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Tag: Employers

Why Employers Should Stop Worrying About Health Costs

A report published by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) on high-value health care attracted attention when it was issued last June. Authored by a group of eleven leading hospital executives, A CEO Checklist for High-Value Health Care describes programs at various hospitals that resulted in quality improvements and lowered costs. The report has a section called “Yield,” quantifying the extent of these improvements. These programs sound notable, and in fact I know some of the executives and hospitals involved, and would vouch that many significantly improved patient care.

But the report is less impressive when it tackles the cost side of the value equation, especially when it names cost control outcomes like: “days cash on hand increased from 180 to 202,” and “multiple years of 4-5 percent [hospital] margin.” Clearly, the hospitals improved their own bottom lines, but by how much did patient bills decrease? The hospital executives don’t account for that in the “yield.”

It seems this report defines “high-value” to mean highly valuable to hospital CEOs. Strikingly, though, the authors do not find it necessary to explicitly say so anywhere within the report. Perhaps they simply assume that a high-value checklist for hospital CEOs is automatically high-value to CEOs in other industries that are paying for services from hospitals. No offense to these well-meaning and highly accomplished hospital executives, but that is not always the case. Purchasers don’t see high-value health care in hospital cash flow or profit margins. They see value when they get the best service at the best price.

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The Chart-Eating Virus, Me Too Software and Other Emerging Digital Threats

The ability to gather, analyze, and distribute information broadly is one of the great strengths of digital health, perhaps the most significant short-term opportunity to positively impact medical practice. Yet, the exact same technology also carries a set of intimately-associated liabilities, dangers we must recognize and respect if we are to do more good than harm.

Consider these three examples:

  • Last week, a study from Case Western reported that at least 20% of the information in most physician progress notes was copy-and-pasted from previous notes. As recently discussed at kevinmd.com and elsewhere, this process can adversely affect patient care in a number of ways, and there’s actually an emerging literature devoted to the study of “copy-paste” errors in EMRs. The ease with which information can be transferred can lead to the rapid propagation of erroneous information – a phenomenon we used to call a “chart virus.” In essence, this is simply another example of consecrating information without first appropriately analyzing it (e.g. by asking the patient, when this is possible).
  • At a recent health conference, a speaker noted that a key flaw with most electronic medical record (EMR) platforms is that they are “automating broken processes.” Rather than use the arrival of new technology to think carefully, and from the ground up, about the problems that need to be solved, most EMRs simply digitally reify what already exists. Not only does this perpetuate (and usual exacerbate) notoriously byzantine operational practices and leave many users explicitly complaining they are worse off than before, but it also misses the chance to offer conceptually original approaches that profoundly improve workflow and enhance user experience.

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Alice in Healthcareland

Alice: Cheshire-Puss, would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

Alice: —So long as I get somewhere.

Cheshire Cat: Oh you’re sure to do that if you only walk long enough.

Lewis Carroll, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland

2013 has arrived and employers now find themselves on the other side of a looking glass facing the surreal world of healthcare reform and a confusion of regulations promulgated by The Accountable Care Act (ACA) and its Queen of Hearts, HHS Secretary Sebelius. Many HR professionals delayed strategic planning for reform until there was absolute certainty arising out of the SCOTUS constitutionality ruling and the subsequent 2012 Presidential election. They are now waking up in ACA Wonderland with little time remaining to digest and react to the changes being imposed. A handful of proactive employers have begun, in earnest, to conduct reform risk assessments and financial modeling to understand the impacts and opportunities presented by reform. Others remain confused on which direction to take – uncertain how coverage and affordability guidelines might impact their costs.

If reform is indeed a thousand mile journey, many remain at the bottom of the rabbit hole – wondering whether 2013 will mark the beginning of the end for employer sponsored healthcare or the dawning of an era of meaningful market based reform in the US. HR and benefit professionals face a confusion of questions from their companions — CFO’s, CEOs, shareholders and analysts.

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How Health Care Changed While You Were Watching the Election

After a seemingly endless presidential campaign, we’re just days away from the Nov. 6 election. And to be sure, health care issues remain at the forefront.

Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have tried to claim the high ground as Medicare’s number one defender. In his latest column, the New York Times’ Paul Krugman argues that next week’s vote “is, to an important degree, really about Medicaid.” And writing on Bloomberg View, columnist Ezra Klein takes an even broader stance, concluding that “this election is all about health care.”

But health care isn’t all about the election, despite politics’ seeming ability to draw every sector into its gravitational pull.

In fact, many of the most significant stories in health care from the past two months haven’t come from the campaign trail — where candidates have mostly rehashed their existing policies — but from the private sector, as employers and providers have made aggressive, and sometimes unexpected, deals and changes. Reforms that will continue regardless of who’s sitting in the Oval Office next year.

Here are some of those stories.

