2015 health care predictions

I’ve decided to split my predictions into work comp stuff (where I do most of my work) and health care stuff not directly related to work comp.  Here’s my health care predictions…

1.  Health care cost inflation will remain low.  After five years of growth at or below 4 percent, health care costs remain relatively stable at 17.4 percent of GDP.  It is possible that health care costs for 2014 will come in below that benchmark due to increasing productivity and stable health care costs.  In the interest of setting a metric, I’ll predict costs remain at 17.4% of GDP…

2.  ACA will be less of a story.  The healthcare.gov website appears to be working well – at least on the front (enrollment/consumer) end.  Work on the back end (communications with internal governmental programs and agencies, financial links, and ties to health plans) continues but seems to be proceeding apace.  We’ll base evaluation on the volume of news stories this year vs 2014.

3.  Employer take-up of health insurance will remain stable; if it drops it won’t do so by more than a percentage point. Despite the hysteria from ACA opponents claiming employers would drop insurance en masse, it hasn’t happened.  And it won’t.

4.  Expect 11 million plus enrolled via the Exchanges this year (federal and state).  Initial enrollment in late 2013 was strong in key states, and the outreach efforts are paying off.

5.  More ACOs will close down or suspend operations, while others will grow and expand. Net is we will see more lives covered via ACO-type models.  For those of us old enough to remember the halcyon days of HMOs this is hardly surprising. The number of HMOs reached 640+ in the late eighties before market forces led to consolidation via merger/acquisition, failure of some, and expansion of the successful ones into new markets.  This is how it works – a decreasing number of ACOs is not an indication that the model doesn’t work.

6.  More hospitals will close as the reduction in Medicare and private pay reimbursement hits those unable to adapt.  While there will be pain in affected local communities, this is inevitable as a sixth of our economy goes thru restructuring.  It happened in the oil industry in Pennsylvania in the 1940s, shipbuilding in the 1960s, textiles, clothing, clothing, furniture, automobiles…

7.  More doctors will work for very large multi-specialty groups and health systems.  Currently about three-fifths of physicians are employed; expect that to bump up by a couple percent.

8.  Care extenders will get more care authority.  This is going to be contentious, at times nasty, politically charged. It is also inevitable.  PTs can do a lot of things orthopods currently do; nurse practitioners are already delivering a lot of primary care, and nurse midwives are increasing their scope of practice in many areas.

9.  Specialty drugs will continue their meteoric rise in cost and prevalence.  I know, an easy one, but absolutely worthy of note as they will become an even larger portion of medical spend, forcing payers and policymakers to make some very hard decisions about coverage.

10.  Ebola will disappear from American mass media.  If it’s not here, we don’t care, and it won’t be here. Yet another example of the American public and American media’s obsession with really bad things only when they directly affect us.


Predictions for work comp in 2015

Once again I’ll head out on a limb with saw firmly in hand…

1.  Aetna will NOT be able to sell the Coventry work comp services division.  I’ll double down on last year’s prediction: even if the giant health plan wants to dump work comp, the network – which is where all the profit is – isn’t sellable.  The rest of the operation isn’t worth much; the bill review business continues to deteriorate (and CWCS is looking for a replacement BR application) , competitors are picking off key staff, and customers continue to switch out services and network states.

2.  Work comp premiums will grow nicely, driven by continued improvement in employment and gradually increasing wages coupled with increases in premium rates in key states (we’re talking about you, California).

3.  Additional research will be published showing just how costly, ill-advised, and expensive physician dispensing of drugs to workers’ comp patients is. Following on the excellent work done by CWCI and Accident Fund/Johns Hopkins, we can expect to learn more about the damage done to patients, employers, insurers, and taxpayers by docs looking to Hoover dollars out of employers’ pocketbooks.

4.  Expect more mergers and acquisitions; there will be several $250 million+ transactions in the work comp services space, with more deals won by private equity firms.  Of late, most transactions have been “strategics” where one company buys another; the financials of these have been such that private equity firms couldn’t match the prices paid.

