Tag Archives: health care providers

‘Montana Model’ for Workers’ Comp Fees

Policymakers in many states increasingly enact medical fee schedules in the quest to limit the growth of hospital costs. They often seek a reference point or benchmark to which they can tie reimbursement rates. Usually, that benchmark is either Medicare rates in the state or some measure of historic charges by the hospitals. Medicare rates are usually seen by healthcare providers as unreasonably low; charge-based fee schedules are often seen by payers as unnecessarily high.

This study examines an alternative benchmark for workers’ compensation fee schedules—prices paid by group health insurers. In concept, this benchmark has certain advantages. Unlike Medicare, the group health rates are not the result of political decisions driven by the exigencies of the federal budget. Rather, these rates are the result of negotiations between the payers and the providers. Unlike a charge-based benchmark, group health rates are what is actually paid to providers. This is important given the growing public attention to the arbitrariness of many hospital charges.

The major limitation of using group health prices paid as a benchmark for workers’ compensation fee schedules is that these prices are seen by group health insurers as proprietary. However, one state, Montana, has adopted a fee schedule based on group health prices paid and implemented relatively straightforward processes to balance the need for a fee schedule and the need to protect the proprietary information of the group health insurers.

This article does the following: (1) describes the major findings of the study, (2) suggests a framework for thinking about whether prices paid by workers’ compensation payers are too high or too low, and (3) discusses the Montana approach.

Major Findings

What do we find when we compare the prices paid to hospital outpatient departments by group health and workers’ compensation payers? Among the major findings of this study are:

  • In many study states, workers’ compensation hospital outpatient payments for common surgical episodes were higher, and often much higher, than those paid by group health. For example, in half of the study states, workers’ compensation paid at least $2,000 (43%) more for a common shoulder surgery (see Figures 1a and 1b).
  • The amount by which workers’ compensation payments exceeded group health payments (“the workers’ compensation premium”) was highest in the study states with either no fee schedule or a charge-based fee schedule (Tables 1a and 1b).

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Are Prices Paid By Workers’ Compensation Payers Too Low or Too High?

The comparison of workers’ compensation and group health hospital outpatient payments raises the question in many states as to whether workers’ compensation hospital outpatient rates are higher than necessary to ensure injured workers access to good quality care. For example, in Indiana, hospital outpatient services associated with shoulder surgery were, on average, reimbursed $9,183 by workers’ compensation as compared with $7,302 by group health. Is this differential of $1,881 necessary to induce hospital outpatient departments to provide facilities, supplies and staff to treat injured workers in an appropriate and timely manner?

Consider the following framework for analyzing the question. If hospital outpatient departments were willing to provide timely and good-quality care to group health patients at the prices paid by group health insurers, then two questions should be answered by policymakers:

  • What is the rationale for requiring workers’ compensation payers to pay more to hospital outpatient departments than group health insurers pay for the same treatments?
  • If there is such rationale for higher payment, is a large price differential necessary to get hospital outpatient departments to treat injured workers?

In addressing the first question, let’s say that the hospital outpatient department provided identical treatment for a group health patient and a workers’ compensation patient. If the care was identical—same facilities, supplies and staff—and workers’ compensation imposed no unique added costs on the hospital outpatient department, then there is little rationale for workers’ compensation payers to pay more than the group health payers.

Healthcare providers often cite a special “hassle factor” in workers’ compensation that does not exist in treating or billing for the group health patient. Common examples of the alleged hassle factor include longer payment delays, higher nonpayment rates (where the compensability was contested or where care given was not deemed appropriate), more paperwork, more missed appointments, lower patient compliance with provider instructions and so on. If these hassles are unique to workers’ compensation patients, then this forms a potential rationale for workers’ compensation paying higher prices than group health, for the same care. Let’s assume that this accurately describes the real world.

