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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  

To See Healthcare’s Future, Look at Cable

The great unbundling is coming to the cable industry. For decades, the cable providers transformed the television industry, first as a substitute, and then ultimately as the disruptive force behind the demise of free television viewing. Since the 1990s, bundled packages have become the pervasive force in delivering movies, live sports and music. The cable industry, with the help of armed lobbyists, has changed the way local channels broadcast. The number of channels has skyrocketed as the way content was sold and programming was distributed resulted in vast volumes of content to sell. Bundles were created to package less popular and rarely watched content with popular programming. Size was a proxy for quality, and bigger was marketed as better. The business model has worked for decades.

Pre-Paid Bundled Pricing: a Dying Business Model

Subscribers of bundled cable receive hundreds of channels even though industry research finds that the typical viewer only watches 17 channels. Forget that they have hundreds of channels they don’t view. How many subscribers, in fact, don’t even know what they pay for in their bundle? As the internet has expanded in depth and breadth of services, wireless connectivity has become ubiquitous. Mobile smartphone technology is growing globally at exponential rates. People can watch video on their phones without a second thought.

Consequently, more people are demanding that they only pay for what they actually watch. Why pay for more than you use? And now you don’t even require a television to watch pay TV. Today, an internet connection means you can watch almost anything online. Websites like Netflix, Apple, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube and a growing list of new entrants are forcing change on the cable industry. The cable industry could see this new force and demand coming for years, but with typical stuck-in-the- past leaders, the industry has mostly chosen to lobby for anti-competitive legislation and incremental, slow change. The beginning of the end has already started for the old cable industry.

See also: To Bundle or Not to Bundle?

The writing is on the wall, and the industry players don’t like it one bit. Unbundling is here to stay. Pay-TV subscriptions are falling, and the rate of disconnect is increasing. Simultaneously, the rate of unplugged nontraditional non-subscribers is growing annually. The industry refers to the people who cancel their connections as “cord cutters”: and the people who have never subscribed as “cord-nevers’

Healthcare Is Unbundling Because Buyers Demand Change

Just as millennials, the internet and mobile devices are changing the cable TV industry, healthcare is being changed by the ACA, self-funded employers and a legislative shift to value pricing. Think about the parallels with the healthcare industry where the key players dictate terms and pricing, bundling unnecessary and ineffective care and then charging fees based on the volume of treatments with little or no transparency. Disrupting the status quo is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed – yet.

The healthcare buyers of today and tomorrow are controlling their costs and experience by flexing their demand muscles in local and regional markets around the country. Enrollment in prepaid fully insured health plans is dropping annually as employers learn about the advantages of self-funded pricing, taxes and cost of claims.

The most successful business purchasers of healthcare are predictably and measurably saving 30% to 50% off the standard provider-driven pricing. By focusing on the elimination and reduction of claims, smart health buyers are slashing hospital, surgical center, pharmacy, physician and ancillary expenses by double digits. Some of the tools have been successfully implemented for a decade and only now are gaining attention. Solutions like RBP, SIHRA, DPC, 100% audits, PBM re-contracting, fixed-fee bundled pricing, medical necessity, coordinated care, COEs and many more are saving organizations millions of dollars and changing the experience of health buyers, patients and providers.

See also: Ready for a New Consumer Channel?

Unlike the solution providers changing the cable TV industry with national virtual footprints, the healthcare industry is being disintermediated in local and regional markets. Because healthcare is 20% of the economy, reducing healthcare costs by billions barely registers on the meter, as hard as that is to believe,  but the results are enormous for employers creating EBITDA from healthcare.

Follow the smart money. Healthcare is an experience where every encounter with a patient is a market of one and the buyer is becoming aware of his power in this transaction with the healthcare supply chain. Other industries have recognized the efficiency and pricing economies that come with managing the supply chain because demand is elastic. Think how WalMart has changed inventory controls and Amazon has changed “last mile” logistics, to name a few.

