Category Archives: Health plans

CVS + Aetna. Are we sure this adds up?

puzzle-1728272_1280

CVS and Aetna. Love at second sight?

Many of the stories I’m reading about CVS’s acquisition of Aetna suggests the deal is a bold move to expand CVS’s retail clinic business.  See for example, CVS-Aetna deal has major implications for retail health, primary care practices in FierceHealthcare.

If the merger goes through, CVS plans to expand health services at its retail pharmacies, according to CVS and Aetna officials. Although it will take several years to accomplish, CVS will increase its number of clinics and add staff and equipment for a wider variety of treatments.

This seems like silly reasoning. If the idea is to get health insurers to offer plans that favor retail clinics, why not just contract with those plans? Aetna is a big company but as a national plan its market share in many geographies is relatively modest. Often –like here in Massachusetts– the local Blue Cross has the biggest market share. If CVS is big and powerful enough to actually buy Aetna, surely it can get that company and others to come to terms on retail clinics.

If there’s strategic logic behind the deal it’s more likely to be in the pharmacy management side of the business, where, for example, the combined CVS/Aetna will be the biggest player –but not a dominant one– in Medicare Part D pharmacy plans. That’s not so compelling.

Possibly, the two companies just wanted to do a big deal that wouldn’t get blocked by the Justice Department. Aetna already got slapped down for its attempt to merge with Humana, and CVS doesn’t have a lot of options for horizontal takeovers of other drug chains or pharmacy benefit managers.

There is some kinship between the companies. Both are New England based and CVS’s Chief Medical Officer, Troy Brennan previously held the same role at Aetna.

It seems just as likely that CVS will offer Aetna “products” through its stores. As @WilliamGerber points out on Twitter, CVS could sell Part D plans at retail. I’m thinking maybe CVS will eventually offer consumer friendly health plans from Aetna that go beyond pharmacy.

Certainly, the shadow of Amazon is hanging over the deal. CVS is extremely nervous about Amazon coming in and eating its lunch in a way that Walgreens never could. So it’s doing something Amazon won’t –getting more into third-party reimbursement.

Stay tuned. I look forward to seeing how this one plays out.


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

Ambulance bill rip-off: There’s always a public option

health-2640352_1280

A Kaiser Health News story on sky-high ambulance bills caught my attention; I have a long-standing interest in out-of-network billing and a more recent experience of taking a pricey ambulance trip myself.

Taken for a ride? Ambulances stick patients with surprise bills, is not a new story. To sum it up: it’s not unusual for a patient to get a bill for thousands of dollars and then to be stuck with a big part of the charge, even if that patient is insured. That’s because many ambulance companies can make more money by being out-of-network. Unlike physicians and hospitals, ambulance companies don’t lose patients by being out of network and refusing to offer discounts. After all, if you need an ambulance you wouldn’t have time to shop around, and it doesn’t affect repeat business either.

The article cites an example of a Fallon ambulance in Chestnut Hill, MA, one town away from where I live. A patient was transported to Brigham and Women’s hospital four miles away and charged $3,660, which the article points out is $915 per mile. The insurer paid about half and half was the responsibility of the patient.

In my own case I was crossing the street in a crosswalk and was struck by a car making a left turn. My bill from Fallon was $3,427.50 for a one-mile ride, so at least on a per mile basis it was much higher than the Chestnut Hill example.

But to be fair, the bill comprises a base fee of $3,350 for an advanced life support ambulance plus $77.50 per mile. That works out to exactly the same rate as what the suburbanite paid ($3,350+4x$77.50=$3,660) and demonstrates that Fallon is not mainly charging for mileage, it’s charging for the equipment and personnel being ready to show up on a moment’s notice.

Much of the ire is directed at the ambulance company for price gouging and the insurance company for leaving patients hanging. There are calls to regulate prices and otherwise tighten the rules, and I’m sympathetic.

But notice this point a little further down:

” If the injury had happened just a mile away inside Boston city limits, he could have ridden a city ambulance, which would have charged $1,490, according to Boston EMS, a sum that his insurer probably would have covered in full.”

When you call 911 to report a fire or a crime in Chestnut Hill and anywhere else near Boston, fire fighters and police officers are dispatched at no charge. It doesn’t matter what insurance you have –or whether you have insurance– it’s a service provided by the local government as part of its budget. Police and fire fighters responded to my crash, too, but they aren’t sending a bill.

Cities and towns could do the same with ambulances if they want. Some, like Boston, do. Public ambulances can still bill insurance and individual patients, but they’re less likely to antagonize patients and insurers with outrageous bills.

So while we think of policy solutions for ambulance bill rip-offs, let’s not forget that there are public options and lots of hybrid solutions, too.


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

Advances in care management: podcast interview with AxisPoint CEO Dr. Ron Geraty

Ron Geraty

Dr. Ron Geraty, CEO of AxisPoint Health

AxisPoint Health is part of the new breed of care management companies, leveraging new data sources and digital techniques that go beyond the traditional paradigm of nurse call centers focused on a handful of common chronic conditions. Industry veteran, Dr. Ron Geraty (former CEO of Alere) took the reins of the company a couple years back.

