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Tag: Costs

Prices Drop When Health Consumers Shop Around For Healthcare

Here’s a point most of us can agree on. Tackling ballooning health care costs requires more than insurance reform because the charge and cost structure for health services in the U.S. is inconsistent and irrational. The same quality CT scan that costs $500 at one outpatient facility costs $2,000 at a nearby teaching hospital.

Obamacare’s typical high-deductible insurance plans encourage many cost-conscious consumers to shop around for low-ticket items below their deductible — and that is good. However, the bulk of health care spending is attributable to patients who rapidly blow through their deductible, after which they have no incentive to shop for value. Those 5 percent of people — who spend a whopping 50 percent of the nation’s health care dollars — have little incentive to consider price. With the cost of multiple medications, frequent doctors visits, use of specialists and one or more hospitalizations a year, these 5 percent will exceed even the highest deductible in the first few months of each year.

So what might be the single most powerful tool to slow the seemingly intractable yet unsustainable increases in health spending affecting practically every family in America? “Referenced-based” pricing for health services encourages patients — most significantly, those with the highest costs — to act as smart consumers by seeking the most cost-effective care, even after they have exceeded their deductible.

Here’s how it works. Insurance companies or employers set a limit they are willing to pay for a specified service of excellent quality — say, $1,000 for a CT scan — and communicate that reference price clearly to consumers. If patients choose a location where the charge is below the maximum set reimbursement rate, they pay nothing. If they choose a provider where the charge is higher, they pay the difference.

As patient-consumers shop around for the best price and quality services, competition in the market pushes prices down and value up.

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The Great ACO Debate: 2014 Edition

With the beginning of 2014 comes another year of the great accountable care organization (ACO) debate.

Is it a model to deliver high-quality, cost-effective care and improve population health management (PHM)? Or, just a passing fad, similar to the HMOs of decades ago?

Many opinions exist, and they’ll continue to be debated, especially during an election year. One thing most of us can agree on about ACOs is they are a work in progress.

We can say with some certainty that ACOs are taking hold; look no further than their growth, which now exceeds 600 public and private ACOs nationwide with the recent addition of 123 ACOs to the Medicare Shared Savings Program. But they still beg more questions than answers. What types and sizes of hospitals are forming ACOs, and where are they located? What does the pipeline of emerging ACOs look like, and how long will their journey take? And what capabilities, investments and partnerships are essential to ACO participation? What is the longer term performance?

Who better to ask than the decision makers running the organizations that participate in an ACO?

In August of 2013 we surveyed 115 C-suite executives– primarily CEOs (43.5%), chief financial officers (17.4%) and chief operating officers (16.5%) – across 35 states to collect data on their perspectives on ACO and PHM.

Survey results support the increase in ACO popularity. According to respondents, ACO participation has almost quadrupled since spring 2012: More than 18% say their hospitals currently participate in an ACO, up from 4.8% in spring 2012. This growth is projected to accelerate, with about 50% of respondents suggesting their hospitals will participate in an ACO by the end of 2014. Overall, 3 out of 4 senior executives surveyed say their hospitals have ACO participation plans.

Since survey respondents also represent hospitals of different locations, sizes and types, we are able to obtain a broader look at current and future ACO participation and found that:

  • Non-rural hospitals (82.1%) are most likely to participate in an ACO overall, followed by hospitals in an integrated delivery network (81.1%).
  • The lowest rates of projected participation are among rural hospitals (70.7%) and standalone hospitals (72.6%).
  • Large hospitals are moving more quickly, as 30.8% said they’d be part of an ACO by the end of 2013.
  • And though they’re equally as likely as large hospitals to ultimately participate in an ACO, small hospitals say they require additional time, with 48.6% planning to join in 2014 or 2015.

But some providers have been more deliberate and cautious about when they start their ACO journey. The pace of ACO adoption has been slower than originally anticipated 18 months ago, when more than half of executives predicted their systems would create or join an ACO by the end of 2013. Current survey results show that about 1 out of 4 will meet that projection.

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Fee for Service vs. Fee for Serving

In a previous blog we demonstrated how guidelines can compromise the care of individual patients when designed to serve the health care system.

Why should treating physicians defer to guideline committees at all, we asked? For decades medical students have been taught to read and understand information from published papers.

