Tag Archives: atul gawande

10 Reasons Healthcare Won’t Be Disrupted

Earlier this year, industry titans Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase (ABC) announced a partnership that would incubate a separate, non-profit entity aimed squarely at healthcare. Given the seed stage of the collaboration, the announcement was necessarily vague, but it did refer to an intent to address healthcare for their employees, improve employee satisfaction and reduce costs. The partnership has now announced the selection of noted surgeon, best-selling author and public health researcher Dr. Atul Gawande as the CEO of the unnamed entity. It’s a bold marketing step to be sure – and I have nothing but respect and admiration for Dr. Gawande – but neither employers nor new ventures will disrupt the fiscal burden of healthcare.

The trajectory of the ABC entity is still unknown, of course, but, like other high-profile announcements before it, I think it’s really targeting a fairly traditional group purchasing business model. At least that was the implication that CEO James Dimon gave to nervous healthcare banking clients at JPMorgan shortly after the press release hit this last January.

See also: Healthcare Disruptors Claim War Is Won  

In fact, there are a number of these group purchasing entities already in existence – and some have been around for decades. With about 12 million members, Kaiser Permanente is arguably the largest. It operates as a non-profit because the fiscal benefits should logically accrue to member companies and not the entity itself. Group-focused healthcare initiatives suggest that there will likely be a positive effect on ABC’s 1 million plus employees, but it won’t make systemic changes to our tiered – and expensive – healthcare system as a whole. Here are the top 10 reasons why this latest venture – or really any group of employers – can’t fundamentally change U.S. healthcare.

  1. Employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) isn’t the product of intelligent system design. In fact, there’s no clinical, fiscal or moral argument to support this unique financing model at all. It’s quite literally an accident of WWII history, and America is the only industrialized country that uses employment as the governing entity for health benefits. We could have changed this accidental system design decades ago, but we never did.
  2. Whatever the business of private industry (either privately held or publicly traded), unless  a company is literally in the business of healthcare, the vast majority have no specific healthcare domain expertise – nor should they seek to acquire it, because it will never be a true focus or core competency. ABC may purchase (or build) components of that domain expertise for their employees, but any of those fiscal benefits won’t auto-magically accrue to other companies – and, let’s not forget, at least some of those other companies are direct competitors to Amazon, Berkshire or Chase.
  3. Unlike Medicare or Medicaid, ESI (and commercial insurance, more broadly) supports inelastic healthcare pricing because it is literally whatever the market will bear based on group purchasing dynamics. This is also why Obamacare health plans are entirely dependent on a laundry list of subsidies. As individuals, few Americans can afford unsubsidized Obamacare plans outright. This also makes it entirely pointless to go through a lengthy legislative repeal process, because it’s relatively easy to simply cripple Obamacare outright. Just remove the fiscal subsidies – which is exactly what’s happened (or planned).
  4. The larger the employer (or group), the larger the fiscal benefit to the individual employer because of the group dynamic. That’s a compelling argument in favor of merger mania (leading to mega groups of millions of employees), but any of those effects don’t just trickle down to small employers. In fact, new business models (some with enviable unicorn status in the sharing economy) are designed to ignore health insurance or health benefits outright. They may funnel employees to group-purchasing options – but that’s a marketing sleight-of-hand to avoid the messy complexities and fiscal burden of managing ESI outright.
  5. Like most other employment functions, ESI — and the employment process known as open-enrollment — is arbitrarily tied to our annual tax calendar, but that has no correlation or applicability to how healthcare actually works. We should all contribute (through taxation) to our healthcare system, of course, but a period of open enrollment (with a very specific number of days) serves no clinical or moral purpose (other than to continually monitor for pre-existing conditions and possible coverage denial).
  6. While commercial titans capture all the headlines for many industry innovations (including high-profile healthcare initiatives like the ABC one), about 52% of private industry (either privately held or publicly traded) is made up of companies with fewer than 500 employees. Each of these employers is effectively its own tier of coverage and benefits. That works to support tiered (highly variable) pricing, but the only purpose of that is to maximize revenue and profits for participants in the healthcare industry.
  7. Big employers are notorious for binge (and purge) cycles of headcount that results in a constant churning of employees. Today, the average employment tenure at any one company is just over four years. Among the top tech titans — companies like Google, Oracle, Apple, Microsoft and, yes, Amazon – average employment tenure is less than two years. This constant churning of benefit plans and provider networks is totally counter-productive because it supports fragmented, episodic healthcare – not coordinated, long-term or preventative healthcare. Insurance companies tried to tackle this – only to be penalized when those efforts (which led to healthier members) were delivered straight to their competitors at the next employer.
  8. ESI represents a fourth party — the employer – in the management of a complex benefit over a long period. That function is administratively difficult for even three-party systems (payer, provider and patient) in other parts of the world. So why do we need a fourth party at all? We don’t.
  9. ESI is heavily subsidized through local, state and federal tax exclusions. While this hasn’t been studied at great depth, it’s not a trivial amount. By some estimates, the local, state and federal tax exclusions combined amount to about $600 billion per year – which makes tax exclusions tied to ESI the second largest entitlement behind Medicare. It’s effectively corporate welfare specifically designed to support expensive healthcare pricing.
  10. The employer contribution to ESI is significant – typically more than 55% of the cost for PPO coverage (family of four) – but this also helps employers keep wages artificially depressed. In fact, in recent years, the galloping cost of healthcare has tilted unequally to employees – and shifted away from employers. The days of sharing those annual cost increases equally are clearly over.