In this podcast interview, Ron and I discuss the evolution of care management, the role of digital, and what the future will bring.

  1. (0:11) What’s the current state of care management in the US?
  2. (2:27) How is care management being done differently across populations: commercial, Medicare, Medicaid, dual eligibles?
  3. (5:36) Care management traditionally focuses on 5 common chronic conditions. Has it made a significant difference in those areas?
  4. (8:26) What attracted you to AxisPoint? How is it different from other population health management companies?
  5. (13:08) Who are the customers? Who is drawn to your approach and why?
  6. (15:26) You work with the most vulnerable populations. Do you attempt to influence the social and behavioral determinants of health?
  7. (19:18) What’s at stake for AxisPoint in the debate about healthcare in Washington, DC, especially since you are serving populations that have been a major focus of the ACA?
  8. (22:33) How will digital tools be leveraged for vulnerable populations? Will you still have feet on the street?

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

What free market healthcare really looks like

piglet-1639589_640

Get while the gettin’ is good!

As an economics graduate, MBA, and entrepreneur I’m a fan of the free market system. The invisible hand is a beautiful thing, and it’s certainly been good for me.  A healthcare management consultant and board member, I make my living from the business of health.

Capitalism has a place in healthcare, but in developing policies we should also recognize the limits of free market approaches and be open to the benefits of socialist ideas. For example, before the Affordable Care Act, people with pre-existing conditions or high healthcare costs would experience “job lock.” They couldn’t afford to leave their employers’ group insurance plans even if they wanted to start their own small business. Would-be entrepreneurs used to call me asking for advice –not about business plans, raising money, hiring, or product development– but about how I handled health insurance. Fortunately in Massachusetts this was not a problem, even before the ACA, because we had guaranteed issue (could not be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions) and community rating (premium based on larger group, not individual risk). In most parts of the country, though, it was a problem, and  if the ACA is repealed it may become a problem again.

A recent New York Times article (The Company Behind Many Surprise Emergency Room Bills) provides another example of the limitations of a free market approach. It’s worthwhile for free market ideologues to understand this before setting policy. To recap:

  • Some hospitals hire outside companies like EmCare to staff their emergency rooms. To maximize profits, those companies sometimes decide not to negotiate contracts with insurance companies. Hence they are “out of network” on purpose
  • When patients come in to the emergency department –suffering a heart attack, stab wound or whatever– they are treated by these out of network doctors, who then bill the insurance company at a rate that may be a multiple of in-network rates. This is true even if the hospital itself, and most of its doctors, are in network
  • The insurance company may pass along some or all of the expense to the patient, especially if the patient has a high deductible plan
  • Patients get angry, and a story appears in the New York Times

The Times story ends there, and it’s bad enough. I guess you could argue that the free market is sort of working here. After all, physicians are setting their own rates, and in theory patients could decide to go elsewhere. The consumer making noises helps to bring the market into equilibrium. And maybe the problem is not enough capitalism. Maybe EDs shouldn’t be required to take patients who can’t pay…

What the Times doesn’t say –probably because they don’t know about it– is that there’s an additional capitalist ecosystem that comes into play here. Let’s say a physician charges the insurance company $100,000 for something that would be reimbursed at $10,000 under a network contract. In case you think I’m exaggerating, this kind of thing actually happens –if not with emergency physicians then with ambulatory surgery centers and behavioral health.

The insurance company or third party administrator may then hire a cost containment vendor to ‘re-price’ or negotiate the claim. The cost containment vendor negotiates with a separate “revenue cycle management” company hired by the physician group.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that they agree to a reduced payment of $15,000 instead of $100,000. The cost containment company might take 20% of the savings (20%*$85,000=$17,000) as a commission and the revenue cycle management company might make $1500 or so for their efforts. So everyone in this scheme is happy:

  • The physician still collects $13,500 compared to $10,000 in a network deal. (And in some circumstances if the insurer isn’t paying attention they’ll get the full $100,000.)
  • The revenue cycle management company takes its cut, even if it’s less than the others
  • The cost containment companies makes more than the physician ($17,000 v $13,500). It doesn’t usually work that way but sometimes it does. [Note that I had these numbers wrong until I was corrected in the comments.]
  • And the health plan pays $15,000 rather than $100,000. If the payer is acting as a TPA or ASO rather than bearing risk, they may even get a fee from their employer customer for the cost containment service

While it’s great that so many new jobs and business opportunities are created, this is not exactly the way to hold down the cost of healthcare and improve affordability.

Contrast this scenario with one where the patient is covered by a government program: Medicare or Medicaid. The government determines the fee for services rendered and pays it to the physician. The patient contributes at most a $50 co-pay. The physician may or may not like what he’s being paid, but there are no shenanigans.

If you adore the free market and abhor government interference, maybe the first scenario is best. Having seen it up close, I have a hard time arguing for it.