I’d expect that will change somewhat in 2015 as  “platform” companies come on the market.

5.  A bill renewing TRIA will be passed; the new GOP majorities want to show they can “govern” and this has bipartisan support.

6.  Liberty Mutual will continue to de-emphasize workers’ comp. The company’s continued focus on personal lines and property and liability coverage stands in stark contrast to the changes in work comp.  The sale of Summit, management shifts, and the financial structuring of legacy work comp claims portend more change to come. Recent financial results show the wisdom of this strategy…

7.  After a pretty busy 2014, regulators will be even more active on the medical management front.  Work comp regulators in several more states will adopt drug formularies and/or allow payers/PBMs to more tightly restrict the use of Scheduled drugs via evidence-based medical guidelines and utilization review.  While the former is easy, the latter is better, as it enables payers and PBMs to more precisely focus their clinical management on the individual patient.

Expect more restrictions on physician dispensing and compounding, increased adoption of medical guidelines and UR, along with incremental changes in several key states (California we hope) to “fix” past reform efforts.

8. There will be at least two new work comp medical management companies with significant mindshare by the end of 2015. These firms, pretty much unknown today, are going to be broadly known amongst decision-makers within the year.  While they will not generate much revenue this year, they will be attracting a lot of attention.

9. Outcomes-based networks will continue to produce much heat and little real activity.  After predicting for years that small, expert-physician networks will gain significant share, I’m throwing in the virtual towel. There’s just too much money being made by managed care firms, insurers, and TPAs on today’s percentage-of-savings, huge generalist network/bill review business model.  Yes, there will be press releases and articles and speeches; No, there won’t be more than a very few real implementations.

10.  Medical marijuana will be a non-event.  Amidst all the discussion of medical marijuana among workers’ comp professionals, there’s very few (as in no) documented instances of prescribing/dispensing of marijuana for comp claimants. Yes, there will likely be a few breathless reports about specific claims, but just a few.  And yes, there may also be a few instances of individuals under the influence of medical marijuana incurring work comp claims, but these will be few indeed.

There you have it – here’s hoping I’m more prescient this year than I was last.




The California comp world has lost a great one.

Anne Searcy MD passed away recently.

Dr Searcy had held various key roles in California’s work comp system; Medical Director, practitioner, regulator, program administrator.

By all accounts, Dr Searcy was a terrific physician, committed to the care of her patients she treated and the ones she touched in her myriad roles.  A close friend described her as a “wonderful woman, a real giant and decent person.  Definitely one of the good ones.”

A presentation she gave back in 2011 provides a bit of insight into her approach to medical care for workers’ comp claimants, one that is measured, careful, and focused on quality of care.

I never had the opportunity to get to know Dr Searcy outside of a couple of brief encounters.  My loss.

Her passing reminds us all that there are many people striving every day to do the right thing for the right reasons. They aren’t looking to make millions on the back of the work comp system selling too many drugs or doing too many surgeries; over-charging for services or undercounting employees.  They just figure out what needs to be done and go about doing it.

2014′s predictions; how’d I do?

Before jumping into my predictions for 2015, I thought it would be helpful to review my previous prognostications.  Here’s how I did, color-coded for your grading ease:

1. Overall, the work comp insurance market will be steady. 

Yep; rates were up just slightly, coverage availability is fine, and there are no crises.  Then again, this wasn’t a very risky “prediction”.

2.  More consolidation in the TPA market is on the horizon.

True againYork acquired Bickmore, American Claims Services, MCMC and CareWorks. Sedgwick bought Absentys and VeriClaim. However, GB, Broadspire, ACE stood pat.

What’s notable about these transactions is most do NOT involve buying another TPA, but rather complementary services.  Non-core services may be more profitable and offer more growth potential over the near term…

3.  Medical trend – on a paid, not incurred basis – will increase by at least a couple of points.

Trend on an incurred accident year basis was up 3 points; this is not paid as I’m having a heckuva time finding paid data.  Anyone?  Till then, I’ll leave this as a TBD.

