As the next act of the Massachusetts health care drama plays out on Beacon Hill, the same characters return to the stage with a tired script. The ostensible hero of the production, the patient, is left to watch the tragedy from the back row.
Legislation being debated on Beacon Hill ignores patient-centered health plans and health savings accounts, or HSAs, which are lower-premium insurance plans that direct pre-tax dollars into a bank account to cover an individual’s current health care and save money for future medical expenses. An HSA is the most direct way to engage patients in the health system. They cover out-of-pocket medical, dental, and vision expenses, are fully portable, and owned by individuals for their entire lives.
Unlike the self-interested solutions of insurers, providers, and government, HSAs are a proven way to contain the cost of care.
Nationwide, 11.4 million people of all ages and income levels purchase patient-centered plans, up over 250 percent from 2006, when they were created. Among HSA account holders, fully half earn less than $60,000; almost three-quarters have children; and about half are over 40.
Safeway, one of America’s largest supermarket chains, rolled out a patient-centered plan in 2006; per capita health care spending shrank 13 percent, and costs remained flat for four consecutive years.
Safeway’s plans have reduced employee obesity and smoking rates to roughly 30 percent below national averages. This health dividend is priceless as 70 percent of health care costs are directly related to lifestyle decisions.
I apologize in advance if some of you are tired of hearing about Massachusetts and its experience with different payment models for health insurance. I write about this, not only because it is interesting locally, but also because people around the US are watching to see how the experiments here might or might not be applicable to the rest of the country.
I have written before about the pro’s and con’s of capitated, or global, payments as an alternative to fee-for-service payments. There are arguments to be made in support of each. But the problem in this state is that the movement towards global payments has become a matter of religious dogma. The main practitioners of the system have not been willing to divulge the kind of information needed to evaluate it properly. That lack of transparency undermines the policy arguments that might be used to advocate for an expansion of this approach.
But, eventually, more and more of the story comes out, and it is less than pretty. A few weeks ago, I quoted a report by the state’s Inspector General in which he raises concerns about this issue. He noted, “[M]oving to an ACO global payment system, if not done properly, also has the potential to inflate health care costs dramatically.”
Now comes an article by Pippin Ross in Commonwealth Magazine, entitled “Piloting Global Payments.” It has some revelations that give credence to the concerns raised by the IG.
Ross quotes a Blue Cross Blue Shield official as saying:
Blue Cross padded first-year global payment budgets to entice hospitals and doctors to sign on…. [T]he current goal is not to actually reduce costs, but to cut in half the rate of growth in medical costs after five years.
[T]he outcomes after one year under global payment are where Blue Cross expected to be in three or four years. “The amount of money being spent hasn’t changed yet, but the outcomes are serious testimony to the fact that more—in tests and doctors and visits—isn’t always better,” she says. “We’re getting a lot more for our money than we expected.”
But, of course, we don’t really know, do we? We have no way to validate any of this. Sorry, but “trust us” just doesn’t cut it when it comes to this kind of significant change.Continue reading…
A recent report by the Massachusetts Inspector General raises a thoughtful concern about the implementation of global payments in the state.
In the effort to contain health care costs, much discourse has centered on moving from a predominantly fee-for-service system to one based mainly on global payments to providers organized as Accountable Care Organizations (“ACO”). There is little doubt that fee-for-service reimbursements create incentives for providers to increase utilization of health care services, with obvious inflationary consequences. But moving to an ACO global payment system, if not done properly, also has the potential to inflate health care costs dramatically.
There is nothing inherent in the current marketplace that would cause an ACO-based global payment system to contain health care costs. The evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite conclusion. For the past two years, the primary experiment with global payments in the private insurance market in Massachusetts has been the Alternative Quality Contract (“AQC”) popularized by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (“Blue Cross”). The payments to providers under this contract are made on a global capitated basis. The capitated amounts are determined by starting with the previous year’s experience of the population of lives covered by the specific AQC. That entire amount becomes the base year from which all future payments are derived. Therefore, the AQC embraces and adopts any excessive or wasteful payments in that base year, including all overutilization resulting from over a decade’s worth of fee-for-service provider contracts. Implicitly, the premium increases of that decade, which overall were well in excess of 100%, are made a permanent part of our health care system’s cost structure.Continue reading…