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

Could Medicaid for all be the answer?

connect-20333_1280

Putting it all together

The Affordable Care Act is a complex law, but for a major piece of legislation that actually made it all the way through a very open legislative process, it’s remarkably coherent. Republicans have tried to sabotage it since before it was passed, and yet it still managed to succeed while a Democratic Administration remained in power. I have predicted in the past that if Republicans actually managed to poison Obamacare that they would come to regret it, because it would lead eventually to the rise of a single payer (i.e., truly socialist) system.

I assumed that the move toward single payer would take a generation to happen and would be driven at the federal level. But Nevada’s quick embrace of Medicaid for everyone surprised me, and it looks like a good option that addressed a lot of tough healthcare financing problems. Even if this Nevada plan ultimately dies on the vine, it provides a template for other states.

Here’s the basic story behind the Nevada Care Plan: Obamacare supporters are worried about what will happen to people who use the exchanges/marketplaces if Trump or Congress is successful in destroying the markets. Trump has been wreaking havoc on the marketplaces by threatening to cut off the subsidies that make premiums and out-of-pocket expenses affordable. The American Health Care Act (AHCA), aka Trumpcare, Ryancare, etc. would be the death knell. As a result, millions of people who get insurance through exchanges today would be out of luck.

A Medicaid for all approach enables people at any income level to buy into Medicaid, paying premiums if their income is too high to qualify under current rules or if they are are otherwise ineligible. Medicaid provides a very comprehensive set of benefits –broader, in some ways, than commercial plans or Medicare. Prescription drugs are covered, and so is nursing home care. Even better for the patient, there are no co-pays or deductibles. Cost per patient is lower than commercial plans or Medicare because Medicaid pays physicians and hospitals rock bottom rates, and by law Medicaid gets the best pricing on drugs.

Interestingly, many of the insurance companies that have succeeded on the exchanges are Medicaid managed care plans like Centene and Molina that have adapted their products to the Obamacare population.

Medicaid for all would not preclude private plans from participating in the market. In fact, its existence could pave the way for a variety of supplemental or upgraded plans that could be purchased by individuals or offered by employers. That approach is similar to what happens in other rich countries like the UK.

In summary, Medicaid for all has some really good features:

  • It bends the cost curve considerably by forcing lower prices on hospitals, physicians and other providers. The main reason healthcare spending is higher in the US than in other rich countries is because unit prices are higher here. In one fell swoop that could be addressed, even if providers aren’t entirely pleased.
  • Drug pricing, which is such a lightning rod, could also be addressed quickly by bringing prices into the Medicaid framework, the one place where they are reasonably well controlled.
  • It would enable everyone who wants to be covered to be covered.
  • It would eliminate the vagaries of the exchanges. No one would need to worry about whether insurance companies would offer plans from year to year.
  • In theory, it could enable states to innovate, assuming that they are given the freedom to modify benefits around the edges.

Admittedly, Medicaid for all might dampen innovation by reducing the financial incentives for the introduction of new drugs and devices and placing more control in the hands of government. But frankly commercial health plans have not done a good job of spurring innovation or cutting costs; few people are likely to shed a tear if their role is reduced.

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

 

HighRoads CEO Brian Kim talks next gen health plan product management

HighRoads helps health plans automate the creation of new products to help them get to market faster and more flexibly. It may sound like an arcane corner of the healthcare world, but in this podcast interview, CEO Brian Kim argues that his company’s platform is a game changer in the market.

Here’s what we discussed:

  • (0:15)What are the fundamental functions performed by health plans?
  • (3:40) Why has the process of defining and selling plans changed much more slowly than payment processing?
  • (10:29) What is needed to spur innovation on plan definition and selling within existing organizations?
  • (13:41) What’s the impact on these topics of action in Washington DC?
  • (15:46) What does HighRoads offer the market?
  • (18:02) Where are you getting the most traction?
  • (21:50) What can we expect on your road map over the next few years?

———-

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

How AHCA makes healthcare unaffordable

Some opponents of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) like to trash individual insurance policies sold on the exchanges for having out of pocket costs that make them too expensive to actually use and premium increases that make them too expensive to keep.

I’ve always been annoyed by this criticism because it doesn’t stand up to reality. That’s because the detractors ignore the cost sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies that sharply reduce deductibles and out-of-pocket payments for lower income individuals. More than half of individuals who buy coverage on the exchanges receive CSRs, so we are talking about a major part of the market.

As a new analysis by Avalere demonstrates, average deductibles for individuals at 100-150% of the federal poverty level (FPL) in silver plans are only $243 compared with $3703 for people who don’t qualify for CSRs. For maximum out of pocket costs, the figures are $978 and $6528 respectively.

1494937058_csr chart

As for premiums, those increases have been absorbed by the federal government through increased subsidies for those who qualify and are not a deterrent to purchasing or renewing a plan.

Dismantling the ACA and replacing it with the American Health Care Act (AHCA) will eliminate the CSRs. The AHCA tax credits are stingier and not targeted based on need or premium cost. The enhanced flexibility plans have to modify benefits won’t make insurance more affordable, especially for those who actually need treatment.

———-

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