Tag Archives: health care savings

Five Principles For Cracking Health Costs, Dave Ramsey-Style

Dave Ramsey is a Tennessee-based Christian author and talk-radio host, who advises on personal finance. As Jewish Northeasterners, my husband and I aren’t exactly his target demographic, but we have remained devoted fans for over eight years. Ramsey takes a common sense approach to managing money, as he puts it “we give you the same financial advice your grandmother would, only we keep our teeth in.”

It’s time we applied such common sense to healthcare spending, and a much-discussed new book does just that: Cracking Health Costs: How to Cut Your Company’s Costs and Provide Employees Better Care, by Tom Emerick and Al Lewis. This book should be required reading for every CEO and HR executive in the country.  I’ve gleaned the following five commonsense principles from the book and from Ramsey’s radio show.

1. Give Every Dollar A Job

Ramsey says every household should have a budget and know where your money is going. Cracking Health Costs says that companies should get and count results for every dollar they invest in healthcare. The book gives a checklist of some of the numbers that employers should ask their vendors to report on, such as: inpatient days fallen, imaging tests reduced, wellness-sensitive medical events declined. You should know what your pharmacy benefit manager makes in profit and what discounts you get.

That sounds simple enough, but far too often vendors obscure their results with fancy reports showing all kinds of supposed savings, even when the math doesn’t add up. The reports often leave employers scratching their heads, wondering why despite all this elaborate “savings” they are still spending more money than they did last year. Don’t put up with that, says Emerick and Lewis. The book has some great advice on spotting phony numbers and asking the right questions.

2. Cut Your Spending

Ramsey says you should get fired up to attack wasted spending and reach your financial goals. Your family will be better off if you direct your dollars toward your priorities.

Emerick and Lewis also say you should attack waste and spend less – and your employees will be better off if you do it right.

Believe it or not, this is unusual advice. Most advice to business leaders worried about health costs focuses on creative ways to spend more money. Vendor PowerPoints are filled with new ideas for employer spendfests aimed at reducing costs: new prevention programs, expanded primary care, bonuses for performance, etc.

Cracking Health Costs points out the largest item on most company’s healthcare expense reports and suggests you start cutting spending there: hospital costs. The authors detail two approaches.  First, give your employees and dependents the opportunity to travel to preferred hospitals for your highest-risk, highest-cost procedures. Author Emerick helped some Fortune 100 companies pursue this strategy with good result, identifying “company-sponsored centers of excellence” with a propensity for correct diagnosis, appropriate care plans and top quality care.

Second, demand safety and quality from all the hospitals in your network, and make that available to your employees. Of course, I was pleased to read the book’s suggestion that purchasers use my purchaser-driven nonprofit, Leapfrog, as the (free) source of information on hospital quality and safety, including an app and search engine grading hospitals.  But employers can also work with Leapfrog and business coalitions to apply pressure on hospitals to improve. Emerick and Lewis point to Leapfrog’s calculator of the hidden surcharge Americans pay for hospital errors to get a sense of how much money is on the table for them. Here’s a warning for the faint of heart: the amount of your wasted dollars will likely have nine figures.

Don’t shy away from the Emerick/Lewis strategies for managing your hospital spend: estimates are that inappropriate treatment, misdiagnosis, errors, and poor quality care may account for as much as a third of health costs in the U.S.

3. Avoid Get-Rich-Quick Schemes

Ramsey warns: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do the research.

Cracking Health Costs skewers the pay-now-save-later schemes sold to employers every day.

Some of those too-good-to-be-true ideas sound both good and true — or none of us would ever fall for them. Cracking Health Costs cautions employers on a number of programs that, structured poorly, can cost employers money, save nothing and produce zero demonstrable health advantages to employees. This includes certain kinds of screening programs, triage phone lines, health coaching and health risk assessments (HRAs) with incentives for participation.

Many of the very same vendors selling these programs know the truth about their ROI. As the authors point out, “Not one single publicly held company in the business of controlling medical care expenses actually provides financial incentives for their own commercially insured members to complete HRAs and talk to coaches.”

