The US healthcare system’s myriad of problems again seized the headlines recently with the release of an Institute of Medicine report, which found that 30 percent of healthcare spending in 2009 – around $750 billion – was wasted. Citing the “urgent need for a system-wide transformation,” the report blamed the lack of coordination at every point in the system for the massive amount of money wasted in healthcare each year.
One critical area in particular need of transformation is the business and operating model that drives healthcare in the US. There is broad-based agreement across the healthcare industry that the current fee-for-service model does not work, and needs to be changed. The sweeping health reform law enacted in 2010 included a range of more holistic, value-based payment structures that are now being referred to as “population health.”
Population health is an integrated care model that incentivizes the healthcare system to keep patients healthy, thus lowering costs and increasing quality. In this value-based healthcare approach, patient care is better coordinated and shared between different providers. Key population health models include:
· Bundled/Episodic Payments – This is where provider groups are reimbursed based on an expected cost for a clinically defined episode of care. · Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) – This new model ties provider reimbursement to quality and reduction in the total cost of care for a population of patients.
Costs and revenue: This is the oxygen of any business, any organization. What are your revenue streams? How much does it cost you to produce them? Life is not just about breathing, but, if you don’t get that in-out equation right, there is nothing else life can be about.
Right now this enormous sector is turning itself inside out. It has turned the “transmogrification” setting to “warp.” Why? It’s all about the in-out. It’s all about increasingly desperate attempts to get that right — and the clear fact that we cannot know if we are getting it right.
Let’s do some school on the two sides of this equation. Let’s just go over the new weirdness, and the implications for you and your organization. Revenue first.
Hunting for True Revenue
In traditional health care (the way we did business until about five minutes ago) the revenue side was complicated in detail, but simple in concept: You do various procedures and tests and services, and you bill for them. You bill each item according to a code. You bill different payers; each has its own schedule of payments that you negotiate (or just get handed) every year. There are complications, such as people on Medicare with supplemental insurance, dual eligibles on Medicare and Medicaid, and self-pay patients who may or may not pay.
That’s the basic job: aggregating enough services that reimburse more than their real cost so that you can cover the costs of services that don’t reimburse well. This is cost-shifted, fee-for-service management. Cut back on those low-reimbursement services; pump up the high-reimbursement ones. Corral the docs you need to provide the services, provide the infrastructure and allocate costs across the system.
The incentives all point in the same direction. The revenue streams are all additive. The more you do of the moneymaking items on the list, the more money you make.
Excessive health care spending is overwhelming America’s economy, but the subtler truth is that this excess has been largely facilitated by subjugating primary care. A wealth of evidence shows that empowered primary care results in better outcomes at lower cost. Other developed nations have heeded this truth. But US payment policy has undervalued primary care while favoring specialists. The result has been spotty health quality, with costs that are double those in other industrialized countries. How did this happen, and what can we do about it.
American primary care physicians make about half what the average specialist takes home, so only the most idealistic medical students now choose primary care. Over a 30 year career, the average specialist will earn about $3.5 million more. Orthopedic surgeons will make $10 million more. Despite this pay difference, the volume, complexity and risk of primary care work has increased over time. Primary care office visits have, on average, shrunk from 20 minutes to 10 or less, and the next patient could have any disease, presenting in any way.
By contrast, specialists’ work most often has a narrower, repetitive focus, but with richer financial rewards. Ophthalmologists may line up 25 cataract operations at a time, earning 12.5 times a primary care doctor’s hourly rate for what may be less challenging or risky work.
A tempest is brewing in physician circles over how doctors are paid. But calming it will require more than just the action of physicians. It will demand the attention and influence of businesses and patient advocates who, outside the health industrial complex, bear the brunt of the nation’s skyrocketing health care costs.
Much responsibility for America’s inequitable health care payment system and its cost crisis is embedded in the informal but symbiotic relationship between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the American Medical Association’s Relative Value System Update Committee — also known as the RUC. For two decades, the RUC, a specialist-dominated panel, has encouraged national health care reimbursement policy that financially undervalues the challenges associated with primary care’s management of complicated patients, while favoring often unnecessarily complex, costly and excessive medical services. For its part, CMS has provided mostly rubber-stamp acceptance of the RUC’s recommendations. If America’s primary care societies noisily left the RUC, they would de-legitimize the panel’s role in driving the American health system’s immense waste and pave the way for a more fair and enlightened approach to reimbursement.
As it is, though, unnecessary health care costs are sucking the life out of the American economy. Over the past 11 years, health care premium inflation has risen nearly four times as fast as the rest of the economy. Health care costs nearly double those in other developed nations have put U.S. corporations at a severe competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace.Continue reading…
The Wall Street Journal published a very important article this week. Written by Anna Wilde Mathews and Tom McGinty, it is entitled, “Secrets of the System: Physician Panel Prescribes the Fees Paid by Medicare.
Here’s the lede:
Three times a year, 29 doctors gather around a table in a hotel meeting room. Their job is an unusual one: divvying up billions of Medicare dollars.
The group, convened by the American Medical Association, has no official government standing. Members are mostly selected by medical-specialty trade groups. Anyone who attends its meetings must sign a confidentiality agreement.
Yet the influence of the secretive panel, known as the Relative Value Scale Update Committee, is enormous. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversee Medicare, typically follow at least 90% of its recommendations in figuring out how much to pay doctors for their work. Medicare spends over $60 billion a year on doctors and other practitioners. Many private insurers and Medicaid programs also use the federal system in creating their own fee schedules.
As Congress nears passage of the first substantial health care reform in decades, there is an ominous challenge: No reform will be sustainable unless we slow the rapid growth of health care spending.
Health care costs are rising at a staggering pace. Expenditures have been increasing at 2.7% per year faster than the rest of the economy over the past 30 years. In 1980 the US spent about 8% of GDP on health care. We now spend over 17%. We need to rein in growth of health care spending to levels no higher than overall economic growth — or ideally “bend down” the growth curve to an even lower figure.
How do we “bend the curve”? What are the best ways to slow the growth of health care costs, thus making other reforms sustainable?There are three major areas in which reforms will help bring health care spending under control.Prevention: US health care is burdened by diseases that are preventable. If we can improve lifestyle issues – nutrition, exercise, obesity, tobacco use – we will lower the future incidence of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other costly maladies. Current health reform proposals that allocate $10 billion for a Prevention and Wellness Fund represent a major step in the right direction. Disease prevention likely provides the greatest return on investment regarding health care costs of anything we do.
Hospital and Physician Behavior: Hospitals have no incentives to prevent unnecessary hospitalization. Physicians, paid mostly by fee-for-service, have every incentive to order more tests and procedures. Neither is rewarded directly for making – or keeping – patients healthy. Key to controlling health care costs in the future will be to realign these incentives.
This will require performance measurement and public reporting for both cost and quality. Provided that predetermined quality criteria are met, hospitals and physicians who can provide better care for less money would share in the savings.