We are all trained in critical appraisal and can keep up with the clinically meaningful literature, the literature that is relevant and accurate enough to present to patients. Just because there are nearly 20,000 biomedical journals does not mean that any, let alone all are replete with meaningful information. We can discern the valuable from the not valuable; why do we need others to tell us?

In fact, we even argued in our last post that patients can and should judge the value of medical information. After all, they face the consequences of misinterpreting the likelihoods of benefit and of harm associated with various options for care.

No one remembers the numbers that describe the chances for benefit and harm or ask more questions about the veracity of information than a patient who must choose. The smartest information managers we have ever encountered are our patients; when informed, they quickly determine the validity of the information and apply their personal values to the estimations of the chances for benefit and harm.

Patient Empowerment

Take the example of a patient who recently entered into a therapeutic dialogue with one of us, RAM. This was not the traditional clinical interview. This patient had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was scheduled for an approach to treatment that the diagnosing physician had offered as the most sensible. However, the decision did not rest easily.

The appointment with RAM was scheduled because the patient sought a dialogue that might offer a chance to reflect on the rationale for the approach he was about to initiate. Two hours into the dialogue, the patient, a 40ish year old African-American man accompanied by his wife, were mulling over the marginal benefits and harms of the options for treating an early stage prostate cancer.

The wife asked how many African-Americans were in the study under discussion. “None”. The husband perked up and then asked, “How many people in the study was my age?” “None”. They then asked if the difference in benefit was a certain, fixed amount? “No, it varies over this range.” – examining the descriptive statistics.

They then asked when the study was started and did it pertain to the present day. “It started over 15 years ago” and the stage of disease of the men in the study was generally more aggressive than in this particular case.

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The People’s Hospital

I was just recently in Guiyang, the capital of the Guizhou province in China and had a chance to visit the Huaxi District People’s Hospital (HDPH), one of the largest “secondary” hospitals in the province.

Like the rest of China, it has been gripped by the construction boom, recently opening a new surgery center and revamped medical facilities.  They had a terrific EHR from a local vendor — probably more sophisticated than a majority of U.S. hospitals.

Despite being in one of the poorest regions of China, the hospital has more money than it knows what to do with (so says its leadership) and is planning further expansion. The source of its wealth?  A growing middle class that wants more healthcare services and has the ability to pay for it.

Background on hospitals in China

There are approximately 2853 counties in China across 33 provinces.  Each county has a county hospital, a government owned facility that serves the people of that community.  When the patient is too complicated to be managed there, he or she is transferred usually to a secondary hospital.  Patients who need an even higher level of care are sent to the regional tertiary care hospital.  The gatekeeping system is weak – one need not start at the county hospital – and in fact, a majority of the inpatients at GPH came there directly.

A few years ago, China launched a major health reform with the goal of getting to universal coverage.  They got close and nearly every citizen now has health insurance that covers at least part of the costs of their care.   The insurance has substantial co-pays and doesn’t cover more expensive drugs and tests.  What does this mean for a hospital like HDPH?  About 40% of their revenues came from insurance.

And, despite being a government hospital, only about 5% of revenues came from the government.  The rest?  From the patients themselves.  This revenue mix is supposedly pretty typical of county and secondary hospitals across the nation. Out of pocket spending remains substantial, despite universal health insurance.  In fact, in absolute dollar terms, patients are paying about as much out of pocket now as they were before social insurance kicked in.

Huaxi District People’s Hospital

Outpatient clinics, where a typical appointment might last 2-3 minutes, are by far the biggest source of admissions to the hospital.  But the hospital also has an ER.  Actually, two: a Medicine ER and a Surgery ER.  The patient gets to choose.  Unsure about which you need? There is an “Enquiry” nurse who can help.  I peppered the one on duty with various clinical scenarios and was impressed with the speed and confidence with which she made decisions.

The flow is simple: you choose your ER, you register, pay the fee in cash, and go inside to wait.

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The Data Are Wrong. Our Patients Are Sicker!!!

People in health care don’t like it when numbers emerge that are uncomfortable.  Take these, issued today by the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission in its latest report on the drivers of the high cost of care in our state.

Variation, particularly when not correlated to quality of outcome, is particularly troublesome for some incumbents.  Academic medical centers often have their answer, but as the HPC explains, it doesn’t hold water:

One oft-cited theory for the cause of this variation is that certain types of hospitals, such as those that teach physician residents and fellows, must incur additional expenses to support their mission. However, the difference in median expenses per discharge between teaching hospitals and all hospitals ($1,030) was less than the difference between individual teaching hospitals ($3,107 between the 75th percentile and 25th percentile teaching hospitals). Moreover, there were a number of teaching hospitals that incurred fewer expenses per discharge than the statewide all-hospital median of approximately $9,000 per discharge.

