Tag Archives: healthcare quality

healthcare quality

Healthcare Quality: How to Define It

In a previous article, we mentioned the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS’s) new provider reimbursement model, Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization (MACRA), which replaces the current reimbursement formula. MACRA will include an incentive component that will replace those in plans today; performance criteria will roll out in 2019. From the providers’ lens, they are faced with the need to hire more administrative resources to keep up with the tracking of their performance, and the big question is: Are consumers making different choices based on the performance results of a physician or hospital? When there are more than 150 different measures in place today, how is an occasional consumer of healthcare services able to assess the most important criteria in finding the right physician?

During a recent employers’ conference on the East Coast, the forum featured two panels consisting of the health plans and the providers. The panels were set in a Q&A format to enlist the leaderships’ views on various topics facing the employers, and it was a fascinating dialogue we have attempted to capture below.

In the first panel with the execs of five major carriers, the opening question asked for a one-minute overview of their health plan’s area of focus in addressing the employers’ challenges. The responses were consistent among the leaders — the focus is on the individual consumer and value-based contracting. When the discussion evolved into quality criteria and outcomes to identify high-performing physicians, the leaders acknowledged that defining quality and outcomes is a challenging endeavor, and each health plan has its own formula to assess the providers’ performance. One commented that a physician practicing in the morning could be viewed as a top performer by a carrier, while that afternoon, she could be ranked as a poor performer by another, even though the physician was delivering the same process of care for all her patients. The leaders agreed that employers really needed to weigh in on what was important to them so that there was greater consistency in the scoring logic with the physician community.

See Also: Are Your Health Cost Savings an Illusion?

The next panel was with the chief medical officers (CMOs) from the major systems and a primary care practice, and a number of relevant things were learned. There was unanimity in the frustration with the variation in the quality metrics being used by commercial carriers and CMS. One physician said he had never been asked for input on the quality metrics, and he was ready to engage in that discussion. The physician leaders asked for the employers to outline what was important to them so there could be a common set of standards for the commercial market — a consistent request from the leaders of both healthcare stakeholders.

Two of the CMOs were primary care physicians, and they both acknowledged that we have not given enough attention to the resource that has the greatest opportunity to lower employers’ costs — the family doctor. The primary care physicians can build trusting relationships with employees; they can help avoid the unnecessary services being provided; and they can help educate and channel the patients into the appropriate specialist, when they are equipped with quality and cost information.

The CMO from the largest health system acknowledged that there was 30% variation (aka waste) in the way care was being delivered within the community and that there was opportunity to improve the results. If we know there is variation in care even with performance-based contracts in place, what is the catalyst to get serious on consistency? Are there any other services that you purchase with a 30% variance? Would you continue spending money for that service knowing there is wasted spending?

After the event, there was a conversation with an employer, and we discussed the employers’ opportunity to help shape and define the quality metrics. This employer stated that he did not have experience or knowledge on how to establish criteria, and he was surprised to hear health plans were looking for his guidance, because he thought it was their role. When the discussion moved to the employer’s overall business, he acknowledged its internal business units established the quality criteria in assessing the vendors’ performance.

So, how do we move beyond the billboards and the marketing campaigns to understand the healthcare suppliers’ performance? Who has the greatest opportunity to drive change in a free-market system? We believe the one paying the bill has the ability to drive a more consistent outcome for high-quality, cost-effective healthcare. Let’s recognize and reward the physicians who are delivering a Six Sigma approach to healthcare so the other suppliers will be motivated to change. It’s time for employer-driven healthcare.

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

The Search For True Healthcare Transparency

Transparency, The New Buzzword In Healthcare
Healthcare price and quality have been nearly impossible to determine. Consumers can compare prices and quality of nearly everything they purchased, except healthcare — which truly has life and death implications.

Today, there is a new demand for healthcare transparency driven by:

  • Employers’ efforts to contain escalating costs
  • High-performing providers distinguishing their efficiency (price) and proficiency (quality)
  • Consumers seeking better value

Accomplishing this requires unearthing true and independently determined value — not just “secret” negotiated insurance rates, artificial fee schedules and quality metrics of questionable relevance.

Unknowingly purchasing healthcare with large price variations is a major cause of healthcare inflation and is estimated to cost Americans with employer-sponsored insurance as much as $36 billion a year.1 A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine revealed prices ranging from a low of $1,529 to a whopping high of $182,955 for an appendectomy!2

California Study on Appendix Removals

The mystery of healthcare pricing contributes significantly to the escalating cost of healthcare burdening consumers, employers and taxpayers. Introducing transparency to the healthcare market will shrink price and quality disparities — saving employers and employees money while they receive better quality care.

Quality is as important a factor as price, yet most consumers do not incorporate it into their healthcare decisions, largely because that information is not readily available. Online opinions of physicians and hospitals generally focus on wait times or communication skills rather than clinical qualifications and outcomes. The former makes you comfortable or uncomfortable; the latter can be costly, even deadly.

