Tag Archives: taxpayer

Radical Approach on Healthcare Crisis

I love health policy, healthcare technology and using “corkscrew” thinking to find solutions for big problems. Perhaps no problem looms larger today than our current healthcare crisis and its financial implications for our future.  

The U.S. healthcare system needs more than a healthy shot in the arm—it needs a cure. Premiums continue their upward surge. More Americans are going into debt because of healthcare. Fewer workers are funding a growing Medicare base. There is a heavy shift of enrollees to Medicaid coverage, drug prices keep climbing and people are living longer.

In the last decade, top healthcare analysts, industry leaders, medical school experts, bloggers, public policy wonks, foundations, think tanks and politicians have had plenty to say, but the American consumer continues to be hit hard.

Current (and evolving) solutions we have to fix healthcare include: the Triple Aim, affordable care organizations (ACOs), private- and public-sponsored medical research, disease fundraising, population health management, electronic health records (EHRs), high-tech abuse/fraud solutions, new drugs, end-of-life talks, Obamacare and the future of pay-per-value.

See Also: Why Employers Should Comply With Obamacare Mandate

Everything about our healthcare crisis screams for utilization that is more selective, has a greater efficiency and can lower costs. But the red light on healthcare’s dashboard says there is a bigger issue. It’s something that, when fixed, will provide a greater benefit for generations to come.

That red light alerts us to the fact that, out of the $3 trillion spent per year on healthcare, 86% is related to chronic disease—many of which can be prevented, delayed in their onset or better managed earlier. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the costs and figures are simply staggering. If the world’s largest company was going under, its underlying financials couldn’t look any more crippled.

Everyone has been looking at our national healthcare crisis in the wrong way. The solution is not to provide everyone with health coverage but to take strong, legal steps to teach, coerce and even mandate that the majority of American children and adults become healthy, through individual accountability.

“Mandate” hits a nerve, especially to those like myself who value the strength of our individual freedoms. But, historically, a large number of American citizens have consistently shown they do not value their health. When value is lost, the effect is often poor choices and subsequent long-term management. This leads to the development of sustained drivers, culminating in the onset of chronic disease(s), the major cost driver of our healthcare crisis.

For starters, nearly 50% of all American adults (117 million) have a chronic disease, and 25% have at least two. More than a third of our country (35%) is obese. Nearly half of U.S. adults (47%) at least have uncontrolled high blood pressure or uncontrolled high LDL cholesterol or are smokers.

“Steve, that is the individual’s choice, and that person has to live with the results,” you say. Sure, personal responsibility is key. However, for the healthcare markets, one person’s chronic disease affects everyone in the system.

Subsidies and public coverage, such as Medicare and Medicaid, run off taxpayer money. Private insurance prices group and individual premiums from risk pools. Therefore, there is no misunderstanding—today’s unhealthy people cost healthy people money both now and in future generations.

Almost everyone agrees that eating a carrot is better than eating a donut, that running two miles a day beats chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes. If that’s the case, why aren’t people making the needed changes?

Simple : Those people do not value their health. Therefore, they do not take actions to improve or maintain it.

Having individuals value their health on a mass scale is the answer to lowering chronic disease rates. Lower disease rates lower cost for care, resulting in more affordable healthcare for everyone.

ACOs, EHRs, increasing pay-per-value reimbursement helps lower costs and creates efficiency but does very little to drive individuals to value their health.

When someone makes a decision on just about anything, there are only two reasons: to gain pleasure or to avoid stress or pain. You might eat a chocolate bar, craving the sweet taste. Or you might quit smoking, after the first heart attack, where the strong possibility of death has set in.

Here’s the thing. For most people 25 and under, if they already “feel good” physically, neither trigger is in play. By the time they “feel bad,” many chronic diseases may already have had an irreversible foothold for years or decades. Early detection for everyone is tremendously important and desperately needed.

Many young Americans don’t go to the doctor, because they “feel good.” The initial motivator to get people to value their health is not public education, throwing large data points at them, getting them on high-deductible healthcare plans or using fear marketing. Rather, we must create an instance where people will get massive amounts of pain from not going to get a checkup or screening. The law must require every insured and uninsured American to have routine physicals and screenings.

