have said that Medicaid is not sustainable and that the feds could well cut the new Obamacare funding in future years. Sebelius responded by giving these governors an out if funding were to be cut.

Of course Medicaid is unsustainable, that’s why the states should be given the autonomy to run their own plans and deal with these challenges in any number of different ways the country can learn from.

Continue reading “Virginia Should Take Obamacare’s Money”

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flying cadeuciiIn ancient Athens, the philosopher Diogenes wandered the daylight markets holding a lantern, looking for what he termed, “an honest man.”

It seems since the dawn of the consumer economy that customers and buyers have traded most heavily on a single currency – trust.

Three millennia later, our financial system still hinges on the basic premise that the game is not rigged and any trusted intermediary is defined by a practitioner who puts his client’s interests ahead of his own.

Anyone responsible for procurement of healthcare may feel like a modern-day Diogenes as they wander an increasingly complex market in search of transparent partners and aligned interests. The art of managing medical costs will continue to be a zero-sum game where higher profit margins are achieved at the expense of uninformed purchasers.

It’s often in the shadowed areas of rules-based regulation and in between the fine print of complex financial arrangements that higher profits are made.

Are employers too disengaged and outmatched to manage their healthcare expenditures?

Are the myriad intermediaries that serve as their sentinels, administrators and care managers benefiting or getting hurt by our current system’s lack of transparency and its deficit of information?

Continue reading “ACA 101: An Employer’s Search for Objective Advice”

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Being against Obamacare has been the keystone, the capstone, the mighty sledgehammer, the massive metaphor of your choice for the right for five years now. They couldn’t stop it from being passed. They couldn’t stop it at the Supreme Court.

They weren’t able to choke it off by “defunding” it. They rejoiced at the rubber-meets-the-sky rollout of Healthcare.gov, but then the kinks got worked out of that.They railed at the administration using discretionary powers built into the law to help it work better. Every horror story of Obamacare ruining people’s lives they came up with turned out to be false.

Almost all of the people cynically cancelled by the insurance companies as a way to sell them more expensive insurance got insured again fairly quickly. Then 7 million people signed up on the exchanges, and altogether some 10 million formerly uninsured people now have medical coverage.

But the right still needs to call it a “train wreck.” The magic mantra has to work for them. Just this morning, here’s a Republican Congressman saying that we have to cut Food Stamps because: Obamacare. Say that again slowly?

It’s getting harder and harder on the right to come up with new ways to say it isn’t working when it actually seems to be working. I have to hand it to them, though: Those spin factories are filled with hard-working creative people. Get to work early, stay late, trash Obamacare. Hey, it’s a living.

So what’s the latest? This fall, Obamacare premiums are going to “skyrocket”!

Continue reading “Obamacare Premiums Are Going To “Skyrocket”? Forget About It.”

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A state the size of Vermont claiming savings of $120,000,000 through a patient-centered medical home (PCMH) program should raise eyebrows.

North Carolina made similar claims about its PCMH model, only to have the results so thoroughly debunked that consulting firm, Milliman, was forced to retract its key assertion.

I expect more from Vermont, if only because I’m a Democrat and Vermont has turned so “blue” that in 2008 John McCain received only 10,000 more votes than Calvin Coolidge garnered in 1924.  However, it turns out red states don’t have a monopoly on invalid PCMH data.

A brief summary of the Vermont Blueprint for Health, as described in the enabling legislation, would be: “a program for integrating a system of healthcare for patients, improving the health of the overall population…by promotion health maintenance, prevention, and care coordination and management.”

This is to be achieved by emphasizing the usual suspects — patient-centered medical homes and various support mechanisms for them.   The idea is to achieve “a reduction in avoidable acute care (emergency visits and inpatient admissions).”

Growth in participation has been phenomenal. In 2009, only a few practices and a dozen employees were involved, so we can call that the baseline year.  The report’s findings take us through 2012, by the end of which two-thirds of the state’s primary care practices (104) and population (423,000) were involved, along with 114 full-time employees.

