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Eliminating Unnecessary and Inappropriate Care – Could Health Premiums Drop to 2010 Levels?

Here’s a quiz regarding the estimated annual cost of inappropriate and unnecessary healthcare in the U.S.  Please select the answer you believe reflects the best cost estimate:

a. $210 billionInstitute of Medicine (2013)
b. $265 billionOliver Wyman (2017)
c. $393 – $958 billionGoodman, et al. (2011)
d. $1 trillion + – Various sources
e. No one really knows

The correct answer is, “e,” as measurements vary widely based on different methodologies – such as the year it was performed, and just how broad the term, ‘inappropriate,’ was used in each analysis. However, as new reports become published, unnecessary care is typically considered between 20 and 30 percent of overall needed care. In fact, based on a 2017 study of surveyed physicians regarding unnecessary care, physicians reported that more than 20 percent of overall care was not needed. Yes, even physicians acknowledge that at least one-fifth of care is not appropriate!

Despite the ABIM Foundation’sChoosing Wisely” campaign, which began in 2010 and has been widely adopted by at least 80 specialty societies, 75 percent of physicians believe unnecessary care is still a serious problem. Additionally, 69 percent said the average practitioner ordered useless tests and procedures at least once a week. Noted physician, Marty Makary of Johns Hopkins University, theorized that “Ninety percent of C-sections are unnecessary; 80 percent of stents are inappropriate; and 30 percent of people with cancer get the wrong treatment.”

But our broken healthcare ‘system’ allows for defective and unsuitable care to be paid out anyway. In a $3.5 trillion healthcare industry, inappropriate costs can account for as much as 30 percent of the total healthcare economy, or over $1 trillion annually. To put this number into perspective, the Congressional Budget Office reported that U.S. defense spending during fiscal year 2017 was $590 billion.

The above estimates do not specifically include another form of ‘waste’ as it relates to the fragmentation of care – the complexity of administering healthcare. This complexity leads to additional indirect costs and duplication of effort because there are so many different health plan payers with a myriad of administration functions. Functions which cause providers to hire additional staff to meet health plan requirements, like pre-authorization, administering various billing methods, etc. This is yet another problem with add-on costs that provide little-to-no value in a system already wrought with excessive waste of unnecessary care. I will not be addressing waste due to indirect costs in this blog.

Unnecessary and Inappropriate Care

Unnecessary and inappropriate care commonly consists of wasted spending due to ‘defensive medicine,’ whereby physicians order more (than necessary) tests and procedures to avoid potential malpractice lawsuits. Some studies suggest this amount of waste is not as great than commonly thought, perhaps less than three percent of overall costs. Another reason for inappropriate care is due to patients wanting unnecessary care. Misdiagnosis (overdiagnosis or no-diagnosis) also impacts the overall cost of healthcare. Of course, medical mistakes, both preventable and otherwise, also greatly impact healthcare costs, in addition to societal costs for patients and our communities.

Put another way, if inappropriate care could somehow be scrubbed from the healthcare system, it would make sense that our costs (premiums and, consequently, out-of-pocket expenditures for care) would correspondingly drop by a commensurate amount. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, employer-sponsored health coverage continues to cover more American workers than earlier this century. Employer-sponsored plans in 2017 covered 156 million people, dwarfing the next largest form of health coverage, Medicaid (74 million).

Employer plan costs would be greatly impacted by eliminating inappropriate and unnecessary care. Another big takeaway: Employee takehome pay would increase, providing an economic boost.

Paying 2010 Premiums

In 2018, the 19th Iowa Employer Benefits Study© reported that the average monthly single and family health premiums were approximately $573 and $1,454, respectively. If about one-third of inappropriate care was eliminated, these rates would also be reduced, presumably by the same ratio (if we assume waste is across the board in all medical settings and procedures – and it appears to be). The newly-adjusted (unscientific) rates would now become $401 (single) and $1,017 (family) – rates that we have not seen in Iowa since our 2010 Iowa Employer Benefits Study©.

If we could eliminate ineffective, harmful and wasted care, we could revert to paying insurance premiums we paid eight years ago – even without eliminating bloated administrative costs. In the past, medical cost trends have historically exceeded the consumer price index, but by eliminating this excessive waste, and assuming the waste is continuously ‘engineered out’ of the delivery system, the medical-cost trend should be more favorable in the future. The problem, however, is not a small one. This problem comes from the idiom, “One man’s loss is another man’s gain.”