So quality does matter. In fact, more than one quarter of inpatient stays experience a medical error: 13.5 percent of Medicare/Medicaid hospital patients experienced an adverse event (a serious event, including death and disability) and another 13.5 percent experienced some other temporary harm that required intervention, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Transparency — The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

The Good: Consumers want full transparency and with the convergence of technology, data availability and better analytics, it’s increasingly available and affordable.

The Bad: With more companies entering the transparency market, each one defines transparency as they see it, causing confusion and making comparison difficult. Worse, some parties actively impede transparency by claiming data ownership and censoring data for their own benefit.

The Ugly: Many companies touting transparency merely slap the transparency tag on products having little or nothing to do with transparency. Or worse, advertise it but then suggest a plan to develop it; in another word, vaporware. Perhaps most disturbing are companies selling their version of transparency while failing to disclose conflicts of interest.

Transparency Criteria
Optimal transparency solutions should, at the least, meet criteria in four categories: unbiased, credible, meaningful and measurable. This article examines findings from a comparative summary of “transparency” companies in these four important categories.

Monocle Health Data conducted a study of seven companies alleging to provide either price and/or quality transparency of some sort. We developed and applied 25 criteria in the four categories named above. We did our best to verify accuracy and graded each company by these criteria using a simple three-tiered grade.

  • Plus — the capability was confirmed
  • Unknown — capability could not be determined
  • Minus — the capability did not exist or there was a clear deficiency

This study includes 200 footnotes documenting the findings. If you are interested in using our proprietary transparency comparison format or want more info, you may request it through info@monoclehealth.com. There is no charge. The following is a summary of significant findings.

Unbiased

1. Three of the seven were founded, owned or controlled by insurance companies or healthcare providers. This creates an inherent conflict of interest. What is most disturbing about these three is their lack of, well, transparency. They don’t reveal their potential conflicts. With a little research we found the conflicts, but no customer should have to work that hard — especially for a service that purports to give customers the full truth. These three companies’ conflicts were numerous and included:

  • Being founded by a consortium of state hospital associations;
  • Partially owned by a well-known hospital system;
  • Owned by a company marketing U.S. provider networks;
  • Publicly stated plans to offer its own provider network; and finally,
  • Owned by a global medical tourism company representing its own network.

2. Two of the seven promoted a provider network from which they receive compensation. Any time a seller claims to sell a “truth” product such as transparency, other sources of compensation from influential parties in the transaction should be divulged. In fact, for many industries it’s the law (think auto dealer rebates and real estate agencies). The conflict isn’t just the unseemly hidden compensation. In order to make networks attractive, their reps sell on access first and foremost, not quality or price. And there’s the rub. When networks include 90 percent of providers in the market, in the best case scenario, the network includes the best 50 percent and worst 40 percent of providers. And we all know about the wide disparities in healthcare price and quality. Broad network access — by definition — engenders disparities.

If a transparency company is selling access to a preferred network, it no longer has an incentive to reveal disparities (aka deficiencies) within its network. They’re paid to sell their network — not reveal provider-specific performance. And if they can get you to pay an access fee for the privilege of ignorance, well, they see that as an even more profitable sale — at your expense.

3. Three of the seven accept advertising revenues from providers as a primary source of revenue. Any transparency solution accepting ad revenues from those it’s supposed to evaluate without bias should be taken off the list of legitimate transparency solutions; they’re just one level away from “pay-to-play.”

Credible

1. Pay to play — Two companies use third-party sources that charge providers to participate in their “quality” assessment or to be more prominently displayed. And if the provider doesn’t pay the participation fee, it receives a “no score” which translates to a failing score. You can’t buy credibility. Worse yet, much of the data used in these companies’ “transparency” tools are from their own databases — not independent, recognized organizations.

2. Most companies did not use independently verified, fact-based information that has been cross-referenced from nationally recognized organizations. In fact, two of them used opinion surveys as their primary transparency tool, emphasizing the patient experience while ignoring independently verified, fact-based information. Opinion surveys are nice but patients want the best care possible, not just a pleasant experience, despite the trendy (and misleading) exclamation, “It’s all about the customer experience!”

3. Healthcare price and quality transparency is not the primary business for four of these companies. Those four companies’ primary businesses range from hospital consulting to selling networks to medical tourism to selling mobile apps. If a company’s primary business isn’t transparency, you know the business has other priorities that can change quickly — unbeknownst to the customer. If you want dedicated transparency services, free of conflicts, you’re most likely to receive that from a company dedicated to it as a primary business and core competency.

4. Use of appropriate comparative data — amazingly, six of the seven transparency companies failed this test. Most incorrectly compare Medicare data to commercial populations, use generic UCR fee schedules instead of the average cash payment, use market ranges instead of provider-specific data, or use an overall quality score that isn’t disease or procedure specific. Consumers have a right to know more than just whether a hospital earned a superior overall score — they have a right to know the score for treating their specific illness, and to know where each provider ranks for treating that illness.

