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Psst…Bezos, Dimon and Buffett: Let’s Lift the Veil on Medical Prices

This past week, we learned of a bombshell joint announcement from three significant U.S. business leaders on fixing our healthcare system: Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Jamie Dimon (JPMorgan Chase) and Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway). These three individuals and organizations plan to form a new independent healthcare company for their 1.1 million employees in the U.S.  In the past, many other large business organizations have attempted to transform this healthcare system that is ripe for disruption and widely considered wasteful and inefficient. To date, however, such activity has met limited success. Conventional wisdom suggests these three behemoth companies do not have critical market power to make inroads on transforming an industry intent on gobbling up more of the U.S. economy.

So, what is different with this latest announcement? Based on this rather skinny declaration, we know very little and only time will tell.

We do know, however, this ‘new’ approach cannot happen soon enough. David Cutler, a Harvard health economist, calculated that administration accounts for nearly a quarter of the total healthcare cost in the U.S. – double the rate in the next bloated country. Karl Vick wrote quite succinctly in TIME magazine: “The U.S. healthcare system is the antithesis of Silicon Valley. Grossly inefficient and user-unfriendly, it may be the least transparent enterprise outside of the Kremlin – and just as awash in money.”

Is it possible this new coalition may propel other employers (and other payers) to band together and look for local alternatives to drive transparency in an industry that is notorious for obfuscation? The common word that is often used to change a particular industry is ‘disruption.’ Harvard professor Clayton Christensen started the Christensen Institute to address how industries can be changed (disrupted), usually through technological innovation.

The ‘pricing’ veil – A personal experience

This past December, after experiencing dizziness and double-vision, coupled with a slightly slower speech pattern, a family member was taken to an urgent care center in Mankato, MN. After undergoing a few initial tests, it was recommended the patient be transferred by ambulance to a hospital two miles away – presumably for more in-depth testing that was not available at the urgent care facility. Needless to say, this sudden turn of events was loaded with confusion over the cause of the medical problem and the impending worry.

As a patient or a family member of a patient, we seldom are prepared for what issues and challenges we face when seeking care due to a sudden medical ‘episode’ or ‘emergency.’ In fact, we typically fly by the seat of our pants when we enter the unknown world of healthcare. Even the well-intentioned medical staff are sometimes bewildered by the symptoms and possible causes of those symptoms.

Confusion reigns further when, in our case, the hospital’s electronic medical records don’t communicate with the tests previously performed at the urgent care center just 30 minutes earlier – even though both facilities are part of the same medical system! Because of this, identical tests (EKGs, blood work-up, etc.) were replicated at the hospital – unnecessary charges equating to additional costs for the payers – and increased revenue for the provider(s). I’m still working on that issue, by the way.

Thankfully, my brother and his wife were with us, which was both comforting and beneficial while attempting to discern the next course of action relating to tests and treatments. By default, we quickly assumed the role of being the ‘patient advocate’ – a daunting task.

Gratefully, the bank of medical tests found no cause for the aforementioned symptoms, although not knowing the cause remains a concern. As many of you know, the shock does not end when the patient is discharged following a litany of medical tests that occurred during a two-night stay. The second shock wave arrived a few weeks later in the form of an ambulance invoice in the snail mail and a host of ‘explanation of benefits’ found on our carrier’s website for all the other charges that occurred at the urgent care center and hospital.

The invoice for a two-mile ambulance joyride was only $1,887.79, while the urgent care facility chimed in at about $5,744.* The hospital invoice for tests and a two-night stay represented the price of a brand spanking new mid-level automobile – $24,579.40. All told, the total charges were $32,211.19, while the carrier applied their ‘network savings’ of $2,779.35.

In their recent article, “Why the U.S. Spends So Much More Than Other Nations on Health Care,” authors Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll make the case, using a recent study in JAMA along with other research, that higher prices are the real culprit, more so than higher utilization of services by Americans when compared to residents of other countries. Yes, despite the increase in population size and the aging of U.S. citizens, health spending greatly outpaced the spending found in other countries, even after adjusting for other factors. Ashish Jha, a physician with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is quoted in the Frakt/Carroll piece saying, “The U.S. just isn’t that different from other developed countries in how much healthcare we use. It is very different in how much we pay for it.

Why is this ‘pricing’ problem happening in the U.S., you might ask? Much of this has to do with fundamental limitations of competition in the American healthcare system. This veil of secrecy has little to no accountability on how prices are determined. Bezos, Dimon and Buffett are looking to blow up this highly-guarded industry standard. The rest of us can no longer afford to play the role of ‘innocent bystanders.’

After discussing the dearth of sensibility in healthcare pricing with a friend who works in the insurance industry, he sent me the following comical YouTube clip that cleverly attempts to address the medical price conundrum.

My recent family experience was yet another reminder that no matter our professional background, seldom are we prepared to confront the shock and confusion of the healthcare we receive…and the bills that result from that care.

