Insight, analysis & opinion from Joe Paduda

Jan
26

CMS just reported US healthcare spending topped $4.3 trillion in 2021…almost $13,000 per person.

Meanwhile work comp medical spend for 2021 was likely around $32.5 billion…or 0.74% of US healthcare spend.

Government accounts for about 2/3 of total spend, among private employers Amazon has more health plan participants than any other company…

chart courtesy Mark Farrah and Associates

Old friends and colleagues Adam Fowler and Kevin Tribout’s latest edition of the Policy Guys podcast is up here. Honored to be part of the pod, especially with such distinguished hosts!

Off to Baton Rouge to get together with my friends at LWCC – looking forward to great food and better people.

 

 


Jan
25

Wildly off-topic #13 – Tanks.

Last time we talked about weapons…how many each side had, what’s been lost, and the challenges in replacing those weapons.

Today’s newsfeed arrived with the VERY welcome news that Germany has OK’ed supplying Leopard 2 tanks, and we will be sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine. The UK had committed to send 14 of its Challenger II tanks to Ukraine… Note that countries that use Leopard 2s have to get permission from Germany before sending them to Ukraine; with this latest announcement sources indicate Ukraine will get at least 100 Leopard 2s.

This will supply roughly one brigade – and is about 1/3 of what Ukraines’ leaders say they need.

These are “main battle tanks” [MBTs], a term describing very heavy, very well armored vehicles with very powerful cannons. Unlike the other armored vehicles already sent to or on the way to Ukraine, MBTs are much more likely to survive an IED, land mine, rocket or artillery attack.

Highlights…

  • Leopard 2 tanks are very capable; well armored and with a very powerful cannon, highly mobile, durable and simpler to maintain than the US Abrams tank
  • there are thousands of them in more than 19 armies

  • The US Abrams is equally if not more capable, BUT…
    • guzzles fuel (although it can use jet fuel, gasoline, or diesel)
    • requires a lot more maintenance
    • is really heavy and thus harder to transport

Timing

These will not be there tomorrow…however I’d bet NATO countries will be sending tanks from their current units rather than pulling mothballed older versions and going through what could be a long and difficult process of upgrading them and preparing them for battle.

Then there’s spare parts, fuel, ammunition, training, repair and maintenance  personnel and facilities and transport. These are massive, very complex vehicles that require a lot of care and feeding.

Experts contend that Ukraine’s Army has shown itself quite able to learn complicated weapons systems quickly; it’s use of the HIMARS rocket system, artillery, and anti-ship missiles has been pretty impressive.

What does this mean?

This is a major move, one that will definitely improve Ukraine’s chances of retaking territory. 

That said, like any tool, it comes down to how well it is used. 


Jan
23

Hospital profit margins – a bipolar mess

For profit hospitals have very solid operating margins.

Some Not for profits are really struggling…others are doing just fine thank you.

credit FierceHealthcare.

That’s the headline – the question is…why? and what does this mean?

First, a little more explanation…

From the Kaiser Family Foundation’s report

So far this year [2022], operating margins among the three largest for-profit health systems in the country have met or exceeded pre-pandemic levels. HCA and Tenet in particular have had high operating margins.

the largest for-profit systems have had operating margins that exceed pre-pandemic levels. [emphasis added]

Also, most hospitals and systems saw declines in investment income; as this falls outside their core business, we are focusing on operating income which excludes investment and other categories.

Why?

It appears that the more profitable hospitals/healthcare systems:

  • saw surgical and other profitable service line volumes return to or exceed pre-pandemic levels
  • better controlled staffing costs; contract staffing costs (traveling nurses and other clinicians) were a major factor for several not-for-profit hospitals
  • benefitted from non-healthcare operations (insurance for UPMC) and financial gains from mergers (e.g. Intermountain Health)
  • increased prices for commercially-insured patients (this is an assumption although there’s this…)

The merger thing continues to be a major influence, with $45 billion in transactions in 2022 across 53 deals… again the results aren’t consistent as some systems really benefited while others did not.

Meanwhile, the American Hospital Association continues to call for higher reimbursement and other federal intervention to help hospitals financials.

For my workers’ comp readers…

Look at the costs of providing care at an HCA hospital vs some of the not-for-profit hospitals in your service areas. You will very likely find HCA’s costs are several times higher than not-for-profits’. 

Oh, and they are waaaay higher in Florida

More on this here.

What does this mean for you?

Don’t use HCA or Tenet facilities. 


Jan
18

Why hospital costs are going up

Because they can.

Healthcare  – and more specifically facility-based healthcare – is a very mature industry and – with one huge exception – exhibits all the hallmarks of such…continued widespread consolidation, shuttering of marginal locations and elimination of unprofitable business lines and centralization of core services.

The “huge exception” is margin compression and price reduction. When any other sector matures, competition becomes fierce and prices come down.

