Nov
30

Facts vs beliefs

The medical community is wrestling with ethical issues arising from vaccines.

Simply put, should unvaccinated people infected with COVID be treated differently than the vaccinated?

This isn’t just an academic exercise; here in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont, emergency rooms, critical care units, ICUs and Pediatric ICUs are stuffed full of COVID patients, almost all of whom are unvaccinated.

The Governor has issued an Executive Order intended to give hospitals more flexibility in setting up overflow units. At least two NH hospitals have postponed or halted elective surgeries as a result of the latest COVID surge.

Michigan may be in even worse shape.

The implications are real and potentially tragic.  Parents, friends, children or neighbors in car accidents, struck by heart attacks or strokes, suffering from kidney failure or pancreatitis or appendicitis or anaphylactic shock may find their local hospital doesn’t have an open bed and/or is operating short-staffed.

The latter is worsening by the day, as nurses, support staff, physicians and other clinicians are exhausted, frustrated, angry and despondent over long hours and the need to treat unvaccinated COVID patients. That and a relatively tiny number of healthcare providers have also bought into the lies perpetrated by antivaxxers, exacerbating the staffing shortage as they lose their jobs.

The exception to this discussion is for populations that have been mistreated, lied to, abused and misled by eugenicists masquerading as researchers.

The arguments for NOT treating those adults who are unvaccinated by choice (rather than due to a medical exemption) go like this…

  • the “slippery slope” argument – once we do this, then we’ll
    • refuse to treat obese people for heart disease, kidney disorders, diabetes, hypertension etc; smokers for heart disease, cancer or COPD; drinkers for liver disease – as if individual decisions with repercussions limited to that individual are the same as antivaxxers’ potential to spread infections, contribute to variant development and possibly kill family members, kids, health care workers and co-workers in the process.
      • as long as we’re talking about obesity…it isn’t
        • communicable,
        • preventable by vaccination, or
        • filling ICUs to over-capacity.
  • the false equivalency argument
    • refusing to treat the “unvaxxed by choice”? than you shouldn’t provide care to women who have unplanned pregnancies – as if a one-time event is equivalent to a person’s brazen willingness to potentially infect dozens of us.
  • the “you are violating my freedoms” argument
    • if we can ban smoking in schools, restaurants, offices, airports and public transportation, we can certainly require immunization and penalize those without valid exemptions (if you think you should be “free” to smoke in a school or medical facility, that’s a whole different issue)
      • Oh, and pets are required to be immunized against dangerous diseases, as are kids.

Which leads us to the facts vs beliefs issue.

“Beliefs” – that you are a better driver than anyone else so should be allowed to drive at twice the speed limit through a school area and your child doesn’t need to be in a child safety seat and you don’t need to wear a seatbelt and you can hold your liquor so driving buzzed isn’t a problem for you; that you know more than 99% of the experts so you won’t get vaccinated, that children don’t die of COVID are NOT facts.

And when those beliefs are demonstrably false – as the anti-vaxxers’ arguments clearly are – the moral dilemma becomes more complicated.

“Freedom” isn’t free – if you want to be free to be unvaccinated, then you – no one else but you – have decided to accept the consequences of that decision.

Actually, that’s not right – because your decision is directly affecting your neighbors, family members, and co-workers. It is directly affecting my family members who work in healthcare, people you will infect, and lives you will disrupt.

In fact, freedom from disease, from economic disruption, from grief when loved ones die – comes at a cost – and that cost – however slight – is all of us getting vaccinated.

What does this mean for you?

Spare us the false equivalencies, the slippery slopes, the my freedoms nonsense, get the damn vaccination and wear a damn mask.

And when you get COVID, stay home and don’t interfere with our freedom to be free of COVID.

A more comprehensive discussion of the arguments against vaccination is here.

 


Nov
10

for hospitals, Cost ≠ Quality

Some hospitals are efficient – defined as delivering excellent care at relatively low cost, while others are quite inefficient – high cost, not great care.

Then there are the high cost and unknown quality of care facilities – but the net is this – cost ≠ quality, and quality does not cost more.