4. Be Generous and Giving

Ramsey advises people to set aside money for charity – even on a tight budget.

Cracking Health Costs proposes that companies focus on proving to their employees that they care about them — through generosity and actions that demonstrate concern.

There’s research behind this. The authors point to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index and studies suggesting that companies that improve performance on the index can correlate with improved company performance. Healthways is a leader in this emerging field. And it appears from the research that a caring employer can significantly impact employee well-being.

Indeed, Ramsey too recommends a similar business strategy. He’s as hard-nosed a businessman as you get, but his book EntreLeadership attributes his company’s success to a culture of generosity and caring.

Ironically, poorly-executed wellness programs can undermine employee well-being. In part because of new provisions in Obamacare, today many employers are requiring that employees pay extra for their healthcare premiums if they refuse to participate in wellness programs.  Like it or not this sends a nefarious message from employer to employee: you, dear employee, are a depreciating asset, a drain to the bottom line, too stupid to know how to take care of yourself so we have to pay you to do it. This, of course, contradicts the message known to promote employee well-being, that your employer cares about you and values your service.

Penn State is learning this the hard way. They invested in an employee wellness program and withheld dollars from those who refuse to participate, no doubt hoping to show employees how deeply they care about their health. That’s not the message employees heard: they see it as Exhibit A of the pernicious motives of their employer—and this is an employer that really doesn’t need bad publicity right now.

Indeed, talented employees don’t depreciate over time, their contributions to the company improve as they accumulate experience. Talent is a precious asset to companies, the key to competitive advantage and essential to success—it should never be squandered to save a few (phantom) bucks on future healthcare premiums.

5. Your Best Financial Hope — And Your Greatest Financial Obstacle – Is In The Mirror 

Let’s face it, most of us at least once failed to stick to a budget or blew money on a dubious idea. How do we overcome our human tendency to defy common sense? Ramsey’s advice: Get fed up with yourself.  Get mad.  Passion is the key to change.

Similarly, Cracking Health Costs urges benefits executives to get mad. You are being taken to the cleaners. And worse, your employees may be suffering harm as a result. To succeed, benefits executives must not delegate their leadership to the usual bevy of vendors and health plans any more than you let your credit cards and bank supervise your personal finances. Executives that seize control of their health spending – and apply common sense – will honor their employees and thus help their companies succeed.

All Employers CAN Reduce The Cost Of Health Care

What health plans and brokers don't want you to know….

Sometimes it's humbling to admit what you don't know. It's even worse to realize that you don't know what you don't know (YDKWYDK – pronounced, yidick-widick). Well, last fall I was hit square in the face with an embarrassing case of YDKWYDK. Silly me, I presumed that within certain boundaries, actuarial science is, well, a science. Based on the experience/characteristics of a population, and the design of a plan, there was a narrow range within which premiums would be assessed. Not exactly.

Informed Purchasers Can Get Better Coverage And A Lower Cost
I advise employers about how to manage health care costs. That's what I do for a living. Well, I discovered there is a process for uncovering available savings of which I've been unaware. Let's call it the informed purchaser discount. It turns out if you:

  • Learn more about how rates get set (not necessarily based on actual claims risk), and
  • Discover where fees might be hidden (many places), and
  • Inform yourself on calculations health plans use to forecast cost and protect themselves from exposure (quite conservatively), and
  • Partner with someone who has the data platform and predictable process to uncover available savings, and
  • Design a new plan that aligns patient and provider interests,

You can pay a lot less for coverage.

Why Don't You Already Know About This?
Well, it turns out there are incentives built into the system such that:

  • Most brokers — who are paid by the plans — are reluctant to push back on plans for better prices, and
  • Brokers who do push back may get penalized by the plans with worse quotes or slower service, and
  • The timing of quotes are manipulated to rush decisions and leave less time for deliberations, and
  • Because it's a hassle to price many different designs, the plans and brokers often choose a favorite and don't bother to tailor it to specific client needs, and
  • All plans tend to operate this way, so you won't detect over-charging by simply comparing among them.
  • Thus, benefits managers are left reporting to the executive team, honestly: “This is the best I could find.”