Healthcare buyers can now negotiate, force transparency and control the cost of care. The cost of inaction and taking the path of least resistance will place your company in an uncompetitive position. Self-funded employers need to change because your employees’ financial well-being is ruined by the health care cost shift. The healthcare industry will never be the same.

providers

Walmart’s Approach to Health Insurance

My most recent post generated many questions, mainly about my definition of “value” in healthcare purchasing.

My definition of value is the highest quality of care provided in the most efficient manner, i.e. not too much care, not too little care, delivered in a “lean” way and paid for in a mutually satisfying way.

Walmart’s Centers of Excellence Program (COE) is the closest model we have. In the COE program, Walmart has selected clinics and hospitals that do a superior job of diagnosing high-cost cases and providing the best treatment plan, not the treatment plan that generates the most profit to the provider but the one that is best for the patients sent their way. This program has been very successful for Walmart, but it has been especially so for the company’s associates (employees) and their covered family members.

In Walmart’s benefit plans, a small number of covered lives account for a huge share of healthcare plan expenses. The company provides incentives for our associates and their covered family members to use our COEs.

Eliminating fee-for-service was a big part of my previous post. Walmart’s COEs are not paid fee-for-service. Rather, the company has negotiated global fees, one flat fee for an episode of care for all surgery, testing, anesthesiology, hospital costs, etc.

This is an alternative to fee-for-service, and it is working quite well. I urge other self-insured companies to find similar ways to bypass fee-for-service payments. Again, the time to act is now.

If you feel your company cannot successfully negotiate direct deals with first-class providers like the ones we use, there are aggregators who can do that for you for fairly modest fees.

This piece was written with Sally Wellborn, senior vice president of benefits at Walmart.

A Tale Of Two Broken Hearts

Imagine, if you will, twin boys born on some sunny day not too long ago. Neither one of the boys, nor their parents, nor even the delivering doctors knew that both boys were born with a heart condition. This congenital heart anomaly, a patent foramen ovale, left a small hole open in the walls of each brother’s heart, exposing them to higher risks of stroke.

These twin brothers, let’s call them Keven and Kenny, seemed to be joined at the hip. They enjoyed all the same activities, all the same food, went to the same school, and, when they decided it was time to purchase homes of their own, bought two adjacent houses. Being as close as they were, they tore down the fence between their properties and right in the middle built a small gazebo where they could enjoy breakfast with their families every weekend morning.

In choosing a profession, Keven wanted a job that would keep him physically fit while allowing him to serve the community and even save the lives of his fellow citizens. So he became a firefighter. The job kept him physically fit and allowed him to maintain a clean bill of health … except for that congenital heart anomaly, which no one knew about.

Kenny, on the other hand, decided to pursue the absolute highest calling — the profession which the bravest and noblest aspire to. He didn’t want to become a physician, or an engineer, or even a scientist. He decided to become a workers’ compensation defense attorney (not unlike your humble author).

Still, the two twin brothers were in every other respect exactly alike, and spent every Sunday morning having breakfast together in that shared gazebo, along with their wives and children.

Then, tragedy struck! One morning, as Kenny and Keven sat next to each other, enjoying the morning air, each with a newspaper in the left hand and a piece of toast in the right, they suddenly sat straight up, looked into each other’s eyes, and both collapsed to the ground with strokes.

Their families rushed them to seek medical treatment and, fortunately, each of the two brothers recovered. Before long, they were sitting next to each other in their shared gazebo, when Kenny had an idea. Why not file workers’ compensation claims for the strokes — surely, the stress of being a firefighter caused Keven’s stroke. And, if being a firefighter is stressful enough to cause a stroke, then being a workers’ compensation defense attorney is even more so!

As the cases progressed, each of the two brothers agreed to use an Agreed Medical Evaluator, and each AME came to the same conclusion: the AMEs both found that, in their respective cases, the “stroke … occurred in an individual whose only major risk factor for stroke in terms of this industrial analysis appears to be his congenital heart defect … all of his conditions apportion 100% to non-industrial causation.”

Kenny was crushed — his case was effectively at an end as the workers’ compensation Judge ordered him to take nothing. After all, the Agreed Medical Evaluator had found that there was only one cause for his stroke — a non-industrial condition acquired at birth. How could any legal system, short of denying a defendant-employer due process, require workers’ compensation payment for something so patently and obviously unrelated to any work causes? Keven’s case, on the other hand, was just warming up.

