Health insurance

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 6.44.13 PMWhen I recently returned home after a two-week speaking tour of Canada and began catching up on news about Obamacare, I was angry and upset, and not just at politicians and special interests that benefit from deception-based PR tactics.

I was — and still am — mostly angry and upset with myself. And I know I always will be.

Over the course of a two-decade career as a health insurance executive, I spent hours and hours implementing my industry’s ongoing propaganda campaign to mislead people about the Canadian health care system.

We spread horror stories about “rationed care” and long waiting times for medically necessary care. Our anecdotes were not at all representative of most Canadians’ experiences, but we spent millions of dollars to persuade Americans that they were.

At every stop between Halifax and Vancouver last month, I explained how the United States had achieved the dubious distinction of having both the most expensive health care system on the planet and also one of the most inequitable.

While Canadian lawmakers in the 1960s were implementing a partnership between the federal and provincial governments to create the country’s publicly funded universal health insurance system — known as Medicare — our lawmakers in Washington were establishing America’s own single-payer Medicare program, but only for folks 65 and older and some younger disabled people.

Congress also created the federal and state-administered Medicaid program for the nation’s poor.

Ever since, most of the rest of us have had to deal with private insurance companies and pay whatever they felt like charging us for coverage.

Continue reading “The Canadian Health Care System I Disparaged”

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David OrentlicherThe Affordable Care Act might not bend the cost curve or improve the quality of health care, but it will save thousands of lives, as millions of uninsured persons receive the health care they need.

At least that’s the conventional wisdom.

But while observers assume that ACA will improve the health of the uninsured, the link between health insurance and health is not as clear as one may think. Partly because other factors have a bigger impact on health than does health care and partly because the uninsured can rely on the health care safety net, ACA’s impact on the health of the previously uninsured may be less than expected.

To be sure, the insured are healthier than the uninsured. According to one study, the uninsured have a mortality rate 40% higher than that of the insured. However, there are other differences between the insured and the uninsured besides their insurance status, including education, wealth, and other measures of socioeconomic status.

How much does health insurance improve the health of the uninsured? The empirical literature sends a mixed message. On one hand is an important Medicaid study. Researchers compared three states that had expanded their Medicaid programs to include childless adults with neighboring states that were similar demographically but had not undertaken similar expansions of their Medicaid programs.

In the aggregate, the states with the expansions saw significant reductions in mortality rates compared to the neighboring states.

On the other hand is another important Medicaid study. After Oregon added a limited number of slots to its Medicaid program and assigned the new slots by lottery, it effectively created a randomized controlled study of the benefits of Medicaid coverage. When researchers analyzed data from the first two years of the expansion, they found that the coverage resulted in greater utilization of the health care system.

However, coverage did not lead to a reduction in levels of hypertension, high cholesterol or diabetes.

Continue reading “Will the Uninsured Become Healthier Once They Receive Health Care Coverage?”

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“You look nice today. People don’t come to chemo in suits very often.”

The friendly and familiar receptionist mentioned as I was checking out, the always full jar of lemon flavored hard candy on the shelf between us. As I pocketed a few of the candies, I managed to swallow the nausea and metallic taste just enough to say, “Thanks. I have a job interview today.”

During my senior year in college, with medical school acceptance letter in hand, I was diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer. Initially, life became planning surgery and meeting doctors, but early in my treatment course I received a letter that my health insurance had been exhausted and I would no longer receive any health benefits. This was after my first of four chemo cycles, with a major surgery still to come. Needless to say, this was a problem. My parents were both well educated, a lawyer and a chemist-turned-teacher, but this took everyone by surprise and presented a new crisis.

We responded by dividing up tasks. My parents quickly inventoried all the assets, including the family home, and my sister called around to all the hospitals to see what could be done.  She called the local and state governments asking for advice while I simply tried to eat food and get to class to graduate on time; I couldn’t have another tuition bill on top of my health expenses. I also started to look for a job, with a job came insurance – this much I knew.

