In a previous post, I described how some features of the Affordable
Care Act, despite the best intentions, have made it harder or even impossible
for many plans to compete against dominant players in the individual and small
employer markets. This has undermined aspects of the ACA designed to improve
competition, like the insurance exchanges, and exacerbated a long
term trend toward consolidation and reduced choice, and there is evidence it
is resulting in higher costs. I focused on the ACA’s risk adjustment program
and its impact on the small group market where the damage has been greatest.
The goal of risk adjustment is commendable: to create
stability and fairness by removing the ability of plans to profit by “cherry
picking” healthier enrollees, so that plans instead compete on innovative
services, disease management, administrative efficiency, and customer support.
But in the attempt to find stability, the playing field was tilted in favor of
plans with long-tenured enrollment and sophisticated operations to identify all
scorable health risks. The next generation of risk adjustment should truly even
out the playing field by retaining the current program’s elimination of an
incentive to avoid the sick, while also eliminating its bias towards incumbency
and other unintended effects.
One important distinction concerns when to use risk
adjustment to balance out differences that arise from consumer preferences. For
example, high deductible plans tend to attract healthier enrollees, and without
risk adjustment these plans would become even cheaper than they already are,
while more comprehensive plans that attract sicker members would get
disproportionately more expensive, setting off a race to the bottom that pushes
more and more people into the plans that have the least benefits, while the
sickest stay behind in more generous plans whose premium cost spirals upward. Using
risk adjustment to counteract this effect has been widely beneficial in the
individual market, along with other features like community rating and
However, in other cases where risk levels between plans differ
due to consumer preferences it may not be helpful. For example, it has been
documented that older and sicker members have a greater aversion to change (changing
plans to something less familiar) and to constraints intended to lower cost
even if they do not undermine benefit levels or quality of care, like narrow networks.
These aversions tend to make newer plans and small network plans score as
healthier. Risk adjustment would then force those plans to pay a penalty that in
turn forces enrollees in the plans to pay for the preferences of others.
Leading lights of
the health insurance industry are crying that Medicare For All or any kind of
universal health reform would “crash the system” and “destroy
healthcare as we know it.”
They say that like
it’s a bad thing.
They say we should
trust them and their cost-cutting efforts to bring all Americans more
affordable health care.
We should not trust
them, because the system as it is currently structured economically is
incapable of reducing costs.
Why? Let’s do a
quick structural analysis. This is how health care actually works.
Health care, in the
neatly packaged phrase of Nick Soman, CEO of Decent.com, is a “system designed
to create reimbursable events.” For all that we talk of being
“patient-centered” and “accountable,” the fee-for-service, incident-oriented
system is simply not designed to march toward those lofty goals.
Health insurance companies are standing
in the way of many patients receiving affordable, quality healthcare. Insurance
companies have been denying patient claims for medical care, all while increasing
monthly premiums for most Americans. Many of the nation’s largest healthcare payers
are private “for-profit” companies that are focused on generating profits
through the healthcare system. Through a rigorous approval/denial system, health
insurance companies can dictate the type care patients receive. In some cases,
this has resulted in patients foregoing life-saving treatments or procedures.
In 2014, Aetna, one of the nation’s leading healthcare companies, denied coverage to Oklahoma native Orrana Cunningham, who had stage 4 nasopharyngeal cancer near her brain stem. Her doctors suggested she undergo proton beam therapy, which is a targeted form of radiation that can pinpoint tumor cells, resulting in a decrease risk of potential blindness and other radiation side effects. Aetna found the study too experimental and denied coverage, which resulted in Orrana’s death. Aetna was forced to pay the Cunningham family $25.5 million.
In December of 2007, Cigna Healthcare, the largest healthcare payer in Philadelphia, denied coverage for Nataline Sarkisyan’s liver transplant. Natalie was diagnosed with leukemia and had recently received a bone marrow transplant from her brother, which caused complications to her liver. A specialist at UCLA requested she undergo a liver transplant, which is an expensive procedure that would result in a lengthy inpatient hospital stay for recovery. Cigna denied the procedure as they felt it was “too experimental and outside the scope of coverage”. They later reversed the decision, but Nataline passed away hours later at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center.