The State’s Analysis

Through the end of 2012, the state — by using the classic fallacy (also embraced by the wellness industry) of comparing participants to non-participants — was able to show savings of $120,000,000 and a double-digit ROI.

Continue reading “More Evidence That Patient Centered Medical Homes Don’t Work”

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The Affordable Care Act established several programs to promote the formation of Accountable Care Organizations.

These ACOs are a relatively new way of organizing healthcare delivery, in which healthcare providers join together – perhaps across physician groups and hospitals – to care for a population of patients, and are then held accountable both for the cost and quality of the care they deliver to those patients.

This accountability cuts both ways – if they spend too much money on such patients and provide low quality of care, they might face financial repercussions, but if they offer high quality at a lower than expected cost, they might be rewarded with part of those cost savings.

recent study gives us a glimpse of where the ACOs are forming in the United States. You will see they are not being formed everywhere, but instead are heavily concentrated in the southern and eastern United States:

The study also shows that these organizations are disproportionately made up of large, nonprofit healthcare systems, but not ones classified as public hospitals.

Continue reading “Where the ACOs Are”

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You’ll be hearing a lot about the number six point five million over the next few days.

Six point five million — or whatever the exact number turns out to be at the end of the day — being the number of people that the administration say signed up for Obamacare through the exchanges when open enrollment ends March 31st.

How meaningful the official numbers are will be open to debate. The bloviation factor will be in full effect.  The critics will be downplaying the administration’s number, ACA supporters defending it. Data geeks-turned-media stars will explain what it all means.

Here’s a guide to some of the other numbers we should be talking about as we try to make sense of what’s really going on and what really happened during the Obamacare rollout.

FUDs: The number of people who are innocently living their lives thinking they have bought health insurance, but who, for one reason or another,  be it technical glitch, bureaucratic incompetence or technicality – are going to wake up one morning not long from now and discover that they do not have health insurance.

And who one day soon will discover that they do not have health insurance.  This is the group that causes people in Washington to lie awake at night; because they are going to complain – and complain loudly. While the talk from the administration to this point has been all tough, it seems logical to assume it will build an appeal mechanism that will allow FUDs back into the system. The early signs are that this is the case.

404s : The number of people / applications lost in the system,  either as a result of the Healthcare.gov fiasco or because their application is sitting forgotten on somebody’s desk somewhere or on a laptop. Anybody who tried to log into Healthcare.gov at the height of the meltdown or who has gone back and forth with their insurance company over a bill gets it.

It is safe to assume that this is another number that keeps planners up at night. Let’s just say it is safe to assume that there are a lot of 404s.

CANCELS: The number of people who had their insurance plans cancelled by insurers on the grounds that they did not meet the standards set by the Affordable Care Act. In a way, being a cancel can be considered a badge of honor in the gamification of the healthcare system that is Obamacare.

UNCANCELS: The number of people who had their plans cancelled by the health insurers only to have them declared “uncancelled” by the Obama administration or their state.  Nobody really knows how many uncancels there are. Don’t ask. Yes, it will take a really long time to sort out the uncancels from the cancels and the QHPs.

And you will probably want to shoot the person explaining it to you.  In the gamification of the healthcare system, level ups go to people who have been cancelled, uncancelled and bumped.

BUMPS: The number of people who have been “bumped” out of network and are being forced to change doctors.  What’s going on? In gamification terms, bumps make things more exciting. In real life, they suck.  Getting bumped off a flight is annoying, getting bumped in the health care system is potentially life-threatening.

LIVES SAVED: As we speak Nate Silver or a smart person who looks and sounds a lot like Nate Silver is sitting at a computer in a darkened room somewhere trying to come up with a reliable quantification of the number of lives the Affordable Care Act has saved and will save by shielding people from the barbaric US healthcare system.

