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End of Health Insurers As We Know Them

I want to start by saying that I am knowingly writing an article that is going to throw fuel on a fire. Being from New England, this article strikes me as the equivalent of writing an article in the Denver Post that says New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is better than Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Letters will be written. Darts will be thrown. So, I will make sure I put on my steel vest before I publish.

I already started writing on this topic, in a recent article titled, “Apple HealthKit – The Next Step to the End of Employer-Based Health Insurance.” In this article, I will provide a more detailed analysis of why the premise presented in my first article may come true — that within five to 10 years employers will be out of the health risk business. I will then provide a plan for what I think benefit brokers should do to prepare. Taking action may be the difference between those that survive and thrive in this new health insurance world vs. those that may struggle or even fail.

What do I mean when I say employers will be out of the health risk business? To repeat what I said in my last article, “By health risk, I mean the cost of the employee’s health insurance will not be priced by the employer. It won’t be a function of average age of the employee population, claims experience or any of the standard underwriting/pricing rules today.” In fact, health insurance will most likely become an individually purchased product, and the insurers of the future may not be the companies that dominate the market today.

As a consultant to benefits brokers, I educate them on technology and advise them on how they can maintain a competitive position. My future depends on brokers’ remaining significant, so I am as concerned about their future as any broker would be. If you study the significant market events over the past few years, you get a picture of what the future may be like. While many may think Obamacare is the big market change, I believe that the health insurance market is going to change much more dramatically and that, while the government may be nudging things along, competitive market forces will drive the change.

So let’s get to the point. I believe that within five to 10 years health insurance will be delivered primarily through staff model health maintenance organizations (HMOs). These will be Kaiser-like plans where the providers of care will also be the risk takers/insurers. Individuals will pay a fee directly to a healthcare system that will be responsible for the health, wellness and treatment of the person. Employers may still give employees money to pay for some of the cost, but they won’t be in the “risk” business. We are beginning to see this evolution today through the expansion of what people are calling accountable care organizations (ACOs). However, the future will go well beyond the limited risk sharing of today’s ACOs.

Four Catalysts to Change

If you had been in the health insurance business in the ’80s, you would say we tried this before, and it didn’t work. Well, today, things are different. There are four major differences that will be the catalysts for the coming changes:

Changes in consumer buying behavior

In the ’80s, employers often paid for 100% of an employee’s health insurance and a large part of the family’s. When cost wasn’t an issue for employees, they looked at access to providers as the No. 1 variable. So, all the HMOs and preferred provider organizations (PPOs) tried to expand their networks to appease more people. Today, cost is the No 1 issue. As a result, we are seeing networks shrinking to save cost.

Expansion of government health insurance programs, combined with the reduction in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to providers.

If I am a healthcare provider and am getting less money to perform services on a growing population, then I need to do things differently. I need to get money from healthy people and from people needing less care. I would also need to keep people healthy or provide care in more cost-effective settings.

Advancing mobile technology

With advancing technology, it will be easier for providers to have real-time access to a patient’s medical information. Things like weight, blood pressure and blood glucose levels can be measured in the home, sent via Bluetooth to a mobile device, and immediately be available to the primary care physician in the individual’s web-based medical/wellness record. Other health metrics will also soon be possible. Systems can automatically notify the responsible physician of any changes in the metrics that warrant attention. Information will help provide proper treatment in a timely manner.

Change in tax laws, allowing personally purchased insurance on a pre-tax basis

With Republicans taking over Congress, the idea of making an individually purchased insurance policy tax-deductible is now on the table. While this is not a necessary catalyst for change, it certainly would put the nail in the coffin and get employers out of the health risk business.

Not only is there a perfect storm forming for the coming changes, but I believe the majority of the participants in today’s healthcare market will welcome this change. We have all heard the saying that “healthcare should be between the doctor and her patient.” We know the government wants this. I think employers, employees and healthcare providers would want this, too. It is the insurers, and by extension benefits brokers, that may not want this. However, as we all know, there is little sympathy for the insurance companies.