No organization or practitioner desires to lose revenue, because their income would be adversely impacted. Yet, obfuscating the cost by using chargemasters, backroom discount pricing methods and other unorthodox means to keep costs opaque serve no one other than those who allow our system to be ‘gamed’ for profitable purposes. Smarter regulation, appropriate technology and quality improvements can all reduce waste. Additionally, we must find the antithesis of greed.

As a country, think about how such ‘savings’ could be diverted to fund other programs that would proactively impact population health. We live in a world of trade offs, and trading wasted care (and its’ associated cost) with preventive health-related programs seems to make a lot of sense.

Market-Based Healthcare?

Let’s be honest. Our healthcare ‘system’ is not a true market-based model. It is different from any other part of our economy. True market-based models are characterized by three things not currently found in U.S. healthcare:

  1. Transparency in cost and quality.
  2. Accountability for care across the continuum (payment would be connected to outcomes that really matter).
  3. Information that allows for consumer choice and competition – patients need to be treated as consumers when appropriate.

All three allow us to get to the value of care, and ultimately, a market-based model that would theoretically provide checks and balances to keep the system ‘honest.’

Overall, a market-based model has more clarity around the producer, the seller and the buyer.  Historically in healthcare, the buyer (consumer) has not been part of the equation.  It is not yet clear the role in which the buyer will play as the healthcare system evolves. Currently, healthcare services are paid by somebody else – such as employers (offsetting employee pay), insurance companies or the government. This disconnect between the seller and producer from the ultimate consumer allows for perverse behaviors which are not commonly found in other market-based systems.

Payments Must Incent Appropriate Outcomes

Until we have payment systems that reward appropriately-determined outcomes, a market-driven system in healthcare will be merely a dream, not reality. In fact, if our hodge-podge system continues without much needed disruption, a true market-based system may not have a chance to see daylight. Market systems may wring out the unnecessary additive costs over time, but this cannot be done without having the three components in place as mentioned earlier.

The simple question is this: How can we turn back the clock to eight years ago and pay what we really should be paying today? Eric Coldwell, an analyst with Baird Equity Research put it quite succinctly when describing the push for transparency and value-based care: “The U.S. healthcare system is a sandcastle and the tide is coming in.”

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Caregiving Crisis – Employers Beware

Iowa is fortunate to have many jobs available for applicants, but unfortunately, there are not enough bodies to fill those positions. According to a 2017 Wall Street Journal article, Iowa, and 11 other Midwestern states have experienced a net outflow of 1.3 million people between 2010 and July 2017. In fact, if every unemployed person in 12 Midwestern states was placed into an open job, there would still be 180,000+ unfilled positions. The Iowa Workforce Development recently announced the number of unemployed Iowans in December (2018) is 40,600, an historic low of 2.4 percent. Iowa has THE lowest unemployment rate in the U.S.  (The U.S. unemployment rate in December moved up to 3.9 percent.)

To combat low unemployment, Iowa along with other states have developed plenty of free programs to train low-skilled workers for higher-skilled positions. For the second consecutive year, Iowa was named by Site Selection magazine as the Midwest’s top state for workforce training and development.  Another 2018 Wall Street Journal article indicated that Iowa’s extremely low unemployment rate has drawn “thousands of workers off the sidelines…with the share of Iowa adults working or seeking work at 67.9 percent in February (2018), nearly five percentage points more than the national average.” Rural Iowa employers have it more challenging, as the pool of local talent is just not there to fill positions.

Caregiver Responsibilities at Home

Now comes yet another challenge, but not just for Iowa employers. A new national survey by a pair of Harvard Business School researchers found that employers are likely to underestimate the struggle their employees have when balancing their professional and caregiving responsibilities. Caregiver responsibilities include providing for children and elderly parents. In fact, about three-quarters of U.S. employees face caregiving responsibilities, of which, 32 percent have left their job because they were unable to balance work and family duties. If employers fail to provide support for caregiving responsibilities, they will pay the hidden costs of presenteeism, absenteeism, turnover and rehiring.

This study was based on surveys of both employers and employees. A key finding was that despite more than 80 percent of employees saying their responsibilities at home kept them from doing their best at work, only 24 percent of employers believed that caregiving was affecting their employees’ performance. This enormous divide is troubling, yet it can also help nudge employers to understand what they can do to retain employees, especially during a very tight labor market.