Basic Outline of Program:

  • There must be repetitive and selective screenings, depending on gender and age.
  • Those who do not get screened receive a financial penalty, paid directly by individuals from their taxes or through their paycheck, or deducted from their social program or subsidy benefits.
  • Subsidies would cover the patient portion for screening, whether insured or not.
  • Results would be tracked, individuals would be counseled and any further results on subsequent actions would be tracked.

Yes, this plan will drive up costs on the front end. Look, it took us a lot of time to get to this healthcare crisis, and it will take time to undo it. If we believe we can find a short-term solution to reverse this, we are kidding ourselves.

See Also: Endangered Individual Health Market

The most important result is gaining proper management for the long term, allowing affordability for future generations

There will be those who claim individual rights will be lost when such coercion takes place (just think about how the Affordable Care Act was positioned as a tax). In the end, if we didn’t have such nasty, costly surprises on the middle and back-end portions of our lives, we wouldn’t have to make these changes.

Perhaps if doctors, insurers, drug companies, hospitals and other medical services reduced their revenues, affordability would be in hand. But here’s a reality check: The U.S. healthcare sector is growing faster than any other sector in the country. Companies, employees and shareholders are not going to reduce their financial interests and current way of life for the average American consumer to afford care.

We need something new. We do not need something to work against businesses but something to work for people.  People can, then, with better personal health data, be motivated to gain more than ever in their current and future health.

Americans have always been strong enough to call upon resolve and forward thinking. Now, we live in the time of “what’s in it for me?” Sometimes, mandates are necessary to get people to see the importance of helping their fellow man, instead of themselves.

People are dying unnecessarily. This will continue if we don’t stand for more than ourselves. Let’s come together to give more people the chance to make better decisions and to live healthier lives.

health

Endangered Individual Health Market

And then there were none?

The individual health insurance marketplace is endangered, and policymakers need to start thinking about a fix right now, before we pass the point of no return.

Health plans aren’t officially withdrawing from the individual- and family-market segment, but actual formal withdrawals are rare. What we are witnessing, however, may be the start of a stampede of virtual exits.

From a carrier perspective, the individual and family health insurance market has never been easy. This market is far more susceptible to adverse selection than the group coverage market. The Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) guarantee of coverage only makes adverse selection more likely, although, to be fair, the individual mandate mitigates this risk to some extent. Then again, the penalty enforcing the individual mandate is simply inadequate to have the desired effect.

Then add in the higher costs of administering individual policies relative to group coverage and the greater volatility of the individual insured pool. Stability is a challenge, as people move in and out of the individual market as they find or lose jobs with employer-provided coverage. In short, competing in the individual market is not for the faint of heart, which is why many more carriers offer group coverage than individual policies. The carriers in the individual market tend to be very good ; they have to be to survive.

In 2014, when most of the ACA’s provisions took effect, carriers in the individual market suddenly found their expertise less helpful. The changes were so substantial that experience could give limited guidance. There were simply too many unanswered questions. How would guaranteed issue affect the risk profile of consumers buying their own coverage? Would the individual mandate be effective? How would competitors price their products? Would physicians and providers raise prices in light of increased demand for services? The list goes on.

Actuaries are great at forecasting results when given large amounts of data concerning long-term trends. Enter a horde of unknowns, however, and their science rapidly veers toward mere educated guesses. The drafters of the ACA anticipated this situation and established three critical mechanisms to help carriers get through the transition: the risk adjustment, reinsurance and risk corridor programs.

Risk corridors are especially important in this context as they limit carriers’ losses—and gains. Carriers experiencing claims less than 97% of a specified target pay into a fund administered by the Department of Health and Human Services; health plans with claims greater than 103% of this specific target receive refunds. Think of risk corridors as market-wide shock absorbers, helping carriers make it down an unknown, bumpy road without shaking themselves apart.

While you can think of them as shock absorbers, Sen. Marco Rubio apparently cannot. Instead, Sen. Rubio views risk corridors as “taxpayer-funded bailouts of insurance companies.”