Sigh. In other words, circumstances are stacked against the individual employer, especially small ones that are fully-insured. The traditional industry process is meant to keep us in the dark.

Worse yet, as traditional benefit professionals, we don't know what we don't know. There are many reasons not to rock the boat. Perhaps there is a long-term, trusted relationship with the broker; they've become our friends. Brokers won't tell you that they think you can get a better deal — otherwise you would question why they aren't getting it. Perhaps there is fear that getting a different broker or an outside advisor will be looked upon as a sign that we have made poor choices in the past. Perhaps it is simply easier to do what we always do. Perhaps we assume we will get the best deal through the competitive bidding process. Perhaps we assume that because we are smart and capable in other areas, the same approach applies in health coverage. Whatever the reason, the vast majority of businesses don't have the insight to demand and get the informed purchaser discount.

So, you ask, how much can that discount be? (Are you sitting down?) $1,000 to $3,000 per employee, every year. For a 500 person company, that equates to overpaying between a half a million and 1.5M dollars on health care over the past five years. It's shocking, it's appalling, it's something I would not have believed … but folks, it's real. And you can do something about it.

I have spent my professional benefit career advising employers about plan design, corporate policy, health care quality, and health interventions. All the while, I should have been encouraging them to partner with an experienced purchaser who knows the process and can share understandings of risks and incentives.

Stop Paying A Penalty Simply For NOT Being Informed
The only way to get an informed purchaser discount is to make the process transparent and work with someone who only has a financial incentive to save you money. This doesn't mean you fire your broker (unless you want to), only that you insist on having a broker who will partner with an independent plan reviewer/designer. You want someone who is not threatened by complete transparency — something you will learn is not welcomed by plans or most brokers. (If your broker resists, I can recommend a few who do advocate transparency and are open-minded).

What should the independent party do?

  1. Review your current plan and experience at no charge.
  2. Assess the savings opportunity at no charge.
    Explain your design options and confirm you are comfortable with specific types of changes. The savings should not be solely derived from making the plan less desirable, such as:

    • restricting access to providers
    • shifting large increases in cost to employees
    • design changes that discourage employees from choosing coverage
  3. If savings are not likely, state that fact, shake hands and part ways.
  4. Charge a reasonable fee, most of which is contingent upon meeting a minimum savings (e.g. $1000 per employee).

In other words, there should be no cost or risk to assess your opportunity, and the group who guarantees savings should get paid after the savings are achieved.

Does such an organization exist? Yes. It's not a brokerage, but a small, independent consulting group called Incenta, that is saving its clients a lot of money. Do I work for them? No, but I am introducing them to my clients because it feels bad not to. Will I be partnering with them in the future to bring this solution to more employers? Absolutely.

What Now?
This article is a stark departure from my usual analytical or policy-oriented discussion. Readers who know me know that I investigate topics thoroughly and thoughtfully. Despite this, all of us encounter situations where yidick-widick, and we discover new solutions to old problems. It's not a sin to find out we didn't know — but I've decided it's inexcusable to ignore it now that I do know.

Never have I been more convinced that a different sort of expert is needed. Plus, in this case it happens to be very low risk — no cost to assess potential savings, and the vast majority of fees contingent upon achieving $1000 to $3000 of savings per employee.

So, I encourage every benefits manager to become one of the (few) informed purchasers. Don't wait until your renewal is approaching. And don't be afraid to admit YDKWYDK — better to learn this now than continue paying the penalty for remaining uninformed. Call or email me or the others listed at the bottom of this article. Become informed. Your bottom line, and your company executives will thank you.

For those interested in following up, talking it though, or getting started toward a better process of getting health care coverage, feel free to contact:

Wendy Lynch
Send Email to Wendy

Dennis Kelly
Send Email to Dennis

Dave Dias (one of the transparency-advocating brokers I know)
Send Email to Dave