Other study highlights include:

  • Younger employees, ages 26 to 35, were more likely to leave a job because of caregiving responsibilities.
  • Hard-to-replace higher-paid employees and those in managerial or executive positions were also most likely to quit.
  • More men than women said they left a job because of family needs.
  • As the nation ages, caregiving responsibilities are expected to grow. The Census Bureau projects that for every 100 working-age Americans, aged 18 to 64, there will be 72 people outside that range by 2030, an increase from 59 in 2010.
  • With an increasing share of jobs expected to require a college degree or beyond, the loss of many women could exacerbate labor shortages in the future.

This study caught my interest because, for the first time since we began in our employer benefits study in 1999, we will ask a series of work-life and convenience questions in our 20th Iowa Employer Benefits Study©. Among asking many work-life benefit questions, we will learn about the prevalence of the following caregiver benefits offered by Iowa employers, such as:

  • Personal days
  • Sabbatical leave
  • Adoption leave
  • Foster child leave
  • Leave to attend a child’s activities
  • Maternity leave
  • Paternity leave
  • Child-care subsidies
  • Elder-care subsidies
  • On-site or near-site child and/or elder care
  • And more…

As we learned from surveying both Iowa employers and their employees in our 2007 Iowa Employment Values Study©, there can be a great disconnect between what employees’ desire at the workplace versus what their employers think is important to employees. The aging of the Iowa workforce, in addition to the challenges faced by young families can cause caregiver ‘tension’ that adversely impacts both employees and the unsuspecting employer. To address these challenges, Iowa employers must search for new ways to further accommodate the changing workforce environment pressures that are vital to employee well-being and, consequently, their productivity.

Sometime this summer, our 2019 survey will reveal new results about the prevalence of caregiver programs offered by Iowa employers. Such benefits, I suspect, will vary greatly by industry and by employer-size categories.

To stay abreast of employee benefits and healthcare issues, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.

Hospital Pricing Mandate – A Sort of ‘Bird Box’ Reality

NOTE: This photo is not Sandra Bullock, but rather, a healthcare shopper seeking assistance online.

Over the holidays, my daughter and I watched a newly-released Netflix movie, ‘Bird Box.’ Other than having Sandra Bullock as the lead actress, I knew nothing about the film. The plot of this show, without issuing a spoiler alert, is that some unknown force mysteriously destroys the earth’s population, and the only certainty of survival is to not ‘see’ this evil. To remain alive, survivors must cover their eyes from the evil that chases them. One small peek can spell doom for those curious. In this riveting movie, having blindfold vigilance is the difference between life and death.

Recent findings in the January issue of the Health Affairs journal reveals that higher costs, not better patient care, serve as the primary explanation on why the U.S. spends much more on healthcare than other developed countries. Researchers found that U.S. healthcare spending was $9,892 per person in 2016, about 25 percent more than second-place Switzerland, which averaged $7,919 per person. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, is less than half of what we spend, $4,753.

The drivers for this enormous cost chasm, according to this article, is that the U.S. has higher drug prices, higher salaries for doctors and nurses, higher hospital administration costs and, yes, higher prices for many other medical services. Despite these costs, Americans have less access to many healthcare services than residents of other developed countries. A perfect storm, we might say. I have reported similar findings in a prior blog.

To make matters worse, the same study indicated that in 2015, there were 7.9 practicing nurses and 2.6 practicing physicians for every 1,000 Americans, compared to OECD medians of 9.9 nurses and 3.2 physicians. The long-term prospects of our numbers improving are not promising. Also in 2015, the U.S. had only 7.5 new medical school graduates per 100,000 people, considerably less than the median of 12.1 in developed countries.

Certainly, there must be some good news to share with you, right? Yes…and no.

Hospital Price Transparency Requirement

The prices we pay for hospital care, clinics, surgery centers, and prescribed medications, are usually unknown until sometime AFTER the interaction – typically following review and payment by our insurance vendor. The healthcare infrastructure gives much lip service to patient centricity, but follow through is underwhelming, to put it mildly. Transparency is extremely important these days because most Iowans and Americans are required by their health plans to pay higher deductibles and co-pays when seeking medical care.

Beginning January 1, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) is attempting to force price transparency by requiring all hospitals to post their list prices online. Under this arrangement, hospitals are required to publish a list of their standard charges online in a “machine-readable” format and to update this information at least annually. Hospitals are currently required to make this information publicly available or available upon request.

On the surface, this appears to be a hopeful beginning for all shoppers – and it is. However, when I look at hospital websites in Iowa and elsewhere, mandated compliance is far from patient centric. Using two of the largest hospital systems in Des Moines as proof – Mercy Medical Center and UnityPoint – we have a long way to go before price transparency nirvana can be reached.