Then the question becomes: Are the unique costs imposed on hospital outpatient departments large enough to justify workers’ compensation payers having to pay $2,000-$4,000 more per surgical episode than group health payers pay for the same care? If the costs of these hassles total less than, say, $2,000, then workers’ compensation fee schedules could be lowered without adverse effects on access to care for injured workers. In other words, the large price differentials observed in this study can only be justified by the large costs of these hassles that are unique to workers’ compensation.

In applying this framework to different types of providers, where these hassles exist, some types will be larger for some kinds of providers than for others. For example, the first doctor who treats may be more exposed to nonpayment risk than other providers who treat later in the claim; or the hospital outpatient departments’ use of the operating and recovery rooms would be less affected by paperwork but exposed to payment delays. Because the majority of payments to hospital outpatient departments are for physical facilities (e.g., recovery room), equipment (e.g., the MRI machine but not the radiologists’ professional services) and supplies (e.g., crutches), it is more likely that hospital outpatient departments are more exposed to billing delays, nonpayment risk (at emergency rooms for initial care) or canceled appointments and less exposed to time-consuming paperwork hassles or patient compliance issues.

Moreover, if the additional burden that the workers’ compensation system places on hospital providers (e.g., additional paperwork, delays and uncertainty in reimbursements, formal adjudication and special focus on timely return to work) is sizable, policymakers have two choices. The first is to adopt a higher-than-typical fee schedule that embraces large costs for the hassle factor. The alternative is to identify and remediate the causes of the larger-than-typical hassles — especially where these are rooted in statutory or regulatory requirements.

The Montana Approach

The major limitation of group health as a benchmark for workers’ compensation is that the group health rates are the proprietary competitive information of commercial insurers. The Montana legislature found a way to use group health prices as a benchmark for its workers’ compensation fee schedule while respecting the confidentiality of the commercial insurers’ price information. The approach used is to obtain the price information (conversion factor) from each of the five largest commercial insurers and group health third-party administrators (TPAs) in the state and compute an average. The average masks the prices paid by any individual commercial insurer or TPA. In addition, the statute guarantees the confidentiality of the individual insurers’ information.

Conclusion

This study raises a number of concerns about whether fee schedules are too high or too low. There are two key pieces of information needed to address this — (1) how much other payers in the state are paying, and (2) whether there is a unique workers’ compensation hassle factor.

This study addresses the first question for common surgeries done at hospital outpatient departments. A related WCRI study does the same for professional fees paid to surgeons and primary-care physicians.

Quantifying the presence and magnitude of any unique workers’ compensation hassle factor remains to be done. However, in some states, these studies show that workers’ compensation prices were below those paid by group health. For those states, policymakers may want to inquire about access-to-care concerns, especially for primary care. For other states, the workers’ compensation prices paid were so much higher than prices paid by group health insurers that policymakers should ask if the large differences are really necessary to ensure quality care to injured workers.

One way of framing that question using the results of the WCRI studies is as follows: “Workers’ compensation pays $10,000 to hospital outpatient departments for a shoulder surgery on an injured worker, and group health pays $6,000 for the same services. Does it make sense that if workers’ compensation paid $9,000 that hospital outpatient departments would no longer treat injured workers—preferring to treat group health patients at $6,000, or Medicare patients at a fraction of the group health price, or Medicaid patients at prices lower than Medicare?”

Ms. Tanabe is sharing this article on behalf of its authors, Richard Victor and Olesya Fomenko.

Winning the War Against Opioid Addiction and Abuse

As we move forward with winning the war against opioid addiction, it can sometimes be challenging to read the daily headlines and stay positive, especially around the holidays. A December article titled “Drug Abusers May be Injuring Pets to Get Pain Killers” shared how police officers and community leaders informed the Ohio attorney general’s office that people have been abusing drugs rightfully prescribed to pets. The US News HealthDay story titled “Secure Your Prescription Drugs When Hosting Holiday Parties” warned readers about the importance of securing prescription drugs in a safe location before guests arrive. When stories deteriorate to addicts intentionally harming their dogs and to people worrying about holiday guests raiding medicine cabinets, rock bottom isn’t far away.