4.  Deal activity for mid-sized to large transactions in the work comp services sector will taper off.

Well...not correct.  Xerox-ISG, PMSI-Progressive Medical, APAX-Genex, Onex’ purchase of York, Hellman Friedman’s sale of Sedgwick to KKR…

5.  At least one – and likely more - insurers will discover the real impact of opioids on their claims costs, and the impact will affect their reserves, rating, and/or financial stability.

If they did, they haven’t published it, so that’s a no.

6. Aetna will not sell its work comp business.

True.  And I don’t think it will.

7.  Someone is going to buy Stratacare.

True again.  I thought it might be Mitchell, but KKR was the winning bidder.

8.  Frequency will level off – somewhat.

This is a “no” as well – lost time claim frequency declined slightly – by about 2 points according to NCCI.

9.  Guidelines are going to get a lot more attention – and more regulatory support.

Most certainly - and most welcome. A quick scan identified new or updated guidelines in multiple states: opioid guidelines from Oregon and California; various treatments and body parts addressed by Colorado; non-acute pain in NY; scheduled drugs in OK; chronic pain, TBI, and CPRS in Montana and I’m sure there are lots more.

10.  The train wreck that is senior management at the North Dakota State Fund will continue to demonstrate the perils of politically-driven leadership.

Alas, yes.  With the resignation of well-regarded Medical Director Dr. Luis Vilella this summer after too much meddling by his nominal superiors, the ongoing leadership deficit has damaged the state fund’s IT, management, and now medical functions.

So, six correct, three wrong, and one TBD.


Pharmacy Management in Worker’s Comp – 11th annual survey

Is up and available for your downloading pleasure here.

Among the highlights are the following…

  • drug spend for the 25 respondents declined year-over-year, marking the fourth year of flat or decreasing spend
  • despite that good news, payers remain more concerned about drug costs than other medical cost areas
  • opioids and related issues again dominated the conversation (the survey was telephonic and took about 20 minutes) with respondents noting issues related to addiction, drug testing, fraud/waste/abuse/diversion, cost, delayed recovery and increased indemnity expense as concerns
  • compound drugs were identified as the biggest emerging issue
  • respondents also noted that regulations and legislation have not kept pace with developments in work comp pharma such as the growth of physician dispensing

The report contains a host of statistics, data, and insights from the respondents, along with perspective gained from doing the survey for over a decade.

Happy reading!

Monday morning catch-up

After eight days away, time to catch up on the goings on.  Lots happened, beginning with the non-renewal of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, aka TRIA.  Mark Walls’ solid summary of the non-event that is a big event is here; Peter Rousmaniere penned a piece in WorkCompWire on the issue as well.

Peter sees this as a non-event for all but the top layer of insurance execs, noting the researchers haven’t figured out what terrorism-related risks the work comp industry faces, what they’d potentially cost, and what the implications might be.

Here’s my quick take.

First, TRIA may not pass any time soon. The new Congress is more conservative than this one, and the strong anti-government involvement lobby in the current Congress had already significantly diluted TRIA before one of their members killed renewal hopes with a “hold” on the bill. Many members want to keep the gubmint out of private industry, however a RAND study indicates that in the event of an incident, non-renewal would cost taxpayers far more than renewal.

Second, this is a much bigger issue for other Property and Casualty lines than it is for workers’ comp. As Mark notes; “workers’ compensation is statutory, and carriers cannot exclude for cause, there cannot be terrorism risk exclusions on a workers’ compensation policy.”   Highly concentrated employee populations in highly visible locations (think Manhattan) are the most obvious risk; While carriers may not choose to write work comp in these areas, there’s always going to be a “carrier of last resort” that is obligated to provide coverage. 