So perhaps the high cost ones will now revert to the usual squawking: “This isn’t fair. The data are wrong.  Our patients are sicker.”

Except here, the data are the best that could be available–all the claims for all the hospitals and all the payers in the state–even adjusted for wages.  And the acuity of patients across the spectrum of academic medical centers does not vary widely–but, just in case, the numbers are case-mix adjusted.

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The Hospice Will See You Now

Doctors are asked to sign things all the time: Prescriptions, home nursing care plans, death certificates, diabetic shoe forms.

Less frequently, hospice verifications.

Why was I asked to sign hospice orders for Mr. Taylor? Sure, he was old. Eighty-seven.

He’d survived decades of high blood pressure, two major surgeries, unintentional weight loss, chronic pain, headaches, even a benign brain tumor. But I had never referred him to hospice.

I wouldn’t have diagnosed him as “terminal,” i.e. expected to live six months or less. As far as I could tell, he’d just keep on truckin’ for another year or three.

So why was I being asked to sign hospice paperwork for him? How did this come about?

“Mr. Taylor, why are you in hospice? Are you dying?”

-Not that he knew of. He’d just been told that he’d get more ‘home services’ that way.

“Who set this up for you?”

-It was one of those “home doctors.” Geriatric care providers that offer house calls to infirm seniors when it’s too hard for them to come to a doctor’s office.

Thing is, he was still plenty able to come to my office. And did so regularly.

Apparently, though, the opportunity to get more home services was too good to pass up.

The agency that was providing him at-home medical services referred him to a for-profit hospice firm–one that could collect the daily Medicare fee for a hospice enrollee.

Is it any wonder, then, that we’ve seen a surge in hospice enrollments in the last few years?

Finally, someone has written something about it. Thank you, Washington Post.

John H. Schumann, MD (@GlassHospital) is a general internist and medical educator at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine in Tulsa, OK . He is also author of the blog, GlassHospital , where this post originally appeared.

Healthcare Innovation Is Not Just About Cutting Costs

Aspiring healthcare entrepreneurs could be forgiven for assuming our most significant challenge is the need to reduce the cost of care.  Investors and policy wonks alike seem to agree on the overriding need to focus on innovations that will improve efficiency and take costs out of the system.

The appeal of this approach is easy to understand: rising healthcare costs are a real problem, and business process improvement feels like something we already know how to do.  Large companies like GE and Oracle are thrilled by the opportunity to apply their process methodologies to healthcare.  Management journals love the idea of improving healthcare through operational excellence.  An increasing number of foundations have also joined the fray, focused explicitly on supporting innovations that reduce the cost of care.

Yet, as much as operational improvements are urgently needed, they should not represent the primary goal of healthcare innovation.

If we’re truly interested in high value healthcare, we’d do well to keep in mind that for many, if not most serious or chronic diseases, at least in the absolute sense, high value care simply isn’t an option.  We have embarrassingly few therapeutic approaches that can really do much to restore the lives of these patients.  Sufferers afflicted with Alzheimers Disease, pancreatic cancer, brain tumors, and so many other conditions desperately require transformative breakthroughs, not the mucking around the edges that passes for treatment today.

Make no mistake: it’s critical we do the very best we can to provide compassionate, evidence-driven care for patients who are sick right now, and innovations that contribute to the identification and humanistic delivery of the best available care are vitally important.Continue reading…

What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

As the health insurance exchanges find their footing and potentially millions of Americans gain access to insurance, this may be a good time to step back and take a longer term view of the ACA. When you get down to it, expanding health insurance coverage was the easiest and least controversial part of health reform. There is no shortage of ways to expand health coverage and almost any credible health reform proposal would have done the job, provided enough money was thrown at the problem.

In designing the ACA, perhaps as a result of political pressure, President Obama opted for a combination of heavily subsidized individual insurance exchanges and generous expansions of Medicaid. Freed from political constraints, he might have instead pushed for the single payer system that many of his most ardent supporters desired. Republicans inclined to expand coverage (at least one of us is proof that unlike the unicorn these do exist) might have pushed for a pure voucher program that harnessed market forces.

