Category Archives: Health plans

Can Congress agree on the Cadillac tax?

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Cadillac taxi?

Health care is too costly in the US. One reason is that health insurance premiums are fully tax deductible for employers. This distorts the market, causing employers and employees to prefer devoting the next dollar of compensation to healthcare rather than wages. That’s fine in any given year but over time it’s helped drive up healthcare spending and hold down wages.

One of the many things the Affordable Care Act did right was to start to address this issue with the so-called Cadillac Tax, an excise tax on high cost employer plans. Like everything in the ACA it has been attacked and derided by the law’s opponents. But many Republican plans have equivalent measures, which would cap the deductibility of health insurance. Either one of these approaches would help by causing employers to work harder to hold down healthcare spending and by generating tax revenue that could be used for other health law goals or for general purposes. The end of tax deductibility only kicks in at a high threshold, which means the impact in the early years is limited and everyone has time to get used to the new rules. I’d like to see Congressional leaders be brave and embrace some form of cap as a bi-partisan consensus move.

Alas, the caps are opposed by an array of forces: employers don’t want a new tax, labor groups are worried that benefits will be eroded and out-of-pocket costs increased, and the healthcare industry worries about a squeeze on revenue.

Without strong leadership in Congress, it seems doubtful that new legislation will be passed. So maybe the best bet is to leave the Obama era Cadillac tax in place, imperfect as it may be.

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

Public option pops up again

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Where do we go from here?

The so-called “public option” is back on the table. According to Politico there’s a “feud” between liberal and moderate Democrats about the wisdom of such an approach. That’s an overstatement, and really it doesn’t even matter if they are fighting about it or not.

Health insurers have a problem, which is that it’s hard for them to prove that they add value. Does all their utilization management, network development, formulary administration and price negotiation improve cost, quality and patient experience enough to justify the extra administrative costs and hassles they impose on the system? It’s an open question, and one that health plans have a hard time answering convincingly.

Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed, health plans haven’t really had to address this fundamental question. With all the new regulations, marketplaces, and mandates, customers and plans have been busy getting themselves into compliance and learning and testing out the new system. No one has really asked the question about whether we need plans or not.

ACA health insurance marketplaces in some parts of the country are seeing less competition than is ideal as some health plans give up. Aetna gave the feds the middle finger by announcing plans to exit exchanges in retaliation for the government’s opposition to the company’s mega merger plans. The exchanges are fixable but opponents in Congress prefer to let them die if possible rather than fix them. However, this passive aggressive approach to the exchanges could ultimately backfire if it means the government sponsors a “public” competitor to give people choice.

For some, opposition to the ACA is ideological. They don’t like federal mandates, or expanding access to birth control, or they just don’t like Obama. But opposition to the public option is more about business considerations than ideology. Apple wouldn’t be worried if the government started making smartphones, but health insurers are worried about whether they can do a better job than Uncle Sam.

And let’s face it, a government option brings us a big step closer to a single payer system under which insurance companies would essentially be out of business.

Health plans don’t have to worry too much today about single payer or even a public option. Even Senate Democrats can’t agree, so it’s unlikely a public option will make it through Congress. But give it another 10 to 15 years and we’ll see.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Surprise, surprise! Exchange customers are price sensitive

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Uh oh. Another big national health plan, Aetna has decided to pull back from the individual health insurance marketplaces (aka exchanges) deciding they can’t make money because customers are focusing on price, not brand name. The headlines give a sense of it:

Cost, Not Choice, Is Top Concern of Health Insurance CustomersNew York Times

Customers’ Laser-Like Focus on Plan Prices Is Causing Concerns in Health Insurance MarketKaiser Health News

The articles quote insurance executive and experts claiming that “price competition has turned out to be much more cutthroat than anyone expected” and that “people signing up for [broad network, big employer style coverage offered by the big name national health plans] are less healthy –and more expensive to treat– than anticipated.”

Hah!

As I have written before (Good riddance: United finally gives up on ACA marketplaces):

Health plans thinking of competing in the marketplaces should say this to themselves a few times before diving in: “Exchange business is price sensitive business. If we can’t compete on price we might as well stay home.”

The exchanges do have problems. For example, insurers are limited to charging older people 3x what they charge younger ones, whereas actuarially it should be more like 5x. The problems are eminently fixable, except that opponents of the law still want it to fail. As for Aetna, specifically, it seems they are retaliating against the feds after the government announced its opposition to Aetna’s merger plans.