That said, it isn’t quite that simple.  Big self-insured employers with excess loss policies may well find themselves without coverage for terrorism-related claims – however, they’ve known for almost a year that non-renewal was a possibility, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

This is one of those “you don’t know what will happen until it does” things.  While TRIA was in place, it had never been used so no one knows what conditions would have been covered (think PTSD). Relatedness and causation issues would have been rather complex, and coverage questions would have made the wind v water issues seen in flood insurance seem simple and straightforward.

What does the TRIA non-renewal mean for you?

Likely not much, unless you work for a large self-insured employer with big concentrations in NYC, LA, SF, Chicago, Atlanta and a very few other locations.

Health reform roll out

2015 enrollment projections from Avalere Health are around 10.5 million; initial enrollment for January 1 was running somewhat ahead of projections.  Notably, the federal health exchange website appears to be working well with minimal disruptions this time around. No news = definitely good news for the Administration.

There’s a useful graphic courtesy of the Kaiser Family Foundation detailing changes in coverage, cost, and cost-sharing over the last decade. It appears that – at least for now – the concerns over employers dropping coverage have not been borne out as less than 1% of employers are likely to drop coverage next year.  This is somewhat less than we saw in the “pre-PPACA” days.

CWCI released an excellent study of changes in inpatient hospital utilization between 2008 and last year; overall work comp usage was down by double digits, paralleling group health experience. Another data point – spinal implant usage was down significantly after SB 863, indicating the reform legislation may have had an effect on physician behavior. Hat tip to WorkCompWire for the news…

And speaking of over usage of spinal implants, news this am from WorkCompCentral that the good folk at the California State Fund are considering going after several dozen docs for possible involvement in the alleged Drobot kickback scheme. The WCC piece, authored by Greg Jones, provides an exhaustive view into various alleged schemes covering physician dispensing of drugs, kickbacks for patient referral, and other profit-generating business relationships.  It’s rather chilling reading.


Pre-Vacation catch up

Leaving tomorrow for eight days away, so today’s a quick catch-up.

First up, the news that there’s been a dramatic increase in investor interest in addiction rehab. The market for services will increase to $35 billion this year, up more than 50% over the last decade.

In a deal emblematic of the industry transition, Acadia will buy Bain Capital’s CRC Health for $1.2 billion; Bain purchased Acadia for $723 million eight years ago.

For those of us tracking the issue of addiction, the explosion in heroin use driven in large part by prescription drugs, and the damage caused to individuals, family, employers, and society, the hope is these entrepreneurs figure out a better/faster/more effective way to attack opioid addiction.  But, to paraphrase friend and colleague David Deitz, MD, those who expect to make huge profits from taking on this very difficult problem may be sorely disappointed.

Kudos to IAIABC for their effort to educate workers’ comp regulators; they will be launching a series of ten programs taught by subject matter experts to help regulators get up to speed on key issues related to work comp.

Data, research, and information

The latest research from California indicates the variation in surgery rates around the Golden State is rather dramatic.  For example, Orange County had twice as many lumbar fusions as San Mateo…and in hospital service regions, Coalinga’s rate among the <65 population was 3.5 times higher than Delano’s…

WCRI’s recently-released report examining Ambulatory Surgery Center costs and comparing same to hospitals should be required reading for managed care execs and regulators alike. Spoiler alert – ASC costs in many states are lower, due in large part to lower fee schedules

My vacation reading will include the just-released Dartmouth Atlas report on variations in treatment of prostate cancer.  (link opens pdf)  Why, you ask? Simple – there’s huge variation in treatment for prostate conditions, much of which is driven not by science or an active, involved patient – but rather by local practice patterns.  I began tracking this issue twenty years ago and hope the Atlas indicates things are getting better…

Now, back to finishing up work so I can relax unencumbered by the quest for filthy lucre!

Work comp in 2015 – predictions from around the web

Before I make my annual predictions for the coming year, I decided to find out what other experts are saying and what external factors may drive the industry.  Here’s a quick summary.

Overall, combined ratios are looking good, premiums will increase due to relatively stable pricing, rising wages, and rising employment.

Next up, my take on what else will happen next year.