However, 2013 positioned us well for achieving improved results during 2014. Some of last year’s positive developments include:

1.   State law changes establishing clearer standards of care, reporting and tracking of controlled narcotics, bans on abused narcotics, etc.

2.   State and federal agencies aggressively prosecuting individuals who prescribe opioids illegally or  operate “pill mills,” revoking registrations of some pharmacies and compelling healthcare providers and pharmacies to surrender or forfeit their medical licenses to state medical/pharmacy boards

3.   Physician-led education efforts like the Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing

4.   Medical boards actively addressing the inappropriate and illegal dispensing of drugs

5.   Heightened awareness of the neonatal abstinence syndrome crisis in the U.S.

6.   Workers’ compensation insurers leveraging advanced analytics, physician education efforts, evidence-based pain diagnoses and utilization reviews to reduce injured worker reliance on addictive prescription drugs

7.   The Food and Drug Administration’s Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy

8.   The issuance of the October 2013 Trust for America’s Health report titled “Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic”

9.   Continuing prosecution and sentencing of healthcare providers

10. Efforts by national medical organizations

The first eight developments were addressed in the authors’ first quarter 2013 Physician Insurer magazine article titled “The Opioid Abuse Epidemic, Turning the Tide” and our Dec. 2, 2013 Property Casualty 360 Claims Magazine article titled “10 Strategies to Combat the Rx Abuse Epidemic – An Insurers Perspective.”

This article will expand on the last two developments and share some thoughts on what may be in our future when it comes to winning the war on opioid addiction and abuse.

Prosecution and sentencing of healthcare providers

2013 was marked by the successful prosecution and sentencing of healthcare professionals involved in various forms of prescription drug diversion. Arguably the most notable of these was the 39-year prison sentence given to David Kwiatkowski, the former New Hampshire hospital technician who caused dozens of people to become infected with hepatitis C when he injected himself with pain killers using syringes that were then used on patients. Kwiatkowski admitted in August to stealing the drugs and leaving used syringes for hospital use for years, despite knowing he was infected with hepatitis C. His case drew national attention to the problem of prescription drug diversion among healthcare workers; caused a number of institutions to finally take a fresh look at their human resource policies and systems being used to detect diversion; and, has, we hope, sent a strong message of deterrence to all healthcare drug diverters — it is only a matter of time before you get caught!

Efforts by national medical organizations (NMOs)

On an extremely positive note, we are beginning to see NMOs join the fight to help stem the opioid epidemic. On Dec. 10, 2013, the American College of Physicians released a position paper titled “Prescription Drug Abuse: A Policy Position Paper From the American College of Physicians.” The goal of the paper was to provide physicians and policy-makers with 10 recommendations to address the significant human and financial costs related to prescription drug abuse. The recommendations include support for additional education, a national prescription drug monitoring program, establishment of evidence-based nonbinding guidelines regarding recommended maximum dosage and duration of therapy, consideration of patient-provider treatment agreements and the passage of legislation by all 50 states permitting electronic prescription for controlled substances.

In turn, in January 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Drugs and Section on Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine issued a report titled “Recognition and Management of Iatrogenically Induced Opioid Dependence and Withdrawal in Children.” The clinical report recommended guidelines for prescribers to follow when weaning children from opioids. As noted by lead author Jeffrey Galinkin, MD, “[t]he key reason the AAP was keen to publish this paper and go forward with this guideline is that people are unaware that patients can get drug-specific withdrawal symptoms from opioids as early as five days to a week after having been on an opioid chronically.”

