Tag Archives: PMPM

The True Face of Opioid Addiction

It’s likely that when people hear about the growing opioid addiction problem in America, the face that comes to mind is the one commonly shown on TV and in the movies, which is a very broad generalization : the young, strung-out heroin addict living on the streets. Or dying of an overdose.

Heroin abuse is definitely a growing problem in America. But it’s not the only opioid-related issue we’re facing. In 2012, an estimated 2.1 million people were suffering from substance abuse disorders from prescription opioid use, and deaths from accidental overdoses of prescription pain relievers quadrupled between 1999 and 2015. Sales of prescription opioids also quadrupled during this period.

While prescription pain killers are often seen as a gateway drug to heroin among the young, the issue is much broader than just one demographic group. The reality is that the face of opioid addiction could be the soccer mom down the block who has been experiencing back pain. It could be the marathon runner who is trying to come back after knee surgery. It could be your grandmother baking cookies as she works on recovering from hip replacement surgery.

In fact, it could be anyone. And that diversity is what has made prescription opioid addiction so difficult to manage.

Drivers of addiction

What is driving this explosive growth of such a potentially dangerous substance? Part of it, quite frankly, has been the incredible improvements in healthcare over the last 20-some years. Hip replacements, knee replacements, spinal surgery and other procedures that were once rare are now fairly common. More surgeries mean more patients who need pain relievers to help them with recovery.

The greater focus on patient satisfaction, especially as the healthcare industry shifts from fee-for-service to value-based care, has also had some unintended consequences. Physicians concerned about patient feedback from Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS) measures or Medicare Star ratings have additional incentive to ensure patients leave the hospital pain-free. Physicians may prescribe opioids, particularly if patients request them, rather than relying on less addictive forms of pain management.

See also: In Opioid Guidelines We Trust?  

Here’s how that translates to real numbers. An analysis of 800,000 Medicaid patients in a reasonably affluent state showed that 10,000 of them were taking a medication used to wean patients off a dependency on opiates. This particular medication is very expensive and difficult to obtain – physicians need a specific certification to prescribe it. So it is safe to assume that the actual number of patients using prescription opiates is two to three times higher.

Those numbers aren’t always obvious, however, because the prescriptions may be obscured under diagnoses for other conditions such as depression. Indeed, more than half of uninsured nonelderly adults with opioid addiction had a mental illness in the prior year and more than 20% had a serious mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The result is that, without sophisticated behavioral analytics, it can be difficult to determine all the patients who are addicted to opioids. And what you don’t know can have a significant impact on care, costs and risk.

Complications, risk, and prioritization

Opioid addiction tends to interfere with the treatment of other concerns, especially chronic conditions such as depression, congestive heart failure, blindness/eye impairment and diabetes. As a result, physicians must first take care of the addiction before they can effectively treat these other conditions.

That is what makes identifying patients with an addiction, and prioritizing their care, so critical. Failure to do so can be devastating, not just clinically but financially – especially as healthcare organizations take on more risk in the shift to value-based care.

Take two patients with an opioid addiction who are on a withdrawal medication. Patient A also has eye impairment while Patient B is a diabetic. If the baseline for cost is 1, analytics have shown that Patient A will typically have a risk factor of 1.5 times the norm while Patient B, the diabetic, will have a risk factor of 5 times.

Under value-based care, especially an Accountable Care Organization (ACO) where the payment is fixed, the organization can lose a significant amount of money on patients who are costing five times the contracted amount. For example, if the per member per month (PMPM) reimbursement for the year is $2,000, this patient — who is using this medication for withdrawal from an opiate dependency and is a diabetic — will end up costing $10,000.

It is easy to see why that is unsustainable, especially when multiplied across hundreds or thousands of patients. Yet the underlying reason for failure to treat the diabetes effectively – the opioid addiction – may not be obvious.

Healthcare organizations that can use behavioral analytics to uncover patients with hidden opioid dependencies, including those on withdrawal medications, will know they need to address the addiction first, removing it as a barrier to treating other chronic conditions. That will make patients more receptive to managing conditions such as diabetes, helping lower the total cost of care.

They can also use the analytics to demonstrate to funding sources why they need more money to manage these higher-risk patients successfully. They can demonstrate why an investment in treating the addiction first will pay dividends in the long term with a variety of chronic conditions.

See also: How to Attack the Opioid Crisis  

Many faces

It’s easy to see that opioid abuse in all forms has reached epidemic levels within the U.S. What is not so easy to see at face value is who the addicts are — or could be.

Despite popular media images, the reality is that opioid addition in America has many faces. Some of them may be closer to us than we think. Behavioral analytics can help us identify with much greater clarity who the likely candidates are so we can reverse the trend more effectively.

Wellness War Is Over; Wellness Lost

What if we told you that “pry, poke, prod and punish” wellness programs are bad for morale, damage corporate reputations and cost more money than they save?

You’d say: “Al, you, Tom Emerick and more recently Vik Khanna have been telling us that for years.” You might add: “And while your opinions are usually well-reasoned and based on good data, we’d have to hear the true believers’ side of the story.”

But what if we told you: “That is the true believers’ side of the story”?

Yep, the wellness industry’s leading luminaries – 39 of them, representing 27 vendors and one consulting firm (Mercer) — have all gotten together under the aegis of both their trade associations – Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) and Population Health Alliance (PHA) — and reached that “consensus.”

We don’t know if they simply didn’t read their own report before reaching this consensus, or whether they just all decided to tell the truth. Frankly, we’re fine either way. (This is also the second time in five months that a major wellness true believer admitted wellness doesn’t save money. The first time was a meta-analysis in the American Journal of Health Promotion that concluded that “randomized clinical trials show a negative ROI.” After we started quoting the analysis, the editor wrote a 2,000-word essay walking it back.)

