THCB

The Tower of Babel and the Sea of Consumer Confusion

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.

So I cleared my calendar and attended as many content sessions as I could at the AHIP conference, in hopes that I’d soak up knowledge on how these companies approach their craft.

Sadly, I didn’t learn much. Not because I didn’t listen and not because the speakers were less than talented. I walked away feeling like I hadn’t learned anything because I felt I had gone to a foreign land and was listening to talks in a foreign tongue. I simply couldn’t decipher the health plan lingo.

This worries me because it’s time for these two sectors of the industry to collaborate more. If we can’t understand one another though, it will indeed feel like the Tower of Babel.

At the highest level, it seems like we should be natural collaborators, as we bring very complimentary skills to the shared goal of building a health care system. As providers, we excel at understanding physiology, pathophysiology diagnosis and therapy. In most cases, we have strong relationships with the end users of the services offered, our patients, which often includes a high degree of trust. When someone’s doctor recommends a course of action, most people at least take it seriously and many often follow that path.

Payers, on the other hand, have always been challenged connecting with their members (you see, we are all a member, a consumer and a patient – all in different contexts – an example of the babbling). Payers excel at understanding risk and setting premium costs, something we as providers have no feel for. But if we’re going to take on risk, we’ll have to learn. Can these former negotiating foes come together to help improve your health? The current landscape does not lead to enthusiasm.

I’ll use some telehealth implementations as examples. Several national payers are adopting virtual visits as a tool for their members. For me, this is a dream come true! BUT, most payers are doing so in collaboration with one of the major vendors in the space and creating shadow physician networks to offer the service to their MEMBERS. When that member’s primary care doctor eventually sees them in the office, she will be puzzled that her PATIENT had an encounter via their health plan that she did not know about.

Walgreens just rolled out a virtual visit program as well. This could create even more confusion, as it brings in a new entrant — the pharmacy — into the battleground for that relationship. Will EMR interoperability solve this confusion? It certainly helps, but I’m also concerned about mixed messaging to the consumer/patient/member. It seems like we’re all fighting for your attention, which may lead to conflicting messages.

This reminds me of a time, about 25 years ago, when this new thing called disease management sprung up. Payers were frustrated by the cost of managing patients (members) with chronic illness. They got no help from providers, so they took matters into their own hands, hiring call centers staffed with nurses to contact patients/members with tips on how to manage their illness, and often sent generic brochures about high blood pressure and other conditions. Payers may have influenced the care of some patients/members, but no one was ever able to prove that this was an effective strategy.

There were numerous stories about patients receiving conflicting advice from these ‘disease managers’ compared to their own doctor’s advice, leaving patients confused. Doctors would get faxes from these same disease management companies and (perhaps arrogantly) throw them in the waste basket without reading them. As a result, the disease management industry collapsed in the middle to latter half of the last decade.

In the meantime, we now have workplace wellness programs, virtual visits offered by your health plan, retail clinics, virtual visits offered by pharmacies and — dare we forget — advice your doctor gives you, which should be more in tune with prevention now that providers are taking on risk.

See what I mean by a Tower of Babel? How do we fix it?

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BobbyGvegasPeter Recent comment authors
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Peter
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Peter

“This worries me because it’s time for these two sectors of the industry to collaborate more.”

I think the word is “collusion”, but in a non-formal context. The understanding is you raise prices and we raise premiums because we need you in our network.

No more “collaboration” please, we can’t afford it.

BobbyGvegas
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You might find some of Steve Brill’s recommendations in his book “America’s Bitter Pill” of interest. No easy answers to any of this.