Health systems and employers are bypassing insurers to deliver higher-quality, more affordable care
By MICHAEL J. ALKIRE
Employee health plan premiums are rising along with the total healthcare spending tab, spurring employers to rethink their benefits design strategy. Footing the tab, employers are becoming a more active and forceful driver in managing wellness, seeking healthcare partners that can keep their workforce healthy through affordable, convenient care.
health systems assume accountability for the health of their communities, a
market has been born that is ripe for new partnerships between local health
systems and national employers in their community to resourcefully and
effectively manage wellness and overall healthcare costs. Together, they are bypassing traditional
third-party payers to pursue a new type of healthcare financing and delivery
While just 3 percent of self-insured employers are contracting directly with health systems today, dodging third parties to redesign employee benefit and care plans is becoming increasingly popular. AdventHealth in Florida announced a partnership with Disney in 2018 to provide health benefits to Disney employees at a lower cost in exchange for taking on some risk, and Henry Ford Health System has a multi-year, risk-based contract with General Motors.
The notion of bypassing payers is attractive for employers, especially on the back of consecutive cost increases they and their employees have swallowed over the last several years. Payers have traditionally offered employers rigid, fee-for-service plans that not only provide little room for customization, but often exacerbate issues with care coordination and lead to suboptimal health outcomes for both employees and their families. Adding to this frustration for employers is the need to manage complex benefits packages and their corresponding administrative burdens.
In the industrialized world and especially in United States, health care expenditures per capita has has significantly outgrown per capita income in the last few decades. The projected national expenditures growth at 6.2%/year from 2015 onwards with an estimated in 20% of entire national spending in 2022 on healthcare, has resulted in passionate deliberation on the enormous consequences in US political and policy circles. In US, the ongoing public healthcare reform discussions have gained traction especially with the recent efforts by the Senate to repeal national government intervention with Affordable Care Act (ACA).
In this never ending debate the role of government interventions has been vehemently opposed by conservative stakeholders who strongly favor the neoclassical economic tradition of allowing “invisible hands” of the free market without minimal (or any) government regulations to achieve the desired economic efficiency (Pareto optimality).
A central tenet of this argument is that perfect competition will weed out inefficiency by permitting only competent producers to survive in the market as well as benefit consumer to gain more “value for their money” through lower prices and wider choices.
Restrained by limited societal resources, in US to make our health market ‘efficient’ we need to aim for enhancing production of health services provision at optimal per unit cost that can match consumers maximum utility (satisfaction) given income/budget restraints.
Keeping asides the discussion on whether a competitive market solution for healthcare is even desirable as adversely impact the policy objective of ‘equity”, however from a pure ‘efficiency’ perspective it is worthwhile to focus on the core issue whether conditions in healthcare market align with the prototypical, traditional competitive model for efficient allocation of resources.
The official 2017 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are out, and there are some good news: The annual growth rate of health care spending is slowing down, and is the lowest since 2013 at 3.9%—it was 4.3% for 2016 and 5.8% for 2015. The bad news is that our health care cost increases are still well above inflation, and that we spent $3.5 trillion in this area, or 17.9% of GDP. Americans spent $10,739 on health care in 2017, more than twice as much as of our direct economic competitors: This per capita health care spending was $4,700 in Japan; $5,700 in Germany; $4,900 in France; $4,200 in the U.K.; $4,800 in Canada; and an average of $5,300 for a dozen such wealthy countries, according to the Peterson -Kaiser health system tracker from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and OECD data. Spending almost a fifth of our GDP on health care, compared to 9-11% for other large developed economies (and much less in China), is like having a chain tied to our ankles when it comes to our economic competitiveness.
Could 2019 be the year when our health care spending actually decreases, or at least grows at a slower pace than inflation? Or will we see instead an uptick in costs for health care consumers?
To answer these questions, we need to look in more detail at the largest areas of health care spending in America, and at the recent but also longer term spending trends in these areas. Using the annual statistics from the DHHS, we can compare the growth in spending in half a dozen critical health care categories with the growth in total spending, and this for the last three years as well as the last decade. Over the last decade, since 2007, these costs grew 52% in aggregate (from $2.3T to $3.5T) and 41% per capita (from $7,630 to $10,740).
The 2019 ACA plan year is notable for the increase in insurer participation in the marketplace. Expansion and entry have been substantial, and the percent of counties with one insurer has declined from more than 50 percent to approximately 35 percent. While urban areas in rural states have received much of the new participation, entire rural states have gained, along with more metropolitan urban areas.
Economic theory and common sense lead most to believe that increased competition is unquestionably good for consumers. Yet in the paradoxical world of the subsidized ACA marketplace, things are not so simple. In some markets, increased competition may result in a reduction in the purchasing power of subsidized consumers by narrowing the gap between the benchmark premium and plans that are cheaper than the benchmark. Even though the overall level of premiums may decline, potential losses to subsidized consumers in some markets will outweigh gains to the unsubsidized, suggesting that at the county level, the losers stand to lose more than the winners will win.