The status quo in healthcare must be blown up. If existing players and stakeholders resist being part of real solutions, then the eventual sea change will sweep them into a new reality that may be difficult to survive.

As ‘real’ payers of healthcare, maybe employers can become the change they wish to see in the healthcare industry. After all, sometimes business interests can align with those of humans.

But only time will tell.

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*Some billing discrepancies remain while attempting to discern a number of charges found on Mayo’s list billing with what was paid by my insurance carrier.  The list-billing from Mayo, I’m convinced, was clearly not meant to be a consumer-friendly document.

The Medical Error Problem – Do Employers Have Solutions?

Medical errors do not discriminate. In fact, preventable medical errors occur on an ‘equal-opportunity’ basis to patients, regardless of age, gender, race, political ideology and the type of medical plan you may (or may not) have. This means that employer-sponsored health plans are not exempt from medical mishaps and the associated costs that come with this problem.

Although the cost to employers can be massive – it is opaque and mostly hidden. Leah Binder, president of The Leapfrog Group, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to address the quality, safety and affordability of American healthcare, has stated the cost associated with this unintended harm that silently creeps into the premiums that employers and employees pay – is a “hidden surcharge.”

This ‘surcharge’ not only includes additional costs to fix the medical problem resulting from the error, but the lost productivity of absenteeism and presenteeism – when employees lose time away from work and the emotional toll it takes when they do show up for work.

Simply put, employers own this problem, whether they know it or not. Relying on your insurance company or vendor to apply leverage on healthcare providers is most likely a delusional strategy in trying to improve this problem.

A 2013 Leapfrog Group white paper calculates that hospitals with a grade of “A” on their Hospital Safety Grade (hospitals who participate in Leapfrog surveys that rate patient safety efforts), will have a hidden surcharge for medical errors of $6,962, while a hospital with a grade of “C” or lower will command a hidden surcharge of $958 higher ($7,920 total). It is quite evident, especially when it comes to safety of medical care, not all hospitals are created equal. This is a fact that both patients and payers alike must acknowledge – and address.

Recently, Leapfrog announced that five states showed the most improvement over the five-year period since the Hospital Safety Grade’s inception. The states are Oregon, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Wisconsin and Idaho. Just as politics is considered to be local, so too is the healthcare that is delivered to patients. Though patient safety is a national problem, the solutions must begin locally, within each of our communities and within state borders. See how Iowa ranks in the most recent Leapfrog rankings.

With this in mind, what can Iowa employers do about patient safety issues? Actually, quite a bit.

What can Iowa Employers do about Patient Safety Issues?

Heartland Health Research Institute recently wrote a fact sheet, “What Employers Can Do About Medical Errors,” that addresses at least six approaches Iowa employers can consider taking to reduce the incidence of medical errors. The approaches include:

  1. Make insurance contracting decision-making process part of the medical error strategy.
  2. Develop a coalition with other like-minded employers and purchasers in your community.
  3. Meet with local hospital(s) and clinic(s) to convey the importance of safety and quality – require they demonstrate ‘cultures of safety’ within their respective organizations.
  4. Actively communicate the importance of safety issues to employees.
  5. Encourage employees to report medical errors when they occur.
  6. Visit with both state and federally-elected officials, trade association groups in which your organization participates, and other local commerce organizations.

It is tough sledding to make policy recommendations that would have a chance of becoming law. Instead, to disrupt healthcare into being delivered more safely, it really must begin with those who actually pay the healthcare bills – the employers and their employees, and yes, the taxpayers who ultimately fund Medicare and Medicaid and other state healthcare programs. In the past, this applied-pressure usually started (and ended) with only the largest of employers. But for this new movement to gain local traction, employers of all sizes and industries must embrace the approach that there is zero-tolerance for preventable medical errors.

Just remember, when we don’t demand safety in our healthcare, they don’t supply it. There’s no better time than now to begin taking action.

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Supporting a State-Based Mandate for Health Insurance – A Bi-Partisan Approach

Supporting a State-Based Mandate for Health Insurance - A Bi-Partisan ApproachEvery now and then, I will read something relating to healthcare policy that makes some sense to me, regardless of the writer’s political perspective. I don’t spend much time writing about healthcare policy issues, primarily because the politics of enacting anything that makes sense is, at best, a crapshoot, and, at worst, a waste of my time – and yours! I’ll leave this discussion to the ‘policy wonks.’ Additionally, the legacy lobbyists are thick in Washington and state houses determined to control the process of what eventually becomes policy – usually for the betterment of their own interests. They also have a stockpile of financial resources to ensure their insulated world does not become too disrupted anytime soon.

There, I said it.

The new tax law ends Obamacare’s requirement that nearly all Americans purchase health insurance coverage or pay a fine. With this, I do expect to see some states search for ways to shore up their individual health insurance markets by passing their own state-level mandates to keep many of their residents insured. In addition to Massachusetts’ mandate dating back to 2006, other states such as California, Washington, Maryland, and the District of Columbia may take measures to pursue their own specific mandates.

