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Comparing Private Payer Prices to Medicare Rates

Private Payer Prices Relative to Medicare RatesTrust, but verify” is a memorable quote that President Ronald Reagan used while negotiating nuclear disarmament with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. According to Wikipedia, this quote was derived from a rhyming Russian proverb, Doveryai, no proveryai.

Trust, but verify” comes to mind in today’s healthcare environment, specifically as it relates to third-party price negotiations between commercial payers (insurance companies) and health providers. Since the prices we pay for non-government medical care are largely secretly negotiated in the backroom by insurers and providers, the TRUE payers (e.g. taxpayers, employers and consumers) often assume they are paying competitive prices for medical services. But they never really know just how much money is being left on the table – it’s anyone’s guess.

With a few exceptions, transparent medical pricing is virtually non-existent. For example, a family member of mine is scheduled to have a knee-replacement performed during this month, but despite our requests to learn the negotiated costs between our insurer and this provider, we were unable to obtain the true cost of the surgeon’s fee, in addition to many of the ancillary costs associated with this particular procedure. My mindset is quite simple: if we have to ask more than once about how much this will cost, then something is clearly not right with our supposedly ‘consumer-centric’ high-deductible health plan – supplemented by a health savings account. We have a $10,000 deductible, so we SHOULD know the true cost, right? But we don’t.

Additionally, we were offered the ‘choice’ between using the outpatient surgical center (owned by our surgeon’s group practice) versus having this procedure performed at a nearby West Des Moines hospital. When we asked the gracious office lady employed by the group practice about the price differential between the center and hospital, we received a blank stare that was followed with a promise that someone would be contacting us ‘soon’ with answers. Over two months later, we are still waiting for that promised phone call. But because we have insurance, our desire to become true ‘consumers’ is not that urgent. This will be fodder for future blogs!

To date, transparency-hype serves as a smokescreen to protect the status quo of pricing opaqueness. A great primer regarding opaqueness in healthcare pricing can be found at The Powers Report Podcast found here.

Linking Private Payment to Medicare Rates

In March of last year, I attended a conference in Indianapolis hosted by the Employers’ Forum of Indiana. The conference centered around a RAND Corp. research report that revealed a national employer-led initiative comparing private (commercial) reimbursements with known Medicare payments. In other words, how do privately-negotiated rates compare to the lower Medicare rates determined by our federal government? Claims data from almost 1,600 hospitals in 25 states were gathered and analyzed by RAND Corp. Iowa, by the way, was NOT represented in this study*.

Because there is little-to-no price transparency in the private/commercial payment sphere, RAND was forced to gather claims data from three types of data sources:

  1. Self-insured employers who chose to participate in the study.
  2. State-based, all-payer claims databases from Colorado and New Hampshire.
  3. Health plans (insurers) who chose to participate.

The key finding from the RAND study (comparing prices from 2015 to 2017) was that relative prices (which represent the allowed amount paid as a percentage of what Medicare would have paid for the same services) rose from 236 percent of Medicare rates in 2015 to 241 percent of Medicare rates in 2017. Put another way, assume that Medicare prices are at 100 percent, private reimbursements were well over double what Medicare pays hospitals for the same services.

Medicare payments are tied to average hospital costs. Some hospitals, due largely to efficient internal practices that result in lower costs, break even or make money on Medicare patients, while many less-efficient hospitals lose money.

The private reimbursement rates range widely from state-to-state, even when states are next to one another. For example, the RAND study found the average Michigan commercial payer price was 156 percent of Medicare rates, yet, their neighbor to the south, Indiana, was highest of all states with 311 percent of Medicare rates. Suffice it to say, Indiana employers in attendance at this conference where both shocked and upset about overpaying for care when compared to other employers outside Indiana.

Employers, specifically self-insured employers, have a fiduciary responsibility to spend prudently and are justifiably frustrated with ever-escalating healthcare costs that do not add value to their bottom line. Because of this, the RAND report is causing a snowballing effect with employers who wish to take a much more active role in directly negotiating and contracting with medical providers for better, more reliable and effective care. Employers are hoping to narrow the large gap between commercial and Medicare payment rates.

According to RAND, the implications of knowing this information allows employers new “opportunities to redesign their health benefits to better align hospital prices with the value of care provided. Employers can exert pressure on their health plans and hospitals to shift from discounted charge contracts to contracts based on a multiple of Medicare or other prospective case rates.”

What About Iowa Commercial Rates?

Because there were no self-insured employers from Iowa participating with RAND during the 2015 and 2017 studies, there is no information on how commercial payments in Iowa compare to Medicare rates and to other states. This, however, can certainly change if a few large, self-insured Iowa employers would voluntarily share their claims data with RAND* for future analysis. Sharing such data would provide proof that the commercial rates being paid in Iowa are competitive (or not) with other states when using Medicare rates as the measuring stick. Very large national organizations participating with RAND evidently trust that their claims data are highly guarded by RAND and will not be compromised due to HIPAA privacy concerns, etc.

In a perfect world, having completely transparent negotiated rates between commercial payers and providers would eventually become a game-changer on knowing just how competitive the prices are in Iowa and elsewhere. It is telling that research is necessary in order to learn whether or not the prices we pay to our healthcare providers are trusted to be appropriate. As President Reagan indicated a few decades ago, verification is a sound strategy.