Keven’s attorney argued that, under Labor Code section 3212, “any heart trouble that develops or manifests itself during a period while [the firefighter] is in the service of the office, staff, department, or unit … shall be presumed to arise out of and in the course of the employment.”

Now, isn’t that presumption rebutted? After all, as in both the case of Kenny and Keven, the Agreed Medical Evaluators have found that the sole reason for both strokes was the congenital heart condition — exactly 0% of the causation had anything to do with work as a firefighter or as a workers’ compensation defense attorney.

Well, as Kenny feels once again misused and ignored by the system he so gallantly serves, Keven has another line of defense: “The … heart trouble … so developing or manifesting itself … shall in no case be attributed to any disease existing prior to that development or manifestation.”

Keven’s attorney would have to prove that Keven is a firefighter — something he could establish without much difficulty (showing up at the Board with a fire axe is not recommended, even if you believe you’ve got “an axe to grind”). Then, he would have to prove that Keven’s injury could be considered “heart trouble.” This should be no problem, considering the fact that case-law has established that there are very few non-orthopedic injuries that might be considered not heart trouble (Muznik v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (1975)).

But what about that pesky requirement of “in the service of the office …” as required by Labor Code Section 3212? If the firefighter is sitting in his and his brother’s gazebo, drinking coffee on a beautiful Sunday morning and indulging in that antique of an information-delivery device that people so often read, is he really in the service of the fire department?

For example, the Court of Appeal in Geoghegan v. Retirement Board (1990) upheld a retirement board’s denial of benefits for a firefighter who sustained a heart attack while skiing.

Now, before the applicants’ attorneys out there start mumbling something about a ski-lodge burning and a San Francisco firefighter being called in to ski down the slopes and shovel ice onto the flames, your humble author assures you, this was a vacation. The treating physician found that the heart attack was caused by the altitude and Mr. Geoghegan had recently passed the fire department’s physical exams with skiing flying colors.

The Board of Retirement had rejected Geoghegan’s application for retirement benefits, and he appealed. There, the Court of Appeal rejected Geoghegan’s argument that Labor Code section 3212 applied and that he should be, at that very moment, counting his money instead of appealing his case, because the trial court had found that “the conclusion is inescapable that plaintiff’s disability was due to the myocardial infarction caused by the cold and altitude encountered while skiing.”

Previous decisions, as cited by the Geoghegan Court, included Turner v. Workmen’s Comp. App. Bd. (1968) and Bussa v. Workmen’s Comp. App. Bd. (1968). In Turner, a police officer’s heart attack sustained while on duty after a day off spent abalone fishing was found non-industrial, and the presumption of Labor Code Section 3212.5 was rebutted. In Bussa, a firefighter’s exertions on a second job were used to rebut the presumption of industrial causation for his heart attack.

Well, Keven’s attorney could easily fire back that those three cases can be distinguished because they don’t touch on the anti-attribution clause (“[t]he … heart trouble … so developing or manifesting itself … shall in no case be attributed to any disease existing prior to that development or manifestation.”) And, as the Agreed Medical Evaluator in Keven’s case had found that 100% of the disability was caused by a congenital heart defect, that leaves (let me get my calculator here …) 0% available for causes not “attributed to any disease existing prior to that development or manifestation.”

Geoghegan was already a firefighter when he sustained his heart attack; Turner was already a police officer when he sustained his heart attack; and Bussa was already a firefighter when he had his heart attack. On the other hand, each of these cases showed an injury attributed to something other than a condition in existence prior to the start of the applicant’s career with the fire or police department.

Keven, on the other hand, was not exerting himself at all — he was having coffee with his twin brother and their respective families over a relaxing Sunday breakfast.

But doesn’t something seem strange about sticking the fire department with the bill for a condition which existed at birth? After all, we’re talking about medical care and temporary disability and permanent disability and maybe even a pension. That’s not to mention the litigation costs. The city in which Keven is a firefighter could be deprived of a firetruck or several firefighters’ salaries if it is liable for Keven’s stroke.