Employers would want this because I don’t think employers got into the health insurance business after World War II to be in the position they are in today. While I don’t think they mind giving employees money to pay for health insurance, they don’t want their profit margins affected by the health of their employees. Bad claims experience, and their profits go down. Every year, they agonize over the health insurance renewal, deciding whether to charge their employees more or make changes in plans (delivering bad news, either way) or absorb increases in the business. I don’t think employers want to be in the wellness business, either. They may want to provide wellness programs to make people feel better, be more productive at work or boost morale, but not to control or reduce healthcare costs.

Employees want change, too. Do employees want their employers asking for things like health risk assessments? My health should not be my employer’s business. To me, there is a slippery slope as it is. I do want my physician to care about my health. I want my doctor to know my weight and blood tests and care whether I got a colonoscopy when I turned 50. I often joke that I get an email from Jiffy Lube saying that my car is due for an oil change, but my doctor never sends me an email to get a check-up, test or whatever is needed to keep my engine running the right way.

I believe doctors and other healthcare providers want change, too. They want to practice health care. This would include helping their patients make the right lifestyle decisions and keeping them informed about what is good for them vs. what is not. Providers don’t want the paperwork. They don’t want third-parties telling them what to do, and they are getting tired of reduced reimbursements from the government.

The Market Reacting

I am not the only one using the term “Kaiser-like.” Emanuel Ezekiel, one of Obama’s healthcare advisers, expects healthcare insurers to be obsolete by 2025. According to Ezekiel, “ACOs and hospital systems will become integrated delivery systems like Kaiser or Group Health of Puget Sound. Then they will cut out the insurance company middle man — and keep the insurance company profits for themselves.” (Source: New Republic – March 2014)

Now, I am not going to just listen to Emanuel as my source. I am listening to the market. Hospital systems have been acquiring physician practices and entering the insurance business across the country. In my own backyard, there was this acquisition highlighted in the Boston Globe.

State insurance regulators Friday signed off on Partners HealthCare System Inc.’s acquisition of Neighborhood Health Plan, a transaction that will put the state’s largest hospital and physician organization into the health insurance business for the first time.” (Source: Boston Globe September 2012)

In Massachusetts, this is very big news. Partners HealthCare owns some of the leading hospitals in the country, including Mass General and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Hospital systems getting into the health insurance business is not limited to Massachusetts. In New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan and all across the country hospitals are getting into the health insurance business. (See Kaiser Health News.)

Concurrently, insurance companies are getting into the healthcare business. According to Hospital and Health Networks Magazine January 2012, the following insurers have made healthcare acquisitions:

  • WellPoint bought CareMore.
  • Optum bought Orange County’s Monarch HealthCare and two smaller independent physician associations (IPAs).
  • United Healthcare acquired a multispecialty group in Nevada in 2008.
  • Humana purchased Concentra, which provides occupational care and other medical services.

Aetna Making Moves

What I have find most interesting is the acquisitions by Aetna and some of the comments by CEO Mark Bertolini. Let’s first look at some of the comments Bertolini has been making over the past few years.

“The end is near for profit-driven health insurance companies. The system doesn’t work, it’s broke today. The end of insurance companies, the way we’ve run the business in the past, is here.”

“We need to move the system from underwriting risk to managing populations,” he said. “We want to have a different relationship with the providers, physicians and the hospitals we do business with.”

In his presentation titled “The Creative Destruction of HealthCare,” he states:

“Not too far away from now – in the next six to seven – 75 million Americans will be retail buyers of healthcare. And they’ll come to the marketplace with their own money and either a subsidy from their employer or a subsidy from their government. And it doesn’t much matter – they’ll be spending their money.”