One way to illustrate this is to hypothetically subject 2018 marketplace enrollees to 2019 premiums in counties where new carriers have entered the market. Assuming that enrollees stay in the same metal plan in both 2018 and 2019, and that they continue to buy the cheapest plan in their metal, we can calculate how much their spending would change by income group.
Under these assumptions, in about one quarter of the counties with federally facilitated marketplaces (FFM) that received a new carrier in 2019, both subsidized and unsubsidized enrollees would be better off in 2019, meaning that they could spend less money and stay in the same metal level. In about thirty percent of these counties, all enrollees are worse off. In almost all of the rest, about forty percent, there are winners and losers, but in the aggregate, the subsidized lose more than the unsubsidized win. Overall, in about 70 percent of FFM counties with a new carrier, subsidized enrollees will lose purchasing power, while in about 66 percent of these counties, unsubsidized customers will see premium reductions. In population terms, about two-thirds of subsidized enrollees in counties with a new carrier will find plans to be less affordable, while a little more than half of unsubsidized enrollees will see lower premiums.
When it comes to health care prices, the burden piled on payers can seem almost cartoonishly heavy. News stories on the state of the industry read as though some satirist decided to exaggerate real systemic flaws into cost-prohibitive fiction. A particularly painful example hit the presses earlier this year, when a writer for Reuters revealed that the cost of a full course of oncology treatment skyrocketed from $30,447 in 2006 to $161,141 in the last few years. The change was so unbelievable as to verge on dark comedy — but there isn’t much to find funny in the situation when lives and health outcomes are on the line.
For the average employee in my home of Silicon Valley, the price crunch is challenging regardless the size of your paycheck. For local employers, however, the dilemma can be even more pointed. Today, employees of companies, large and small, expect their employer to provide comprehensive health care benefits and are largely unaware of or insensitive to the factors exacerbating market problems today. Providing these benefits, however, is easier said than done.
Employers and insurers alike face a multitude of barriers to connecting employees with affordable care. Recent research suggests that prices will increase at an average clip of 5.8% annually between now and 2024, well above the expected rate of inflation. Even worse, the increased consolidation of healthcare providers has drastically undermined the negotiating power that payers would otherwise have in more competitive markets. In Northern California, for example, major health systems, including Sutter Health, sparked outrage and protest as they have managed to amass enough of the region’s hospitals, outpatient facilities, and primary care offices to diminish regional competitors and set what many view as unacceptably high rates — all the while knowing that the lack of local competition makes it challenging for the major health insurers to push back.
“I don’t know that what they’re doing is going to be as transformative as maybe the potential of it is – and it’s going to take time. I don’t know that they’re going to ‘all-of-a-sudden’ leap frog over all the things that health plans have been doing for decades. I think they’re going to learn that this is really complicated stuff…”
Health plan innovation got a makeover this year. What used to look like value-based care models and telehealth visits has transformed. Health plan innovation is sexier – with big-dollar M&A deals like CVS-Aetna and Cigna-ExpressScripts looking to flatten the industry. Meanwhile, brand name collaborations like Amazon-Berkshire Hathaway-JP Morgan may prove that payment model innovation is unexpectedly ‘label-conscious.’
So, how are health plans dealing with this startling new look? And what should health tech startups who want their innovation investment dollars do now??
A ‘single-payer’ plan is a target on the back of its supporters. But what about a ‘Medicare Public-Private Partnership’?
MOUNT VERNON — In February 2017, President Trump famously said: “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Nobody other than about 99.9 percent of the almost 300 million people in the U.S. with insurance, that is. Yesterday, I received a copy of “Get to know your benefits,” the 236-page “booklet” for my new health plan. Like most people, I’ll never read the book, but its weight alone says “complicated.”
And it’s safe to guess that Trump also will never read his Federal Employee Health Plan information, even though one Aetna choice available to him has a “brochure” of only 184 pages. Thinking about the amount of information available to health insurance plan consumers, I began to wonder what Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar meant, also last February, when he said, “Americans need more choices in health insurance so they can find coverage that meets their needs.”
Presumably, were we to have more choices, we could study the hundreds of pages of information about each available plan and make better choices. According to the federal Office of Personnel Management, federal employees who live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C. 20500, have a choice of 35 monthly plans. Too bad the president doesn’t live in Maine, where he’d have only 20 plans to study!