Mercy Medical Center – Des Moines

The Mercy ‘Cost Estimator’ tab begins with a disclaimer that any costs published are nothing more than ‘estimates.’ The price-shopping patient must first click the “I Agree” button before being allowed to advance to the next page, which is sort of a magical mystery tour (special thanks to Lennon and McCartney). This page shows a similar disclaimer that all prices are mere ‘estimates,’ (special thanks this time to lawyers and marketing). In the left margin, we find links to a dozen ‘body systems’ that will allow price-shoppers to analyze procedures, median charges, various percentile charges, MS-DRG/CPT and Codes.

Not to be outdone, an exhausting ‘list of current standard charges’ is found subtly at the bottom of the ‘Body System’ list. Progress is now being made (tongue in cheek), as the price-shopper (hopefully not needing urgent care while searching for helpful prices) can find a treasure trove of data in an Excel spreadsheet:

  • CDM Numbers
  • Code Descriptions
  • CPT Codes
  • Revenue Codes
  • Charge

This spreadsheet shows 40,054 charge description masters (CDMs), which are incomprehensible medical procedures that are a hodgepodge of numbers and technical medical terms. One example is the 46040 4405 Abscess I&D Ischiorect, which has a charge (before discounts) of $10,936.  Huh?

In fairness to Mercy Medical Center, largely due to their repeated disclaimers, my expectations for finding value were set reasonably low. Put another way, I would not use this website as a shopper, as it is absolutely meaningless. Hospitals provide this data (and the gibberish language that comes with it) only because they are federally required to do so, not because they have a profound desire to empower patients.

Have you ever bought a non-medical product or service using ‘estimated’ prices? I didn’t think so…nor have I.

UnityPoint Health

UnityPoint’s ‘prices’ are found in the tab aptly labeled, ‘Patient Charges and Costs.’ On this page, the hospital does a reasonable job of explaining what the charges are…and are not. About halfway down this page the price-shopper can find two links that provide “Des Moines’s current charge information as of December 31, 2018,” in addition to “Des Moines’s standard Diagnosis-Related Group charge information as of December 31, 2018.” Each link will take the shopper to Excel spreadsheets that make little to no sense…even for someone like me, who makes a living using spreadsheets.

UnityPoint also provides a link to Iowa Hospital Charges Compare, a website provided by the Iowa Hospital Association. In addition to comparing ‘estimated’ hospital inpatient services by selected Iowa hospitals, it also provides ‘estimated’ prices for outpatient surgery procedures.

Trying to determine hospital prices in advance of a test, procedure or stay is daunting, frustrating and futile. This new hospital ‘transparency’ requirement is a very small step that needs a rocket boost into the 21st Century. What price-shoppers now see on hospital websites come from ‘chargemasters,’ which are massive compendiums of prices set by each hospital for every service or drug a patient receives. Historically, even hospital administrators can be flummoxed by how chargemasters are established.

But the real issue is that each published price is nothing more than a ‘list’ or ‘estimated’ cost. Currently, most procedures are still being charged separately, and are not bundled together. In most hospital encounters, it is extremely difficult to determine whether additional procedures will be required PRIOR to the patient entering the hospital. On top of this, the negotiated price of any claim is determined by the third-party payer (e.g. insurance companies, self-funded plans, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) the shopper uses. Additionally, hospital location and the shopper’s specific health plan features (deductibles, coinsurance, etc.) will also determine the final cost.

Here’s a novel concept: Instead of pricing their services using the ‘horseshoes and hand grenades’ approach, hospitals could take the initiative and partner with ‘motivated’ insurance payers to develop a patient-friendly tool that provides legitimate ‘real-time’ prices along with patient-specific health plan out-of-pocket calculators. This sounds much too simple, doesn’t it?

Transparency WITHOUT the blindfold

To stay alive, Sandra Bullock needed to keep her blindfold close by before navigating outdoors. Healthcare shoppers, on the other hand, are trying remove their blindfolds to make appropriate decisions when seeking high-value healthcare. Unfortunately, to maintain the status quo, the current healthcare infrastructure works very hard to keep the blindfolds tight and opaque. But, to do the right thing in healthcare, we must tear down the existing silos of self-interest that dominate the care that Iowans and Americans deserve – and pay for.

Much work needs to be done to find this common good. By doing so, our blindfolds may finally be removed and clarity revealed.

To stay abreast of employee benefits and healthcare issues, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.