Tag Archives: cost of healthcare

Implementing International Medical Providers Into The U.S. Workers' Compensation System, Part 4

This is Part 4 of a multi-part series on legal barriers to implementing international providers into Medical Provider Networks for workers' compensation. Previous articles in the series can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Subsequent articles in the series will be forthcoming soon.

Workers Compensation And The Legal Barriers To Medical Tourism
The parallels to health care costs rising and workers' compensation medical costs are no coincidence, since workers' compensation is a subset of the health care system.

The average workers' compensation medical cost per loss time claim (in which the worker has lost more than seven days from work) in 2008, as previously stated in this series, was $26,000, which is a 6% increase from 2007. In addition, medical costs in 2008 were 58% of all total claims.62 63 Approximately 40% of workers' compensation costs are associated with medical and rehabilitative treatment. In the 1980's and 1990's, medical costs for workers' compensation fluctuated, and in the last decade rose again, and in 2002, totaled $41.7 billion annually.64

As with health care, states have experimented with different ways to reduce workers' compensation costs. Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made workers' compensation reform a part of his legislative program.65 Some of the same strategies applied to health care have been tried with workers' compensation: utilization management of workers' compensation medical services, restricted networks of designated physicians, case management, mandatory treatment guidelines, and hospital payment regulations.66 The introduction of DRG's for hospital payments and ICD-9 and CPT codes for provider payments for health care in the 1980's, also impacted workers' compensation, as insurance companies began to use them.

This has led some to believe that there is a place for medical tourism in workers' compensation.

Merrell: “… Can you see a role of medical tourism in workers' compensation injury?”

Ludwick: “I could, if it were a long-term issue. Many workers' comp issues are emergent, so that would take out the medical tourism aspect. However, if it was a long-range issue, I could see us involving workmen's comp issues into that, or problems.”

Lazzaro: “I would support that. I don't know the incidence, for example, of some of the orthopedic procedures that are non-emergent, such as knee or hip replacement, which would fall under workmen's comp. But theoretically, a case could be made for that …”

Merrell: “I was thinking about it in terms of the chronic back injury and the repetitive action injuries and hernia that are in the workers' compensation area. An acute injury on the job would probably not be at issue, but a work-associated problem with a potentially surgical solution might be a matter for medical tourism.”67

The savings from medical tourism mentioned in Part 1 of this series are even more relevant to workers' compensation. As Lazzaro and Merrell discussed above, knee and hip replacement, as well as chronic back and repetitive action injuries and hernia are just some of the work-related injuries that can benefit from medical tourism. Table 1 lists three of the most common procedures performed and the costs of each in the U.S. and three countries that cater to medical tourists.68

Cost Comparison of Common Procedures
*Retail and insurer costs are mid-point between high and low ranges.
**U.S. rates include one day hospitalization; international rates include airfare, hospital and hotel.69

Given the data presented here, one could conclude that implementing medical tourism into workers' compensation is a logical solution to rising medical costs for workers' compensation, and should be seriously considered. However, there are legal barriers to accomplishing this.

One of the most obvious legal barriers to implementing medical tourism into workers' compensation are the provisions of State workers' compensation laws that establish who can provide medical care to injured workers. In four of the largest workers' compensation states — California, Florida, New York and Texas — medical providers must be licensed by the state to practice medicine.70 71 72 73 Florida's statutes have a provision to allow certain foreign-trained physicians to practice in the state, but do not mention treatment outside of the state.74

On the other hand, two states, Oregon and Washington State, both have statutes or rules that allow workers to choose an attending doctor or physician in another country. Oregon's labor code states, “… The worker also may choose an attending doctor or physician in another country or in any other state or territory or possession of the United States with the prior approval of the insurer or self-insured employer.”75

The WA State Department of Labor and Industries has a page on their website that allows workers to find an attending practitioner in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Other countries. The webpage allows the worker to search for a U.S. physician by entering a zip code, miles, doctor or provider type, and specialty.76 Workers seeking physicians in Canada, Mexico and Other countries, such as England, Germany, Honduras, New Zealand, the Philippines, Spain, Thailand and Ukraine, are directed to .pdf files that list selected doctors and their specialties and contact information.77