The combined effect of ESI – again, uniquely American – is the most expensive healthcare system on planet Earth and one of the biggest systemic flaws behind this ever-growing expense is ESI. As a distinctly separate flaw (I call it Healthcare’s Pricing Cabal), actual pricing originates elsewhere, of course, but employers really have no ceiling on what they will pay – especially for smaller (fewer than 500) employer groups. This year, America will spend more than $11,000 per capita just on healthcare, and the average cost of PPO coverage through an employer for an American family of four is now over $28,000 – per year.

Chart by Dan Munro; Milliman Medical Index 2018

Employers love to complain openly and often about the high cost of healthcare, but they also benefit from the corporate welfare of tax exclusions and depressed wages. The only evidence we need to see their reluctance about systemic change is their strong opposition to the “Cadillac tax” because it was the one tax proposal (through the Affordable Care Act) that was specifically designed to cap the tax exclusion on very rich (Cadillac) benefits. The Kaiser Family Foundation has a compelling graphic on the long term and corrosive effect of ESI.

Chart by Kaiser/HRET; Kaiser/HRET Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Benefits

Don’t get me wrong: Employers could band together and lobby to change the tax code to end the fiscal perversion of ESI – but they won’t. They love to complain about high costs – but, collectively, they are as culpable as large providers that work jointly to propel prices ever higher, with no end in sight.

See also: Insurance Is NOT a Commodity!  

Which brings us full circle back to the announcement of Dr. Gawande as the CEO of the new ABC healthcare (non-profit) venture. As a writer, health policy expert and surgeon, Dr. Gawande’s credentials are impeccable, and I’ve faithfully read much of what he’s written for The New Yorker. One of my all-time favorite articles is the commencement address he gave at Harvard Medical School just over seven years ago. It’s a true classic — and worth reading often. It remains online here:Cowboys and Pit Crews.

I’ve often quoted a passage from Dr. Gawande’s address because it encapsulates the very real dilemma faced by practicing physicians and healthcare professionals the world over – from that day to this.

The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop, loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a few basic tools. We were craftsmen. We could set the fracture, spin the blood, plate the cultures, administer the antiserum. The nature of the knowledge lent itself to prizing autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency among our highest values, and to designing medicine accordingly. But you can’t hold all the information in your head any longer, and you can’t master all the skills. No one person can work up a patient’s back pain, run the immunoassay, do the physical therapy, protocol the MRI, and direct the treatment of the unexpected cancer found growing in the spine. I don’t even know what it means to “protocol” the MRI. — Dr. Atul Gawande – Harvard Medical School Commencement – May, 2011

It would be safe to say — without reservation — that I am a real Gawande fan, but the fundamental question remains. How much can a single private venture – however well-funded or staffed – change a fundamentally flawed system design? In effect – to change our whole system of cowboys to pit crews?

Until Dr. Gawande can change the tax code, any fiscal benefits of the new ABC venture will be nominal – around the edges of healthcare – and not at the core. What fiscal benefits there are will absolutely accrue to the member companies, but Dr. Gawande is no miracle worker and has no magic wand against the trifecta of accidental system design that keeps pricing spiraling ever upward. That trifecta is actuarial math, ESI and the transient nature of health benefits delivered at scale through literally thousands of employers. Commercial (or private) ventures of every stripe and size can certainly lobby for legislation to change the moral morass of tiered pricing through employers, but they can’t end it.

The bad things [in] the U.S. health care system are that our financing of health care is really a moral morass in the sense that it signals to the doctors that human beings have different values depending on their income status. For example, in New Jersey, the Medicaid program pays a pediatrician $30 to see a poor child on Medicaid. But the same legislators, through their commercial insurance, pay the same pediatrician $100 to $120 to see their child. How do physicians react to it? If you phone around practices in Princeton, Plainsboro, Hamilton – none of them would see Medicaid kids. — Uwe Reinhardt (1937 – 2017) – Economics Professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

Walmart Shows Way on Health Benefits

Walmart, a true leader in benefit innovation, is taking the next right step, expanding its popular and successful Centers of Excellence.