How would you go about coming up with that number? Would you look at people turned away from emergency rooms? Would you look at the  number of preventable deaths under the old system?  Would you total the number of deaths from cancer, heart attack and stroke?  Compare mortality rates over the decade from 2004-2014 with those from 2014-2024?  It will be long time before we have the data we need to really understand how well we’ve done.

You can forget the nonsense we’ve been hearing about Obamacare costing the lives of thousands of Americans by taking their health coverage away from them.  There is a difference between losing your coverage temporarily because the system is in transition and losing  it and knowing that you’ll never be able to get it back. Ever.

Calculated over decades to come the number of lives saved is likely to total in the thousands, if not the millions. And that will be the true test of the Affordable Care Act as a historical accomplishment for Barak Obama and his administration.

Continue reading “Numbers We’d Rather Be Talking About”

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The conversation has changed.

The old conversation: “You cost too much.”

“But we have these sunk costs, patients who can’t pay … ”

“OK, how about a little less then?”

The new conversation: “You cost too much. We will pay half, or a third, of what you are asking. Or we will take our business elsewhere. Starting now.”

“But … but … how?”

Exactly: How will you survive on a lot less money? What are the strategies that turn “impossible” to “not impossible”?

New Strategies
The old conversation arises from the classic U.S. health care model: a fully insured fee-for-service system with zero price transparency, where the true costs of any particular service are unknown even to the provider. The overwhelmingly massive congeries of disjointed pieces that we absurdly call our health care “system” rides on only the loosest general relationship between costs and reimbursements.

It’s a messy system littered with black boxes labeled “Something Happens Here,” full of little hand waves and “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”

With bundling, medical tourism, mandated transparency, consumer price shopping, and reference pricing by employers and health plans, we increasingly are being forced to name a price and compete on it. Suddenly, we must be orders of magnitude more precise about where our money comes from and where it goes: revenues and costs.

We must find ways to discover how each part of the strategy affects others. And we need some ability to forecast how outside forces (new competition, new payment strategies by employers and health plans, new customer handling technologies) will affect our strategy.

Key Strategy Questions
For decades, whenever some path to profit in health care has arisen (in vitro fertilization, urgent care, retail, wellness and the others) most hospitals have said as if by ritual, “That is not the business we are in.” As long as we got paid for waste, few health care organizations got serious about rooting it out.

And most have seemed content with business structures that put many costs and many sources of revenue beyond their control.

In the Next Health Care, the key strategy questions become:

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To properly price the exchange health insurance business going forward the carriers have to sharply increase the rates.

A senior executive for Wellpoint, which sells plans in 14 Obamacare exchanges, is quoted in a Reuters article telling Wall Street analysts there will be big rate increases in 2015, “Looking at the rate increases on a year-over-year basis on our exchanges, and it will vary by carrier, but all of them will probably be double digits.”

If the health plans do issue double digit rate increases for 2015, Obamacare is finished.

There are a ton of things that need to be fixed in Obamacare. But, I will suggest there is one thing that could save it.

The health insurance companies have to submit their new health insurance plans and rates between May 27 and June 27 for the 2015 Obamacare open-enrollment period beginning on November 15th. Any major modifications to the current Obamacare regulations need to be issued in the next month to give the carriers time to adjust and develop new products.

If the administration goes into the next open enrollment with the same unattractive plan offerings costing a lot more than they do today, they will not be able to reboot Obamacare.

Simply, health insurance plans that cost middle-class individuals and families 10% of their after-tax income and have average Silver Plan deductibles of more than $2,500 a month are not attractive and people won’t buy them any more enthusiastically next fall than they already have. See: Obamacare: The Uninsured Are Not Signing Up Because the Dogs Don’t Like It

Doubling the fines for not buying in 2015 will only give the Democrats more political problems––and it doesn’t look to me like they are going to enforce the fines anyway.