This recommendation was immediately followed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Jan. 10, 2014, Federal Register Volume 79, Number 7 publication of proposed rules revising the Medicare Advantage (MA) regulations and prescription drug benefit program (Part D) regulations to help combat fraud and abuse in these programs. The proposed rules include requiring prescribers of Part D drugs to enroll in Medicare, a feature that CMS believes will help ensure that Part D drugs are prescribed only by qualified individuals. As reported by Medscape Medical News, CMS is also seeking the authority to revoke a physician’s or eligible professional’s Medicare enrollment if:

• CMS determines that he or she has a pattern or practice of prescribing Part D drugs that is abusive and represents a threat to the health and safety of Medicare beneficiaries or otherwise fails to meet Medicare requirements; or

• His or her Drug Enforcement Administration certificate of registration is suspended or revoked; or

• The applicable licensing or administrative body for any state in which a physician or eligible professional practices has suspended or revoked the physician or eligible professional’s ability to prescribe drugs.

Furthermore, CMS proposes employing data analysis to identify prescribers and pharmacies that may be engaged in fraudulent or abusive activities. In Table 14 of Federal Register Volume 79, Number 7, CMS’ Office of the Actuary estimates the savings to the federal government from implementing its proposed provisions will be $83 million in calendar year 2015, $132 million in 2016, $171 million in 2017, $364 million in 2018 and $589 million in 2019.

Source: CMS

Innovation in our future

In addition to the above efforts, companies continue to innovate and research new ways to address historical challenges.

Vatex Explorations is building a real-time individual-dose monitoring system called Divert-X to reduce drug trafficking, misuse and addictions that result from routine medical care. Divert-X monitors a patient’s individual doses through the electronic transmission of data identifying the time of dose access, location and other measures. The analysis of the data in real time helps physicians and pharmacists identify drug-taking behaviors that fall outside of norms, allowing early intervention before misuse or addiction set in.

In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration approved an ingestible sensor that can be used to track real time data about your pill consumptions habits. The sensor, developed by Proteus Digital Health, was first approved for use in Europe before coming to the U.S. The ingestible sensor is part of the digital health feedback system, which includes a wearable sensor and secure app and is largely focused on serving the transplant population and patients with chronic illnesses. The authors could envision a day when the system could help in the battle against opioid addiction.

Insurance companies are doing a better job of leveraging advanced analytics to understand their opioid-exposed population and the prescribing habits of the physicians treating their injured workers. Through the review of medical bills (e.g., date and types of service and payment, ICD-9 diagnosis codes, CPT-4 procedure codes, etc.) and pharmacy data (e.g., bill frequency,  aggressive refills, NDC drug codes, quantity used, generic vs. brand, supply days, use of prescriber, pharmacy name, etc.), insurance companies can identify usage and treatment patterns that fall outside of expectations using cluster analyses, association rules, anomaly detection and network “link” analyses.

Law enforcement continues to push the envelope in finding innovative ways to combat drug diversion. Take, for example, the strategy developed in consultation with the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators and Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics to curb false reporting of the loss or theft of prescription drugs in Stillwater. According to a police spokesman, most physicians in Stillwater require patients to obtain a police report before they will write a replacement prescription for lost or stolen medications. This requirement resulted in an increase in the number of police reports filed, but a new problem emerged. How could anyone determine whether those police reports were legitimate? In response, the Stillwater police department created a database to record the names of any individual who reported the loss or theft of a prescription drug. The department now requires the individual to take a polygraph test before it will accept any subsequent report of a lost or stolen prescription drug. Fail that polygraph, and criminal prosecution may follow. Query: If this strategy were employed nationwide, would the medicine cabinet at home be guarded more closely?

Conclusion

There is no doubt we have come a long way in the battle against opioid addiction in a relatively short time. Although there is a lot of road left to travel, 2014 is well-positioned to carry forward the effective efforts from last year. Given the innovative spirit of the U.S. and passion of everyone involved in winning this fight, a better long-term solution could be just around the corner.

