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Optical Illusions of Healthcare ‘Reality’

I spend a great deal of time studying healthcare issues, giving balanced attention to both the ‘delivery’ and ‘payment’ of medical care. Admittedly, I have my own biases. How healthcare is delivered in our country is largely dependent on the incentives and disincentives that come from the payment side of our healthcare infrastructure. As a result, the fallout from the misalignment of these incentives cause a great deal of unintentional consequences.

It is true there are positive stories about exceptional doctors and medical staff who shine brightly when caring for patients. In fact, their work can be awe-inspiring, as most people performing this work are honorable and want to do the right thing for patients. However, these well-intentioned professionals are relegated to work in systems ill-equipped for them to consistently succeed. This too-often causes morale problems that can eventually lead to job burnout for medical professionals – which adversely impacts all of us.

For me, cynicism about our healthcare ‘system’ has become a way of life. Key healthcare players are legally allowed to operate within their own myopic sphere to justify their ‘value’ within increasingly complex – yet profitable – inter-related sectors that suck oxygen from our economy. What escalating costs are doing to our families and to our economy, to put it mildly, remains deeply disturbing. Healthcare’s inability to control costs continues to shortchange other sectors of our economy. Opaqueness and creating illusions are important tools to ensuring the status quo will not go away soon.

Within the span of two hours one recent morning, I perused the following topics that fed my skepticism about the true intent of the healthcare sector:

Axios – Executive Pay Packages

This article analyzed the pay of CEOs from 70 of the largest U.S. healthcare companies, who have, on a cumulative basis, earned $9.8 BILLION during the seven years following the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Why does this matter? Because the pay packages rarely, if ever, incentivize CEOs to control healthcare spending, eliminate unnecessary procedures, tests or devices and coordinate care. Instead, CEOs are motivated to sell more prescription drugs, perform more tests and procedures, purchase another practice/competitor and create new medical therapies that may not add value to one’s life. In short, CEOs are paid to “do anything to create higher earnings per share” for their shareholders.

My Takeaway: Developing an organizational infrastructure to ensure “value-based healthcare” is evidently dependent on someone else’s pay-scale.

Modern Healthcare – Other Revenue Streams are the Priority

Ninety percent of surveyed hospital and health-system executives have an “urgent priority” to find new revenue streams in the next three years due to downward revenue pressure causing massive financial headwinds to their profitability goals. In healthcare, it is all about revenue growth.

My Takeaway: Too bad the revenue streams derived from patient-centric and safety programs are paltry when compared to other appealing opportunities being pursued by these executives.

A transcript of the most recent ‘Fixing Healthcare’ podcast – Perverse Incentives

Dr. Robert Pearl and Jeremy Corr interviewed Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, Editor-in-Chief at Kaiser Health News. Dr. Rosenthal does not mince words within this podcast, or in her bestselling book, An American Sickness, as well as other articles she has carefully researched and written. Within this nearly one-hour interview, Rosenthal pointed out many perverse bugaboos found in U.S. healthcare – many of which I have previously written about over the years. But one particular comment she made was screaming at me. Largely unnoticed in mainstream media is the perverse incentive for insurance companies to have little motivation to keep costs down. Yes, you heard me right.

Under the ACA, a well-intentioned, but flawed regulation was directed at insurance companies to spend 80 to 85 percent of premiums on medical care – a much larger chunk than what was spent by some insurers in the pre-ACA era. Put another way, insurers are bound by this rule to not spend more than 20 percent of individual and 15 percent of small-group premium revenue on administration, marketing and profit. On the surface, this seems to make sense. Insurance companies must spend a higher proportion of premiums on medical care, rather than retain as profit. However, insurers can skirt around this issue by paying inflated medical bills so that they can retain a larger piece of the cost pie. This certainly benefits the medical providers, as well. To be sure, this is seldom (if ever) admitted by industry insiders – and is also very difficult to prove this is intentionally done.

My Takeaway: No wonder why larger employers and states are looking to bypass the inflated appearance of negotiated ‘discounts’ arranged by insurance companies, and instead, directly negotiate payment arrangements with providers based on methods tied to lower Medicare costs. But when this happens, using the state of North Carolina as an example, hospitals and insurers balk at this approach.