5. Verifiable information from multiple credible sources and not just a company’s own database. Proprietary algorithms are one thing, but referencing a company’s own database as a valid source is intellectually dishonest. If the transparency company won’t or can’t provide auditable detail to support its findings, it lacks credibility. Keep in mind that data from at least two credible organizations is needed to validate conclusions. Only one transparency company met this standard.

Meaningful

1. Only one of the seven transparency companies used severity adjustments of appropriate data populations using at least two recognized severity-adjustment methodologies. Four of the seven didn’t demonstrate any severity adjustment capability. Severity adjustments allow for valid comparisons on a disease-specific, provider-specific basis so individuals can find providers who treat similar patients proficiently and efficiently.

2. Provider price rankings and quality ratings for both chronic illnesses and episodic care for hospitals and doctors on the same platform was offered by only one of the seven companies. The standard approach was to provide a price for each procedure, office visit, prescription, lab test, imaging procedure, etc. and let the user compile the total cost — if they can. With chronic illnesses comprising two-thirds of all benefit costs, it is critically important to rank and rate providers based on price and quality on a severity-adjusted basis for managing a chronic illness, including all costs for treatment, over an entire year.

3. In- and out-of-network provider comparisons were offered by only three of the seven companies (see Unbiased above). A meaningful transparency solution should provide consumers with ratings and rankings on providers who are both in- and out-of-network. Any “transparency” solution that excludes out-of-network providers isn’t transparency, it’s self-serving censorship detrimental to the consumer.

This is particularly important with high-deductible plans. I’ll give my personal experience: Pfizer sent me a Lipitor $4 copay card. I took it to CVS Pharmacy and was told that under my health plan, I would have to pay $250 for using a brand medication instead of generic — but they’d gladly reduce this by $4. I thought this surely was a mistake so I called CIGNA and was told its in-network pharmacy’s interpretation (CVS) was correct. CIGNA doesn’t tell consumers that it’s cheaper to fill prescriptions at out-of-network providers.

Excluding out-of-network providers isn’t transparency — it’s charging users for the privilege of buying high-cost services from in-network providers. Perhaps it’s time to question the value of networks — and any transparency solution that ignores out-of-network providers.

4. Robust analytic report package updated monthly. Six of the seven companies don’t offer monthly analytic reports. Another transparency requirement should be timely reports generated from robust analytics and the ability to “drill down” into the data to see exactly why and how each provider earned their ranking and rating. You deserve to know the supporting facts — after all this is transparency. True transparency is driven by analytics and subject matter expertise, not just a provider directory lacking supporting analytics.

Measurable

1. Only one solution ranks by price and rates quality by quartile. Almost all of the transparency companies use a three-, four- or five-star rating system. Unfortunately, since half of the transparency companies in this study also sell networks, the rankings and ratings are largely meaningless — they only rate in-network providers and almost all of the providers are rated as average or better. This is unrealistic. In fact, the biggest disparities between provider price and quality performance are in the bottom 50 percent. Consumers deserve to know true rankings and ratings so they can avoid the bottom 50 percent of doctors and find a doctor in the top 50 percent who best meets their needs. Ranking doctors and hospitals by quartile gives consumers a short list of the best doctors, for specific diseases, to choose from — not just an endorsement of another network.

2. Only one solution offers an on-line, interactive data cube to support users requiring sophisticated analytics. This enables a robust, flexible, user-friendly reporting package that’s population-specific to each employer and allows employers to establish dashboards and benchmarks for health plan performance and their vendors (e.g. network performance, disease/medical/case management). Five companies did not offer any reporting package.

3. Only two companies offer a savings measurement tool. One company provides an ROI worksheet using employer-specific assumptions to calculate savings. An important transparency feature is the ability to project accurate ROI and savings using employers’ own assumptions — before and after engaging the transparency company. Savings projection tools, along with the analytic reports, give the employer actionable intelligence to identify areas of improvement and measure vendor performance.

Summary
The rise of healthcare transparency is inevitable — it epitomizes the old saying, “How do you keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen the big city?” Consumers are slowly realizing that not only should they be able to see price and quality information on healthcare providers — they have the right to see accurate, meaningful information.

The healthcare industry is on the cusp of tremendous change brought about by the adoption of healthcare IT solutions. The ability to extract data which can then be shared with consumers will forever change the way healthcare quality is measured, and create new pricing metrics that extend far beyond in-network and out-of-network.

1 Save $36 Billion in U.S. Healthcare Spending Through Price Transparency (White paper), Thompson Reuters, February 2012.

2 Renee Y. Hsia, MD, MSc; Abbas H. Kothari, BA; Tanja Srebotnjak, PhD; Judy Maselli, MSPH. Health Care as a “Market Good”? Appendicitis as a Case Study; Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(10):818-819.