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Would Having More ‘Blues’ Make Us Happier?

Many of you residing in Iowa reading this post are probably covered by a Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance policy. Most likely your health plan is insured by Iowa-based Wellmark, Inc. or Wellmark Health Plan of Iowa.

Using data from the Iowa Insurance Division, a recent Des Moines Business Record article reported that both Wellmark plans “account for roughly 78 percent of the large group market in Iowa and 81 percent of the (Iowa) small group market.” Additionally, the individual market in Iowa has Wellmark companies accounting for 45 percent of individual health policies in the state.

Overview

For decades, Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) plans located in each state, Iowa included, did not compete with ‘sister’ BCBS plans in other states. Wellmark BCBS was, in essence, protected from competing with other Blue plans for Iowa business.

However, there was one large exception to this friendly competitive arrangement. Other Blue insurers can compete for large national-account business ONLY if the home state Blue plan chose to “cede” the client to them. As an example, if Hy-Vee, headquartered in Iowa, wished to use a larger BCBS plan, such as Anthem, Inc. – the largest of all BCBS plans – Wellmark would need to ‘cede’ this Iowa-based business to the desired Blue plan. Employers really had little recourse on fighting this arrangement, other than threaten to choose a non-Blue plan such as United Healthcare, Cigna, Aetna, etc.

It is important to mention that within the Blues system, if a large, Iowa-based organization is enrolled with Wellmark, they gain access to the BlueCard® PPO for their out-of-state employees – which offers any additional negotiated arrangements made by each state’s Blue plan. This is a big advantage to large national accounts, and has worked reasonably well for decades. However, if the employer was, for some reason, unhappy with the services provided by that ‘home’ Blues plan, they would need to apply leverage to move to another desired Blue plan outside that state. As a result, the pursuit for seamless customer service was rather ‘clunky.’

In 2012, a national class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of employers and individual policyholders with Blue coverage. The lawsuit alleged that anticompetitive behavior among BCBS plans who conspired to divvy up markets and avoid competing against one another, consequently drove up customers’ prices.

Tentative Antitrust Settlement on Blues

In September, a tentative deal was reached whereby the BCBS Association agreed to pay $2.7 billion to settle the claims and curtail competitive practices that limited competition among all 36 BCBS insurers – which includes Wellmark, Inc. According to the Wall Street Journal, the deal is not yet final, as U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor of Birmingham, AL, who presides over the case, must approve the arrangement. Additionally, the boards from each of the 36 BCBS plans must endorse the settlement.

Under the draft settlement, each of the 36 BCBS insurers can no longer be restricted to a little-known rule that required two-thirds of each Blue plan’s national net revenue from health plans and related services come from Blue-branded business. This rule limited each company’s ability to expand and open new growth pathways for each insurer. Theoretically, each Blue plan could maximize profits both in and out of their assigned service areas, causing greater competition in new territories, if desired.

As for the $2.7 billion settlement, the BCBS Association and all 36 independent Blue plans have agreed to chip in money to settle antitrust charges. Presumably, the amount will be apportioned based on the size of each Blue plan.

What Will This Mean to Iowa and Elsewhere?

Assuming the settlement is approved by Judge Proctor and all 36 Blue plans, there could eventually be more consolidations between Blue plans and non-Blue companies. Additionally, the largest of Blue plans, Anthem and Chicago-based Health Care Services Corp., would likely expand into other territories that were otherwise off-limits to them in the past.

In addition to having access to Wellmark products, eligible Iowa-based employers would have access to other Blue plans desiring to enter Iowa. Wellmark, on the other hand, could expand into other states, hoping to grow new members and revenue. Conceivably, Wellmark could purchase other smaller Blue or non-Blue organizations, or possibly be acquired by a suitor.

With this settlement allowing more Blue plans to enter new territories or states, insurance premiums in those markets could possibly fall. But it’s unclear whether increased competition will push larger discounts from local hospitals and health systems. Over time, this settlement may prompt enough consolidations that some geographical markets could become less competitive, not more.

Healthcare providers, specifically the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association, will have keen interest in how this settlement will eventually affect the revenues and practices of their own respective members at the local level. Additionally, how will state and federal exchanges be affected by this settlement?

In the end, will having additional Blue plans competing in Iowa make us happier because of increased competition? I’m not quite sure. Any unintended consequences will need to be thoroughly assessed as this settlement plays out over time.

With that said, this will be one interesting situation to follow in the months (and years) ahead.

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Finalized Price Transparency Rules for Insurers

Happy post-election day! Time to take a breather, right?

We are living in uncertain and contentious times. Actually, this is a bit of an understatement.

With Tuesday’s election, in addition to another erupting episode of the COVID-19 pandemic and see-saw economic news, one pertinent healthcare story was relegated to the third page of last week’s Wall Street Journal.

The story? “Health Insurers Face Price Transparency Rule.”

