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‘Medicare For All’ Can Be a Common Enemy to Unite ‘Foes’

It is both comical and infuriating to watch how key healthcare stakeholders react to two different, but highly inter-related subjects: 1) Medicare For All, and 2) Who is at fault for outrageous medical prices. Stakeholders in healthcare include hospital systems, provider groups, health insurance companies and pharmaceutical and device manufacturers. Employers are another major stakeholder, but much too often, they are largely excluded when it comes to contractual relationships between many of the aforementioned players.

When many of these stakeholders are asked who is at fault for charging high prices for medical services, each will conveniently step into a circle and point fingers at one another, as if they are participating in a circular firing squad. It seems that someone else is always at fault, but never the accused.

However, when asked about the growing ‘Medicare For All‘ proposals, commonly believed to eliminate private insurance and ‘socialize medicine,’ many of these same stakeholders will quickly hold hands in support of something centrally sacred to their collective well-being, as if they are military comrades in the HBO mini-series, “Band of Brothers.” These stakeholders’ words and actions are quite transparent about protecting their own self-seeking interests.

Below are just a few examples of this love-hate relationship between various healthcare stakeholders.

Medicare For All

Former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was quoted as saying, “We need a common enemy to unite us.”  For stakeholders who are frequently at odds with each other, such as medical providers are with insurance companies when it comes to contractual reimbursement arrangements, the relationships can be confrontational, if not outright brutal. However, for various reasons, both typically view Medicare For All as a major threat to their profitable well-being, if not survival. Given what is at stake with a ‘Single-Payer’ system that presumably would be controlled by federal bureaucrats, providers and insurers have found this ‘common enemy’ to mask their mutual differences with each other.

On April 16, UnitedHealth Group CEO David Wichmann warned Democrats that Medicare For All would destabilize the nation’s healthcare system. As mentioned in The Hill, Medicare For All would be a “wholesale disruption of American healthcare [that] would surely jeopardize the relationship people have with their doctors, destabilize the nation’s health system, and limit the ability of clinicians to practice medicine at their best.”

Insurance companies are greatly threatened by the many proposals initiated by progressive Democrats to expand Medicare to the entire U.S. population, most likely greatly reducing the role of private insurers. It must be noted, however, even with any given Medicare For All program implemented, private insurers would most likely be chosen as subcontractors to administer the program, but the profit motive would be greatly reduced from today’s standards.

Not to be outdone, a major counterpart to private insurers, the American Hospital Association (AHA), have similar views to Wichmann’s. AHA President Rick Pollack wrote in February that Medicare For All proposals “could do more harm than good to patient care.” Additionally, this one-size-fits-all approach could disrupt coverage of 180 million Americans who are currently covered by employer plans, and that physicians and other providers “may limit the number of Medicare or Medicaid patients they see because of chronic government underpayment.”

When lobbyists from both stakeholders were recently on stage together in Nashville addressing the Medicare For All topic, such as Matt Eyles (CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP)) and Chip Kahn (CEO of the Federation for American Hospitals), one could almost detect John Lennon’s epic song, “Give Peace A Chance” in the background. Kahn discussed a new organization that he formed, Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, and its purpose of ‘counter-messaging’ against the Medicare For All movement. Eyles acknowledged that AHIP was one of the first groups to become part of this new organization.

Healthcare Prices – Who is at Fault?

The camaraderie found in Medicare For All quickly vanishes when stakeholders are simply asked why healthcare prices are so high. This healthcare ‘hot potato’ can quickly determine just how deep-seated relationships are (or not) between major industry players. The April 15 cover of Modern Healthcare appropriately illustrates fingers pointing at each other, deflecting the price question and placing the blame elsewhere. Additionally, when leaders from Pharmacy Benefit Managers and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) have appeared in front of the Senate Finance Committee during the past few months to justify their pricing methods, both pointed fingers at one another (insurers also), making sure that their respective organizations and industry were not to blame.