All of these options would expand coverage to the degree that policymakers were willing to fund them. So while we congratulate the President for his political success (we doubt the other options could have made it through Congress), it is a simplistic mistake to evaluate the implementation of the ACA by counting the numbers of uninsured or waiting for the monthly updates on the enrollment figures from the exchanges website. Any regulator with a big enough purse can, in the fullness of time, expand access. Frankly, that’s the “easy” part of healthcare reform.

But what about the other elements of the so-called “triple aim” of health reform: cost and quality? You see, while we agree that liberal, moderate, and conservative health reforms can all improve coverage, they each will have very different effects on the other important outcomes. Consider for example the oft-discussed “Medicare for all”; i.e. a single payer system. This would increase access without the messiness of the exchanges. It would also allow the government to flex its monopsonistic muscles and quickly reduce costs – though likely at the expense of quality. In contrast, relying on markets may not reduce costs in the short run, and may not necessarily reward real quality (though it has a better short than single payer in this regard).

Evaluating health reform in the context of the “Triple Aim” is important, but even that approach is not nearly enough. There is a broad consensus among that technological change is the most important long run driver of cost and quality. It follows that the most important element of health reform is its impact on technological change.

To understand how technological change affects all of us, consider the profound impact of the top ten medical advances in the last ten years, as listed by CNN:

1. Sequencing the human genome
2. Stem cell research
3. HIV cocktails
4. Targeted cancer therapies.
5. Laparoscopic surgery

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Is Obamacare Responsible For the Recent Slowdown in Health Care Costs?

That is what we have been told the Obama administration will claim today as they begin the job of reselling Obamacare.

Is Obamacare even partly responsible for the slowdown in health care costs?

That is silly.

First, Obamacare is not a health care reform law; it is a health insurance reform law. No one on either side of the debate has ever argued anything different.

Does the law have some limited cost containment features in it?

Yes. But these are either pilot projects or are years from being fully implemented.

I have heard the argument that the Medicare cuts that were made to help pay for the program are examples of cost containment efforts that are having a short-term impact on controlling costs. The Democrats need to be careful with this one. I recall their countering Republican “Mediscare” claims by saying the Medicare cuts were not significant.

In a letter last year accompanying the Medicare Trustee’s report, the Medicare actuary said, “The [Obamacare Medicare cuts] will affect Medicare price levels more gradually, but a strong likelihood exists that, without very substantial transformational changes in health care practices, payment rates would become inadequate in the long range.”

Translated: The Obama Medicare provider cuts are not having a big impact in the short-run but will be unsustainable over the longer-term.

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Finding the Value in Value-Based Purchasing

The most commonly heard comment in healthcare these days is that we have to move from paying for volume to paying for value.  While it may sound trite, it also turns out to be pretty true.  Right now, most healthcare services are paid for on a fee-for-service basis – with little regard for the quality of that service.  We clearly need to move towards value-based payments (sometimes referred to as pay-for-performance or P4P).

Although a few folks remain skeptical about whether VBP/P4P can work (as though our pay for volume strategy is working out so well), asking whether we should pay for volume versus pay for quality no longer seems like a particularly interesting question.

The far more compelling and difficult question is how best to pay-for-performance? As I have written before, we need bold experiments with new payment models that employ three key principles: putting real money on the table, focusing on outcomes, and keeping the reward system simple (i.e. the better you do, the more you should get).

One such new payment model is the value-based purchasing (VBP) program from CMS, the largest payer of hospital care in America. It’s a modest program but an immensely important one.  It is modeled after the Premier Hospital Quality Incentives Demonstration (HQID), which ran for 6 years and had modest effects on hospital performance on process measures and no effect on patient outcomes.

Despite these disappointing findings, the U.S. Congress, in crafting the Affordable Care Act, modeled VBP closely on HQID.  The incentives in the program are small (currently at 1.25% of total Medicare payments) and still more heavily weighted towards process measures than outcomes.

The key question for VBP is whether it will work – whether patients will be better off because of it.  We don’t know and realistically, we won’t for another year or so.

But what we do know is that two years into the program, certain hospitals seem to be doing well and others, not so much. Yes, the incentives are small and my guess is that any impact will be very modest as well.  But, it’s still worth taking a look at how different types of hospitals are faring under VBP.

So we ran some numbers.

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