As directed by President Trump’s executive order in June 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Labor, and the Department of Treasury issued on October 29, 2020, the final rule for American consumers to have healthcare price transparency when shopping for hundreds of ‘shoppable services’ beginning on or after January 1, 2023. Insurance companies and self-funded employer health plans will be required to post in-network and out-of-network rates negotiated with providers, in addition to developing online price transparency tools to help assist patients with cost-sharing information.

Under the final rule, by January 1, 2023, insurers and employer payers will need to make available a list of 500 shoppable services through an online tool. And one year later, all other items and services must be added to those self-serve tools. Negotiated rates will also need to be machine-readable files showing rates for in-network providers and historical payments and charges to out-of-network providers.

This rule affects most non-grandfathered group health plans or health insurance issuers offering non-grandfathered health insurance coverage in the individual and group markets. A non-grandfathered health plan is one that was put in place after March 23, 2010, the date the Affordable Care Act (ACA) became law. A good primer on grandfathered vs. non-grandfathered health plans, can be found here.

The recent rule affects insurance companies, while this same executive order generated a final rule in November 2019 that requires hospitals to disclose the rates they negotiate with insurers and post the payer-specific negotiated rates online in a searchable and consumer-friendly manner for 300 of the most popular services. Hospitals are required to comply this coming January 1. The final rules on hospitals appeared to have survived challenges and lawsuits by hospitals.

Executive Orders

Developing healthcare policy via executive orders is akin to building a house on sand, it can prove to be short-lived. Once issued, executive orders remain in force until they are canceled, revoked, adjudicated unlawful or simply set to expire. It is typical, for example, that a new president reviews in-force executive orders while in the first few weeks in office. In the short term, executive orders may possibly be effective, however, when one-fifth of the economy evolves around healthcare, more substantive approaches are necessary to ensure long-term certainties.

Will Transparent Pricing Work in Healthcare?

Persuasive arguments have been made by hospitals, insurers and some economists that transparent medical prices will not change the fundamental problems baked into the existing healthcare system. After all, they argue that Americans seldom search for the cost of any given medical procedure, but rather, are most concerned that their desired doctor and hospital are in the health plan’s network of providers. They have even argued that price transparency “would confuse patients.” Advocates for price transparency claim otherwise.

Without question, seeking real medical prices is similar to searching for a needle in a haystack, and most people are disheartened with the process and eventually give up because the ‘system’ was not designed for ‘true’ payers to price and quality shop.

I will stand by what I wrote in a December 2019 blog on this topic:

“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. The push for healthcare ‘consumerism’ has been admittedly 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.”

The healthcare ‘system’ we have to date is doing what it was designed to do, but it’s time to reboot a system that desperately needs a new blueprint that accentuates intended consequences and minimizes costly (and sometimes deadly) adverse consequences.

For the record…

President Trump’s executive order for hospital price transparency does not at all suggest that he has an overall healthcare policy that would replace the Affordable Care Act. The fact is, he doesn’t appear to have a specific vision that addresses the holy trinity of healthcare: 1) coverage, 2) quality care, and 3) affordability. Platitude statements that his eventual healthcare plan will be “beautiful” does not cut it, and frankly is both disingenuous and empty. We need more, much more.

For price transparency to be meaningful in the future, providers will need to charge prices that will cover their costs. Additionally, providers will need to have a comprehensive understanding of how variable and fixed costs are allocated to the care they deliver, allowing them to make informed decisions on how to price their services to the more cost-conscious consumer.

With this ray of hope, try to enjoy your post-election life. And remember, stay safe!

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The Plight of Rural Hospitals (Part 2)

As shared in last week’s post, hospitals, specifically critical access hospitals (CAHs), are having a difficult time surviving under the strain of various financial challenges. This week discusses how highly-stressed hospitals can possibly be identified to warrent additional attention.

Similar to our vehicle’s check engine light, we hope to be alerted with any major problem BEFORE something catastrophic happens. Sometimes, however, depending on the make, model and year of the vehicle, once the red or yellow light is flashing, the damage may have been done, leaving us shocked, frustrated and perhaps stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Similarly, we don’t want this to happen to our CAHs. If a financial stress light is not activated early enough, indicating that a particular rural hospital is in deep financial trouble, local officials and state policymakers are forced to react to something that could’ve been addressed earlier had the problem been closely monitored. It’s about being proactive and having the right tools to assess and manage over a period of time.

National Academy for State Health Policy

In early August, I received an email from the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) that caught my attention. NASHP is a “nonpartisan forum of policymakers throughout state governments” whose mission is to convene state leaders on health policy issues to help “lead and implement innovative solutions to health policy challenges.”

The email’s headline was simple and direct: “Transparency Model Law Requires Hospitals to Report their Financial Health.” In order to address rising healthcare costs and/or assure financial stability for hospitals so they continue to provide access to care, NASHP’s approach is for state policymakers and the public to have “detailed hospital financial information to understand a hospital’s assets as well as its expenses and liabilities.” Hospitals encompass one-third of each dollar spent on healthcare.

