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Reducing Churn to Increase Value in Health Care: Solutions for Payers, Providers, and Policymakers

Saeed Aminzadeh
Niko Lehman-White

By NIKO LEHMAN-WHITE and SAEED AMINZADEH

Introduction
Every day and in every corner of the country, innovative health care leaders are conceiving of strategies and programs to manage their patients’ health, as an alternative to treating their sickness (see Figure 1).

The value-based contracts that have proliferated in this country over the past decade and which now account for about half of the money spent on healthcare allow these wellness investments to make good financial sense in addition to benefiting patient health.

However, a phenomenon in health coverage in the US is increasing costs, destabilizing care continuity and holding back the potential of value-based care. It prevents us from making the long-term investments we desperately need.

Understanding Churn

Churn refers to gaining, losing, or moving between sources of coverage. Every year, approximately a quarter of the US population switches out of their health plan. Reasons can be voluntary or involuntary from the perspective of the beneficiary (see Table 1) and vary from changes in job status, eligibility, insurance offerings, and preference, to non-payment of premiums, to unawareness of pending coverage termination.

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Churn and the ACA

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Prior to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with 47 million Americans uninsured, advocates and policy experts focused on expanding health insurance coverage for those who lacked it. Now that the law has broadened access to insurance, states are turning their attention to protecting enrollees from disruptions when they transition from one type of coverage to another, movement known as churn.

Churn is typically caused by a change in eligibility status, which itself stems from fluctuations in income, loss of a job, or changes in family circumstance, such as pregnancy. Short of a system, such as single-payer, where people may stay on the same plan for most of their lives, churn is inevitable. Indeed, in our fragmented health insurance system, millions of people naturally churn over the course of a given year, moving from employer-provided insurance to private insurance, or from private insurance to Medicaid, and so on. At low income levels, employment is particularly unstable, leading to high levels of churn among that population. For example, a newly-eligible Medicaid beneficiary (in an expansion state) who experiences a change in income over the course of a year—such as picking up an extra retail job during the holiday season—may lose his or her Medicaid eligibility as a result. Switching over to the exchange for new coverage could mean a totally different network of doctors, new drug formularies, and higher premiums and cost-sharing, not to mention the complexity and burden of going through a new and different enrollment process.

Is the ACA to blame for churn?  No—in fact, the ACA directly reduces one form of churning, and offers tools to mitigate the impact of other forms. Before the ACA, millions churned off insurance coverage for all the reasons mentioned above. And after losing coverage, many people—especially those with preexisting conditions—found it hard, if not impossible, to get it back. Because the ACA makes the individual health insurance market more accessible and affordable, the law creates a new culture of coverage with a continuum of options, and actually cuts down on churning into uninsured status.

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