Health Affairs Blog – Health Costs Major Concern for Americans

This blog is a direct result of the previous behaviors briefly described earlier. Cost-shifting fatigue is taking its toll on the payers. One quarter of surveyed U.S. adults reported that cost was the nation’s most pressing healthcare issue, while 61 percent indicated that paying higher premiums (or a greater portion of medical expenses) was a “major concern.” About one-half of U.S. adults worry they will not have enough money to afford care.

My Takeaway: The ‘optics’ in healthcare are alive – indeed thriving.  The hypnotic messages you hear and see from many key stakeholders may not be the reality we wish and hope to have. The desire to ‘reform’ our healthcare infrastructure to become more affordable with better outcomes runs contrary with how major stakeholders are being incentivized and motivated to act. Re-engineering appropriate incentives (and disincentives) is necessary before we can obtain meaningful progress. Until this happens, the chairs are on the Titanic are merely being rearranged for appearance purposes only.

Skepticism, especially in healthcare, can be a virtue. Accepting the truth that this is happening is the first step of recovery.

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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.

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Why Do Our Health Insurance Rates Continue the Upward Climb?

Let’s state the obvious at the very beginning: The health insurance premiums we pay are a derivative of the healthcare (and administrative) costs we incur. As healthcare costs increase, so too, will our health insurance premiums.

One datapoint from the Iowa Employer Benefits Study© that has proven to be THE fixation each year is the rate health insurance premiums have increased. The results in 2018 are no exception. Iowa employers, regardless of employee size and industry, reported they experienced a size-weighted increase of 8.4 percent.

What this metric fails to tell us, however, is WHY this continues to happen every year – a phenomenon somewhat akin to what Bill Murray’s character experienced each day in the movie, ‘Groundhog Day.’ Like Murray, we continue to relive our past.

Healthcare spending in our country is quickly approaching 20 percent of our economy, about double what is found in other high-income countries. In 2019, this ‘crisis’ will be 50 years strong, with no signs of abatement. Worth noting, national health expenditures in 1969-70 was just 6.9 percent of GDP.

Unfortunately, finding comparable data that can easily provide insight on WHY healthcare consumes about one-fifth of our economy is difficult. If we can understand the fundamental reasons for higher costs, we can then make the necessary corrections to address the core problems that continue to plague our economy and adversely impact the personal purchasing power of most Americans.

We all have our own theories, credible or not, about this WHY question. Some of these theories typically include:

  • Americans are higher utilizers of care (compared to other industrialized countries) and that is WHY we pay more – because healthcare consumption is really a volume problem.
  • Tied closely to the theory above, is the belief that the U.S. lacks enough primary care physicians but has too many specialists who charge more for their services.
  • High usage of prescription drugs, in addition to our inability to negotiate favorable price concessions with drug manufacturers.
  • A fee-for-service reimbursement system that incentivizes healthcare providers to give us excess (and usually unnecessary) care.
  • A broken malpractice system that drives excessive defensive spending.
  • The U.S. under-invests in beneficial spending of social programs compared to other advanced countries. By not investing in the ‘social determinants of health,’ we pay the eventual price of having a sicker population that uses more healthcare and that drives high healthcare spending.
  • A national culture that refuses to face death, and instead, spends excessively at the end of life.

On the surface, any of the above theories have merit, perhaps merit that can even be substantiated. However, when taking a deeper dive, some theories may shake out as myths.

Unmasking Some Popular Myths

Recently, a report in JAMA indicated that healthcare utilization in the U.S. is not what we have historically believed. It turns out that, “When it comes to utilization, there is no compelling case that the U.S. rates are substantially higher than comparator countries.” Admittedly, we do have more CT scans, knee replacements and higher cardiac procedures than other countries. But we have fewer hip replacements, and overall hospital days, and physician visits per population. The authors of this work make the point that “we certainly do not overuse services at such a rate to meaningfully explain spending that’s twice as much as comparator countries.”

It is important to note, however, according to a 2017 article published in Health Affairs, there is excess utilization of many low-value services in the U.S. Because these low-value services are also low cost, this does not appear to impact the spending differences between the U.S. and other countries.

The fee-for-service (FFS) payment structure is widely believed by many to push health costs upward, but FFS does not have the impact on costs as popularly perceived. Rather, FFS adversely impacts accountability in how healthcare is delivered and undervalues the quality we expect to have. Eliminating FFS to keep costs down may provide some relief, but its demise is more about initiating better practices of care.

