Tag Archives: qliance

Consumer-Friendly Healthcare Model

Best-selling Author Og Mandino once said:  “Always seek out the seed of triumph in every adversity.”

It appears that a small, yet growing number of America’s front line health providers are doing just that. Instead taking on increased risk, greater healthcare bureaucracy and more administration headaches, these medical mavericks have drawn a philosophical line in the sand.

I’m speaking of direct primary care (DPC). For the uninitiated, DPC is an emerging model where general practitioners elect to disassociate from, and no longer bill services to, health payers, including Medicare. DPC practices average between 600 and 800 total patients (vs. the national 2,300-patient average for traditional primary care provider (PCP) patient panels).

This return to front-line doctoring — “sans insurance” — translates into a cost-reduction of as much as 40% in staffing and reduced administrative complexity. Electronic health records (EHR) software finds itself replaced with lighter applications to track, schedule and bill patients. Practices may also choose to use mhealth/telehealth technology to monitor/connect with patients.

Patients in these practices are often those with low to middle incomes, with high-deductible health plans (HDHPs). For this reason, DPC doctors develop network relationships with other local medical specialists and services. The result is patients gaining access to discounted medications, imaging and labs, plus lower service fees from local specialists — all on a cash basis.

And presto! We have a true two-party care relationship, where doctors focus purely on patients, instead of blending in payers as their second healthcare customer.

The median monthly DPC fee for an adult is about $70; and fees for kids are priced between $10 and $20 per child. Many DPC practices also cap monthly family fees. Pricing is independent of pre-existing conditions and current health status and allows for more face-to-face time, as often as needed.

These practices report reducing urgent care and ER visits, plus hospital admits and re-admits. Quality and outcome data has apparently started reaching malpractice insurers, now quoting lower rates for direct vs. traditional primary care practices.

Here is where it gets sticky. DPC is rightly considered a “health service,” both by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and by 16 states. However, under section 223(c) of the U.S. tax code, the I.R.S. wrongly considers DPC a “gap,” or secondary, health plan. Therefore, DPC is not a qualified medical expense — and fees paid by patients are not reimbursable by health savings accounts (HSAs).

Changes are in the works, per the introduction of Senate Bill 1989 – The Primary Care Enhancement Act of 2015, which would make DPC fees a part of HSAs. The bill, with strong support from the American Academy of Family Physicians, also seeks to require the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) to create a new payment pathway for DPC as an alternative payment model (APM) in Medicare and with dual eligibles.

The plan is for DPC to show Medicare its mettle — and eventually receive a modest flat fee payment for primary care services offered by a DPC medical home. The legislation includes allowing qualified physicians who have opted out of Medicare to participate in the program. It also serves as a partnering catalyst with Medicare Advantage, in an affordable care organization (ACO)-like structure.

DPC is a disruptive “hot knife” model, whose entry is well-timed to cut through the cold stick of butter called high health costs.

Today, PCP co-pays have gone up to $45, and deductibles are sky high. Many consumers have no idea that at or around the same per-visit patient fee, DPC exists as an option. Employers are just beginning, on a larger scale, to integrate DPC with other options such as HDHPs and self-insured health coverage. Using this new model with self-insured companies makes sense, to hedge risk, lower health costs, improve outcomes and improve quality of care.

One county in North Carolina, which employed a DPC option, saved nearly $1.5 million on yearly medical expenses — on just 800 covered lives! It may surprise you that, apart from HSA standing, there are already early employer adopters who have chosen to pay the monthly DPC fees for employees themselves.

A British Medical Journal study showed patients of Washington state DPC provider Qliance coming in with 35% fewer hospitalizations, 65% fewer emergency department visits, 66% fewer specialist visits and 82% fewer surgeries. DPC benefits appear to not only reduce primary care costs, but lessen the healthcare costs and utilization outside of their practices.

Payer transparency is a significantly important strategy to the future growth and integration of DPC.

We talk about the importance of transparency in hospital pricing to patients, and for drug companies to reveal their true R&D costs. But have you ever stopped to consider the importance of transparency in how payers calculate and price plan premiums for each covered member? Just how much of the premium payment can be carved out as estimated primary care services to be received?

More than ever, healthcare consumer groups and fully insured employers should push health payers for transparency. Because I’ll bet what payers have estimated for per-person primary care usage and costs, adding in the associated patient responsibility portions (co-pays, and any applicable deductible or co-insurance fees) will be much more than an $840 yearly DPC payment.

But wait…there’s more. Don’t forget to have payers deduct an additional…let’s be conservative…1/3 of the Qliance savings percentages for the estimated care cost savings relating to carved-out estimated care outside of primary services.

Next, look at Medicare and do the same thing. But…instead of the wallets of health plan members, think federal budgets, taxpayers, subsidies, growing liabilities and the potential to hold off future tax increases.

Then look at Medicaid for the same reasons, remembering that DPC would certainly create a greater improvement of care quality than Medicaid care providers and facilities. Remember the “triple aim” — cost, outcomes and quality — and that doctors are happier.

DPC injects disruption and greater consumerism into healthcare.