The Lown Institute has done some great research on this, and identified the nation’s 10 most efficient hospitals – the criterion being how much Medicare was charged compared to how many patients died 30 and 90 days from admission. OK, that isn’t by any stretch a comprehensive definition, but the results were revealing.

Costs ranged from $9,000 to $27,000 per patient…and if all hospitals operated as efficiently as the top 10, we taxpayers would save $8 billion each year.

Of course private payers are charged more, and pay more than Medicare. Nonetheless, efficient hospitals are going to be efficient for all payers.

Here’s the top ten.

  1. Pinnacle Hospital (Crown Point, Ind.)
  2. Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center (Reno, Nev.)
  3. MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center (Dubuque, Iowa)
  4. Encino Hospital Medical Center (Encino, Calif.)
  5. Park Ridge Health (Hendersonville, N.C.)
  6. Oroville Hospital (Oroville, Calif.)
  7. Saint Michael’s Medical Center (Newark, N.J.)
  8. UnityPoint Health-Meriter (Madison, Wis.)
  9. East Liverpool City Hospital (East Liverpool, Ohio)
  10. Maple Grove Hospital (Maple Grove, Minn.)

Curious about another hospital?  Click here to find out how it ranked.

What does this mean for you?

Knowledge is power – but only if you use it.


Oct
6

Sticks, carrots, and vaccinations

Delta (my favorite airline) isn’t forcing employees to get vaccinated.  It is charging the unvaxxed more for health insurance.

Ochsner Health system in Louisiana is following suit, adding the same surcharge for spouses or partners that are not vaxxed in an effort to help cover the $9 million in costs the system spent on caring for workers infected with COVID – and pay for future expenses. The unvaxxed will have to pay $200 more per month and comply with strict testing requirements.

Financial giant JPMorgan will charge unvaxxed employees more for health insurance as of January 1 2022.

Those who come down with COVID are also going to see higher out-of-pocket costs as more insurers pull back on the first-dollar coverage they were providing for COVID care. Average out-of-pocket costs around $3,800 are expected for unvaxxed patients hospitalized for COVID treatment.

While a lawsuit has been filed by some Ochsner employees seeking to overturn the surcharge, legal experts dismiss any chance of success. CMS has told self-insured employers they cannot refuse to provide coverage for unvaxxed patients’ COVID care, but they can charge those members more. This is consistent with regulations regarding tobacco use, which can result in insurance surcharges.

Meanwhile, many of Delta’s competitors are mandating vaccines, perhaps in part because unvaxxed workers mostly comply with mandates. And all the data to date indicates the vast majority of workers are getting the shot rather than the heave-ho.

One expert noted the surcharges are a powerful emotional tool, stating:

“There is this idea of loss aversion, that losses are weighed more heavily than gains, so a $200 incentive will not have as much influence as a $200 fine.”

What does this mean for you?

Unfortunately, sticks seem to be more effective than carrots, at least for the most committed of the vaccine holdouts.


Aug
27

Friday update

Sorry loyal readers – been swamped w a big project; auditing the Federal work comp program’s pharmacy program.

Here’s what happened this week while I was immersed in data, workflows, job descriptions, reports and contract terms.

COVID

Florida – from colleague, master fisherman and good friend David Deitz MD PhD came thisanticipating more deaths among the unvaccinated, Florida hospitals are renting refrigerated trucks for temporary morgues.

The Sunshine State isn’t the only state with hospitals anticipating more deaths due to vaccine stupidity. Texas and Kentucky hospitals are also lining up rental trucks…

Most insurers are ending waivers for patient copays/coinsurance for COVID treatment. This means those who do have to get care  – or their heirs if that care doesn’t save their lives – may well face ginormous bills for treatment.  From Kaiser Health News:

 there’s logic behind insurers’ waiver rollback: Why should patients be kept financially unharmed from what is now a preventable hospitalization, thanks to a vaccine that the government paid for and made available free of charge?…

A harsher society might impose tough penalties on people who refuse vaccinations and contract the virus. Recently, the National Football League decreed that teams will forfeit a game canceled because of a covid outbreak among unvaccinated players — and neither team’s players will be paid.

But insurers could try to do more, like penalizing the unvaccinated. And there is precedent. Already, some policies won’t cover treatment necessitated by what insurance companies deem risky behavior…

I’m all in favor of personal responsibility – and no COVID isn’t the same as addiction treatment or lifestyle issues.