I went to the interview, a job as a management trainee in a car rental agency, with hopes that this job would be something I could get, could do during treatment, and would provide the insurance that would save my family from financial ruin at my hands – my disease. I went to a Jesuit college and learned that truth and honesty are paramount.  So, I told the recruiter that I had cancer, I was in treatment, and that I would likely be done soon – all true.

I didn’t get the job. I still didn’t have insurance and my next chemo session, with its massive bill, was coming very quickly.
My sister learned that this would not be fun. One hospital said to her that they would treat me and then take us to court to get paid. Thankfully, I went to school in Massachusetts where a law was on the books that allowed me to enroll in health insurance without a pre-existing condition exclusion because my insurance being exhausted counted as a special qualifying event. I enrolled in an individual insurance plan, my care went uninterrupted, and I graduated on time. To this day, my sister and I remain grateful to Massachusetts for that single law, which is as much a part of my success as cisplatin and etoposide, the chemotherapy agents I received.

The bills still mounted, but were manageable. I survived, personally and financially. I pushed off medical school for a few years to get my life back in order, and moved on. I had many scary moments during my treatment, from the plastic surgeon telling me my arm might need amputation to my neutropenic fever to being discharged just in time for my college graduation.  However, what bothers me the most was, and stillis, the sense of abandonment from my society when my insurance ended.

Continue reading “N = 1 My Experience with the New Health Care System”

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Life was getting underway the day I found a suspicious lump. My first book had just been published and was being received well in my field. I was traveling and speaking about a new research project. The phone kept ringing and there was little time to think.

I figured that was the reason why my weight was falling. It was one of those good side benefits of a busy schedule. Why worry about a pea-sized lump? Lots of women have those and they turn out to be nothing. Coincidentally, that was exactly what my gynecologist said it was: nothing but a cyst.

Two more visits to that doctor resulted in him telling me that, at my age and with my family history, there was nothing to worry about and I should get on with life. He refused my request for a mammogram, suggesting that I should relax. I gave relaxation a try until a friend told me, “You look bad. If you don’t go see your GP for another opinion, I’m not going to talk to you.” There were dark lines under my eyes and I was becoming tired and downright skinny. I took her advice. It was cancer.

When I read about young people declining to sign up for health insurance, I remember back to that time. Sure, it’s great to be young. One of the best things is thinking you have a long time before you need to worry about your body giving you major problems. And isn’t life a gamble anyway?

I’m sure many young people reason this way and to some extent they’re right. Having spent a significant part of my career studying how people reason about health, it’s no surprise to me that weighing the odds causes a good many of us to take risks.

Yet, there is no such thing as a “young invincible,” the term currently bandied about to describe adults under the age of 35.

It’s not their fault if the system is unresponsive when they attempt to learn their insurance options. But it is their responsibility, to themselves and their families, to make sure that if something does go wrong — as it often does — their insurance will afford them the care that could save their lives.

Continue reading “Think You’re Young and Invincible? You’re Young, Yes. Invincible? Maybe Not.”

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With his announcement on Nov. 14 of a plan to offer a temporary reprieve to people facing cancellation of their health-care policies, President Barack Obama may have created his own version of the much-maligned, often yearly, Medicare “doc fix”.

The doc fix, a recurring effort by Congress to override statutory formulas that limit the growth in Medicare payments to doctors, often sparks political theatrics as lawmakers work to assuage the concerns of physician groups and Medicare recipients. Many members of Congress want to repeal and replace the underlying program — the sustainable growth rate formula for reimbursing physicians — but agreement has proved elusive, in part because of deficit concerns and the high cost of repealing the formula.

The president may have set himself up for another situation similar to the doc fix with his proposal to administratively tweak the health law. Obama said he will temporarily allow health insurance companies and state insurance commissioners to continue offering insurance plans “that would otherwise be terminated or canceled” for failing to meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Has President Obama created his own version of the annual “doc fix” by continuing insurance plans that would have otherwise been canceled?

