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Healthcare Price Transparency? Its Time Has Finally Come

NOTE: Given the latest hospital price transparency developments, this blog enhances the one I published last March,  A Potential Game Changer – Making ‘Secretly-Negotiated’ Medical Prices Public.

The insurance card that you carry represents lost wages and financial bonuses that have been unnecessarily diverted to pay exorbitant healthcare fees to others.

From our 2019 research, the average annual Iowa employer premiums were $7,017 for single and $19,335 for family. Since 1999, these premiums have increased by 240 percent and 251 percent, respectively. Additionally, largely under the push for ‘healthcare consumerism,’ Iowa employees have been asked to pay much higher deductibles – now at $2,200 for single and $4,000 for family coverages.

The escalating prices we pay for healthcare services operate in a black box. Whether for hospitals, doctors, pharmacy or other healthcare providers, we have no idea what the negotiated prices actually are between insurers and health providers, at least until sometime AFTER the services have been rendered. Such opaqueness is intentional. To paraphrase noted economist Uwe Reinhardt, where there’s mysteries in pricing, there’s larger-than-normal margin to be had. In healthcare, obscene money is made when it is allowed to operate in a dark room of denial and obfuscation.

On November 15, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a final rule that requires hospitals to disclose the rates they negotiate with insurers. This hospital price transparency rule, set to begin in 2021, requires hospitals to disclose the standard charges for all items and services, including supplies, facility fees and professional charges for employed physicians and other practitioners. The final

Additionally, the final rule requires hospitals to post payer-specific negotiated rates online in a searchable and consumer-friendly manner for 300 of the most popular services shopped by patients.

Under a separate CMS proposal, health insurers will be required to disclose on a public website their negotiated rates for in-network providers and allowed amounts paid for out-of-network providers. Health insurers will need to offer a transparency tool to provide covered members with personalized out-of-pocket cost information to all covered services in advance. The language for this proposed rule can be found here.

Negotiated prices are largely bound by confidentiality agreements between healthcare providers and insurance companies, and are so closely guarded that even mega-sized employers are not allowed to penetrate this veil of secrecy.

It is revealing that the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the Federation of American Hospitals are exploring legal options to argue that transparent pricing will constrain private contract negotiations.

Two influential insurance organizations have revealed their opposition to price transparency – America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. A spokesperson from the BC/BS Association indicated these rules “will not help consumers better understand what health services will cost them and may not advance the broader goal of lowering healthcare costs.” The argument made is that price transparency can actually increase prices because clinicians and medical facilities will bid up prices, rather than lower rates.

Despite these self-serving arguments, the status quo only works for hospitals and insurers, but not for those who actually pay for healthcare. This must change.

By itself, real prices made public will not solve the inherent problems that persist throughout the healthcare system, but price transparency is a good first-step to have. Clearly, it is not the sole remedy to a ‘system’ that requires massive incremental fixes.

Admittedly, the push for healthcare ‘consumerism’ has been relatively slow. However, it is likely that consumerism will find new legs due to third-party entrepreneurs and technology companies who will find disruptive ways to make pricing a relevant decision-making tool for many patients. All purchasers want the best value in the healthcare being purchased.

Regardless of political party affiliation, price transparency in healthcare should be widely accepted by Iowans and all Americans.

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Direct Primary Care (DPC) – New Iowa Healthcare Law Flies Under the Radar

During the 2018 session, the Iowa legislature and governor passed and signed legislation that affects Iowa law on a number of healthcare-related issues – specifically banning nearly all abortions, changing the state mental health system, developing association health plans and allowing the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation to work with Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield to sell health insurance plans that are exempt from state-regulation scrutiny. All have received a great deal of public interest and varied opinions – both from supporters and detractors.

Direct Primary Care (DPC)

But, there was another Iowa health-related bill (HF 2356) signed into law on March 28 – that has not received the amount of attention that it potentially deserves. This particular law is the Direct Primary Care arrangement, or DPC. To date, 25 states have passed DPC laws, including Iowa. Five other states have introduced DPC into their legislation process. Suffice it to say this ‘movement’ has reached a critical tipping-point in the U.S.

What is DPC, you ask?

At the state level, DPC provides a viable legal arrangement for physicians to provide primary care to patients at a lower cost than traditional practice models typically available through insurance plans. Generally, with DPC, a primary care physician or group practice charges patients a membership fee (also known as a medical retainer) ranging from $30 to $500 a month giving patients most primary care services – including chronic care management – for no additional payment when they need it. Advocates of DPC arrangements suggest that market forces will set the price for services based on demand instead of relying on distant third-party payers and central planners. Patients who use medical services outside the DPC arrangement will still need to purchase high-deductible insurance coverage to cover other non-primary care services, such as hospitalization, specialized care, prescription drugs, etc. NOTE: To provide premium relief to DPC patients, it would be ideal for them to eventually purchase high-deductible plans that EXCLUDE primary care services from its’ premium pricing.