Those damn topicals

Topicals and compounds just won’t go away…Mostly because profiteering fraudsters are adept at figuring ways around regulations, insurers’ prior authorization requirements, network contract language, and system edits.

WCRI’s has just published a very useful report on the issue; this data point really got my attention:

payment share for topicals in the typical state increased from 9 percent in the first quarter of 2015 to 19 percent in the first quarter of 2020.

And don’t miss WCRI’s Dr Vennela Thumula and Te-Chun Liu research on off-label use of gabapentinoids, one of the other fast-growing and highly-questionable prescribing practices so damn common in work comp.

What does this mean for you?

Get vaccinated, and be very careful if you live in an area with a low vaccination rate.

And check your drug spend reports for topicals and gabapentinoid utilization. If your PBM can’t help you, get another PBM. 


Jul
27

that giant sucking sound…

Is coming from hospital trauma centers vacuuming thousands out of your wallet.

Trauma centers are supposed to handle the worst trauma cases – those from major car accidents, gunshots, airplane crashes, building collapses – you get the picture. Smelling gold, some hospital systems – including HCA – figured out that “activating” trauma centers lets them charge fees up to$50,000 per patient – even if that “trauma center” never actually treats the patient.

The fact that HCA has opened trauma centers in 90 of its 179 hospitals – many in close proximity to other trauma centers – indicates it is not a pubic health need as that “need” is already being met.

Shockingly, Florida is once again the poster child for what look to be abusive billing practices.  From Kaiser Health News:

In Florida alone, where the number of trauma centers has exploded, hospitals charged such fees more than 13,000 times in 2019 even though the patient went home the same day,

Florida trauma activation cases without an admission rose from 22% in 2012 to 27% last year, according to the data. At one Florida facility, Broward Health Medical Center, there were 1,285 trauma activation cases in 2019 with no admission — almost equal to the number that led to admissions. [emphasis added]

Work comp and auto alert…

Peter Johnson penned a deep dive into the explosive growth of trauma centers in the latest edition of Health Plan Weekly [subscription required]. In his article, Peter reported the number of Level I and II trauma centers almost doubled from 2008 to 2020, going from 305 to 567.

From his piece (Peter was quoting me):

It is abundantly clear this [the growth in the number of trauma centers] is not due to a years- or even months-long dramatic increase in apartment building fires, accidents, gun fights, or multi-car crashes.

Trauma used to be defined as high-acuity, emergent cases involving severe injury. Not any more at some of these facilities. Reports abound of patients with minor injuries requiring stitches, cold compresses, and even just a baby bottle and a nap billed for trauma activation.

What does this mean for you?

Any facility bill with a trauma center charge must be subjected to very careful and thorough review. Especially in states that allow higher payments for so-called “outliers”.

Auto insurers – pay attention!!


Jul
26

Canaries and coal mines.

Prior authorizations – aka 1-800 NURSE MAY I – are either an absolute necessity if you are a healthplan or a complete waste of time and money and affront to the medical profession if you’re a provider.

Of course, reality is somewhere in the middle.  Regardless, in what I will argue is due mostly to payers being dumb, a new law will strip most Texas payers of the ability to unilaterally set and enforce prior auth requirements.

As of September 1, Texas healthplans won’t be able to require prior authorization for certain treatments if 90 percent of the treating doc’s medical orders for those services over the last 6 months were deemed medically necessary by the insurer. The details are yet to be released; how this gets implemented, how insurers are supposed to track compliance, how the inevitable disagreements will be dealt with and all the other devilish details are TBD.

We do know that the “gold carding” of docs (the term used to describe docs who meet the 90% threshold for a healthplan or insurer) “only applies to payers that fall under the state’s jurisdiction and are not state funded.” It appears the law – HB 3549 – applies only to:

  • HMOs,
  • Medicaid plans, and
  • PPOs and EPOs offered by health insurers.

Self-insured employers are exempt as they are regulaterd under ERISA and thus outside state jurisdiction.