When Walmart workers, called associates, use Centers of Excellence, deductibles and co-pays are waived. All travel expenses are paid for the patient and a companion.

Starting next year, if covered folks at Walmart have spine surgery outside of a Center of Excellence, it will be considered out of network, and only 50% of the costs will be covered.

This is a huge step and is reminiscent of the early days of preferred provider organizations (PPOs), provider networks and health maintenance organizations (HMOs). At the beginning, if you got care through a PPO, your deductible and co-pay were waived. In a few short years, those programs evolved into ones that paid regular benefits with deductibles, etc., if you used PPO doctors, but applied higher deductibles and co-pays if members went out of network. Of course, in most HMOs, if members went out of network, nothing was paid.

See also: Walmart’s Approach to Health Insurance  

What Walmart is doing now, while a very logical extension of what benefit plans have been doing for more than 30 years, is a huge step forward in truly controlling waste, overtreatment and misdiagnoses in health plans.

Kudos.

Here is the press release:

The Right Care at the Right Time: Expanding Our Centers of Excellence Network

Starting next year, Walmart will double the number of world-class medical facilities available to our associates who have been told they need a spine surgery. Whether you’re a cashier in Wyoming who’s been with the company for six months or you’re a 20-year associate running a store in Miami, if you have Walmart health insurance, you have this benefit.

We are adding the Mayo Clinic facilities in Arizona, Minnesota and Florida to our current list of Centers of Excellence (COE) for spine surgeries, which are Mercy Hospital Springfield in Missouri, Virginia Mason Medical Center in Washington and Geisinger Medical Center in Pennsylvania. Our COE program is about more than just access to these facilities and their specialists; it covers these procedures at 100%, including travel, lodging and an expense allowance for the patient and a caregiver.

Why would Walmart offer a benefit like this? It’s pretty simple – we care about our people and want them to receive the right care at the right time.

Walmart started offering this benefit in 2013, and our data tells us we are making a difference for our people, but we want to do more. That’s one of the reasons for adding more eligible medical facilities to the program. Other reasons these medical facilities were selected are that each facility:

  • Fosters a culture of following evidence-based guidelines, and, as a result, only performs surgeries when necessary.
  • Structures surgeons’ compensation so they [have incentives to provide] care based on what’s most appropriate for each individual patient and look at surgery as a last option.
  • Is geographically located throughout the country to provide high-quality care to participants in one of Walmart’s health benefits plans.

Research, as well as our own internal data, shows about 30% of the spinal procedures done today are unnecessary. By utilizing the Centers of Excellence program, our associates are assessed by specialists who are [given incentives] differently to get to the root cause and prescribe appropriate treatment.

Our associates are very important to us, and we want to make sure they and their families receive the highest level of quality care available.
Preventing a surgery that someone doesn’t need is only part of our Centers of Excellence. The other, even more important aspect is making sure our people receive the right diagnosis and care plan for their pain. In The New Yorker, renowned surgeon and public health researcher Atul Gawande underscored the importance of this approach:

“It isn’t enough to eliminate unnecessary care. It has to be replaced with necessary care. And that is the hidden harm: Unnecessary care often crowds out necessary care, particularly when the necessary care is less remunerative. Walmart, of all places, is showing one way to take action against no-value care—rewarding the doctors and systems that do a better job and the patients who seek them out.”

Walmart is not alone in this approach to appropriateness of care. One example is the Choosing Wisely initiative, which is backed by recommendations from more than 70 specialty societies including the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, North American Spine Society and the American College of Surgeons. The stated purpose of Choosing Wisely is to help patients choose care that is supported by the evidence, not duplicative of other tests or procedures already received, free from harm and truly necessary – we couldn’t agree more.

To further encourage our associates to take advantage of this offering, next year, spine surgeries at one of our six Centers of Excellence medical facilities will continue to be covered at 100% with travel and lodging paid for the patient and a caregiver. If the surgery is performed outside of a COE facility, it will be considered out of-network and paid at 50% in most cases.

Our associates are very important to us, and we want to make sure they and their families receive the highest level of quality care available. 

We have seen spine surgeries performed often when they are not necessary. By making these changes in our benefit offerings next year, Walmart wants to make sure that our associates and their family members are diagnosed correctly and that they get the best possible treatment.

See also: There May Be a Cure for Wellness