In 2014, Sen. Rubio led a successful effort to insert a rider into the budget bill, preventing HHS from transferring money from other accounts to bolster the risk corridors program if the dollars paid in by profitable carriers were insufficient to meet the needs of unprofitable carriers. This provision was retained in the budget agreement Congress reached with the Obama administration late last year. Sen. Rubio, in effect, removed the springs from the shock absorber. The result is that HHS was only able to pay carriers seeking reimbursement under the risk corridors program 13% of what they were due based on their 2014 experience. This was a significant factor in the shuttering of half the health co-operatives set up under the ACA.

Meanwhile, individual health insurers have taken a financial beating. In 2015, United Healthcare lost $475 million on its individual policies. Anthem, Aetna, Humana and others have all reported substantial losses in this market segment. The carriers point to the ACA as a direct cause. Supporters of the healthcare reform law, however, push back. For example, Peter Lee, the executive director of California’s state-run exchange, argues that carriers’ faulty pricing and weak networks are to blame. Whatever the cause, the losses are real and substantial. The health plans are taking steps to stanch the bleeding.

One step several carriers are considering is leaving the health insurance exchanges. Another is exiting the individual market altogether—not formally, but virtually. Formal market withdrawals by health plans are rare. The regulatory burden is heavy, and insurers are usually barred from re-entering the market for a number of years (five in California, for example).

There’s more than one way to leave a market, however. One method carriers sometimes employ is to continue offering policies but to make it hard to buy them. Because so many consumers rely on the expertise of professional agents to find the right health plans, a carrier can prevent sales by making it difficult or unprofitable for agents to do their job. Slash commissions to zero, and agents lose money on each sale.

While I haven’t seen documentation yet, I’m hearing about an increasing number of carriers eliminating agent commissions as well as others removing agent support staff from the field. (Several carriers have eliminated field support in California. If you know of other insurers making a similar move or ending commissions, please respond in the comments section).

So, what can be done? In a presidential election year, there’s not much to be done legislatively. Republicans will want to use an imploding individual market to justify their calls for repealing the ACA altogether. Sen. Bernie Sanders will cite the situation as yet another reason we need “Medicare for all.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, has an incentive to raise the alarm. She wants to build on the ACA. Having it implode just before the November presidential election won’t help her campaign. She needs to get in front of this issue now to demonstrate she understands the issue and concerns, to begin mapping out the solution and to inoculate herself from whatever happens later this year.

Congress should get in front of the situation now, too. Hearings on the implosion of the individual market and discussions on how to deal with it would lay the groundwork for meaningful legislative action in 2017. State regulators must notice the endangered individual market, as well. They have a responsibility to ensure competitive markets. They need to examine the levers at their disposal to find creative approaches to keep existing carriers in the individual market and to attract new ones.

If the individual market is reduced to one or two carriers in a region, no one wins. Competition and choice are consumers’ friends; monopolies are not. And when consumers (also known as voters) lose, so do politicians. Which means smart lawmakers will start addressing this issue now.

The individual health insurance market may be an endangered species, but it’s not extinct … yet. There’s still time to act. There’s just not a lot of it.

The Biggest Medicare Fraud Cases of 2015

Medicare does not keep records of how much it loses annually because of fraud, but the FBI, which oversees the investigation and prosecution of those alleged to have participated in fraud, estimates that 3% to 10% of all Medicare billings are fraudulent. The FBI task force believes that healthcare fraud costs taxpayers “tens of billions of dollars a year.”

Here is an overview of some of the biggest Medicare fraud cases of 2015:

  1. In June 2015, 243 healthcare providers across the country were charged individually with Medicare fraud. This was the largest-ever coordinated takedown in the history of the National Medicare Fraud Strike Force history. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, home health workers and other healthcare professionals were all indicted for falsely billing Medicare for approximately $712 million in various fraudulent schemes. The healthcare providers allegedly:
  • Billed for services that were not rendered
  • Charged for equipment that was never delivered
  • Billed for care that was not needed

Specific criminal charges include:

  • Conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud
  • Violating anti-kickback statutes
  • Money laundering
  • Identity theft

Healthcare providers nationally were included in the sweep of the task force. Charges were brought in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, California, New York and elsewhere. The defendants face years in prison in addition to having their assets forfeited to the government and having to repay the amount of money they fraudulently obtained.