Aetna is not just talking. If you look at Aetna’s acquisitions and partnerships over the past few years, you can see that Aetna is preparing for the future that Bertolini describes. The company has spent billions of dollars acquiring technologies that can be critical to the future in managing healthcare and healthcare information, including:

  • iTriage – Mobile App for employee to check symptoms – Find doctor – Make appointment
  • ActiveHealth – View and update personal health record (PHR) – Personalized alerts and content – Communicate with doctor
  • Medicity – Promotes coordination of care – Real-time patient data

(Source: Aetna 2013 Investor Presentation)

According to Aetna’s website, Aetna was ranked #52 on InformationWeek’s 2013 list of the 500 leading technology innovators, surging ahead of many of the top names associated with technological innovation. Aetna ranked first among health insurers.

To move to this new model, healthcare providers will need to add capabilities that insurance companies currently have. For example, hospitals provide care but don’t have the actuarial skills to price their patient population in the event they were to get into the risk business. Many also don’t have the capital to assume risk. Those with enough capital can simply buy an insurance company. Others will have to partner with an insurance company that has the capital and reserves to share risk and provide the needed services.

So if I am an insurance company, I can either buy providers to stay viable or provide some products, services or capital that the new healthcare systems will need. Buying hospitals or physician groups across the country can be very expensive. So it may appear that a company like Aetna is setting itself up to be the technology, actuarial, reinsurer and other service provider for these future healthcare systems. I won’t claim to know if Aetna thinks the market will move as far as I am saying, to a Kaiser-like model, but the company certainly is preparing for a different healthcare model.

Some may think that this is somewhat what insurance companies are doing today. Here is the critical difference. Today, the risk-sharing arrangements are still in a fee-for-service environment. In the future, a hospital system may be in close to a 100% capitation environment (where the system receives a set amount per period for each person covered by the arrangement). Provider systems that purchase these services or develop a risk-sharing relationship with an insurance company in such an environment can’t have two such relationships. They will need a single risk pool to properly manage the population and risk. There won’t be a Blue Cross version, a United HealthCare version and an Aetna version of a local ACO/staff model system.

A good example of healthcare financing is my own healthcare. Since I moved back to Massachusetts 16 years ago, I have had the same primary care physician and used the same hospital facility on a number of occasions. Yet I have had seven different health insurance programs. Assuming an average insurance premium of $10,000 per year for my family, over the 16 past years I have paid $160,000 in premiums. I understand insurance, spreading the risk and all the other insurance arguments about where that money goes, but think of how it could be different if all $160,000 went to the system that was actually providing care to my family and me.

What Benefit Brokers Can Do

Okay, so the world may change. What would I do if I were a broker today to prepare for this change? First, change does not happen easily and overnight. The whole country of healthcare consumers, distributors and providers will need to adapt. As a benefits broker, your buyer may no longer be the employer but the employee. If this is the case, then some existing services may not be needed.

  • No more risk analysis/actuary and underwriting
  • No more claims analysis tools
  • No more wellness programs to reduce healthcare costs
  • No more disease management programs
  • No more company medical renewals

Before someone points out the obvious to me, I will say that I do know that most groups with fewer than 100 employees are community-rated and those with more than 100 employees are experience-rated. Small employers are still faced with balancing budgets based on their healthcare renewal. This anxiety will go away.

Most of these types of services are a core competency of many of the national benefits firms and the larger independent brokerage organizations. These services are viewed as key differentiators. For these firms, change may be even more dramatic because providing these types of analytical skills is part of their culture.

So let’s talk about the things brokers can do. I am going to break this down to a list of tasks.

1.       Understand what the players in your market are doing – Brokers should start analyzing their local medical market and see what the providers are doing in this area. Have they made acquisitions? Have they created new partnerships? What is their leadership saying publicly? Whatever they say or do, believe them.

2.       Add an employee call center – Employers will welcome the support in helping employees move to a new environment. Provider systems will welcome and pay for the support in helping those same employees navigate the market.