DPC arrangements are not considered insurance contracts. This means that no insurance company is involved between the primary care physician and the patient – reducing the red tape hassles of reimbursement costs that require both time and money. DPC advocates claim there is a dramatic cost reduction using this approach, in addition to allowing the physician to spend more time with patients and improving the quality of care.

DPCs are typically exempt from scrutiny by state insurance regulators, and in return, are restricted from billing insurers for consultations on a traditional fee-for-service basis. Additionally, DPC laws – Iowa included – require a valid written agreement between the provider and patient that outlines the following agreement requirements:

  • Must be in writing
  • Be signed by the direct provider (or provider agent) and the direct patient (or patient representative)
  • Describe scope of primary care health services covered by the provider
  • State the location(s) of the direct provider and any out-of-office primary care services covered by the agreement
  • Specify the direct service charge, frequency and payment terms
  • Specify any additional costs not covered by this arrangement
  • Specify the duration of the agreement, and whether renewal is automatic
  • Terms and conditions under which this agreement can be terminated by the direct provider or the patient
  • Include a notice in bold, twelve-point font that states this agreement is NOT health insurance and is NOT a plan that provides health coverage for purposes of any federal mandates. Recommends the patient obtain health insurance to cover healthcare services not covered under the DPC agreement

One key feature within the Iowa law is that a direct care provider cannot refuse to accept a new direct patient OR “discontinue care of an existing direct patient based solely on the new patient’s or the existing direct patient’s health status.”

DPCs Can Be Funded by Third Parties

Another very interesting portion of this law states that direct providers “may accept payment of a direct service charge for a direct patient either directly or indirectly from a third party.”

Employers can be involved with DPC under the following approach:

“A direct provider may accept all or part of a direct service charge paid by an employer on behalf of an employee who is a direct patient of the direct provider. A direct provider shall not enter directly into an agreement with an employer relating to a direct primary care agreement between the direct provider and employees of the employer, other than an agreement to establish the timing and method of the payment of a direct service charge paid by the employer on behalf of the employee.”

Based on the above language, this arrangement opens up the possibility of third parties being not only employers, but public payers, such as Medicaid and/or Medicare.  In fact, in just the last two weeks, America’s Physician Groups, an association of medical groups, submitted to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) a provider contracting model that would allow a provider network to receive Medicare funds upfront to manage their patients’ care – through the DPC method.

It is common knowledge that many physicians and healthcare staff are operating within the current medical environment under great stress – if not burnout conditions. In fact, from the results of our 2017 Iowa Patient Safety Study, patients feel a large reason that medical errors occur are directly linked to overworked (and stressed) medical staff. For many physicians who have adopted DPCs in other states, they praise DPC because it allows them to spend more time with patients and less time dealing with the bureaucracy of filing claims to various insurance vendors that do not provide the value patients are hoping to have when seeking care.

Currently, Iowa does not appear to have many primary care physicians operating on a medical retainer basis. However, this new law will most likely generate more interest from primary care physicians wishing to deliver more affordable care while enhancing a direct relationship with their patients. Not surprisingly, insurance companies and other critics of DPCs claim that direct providers may withhold necessary services to be profitable. However, according to DPC advocates, this concern has been unwarranted in other states with DPC laws.

The implications of this new Iowa law will play out over time. Given that healthcare price transparency is such a hot topic, and rightfully so, this new legislation is intriguing for both patients and payers alike.

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$3 Trillion Trip to the Moon!

Tower of MoneyTry to imagine one trillion dollars.

The significance of this number is…well, mind-boggling! Just add 12 zeroes after the number one and you quickly get the point. It would be laughable to try to stash this amount in your billfold, purse or any other safe location.

Here’s another perspective. If you stacked one trillion $1 bills on top of each other, it would extend 68,000 miles into the sky – one third of the way to the moon! Or let’s say you won the lottery and received $1 million a day for the next 2,000 years – you would have ‘only’ collected three-quarters of $1 trillion.* What a great incentive to live healthier!

It was just a matter of time before our nation would reach the $3 trillion milestone in healthcare spending – $3.03 trillion to be exact. Using my quick math, we would now be able to reach the moon.

This milepost was met in 2014, but due to calculation lag, we recently learned this news in December from Health Affairs, authored by the Office of the Actuary, an independent arm of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Three trillion translates into about $9,525 per person spent for healthcare in our country.

In 2014, healthcare represented 17.5 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), up from 17.3 percent in 2013. Healthcare spending most likely will reach one-fifth of our GDP during the next decade.

So what’s next – Mars? After all, when the earth and Mars are on the same side of the Sun, we are within spitting distance of 34 million miles – or just a mere $500 trillion!

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* According to a noted Temple University math professor, John Allen Paulos.