I live in Madison, Conn., a town of some 18,000 located between New Haven and Old Saybrook on the Connecticut shoreline. Madison is a pretty well-off place; schools are excellent, services good, and government responsive.
To fulfill my civic responsibility, I have been working on a couple of projects with the Superintedent of Schools, a very professional, and very capable, woman. Of late, the topic of interest has been health care. Madison has some 550 employees, including teachers, administrators, police, and town office staff. Most of these employees are covered under one of another union-negotiated health plan, and all get great (read “expensive”) health benefits.
The Town is now in negotiations with the unions on new contracts, which will include health insurance coverage. The contracts will run for three years, and benefits are fixed for that period.
Here’s the issue. Costs are around $7000 per employee per year, and increasing over 12% per year.
Think about that. Costs will be $14,000 per employee in 5 years, and $28,000 in 10. That is not a long way off.
These increases are simply unsustainable. Like many others, I have been predicting we would finally reach a point where we could not afford health insurance. Clearly, for the taxpayers of Madison, that point will be reached in the next ten years.
The wide geographic variation in treatment has received extensive coverage in the Medicare and group health arenas, with one of the most-cited studies coming from the Dartmouth Medical School. The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care uses Medicare data to illustrate the difference in frequency and utilization across states and MSAs, and is required reading for anyone pursuing this subject.
One of the questions raised by the Atlas is “does this variation also occur in other lines of coverage?” While there is not nearly as much data available on this subject, two fairly recent studies in Texas indicate that disparities in cost are not limited to the Medicare world.
The Research and Oversight Council’s (ROC) Analysis of the Cost and Quality of Medical Care in the Texas Workers’ Compensation System provides an excellent (and brief) summary of the two studies, one by the Council itself and the other by the well-respect Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI). Of note, the ROC’s study indicates that the average annual medical cost per claim range from $4242 in the Dallas/Fort Worth area to $2835 in San Antonio/Austin.
Undoubtedly this variation exists in other states as well. This raises some interesting issues, including:
–In states with regulated rates, do underwriters select risks based on lower-cost medical areas? If not, why not?
–Can payers focus their managed care efforts on high cost areas and away from low cost areas, and if not, why not?
–What is going on? Are treatment patterns different? Are costs higher? Are injuries or illnesses different? Is there a different mix of providers?
Clearly, medical care is delivered in different amounts, by different types of providers, via different procedures, in different areas. That being the case, why are managed care programs so generic? And could that be one of the reasons why they are both frustrating to the provider and ineffective at moderating health care cost increases?
Coventry Health Care announced yesterday it is going to acquire FirstHealth Group for stock and cash equivalent to about $18.70 per share. Coventry is a second-tier managed care company focused on small group, fully insured business, in 15 states.
This may well indicate a change in Coventry’s strategy, as it evolves from its tight focus on small group insurance in limited markets. The acquisition gives Coventry a national PPO for work comp and group, ownership of the federal MailHandler’s health benefit program, and ancillary or related services including PBM capabilities and Medicaid services.
Notably, there were no indications on the part of Coventry senior staff of a desire to retain FH senior management over the long term; while this is conjecture the tone and wording of their statements does not give one the sense that the top layer of FH management is around for the long term.
One interesting question is what will Coventry do with the WC business? Coventry is managed by people who have little past experience with WC, and actually worked for firms that rid themselves of WC subsidiaries (UnitedHealthGroup selling MetraComp and Focus) to focus on core business. My sense is Coventry will leave the WC alone for now, and see what develops – stay tuned over the next six months, as any change in this may happen around the middle of next year.
Interesting item from Workers Comp Insider today:
There is an interesting convergence of issues concerning the pain killer, Oxycontin. Originally developed to combat cancer pain, Oxycontin has been aggressively marketed over the past three years by its manufacturer Purdue, to the point where the drug is now the pain-killer of preference for work related injuries. This drug is twice as powerful as morphine and, while not technically addicting, it can create withdrawal symptoms when a person stops taking it. According to a study by NCCI, Oxycontin is prescribed for pain in 69% of permanent partial disability cases. This same study also points out that 49% of these prescriptions go to people with back injuries. When you combine that with the next interesting piece of data – Oxycontin is almost always dispensed in 50 day supplies (100 tablets) — you have a potentially volatile mix.