Among some of the other barriers to medical tourism is the result of entrenched interest groups wishing to avoid competition with low-cost providers78 79 and outdated federal and state laws intended to protect consumers, but which only increase costs and reduce convenience.80 81 Additionally, state and federal regulations restrict public providers from outsourcing certain expensive medical procedures.82 83 Federal laws inhibit collaboration84, and state licensing laws prevent certain medical tasks being performed by providers in other countries.85 86 Foreign physicians lack the authority to order tests, initiate therapies and to prescribe drugs that U.S. pharmacies are able to dispense.87 88

Restrictions on the practice of medicine have been removed, and many still exist. Some laws, for example, make it illegal for a physician to consult with a patient online without an initial face-to-face meeting; it is illegal for a physician who is outside the state and who has examined the patient in person to continue treating via the Internet after the patient goes home; and, it is illegal (in most states) for a physician outside that state to consult by phone with the patient residing in that state if the physician is not licensed to practice there.89 90

Other barriers or potential barriers, which are extremely important ones, also exist that must be addressed before medical tourism is accepted for workers' compensation. Issues regarding medical malpractice and liability laws overseas, patient privacy and medical record laws (including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 and the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 have to be dealt with before medical tourism is a viable option not only for non-compensation patients, but for compensation patients as well. Some of these issues will be spelled out in the next article in this series.

62 Barry Llewellyn, (2009, September). Workers' Compensation Medical Cost Issues. Casualty Loss Reserve Seminar (presented at the meeting of the Casualty Actuary Society (CAS), Chicago, Illinois, September 14, 2009).

63 Dennis C. Mealy, (2009, May). State of the Workers' Compensation Line. (Presented at the meeting of the Annual Issues Symposium at the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Boca Raton, Florida, May 7, 2009). Figures shown in the 2009 report for 2008 were adjusted in later years, so that in the latest report, the average medical claim cost per lost-time claims in 2008 was $255,000, as shown in Figure 1 of Part 1 of this series.

64 Facts in Brief, “Workers' Compensation Medical Care: Controlling Costs”, University of Massachusetts, Worcester, (2002).

65 California Healthcare Foundation, “Schwarzenegger Signs Workers' Compensation Reform Bill,” California Healthline, (April 20, 2004), accessed February 22, 2011.

66 University of Massachusetts, Worcester, (2002).

67 Ronald C. Merrell, et al., Roundtable Discussion, Medical Tourism, Telemedicine and e-Health, (January/February 2008), 16.

68 Herrick, Table 1, The Cost of Medical Procedures in Selected Countries (in U.S. dollars), 11.

69 Ibid, 11.

70 CA Labor Code, § 3209.3 (a) (2010).

71 FL Statutes, Title XXXI, Chap. 440.13, (1)(q) (2010).

72 NY Workers' Compensation Laws, Art. 2, § 13-b (2010).

73 TX Labor Code, Title 5, Subtitle A, Chap. 401, Subchapter B, § 401.011 (17) (2005).

74 FL Statutes, Title XXXII, Chap. 458.3124).

75 Oregon Labor Codes §656.245 (2)(a).

76 WA Dept. of Labor and Industries website, (2012).

77 Ibid, see http://www.lni.wa.gov/ClaimsIns/Claims/FindaDoc/FadMexico.pdf, http://www.lni.wa.gov/ClaimsIns/Claims/FindaDoc/FadCanada.pdf, http://www.lni.wa.gov/ClaimsIns/Claims/FindaDoc/FadOtherCountries.pdf

78 Herrick, 23.

79 Longe, 21.

80 Herrick, 23.

81 Longe, 21.

82 Herrick, 23.

83 Longe, 21.

84 Ibid, 21.

85 Herrick, 24.

86 Longe, 22.

87 Herrick, 24.

88 Longe, 21.

89 Herrick, 24.

90 Longe, 22.

Implementing International Medical Providers Into The U.S. Workers' Compensation System, Part 3

This is Part 3 of a multi-part series on legal barriers to implementing international providers into Medical Provider Networks for workers’ compensation. Previous articles in the series can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2. Subsequent articles in the series will be forthcoming soon.