3.       Add personal financial consulting – It is estimated that close to 40% of employees lose some productivity at work because of financial stress. The healthcare insurance purchase is going to be a major decision for an employee, and it should be made in the context of an employee’s entire financial position.

4.       Understand the new technologies – How many of you who have read this up to this point understand what Aetna’s technologies for the consumer are? Do you know how to “Bluetooth” your weight from a scale to a smartphone? The place of employment can also be a great place to help employees with technology to track health information. Could an employer have a scale at work that is Bluetooth-enabled to send a person’s weight to their smartphone? Could the employer have a blood pressure machine at work? How about setting up a private room with teleconferencing capabilities so an employee can consult a doctor face-to-face via the web without leaving the place of employment? Could a broker make himself available to consult employees one-on-one as to how this whole system will work?

5.       Develop technology engagement and education strategy – After you learn what you need to know about the new technologies, are you ready to deliver? I believe the provider systems (the new Kaisers) will welcome the opportunity to educate the population through the employer. At the employer level, you can reach a large amount of people fairly easily. And the employers will care that their employees understand this new healthcare delivery system. Employers don’t want stressed employees, because stressed employees are not as productive. I believe employers and these new provider systems will pay to help these individual consumers.

6.       Invest in new internal technology and processes – If your entire infrastructure is geared around engaging the employer, then things will need to change. Can you record a phone call? Can you engage in online chat with an employee? Are you prepared to sell individual insurance? To sell a high volume of individual policies and service employees, you will need extremely efficient internal operations.

7.       Start thinking about helping employers exit the risk business – Rather than advise employers how to control costs and mitigate risk, should you start advising them on how to get out of the risk business? I guess private exchanges and defined contribution plans are the start. However, if the healthcare market changes, the pace will accelerate because there will be more options for the employer to get out.

8.       Engage new providers – Carrier reps are always calling on brokers, but these new organizations may not call on brokers in the same way. You may need to reach out to them. If you have something of value for the new provider system, you will need to engage the carriers.

To move to this new model, it will require that brokers invest in technology and people. To attract the provider systems benefits, firms will need to have the services, size and scale to deliver. Most independent benefits firms either don’t have the capacity or capital to move to this model. They will either have to sell to a larger firm or join forces with peers who share the same vision and are willing to collectively invest in preparing for the future. The national firms and larger independent firms with the capital and resources will need to have the will to change.

In today’s environment, many brokers may not feel the need to make these changes. Other firms have already started preparing for a much different future. For example, several national firms have opened call centers for employees. Whether that is for a future market I have described, or simply to service employees today, I don’t know, but the centers are a sign that the benefits game is changing.

I may not end up being right with my market predictions, but my advice is to pay close attention. There is change going on out there, and I think a picture of the future is being drawn that looks much different from the healthcare market today.

Why Is Workers’ Comp Managed Care Hard?

There are many reasons why workers’ compensation managed care is so difficult, ranging from general economic cost pressures to the regulatory complexities faced by many large employers with multi-state work locations. Issues such as the ability to direct medical care, fee schedules, dispute resolution and the use of treatment protocols and provider networks vary from state to state.

Workers’ comp medical costs have continued to outpace overall medical inflation for years. Twenty years ago, the typical ratio was 60/40 indemnity costs (lost-wages benefits) to medical costs. Today, that ratio has reversed.

Furthermore, workers’ comp has always been susceptible to considerable cost-shifting both by injured workers and medical providers. Many injured workers without health insurance or with limited coverage have been suspected of submitting claims under workers comp to receive 100% “first dollar” coverage with no co-pays or deductibles. This is often known as the “Monday Morning Syndrome” — weekend injuries from recreational activities get reported first thing Monday morning as “work-related.” The support for this theory is that for years it was documented that the No. 1 time of reported injuries is between 9 and 10 Monday morning. In addition, if an injury or illness is reported as work-related the employee may be entitled to lost-wage replacement benefits, which results in a double incentive.

