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Insurance

There’s been a lot of discussion of transparency in health care recently, e.g., a USA Today op-ed and a counterpoint by Paul Ginsburg. The appeal of transparency is obvious. As movingly documented by Steven Brill in Time, prices are high and often differ quite substantially, even across close by providers. However, we don’t know the prices for the health care that we consume, and it’s extremely difficult to find out what these things cost (e.g., this recent study in JAMA).

While the appeal of transparency is obvious, it’s important to realize that buying health care is not like buying milk at the grocery store. A key factor is health insurance. Health insurance is very important — people need to be insured against the catastrophic expenses that can occur with serious illness. Thus people with high health care expenses won’t be exposed to most of those expenses (and shouldn’t) and therefore will have no reason to respond to information about health care prices.

Continue reading “Can Health Care Transparency Make A Difference?”

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It has always been my assumption that my new practice will be as “digital” as possible. No, I am not going into urology, I am talking about computers. [Waiting for the chuckles to subside]

For at least ten years, I’ve used a digital EKG and spirometer that integrated with our medical record system, taking the data and storing it as meaningful numbers, not just pictures of squiggly lines (which is how EKG’s and spirometry reports appear to most folks). Since this has been obvious from the early EMR days, the interfaces between medical devices and EMR systems has been a given. I never considered any other way of doing these studies, and never considered using them without a robust interface.

Imagine my surprise when I was informed that my EMR manufacturer would charge me $750 to allow it’s system to interface with a device from their list of “approved devices.” Now, they do “discount” the second interface to $500, and then take a measly $250 for each additional device I want to integrate, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. Yet I couldn’t walk away from this news without feeling like I had been gouged.

Gouging is the practice of charging extra for someone for something they have no choice but to get. I need a lab interface, and the EMR vendor (not just mine, all of the major EMR vendors do it) charges an interface fee to the lab company, despite the fact that the interface has been done thousands of times and undoubtedly has a very well-worn implementation path. This one doesn’t hurt me personally, as it is the lab company (that faceless corporate entity) that must dole out the cash to a third-party to do business with me.

Doing construction in my office, I constantly worry about being gouged. When the original estimate of the cost of construction is again superseded because of an unforeseen problem with the ductwork, I am at the mercy of the builder. Fortunately, I think I found a construction company with integrity. Perhaps I am too ignorant to know I am being overcharged, but I would rather assume better of my builders (who I’ve grown to like).

Yet thinking about gouging ultimately brings me back to the whole purpose of what I am doing with my new practice, and what drove me away from the health care system everyone is so fond of. If there is anywhere in life where people get gouged or are in constant fear of gouging, it is in health care. Continue reading “Rob’s New Economics of Practice Management”

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In a world where health care costs are rising and consumers are taking on a growing share, it is critical they have easy access to understandable information about the quality and cost of their care.  While we have made decent strides in making quality data available, consumers still have little to no information about health care prices, making it difficult if not impossible for them to seek higher-value care.  Numerous studies and articles have explored this problem, such as a recent UCSF study, highlighted in JAMA, which found routine appendectomies can cost as little as $1,529 or as much as $183,000.  As PBGH Medical Director Dr. Arnie Milstein so eloquently stated in the Wall Street Journal, “Fantasy baseball managers have more information evaluating players for their teams than patients and referring physicians have in matters of life and death.”

Now Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR), an independent, non-profit corporation working on behalf of large employers and other health care purchasers to catalyze improvements in how we pay for health services, has just released a suite of tools to catalyze price transparency.  The suite includes a first-of-its-kind Statement by CPR Purchasers on Quality and Price Transparency in Health Care, endorsed by several partner organizations, that takes plans and providers to task: give us price data by January 2014.

Continue reading “Health Care Purchasers, Consumers Need Price Data if We Are Ever Going to Get to a System of Value-Based Care”

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Gregg Masters reports on a recent Kaiser Health News article: Hospitals Look to Become Insurers, As Well as Providers of Care”.

This is the dumbest idea I’ve heard since “I’m going to invest all my money in Facebook’s IPO and get rich!”