Heather T. Williams agrees with critics, that medical tourism is a trade-off for consumers, allowing them to opt-out of increased regulation in favor of fewer restrictions and greater cost savings. Factors unique to the medical tourism industry will help preserve the quality of patient care and insulate patients from the regulatory pitfalls critics fear. Williams points to the benefits of medical tourism as providing patients with substantial cost savings, due in part to lower labor costs overseas.43

The cost savings in the context of inflated health care costs in the U.S. indicates why patients are driven abroad to seek medical care. How much of a cost savings medical tourism offers patients can be seen in how much hospitals charge for major surgical procedures such as cardiac surgery, partial hip replacement, knee replacement, and rhinoplasty. A hospital in India charges $4,000 for cardiac surgery, compared to $30,000 in the U.S. Hospitals in Argentina, Singapore or Thailand charge $8,000 to $12,000 for a partial hip replacement that would otherwise cost twice that much here. Singapore and Indian hospitals charge $18,000 and $12,000 respectively for knee replacement that normally cost $30,000 in the U.S. Finally rhinoplasty that costs $4,500 in the U.S. costs only $850 in India.44

Though all patients can benefit, medical tourism’s cost savings are more likely to benefit those with inadequate health insurance coverage.45 Lower-middle-class individuals, who typically have sufficient means to pay for reduced-price care out-of pocket, will benefit most from medical tourism.46 This is a point to bear in mind with regard to workers’ compensation, as many claimants are generally lower-middle-class.47

Medical tourism disproportionately benefits uninsured or underinsured individuals,48 but they are not the only ones benefitting from cost savings from medical tourism.49 Self-insured employers and private insurance companies have begun integrating medical tourism into their policies. It is attractive to small businesses as well.50 Medical tourism is expanding as self-insured employers and insurance companies have integrated medical tourism into their policies.51 For instance, Blue Ridge Paper Products of Canton, North Carolina sought to send an employee overseas for gallbladder and shoulder surgery.52 They offered him 25% of the savings, but the United Steelworkers prevented them from doing so and union workers were removed from the pilot program.53 54

State governments, looking to save money anyway they can may accept medical tourism for their state employees. A bill introduced into the state legislature in West Virginia in 2006, (H.B. 4359), would have encouraged state employees covered by the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) to utilize Joint Commission International accredited foreign hospitals, receive travel reimbursements for themselves and a companion, and participate in the savings with a cash rebate.55 56 The bill is still pending in the House Banking and Insurance committee.57

Large HMOs and health insurance companies have established plans to allow patients to obtain low-cost services overseas.58 BlueShield and Health Net of California, United Group Programs of Boca Raton, and BlueCross and BlueShield of South Carolina have offered such plans for travel to Mexico and Thailand for treatment.59 The effect of financial incentives on American’s willingness to travel for medical care is evident in a 2007 nationwide telephone survey of a representative sample of 1,003 Americans in which 38% of uninsured and one-quarter of those with insurance would travel abroad for care if the savings exceeded $10,000. One-quarter of uninsured, but only 10% of those with insurance would travel if savings were between $1,000 and $2,400. Fewer than 10% would travel to save $500 to $1,000, and no one would do so to save $200 or less. This represented a potential market share of 20-40 percent for non-urgent major surgery.60 61

Medical tourism is fast becoming a feature of American health care. In the next few years, more and more Americans will be going overseas for medical care. It is only a matter of time before medical tourism’s mark is felt on another arena of American health care — workers’ compensation.

43 Williams, 611.

44 Herrick, 8.

45 Williams, 614.

46 Ibid, 614.

47 Juan Du and J. Paul Leigh, “Incidence of Workers Compensation Indemnity Claims Across Socio-Demographic and Job Characteristics,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 54 (2011): 758-770. The study suggests that low socioeconomic status was a predictor of reporting workers compensation claims, but did not include income levels; although it is possible to extrapolate from the data presented that the subjects were generally lower middle class or working class.

48 Williams, 614.

49 Ibid, 615.

50 Ibid, 615.

51 Ibid, 615.

52 Boyle, 43.

53 Ibid, 43.

54 Williams, 616.

55 Ibid, 44.

56 Nicolas P. Terry, “Under-Regulated Health Care Phenomena in a Flat World: Medical Tourism and Outsourcing,” Western New England Law Review, 29, no. 29 (2007) 427.