Top Employers Move to Defined Contribution

As previously discussed in “Road to Reform,” Sears Holdings and Darden Restaurants have made plans to shift away from their current “defined benefits” — where they choose a set of health insurance benefits on behalf of their workers — and roll out “defined contribution” instead.

Under that model, firms pay a fixed amount for employees’ health benefits and allow workers to choose their coverage from an online marketplace, such as the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges or the emerging number of privately run exchanges.

In theory, the model would slow employers’ health costs while allowing employees to have more control over their own health care spending. And Sears and Darden’s announcements aren’t wholly unexpected, given that many employers have signaled their interest in making a similar shift.

But given the long-entrenched employer-sponsored health coverage model, some employers needed to be the first movers before the rest would be ready to follow.

Will they? That will be a major industry issue to watch across the next months.

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Walmart Moves Health Care Forward Again

Walmart’s sheer size makes almost any of their initiatives newsworthy. That said, despite being a lightning rod for criticism on employee benefits and health care, they have introduced initiatives with far-reaching impacts. Their generic drug program began in September 2006 – more than 300 prescription drugs for $4/month or $10 for a 90-day supply – and was widely emulated, disrupting retail drug markets and generating immense social benefit. Imagine the difference it made to a lower middle class diabetic who had been paying more than $120 per month for medications, and suddenly could get them for about $24.

Yesterday Walmart announced that “enrolled associates” – covered workers and their family members – needing heart, spine or transplant surgeries could receive care with no out-of-pocket cost at 6 prominent health systems around the country: Mayo Clinics (Rochester, MN and Jacksonville, FL); Cleveland Clinic (Cleveland, OH); Geisinger Clinic (Danville, PA); Mercy Hospital Springfield (Springfield, MO); Scott & White Memorial Hospital (Temple, TX); and Virginia Mason Medical Center (Seattle, WA).

Walmart’s Center of Excellence (COE) program builds on its own and other organizations’ pioneering efforts with similar programs. Walmart developed a relationship with Mayo Clinics in 2007 for transplant and lung volume reduction surgeries. In March 2010, Lowes reached a similar arrangement with Cleveland Clinic for heart surgeries and, last December, Pepsico announced a global pricing deal with Johns Hopkins for cardiac and joint replacement surgeries.

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The Wrong Way to Save Money on Health Care

Employer outlays for workers’ health insurance slowed from a 9 percent jump last year to less than half that — 4 percent — this year, according to a new survey from the Kaiser Foundation. Good news?

Our political class believes it is. The Obama administration attributes the drop to the new Affordable Care Act, which, among other things, gives states funding to review insurance rate increases.

Republicans agree it’s good news but blame Obamacare for the fact that employer health-care costs continue to rise faster than inflation. “The new mandates contained in the health care law are significantly increasing the cost of insurance” says Wyoming senator Mike Enzi, top Republican on the Senate health committee.

But both sides ignore one big reason for the drop: Employers are shifting healthcare costs to their workers. (The survey shows workers contributing an average of $4,316 toward the cost of family health plans this year, up from $4,129 last year. Many are receiving little or no employer-provided coverage at all.)

Score another win for American corporations — whose profits continue to be robust despite the anemic recovery — and another loss for American workers.

Those profits aren’t due to a surge in sales. Exports are down (Europeans, Japanese, and Chinese are all pulling in their belts) and American consumers don’t have the dough to buy more.

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Costs Continue to Rise. What Can Employers Do? The Answer May Be Direct Primary Care.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jun 28th by a 5-4 vote to let the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) stand. Immediately following, a CEO of one of the nation’s largest insurance companies was asked if people can expect their premiums to go up as this law is implemented. The answer was yes.  So what can employers do to protect themselves from the inevitable?

One strategy for driving market incentives back into the healthcare system and driving down costs is called consumer-driven health insurance, and it is growing in popularity. Historically, the consumer or patient has had very little monetary skin in the game when it comes to the cost of healthcare. We go to the doctor and pay our copay, and never have to worry about what it really costs for health care.

Many employers are now trying to incentivize their employees to be as prudent a purchaser of health care as they are of any other product or service. And they’re doing this by offering high-deductible health insurance policies combined with health savings accounts, or HSAs.

For the 50 percent of patients who collectively spend only 3.5 percent of all healthcare dollars, it’s a fantastic alternative. Instead of paying the high premiums for a lower-deductible plan to the insurance company for care you don’t use — that’s money that goes out the window unnecessarily — you can store the money away, accumulating it every year until a health event occurs when you really need it.

To be sure, a big drawback to these high-deductible insurance plans is the negative impact they can have on the five percent of patients who spend 50 percent of all healthcare dollars. Many worry that high-deductible plans will increase the total cost of healthcare because those with chronic healthcare problems won’t get the help they need until their condition gets so bad that they are forced to seek help — when obviously the cost will be much greater. They have a very valid point.