In a press release announcing the takedown, the attorney general for the U.S. expressed the commitment of the Department of Justice to continue its “focus on preventing wrongdoing and prosecuting those whose criminal activity drives up medical costs and jeopardizes a system that our citizens trust with their lives.”

  1. Also in June 2015, the former president of a Houston hospital was sentenced to more than 40 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $46.8 million in restitution to Medicare. His son and two other co-conspirators were also found guilty of receiving kickbacks, conspiracy to commit Medicare fraud and money laundering. The scheme involved billing Medicare for psychiatric services that were never provided to patients. The total amount of money fraudulently received by all participants was estimated to equal $158 million.
  1. In October 2015, Millennium Health in Boston, formerly Millennium Laboratories, admitted to billing Medicare and other governmental healthcare programs more than $256 million for laboratory tests that were either unnecessary or never actually performed. The lab also provided kickbacks to physicians for referring patients for testing. Millennium, with headquarters in San Diego, is one of the largest urine-testing laboratories in the U.S. According to the Massachusetts U.S. attorney, “Millennium promoted indiscriminate and unnecessary testing that increased medical costs without serving patients’ real medical needs. A laboratory which knowingly conducts medically unnecessary testing operates unlawfully and squanders our precious federal health care resources.”
  1. In August 2015, a New York man who operated several healthcare clinics for treating HIV/AIDS patients was sentenced to more than seven years in federal prison for defrauding Medicare out of more than $31 million. He billed for treatment that patients did not need and often were not given. Medicare was billed for infusion or IV treatment for many patients who never received treatment. Some patients who were provided infusion therapy were administered doses that were highly diluted.
  1. Two psychologists were recently added to an indictment to join two of their cohorts who had previously been charged with defrauding Medicare of more than $25 million. The psychologists are owners of two companies that provide psychological testing to nursing home patients in four Gulf Coast states: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. The problem is that the psychologists allegedly billed Medicare for tests that were not medically necessary and, in many cases, were never performed. The case is pending, and the press release notes that the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The Medicare Fraud Strike Force, since its formation in March 2007, has charged 2,300 defendants with fraudulently billing more than a total of $7 billion. The task force is committed to continuing its work to hold providers accountable so that the number of fraudulent providers will decrease.

Will Rubio’s Measure Undermine ACA?

Republicans stated goal is to “repeal and replace” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That hasn’t happened and won’t at least through the remainder of President Barack Obama’s term. So a secondary line of attack is to undermine the ACA. And Sen. Marco Rubio has had success in that regard.

As reported by The Hill, Sen. Rubio accomplished this feat by weakening the ACA’s risk corridors program. Whether this is a long- or short-term victory is being determined in Washington now. We’ll know the answer by Dec. 11.

President Obama and Congress recognized that, given the massive changes to the market imposed by the ACA, health plans would have difficulty accurately setting premiums. Without some protection against under-pricing risk, carriers’ inclinations would be to price conservatively. The result would be higher than necessary premiums.

To ease the transition to the new world of healthcare reform, the ACA included three major market stabilization programs. One of them, the risk corridors program, as described by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “limits losses and gains beyond an allowable range.” Carriers experiencing claims less than 97% of a targeted amount pay into a fund; health plans with claims greater than 103% of that target receive funds.

The risk corridor began in 2014 and expires in 2016. As drafted, if payments into the fund by profitable insurers were insufficient to cover what was owed unprofitable carriers the Department of Health and Human Services could draw from other accounts to make up the difference.

Sen. Rubio doesn’t like risk corridors. He considers them “taxpayer-funded bailouts of insurance companies at the Obama administration’s sole discretion.” In 2014, he managed to insert a policy rider into a critical budget bill preventing HHS from transferring money from other accounts into the risk corridors program.

The impact of this rider has been profound.

In October, HHS announced a major problem with the risk corridors program: Insurers had submitted $2.87 billion in risk corridor claims for 2014, but the fund had taken in only $362 million. As a result, payments for 2014 losses would amount to just 12.6 cents on the dollar.

This risk corridor shortage is a major reason so many of the health co-ops established under the ACA have failed and may be a factor in United Health Group’s decision to consider withdrawing from the law’s health insurance exchanges. (United Health was not owed any reimbursement from the fund but likely would feel more confident if the subsidies were available).