Not so in healthcare, where pricing is opaque at best, and more often opportunistic if not downright predatory.

Over the last 70 years, the percentage of hospitals in health systems has grown by a factor of ten. Unusual indeed is the standalone facility.

That decades-long trend continued in the 2010s, although the pace slackened somewhat as there were fewer hospitals to acquire.

The net is this – most healthcare markets are pretty consolidated, which means one or two systems have pricing power.

Those systems use that power to force ever-higher reimbursement from commercial payers – and workers’ comp.

What does this mean for you?

Facility costs are going up.

 


Jan
10

Workers’ comp 2023 – what does the year hold – part 2

Yesterday the annual crawling-out-on-a-limb began, today it concludes with 5 more predictions for workers’ comp in 2023.

6. The growing impact of global warming will force changes in risk assessment, management and mitigation; technology adoption; and claims.
The predicted (heat injuries, wildfires, hurricane intensity, sea level rise) and unforeseen (atmospheric river-driven flooding, landslides, and destruction and others) changes in climate and weather will lead to more and different injuries and illnesses, higher risks for fire fighters and public safety workers, and unpredictable problems related to polluted storm water runoff, water-borne disease and perhaps invasive species.
Expect revisions to both federal and state OSHA regulations especially around heat and outside workers along with calls for better planning to prepare for severe weather events.

7. Payers and perhaps regulators will make significant efforts to address rising facility costs.
As for-profit healthcare systems look to pad record profits and not-for-profits seek to survive, payers will be looking for better cost control answers than simply doing more of the same stuff they’ve been doing for the last two decades. Network discounts (NOT THE SAME AS SAVINGS) are declining as facilities wise up to most payers’ lackadaisical/ineffective attempts at employee direction and unsophisticated contracting strategies.
Smarter payers will deploy multiple payment integrity layers  – both pre- and post-payment. All should demand more – much more – from their bill review vendors/technology suppliers, all of whom have long refused to entertain the thought that they could do better – much better.

8. Premiums will increase – mostly late in the year.
As infrastructure, green energy, re-shoring of chip manufacturing and EV incentives ramp up in the fall so will employment. While there’s disagreement among economists (yeah, who woulda thought??) expect big hiring in categories from archeologists and bridge builders to wireless broadband construction workers.  Manufacturing, heavy construction, trades, logistics will all be hiring…as these tend to be higher frequency (more claims than average) and higher severity (claims are more severe and costly) this means higher premiums and more claims.

Good news indeed for my friends in Cincinnati!

Oh, and mark me down for one who does not see a significant recession in our near future.  I know, I’m no economist (who disagree a lot about this) but hiring is too strong, these major investments are on the horizon, and inflation is coming under control  – all indications that a “soft landing” is more likely than not.

9. SB1127 – aka the CAFE Act (California Attorney Full Employment Act) will cause heartburn and consternation among Golden State employers and tax payers.
SB1127 shortens the time period for employers to determine the compensability of claims, a change which will lead to – among other problems – more initial denials and less time for injured workers to receive medical care while their employer researches the claim. Further, AB1127 appears to allow for penalties of up to $50,000 for claims that are “unreasonably rejected” by the employer – but the bill a) doesn’t define what constitutes an “unreasonable rejection” and b) doesn’t exclude claims that are already closed.

Expect attorneys to look for the Golden Ticket case – one that they think will establish precedence – and pursue it like a starving person at a Vegas buffet (or Cafe’).

There’s good news too…I don’t see much else on the regulatory horizon that is cause for concern.

10. More consolidation among payers and service providers.

Despite a major drop-off in financial investors’ interest in work comp, we’ll see  more consolidation as “strategics” aka TPAs and service providers acquire smaller TPAs and service providers. This is classic mature industry…scale is key, significant growth will mostly be driven by acquiring competitors or companies in complementary or related service and margins are in peril.

The bad news is 2023 prices will likely be a good deal less than in the recent past. Fewer potential buyers, less interest from PE firms, and a growing recognition that workers comp is a declining business (what took these people so long to see this?!) are all contributors.

What does this mean for you?

Prepare for climate change and more employment in higher frequency and severity sectors, and make your bill review company get its act together.


Jan
9

Workers’ comp 2023 – what does the year hold?

Its that time again, when I throw caution (and good sense) to the wind, polish up the crystal ball and guess reveal what big things will happen in worker’s comp this year.

