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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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Healthcare – Time to Recognize and Confront the ‘Elephant in the Room’

Have you ever been involved with an obvious situation, either personally or professionally, that was largely ignored and going unaddressed? Perhaps a work scenario in which a manager who wields considerable organizational power was impacting the workplace culture in an extremely uncomfortable and unhealthy direction. Speaking up may cause one to lose his/her job or suffer long-term upward job mobility opportunities. Self-preservation is a natural powerful reaction when confronting a seemingly formidable opponent – we simply choose not to act at all.

The fear of speaking up is a metaphor for an ‘Elephant in the room.’

This is happening today in our healthcare delivery and payment environment. We frequently see or experience unacceptable situations that clearly require action to prevent it from happening in the future. As a reader of my blogs, you are keenly aware of the egregious nature of the medical establishment hiding their preventable medical error ‘indiscretions’ in the proverbial litterbox – covering up preventable mistakes that are not meant for public viewing. Yet, without being held accountable for their actions, the medical community will continue to repeat what should be un-repeatable.

The elephant exists in healthcare in a number of ways. Below are just a few prime examples.

Employers are Reluctant

Employers serve as the real payers of healthcare, yet oddly sit on the sidelines exhaustively complaining about the high cost of health insurance and how it adversely impacts their competitiveness in the markets they serve. Unfortunately, most employers are reluctant to bring up the inherent dysfunctional problems because hospitals and medical practices are considered to be ‘other’ large, recognizable community members that are off-limits to public correction. In fact, many business owners are board members at the local hospital, making it difficult to publicly speak up while serving in a ‘distinguished’ role. As real payers, employers can clearly climb into the driver’s seat to collectively initiate sorely-needed changes in how the healthcare establishment behaves. But to do so, they must firmly take hold of the steering wheel to begin the journey. Instead, the employers have historically farmed out this responsibility to the insurance companies.

Insurance Companies Lack Initiative

One can be equally mystified by insurance companies’ lack of initiative when it comes to medical errors. By default, these ‘third-party payers’ assume the purchasing role as an intermediary between the real payers and health providers. More often than not, employers assume that insurance companies are adequately vetting the quality-of-care their network providers are giving to their employees and family members. This is largely not happening. As a paid intermediary, insurers can play a vital role in determining whether their subscribers are receiving the best possible outcomes from the care being purchased through the insurers’ networks.

Because the medical community will not admit their playful litterbox games, an appropriate opportunity for safety-conscious insurers would be to randomly survey their members after they have been discharged from a hospital to learn about their experiences – specifically as it relates to preventable medical errors. Doing so could be a great branding opportunity for innovative, forward-thinking insurance carriers. Over time, when enough patient feedback has been collected and analyzed, insurers can then become a more engaged advocate for employers and their employees when vetting network providers. Why are insurers not performing this difficult but necessary work on behalf of their members? Great question. They should.

Medical Community Touts Economic Strength

The medical community, specifically hospitals, spend a good deal of our[1] money to help perpetuate their economic value in the communities they serve. Recently, the Iowa Hospital Association purchased airtime on at least one local television station to help educate Iowans about the “economic impact” hospitals have in Iowa, including:

  • Number of hospital workers employed in Iowa
  • Benefits hospitals provide to the communities
  • Number of additional jobs created by hospitals

Similar to a certain species of cicadas, which are insects that remain underground from 2-to-17 years before emerging to be seen and heard, the hospital community will annually reveal themselves to promote their substantial workforce and economic growth – but remain curiously silent on the indiscretions buried deep inside the litterbox. Apparently, this marketing scheme successfully elevates their status as the elephant in any room, whether it be in Iowa or some other state. This diversional tactic makes it difficult for others to honestly speak out about the associated problems the elephant causes within our communities. After all, who doesn’t want jobs? No one wants to be ridiculed as a ‘naysayer.’ Unfortunately, honesty may come at a great expense.

Joe Gardyasz of the Des Moines Business Record recently wrote an insightful piece (subscription required) about healthcare jobs in Iowa. Even though jobs in the healthcare sector have surpassed U.S. manufacturing and retail sectors for the first time in 2017, Iowa’s manufacturing sector – at least for now – still outpaces healthcare jobs in our state.

Why healthcare has become the most dominant sector in our country

Other than rising demographic trends of an older population requiring more healthcare services, the most plausible reason for more healthcare jobs is likely due to gross inefficiencies in an inordinately complex environment. As mentioned in my previous blog, “Healthcare Billing Process – The Cost of Doing Business,” non-healthcare industries might typically employ 100 full-time equivalents to collect payment for $1 billion in services, but healthcare employs 770 full-time equivalents per $1 billion of physician services. Keep in mind, healthcare is now a $3+ trillion-dollar industry – which primarily explains why healthcare jobs are soaring past other more-efficient sectors.

Put another way, if non-healthcare sectors wish to tout their economic dominance in their respective communities or state, they would need to become bloated with inefficiencies that would inflate costs, revenue and increase employment opportunities. Thankfully, largely due to powerful market forces that are embedded with price and quality transparencies, those sectors are forced to act efficiently by offering reasonably-priced products and services that are of the highest value. The healthcare industry, it seems, is oddly immune from having to play by these transparency rules. According to Warren Buffett, “Healthcare is the tapeworm of the American economy.”

Through our entrenched relationships (e.g. family, work, business and community), we are too often reticent about changing the status quo when it might possibly ‘threaten’ the comforts of doing nothing. Employers, insurance companies and the medical establishment are each capable of making the necessary changes, but at times, must be ‘nudged’ to do so. The late Stephen Hawking made a great point by writing, “I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”

What IS the Elephant?

Regarding healthcare, if each of us fails to recognize, acknowledge and confront the elephant in the room, we too become complicit in this persistent, serious and increasingly costly and harmful problem. If we continue to sit on our hands and do nothing, we eventually enable the elephant to become even larger and more undisciplined.

So what is this elephant in our collective “healthcare room?” John Atkinson of Wrong Hands developed a ‘chartoon‘ about this metaphor, whether the elephant appears in healthcare or elsewhere.

Isn’t it time to begin “eating” this elephant one bite at a time? It starts by recognizing and acknowledging the elephant in the room, and then crossing that road to initiate necessary improvement.

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[1] For the services they provide, hospitals are predominantly recipients of our tax dollars, government-related grants, philanthropic donations, insurance premiums and personal out-of-pocket payments.

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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