Medical providers also historically have had an incentive to shift costs to workers’ comp. The best example are HMOs financed by pre-paid capitated rates for group health benefits. Work-related injuries are not included in group health plan coverage, allowing HMOs to bill additional charges on a fee-for-service basis. My former HMO had a large sign at the registration desk that read, “Please let us know if your medical care is work-related.”

I was once hired by a major defense contractor during a competitive bid process and was told that all the other consultants had recommended it run its workers’ comp program through its HMOs. My response was, “That is the last thing you want to do.” The risk manager had a big smile on his face.

Many people in the industry were hoping that the ACA and the goal of universal coverage would eliminate the incentive for cost-shifting in workers’ comp. In theory, that may be true. In reality, the ACA may have limited impact or, worse, actually create more incentives for cost-shifting.

The ACA has no direct impact because the various federal mandates for health insurance do not apply to workers’ comp laws. Unlike Clinton-era health reform efforts, the ACA did not attempt to roll workers’ comp into “one big program.”

The ACA may exacerbate cost-shifting if health coverage costs will rise significantly for both employers and employees, which is widely predicted. The ACA premium rating factors virtually eliminate experience rating in favor of community rating for small employers, which helps pay for the added costs and mandated benefits. This will significantly drive up costs for many employers, with estimates as high as 50% above normal yearly premium increases.

Employees are also faced with the prospect of narrower networks and increased incentive to cost-shift, including the growing trend of consumer-driven health plans with high deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs.

Medical providers under intense cost pressures under the ACA may very well continue to cost-shift to the state workers’ compensation systems and “first dollar” coverage to increase revenues. I fear that the high hopes that the ACA will help eliminate cost-shifting may go the way of “if you like your current health plan you can keep it.”

One prominent proponent of the ACA just predicted that 80% of employers will actually eliminate company-paid health benefits by 2018 in favor of directing employees to the state exchanges because paying the $2,000 fine under the ACA for not providing health coverage will be cheaper than providing coverage.

Workers’ compensation managed care is far more complex than managed care in group health benefits for many reasons, including; 50 different state laws and jurisdictional requirements, cost-shifting, fraud and abuse, overutilization of unnecessary or even harmful health services, excessive litigation and friction costs, historical animosities between labor and management, bureaucratic state agencies and an insurance industry and claim administrators who get a grade of C+ from many industry analysts.

If employers think the answers in containing workers’ comp medical costs are in Washington, D.C., or the various state capitals in which they operate, they need to think again. The answer is in the mirror. Many employers are still searching for the cheapest claims administrator and not the best. Remember that “you get what you pay for.”

The same goes for the overwhelming popular use of PPO “discount arrangements.” If employers think they are saving money by looking for the cheapest doctor in town they couldn’t be more misguided. The treating physician plays a key role in diagnosis and treatment, helps determine causation, degree of impairment and the length of disability and return-to-work. Family physicians and other primary care providers are rarely trained in occupational medicine or workers’ comp laws and requirements and are notorious for granting indiscriminate time off work.

Employers must take a much more active role and provide the best and most appropriate medical care for sick and injured workers from the moment of injury or illness and establish better real-time communications between injured workers, medical providers, work supervisors and insurance companies and claims administrators.

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet. But there is a rule of thumb: Do not even discuss medical cost containment with outside vendors or consultants who recommend broad-based group health networks and strategies. They simply do not apply to workers’ comp and will do nothing but hurt an employer’s ability to address the real cost drivers and complexities of state workers’ comp laws, requirements and systems.

How To Avoid Public Backlash Against Price Transparency

“Audiences in the Washington area have been erupting in whoops, whistles and applause when actress Helen Hunt, playing the single mother of a chronically ill child, denounces HMOs with a string of unprintable epithets,” the Washington Post recounts in a story in 1998. “Hunt's character quickly apologizes for the outburst, but actor Harold Ramis, playing a physician, assures her that the apology is unwarranted. 'Actually, I think that's their technical name,' he says.”