The Obama administration certainly sees this situation as undermining the Affordable Care Act. In announcing the shortage, HHS promised to make carriers whole by, if possible, paying 2014 subsidies out of payments received in 2015 and 2016. However, the ability to do so is “subject to the availability of appropriations.” Which means Congress must cooperate.

That brings us back to Sen. Rubio’s policy rider. It needs to be part of the budget measure Congress must pass by Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown. If the policy rider is not included in that legislation, HHS is free to transfer money into the risk corridor program fund from other sources.

Sen. Rubio and other Republicans are pushing hard to ensure HHS can’t rescue the risk corridors program, claiming to have already saved the public $2.5 billion from a “crony capitalist bailout program.” Democrats and some insurers, seeing what’s occurred as promises broken, are working just as hard to have the rider removed.

By Dec. 11, we’ll know whether the ACA is further undermined or bolstered.

Healthcare Reforms Aren’t Sustainable

A recent NPR program celebrated the success of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The benchmark was that many really sick people finally had coverage and that many poor people were now obtaining coverage because of subsidies or because of the expansion of Medicaid. If measured by participation, the healthcare reform under ACA is a success, with more growth anticipated.

Unfortunately, the long-term benchmark must be sustainability and outcomes, not participation. Government programs are often popular in the short term but not sustainable in the long term. The National Flood Insurance Program, Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, etc. will ultimately have to be “adjusted” because 100% of the taxpayers are funding these systems and a very much smaller percentage of us use them.

At some point, the non-users scream “enough already.” “Other people’s money” always runs out, and the $2.6 trillion-plus spent on healthcare is not evenly divided. 47% is spent on the sickest 5% of the population, and just 3% is spent on the healthiest 50% of Americans, according to “Healing a Broken Healthcare System,” from the Louisiana Healthcare Education Coalition. Half of the people are hardly benefiting from the money they contribute under healthcare reform.

Our systems of healthcare and healthcare financing cannot be sustained as they are trending. Yesterday’s system was not sustainable; neither is today’s ACA. The marketplace must innovate. More government and more taxes are not the answer.

Obesity and diabetes are running rampant, and too many folks (especially young people) are living a sedentary lifestyle. This lifestyle adds to the “diseased population” and the future problems and costs.

Personal and family responsibility are a necessity. Nutrition (diet) and activities (exercise) are a start. Addressing the individual in all her elements — mind, body and spirit — is a must. Answers to this crisis are inside of us as individuals and populations — not just at the doctor’s office.

Providers and institutions delivering care must leverage technology for efficiency of operations and efficacy of results. Increased availability and utilization of naturopathic physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, health coaches, nutritionists, counselors and tele-medicine will ensure increased patient engagement and ultimately satisfaction and enhanced results.

Preventive medicine for all and “bringing” care and prevention to populations who can’t get to the marketplace available to most will improve lives and reduce costs. We need fewer dollars to be spent on prescriptions and invasive surgeries. It’s okay for providers and payers to just say no to demands that are not in the consumer’s best interest — regardless of what the TV commercial suggests.

Genomics, improved diagnostics to ensure earlier interventions, a focus on extending life (versus delaying death), integrated/holistic care, marrying technology and touch and technology, natural medicine and other changes are in the works now.

Other hopes rest in vascular therapy, tailored and embraced wellness plans, systems that can intervene with populations in need during crises and tailored and personalized process management for chronically ill mental health patients. Accountable care, outcome-based payment mechanisms, new models of care and care delivery and consumer engagement (personal avatars facilitating our own motivation allowing us to design our own “road to well”) are solutions now or yet to be introduced in the market of tomorrow. These are our future. Marcus Welby, M.D., is dead, but the healing and caring he delivered can live on.

This article was written in August. Last week, I received proof of the concepts. A friend received his renewal for his ACA policy. Coverage was reduced from a 70/30 co-pay (insurer pays 70%,) to a 60/40 plan, yet his premiums increased 31%. This is just the beginning — it will get worse. When you insure a majority of sick people and you subsidize many of their premiums, you will get participation. When relatively healthy and unsubsidized policyholders receive prohibitive rate increases, they will discontinue coverage, and the insured pool suffers adverse selection. Did I mention that the situation will get worse?