Because our claim that we are laying out “the true believers’ side of the story” would otherwise require a certain suspension of disbelief, we are going to rely more heavily than usual on screenshots. We also recommend reading the report itself, or at a minimum our analyses of it. (Our analyses are going to be a 10-part cycle. Make sure to “follow” the website They Said What? to not miss a single episode.)

Page 10 of the report lists 12 elements of cost. The first element itself contains about 12 elements, making this a list of 23 elements of cost. (Add consulting fees, which were overlooked even though three Mercer consultants sat on the committee and even though page 14 calls for use of “consulting expertise,” and you get 24.)

You’ll see damage to employee morale and corporate reputations listed as “tangential costs.” But, as two people who run a company, we would call damage to those intangibles much more than tangential. Our company runs on morale. Pulling people away from their workstations to poke them with needles, weigh them, measure their waists and test to see if they are lying about their smoking habits couldn’t possibly be good for morale.

We are equally curious about the blithe dismissal of legal challenges as a tangential cost. No firm wants its name dragged across the wire services because it is being sued for its wellness program (just ask CVS and Honeywell). Getting dragged into the courts (and, hence, the media) for running a wellness program isn’t a tangential cost — and it’s an unforced error.

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On Page 15, as the report discusses how to measure the return on investment, the authors select only one of those 24 costs – vendor fees – as the basis for comparison. Omitting the other 23 costs, plus incentives, makes it easier to show an ROI. The fees are listed as “$1.50 per employee per month,” or $18 a year, even though the rule of thumb is that wellness programs cost many hundreds of dollars per employee per year.

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Further in, on page 23, the authors list the related savings: $0.99 per “potentially preventable hospitalization,” abbreviated as PPH. (The fact that we have to do the math on our own by comparing figures across pages suggests this admission of losses was a gaffe rather than deliberate honesty.)

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The savings figures are based on reductions in event rates that (1) are about twice what typically gets achieved; and (2) somehow overlook the natural decline of 3% to 5% a year in cardiac events even without a wellness program.

Even without adjusting for those two mistakes, savings fall $0.51 PMPM short of vendors fees alone.

And losing $0.51 per employee per month is the best-case scenario. The “savings” includes benefits from disease management (which is not covered by the $1.50 PMPM in vendors fees), and omits the offsetting costs of all the extra doctor visits that come from overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

So, here are the two conclusions:

  • According to proponents’ own consensus, wellness loses money.
  • Even worse, their savings are wildly overstated (yes, according to government data), and their costs, by their own admission on page 10, are wildly understated.

Don’t take our word for either of these. Write to us, and we will send you an ROI spreadsheet that you can use to do your own calculations.

One way or the other, what RAND’s Soeren Mattke called the wellness wars are over. Wellness has surrendered.

How Will the Wellness Industry Respond?

HERO and its assembled luminaries will probably ignore this gaffe, to prevent a news cycle that their customers might notice. However, if the problem gets covered broadly, they will respond. This was their modus operandi the last time they got “outed.” We had shown them in 2011 that one of their key slides, for which they even gave themselves an award, was made up. We presented our proof many times and even put it in both our books…but it wasn’t until Health Affairs shined a bright light on it that they acknowledged wrongdoing. They said that the slide “was unfortunately mislabeled” by an as-yet-unidentified culprit, but that no one noticed for four years. (Rather than relabeling the slide in a “more fortunate” way, they took the slide off the site.)

To clarify that their position is indefensible, we have offered a reward of $1 milliion for them to simply convince a panel of Harvard mathematicians that they have any idea what they are talking about beyond the fact of the gaffe itself.  Their refusal to claim this reward speaks volumes.

Implications for Brokers

The implications for brokers are profound. First, stop placing wellness programs — or at a minimum get a “release” from your clients saying that they’ve read this article but want to proceed anyway. The disclosure by the wellness industry’s own trade association that wellness loses money increases your liability because you “knew or should have known” that losses were to be expected. Second, you can probably offer your client the chance to abrogate vendor contracts, especially if the vendor was one of the 27 that reached this “consensus.” That might reduce your revenue in the short term but will cement your relationship. And you want your clients to find out about wellness’ problems from you, not from the media.

But whatever else you do, follow future installments here on Insurance Thought Leadership as we plow through this report and deconstruct more of not just their crowd-sourced math but also of their crowd-sourced alternative to reality, in which prying into employees’ personal lives, poking them with needles in blatant disregard for government guidelines, prodding them to get worthless checkups and punishing them when they don’t is all somehow going to save employers millions of dollars.

Disease Management: Savings at Pepsi

The second-most read article from Health Affairs in 2014 was a fantastic piece by the employee benefits professionals from Pepsi and researchers from the RAND Corp.

The Pepsi team and the RAND researchers evaluated PepsiCo’s wellness program over a seven-year period and found the following:

  • The disease management component of the overall wellness program lowered healthcare costs by $136 per member per month (PMPM) and decreased hospital admissions by 29%
  • Lifestyle management/wellness showed a return on investment (ROI) of .48 to 1 (in other words, it LOST money)
  • Disease management’s ROI was 3.78 to 1
  • Combined ROI for wellness and disease management was 1.46 to 1
  • Findings were consistent with RAND’s workplace wellness programs study, which found that lifestyle management did not lower healthcare costs
  • Lifestyle management program’s cost was $144 per participant per year

The article concludes that “blanket statements like ‘wellness saves money’ are not warranted.”

As employers evaluate their healthcare strategies, it is important to keep these findings in mind.