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Iowa Employer Benefits Study© – An Annual Tradition to take a 1-year Sabbatical

All of us have established traditions in our lives, whether it be family or friend-related holiday plans, vacation travels to a favorite destination, attending or watching sporting events, and so on. Yet, due to circumstances beyond our control, such as time constraints, finances, death and adverse health problems, traditions are made to be altered, or possibly discontinued. After performing the annual Iowa Employer Benefits Study© for the past 18 years, I have decided to give the survey a ‘rest’ for one year. Believe me, this was not an easy decision. But after a great deal of personal and professional reflection, it is the right decision. My ‘tradition’ has now officially been altered.

In today’s world of perpetual political turmoil, healthcare – more specifically – health insurance, has become a political football. Hasty decisions are being made to benefit political promises, usually at the expense of pursuing sound policy practices. What has occurred in our nation’s capital in 2017 is akin to watching a surgeon perform knee surgery with a butter knife. The process has been extremely agonizing to witness and I find myself wincing as this grotesque process evolves.

Now more than ever, it is important to monitor employer-sponsored health insurance costs and components. After all, health insurance costs continue to outpace the Consumer Price Index (CPI) every year. Rising insurance costs have triggered a host of other health plan changes – forcing employers to offer the most competitive health insurance package that they can. I certainly don’t take this fact lightly.

But another fact is very important to me – the ‘value’ of care received. I firmly believe it should ALSO be on the radar screen for employers, their employees and the general public. Similar to how politician’s view our healthcare ‘system,’ employers appear to be mesmerized, rightfully so, by the insurance cost problems. Recently, Warren Buffett described medical costs as “the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness.”

This cost concern, however, tends to suck the necessary oxygen out of the room, crowding out badly-needed, laser-like attention and focus on key cost drivers that impact costs in the first place. This is ‘downstream’ thinking, the actions we take about fixing the symptoms of problems rather than concentrating on the issues that actually CAUSE the cost ‘pollution’ we find so objectionable. Being distracted with downstream symptoms has lulled us into believing that we simply need to fix the “insurance problem” and the ‘upstream’ pollution will miraculously go away. Inflated health costs are actually more harmful to us because we refuse to look beyond the insurance component to help address the cost conundrum.

This serves as the backdrop on why I decided to place the Iowa Employer Benefits Study© on a one-year sabbatical. It’s time to move ‘upstream‘ and disregard the naysayers who believe the status quo is much too difficult to confront. It is just too easy and expedient to continue the work downstream – making the appearance that something is being done to confront the cost issue. But if ‘optics’ matter, I’m in the wrong business.

In the next few weeks, I will reveal research I’ve wanted to conduct for the last number of years, but did not have the opportunity to pursue – until now. This work will be found under my companion organization, Heartland Health Research Institute. If you haven’t signed up to receive my HHRI posts, you may do so here.

Poet Robert Frost famously wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

This road may be lonely, but well worth the effort.

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An Economic Dilemma – Healthcare Jobs vs. Costs

There’s a growing paradox in our healthcare world: Since the Great Recession hit in 2007, 35 percent of the nation’s job growth has come from the healthcare sector. In the year 2000, healthcare employed 1-in-12 Americans, but now employs 1-in-9, thanks partly to the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA). Jobs are critical for any thriving economy, but it appears the U.S. economy has become increasingly dependent on one sector that has proven to be both highly inefficient and dysfunctional.

The dilemma? Maintaining affordable healthcare is not compatible with the health service sector’s job growth strategy.

A recent article in Health Affairs, “What’s Behind 2.5 Million New Health Jobs?” reported that from 2007 through 2016, there was about a 19 percent growth in new healthcare jobs. From this, hospital jobs grew by 11 percent, nursing and residential care by 12 percent, and ambulatory care by 30 percent.

More than half of the $3.4 trillion we spend on healthcare in this country is spent on labor, much of it on those who provide care. However, a growing segment of healthcare jobs come from our increasingly complex ‘system’ that can be described as an administrative nightmare. Data-entry clerks, revenue-cycle analysts and medical billing coders provide busy backroom work to a multitude of payers concerning the procedures that were performed on behalf of patients. Put another way, for every U.S. physician, there are 16 other healthcare workers. Half of those 16 are in administrative and other nonclinical positions. This is becoming a monster of a problem.

According to a report by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, administrative costs in the U.S. healthcare ‘system’ are the highest in the industrialized world. While the average global administration cost average is 3 percent, it is almost three times this amount in the U.S. (8 percent).

In Iowa, the Iowa Hospital Association (IHA) serves the advocacy role for 118 hospitals. From this, IHA conducts a frequent report to validate the economic impact hospitals have within their communities, which is presumably performed to counter public concerns or scrutiny about hospital behaviors and outcomes. We are often reminded that “hospitals are the economic engines that employ thousands of Iowans” and “create an enormous economic impact across the state.” In short, hospitals are a vital ‘jobs program’ that provide an economic “multiplier” effect to our communities.

On the surface, the presence of hospital jobs is extremely beneficial to having healthy and productive communities. After all, it does provide a boost to the local economies. But portraying hospital jobs as the “economic engine” in communities may be somewhat disingenuous – if not grossly misguided.