PPACA – another perspective

Let’s stipulate that the US health care “system” was and is a mess.  Our costs are about twice as high as other industrialized countries’, outcomes are not as good, and for consumers and purchasers, it is confusing as hell.

The question is, is PPACA making it better?

There’s no question the PPACA has a lot of flaws, several of which are being used for a series of legal challenges.  There’s a reason for that; PPACA wasn’t supposed to be the be-all and end-all bill.

The legislation that was eventually passed originated in the House, and it was only passed “as is” because Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate election and his seating forced passage of the House bill by the Senate.  (Brown’s election gave the GOP 41 seats, allowing for a filibuster)

I won’t get deeper into the political history of PPACA passage; wikipedia has a very good synopsis for those interested in more history. The net is, PPACA is here.  It is not going away.  And there are no alternatives out there that make any sense and/or have any chance of passage and adoption.

So PPACA has a lot of warts – so does pretty much every Congressional legislation.  We may not like it, it may drive us nuts, but it’s reality. Our legislative process is sausage-making at its finest. Or worst, depending on your perspective.

Pre-PPACA, our health care “system” was hurting our international competitiveness, driving up the Federal deficit and state and local expenditures, covering fewer and fewer people, and delivering lousy care to a large part of the US population.  Now, several years into passage, we’re starting to see indicators PPACA is having the desired effect.

Medical inflation remains relatively low.  I, and others, would argue that is in large part because of the systemic changes driven by PPACA.

Some factoids:

  • last year health care spending grew 3.6% – the lowest rate since 1960.
  • over the last four years, health care inflation has tracked GDP growth – compared to prior years when it was consistently higher than the GDP growth rate.
  • the system is getting better – serious medical errors declined by 17% between 2010 and 2013 – saving about $12 billion.
  • Medicare inflation is flat.  In fact, CBO projections for Medicare expenditures in 2019 have dropped by $95 billion over the last four years. As Medicare utilization isn’t really affected by the economy, that’s a pretty solid indicator that the program is more sustainable than we thought just a few years ago.
  • Medicaid costs are up – as we’d expect them to be.

Overall, things are improving, rather dramatically - but not without pain.  Narrow networks, lower earnings for some doctors, higher insurance costs for some employers and consumers, a financial squeeze for many hospitals, all are real and painful.

What does this mean for you?

Fixing very big problems is ugly, thankless, and rife with collateral damage.  It’s also absolutely necessary.


York’s acquisition of MCMC is done

There won’t be an official announcement, but word will go out to employees tomorrow – the long-pending York-MCMC deal is done.

I spoke at length with a (very) senior York executive earlier today; this person did not want his/her name used, not to maintain confidentiality, but to keep the focus where the company wants it to be – on MCMC and Wellcomp and management of those organizations.

MCMC will remain intact, as will Wellcomp, York’s medical management subsidiary.  Mike Lindberg will continue to run MCMC and Doug Markham stays in the top spot at Wellcomp with no changes to management or operations at either organization.  Unlike other “business as usual” pronouncements we’ve read of late (TechHealth, Genex among them), I take this at face value.  The parent company is looking to enhance MCMC’s offerings with services provided by Wellcomp and vice versa, the idea being prospects and customers can get a broader array of services from the overall entity.

From an organizational standpoint, both MCMC and Wellcomp will report up to the overall holding company.

One concern I’ve heard is that York will pull MCMC back from some of their carrier/TPA relationships, this will NOT happen.  First, it makes no sense financially; a lot of MCMC’s revenue comes from other payers.  Second, York currently provides claims and other services to lots of insurance carriers and other payers; MCMC’s diverse client portfolio sort of mimics York’s.

What does this mean for you?

Back to the lede – no official announcement is coming because York and MCMC don’t want to raise concerns about potential changes.  That’s also one of the main reasons they didn’t hurry to get it done so it could be announced in Las Vegas; it isn’t about creating a PR buzz, it’s about stability.

From what I hear from people I trust, there shouldn’t be concerns.