After reviewing many policies and practices from other states, NASHP developed hospital transparency model legislation that would give states the authority to collect data needed from hospitals – including what data to be collected and which hospital documents to be used to obtain this information. It is also important to determine which state agency or office would be responsible for analyzing this data on an ongoing basis.

The model legislation also includes a reporting template for hospitals. (Click on the ‘Hospital Financial Transparency Report Template’ link to download an Excel spreadsheet template.) By having this template, the state agency would receive standardized financial information from all hospital and medical organizations that would be required to annually submit this information. Additionally, NASHP provides a Q&A on how states can use this Model Law and Template to increase hospital and health care system financial transparency. Finally, NASHP shares A Community Leader’s Guide to Hospital Finance, which provides an overview of key questions policymakers can ask to better understand hospital finances.

Current Iowa Hospital Financial Reporting vs. NASHP Model

The NASHP Model legislation and reporting template naturally created more questions about ‘if’ and ‘how’ Iowa hospitals currently report audited financial statements to the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH). As mentioned in my Part 1 post, Iowa Code Section 135.75 generally outlines basic annual reports that hospitals and health care facilities must file to the IDPH. From this requirement, other Codes also apply, including:

Are the data elements found in the Iowa reporting requirements adequate to address rising healthcare costs and/or hospital solvency metrics? NASHP provided me with a very brief side-by-side comparison of the Iowa Hospital Financial Reporting versus the NASHP Model. It is worthwhile to mention that the NASHP model is intended to give broad authority to a designated state agency that would implement a uniform reporting system via regulations. The specific data elements of the NASHP Model are outlined in the template rather than in the legislation. Iowa’s current law appears to prescribe a few specific reporting elements that the IDPH must incorporate in a uniform reporting system. However, there is no Iowa ‘template’ and IDPH has indicated that not every hospital participates, nor is the information collated when received by IDPH. Finally, IDPH is not adequately staffed to do much with the information collected from hospitals.

According to NASHP, a few key takeaways from the brief comparison include:

  • The NASHP Model is more comprehensive and breaks down each data element – such as all types of assets, liabilities, gross and net patient revenue by payer while Iowa’s law broadly indicates that hospitals must report assets, liabilities, income, and expenses.
  • NASHP recommends reporting on a system-level basis while Iowa invites hospitals and facilities to report per facility. NASHP’s systems approach is based on the fact that, because of increased consolidation, most hospitals and health systems are now part of larger systems, and data must be collected from each parent system.
  • NASHPs Model template automatically analyzes hospital-reported data and requires the state agency to produce annual reports while Iowa no longer has an annual reporting requirement.

In other words, the NASHP Model requests data that is immediately actionable and helps policymakers understand key metrics of a hospital system’s financial status. This is very important, because state agencies – the IDPH included – may not have the necessary resources (personnel and financial) to analyze and summarize this data appropriately. What one does with the collected data is often just as important as the type of data being collected.

The Iowa Hospital Association and American Hospital Association Annual Survey 

After the Part 1 post was published last week, Perry Meyer, executive vice president of the Iowa Hospital Association (IHA), brought to my attention that the IHA, in conjunction with the American Hospital Association (AHA), “works with ALL Iowa hospitals each year to collect the AHA Annual Survey of Hospitals.” Perry further mentioned, “This is a comprehensive survey that includes Iowa hospitals reporting their audited financial information. Each year when completed, IHA provides this data on all Iowa hospitals to the IPDH in lieu of IDPH conducting a separate licensure survey. This agreement between IHA and IDPH has been in place for 30+ years. The comprehensive survey data is public and IDPH should have the information.”

This information from Perry is greatly appreciated. The IHA has a good pulse on what is happening to its hospital members, and with this knowledge, serves as a lobbyist for their members in Iowa legislative sessions. IDPH acknowledged receipt of the AHA/IHA survey results. And the data, according to my IDPH contact, is used to “check the number of licensed beds of each hospital.” The limited use of this data is a bit underwhelming, if not concerning, as the AHA annual survey also includes audited financial information that can be reviewed and analyzed. The IHA – presumably with the blessing of the state – appears to assume the check engine role for financially-stressed hospitals within our communities.

Going Forward…

The upcoming election will begin to determine the ‘new normal’ during the next two-to-four years. If former V.P. Joe Biden is elected president and the Democrats take hold of the Senate in addition to maintaining House majority, healthcare policy will be – along with Covid-19 and the economy – the top issue for years to come. Under this scenario, the Biden public health option will most likely be front and center, and the battles will become contentious by political party, payer and healthcare provider. As a result, one large battle will likely be centered around reimbursements for providers, specifically hospitals.  Bundled payments and alternative payment methods will presumably be analyzed to ensure that quality of care is being incentivized appropriately. But a key issue for hospitals and other providers will be just how much the public option will reimburse hospitals and how does it compare to current Medicare reimbursements that are largely considered to be at or below hospital cost.

In the final analysis, having a due diligence process in place, similar to the NASHP Model, will be necessary when assessing the survival of our critical access hospitals.

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