September 12, 2017
Wellness Isn’t the Only Scam in Healthcare
by Al Lewis
New book explains how to vastly cut healthcare spending, delivering big benefits both to employers and employees.
Healthcare meets Network.
That is the one-sentence summary of Dave Chase’s new book, A CEO’s Guide to Restoring the American Dream: How to Deliver World-Class Healthcare to Your Employees at Half the Cost.
Dissecting the title, the “restoring the American Dream” reference is as follows: While wages have barely budged in the last 20 years, employee compensation has risen quite a bit — with most of the increase being the health benefit. Dave’s observation is that if the health benefit were managed much more tightly, wages could climb noticeably for the workforce without increasing the total employee compensation budget.
As for “half the cost,” that number may be overstated…but not by much. For instance, I just saw a wellness vendor send 2/3 of a company’s employees to the doctor because they have “conditions” they didn’t know about, that this vendor “discovered” by — you guessed it — screening the stuffing out of them by flouting clinical guidelines. This employer could save about 3% simply by firing the vendor and not consigning all those employees to the treatment trap. (Of course, there has been no measurable improvement in outcomes from all these doctor visits.)
This employer and others could save another 0.5% simply by not insisting that their employees and spouses get annual checkups (and “well-woman” visits) because as readers of this site know, they have no value. The good news is that checkups are not likely to harm employees, which is more than can be said for many wellness programs.
See also: Wellness Vendors Keep Dreaming
So we are already saving 3.5%, and we haven’t even done anything hard yet, where “hard” is defined as “something that does not delight employees, like getting rid of ‘pry, poke and prod’ programs.” In other words, “hard” isn’t really hard.
Slightly harder opportunities
In addition to an expose on wellness, Dave Chase exposes some scams that make wellness look like child’s play. (Wellness is child’s play, in the sense that any fifth-grader knows more arithmetic than a wellness vendor. And a 14-year-old knows more about BMI.)
In no particular order, we’ll start with PBMs. Their stock prices have exploded — literally, 300-fold — in the last 30 years. You think they achieved that growth honestly? They make wellness vendors look like Boy Scouts. They obfuscate everything, with “rebates” and “formularies” and under-the-table payments from drug companies, and all sorts of other things that we probably don’t even know about. Here is a New York Times article that casts just a little light on the subject…but more than enough light to indict the entire industry.
It isn’t easy to ditch a PBM, but increasing numbers of alternatives are popping up. A good rule of thumb is, the thicker the contract with your PBM, the more you are getting ripped off. I invite folks who offer one of these new alternatives to add a comment at the bottom of this posting or on LinkedIn following this posting.
Then there are the carriers, who typically make more money, the more money gets spent. The number of scams is mind-boggling. For example, consider Dave’s explanation of what happens when a claim is overbilled:
Another fee opportunity is so-called “pay and chase” programs,
in which the insurance carrier doing your claims administration
gets paid 30-40 percent for recovering fraudulent or
duplicative claims. Thus, there is a perverse incentive to tacitly
allow fraudulent and duplicative claims to be paid, get paid as
the plan administrator, then get paid a second time for recovering
the originally paid claim.
Good luck trying to ferret your own claims data out of carriers so that you can do your own analysis on them and change policy accordingly. I do quite a bit of work for top-flight carriers, measuring their wellness-sensitive medical events. They always seem to have the data at their fingertips. We can complete the analysis for the year within weeks after claims run-out ends, meaning sometime in April. Meanwhile, I’ve got a Fortune 50 client whose carrier, Optum, still hasn’t managed to provide them (at an extra fee!) with their own event rates for 2016, a delay which more than coincidentally will make it impossible to implement any cutbacks in Optum’s services for 2018 if the event rates show that — hang onto your hats — Optum didn’t achieve anything.
Don’t get Dave started on providers, who find highly creative ways to snooker employers and employees. Like staffing in-network facilities with out-of-network doctors, who then bill patients ridiculously high charges. You need to re-contract with your carrier and put that one on them. Or, if you’re large enough, recontract with the hospital.
And speaking of hospitals, why have Leapfrog D- and F-rated hospitals in your network at all? If a geographic necessity, then at a minimum educate your employees that it might be worth the extra drive to avoid some major complications.
Providers also bill companies what they think they can get away with, rather than what a buyer would expect to pay given what others in the area are charging. Because the company is generally not the decision-maker (the employee or doctor generally decides where to go, not based on price), providers often get away with it. An entire chapter is devoted to provider pricing scams and the importance of transparency.
See also: A Wellness Program Everyone Can Love
Or, my own personal favorite provider scam, disguising emergency rooms as urgent care centers. (A rather naively idealistic Colorado legislator tried to make freestanding ERs disclose that they are not urgent care centers, but the provider lobbyists prevailed.)
A sidebar: Quizzify trains employees to be on the lookout for these scams, which is helpful for the 0.1% of the 150,000,000 commercially insured employees who actually have access to the quizzes. The other 99.9% are on their own.
And yet it all comes back to wellness
Employer obsession with wellness has caused them to take their eyes off these many other balls, because wellness was supposed to solve everything (including industrial waste, according to HERO stalwart Bruce Sherman). Truly, wellness has been the Maginot Line of healthcare cost containment strategies. While a vastly disproportionate share of resources has gone into wellness, PBMs, carriers, providers and various middlemen simply circumvented these efforts, to dig right into your pocketbooks.
I can only scratch the surface here — just go out and buy the book, and then you’ll understand both why when it comes to scamming employers and employees, wellness vendors have a lot to learn, and also why you should be mad as hell and not take it any more.