Something interesting happened along the way to transforming our healthcare system. The ACA fell far short of its goals, and America’s care delivery and coverage became even less affordable for millions of employers and individual consumers.

We should know by now that improving quality and pricing for all will not come from laws — specifically, from those who force people into lower-quality Medicaid coverage, and insurance plan exchange options with punishing deductibles; in essence, giving people a broken Christmas toy with a pretty bow on it and pretending they will enjoy it.  

No matter how you dress it up, and much money you throw at it: Healthcare coverage is not the same as affordable healthcare.

In the heart of even the toughest situations, there are innately driven people who make bold, fresh choices and take stands — efforts that emphasize principles we know to be just and right, rather than gaining financially on the backs of others’ misery. My hope resides in what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

DPC offers a free-market “injection” into healthcare’s regulated pricing model. If Senate Bill 1989 or a similar law passes, it will provide individuals and companies a better chance to gain better quality, more affordable care. Unlike some DPC purists, I see a future inflow of Medicare dollars to non-enrolled DPC qualified providers as stimulating a transformation where coordinated care begins from outside of the umbrella of big medicine ownership.

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Like the plunging penguins who emulate the courageous actions of others, I believe many primary care physicians are looking for the right time to enter a DPC model. Whether that happens individually, through groups, or by strategic partnerships, is up to industry forces. It’s the beauty of filling consumer demand.

Making healthcare services, drugs and coverage affordable to consumers appears completely disconnected from the industry’s mission to improve care quality and outcomes, and lowering health “costs.”

Free market forces are what bring down consumer prices in most every market. Their introduction into U.S. healthcare will likely cause short-term fallout and financial pain within healthcare industries, but it would leave us, and future generations, with a more sustainable, stronger system. We’ve gotten to the point where healthcare bloat and unaffordability will require sacrifice from all involved.

By allowing consumer-friendly models like DPC to enter the regulated world of healthcare, perhaps slowly through the back door, we will see transformation come from within. History has repeatedly shown us that better models fueled by consumer desire rise to the top.

Healthcare's Age of Agility Will Shuffle Market Leadership

Surgeon and author, Dr. Atul Gawande outlined how, at the turn of the 20th century, more than forty per cent of household income went to paying for food, and food production consumed roughly half the workforce. The drive to change that began in a small town in Texas where an array of new methods of food production were tested. The results were stunning. Today, food accounts for 8% of household budgets and 2% of the workforce.

As a swarm of small innovations led to the transformation of farming, so too is a rapidly building wave of innovative new care and payment models leading to similar breakthroughs in healthcare. The winners in the next epoch of healthcare will be those that have agility in contrast to the lumbering nature of traditional healthcare systems.

In old line models, attempting a new care or payment model meant long planning and development cycles. The cost and complexity of testing new models prevent many from being tried. Demonstrating how healthcare hasn’t experienced the benefits of modern, cloud-based software, the leading HealthIT vendor is known to charge $100 million and up for its software and it takes a year or two to start realizing any benefit. [See also Health Systems Spending Billions to Prepare for the Last Battle]

Iterative Testing And Refinement Will Prevail
There’s a striking parallel between the transformation of healthcare and what happened with advertising campaigns as a result of traditional media getting disrupted by digital media.

Once upon a time, because the stakes were high with large ad campaigns, 90% of the effort around an ad campaign was in the planning/building of a campaign — i.e., creating ads, focus grouping creative/promotions, planning where to place ads, etc. When ads were created and it was decided where to run the ads, marketers sat back and watched to see how it would play out with little ability to change the course of a campaign.

Today, as little as 20% of the marketing effort is done upfront before putting elements to the test. The Internet is much more effective at testing offers and ad creative than a contrived focus group. Likewise, smart marketers can tap very sophisticated tools to optimize their ad spending so that the actual place ads run can be radically different than what an ad director may have thought initally.

I’d expect a similar transition to happen in healthcare. As Dr. Farzad Mostashari (National Coordinator for Health IT) said, “what’s transformative isn’t just harvesting & analyzing Big Data — it’s instrumenting what we do, testing predictions, A/B trials…”

It’s well understood that the mega healthIT systems (e.g., a $900M implementation was announced not long ago in the Northeast) take a couple years to implement. The reason for the long implementation, in part, is due to all of the decisions that have to be made regarding customization. The stakes are high as it’s only logical to do system-wide changes when 100’s of millions are at stake, leading some healthcare providers to have weak operating results as a result of healthIT costs as Zina Moukheiber reported. The market leader is noted for its customizability. However, once customized, it’s also noted for its rigidity. That is, if a workflow changes, it’s a major project to change the supporting healthIT to support the new workflow.

Where processes are well understood and predictable (e.g., surgeries), applying a manufacturing mindset is very appropriate. It’s akin to setting up an assembly line at an auto plant at great expense. Once that is done, it can be used for a long period of time and is worth the upfront investment. The danger comes in when it comes to chronic disease management (where more than 75% of healthcare dollars are spent). With accountable models and recognition that the patient or family members have the greatest impact on outcomes (i.e., not healthcare professionals), setting up a rigid system is a recipe for disaster.