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*Self-insured Iowa employers, if interested, can become part of the RAND Hospital Price Transparency Project for 2020-2021.

Wellness Programs – New Study Confirms Cautioned Approach

During the past seven years, I have written a fair number of posts regarding wellness programs offered by employers. The core message of all blogs suggests that employers must have realistic expectations about what wellness initiatives will or will not do within the workplace.

A recent randomized clinical study published in JAMA is yet another reminder for employers to have tepid expectations when trying to keep their employees happy, healthy and less likely to incur more health costs. The study found that workplace wellness programs do not cut healthcare costs for employers, reduce absenteeism or improve the health of employees.

From the University of Chicago and Harvard, researchers used a large-scale approach that was peer-reviewed and included a more sophisticated design when analyzing BJ’s Wholesale Clubs. BJ’s has about 33,000 employees across 160 clubs. This analysis compared 20 randomly-assigned clubs that offered wellness programs with 140 BJ’s clubs that did not.

After 18 months of timeline analysis, this study revealed that wellness programs did not result in health measure differences, such as: improved blood sugar or glucose levels, reduced healthcare costs or absenteeism, or impacted job performance in a positive manner. In other words, employees with a wellness program did not experience reduced healthcare costs and other desired affects. I suppose one could argue that a year and one half was not enough comparison time to develop these conclusions.

One of the authors of this study, Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, put it quite succinctly in a Kaiser Health News article: “[But] if employers are offering these programs in hopes that health spending and absenteeism will go down, this study should give them pause.”

What are your expectations about workplace wellness? Do you believe such programs, when appropriately and thoughtfully implemented, will greatly mitigate your healthcare costs, improve workforce productivity and reduce absenteeism? Maybe you feel these programs are a waste. From our 2012 Iowa Employer Benefits Study, employers shared their perceived ‘return on investment’ on the programs they currently had in place.

According to a 2013 “Workplace Wellness Programs Study” by researchers at the RAND Corporation, these programs only have a modest effect. This runs contrary to claims made by wellness firms that sell workplace wellness programs to employers. The report found that people who participate in wellness initiatives lose an average of only one pound a year for three years. Another finding is that employee participation in such plans “was not associated with significant reductions in total cholesterol level.” Smoking-cessation programs show some potential, but only “in the short term.”

Most likely, both skeptics and supporters of wellness initiatives will find ammunition to support their cause. Workplace wellness programs have grown to an $8 billion industry in the U.S., primarily as a direct result of rising employer health insurance costs.

This latest report may help stabilize any pre-conceived lofty expectations each of us may have about the benefits of workplace wellness programs. However, it must be noted that some employers have found value in these programs.

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Voices on Hospitals: Transparency in Medical Outcomes

Time To ImproveIn my mind, the Holy Grail of healthcare is having information on each provider’s medical outcomes – in other words, having transparent outcomes.

How many of us desire to use a doctor or hospital who demonstrates marginal or poor outcomes? No one, I’m quite sure. Yet we have little, if any, verified qualitative information that consistently benchmarks one provider with another provider for the same medical procedure within any geographical area. This is actually a great gig for those medical providers who underperform the services they are handsomely paid to deliver to patients.

Needless to say, this MUST change — and it cannot happen soon enough.

In healthcare, we know that recommended care is delivered about 55 percent of the time, yet our costs continue to rise despite the poor outcomes delivered. Why does this happen? Because the medical ‘establishment’ is much louder (and active) in Washington D.C. than the majority of us who innocently assume that others have our best interest in mind.

Since a majority of healthcare providers fail to track outcomes or cost by medical condition, it’s imperative that a systematic measurement process is established to improve healthcare outcomes. During those times when measurement does occur, they’re typically easier process measurements that determine levels of compliance with practice guidelines. Unfortunately, these measurements may not adequately address the quality metrics needed to advance “value” in healthcare. Performing these measurements serve nothing more than a mirage of what we REALLY desire to have – improved medical outcomes.

Indicator #10: Transparency in Medical Outcomes

The jig is up. Iowa employers have sounded off about how they view hospitals regarding transparency in medical outcomes. Statewide, Iowa hospitals received an anemic score of 6.1, or a grade of ‘C-minus’ for their efforts on being transparent with their outcomes. When segmented into five regions using size-weighted scores, four regions ‘fail’ while only the northwest region received a ‘high-D’ grade.

Polk County hospitals, graded by 144 employers, received a score of 4.3 (failing), while Johnson County (home of Iowa City) received a 5.8 score, or ‘high-D’ grade. A few other notable counties with large populations include Linn County (5.6) and Dubuque County (4.8), grades of ‘D’ and ‘F’ respectively.

Regional - Transparency in Medical Outcomes Map-Master

According to Michael E. Porter and Thomas H. Lee, M.D. of Harvard, “The only true measures of quality are the outcomes that matter to patients. And when those outcomes are collected and reported publicly, providers face tremendous pressure – and strong incentives – to improve and to adopt best practices, with resulting improvements in outcomes.”

Iowa employers have found their voice, now it is time to raise it to unprecedented decibels.

In next week’s blog, we’ll review how Iowa employers graded hospitals on our final two performance indicators: ‘Cost Transparency’ and ‘Keeping Cost Reasonable.’

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