Health insurance plan executives are now faced with a daunting decision. How do they price the 2015 Obamacare exchange plans?

Even if the administration announces they have signed-up about 6 million people by March 31, the number of people enrolling would be well below expectations––only about 25% of those subsidy eligible will have signed up by the deadline. An enrollment that small guarantees the risk pool is sicker and more expensive than it needs to be in order to be sustainable.

But dramatically increasing the rates will only assure even fewer healthy people will sign up for 2015 and some of those who signed up for 2014 will back out over the higher rates. This is what a “death spiral” looks like.

Continue reading “Here’s How We Can Fix Obamacare if We Act Now and Stop Pretending the Problems Don’t Exist”

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The 18-34 year old segment of our population is large, growing and important in our society. They are 80 million strong. Their attitudes, beliefs, values and actions are re-shaping the way every organization, business and institution thinks about its future.

According to a Pew Research report released last week, Millennials are independents and skeptics: 50% have no political affiliation, 29% no religious affiliation, and 19% say they do not trust established institutions to do the right things (versus 40% for Baby Boomers).

Millennials worry about money. A study by the Investor Education Foundation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority concluded that their concerns about their auto, credit card and school debt trump other issues.

Most think economic stability should come before marriage and family life. Half who went to college have a student loan to repay, and one third moved into the homes of their parents at some point to make ends meet.

And they worry about the future. Paul Taylor’s The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown predicts economic battle between Millennials and Baby Boomers:

“Every family, on some level, is a barter between the generations…If I care for you when you’re young so you’ll care for me when I’m old…But many Millennials won’t be able to afford that…The young today are paying taxes to support a level of benefits for the old that they themselves have no prospect of receiving when they become old.”

Pew survey data supports his contention:

  • 51% of Millennials do not think there will be any money for them in the Social Security system by the time they retire.
  • 39% believe they’ll get reduced benefits

So what do Millennials want from the health system? Their view is likely to disrupt how industry leaders operate their businesses and how policymakers make laws that govern its commerce.

Continue reading “What Do Millennials Want from the Healthcare System?”

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In 1980, while working at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, I wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Health Care Market: Can Hospitals Survive?”. This article, and the book which followed, argued that hospitals faced a tripartite existential threat:

1)  ambulatory technologies that would enable physicians to compete successfully with hospitals at lower cost in their offices or freestanding settings, 2)  post-acute technologies that would enable presently hospitalized patients to be managed at home and 3) rapidly growing managed care plans that would “ration” inpatient care and bargain aggressively to pay less for the care actually provided.

I predicted a significant decline in inpatient care in the future, and urged hospitals to diversify aggressively into ambulatory and post acute services.   Many did so.  A smaller number, led by organizations like Henry Ford Health System of Detroit and Utah’s Intermountain Health Care, also sponsored health insurance plans and became what are called today “Integrated Delivery Networks” (IDN’s).

In the ensuing thirty years, US hospital inpatient census fell more than 30%, despite ninety million more Americans.   However, hospitals’ ambulatory services volume more than tripled, more than offsetting the inpatient losses; the hospital industry’s total revenues grew almost ten fold.

Ironically, this ambulatory care explosion is now the main reason why healthcare in the US costs so much more than in other countries.  We use far fewer days of inpatient care than any other country in the world.  But as the McKinsey Global Institute showed in 2008 ambulatory spending accounts for two thirds of the difference between what the US spends on healthcare and what other countries spend, far outstripping the contribution of higher drug prices or our multi-payer health financing system.

Continue reading “Can Hospitals Survive? Part II”

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MASTHEAD


Matthew Holt
Founder & Publisher

John Irvine
Executive Editor

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Editor

Alex Epstein
Director of Digital Media

Munia Mitra, MD
Chief Medical Officer

Vikram Khanna
Editor-At-Large, Wellness

Maithri Vangala
Associate Editor

Michael Millenson
Contributing Editor










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