Deflecting responsibility and other self-preservation behaviors will only add to the desire to seek alternative solutions that can reform a grossly underperforming and bloated healthcare system. Stakeholder organizations and industries must decide whether they want to be part of the solution – or, at their own peril – continue to pursue their ‘business-as-usual’ behavior that benefits no one – but themselves.

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Wellness Programs – New Study Confirms Cautioned Approach

During the past seven years, I have written a fair number of posts regarding wellness programs offered by employers. The core message of all blogs suggests that employers must have realistic expectations about what wellness initiatives will or will not do within the workplace.

A recent randomized clinical study published in JAMA is yet another reminder for employers to have tepid expectations when trying to keep their employees happy, healthy and less likely to incur more health costs. The study found that workplace wellness programs do not cut healthcare costs for employers, reduce absenteeism or improve the health of employees.

From the University of Chicago and Harvard, researchers used a large-scale approach that was peer-reviewed and included a more sophisticated design when analyzing BJ’s Wholesale Clubs. BJ’s has about 33,000 employees across 160 clubs. This analysis compared 20 randomly-assigned clubs that offered wellness programs with 140 BJ’s clubs that did not.

After 18 months of timeline analysis, this study revealed that wellness programs did not result in health measure differences, such as: improved blood sugar or glucose levels, reduced healthcare costs or absenteeism, or impacted job performance in a positive manner. In other words, employees with a wellness program did not experience reduced healthcare costs and other desired affects. I suppose one could argue that a year and one half was not enough comparison time to develop these conclusions.

One of the authors of this study, Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, put it quite succinctly in a Kaiser Health News article: “[But] if employers are offering these programs in hopes that health spending and absenteeism will go down, this study should give them pause.”

What are your expectations about workplace wellness? Do you believe such programs, when appropriately and thoughtfully implemented, will greatly mitigate your healthcare costs, improve workforce productivity and reduce absenteeism? Maybe you feel these programs are a waste. From our 2012 Iowa Employer Benefits Study, employers shared their perceived ‘return on investment’ on the programs they currently had in place.

According to a 2013 “Workplace Wellness Programs Study” by researchers at the RAND Corporation, these programs only have a modest effect. This runs contrary to claims made by wellness firms that sell workplace wellness programs to employers. The report found that people who participate in wellness initiatives lose an average of only one pound a year for three years. Another finding is that employee participation in such plans “was not associated with significant reductions in total cholesterol level.” Smoking-cessation programs show some potential, but only “in the short term.”

Most likely, both skeptics and supporters of wellness initiatives will find ammunition to support their cause. Workplace wellness programs have grown to an $8 billion industry in the U.S., primarily as a direct result of rising employer health insurance costs.

This latest report may help stabilize any pre-conceived lofty expectations each of us may have about the benefits of workplace wellness programs. However, it must be noted that some employers have found value in these programs.

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Optical Illusions of Healthcare ‘Reality’

I spend a great deal of time studying healthcare issues, giving balanced attention to both the ‘delivery’ and ‘payment’ of medical care. Admittedly, I have my own biases. How healthcare is delivered in our country is largely dependent on the incentives and disincentives that come from the payment side of our healthcare infrastructure. As a result, the fallout from the misalignment of these incentives cause a great deal of unintentional consequences.

It is true there are positive stories about exceptional doctors and medical staff who shine brightly when caring for patients. In fact, their work can be awe-inspiring, as most people performing this work are honorable and want to do the right thing for patients. However, these well-intentioned professionals are relegated to work in systems ill-equipped for them to consistently succeed. This too-often causes morale problems that can eventually lead to job burnout for medical professionals – which adversely impacts all of us.

For me, cynicism about our healthcare ‘system’ has become a way of life. Key healthcare players are legally allowed to operate within their own myopic sphere to justify their ‘value’ within increasingly complex – yet profitable – inter-related sectors that suck oxygen from our economy. What escalating costs are doing to our families and to our economy, to put it mildly, remains deeply disturbing. Healthcare’s inability to control costs continues to shortchange other sectors of our economy. Opaqueness and creating illusions are important tools to ensuring the status quo will not go away soon.