A 2016 article in JAMA basically found the spending for end-of-life utilization in the U.S. to be in line with other countries, meaning that it is also high everywhere. End-of-life spending occurs due to uncertainty about when a person is going to die – we spend a great amount of money on people who are really sick, but they die anyway. Because most other countries are similar to our perceived “unique culture” in the U.S., this narrative does not hold true on why costs are higher in the U.S. than elsewhere.

Two (Primary) Reasons for Grossly High Health Costs

I’ve just spent some time debunking commonly-held beliefs on why healthcare costs are high in the U.S. (and Iowa). Harvard professor and physician, Ashish Jha, one of the authors to the JAMA article that refutes high healthcare utilization in the U.S., provided a fascinating discussion about understanding healthcare costs to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions this past June.

Jha argues that two major culprits are responsible for gobbling up the U.S. GDP:

  1. Administrative Complexity
  2. High Medical Prices
Administrative Complexity: 

As consumers of goods and services, Americans love to have many choices available to them – and healthcare is no different.  We desire choices in the providers who perform the care we seek and in the various health plans we purchase – either individually or through our employers. But with choices come complexity and additional costs. In healthcare, how many choices become too many?

Fragmentation of our healthcare system centers around the number of health insurers – we have about 858 insurers in the U.S. With each insurer, there are various protocol requirements by physicians and hospitals when confronting billing and insurance-related activities. There is a myriad of different claim forms, hoops to jump through to ensure a claim will be paid, zillions of different benefit plans that require unique compliance procedures and varying challenges of claim denials.

When compared to other high-income countries, the costs of administrative inefficiencies in the U.S. are enormous. One aggressive 2014 report puts this cost at 30 percent of total healthcare spending. Another more cautious report from the OECD uses a narrower definition of administrative costs and estimates the U.S. to be at eight percent, which is over twice the average of other advanced countries.

High Medical Prices:

Reinhardt et al. (2003) argued in a Health Affairs article, “It’s the prices, stupid.” Again, compared to other industrialized countries, the U.S. has the highest prices for medical goods, services and labor – and nearly all brand-name drugs. A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Why Americans Spend So Much on Health Care,” states that “Among the reasons (for high medical prices) is the troubling fact that few people in health care, from consumers to doctors to hospitals to insurers, know the true cost of what they are buying and selling.”

Primary care doctors are paid, on average, $218,000 in the U.S. – about $85,000 more than similar physicians in advanced countries. Computed tomography (CT) scans, MRIs, colonoscopies and many other procedures are about double the cost compared to other countries. As an example, I recently had a CT scan performed at a Des Moines hospital, taking no more than five minutes. I learned a month later through my insurance company’s Explanation of Benefits, that the charge was a whopping $8,323.01, while the network ‘savings’ was $7,608. I would love to learn how that charge (and write-off) was determined!

Jha points out in his comments to the Senate committee that Prince Louis, the “royal baby” born to Kate Middleton and Prince William earlier this year, was delivered in a “luxurious private maternity ward in expensive London.” The Economist article cited by Jha indicated the cost was $8,900 for this delivery, while the ‘average’ delivery cost in many U.S. communities is around $10,800 – but can be much higher depending on the location. Even the cost of the best and most luxurious delivery care in London pales to what us common folk have in this country. Put another way, the delivery cost of the ‘royal baby’ was comparable to the exaggerated charge of my five minute CT scan!

Of course, it might be somewhat of an equalizer if the care we received in the U.S. outperformed care in these other countries. It does not. In 2017, The Commonwealth Fund ranked the U.S. as the lowest performing country when compared to 10 other countries. Healthcare outcomes, in addition to access, administrative efficiency and equity placed a dismal 10 or 11 in these categories.

Administrative inefficiencies and high medical prices are two simple evils found in the healthcare cost crisis. Sounds as though the solutions should also be simple – tackle the factors that determine prices and simplify administrative services. We must combat a dysfunctional healthcare ‘system’ that desperately needs infusion of common sense and the embracement of the right incentives to perform efficiently. Doing so would drive competitive battles to reduce costs to a more reasonable level.

Until then, the premium increases experienced by employer-sponsored plans will continue into the foreseeable future.

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