Nonetheless, why would we measure the success of the exchanges by whether the big, fat brand name health insurers can make money? Exchanges allow customers to compare plans on an apples-to-apples basis and they are deciding that there’s no big reason to pay higher prices. Some health plans are thriving on the exchanges by negotiating hard with providers (Medicaid oriented plans like Centene and Molina) or by having local market knowledge and density (Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida  –which has almost as many Obamacare customers in Florida as Aetna has in the whole country).

Here’s the real problem for health plans: they have largely failed to demonstrate that they add significant value. Aetna, United and their ilk don’t accomplish a lot compared with Joe’s health plan. And even when they do add value, they still add large administrative costs and inefficiencies to the system that may outweigh their benefits.

The Affordable Care Act has actually given health plans a new lease on life, by herding in new groups of individual customers and by imposing whole new sets of standards and rules. Health plans fear a so-called “public option” because it could reveal that commercial plans don’t bring much. And as unlikely as it seems now, it’s quite possible that the failure of commercial plans to demonstrate value could lead us eventually to a single-payer system.

Ideally, I’d rather not see single payer. If some of the plans were a little more ingenious and capable they could actually prosper in the exchange business, in ways that would boost their success in the commercial market as well. In particular, there are opportunities to better manage the way specialty care is delivered and paid for, by emulating the approaches used by the most efficient and innovative specialists. This would drive down the overall cost of insurance and improve care for patients.

Plans could also be more creative and resourceful in helping providers take risk or even full capitation.

Meanwhile, Aetna will struggle to grow. After all, the US is moving toward marketplaces and government coverage. Aetna, not Obamacare or the exchanges, may turn out to be the big loser here.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

Smoking and the ACA

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The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has created a wonderful laboratory for studying the impact of changes in healthcare policy. One of the more interesting papers on the topic appears in the latest Health Affairs (Evidence suggests that the ACA’s tobacco surcharges reduce insurance take-up and did not increase smoking cessation). (You’ll need a subscription to read the full article.)

Health plans can’t charge higher prices to people who are sicker, but they can tack on surcharges of up to 50 percent for tobacco users. States can limit or ban the surcharges, and some do. Not surprisingly, people subjected to high surcharges are a lot less likely to purchase insurance, especially because the way the surcharges work has a very significant impact on their out of pocket costs.

Beyond the headlines, there were several additional findings:

  • When smokers faced no, moderate or high surcharges rates of smoking cessation were unaffected
  • Low surcharges significantly reduced the degree of smoking cessation
  • Young smokers were much more likely than older smokers to be deterred from health insurance coverage by the imposition of surcharges
  • Surcharges were typically higher than the extra medical costs incurred by smokers

These findings have some interesting implications:

  • If the goal of the surcharge policy is to get people to quit smoking, then it doesn’t seem to be working very well. The least effective approach of all is to impose low surcharges. The authors speculate that the low surcharge smokers may feel they are being fairly charged and therefore don’t have an incentive to change. This is like the parents who are more likely to pick up their kids late from day care when a small fine is imposed
  • Surcharges knock younger people out of coverage disproportionately, which may destabilize the risk pools since younger people are generally more profitable than older people
  • The rising penalties for not purchasing insurance may not have much effect on smokers who face surcharges. Many low or moderate income smokers will be exempt from the penalties because the premiums –with surcharges– are deemed unaffordable
  • Patients with mental health problems are being discriminated against because they have much higher smoking rates than the general population. (I have been making similar arguments since 2007)

The authors mention in passing that high surcharges may encourage people to quit in order to obtain affordable coverage. They also note that the smoking surcharge isn’t always apparent on the exchanges, so smokers may not understand that they are paying more or how much.

I’d like to see the law tweaked to make the financial consequences of smoking more apparent to smokers. Surcharges could be displayed more explicitly, and the bar for being exempt from the insurance coverage requirement could be raised. Exceptions could be made for those with a mental health diagnosis.

These changes won’t necessarily be easy to achieve. Congress so far shows no signs of being willing to improve the law –though that may change if the Democrats retake Congress. Another issue is that tobacco use is generally self-reported for exchange customers, so we don’t know how many people are classifying themselves as non-users when in fact they are not.

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Will Zika help or hurt health plans?

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Health insurers are starting to think about the impact of the Zika virus, which may arrive in force in the US over the coming months. Actuaries are looking for analogous examples for their models, such as other mosquito born illnesses including dengue fever.