57 West Virginia Legislature website, (2006).

58 Williams, 616.

59 Boyle, 44.

60 Herrick, 2.

61 Arnold Milstein and Mark Smith, “Will the Surgical World Become Flat?,” Health Affairs, 26, no. 1 (2007): 138.

The Insurance Rate Public Justification & Accountability Act – Does It Get To The Real Problem?

A recent press release states, “The California Secretary of State announced today that a ballot initiative to require health insurance companies to publicly justify and get approval for rate increases before they take effect has qualified for the 2014 ballot.” The release goes on to state, “the initiative would require health insurance companies to refund consumers for excessive rates charged as of November 7, 2012 even though voters will not vote on the initiative until a later ballot.”

The President of Consumer Watchdog stated, “Californians can no longer afford the outrageous double-digit rate hikes health insurance companies have imposed year after year, and often multiple times a year. This initiative gives voters the chance to take control of health insurance prices at the ballot by forcing health insurance companies to publicly open their books and justify rates, under penalty of perjury. Health insurance companies are on notice that any rate that is excessive as of November 7th 2012 will be subject to refunds when voters pass this ballot measure.” This effort was supported by State Senator Dianne Feinstein and California Insurance Commissioner David Jones.

Is there more to the story? Is there something else we should be considering? Is it really this obvious that this is solving a major concern or problem?

As with most sensational statements, there is far more to consider as it relates to the affordability of health insurance. As a professional actuary for more than 41 years, I am afraid there is far more to this story than has been described by the proponents of this initiative. The remainder of this article will address some of the most obvious issues.

Do Carriers Intentionally Price Gouge Their Customers?
Although there always seems to be exceptions to the norm, carriers set rates based upon their historical costs and a reasonable projection of what might happen in the future. These rates are developed by professional actuaries who are subject to Guidelines for Professional Conduct that govern their analysis and review methodologies.

Rates are not made subjectively, but rather based upon extensive analysis of what costs have been. Actuaries spend endless hours reviewing the claims experience, analyzing utilization and cost levels, developing estimates of inflationary trends, analyzing operating costs and carefully projecting what future rates will need to be in order to cover costs and produce needed margins. When prior rates are inadequate, premium rates are increased on particular plans to avoid losses.

This process is very systematic and based upon detailed actuarial analyses. This process is not arbitrary or capricious, but can be challenging for some product lines. I know of no competent carrier that intentionally tries to gouge its customers, but rather the opposite. Carriers work hard to find ways to provide the greatest value to their customers and keep rates as low as possible.

Why Do Premium Rates Go Up So Much?
There are many reasons why rates increase but the most prevalent reason is the high cost of health care. Most of the premium goes to pay health care bills. Under health care reform at least 80% – 85% of the premium goes to pay for health claims. The carrier has little control over these costs other than their efforts related to negotiating discounts and in the impact of their care management activities. The carrier is subject to the prices charged by health care providers. Hospitals charge what they want to charge and carriers try to keep these down by negotiating and maintaining discounts from billed charges.

Since the government sponsored programs pay deeply discounted prices for Medicaid and Medicare members, sometimes below actual cost of care, the carriers are subject to a significant cost shift, paying prices much higher than their governmental counterparts. When providers increase their prices, carrier costs automatically increase. Other than the limited impact of regulation on prices for Medicaid and Medicaid patients, there is no oversight of what providers charge for their services. The fear by providers of the pending impact of health care reform and how it will expand the Medicaid population has resulted in some dramatic increases in provider charge levels to carriers.