I’ve long argued – and strongly suggested to consulting clients – that they stop requiring good docs to submit to prior auth requirements, instead monitoring them on the back end via smart data analysis.  The vast majority of procedures that do go thru the PA process are approved – and the process can delay treatment, costs treaters and healthplans money, and add to the general frustration with healthcare and insurers.

Docs argue that PAs are unnecessarily burdensome…but I give little credence to their arguments; if they weren’t prescribing too many opioids, doing unnecessary surgeries, requesting unneeded tests and MRIs, PAs would not be necessary.

Similarly, healthplans’ argument that “The use of prior authorization is relatively small — typically, less than 15%”[of medical care] is ludicrous – the cast majority of healthcare is routine, and 15% of all “healthcare” is a gigantic number of services/drugs/procedures/treatments.

Canaries were an early warning sign of bad air in coal mines; when they stopped singing and died, miners knew to get the heck out fast.

What does this mean for you?

This is the first of what we will see in many states, and should be a wake-up call to all payers – health, auto, workers’s comp alike.

 

 

 


Jul
7

Surprise billing in workers’ comp

President Biden’s HHS Secretary announced a major new Rule addressing surprise billing for out-of-network emergency services last week. While not yet final, the Rule – and subsequent modifications – may address a major cost area for workers’ comp.

To be clear, the current version only applies to “group health plans, group and individual health insurance issuers, carriers under the Federal Employees’ Health Benefits (FEHB) Program…”

The Rule happened because providers are bankrupting patients by charging ungodly fees for out of network services, and payers aren’t covering those fees.

Quick highlights on the Rule…

  • it goes into effect January 1, 2022
  • for health plans that cover any benefits for emergency services, the rule requires plans to cover emergency services without any prior authorization and regardless of whether a provider or facility is in-network
  • it applies to:
    • most emergency services,
    • air ambulance services from out-of-network providers, and
    • non-emergency care from out-of-network providers at certain in-network facilities, including in-network hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers.

I wrote about this issue a couple years ago..

While this has made headlines in the private insurance world, it has yet to get much attention from work comp insurers. That may be because comp payers are pretty unsophisticated about facility billing, despite claims from bill review departments/vendors to the contrary. (there’s legislation in Texas that deals with a very narrow slice of the issue; it will have almost no impact on the problem save for patients treated at a federal medical facility)

Congress has been blathering about “solving” the surprise medical bill problem all year – making as much progress as usual, that being none. That’s largely because the PE-owned medical service companies are spending tens of millions fighting legislation intended to stop surprise billing.

What’s clear is while the PE firms may win this battle, they will certainly lose the war. The surprise bill fiasco will generate huge returns over the short run, but lead to major reform as voters get madder and madder about this legal theft. The PE firms fully understand this. They are fighting to preserve their right to rip off patients as long as they can, and will keep doing so until voters rebel.

That “war” has now heated up – in a big way.

Work comp folks can jump into the fray by encouraging their state legislators to include work comp (and auto for that matter) in the list of payers covered by state surprise billing laws – About 18 states have comprehensive surprise billing laws today; many other states’ laws deal with parts of the issue.

What does this mean for you?

If work comp is included in the ban on surprise billing, good news indeed.

If not, expect even more charge-shifting to work comp patients. 


Jun
10

Risk management 101

There are two selfish reasons the US should send as many vaccines as possible to other countries.

Variants.  The more the virus reproduces, the greater the chance it produces a much deadlier and more transmissible version. Each person vaccinated lessens the chances this thing becomes more destructive and dangerous.  Reducing the virus’ ability to adapt and become more deadly is a very good thing.

Leadership. Increasing out country’s influence and “soft power” around the world makes it more likely other countries will support our goals and policies – and protect our interests. For the foreseeable future our main rival will be China; if developing countries see the US as an active partner, committed to helping them battle COVID, we will be in a stronger position than we are today.

Of course there are moral arguments as well; saving lives is always a compelling argument.

Then there’s the reality here – we have way more vaccine than we need, so the “cost” of sharing what we have is minimal.

What does this mean for you?

Risk management 101 – reducing risk is always better than dealing with the consequences.  

This is one of those times where doing the right thing has lots of benefits.

 

 


May
5

Comp’s culture of catastrophizing

At the height of the COVID crisis last year, some research organizations, brokers/consultants and “thought leaders” were gravely forecasting how awful this was going to be for workers’ comp.

