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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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Understanding Health Insurance 101

Health benefit claim formI’ll always remember my first day on the job at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa (now Wellmark BC/BS) in 1984. A relatively newly-minted college graduate, I was asked a fundamental question about health insurance – “What is a deductible?”

I’m somewhat ashamed to share with you that I was clueless. Until my employment at an insurance company, why would I even care what a deductible was? That day in 1984, I quickly learned about deductibles and other cost-sharing tools commonly found in health plans.

According to a 2013 article in the Journal of Health Economics, almost nine out of 10 Americans (86 percent), could not define all of the following terms on a multiple choice questionnaire:

  • Deductible
  • Copayment
  • Coinsurance
  • Out-of-pocket maximum

This is both important, and frankly, troubling. Here’s why…

In 2006, approximately one in 10 American employees had a health insurance deductible of $1,000 or more for single coverage. Today, almost half do. During this same year in Iowa, the average single deductible for an employer-sponsored health plan was $776. According to our 2015 Iowa Employer Benefits Study©, this average mushroomed by 114 percent to $1,662. The increase is quite simple: as health costs continue northward, so, too, will the premiums that employers and employees pay. To keep the premiums ‘reasonable,’ employers continue to shift cost-sharing arrangements – deductibles, copayments, coinsurance & out-of-pocket maximums – to employees and their family members.

Making informed decisions about purchasing healthcare is paramount in the post-Affordable Care Act (ACA) era. Teaching employees (and their family members) the A,B,C’s of their health plans is critical when choosing high-value care at affordable prices. This so-called ‘healthcare consumerism’ is supposed to push the mainstream delivery system into a more efficient, patient-centric ‘system’ of care. The building blocks to get there require Americans to fully understand what they must pay for the care they seek – and understand the terms in which they are asked to pay (e.g. deductibles, etc).

One key premise of the ACA was to have more Americans covered by some form of health insurance, whether it be through employers, Medicare, Medicaid or through individual plans, subsidized through marketplaces, such as a state or federally-qualified exchange. By doing so, Americans would seek care prudently and not access care through more expensive hospital emergency rooms.

Yet, a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the number of emergency room visits continue to increase, with one in five Americans taking at least one annual trip to the hospital ER for urgent care purposes. In 2015 alone, about 131 million Americans visited emergency rooms, with 29 percent having private insurance, 25 percent with Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program policies, 18 percent had Medicare and 14 percent had no insurance.

Employers – Consider a Simple Health Terminology Pretest

Test QuizEmployers can do their part by educating their employees on terms and provisions offered through their health coverage policies. To begin, learn whether employees understand the four key payment concepts of health coverage (deductibles, copayments, coinsurance and out-of-pocket maximums). This can be done by simply surveying the workforce with a simple pretest.*

  1. Do you know what a Deductible is? (Yes or No)
  2. Which of the following best describes a Deductible?
    a. An amount deducted from your paycheck to pay for your insurance premium.
    b. The amount deducted (covered) out of your total yearly-medical expenses.
    c. The amount you pay before your insurance company pays benefits.
    d. The amount you pay before your health expenses are covered in full.
    e. I’m not sure.

Curious about additional questions to ask employees? I highly recommend reviewing the Journal of Health Economics article, “Consumers’ misunderstanding of health insurance.” By surveying your employees, perhaps you can follow-up with them via email or handouts and define each healthcare term, providing examples of how they are used within your particular health plan. Later, you may wish to perform a post test to determine improvement in comprehension of these particular terms. Something to consider…

Much like Orwell’s ‘1984,’ my education about deductibles came and went. How about you? It’s never too late to bring others up to speed on health insurance concepts.

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*Loewenstein, G., et al. Consumers’ misunderstanding of health insurance. Journal of Health Economics 32 (2013) 850-862.

A Fitbit ‘Nitwit’

Fitness WearablesOur motivations ultimately drive our behaviors – both good and bad. It’s just a fact of life. When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, such as dietary and routine exercise, motivations can be very difficult to control and predict. It certainly has been for me.

I recently had lunch with a friend who was wearing the newest craze – a Fitbit device on her wrist. There are numerous wearable fitness devices on the market these days, with the Apple Watch about to make its highly anticipated debut in early 2015. I was keenly interested in how my friend was using her Fitbit, as I was expecting my Fitbit Charge to be delivered in the mail the following day. Her comment was very intriguing to me: “I am becoming more aware of just how active I have been throughout the day and I am more consciously connected to my daily progress.”

My friend then demonstrated how many calories, steps, miles and stairs she had performed throughout the morning – and the metrics were displayed on her iPhone. I was equally impressed just how little sleep my friend was receiving. My friend conveyed to me how this real-time information MOTIVATED her. Powerful stuff, don’t you think?

More and more, employers and even insurance companies are promoting wearable devices to challenge employees to be more active throughout their day. BP promotes a Million Step Challenge within their company wellness program. Wellmark also promotes Fitbit tracker bracelets to members enrolled in a newly-created health plan who demonstrate healthy behaviors. New stories are published everyday about how employers (and insurance companies) are embracing this new technology to get people moving.

A recently published study reported that prolong sitting at work or at home can adversely affect our health – even for those who exercise daily. This report states that we must move more frequently throughout the day and not just rely on our regular workout routine (for those who do). The report suggests the following:

  • Take a one- to three-minute break every half-hour during the day to stand (which burns twice as many calories as sitting) or walk around.
  • Stand or exercise while watching TV.
  • Gradually reduce daily sitting time by 15 to 20 minutes per day, aim for two to three fewer sedentary hours over a 12-hour day.

A Wall Street Journal article recently indicated that one in 10 U.S. adults now own a fitness tracker, which tracks footsteps, calories and other metrics. Yet, the precision of such devices are not as accurate based on a study from Iowa State University. Researchers at ISU tested the accuracy of eight activity trackers in measuring energy expenditures and found that most were off by 10% to 15% compared to a precise laboratory measurement. The worst was off by 23.5%.

The article summarizes any inaccuracies of such devices this way: “…But that’s beside the point. The devices are motivational tools to promote fitness, and the numbers they generate are good enough for that.”

I agree.

After receiving my Fitbit a few weeks back, I am now measuring my days considerably differently than before. Since the age of 12, mainly due to playing football and participating in track, I have made a daily routine of running and biking. Yet, I’m finding that, due mainly to birthdays, my metabolism is slowing down and it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep my weight (and waist measurement) under control.

Again, even though the metrics are far from perfect, having this wrist tracker on 24/7 allows me to establish a consistent log that is valuable for quantifying changes in my daily activity.

At work, I spend a great deal of time on my computer. I have now developed a routine to get up and take a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood by my office. At home, when I’m short a few hundred (or thousand) steps from my daily goal, I have found to be more motivated to take our dog outside for a walk, put dishes away in the kitchen, or even help put laundered clothes away upstairs.* With this new urgency, I get no complaints from my wife! She once called me, ‘Silly,’ – perhaps she really meant, ‘Nitwit!’

Measuring my day in steps or calories is beginning to redefine my routine motivations, which ultimately impacts my behavior(s). I’m quickly becoming convinced that having a wearable fitness device is changing my behavior.

Would it change yours?

*CAUTION TO MEN:  Please consult with your medical physician first, as this type of work may be hazardous to your mental health.

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