While this change will help some health-insurance consumers, it is a serious complication for health insurers who in a few weeks will have to readjust their plans. In the 24 hours since the announcement, the initial reaction from insurers and state health insurance commissioners has been mixed. Some insurers have already voiced concerns that any short-term fix will deprive their ACA-compliant exchange plans of the healthier customers needed to keep rates down for everyone, including older, sicker customers.

Fast-forward 11 months to late October, 2014, with the midterm elections imminent and the president’s “transitional policy” about to expire. Will Democrats want the issue of whether people can “keep their health plan if they like it” raising its ugly head again, just as voters are about to cast their ballots?

Continue reading “What the “Doc Fix” Should Tell You About the “Grandfather Fix””

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By now even those of us who originally thought that we were seeing minor teething troubles are no longer deluding ourselves. Healthcare.gov, the federal health insurance exchanges (HIXs), and many of the state HIXs are in deep trouble.

One summary of many articles about this is up at ProPublica. But now that the House Republicans have stopped trying to destroy the country and themselves, attention will turn quickly to this problem, and–much worse–beyond the politics, there is now only eight or so weeks to get ready for actual enrollments for Jan 1, once you take out Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday. Getting ten or twenty million new customers on board, not to mention the small businesses who want to move from their current insurance onto the exchanges, seems like an impossible task.

But, if we can muster the will, there may be a solution. (And yes, I want it to work, faut de mieux). Quietly last summer two private online insurance brokers, eHealth which runs the eHealthInsurance.com site, and GetInsured, struck deals with HHS which allowed them to enroll individuals in plans that qualify for the mandate under the ACA, and more importantly, connect with the “Health Exchange Data Hub” that figures out whether the enrollee qualifies for a subsidy (theoretically by connecting to the IRS).

That part of the transaction, though, could be done by attestation and dealt with later. In other words, someone buying health insurance could state what their income will be in 2014 (or was in 2013) and if it ends up varying dramatically on their 1040 then in 2015 they will pay or receive the difference. Essentially this is something all Americans recognize–the IRS asks you for more or gives you a tax refund well after the fact, and H&R Block and their competitors make a business of giving you the refund right away (and of course charge you for the privilege).

That is important because what seems to be crippling the HIXs right now is not the back end, it’s the front end. (Go to this Reddit thread for lots more deeply technical conversation about that). Showing people options, comparing plans, setting up accounts–that’s all standard web stuff and most of the HIXs can’t do it. Those private brokers have both smoothly done this for years and at least the two I mentioned have built comparative tools for the new insurance plans. (Both were demoed at Health 2.0 on October 1).

So why can’t we put prominent links to eHealthInsurance.com and GetInsured on the Healthcare.gov site and move people over there? Continue reading “A Pragmatic Fix for Healthcare.gov & the HIXs”

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If you spend time with health insurance companies there is a lot of discussion about the impact that mobile and social will have on their business ranging from how they market to how they empower consumers to better manage their health.   These discussions are not just tactical.   They strike at the heart of the transformation that health insurance companies are making to stay competitive, relevant, and attractive for the consumer who is ever more confused, skeptical and apathetic but increasingly powerful.  Which health insurance companies are making the early investments in consumer engagement?  The EveryMove 100 Health Insurance Index™ launched today to dive into that conversation.

The EveryMove 100 is a list of the top 100 health insurance companies that are making significant strides in engaging with consumers to help them take better control of their health as a partner in health versus just a processor of medical claims.  The intent here is to extend the influence of the consumer as they wade into new territory as individually empowered decision makers, whether through state, federal or employer exchanges.  The Index evaluated over 50 data elements and over 300 health insurance companies to determine the ranking.

The five primary categories the Index evaluated included:

  1. Social media presence and interactions (breadth and depth of engagement)
  2. Mobile investments (mobile web and app ecosystem)
  3. Website statistics (popularity ranking, refreshed content)
  4. Customer support access (availability/ease of access)
  5. Current consumer satisfaction (what are current members saying)

As you can see this is not an index designed to pass judgment on the quality of the network, timeliness of paying claims, care management efficacy, or other operational metrics.  Plenty of other rankings will provide that insight and they are important.  The EveryMove 100 is about which health insurance companies are making the investments to win the hearts and minds of the consumer who is going to look for a health insurance partner that makes them feel connected, important, and part of the solution.