Within the span of two hours one recent morning, I perused the following topics that fed my skepticism about the true intent of the healthcare sector:

Axios – Executive Pay Packages

This article analyzed the pay of CEOs from 70 of the largest U.S. healthcare companies, who have, on a cumulative basis, earned $9.8 BILLION during the seven years following the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Why does this matter? Because the pay packages rarely, if ever, incentivize CEOs to control healthcare spending, eliminate unnecessary procedures, tests or devices and coordinate care. Instead, CEOs are motivated to sell more prescription drugs, perform more tests and procedures, purchase another practice/competitor and create new medical therapies that may not add value to one’s life. In short, CEOs are paid to “do anything to create higher earnings per share” for their shareholders.

My Takeaway: Developing an organizational infrastructure to ensure “value-based healthcare” is evidently dependent on someone else’s pay-scale.

Modern Healthcare – Other Revenue Streams are the Priority

Ninety percent of surveyed hospital and health-system executives have an “urgent priority” to find new revenue streams in the next three years due to downward revenue pressure causing massive financial headwinds to their profitability goals. In healthcare, it is all about revenue growth.

My Takeaway: Too bad the revenue streams derived from patient-centric and safety programs are paltry when compared to other appealing opportunities being pursued by these executives.

A transcript of the most recent ‘Fixing Healthcare’ podcast – Perverse Incentives

Dr. Robert Pearl and Jeremy Corr interviewed Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, Editor-in-Chief at Kaiser Health News. Dr. Rosenthal does not mince words within this podcast, or in her bestselling book, An American Sickness, as well as other articles she has carefully researched and written. Within this nearly one-hour interview, Rosenthal pointed out many perverse bugaboos found in U.S. healthcare – many of which I have previously written about over the years. But one particular comment she made was screaming at me. Largely unnoticed in mainstream media is the perverse incentive for insurance companies to have little motivation to keep costs down. Yes, you heard me right.

Under the ACA, a well-intentioned, but flawed regulation was directed at insurance companies to spend 80 to 85 percent of premiums on medical care – a much larger chunk than what was spent by some insurers in the pre-ACA era. Put another way, insurers are bound by this rule to not spend more than 20 percent of individual and 15 percent of small-group premium revenue on administration, marketing and profit. On the surface, this seems to make sense. Insurance companies must spend a higher proportion of premiums on medical care, rather than retain as profit. However, insurers can skirt around this issue by paying inflated medical bills so that they can retain a larger piece of the cost pie. This certainly benefits the medical providers, as well. To be sure, this is seldom (if ever) admitted by industry insiders – and is also very difficult to prove this is intentionally done.

My Takeaway: No wonder why larger employers and states are looking to bypass the inflated appearance of negotiated ‘discounts’ arranged by insurance companies, and instead, directly negotiate payment arrangements with providers based on methods tied to lower Medicare costs. But when this happens, using the state of North Carolina as an example, hospitals and insurers balk at this approach.

Health Affairs Blog – Health Costs Major Concern for Americans

This blog is a direct result of the previous behaviors briefly described earlier. Cost-shifting fatigue is taking its toll on the payers. One quarter of surveyed U.S. adults reported that cost was the nation’s most pressing healthcare issue, while 61 percent indicated that paying higher premiums (or a greater portion of medical expenses) was a “major concern.” About one-half of U.S. adults worry they will not have enough money to afford care.

My Takeaway: The ‘optics’ in healthcare are alive – indeed thriving.  The hypnotic messages you hear and see from many key stakeholders may not be the reality we wish and hope to have. The desire to ‘reform’ our healthcare infrastructure to become more affordable with better outcomes runs contrary with how major stakeholders are being incentivized and motivated to act. Re-engineering appropriate incentives (and disincentives) is necessary before we can obtain meaningful progress. Until this happens, the chairs are on the Titanic are merely being rearranged for appearance purposes only.

Skepticism, especially in healthcare, can be a virtue. Accepting the truth that this is happening is the first step of recovery.

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