In addition to the increases in provider costs, premium rates increase for other factors which include:

  • Aging: as members age, their costs increase as much as 1.5% – 2.0% per year
  • Selection bias at time of lapse: there is a strong tendency for a bias in lapsed or terminated members. The healthier members tend to lapse more quickly than others since they are more easily able to find alternate coverage. This tends to increase average costs about 1% – 1.5% per year, especially on individual and small group coverage.
  • Impact of underwriting: As individuals are reviewed by carriers for medical conditions at time of enrollment, more healthy individuals are enrolled. As time passes, the impact of this underwriting selection wears off and as a result the average costs increase by as much as 2% – 3% per year.
  • Deductible leveraging: As costs have increased over the years, individuals have preferred higher deductible programs to keep their costs down. Effective trend rates are higher on higher deductible programs based upon a concept known as deductible leveraging, even though the underlying trend is identical to that for a lower deductible program. For example the effective trend for a $3,000 could be a third larger than for a lower deductible. For example, for an underlying trend of 10%, the leveraged trend for a $3,000 deductible is 13.2% or 3.2% greater than what is expected.
  • Utilization trend: In addition to changes in what providers charge, the actual rate by which patients consume services is higher each year, by as much as 1% – 1.5% per year. Some services increase more rapidly.
  • Unit costs vs. CPI: National CPI statistics for health care are based upon a common market basket of services and do not reflect a reasonable norm from which to expect health care services to follow. Recent CPI statistics show a general economic trend of no more than 3%, with their medical statistics showing 5% – 6%. Carrier trends have been even higher for many reasons including the above factors.

The Unique California Situation
In most states the insurance commissioner has the authority to regulate rates carriers use for some of their products. Historically in California, the commissioner’s authority was somewhat limited. They required filing of some rates, but did not have the authority to stop a carrier from using a proposed rate or rate increase. They were able to exert some pressure, many times strong pressure, to stop a carrier from large rate increases, but if a carrier wanted to proceed they usually had the right to do so.

In recent years, the department resorted to some public pressure, some negative PR, and essentially threats to the carriers. The proposed initiative gives them the “authority” to do something meaningful, not just veiled threats. So as far as that is concerned, it is good to give more real enablement to do something meaningful to hold all carriers accountable for their actions. I do not believe there is any real concern about carrier behavior, at least among the major players.

The Real Issue
It’s always better to deal with the real cause of the problem, not just undesirable symptoms. If headaches are caused by a brain tumor, it is better to fix or remove the tumor, not just take a stronger pain killer. If the Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act is to fix the healthcare cost problem, then it is taking action on a symptom of the problem, not the real cause.

As discussed above, there are multiple reasons why health insurance premiums increase. Regulating the carriers alone doesn’t solve any of the underlying problems. It restricts the behavior of one of the middlemen. It doesn’t get to the core problem. It definitely will have an impact, but if not kept in check, will create perhaps even greater problems, potentially driving some carriers out of the market and perhaps transferring more of the problem to additional government bureaucracy.

Although the author is not a big fan of increased government regulation, some regulation or legislation focused on the prices providers are able to charge for services might be more beneficial. At least the major driving force of premium rate increases would be more stable and controlled which would keep premiums more in line.

Proposed Solution
Although fraught with additional challenges, my favorite solution to the provider charge driver is a shift from today’s system which has different prices for different payers to a system where all payers pay the same price (i.e., called the all-payer system). No matter what type of coverage a person has, the carrier/administrator would be charged the same price. This means that there would be no bias against government payers vs. private sector payers. This would increase the cost for the government for Medicaid, but would substantially reduce what the private sector pays.

Our firm’s analysis shows that setting the prices at Medicare payment levels for all patients would actually be a close proxy for a reasonable price. Private sector prices would drop in most markets by 15% – 17%. Medicaid prices would be increased to a reasonable Medicare payment level. Providers would have no reason not to take any patient since each patient brings the same revenue.

This would also level the playing ground for managed care plans and carriers since network differences would be eliminated. The plans could compete on more important items such as care management effectiveness, clinical efficacy, comparative effectiveness, and quality of the provider network.

Under this approach, Medicare would be the agency essentially regulating the reasonableness of prices. Significant administrative costs would be eliminated from both the carriers and the providers.

There would be a cost to the various states for raising the price they have to pay for Medicaid beneficiaries since they often have to pay 50% of the cost of these patients. Some of this could be offset by some increased federal payments from the savings generated in the system.

Bottom Line
California’s proposed initiative is interesting but probably not as big of a deal as it could be. Here’s hoping for some “real” legislation that could save more of us more “real” dollars and eliminate some of the administrative costs of the current system.