Continue reading “EveryMove Launches the EveryMove 100 Health Insurance Index”

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If the devil is in the details, we got the motherlode this past week as to how the most incendiary part of President Obama’s health reform will actually work when it launches next January.

The Department of Health and Human Services issued lengthy rules on the controversial individual mandate requiring uninsured Americans to purchase a health plan. The IRS followed with nearly as lengthy a set of rules specifying who is eligible for subsidies for those purchases and who pays penalties when they refuse. In what critics will consider an Orwellian flourish, both federal agencies refer to these penalties as “shared responsibility payments” — even though the Supreme Court, in its upholding of the mandate, plainly referred to them as what they are: a tax.

The two sets of rulings represent a sort of good cop, bad cop routine from the Obama administration. The bulk of the HHS rules defines individual outs for the mandate, identifying 11 different types of uninsured Americans who will be exempt from the de facto tax, ranging from sudden financial impairment to genuine religious objection to medical care. The IRS rules are all bright hard lines about who has to pay, when, and how.

The major media, echoing criticism by Obamacare’s agitators from the Left, seized on the stinginess of the IRS rules regarding subsidies and penalties for family members of people covered by their employers, or what they call the “family glitch.” The glitch is technically real, but statistically remote, and will affect almost no one in the real world, but it does make for good inflammatory headlines.

Continue reading “Life Support and Taxes”

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Last week, I reported on my informal survey of health insurance companies and their estimate for how much rates will rise on account of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

Today, there are press reports quoting the CEO of Aetna with their estimate. The Aetna estimate is worse than mine.

From Bloomberg:

Health insurance premiums may as much as double for some small businesses and individual buyers in the U.S. when the Affordable Care Act’s major provisions start in 2014, Aetna Inc. (AET)’s chief executive officer said.

While subsidies in the law will shield some people, other consumers who make too much for assistance are in for “premium rate shock,” Mark Bertolini, who runs the third-biggest U.S. health-insurance company, told analysts yesterday at a conference in New York. The prospect has spurred discussion of having Congress delay or phase in parts of the law, he said.

“We’ve shared it all with the people in Washington and I think it’s a big concern,” the CEO said. “We’re going to see some markets go up as much as as 100 percent.”

Continue reading “More Signs of Rate Shock and Awe”

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One of the perks of giving keynotes all over the country is being able to hear what other health care leaders are saying without having to pay the conference fees. One of my major keynote themes is that everyone (patients, doctors, hospitals, employers, and health plans) will have to change in order to thrive during the current health care delivery system transformation.

Recently in Delray Beach, I stayed after my keynote to hear Florida Blue CEO Patrick Geraghty describe his first year of trying to change the Blue Cross/Blue Shield franchise to respond to health care reform. I have written elsewhere about the health plan response to the changing environment, but Geraghty’s speech highlighted how urgent and how difficult change can be when an industry business model is disrupted by federal legislation and market forces.

Geraghty has led the Blues effort in Florida to update their name, mission, vision, and values. Focus groups revealed that the new name Florida Blue was easier to say and communicated a less corporate, more friendly image than the old name Blue Cross Blue Shield which brought to mind adjectives such as corporate, distant, and expensive.

A four paragraph mission statement was replaced by a single sentence: “To help people and communities achieve better health.” The vision statement was rewritten to now describe the company as “a leading innovator enabling healthy communities.” The five corporate values now include the familiar “respect,” “integrity,” and “excellence,” and the more unusual “courage” and “imagination.”

What I found most intriguing and revealing was how these new efforts are being translated into concrete tactics such as opening retail centers and partnering with Disney on a new innovation institute.

Continue reading “Health Plan Case Studies: A New Florida Blue”

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