In the December 28 ‘Editorial Counterpoint’ found in the StarTribune, Minnesota state senator (and physician), Scott Jensen, a Republican from Chaska, wrote a piece, ‘Why we should start talking about a state mandate.’ Jensen suggests that Minnesota-elected leaders begin discussion on establishing a state mandate for individual healthcare insurance coverage – because it is the right thing to do. Jensen does a wonderful job of reaching across the aisle to do something they were elected to do.

I particularly appreciate the bipartisanship approach Jensen gives to this discussion – which is a great way to begin 2018. Instead of paraphrasing his editorial, I have included the entire article. By the way, for those of us from Iowa, just insert ‘Iowa’ whenever you see ‘Minnesota’ – including references to the Governor. Do I advocate that Iowa embrace all of the specifics as described by this elected MN official? Not necessarily. But I do support his attempt to find common ground on a topic that has become too polarized and unsustainable for most every state.

Scott Jensen’s Editorial

Helping someone at the scene of a recent auto accident sparked in me a resolve to publicly address health care costs and universal critical care coverage. I firmly believe Minnesotans want their elected leaders to stop drawing lines in the sand, stop the partisan quibbling, redouble their efforts to get something done with the health care crisis and do it in the coming 2018 session.

I have been asked if I would support a discussion regarding a state-based mandate for health care (“After lost mandate, what’s next for care?” editorial, Dec. 24). Yes, I would engage such a conversation — why wouldn’t I? Health care is infected with big problems, and easy solutions are not looming on the horizon. Legislators are in no position to close their minds to an idea that has received support from both sides of the aisle over the last 30 years.

In 1989, an individual mandate to purchase health care insurance was championed by the politically conservative Heritage Foundation when Stuart Butler wrote: “If a young man wrecks his Porsche and has not had the foresight to obtain insurance, we may commiserate, but society feels no obligation to repair his car. But health care is different. If a man is struck down by a heart attack in the street, Americans will care for him whether or not he has insurance.”

An individual mandate resonates with conservative principles of personal responsibility, and comparisons are often made to similar requirements for auto insurance. But it is crucial to realize that an individual mandate requiring insurance companies to include too many “essential” benefits will likely sabotage the affordability and sustainability of such a mandate. Patients are capable of championing their own health care, and they should be allowed to choose what they want to buy. Teetotalers should not be forced to buy inpatient chemical dependency coverage, and seniors may want to invest their dollars on maladies of aging rather than prenatal care. Choice matters!

Public and private entities have both indicated strong support for a health care insurance mandate. Brainstorming and discussion may help create a blueprint for catastrophic coverage for such essentials as hospitalization, access to generic and select trade name medications, emergency room visits for true emergencies and mental health problems. (Please trust my 30 years in the trenches on at least this one point — no one knows when a mental health crisis might occur, so coverage of some sort is indeed essential.)

Let’s not forget that Medicare started in 1965 as a limited part A hospital-only plan and it grew thereafter. We can take a lesson from this initiative. Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something. Indeed, we should do it now.
As a starting point, maybe everyone can agree that people should not die on the streets from heart attacks — but also that not every wart, runny nose or incidental hernia needs to be paid for by a third party.

But a mandate for health insurance is just one idea needing to be explored in the coming months, and individual coverage is not the only sector of the insurance marketplace clamoring for attention. Employer-based insurance is experiencing its own escalating affordability crisis. Some earnest soul-searching needs to happen at the Capitol — soon!

The Senate Select Committee on Health Care Consumer Access and Affordability has deliberated on numerous cost-reduction issues, including pharmaceutical prices, narrow networks, transparency of fees, low-value services, end-of-life decisions and protecting patient-doctor relationships.

As elected leaders, we need to roll up our sleeves and get the job done. If we don’t, we will have failed our constituents.

Hospitals all over the state are in trouble financially because too many bills go unpaid and charity care is crippling their ability to respond to community needs.

Parents and patients are being forced to make impossible choices as to whether critical medical care for their children or themselves should be subordinated to paying bills or house payments — a health crisis should not invoke fear of bankruptcy or a second mortgage.

Home health aides work for $12 per hour with no benefits, and the shortage of these compassionate servants intensifies while the sick and infirm pray for help and a bath.

The time has come for statesmanship — and this will require attention to patient choice, unintended consequences, sustainability, representation from both parties, civil tongues, and a passion for what best serves our state, our nation and the common good.

(Maybe now is the time for Gov. Mark Dayton to take the lead and host a breakfast with Senate and House leaders from both sides of the aisle to determine the level of resolve for addressing our health care crises in 2018. I suspect such a meeting would be more fruitful if cellphones, egos and sound bites are checked at the door.)

Final Comment

The best way to help individuals buy health insurance is to find ways to reduce the cost of it, such as disrupting how healthcare is both delivered and paid. This will require consensus from both sides of the aisle and willing stakeholders to disrupt the status quo.

In the meantime, we can periodically learn from our neighbors to the north.

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