Salaries and benefits for healthcare jobs are essentially funded by those who pay taxes, higher-health premiums and higher out-of-pocket medical costs – all of which consequently result in stunting the growth of take-home pay from other parts of the economy. Having additional healthcare jobs creates a financial void. It reduces monies Americans have available to pay for groceries, mortgages, college tuition and other discretionary items that benefit families – including philanthropic causes. Equally important, local, state and federal governments are hard pressed to find additional money to pay for other critical functions that profoundly affect our communities and the future of our country – namely, our infrastructure and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

The problem with linking healthcare jobs with economic growth is perplexing. If having more healthcare jobs is the end goal because it creates more wealth within our communities, then maybe we should spend more on healthcare and allow the jobs component to flourish. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There is an opportunity cost, or trade-off, that will rob other (more efficient) alternative resources within our economy.

Instead of measuring the economic value of healthcare by counting the number of jobs it creates, how about accurately measuring the commensurate value in the outcomes we receive from the jobs we have financed? If we don’t receive greater ‘value’ from the care provided, then why create more jobs – or keep the existing jobs? The arguments made by the healthcare sector, therefore, should not be about job creation and growth, but rather, whether we are using our limited financial resources wisely. If not, we should put those resources to better use. I’m not an economist, but this should spark a basic economic discussion.

Rising employment in healthcare does not correlate with the goal of improving our health and economic well-being. In healthcare, unlike many other sectors of our economy, there are tradeoffs with the amount we can afford. It’s no surprise that the healthcare sector’s lobbying efforts are formidable. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization, healthcare companies spend millions annually on lobbying efforts to influence government officials and legislators, with the American Hospital Association (AHA) ranking second highest among all healthcare lobbyists (behind the American Medical Association) and fifth highest among all lobbyists since 1998 – a total of $332 million spent by the AHA. In 2016 alone, the AHA spent over $22 million to ‘educate’ public officials. Other health-related organizations, such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, the pharmaceutical industry and the AMA appeared very high on this Top Spenders List.

Despite the U.S. healthcare system being the most expensive in the world, the Commonwealth Fund reports the “U.S. underperforms relative to other countries on most dimensions of performance.” In America, we pay world-class prices for care that cannot be substantiated due largely to lax reporting requirements.

The healthcare sector’s primary purpose is not to be a jobs program, but rather, to safely deliver high-quality care to patients in our communities – and, do so responsibly, efficiently and transparently.

What are your thoughts?

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Why It Matters to Have Private Health Coverage

I should not be astonished, but I am.

In 1910, Dr. William J. Mayo wrote his view on making patients a central reason for his organization to exist: “The best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered, and in order that the sick may have the benefit of advancing knowledge, union of forces is necessary.”

But 107 years later, the healthcare landscape has changed, running opposite to Dr. Mayo’s credo.

A March 15 article in the Star Tribune revealed a healthcare system truth that some have suspected for years – that it’s a tier-system of care dependent on the type of health insurance card you carry in your wallet or purse. If you are fortunate to have private insurance coverage through your employer or have personally purchased it through a commercial insurance company, you should feel somewhat privileged. However, if you have Medicaid or Medicare coverage, please step to the back of the line.

Dr. John Noseworthy, CEO at the famed Mayo Clinic, was videotaped speaking to his staff last fall about giving preference to patients with private insurance over lower-paying public coverage (e.g. Medicaid and Medicare). “We’re asking…if the patient has commercial insurance, or they’re Medicaid or Medicare patients and they’re equal, that we prioritize the commercial insured patients enough so…we can be financially strong at the end of the year to continue to advance, advance our mission…”.

It is important to note that, regardless of payer source, Mayo will always take patients when they’re unable to find medical expertise elsewhere. However, when given two patients who have equivalent medical conditions, the Mayo health system will “prioritize” the patient with private insurance – private plans pay Mayo (and all other providers) more than public coverages. Noseworthy continued, “If we don’t grow the commercially insured patients, we won’t have income at the end of the year to pay our staff, pay the pensions, and so on…so we’re looking for a really mild or modest change of a couple percentage points to shift that balance.”

Hospitals are not allowed to discriminate against patients seeking care in the emergency room. Outside the ER walls, however, providers can choose to accept (or decline) Medicaid and Medicare patients. Mayo recently indicated to Modern Healthcare that Medicare and Medicaid patients account for half of their services, but with more baby boomers becoming eligible for Medicare, coupled with Medicaid expansion, Mayo is looking to have higher-paying private insurance offset the shortfalls received from public health plans.

The ‘dirty little secret’ of establishing a pecking order of patients, based on payment sources, has not been widely known. In that sense, kudos to Mayo for their honesty, as it appears they are not attempting to sweep this fact under the rug. Yet, the Mayo acknowledgement that commercially-insured patients would get preferential consideration in certain situations should raise questions for those of us who are covered by private payers.

If the provider community establishes a pecking order between public and private payers, could special consideration also be given AMONG private payers? Think about it. If margins are so thin for world-reknown providers like Mayo, why wouldn’t other medical providers seek similarly-related practices with all sources of revenue?

For example, if insurer A reimburses hospitals at a higher rate over other private insurers within that particular market, would insurer A patients receive preferential consideration, much like what Mayo described? If so, are you better off purchasing health coverage at a higher premium from insurer A because their reimbursement rates will guarantee preferential service compared to other insurers within that market?

This raises questions about the potential practices initiated by the provider community. Having a particular insurance card provides a ticket of entry into our healthcare system. But does it also determine the level of care we ultimately receive?

What’s in your pocket or purse? In healthcare, it just might matter a great deal.

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