Insurance Is Not a Government Function

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, in Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania v. Ins. Commissioner, 939 C.D. 2011 (Pa.Commw. 08/09/2013) was called upon to decide whether a governmental entity – acting like an excess insurer – overcharged health care providers and appropriated funds belonging to the providers. The health care providers and trade associations petitioned for review of an adjudication of the Insurance Commissioner that denied their challenge to the assessments imposed upon them by the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error (MCARE) Fund for the years 2009, 2010 and 2011. These assessments provide the monies used by the MCARE Fund to pay medical malpractice claims in excess of what the health care provider’s primary insurer pays. Petitioners assert that their assessments were excessive because they resulted in a collection of more monies than were needed by the MCARE Fund to pay claims for one year and provide a 10% reserve.

Background

Since 1975, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has been directly involved in providing medical malpractice insurance to health care providers. The General Assembly addressed the medical malpractice crisis by establishing a mandatory medical malpractice insurance system. A health care provider’s refusal to purchase malpractice insurance coverage in 1975 was, and continues to be, sanctioned by the provider’s loss of his professional license.

In 2002, the General Assembly enacted the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error (MCARE) Act. The MCARE Act addressed a newly perceived crisis, i.e., the cost of medical malpractice insurance. There was concern that the cost of medical malpractice insurance in Pennsylvania had increased to the point that physicians educated and trained in Pennsylvania were leaving to set up practice in other states where the costs of this insurance were lower.

Relevant to this case, the MCARE Act established the MCARE Fund. The MCARE Fund was set up to provide insurance coverage in excess of the mandatory levels of primary medical malpractice coverage. The MCARE Fund is scheduled for termination. To that end, the MCARE Act has established a schedule for continued increases in the amount of primary coverage that must be purchased by health care providers and continued decreases in the amount of excess coverage that will be available from the MCARE Fund.

The MCARE Fund is a “pay-as-you-go” program of what the general assembly called “insurance.” Unlike a private insurance company, it does not establish reserves to cover injuries that occur in the assessment year but do not become adjudicated awards for several years thereafter. Instead, the MCARE Fund is set up to raise only those funds necessary to “cover claims and expenses for the assessment year.”  The MCARE Fund projects its annual expected claim payments on the basis of the prior year’s payments. This means that the amount collected from health care providers in a given year may be more, or less, than what is actually needed to pay the MCARE Fund’s claims and expenses for that year.

In making its calculation for 2009, the MCARE Fund ignored its 2008 accrued unspent balance of approximately $104 million. Instead, in 2009, $100 million was transferred out of the MCARE Fund into the Commonwealth’s General Fund for the purpose of funding the operations of state government. The Court held that this transfer of funds was illegal. Petitioners appealed their 2009, 2010 and 2011 assessments on the theory that the MCARE Fund’s year-end balance should have been included in the aggregate assessment calculation for 2009 and the following years. Simply, the aggregate assessment must be “sufficient” to produce a balance sheet that replaces what was spent in the prior year and provides a reserve of 10%.

The MCARE Fund has the statute to mean that 110% of the prior year’s expenditures must be collected each year from health care providers, regardless of the starting balance. This exercise means that unspent balances will accumulate even as claims decline, consistent with the MCARE Fund’s scheduled termination, or as earnings on the 10% reserve increase.

Analysis

Construing statutes, courts must be mindful of what the legislature did not say as well as what it did say. Most importantly, the MCARE Act says nothing about the accumulation of unspent balances in excess of the 10% reserve. It does not authorize them. The MCARE Act provides no guidance on the income generated by an accumulation of unspent balances, which can be considerable given the present unspent balance of $104 million. The MCARE Act’s silence on these matters makes perfect sense only if the legislature never intended that such an accumulation would develop.

The legislature has addressed the possibility of an unspent balance in only one place in the statute. The MCARE Act provides that upon termination of the MCARE Fund, “[a]ny balance remaining in the fund” shall be returned to the healthcare providers who paid “assessments in the preceding calendar year.”  This presumes a small, if “any,” balance and suggests that there should not be an unspent balance in any other year.