While most people may not remember this movie, “As Good As It Gets,” they certainly are familiar with HMOs — and how unpopular they were with the public in the Clinton era, as embodied by this scene. Today, most purchasers and payers who once championed HMOs as the next great answer to health costs and quality are much more cautious about them: Less than 38 percent of employers offer an HMO benefit to their employees, almost always as one among many plan options.

Yet the basic principles behind HMOs remain appealing to employers. They can realign payment systems to incentivize prevention. If a procedure appears unnecessary, they don't pay for it — or they can require clinical evidence that it is indeed necessary. They can pivot services around the needs of the patient and coordinate care.

Employer reliance on HMOs has receded, but the problems HMOs were designed to address have only grown exponentially larger in recent years. Health costs exploded since “As Good As It Gets” debuted, and the persistent problems of fragmented services, inadequate prevention and unnecessary care waste at least a third of all money spent on healthcare, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM). But consumers hated HMO restrictions on choice and resented interference with the doctor-patient decisio-nmaking, and that doomed HMOs, however good their intentions may have been.

So purchasers moved in a new direction, aiming to uphold the original principles behind HMOs without interfering with patients' choices. Instead of tightly managing the services provided to employees, purchasers would take a hands-off approach and give consumers more information so they could make their own decisions about the right care at the right price. Instead of managed care, we'd have manage-your-own-care. The manage-your-own-care philosophy ultimately led to the accelerated growth of high deductible health plans, now the fastest-growing form of health insurance, in which employees and dependents enjoy a high level of choice of doctor and procedure but pay for much of it out of their own pocket. This gives consumers the incentive to “shop” for the best provider, search out the right prices, and make sure that the procedure and the costs are warranted.

In line with this development is a trend among purchasers to call for price transparency, including a demand for plans and individual providers to publicly report on how much employees must pay for services they seek. I support price transparency, with an important caveat: Price reporting must be interwoven with quality reporting, in all venues, every time. By contrast, price reporting decoupled from quality reporting could inspire the same backlash HMOs did. Here's how:

  • Your costs will grow. Anyone who has worked in healthcare knows that the current pricing and chargemaster scheme are nonsensical and are in no way correlated to the quality of care. What that means is you can't predict the quality by the price. But consumers don't understand that, and studies show that given the pricing options, they will select the highest priced provider — assuming that's automatically the highest quality provider. When you only show pricing, without coupling the dollar figures with an easily comprehended indicator of quality, consumers will head toward the highest priced option, especially after they have already satisfied the deductible and it's the purchaser's dime (i.e. during an inpatient stay). If a purchaser or plan tries to restrict choice of hospital, it will be perceived as a cynical effort to cut costs at the expense of patient quality — since the employee does not see for themselves that price is unrelated to quality.
  • Your company CEO will appear as the villainous businessman sweating on 60 Minutes. Employees will accuse their companies of choosing “cheaper” providers rather than the “best” providers, without any information on whether the less-expensive options are actually lower in quality. Comparing pricing information with quality information allows employers to make informed choices, and in turn, inform employees, too.
  • Your health plan will be treated as evildoer. If your employees continue to shop services by price alone, they will not appreciate any efforts by health plans to restrict choices of hospitals or otherwise make demands on hospitals. Health plans that try to do this on behalf of purchasers or as part of the exchanges will be subject to Helen Hunt-style vitriol for sacrificing quality as soon as the employee exhausts the deductible.

In the new movement away from managed care and toward manage-your-own-care, purchasers and payers are at a crossroads. They must take steps to educate their employees on how to select the best provider, including the weirdness of a market in which price tells you nothing about quality or vice-versa. Only by assuring full transparency of both quality and pricing — always coupled together — will the public learn the strange truth about getting the best care for themselves and their families. Purchasers and payers deserve credit for pushing for higher quality care, so they should insist on giving employees what they need to work toward that same goal. Don't be cast as the villain again.