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The Supreme Court May Have Saved Lives … by Keeping People Off Medicaid

Here’s the most underreported story of the summer. When the Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) it inadvertently liberated millions of people who were going to be forced into Medicaid. Now they will have the opportunity to have private health insurance instead. What difference does that make? It could be the difference between life and death.

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report this week says there are 3 million such people. The actual number could be several times that size. But first things first.

Imagine that you are the head of a family of three, struggling to get by on an income, say, of $25,000 a year. You’ve signed up for your employer’s health plan because you want your family to get good health care when they need it. But that takes a big bite out of your paycheck — $250 a month.

When you first heard about the president’s health plan, you heard him say that if you like the plan you’re in you can keep it. That was good news. You also believed the whole point of the reform was to help families like yours get health insurance if for some reason you had to seek insurance on your own.

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Employers and Health Reform

“Change, before you have to…” Jack Welch

We live in a society that loathes uncertainty – particularly the unintended consequences that sometimes result from a catastrophic event or in the case of PPACA, landmark legislation. Wall Street and the private sector crave predictability and find it difficult in uncertain times to coax capital off the sidelines when the overhang of legislation or geopolitical unrest creates the potential for greater risk. Despite our best energies around forecasting and planning, some consequences, particularly unintended ones – only reveal themselves in time.

In the last decade, employers have endured an inflationary period of rising healthcare costs brought on by a host of social, political, economic and organizational failures. There was and remains great anticipation and trepidation as Congress continues to contour the new rules of the road for this next generation’s healthcare system. Optimists believe that reform is both a way forward and a way out of a mounting public debt crisis and a bypass for an economy whose arteries are clogged by the high cost of medical waste, fraud and abuse.  Cynics argue reform is merely a Trojan Horse measure that offers an open invitation for employers to drop coverage and for commercial insurers to “hang themselves with their own rope” as costs continue to spiral out of control — leading to an inevitable government takeover of healthcare.

Meanwhile, leading economic indicators are flashing crimson warning signs as recent stop-gap stimulus wears off and long overdue private/public sector deleveraging results in reduced corporate hiring, lower consumer confidence and increased rates of savings.  The symptoms of a prolonged economic malaise can be felt in unemployment stubbornly lingering around 9.2% and a stagnating US economy that is struggling to come to grips with the rising cost of entitlement programs.  Across the Atlantic, the Euro-Zone is teetering as Italy and Spain (which represent more credit exposure than Greece, Portugal and Ireland combined) stumble toward default.  Despite these substantial head winds, US healthcare reform is forging ahead – – right into the teeth of the storm.

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A Healthcare Contract With America

Critics of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) need an alternative vision. What follows is a short explanation of the core ideas posted at the Congressional Health Care Caucus and developed in greater detail in the book Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis.

Tax FairnessFamilies at the same income level should get the same help from government when they obtain private health insurance, regardless of where they obtain it. The federal government encourages the purchase of private health insurance through the tax system. Yet the current approach is arbitrary, regressive and unfair. Instead of paying taxable wages, employers are able to purchase health insurance for their employees with untaxed dollars. These employer-paid premiums avoid federal income taxes, federal payroll taxes (FICA), and state and local income taxes as well. This “subsidy” is worth almost half the cost of the insurance for a middle income family. Yet the same family receives virtually no tax relief if it purchases the insurance on its own.

Because of the way we subsidize private health insurance, the higher the family’s tax bracket, the greater the subsidy. A family earning $100,000 gets six times as much tax relief as a family earning $25,000. We are giving the most encouragement to those who need it least.

As an alternative, we should replace the current system of tax and spending subsidies with a system that offers everyone a uniform, fixed-dollar tax credit for the purchase of health insurance. The credit would be refundable, so that it would be available even to those with no tax liability. A reasonable goal, for example, would be a credit of $2,500 per adult and $8,000 for a family of four.

Universality: Unclaimed tax relief should be made available to local safety net institutions to be used in case the uninsured cannot pay their own medical bills. If an individual chooses to be uninsured, the unclaimed tax credit should be sent to a safety net agency in the community where the person lives. These funds would provide a source of finance in case the uninsured are unable to pay their medical bills.

Under this approach, the government pledges a fixed sum of money for every individual and money follows people. If everyone in Dallas County opts to obtain private insurance, there would be no need to fund a safety net and all the government’s support would be in the form of tax credits for health insurance premiums. On the other hand, if everyone in Dallas County opts to be uninsured, all the unclaimed tax credits would go to safety net institutions in Dallas.

This is an easy reform to implement, even if peoples’ insurance status changes often over the course of a year. All the federal government needs to know is how many people live in each community. If the tax credits claimed on income tax returns fall short of their potential for the community as a whole, the balance would be provided in the form of a block grant to be spent at the local level.

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