Some insurers aren’t too concerned, according to Healthcare Finance News. Others are looking at reinsurance opportunities and considering premium increases.

Most Zika infections cause only mild illness, so the costs of treatment will be modest or zero much of the time. The real impact is likely to come from the cost of lifelong care for babies born with microcephaly or other problems, which could be millions of dollars per case.

But does that mean Zika will hurt health plans financially? Not necessarily.

For commercial health plans, maternal and newborn care is one of the largest categories of expenses. If a Zika epidemic looms, I would expect women to stop having babies, at least for a while. After all, in El Salvador the government has suggested women not become pregnant for the next two years.

If that happens, insurers will enjoy a windfall from avoided expenses that will show up right away. Meanwhile, the costs of Zika babies will be spread over many years and no doubt much of the cost will be shifted to Medicaid one way or the other.

Zika is a huge threat and we should be doing much more about it as a society. But health plans may not suffer as much as people assume.

Image courtesy of duntaro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

Good riddance: United finally gives up on ACA marketplaces

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United we hardly knew ye

United Healthcare announced that it’s exiting most of the Obamacare insurance marketplaces (aka exchanges) next year. Sound like a familiar story? In fact all the recent news coverage is just a rehash of last November’s announcement that United was probably going to exit.

As I wrote at the time (United pulls out of ACA exchanges: Should we care?), United’s exit is not a huge deal. The company specializes in selling high-priced plans to corporate accounts. In the price-sensitive world of the exchanges that’s a losing proposition. No surprise — United wasn’t getting traction.

In January (Like I said: United’s ACA exchange departure is no big deal) I reported on a study that showed that the name brand, high priced commercial players like United were losing out to insurers with a Medicaid managed care background and to mission-oriented Blues plans. United’s departure represents the failure of United, not the failure of the marketplaces. If United says otherwise it’s a sore loser.

Health plans thinking of competing in the marketplaces should say this to themselves a few times before diving in: “Exchange business is price sensitive business. If we can’t compete on price we might as well stay home.”

Now, if United were a little more clever and capable it actually could make a play for the exchange business, in a way that would boost its success in the commercial market as well. In particular, there are opportunities to better manage the way specialty care is delivered and paid for, by emulating the approaches used by the most efficient and innovative specialists. This would drive down the overall cost of insurance and improve care for patients. Some astute players in the bundled payments space are starting to figure it out. Somehow I don’t think United will be the one to make it happen.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

Urgent care billing: Eyebrows raised

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An unhealthy discount

My wife was sick a few weekends ago so I took her to the Beth Israel urgent care clinic in Chestnut Hill where they diagnosed her with the flu. Nice modern facility. In network. Convenient parking. You get the idea. Care was good, but slow.

Then a few days ago, I received an Explanation of Benefits (EoB) from my health plan.

One reason to go to urgent care is that it’s more cost effective than the emergency room. In this case BI sent Blue Cross a bill for $1328. Blue Cross marked it down to $365.81, subtracted our co-pay ($35) and deductible ($231.68) and sent BI payment for a whopping $99.13.

In looking at the bill I was most struck by a couple line items. Microbiology/lab was billed at $202.00 and reimbursed at $26.48, or 13%. And Technical Component (maybe for an ultrasound?) was billed at $427.00 and paid at $22.33, or 5%.

Although medical charges (i.e., what’s billed) are known to be detached from reality, I found this EoB particularly galling. How can I explain my visceral reaction, especially to the $427 charge being reimbursed at $22.33?

  • If something is billed for $427 but reimbursed at just $22, it seems that BI is overcharging or Blue Cross is underpaying. Or is it both?
  • What happens to the poor schlub who’s out of network, or worse, lacks insurance? Is the $427 from rare patients like that –who pay 20x what Blue Cross pays– accounting for more than 100% of the center’s profits?
  • Is what I see on the EoB actually the economic reality behind the transaction? Or is BI or my wife’s BI practice being paid a capitated amount for her care and is this bill only meaningful for calculating our cost?
  • What is a patient who’s interested in “transparency” and “cost effectiveness” supposed to think? Did we do the right thing by going to urgent care or not? I think it would have been a lot more useful to see a comparison between the actual urgent care visit cost and a hypothetical visit to the ER or physician office

Ok, I’m feeling a little better now.

Image courtesy of Vlado at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.