The MCARE Act states that the MCARE Fund’s reserve “shall be” 10% of the prior year’s claims and expenses. Instead, after the 2009 assessment, the MCARE Fund had a reserve of 64%. Such a reserve cannot fit any reasonable interpretation of the stated purposes of the MCARE Act or the precise wording of the statute.

The aggregate assessment must raise funds “sufficient” to meet the specified purposes in the statute. This means that the MCARE Fund must begin its annual aggregate assessment calculation with its unspent balance and add to it the amounts “sufficient” to cover the prior year’s claims and expenses and to “provide a 10% reserve” not a 64% reserve.

The fact that the General Assembly chose to limit distribution of any balance in the MCARE Fund at termination to those that participated in the Fund in the preceding calendar year indicates that the legislature intended a direct correlation between the actual MCARE Fund balance at termination and the population of providers assessed in the prior year.

Requiring health care providers to fund a new 10% reserve every assessment year, without regard to the monies already held by the MCARE Fund, defeats the stated goal of the statute to provide affordable excess insurance. Such an approach repeatedly and needlessly charges participating providers an assessment in excess of what is necessary to fund the statutorily-required 10% reserve. Because the population of providers changes over time, the providers who enter such a system in the earlier years will end up subsidizing the participating providers in the later years. This is unfairly discriminatory.

For all of the foregoing reasons, the court reversed the order of the Insurance Commissioner and remanded this matter to the Commissioner to recalculate the MCARE assessments for 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Opinion

The MCARE law was designed to die over time. It, and its predecessor, is an example of why a governmental entity should never get involved in insurance because they do not understand what insurance is or how it works in the real world.

Medical Malpractice Insurance is a risk-sharing device where many health care providers pay into a fund so that there is sufficient money available to indemnify those who are sued for malpractice. The “crisis” laws like the MCARE law arose because doctors who erred were sued regularly and successfully until insurers found a need to raise premiums to a level necessary to cover the payments and make a profit. To solve the “crisis,” the government decided to provide a form of insurance rather than resolve the problem caused by its tort system.

Governments should not make profits and do not know what to do with a profit if it was made by accident or by a poorly-designed system that has no relationship to the long-term thinking of an insurer. The law here was made specifically to protect those who paid into the fund and to return excess, unspent monies to the providers who paid into the fund. It is not a premium but a tax where health care providers are compelled to buy both primary insurance in the market and excess from MCARE.

This case is instructive as government continues to place itself into the business of insurance where whatever the government calls insurance is, in fact, a method of government largess. For example, the National Flood Insurance Program, FAIR Plans, and the Affordable Care Act have nothing to do with insurance since they are not risk-sharing devises but are rather devices that take tax money from the country or state as a whole to provide insurance-like benefits to a special category of people like those who live near a river that regularly floods, people who live in high fire risk areas, or people who are ill but decided not to buy insurance. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, until slapped down by this court, took money intended to protect medical providers for its own use without legal authority.

Healthcare Exchanges: Round 2

Most of the dust has now settled around the State Exchanges. Last week the New York rates were finalized and with most of the other states, rates came in lower than anticipated. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released an analysis1 suggesting that rates were 18% lower than anticipated. The national press has been in a frenzy as the public is trying to determine what all of this means. This article will discuss several of the issues and try to put them in perspective.

So What Are The Facts?
Are the rates actually lower? The HHS article demonstrates that yes, rates are coming in lower than previously projected rates even by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). However, the situation is not quite the same as alluded to. For example, the study compared the “lowest rate” with the projected or forecasted rate. In the recently released rates for the State of New York, rates for the silver plan in New York City ranged from a low of about $350 to a high of nearly $700, a wide range. The HHS article compared the lowest rate in a plan type and compared that to the CBO projection. If the low in New York was $350 and the high $700, one might assume an average rate of $525 (i.e., (350 + 750)/2 = $525). Comparing $350 to the projection gets a different answer than comparing $525 to the projection. For example, if $350 is 18% lower than the projection, $525 is 123% of the projection, a much different story than presented.