Here are six reasons why:

1) You’re too late. Health insurance was an attractive and profitable business in the 00s, but after passage of the Accountable Care Act it’s been commoditized.

First, the health plan business model of the past decade is dead. That model was — “Avoid and shed risk” — or more simply, avoid insuring people who are already sick (preexisting conditions) and get rid of people who become sick (rescissions). Under the ACA, health insurers must take all comers and they can rescind policies only for fraud or intentional misrepresentation.

Second, the ACA institutes medical loss ratio restrictions on health insurers. Depending the the type of plan, insurers now must spend at least 80-85% of premium dollars on paying medical claims; if they spend less, they must return these “excess profits” as rebates to customers. As a result, health insurance has become a highly regulated quasi public utility.

This is why you see health plan CEOs like Mark Bertolini of Aetna declaring “Health insurers face extinction”. The old health insurance model is on a burning platform, and health plans are reformulating themselves as companies involved in health IT, analytics, data mining, etc.

2) You have bigger fish to fry. Focus on developing accountable care capabilities. The AHA estimated that hospitals will need to spend $11-25 million to develop an ACO. Get going.
Continue reading “Hospitals…Thinking About Getting Into Health Insurance? 6 Reasons To Lie Down Until the Urge Goes Away.”

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Most people are getting their health insurance through their employer. That has been changing slowly, but with healthcare reform, many more people will be left to select their own plans without the pre-selection and help from their employer. What used to be a choice among 3-5 plans is soon to become a selection from dozens of health insurance companies each offering a dozen plans to choose from. And selecting an insurance plan is not like getting car insurance; family makeup, prior health issues, future healthcare needs, and affordability – they all matter. In other words, it’s very personal.

As in other insurance industries, there will be a number of options to help consumers, such as agents and brokers. Cost is one of the most important criteria, but the problem of predicting the impact of plan choices on out-of-pocket costs is much harder, since selecting a plan is such a personal choice. Our needs and therefore expenses also change over time, as we go through different life stages.

As in many industries, there is a lot of data one can harness to help with these decisions. One benefit we see emerging is the availability of personal power tools (similar to financial planning tools) that allow for detailed modeling of an individual or family’s situation. These tools predict likely health care needs and allow one to compare the detailed expenses given different insurance plans. Starting a family? Entering your fifties, with its slew of clinically advised exams? Dealing with the ups and downs of a chronic condition? Those factors can all be taken into account to provide detailed plan options and price comparisons to help choose the optimal health plan.

 

Continue reading “Health Care Power Tools for Consumers”

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The following article, forthcoming in U. Penn. L. Rev., pinpoints the strongest arguments for and against federal power under the Commerce Clause to mandate the purchase of health insurance:   http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1747189

Among the key points I make in defense of this federal law are:

1. The “commerce” in question is simply health insurance, and not the non-purchase of insurance as challengers have framed it.  Because “regulate” clearly allows both prohibitions and mandates of behavior, mandating purchase is lexically just as valid an application of the clause as is prohibiting purchase or mandating the sale of insurance.

2. Although existing precedent might allow a line to be drawn between economic activity and inactivity, there is no reason in principle or theory why such a line should be drawn in order to preserve state sovereignty.  Purchase mandates, after all, are as rare under state law as under federal law.

Continue reading “Commerce Clause Challenges to Health Care Reform”

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The OIG released an advisory opinion at the end of last month OK’ing a hospital’s proposal to provide insurance pre-authorization srevices free of charge to patients and physicians. This is an issue that has long vexed folks in the imaging world. Clearly, this is a free service provided to referral sources (to the extent they are obligated by contract with third party payors to obtain the pre-authorization before referring a patient for an MRI, for example), so why is the OIG OK with it?  In the opinion, the OIG blesses the arrangement for four reasons:

  • The arrangement doesn’t target specific referring docs, so the pre-authorization service will be provided for patients of docs who are contractually bound to handle it themselves, as well as for patients of those who aren’t, and thus the risk of using the arrangement to reward referrals is low
  • The hospital will not pay the docs under the arrangement and will not guarantee to docs that the pre-authorizations will be forthcoming (the OIG also notes — not sure why — that the hospital will collect and pass on only such personal health information as may be necessary to secure a finding of medical necessity for the pre-authorization)
  • The hospital staff will be transparent with payors and referring docs, and will have little influence on steering volume, because they get involved only after the hospital has been selected (other situations are distinguished, e.g., where referral seekers provide referral sources with staff like discharge planners)
  • The hospital has an interest in being paid for its services, and thus in ensuring that the pre-authorization process is conducted properly, thus “lower[ing] the risk that the … [a]rrangement is a stalking horse for illicit payments to [the hospital's] referral sources”

Well, the reasoning here doesn’t really cut it, as far as I’m concerned. Referring docs and their staffs hate having to deal with the pre-authorization process, and if a hospital takes on that headache, that’s a real benefit (remuneration, in the language of the anti-kickback statute). If there are two hospitals in town, and — all other things being equal — one provides pre-authorization services and the other doesn’t, guess where all the docs will refer their patients? It doesn’t really matter that the service is provided to all docs, for all payors. It is still clearly an inducement. If, on the other hand, all hospitals take on this added cost of doing business, then nobody gains a competitive advantage. Finally, to the e xtent physician networks are more and more tightly tied to particular hospital systems (whether through employment or other relationships, post health reform), the potential for steering volume is negligible at best.

Bottom line: I agree with the outcome, but not the reasoning.

David Harlow writes at HealthBlawg:David Harlow’s Health Care Law Blog, a nationally-recognized health care law and policy blog. He is an attorney and lectures extensively on health law topics to attorneys and to health care providers. Prior to entering private practice, he served as Deputy General Counsel of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

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This is the first in a series of posts that will try to pierce the myths and reveal the facts about the reform legislation. This first post focuses on the impact that reform will have on the private insurance industry–and on the industry’s customers.

MYTH # 1: Health Care Reform represents a “boon” for private insurers.

FACT It is true that, beginning in 2014, virtually all Americans will be required to buy insurance, or pay a fine. But while insurers will pick up a boatload of new customers, many will be refugees who have been battered by a health care system that rationed care according to ability to pay. Think of the boat as a life raft. These could be very expensive customers.

Moreover, between now and 2014, insurers will face some serious financial hits. These new rules will  make our health care system fairer and more affordable  But the rules also suggest that for-profit health insurance may not be a viable business unless insurers learn far more about what is best for patients. Continue reading “Myths and Facts About Health Reform”

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“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles DarwinMichael turpin

In her 1969 Book, On Death and Dying, Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes the five stages of grief.  Over a 27 year career marked by mergers, acquisitions, and perpetual change, I have come to accept these five stages as necessary rites of passage that humans must endure as they navigate the inevitable shoals of change. It seems we all must endure denial, anger, bargaining and depression before we finally break through to acceptance.

While we all intellectually agree that our healthcare system is broken and is in profound need of change, most preferred that all the heavy lifting required to reduce healthcare costs as a percentage of US GDP, occurred on someone else’s watch.  As Woody Allen once quipped, “ I don’t mind dying.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Continue reading “Getting Over The New Normal”

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I saw a patient today and looked back at a previous note, which said the following: “stressed out due to insurance.” It didn’t surprise me, and I didn’t find it funny; I see a lot of this. Too much. This kind of thing could be written on a lot of patients’ charts. I suspect the percentage of patients who are “stressed out due to insurance” is fairly high.

My very next patient started was a gentleman who has fairly good insurance who I had not seen for a long time. He was not taking his medications as directed, and when asked why he had not come in recently he replied, “I can’t afford to see you, doc. You’re expensive.”

Expensive? A $20 copay is expensive? Yes, to people who are on multiple medications, seeing multiple doctors, struggling with work, and perhaps not managing their money well, $20 can be a barrier to care. I may complain that the patients have cable TV, smoke, or eat at Taco Bell, but adding a regular $20 charge to an already large medical bill of $100, $200/month, or more is more than some people can stomach. I see a lot of this too. Continue reading “Stressed Out System”

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