Sure, we didn’t know what was going to happen, although careful and thorough research would have indicated things weren’t headed towards the “awful”.

Instead, we heard:

  • investment returns were going to suffer;
  • profits were in deep peril; and
  • workers’ comp was going to be the “go to” insurer for COVID due to presumption

These could have happened, but the data clearly indicated these outcomes were pretty unlikely.

Then there’s “social inflation”, a term describing some rather nebulous and ill-defined “drivers” which are allegedly increasing the cost of insurance claims. [There are a host of methodological problems with the research cited in the link and with this study as well]

Social inflation is being blamed for all manner of problems – jury awards (many drastically reduced on appeal), ‘increased litigation”, “broader definitions of liability, more plaintiff-friendly legal decisions.”

This from Fitch’s Robert Mazzouli, [emphasis added]

A high-profile litigation example in the U.S. is the so-called opioid crisis – drug companies have been accused of playing a harmful role in the extensive overuse of opioid medications, with the overuse blamed on both medical prescriptions and illegal sources.

Read that again.

“So-called opioid crisis?” What planet is this guy living on?

Not this one. There is overwhelming evidence against Purdue and other members of the opioid industry.

Not sure where these experts get their information, as research indicates the various “problems” attributed to social inflation are overstated or exaggerated.

What’s abundantly clear about these two issues is workers’ comp insurance people have no idea what’s really driving their business. Instead of doing the hard work to figure out how to address over-spending on claims, too many blame outside forces.

COVID and “social inflation”‘s impact on work comp is insignificant compared to opioids and facility costs.

Opioids drove up workers’ comp rates and claims and claim duration. Yet few work comp insurers have figured out how to help long-term patients reduce or eliminate opioids.

Facility costs are the fastest-growing part of medical spend, driven by:

  • the failure of some states to expand Medicaid;
  • (mostly for-profit) health systems’s amazing ability to over-charge workers’ comp payers and get away with it;
  • changes in reimbursement by Medicare;
  • reliance on PPOs to address facility costs; and
  • grossly inadequate medical bill review

What does this mean for you?

Instead of blaming external issues, work comp execs should focus on understanding medical drivers and how healthcare impacts workers comp.


Mar
8

Data ≠ Insight, Questions ≠ Answers

Data is great, but it is no substitute for seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

That’s my takeaway from a great piece in today’s Harvard Business Review – timely indeed as it comes on the heels of Friday’s post re the decline in service at many workers’ comp “service” companies.

The piece discussed a financial services firm looking to better understand what their customers actually wanted; the firm “conducted a series of client interviews structured in a way that allowed the customer to do the talking and the company to do the listening.”

Here’s a smack-to-the-head finding:

the questions they’d been asking [in previous surveys] were built on managers’ perceptions of what clients needed to answer. They weren’t constructed on what clients wanted to express. This resulted in data that didn’t reflect clients’ real requirements. The list of priorities obtained via client interviews compared to management’s assumed client priorities coincided a mere 50 percent of the time. [emphasis added]

A smart tech exec said we:

“…focus on what customers want to accomplish, not necessarily how they want to accomplish it.” [emphasis added]

That’s point one.

Which leads directly to Point Two – You cannot just do what the client says they want you to do.

The problem with most account managers, and managers of account managers, and customer service goals, and the execs that are responsible for customer happiness/retention/success is they focus on what the customer says – not what they mean.

You know way more than your customer does about your business, your abilities, the supply chain, workflows and processes, which regulations apply and which don’t. You probably know a lot more than your customers’ execs do about:

  • how their IT systems work and don’t,
  • workarounds and the impacts thereof,
  • how and why front-line workers are negatively impacted by archaic processes and management approaches,
  • how your work product is accessed and integrated into outputs, and
  • how you could simplify processes and speed things up and reduce errors.

Your job is to do that – not to do what the customer says, but to deliver what they really need – not what they say they need.

[As one who has conducted dozens of surveys over the last two decades, this will force me to re-think how we do this…]

What does this mean for you?

Asking the right questions is about identifying the problems your customers want to solve.

You – not your customer – are responsible for figuring out how to solve those problems.