If there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s going to take iteration for many years to hone how to tackle chronic conditions as it involves complexity of the variety humans present to the healthcare system. In an agile system that has modern software economics (i.e., dramatically lower cost), it’s feasible to do smaller scale tests. If they prove successful, they can be expanded. Listening to a recent podcast from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement on reducing readmissions echo’ed this point — i.e., addressing an issue like this will take a series of changes vs. one silver bullet.

The rigid mega healthIT systems are a vestige of the “do more, bill more” model of reimbursement, particularly given that healthcare is a supply-driven market (e.g., MDs who own a stake in imaging equipment order scans at three times the rate of MDs who don’t). Spending nine figures doesn’t sound as bad when you have capital projects planned in excess of $1 Billion. Perhaps we should refer to the legacy model as the “build more, do more, bill more” model. Any health analyst will tell you that the cure for healthcare’s hyperinflation is NOT building more healthcare facilities. It would be as if a fire department argued that the way to solve a wave of structural fires was to buy more fire fighting equipment. Indeed, that might help, however there’s a much more cost-effective approach such as having buildings inspected for fire prevention capabilities.

In their book, The Innovator’s Prescription, Clayton Christensen and Dr. Jason Hwang point out how applying technology into old business models has only raised costs. Thus, buying new technology isn’t a silver bullet if it’s put into an old business model. Rather, the new technologies need to go hand-in-hand with agile, new processes. The organizations who optimize their approaches for a more agile model will prevail.

Plugging new technology into old business models has caused health care costs to rise rather than fall

Images are courtesy of Jason Hwang, M.D., M.B.A. Co-author of The Innovator’s Prescription.

Dramatic Gains From New Care And Payment Models
Innovators such as Iora Health, WhiteGlove Health and Qliance rethought the care delivery and payment models from the ground up. Their results have been impressive. For example, Qliance has Net Promoter Scores higher than Google or Apple, while reducing the direct costs of healthcare (i.e., their service coupled with a high deductible wrap-around policy) 20-40%. More impressively, they have reduced utilization of the most expensive downstream costs (surgical, specialist and emergency visits) 40-80%. Iora has reported similar outcomes with some of the toughest patient populations out there. [See “David Clause” in Obamacare Ready to Slay the Healthcare Cost Beast for more on the outcomes Iora and Qliance have reported.]

The next wave of innovators are taking advantage of second-mover advantage as the wave of healthtech startups provide them off-the-shelf software that is an order of magnitude less investment than the first wave of innovators. It’s a couple orders of magnitude less expensive than legacy healthIT. More importantly for the innovators is the speed that they can not only stand up the new technology but also easily iterate based on real world experience. Rather than months or years, it’s hours or days. This is a key component of IT agility. They also make the most of investment others make rather than be threatened by them. A simple example: WebMD is used by over 100M consumers per month. Clinicians can curate information that they think will be useful for patients from WebMD and others (e.g., medical societies) who’ve made large investments in consumer-friendly content. Healthcare can no longer afford to reinvent the wheel. [See Khan Academy Approach to Solve Wicked Problem in Healthcare for examples of new approaches taken.]

Change is already happening faster than many expected. Oliver Wyman’s recent paper highlighted the rapidity of the market shift in The ACO Surprise (PDF). When I was presenting to the Pioneer ACOs over the summer (see summary here), it was already apparent to the pioneering organizations that their new models required new systems. They went on to state they didn’t expect to get anything for the new requirements from their traditional healthIT suppliers for at least the next two years. Meanwhile, the market shift is taking place much quicker than that.

New York Digital Health Accelerator Is A Model To Emulate
Zina Moukheiber highlighted a program that is a key plank of perhaps the largest effort in the country to reinvent healthcare delivery and payment.

The New York Health Home program was designed to make obsolete the traditional uncoordinated and unaccountable “system” that has cared for Medicaid patients in New York. Managing a $50B budget gives Dr. Nirav Shah (NY’s state Commissioner of Health) the clout to attract hundreds of companies that want to enable the reinvention of healthcare. Dr. Shah and other leaders in New York’s public and private sector recognized that with an entirely new set of objectives a new set of technology requirements naturally emanates from that. Through the New York Digital Health Accelerator (NYDHA), they are supporting the growth of agile startups to meet these new requirements. [Disclosure: My company was one of the 8 companies selected for the accelerator program.] Just two months into the program, there are pilots and deployments with the accelerator companies underway in the leading healthcare providers in New York.

The graphic below depicts the transition from the slide rule to the mainframe and then back out to mobile devices. Dr. Shah’s comments in the video above echo’ed the shift from an old “mainframe” method of healthcare delivery to a more distributed “smartphone” model.

Centralization followed by decentralization in computing

New business models require new technology. As David Whitlinger (head of the New York eHealth Collaborative) highlighted in the video above, his organization has built a state health information network but what it needs are the applications riding on top of that network to realize its full value. The startups in the NYDHA will be the first to get access to the statewide network due to their agility in taking advantage of the state’s health information exchange.

A new ecosystem of disruptive business models must arise