Why Do The Rates Vary So Much?
Rates are based upon a large number of specific and sometimes hard to define actuarial assumptions. Some of the health plans used different assumptions than others resulting in different rate levels. Some of the key assumptions are:

  • Health care provider discounts and also average cost of those providers in the network
  • Care management approach and effectiveness
  • Required expense and margin loads
  • Assumed health status of population to be covered
  • Assumed health care inflation and/or trend assumption
  • Specific plan design
  • Prior experience with individuals and small groups

There are other assumptions that are included, but the above list describes most of the important ones. If a particular health plan has better than average discounts with providers it is likely that their premium would be lower than a plan with lesser discounts. If the providers included in the network have a lower average cost than a competitor's network, the premium would likely be lower than the competitor. If a health plan had more effective care management practices than their competitor their rates might be lower. The list goes on. In addition to actual measured performance, some of these differences might be based upon perceived value and/or differences.

Although actuarial science is an objective science, different actuaries might have different opinions on the same issue and could apply different judgment when the data is incomplete or questionable. As a result, rate differences might occur as a result of different actuarial opinion.

The nature of a specific health plan can also lead to differences. One example of this is the rate development in one of the states our company was working on. One of the major players in the market attempted to negotiate more favorable contracts with its provider network. The best attempt at negotiating with a highly desirable health system resulted in a contract that paid that provider about 115% of Medicare payment rates, an improvement from their current contract. A competitive health plan in that same marketplace contracting with that same provider was able to negotiate a contract at close to Medicaid rates, considerably less than what the other carrier had achieved. A very surprising result that we had to investigate further to understand.

The first carrier was a major commercial health plan. The second was a health plan that served Medicaid beneficiaries. Their current contract paid close to Medicaid rates, and since the Exchange was going to attract Medicaid-like enrollees they were able to negotiate a rate close to their current rates, but a little higher. The large commercial carrier at the same time was not able to negotiate anywhere near that rate discount but was pleased to be able to get an improvement. This reimbursement difference alone would contribute to at least a 35% – 50% rate differential. Examples such as this have occurred through many of the exchanges and have led to many rate differences.

In addition, some plans have proposed “narrow networks” where providers agreeing to significant discounts and which have demonstrated performance advantage are included in the network. This has resulted in favorable rates in many situations. Some plans have used “broad networks” where almost any provider is included in the network. The exchange has no requirement about breadth of network. Individuals signing up for coverage in the exchange are going to have to carefully assess what providers are included in the networks. The lower premium rates might be the results of narrower networks with limited access.

In summary, the news has been more encouraging than expected, at least by many; however, there are many idiosyncrasies that need to be considered before making a final judgment regarding the Affordable Care Act and the exchanges. Rates will be available October 1, assuming no further delays, and then we will be able to make final assessments.

1 ASPE Issue Brief: Market Competition Works: Proposed Silver Premiums in the 2014 Individual and Small Group Markets Are Nearly 20% Lower than Expected.

It's Not Cost, Stupid – It's Care Transparency!

In my article last month — Care Transparency: What Employers Are Missing! — I wrote about how employers are missing an understanding of how employees are making health care decisions, and how that crucial factor impacts health care costs.

Employers need to meet employees where they are — online. Employers need to provide them with tools that can help their research and decision-making process with robust, accurate, unbiased and evidence-based information. Employers can significantly improve the quality of care consumed by their employees and reduce health care costs by focusing on creating care transparency.

In this article, we have explained the types of tools that will be effective in supporting employee decisions and that employees will really use in making care and treatment decisions. WiserTogether's research of patient decisions across the top 200 health conditions shows that of the 22 unique factors that patients typically use in evaluating treatments, quality of care tops the list. Cost does not even make the top five. In other words, cost is not the primary decision driver for patients, and consumers do not seek out cost tools when they begin making decisions. This explains the low utilization that organizations see when they offer cost transparency tools as a stand-alone service.