Your humble author directs you to the recent case of Kevin Kennedy v. City of Oakland. Mr. Kennedy, a firefighter, had sustained a stroke while he was off work and filed a workers’ compensation claim against the City of Oakland, reasonably arguing that the stroke was “heart trouble” as contemplated by Labor Code section 3212. After an Agreed Medical Evaluator found that Mr. Kennedy’s stroke was entirely caused by a congenital heart anomaly, and had nothing to do at all with any work-related activities or trauma, the workers’ compensation judge found that the City of Oakland was not liable for the injury.

Mr. Kennedy’s attorney made a fairly logical argument: Labor Code Section 3212 prohibits the attribution of heart trouble to “any disease existing prior to that development or manifestation” of heart trouble. Additionally, the same Labor Code section requires heart trouble in firefighters to be presumed industrial, although this presumption may be rebutted by other evidence. Here, there is no evidence available with which to rebut this presumption, because the AME found that 100% of the causation should be attributed to the congenital heart condition.

The workers’ compensation Judge, however, found that Mr. Kennedy could not recover — based on the opinions of the AME, the stroke had absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Kennedy’s employment.

Applicant petitioned for reconsideration, and the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board granted reconsideration, reasoning that Mr. Kennedy’s patent foramen ovule was a condition existing prior to the development or manifestation of the stroke, and that Labor Code Section 3212 necessitated a finding of compensability. The Court of Appeal denied defendant’s petition for a writ of review.

In issuing its opinion, the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board was consistent, echoing a similar decision in the matter of Karges v. Siskiyou County Sheriff, finding a deputy sheriff’s congenital heart condition compensable under Labor Code section 3212.5.

So … what’s to be done? Common sense and a basic inclination for fairness militate against this outcome. We’re not talking about a weak heart being aggravated by work conditions, but rather a firefighter at peak physical fitness succumbing to a condition with which he was born and an illness in which his work played no part. It’s entirely possible that if Mr. Kennedy had spent his life behind a desk, much like his imaginary twin brother Kenny, his heart would have been strained by office junk food and a sedentary lifestyle, much like your humble author’s.

As promised, here are a few crackpot arguments to be used only by the most desperate in such cases. Your humble author doesn’t know if these will work, but if they are the only alternative to writing a big check, perhaps they are worth exploring.

  1. As with the Karges decision, the argument should be raised that Labor Code Section 4663 is the more recent law, and therefore reflects the more current legislative intent. In litigated matters, judicial authority should be used to further this Legislative intent and not find impairment caused entirely by non-industrial factors to be compensable.
  2. In the writ denied case of Michael Yubeta v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, a corrections officer’s claim for heart disease was ruled non-compensable when the Agreed Medical Evaluator found cardiovascular disease manifested prior to the start of his tenure with the Department of Corrections. In the Kennedy, matter, the defense might argue that the patent foramen ovule is the “heart trouble” contemplated by section 3212, and it manifested itself at birth, before the term of service with the fire department. Mr. Kennedy’s stroke, being directly and exclusively caused by this manifestation, should not be presumed compensable.

    After all, the poor guy had a hole in his heart — not in the sense that he couldn’t love or open up to other people, but the wall to his heart had an actual hole. Studies had shown that this practically guaranteed that he would sustain a stroke at some point in his life. (Understandably, this one is a stretch).

  3. Webster’s dictionary defines “attribute” as “to regard as resulting from a specified cause.” However, as the Labor Code does not use the words “apportionment” and “attributed” interchangeably, we can only suppose that they mean two different things. So, while section 3212 prohibits us from attributing heart trouble for purposes of AOE/COE (Arising Out Of Employment/In The Course Of Employment), perhaps we are still permitted to “apportion” the heart trouble to non-industrial causes. If such is the case, the Kennedy matter should have found the stroke compensable, and yet apportioned 100% to non-industrial causes.

    In other words, Mr. Kennedy should get the medical treatment but not the permanent disability indemnity.