Health Affairs1 recently published an article that found that patients object both to discussing health care costs with clinicians and to considering costs in deciding among comparable clinical options. It is also well-known that despite the payer's best efforts, patients do not factor in payer and employer cost burdens when making health and care decisions, despite the fact that payers cover a majority of the costs. Economists have a term for this phenomenon that patients exhibit, called the “Tragedy of the Commons.” This concept means individual decision making is driven by personal benefit and ignores the implications of those decisions on third parties and the common good.2

Studies show that patients faced with a treatment decision can only process a limited number of factors. In its 2012 research that showed quality of care is the most important factor patients consider when making health care decisions, WiserTogether found that only seven of the 22 factors carry enough weight to qualify as first-tier factors for patients. Those seven factors are explained below.

Importantly, patients also indicated differences in how open they were to information about a factor coming as an expert opinion versus information coming in the form of experiences of other patients.

WiserTogether found that for the following four factors, patients want accurate information about the experiences of other patients. For each treatment, patients wanted to know the following:

  • Treatment Effectiveness — How effective did other patients say the treatment was for them?
  • Treatment Popularity — What percentage of patients in a situation like mine use the treatment?
  • Treatment Speed — How fast did other patients start to see a difference, and how long was the recovery?
  • Treatment Side Effects — What side effects have other patients experienced, and how severe were they?

For the remaining three factors, patients wanted expert opinion:

  • Scientific Evidence — Which treatments are best supported by medical evidence?
  • Consequences of Delay — What might happen if I wait to have the treatment or decide not to have it?
  • Treatment Duration — How long will the treatment last?

The results seen were independent of whether the information was available. Patients ranked out-of-pocket costs as a second-tier factor they are willing to consider when making a health care decision. Patients also report that finding information about any of the seven top-tier factors is extremely hard, and the current tools/support systems provided are inadequate.

Research has shown that patients seek out such information prior to making a health care decision, and the information gathered influences their commitment to follow through on a treatment.

Employees repeatedly state that they are overwhelmed with health information and need help finding content that is relevant to their situation. Tools that help them understand their options, evaluate those options based on personal preferences and constraints, and succinctly communicate their questions and concerns to their providers can supply the missing link. Treatment selection and shared decision support tools — whether used by the patients directly or in consultation with a provider — help support patient decisions and effective interactions with providers.

Effective and engaging tools need to offer the following:

  • Personalized treatment selection based on the patient's demographics, co-morbidities, personal preferences, and financial constraints.
  • Need to provide (at least) the seven top-tier decision-making factors to assist employees' evaluation of options along with cost and plan coverage.
  • Be easily accessible online anywhere, including at point of care set-ups.

Employees are adopting these tools at very high rates, as these tools are aligned with the natural behavioral process people follow in making health care decisions. Such tools are helping employees become informed health care consumers who understand choices and are able to make wiser choices based on their values. These tools also are helping to reduce the knowledge gap between the providers and patients and to create more confident health care consumers who can start engaging with providers in making shared and effective health care decisions.

Having said that, WiserTogether's Patient-Centered Care Index (PCCI) shows that the provider community is a long way from treating patients as an equal partner. In my next article, I will write about specific areas where providers are underperforming in delivering patient-centered care and how they often treat themselves differently than they treat their patients.

Authors
This article is co-authored with Gregg Rosenberg, Ph.D., Chief Product Officer at WiserTogether, Inc. and author of A Place for Consciousness (Oxford University Press).

1 “Focus Groups Highlight That Many Patients Object To Clinicians' Focusing On Costs,” Sommers, Goold, McGlynn et al.; Health Affairs, 32, no.2 (2013): Pgs 338-346.

2 “The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited,” Rafid Fadul; New England Journal of Medicine, no. 10 (2009): Pg 361.