Off the diving board, and hope there’s water in the pool…

  1.  The soft market continues…
    And it won’t harden in 2023. Medical costs remain very much under control (with  an exception), rates continue to drop, employment remains very strong (essential for return-to-work) and there’s lots of payers fighting for market share.
  2. Medical spend is NOT a problem – and will NOT be in 2023.
    With a couple notable exceptions – to be covered in a future post – medical inflation will remain under control. In part this is driven by much lower drug spend and more specifically the continued decline in opioid spend. The latter has a big impact on claim closure and total medical spend.
  3. Behavioral health and its various iterations will gain a lot of traction.
    More State Funds, carriers and TPAs will adopt BH programs, more patients will benefit, and more dollars will be spent. There’s a growing recognition that medical issues aren’t hindering “recovery” near as much as psycho-social ones. This is great/wonderful/long-needed and will really benefit patients and payers alike. Kudos to early adopters, and LETS GO to you laggards!
  4. One Call will be sold. 
    I keep forecasting this…and one day I’ll be right.  It has to be this year. CEO Jay Krueger and colleagues have OCCM on a better track, but structural problems (i.e. declining claim volume) and internalization of One Call-type services by Sedgwick and others make the future…less than promising. Couple that with recent ratings actions by Moody’s and S&P and it’s time to do the deal.
  5. New technology will make its impact felt.
    Wearables, chatbots (I HATE THEM), and Virtual Reality-driven care are three ways tech platforms/systems/things will significantly ramp up in ’23. Expect several large/mid-tier payers to adopt new tech in a major way – aka not just a small pilot.
    Structural issues with health care (try to find a LCSW or Psych-trained counselor), lack of trained adjusters, and frustration with rising rehab expenses are all contributors.  

Later this week – the other 5 predictions.


Jan
5

2022 Predictions for workers’ comp – How’d I do part 2

Yesterday we dug into my prescience – or lack thereof – as laid out in my first 5 predictions about workers’ comp in 2022.

Today, it’s the second 5.

6. With one or two exceptions, don’t expect much in the way of private equity investments.

There may be one or two large transactions, and a couple small ones, but outside of that, the bloom on the workers’ comp rose appears to be fading.

Verdict – True.

Enlyte’s sale didn’t happen; sources indicate the price offered didn’t hit the level its owners needed for the big bonuses to kick in. Not good for the employees with options…

Other efforts – MTI America and Medata among them – also didn’t result in sales, while TRISTAR bought Risico and Carisk acquired Advanced Claim Review Specialists – both deals make a lot of sense strategically. There were a few other, smaller transactions, but nothing like what we saw 5+years back.

Oh, and the deals that did happen were NOT PE firm acquisitions, rather strategic investments by other companies in the space.

Adding to that is the reduction in the number of firms interested in workers’ comp services…unlike the halcyon days a few years ago, there are far fewer PE firms focusing on work comp.

7. OneCall will be sold and/or split up. 

The BlackRock and KKR entities that are the current owners are not operators; they are debt owners. CEO Tom Warsop has squeezed out all the squeezable costs – and then some. Growth – defined as new business from new customers – is not happening. Add the overall drag on work comp services from the still-real drop-off in claims and claims services, and the reasons to hold on and hope are few indeed.

Plus, if interest rates increase – which is a distinct possibility – and if private equity interest in workers’ comp continues to diminish from it’s current modest level – also a distinct possibility – OCCM’s owners may well decide to sell soon rather than watch values decline.

Verdict – Nope. OCCM continues to soldier on, although Sedgwick’s move to internalize those services and the continued structural decline in claims frequency make the future uncertain at best.

8. COVID’s impact on costs and rates will prove to be minimal.

COVID claims are cheap, few are anywhere close to catastrophic cost levels, the effect of presumption laws and regulations is not much of an effect at all, and many employers – especially health systems – are forcing employees to use PTO rather than file for WC when they test positive/have symptoms.

Most research organizations and actuaries would do well to reflect how their early predictions were so…bad.

Helpful hint – two places to start; a) the tendency for WC “experts” to catastrophize and b) the almost-complete lack of understanding of healthcare drivers, costs, cost structures, reimbursement, and epidemiology.

Verdict – True.

All the credible research indicates COVID hasn’t been expensive – if anything claims are less costly than non-COVID claims.

9. There will be no big issues in workers’ comp. “Big” defined as important, needle-moving, disruptive, revolutionary.

No, medical marijuana is NOT a big issue – neither is COVID, or presumption, or the mid-term elections (there is ZERO interest in workers’ comp on the federal level) or remote work (does anyone seriously believe office workers tripping over toys will amount to any real dollars?)

Oh, and with rates at all time lows, frequency continuing to drop, and medical costs (with the exception of physical therapy and facilities) flat, coupled with ongoing supply chain and labor market issues, execs at big employers are (justifiably) completely uninterested in workers’ comp.

If the big girls and boys don’t see any issues, there aren’t any.

Verdict – True.

While some pundits/erstwhile “experts” would have you think medical marijuana, COVID, employment, or other issues even more tangential are going to be big issues, reality is there are no big issues in workers comp – save the decades-long drop in claims frequency.

10. Here’s the kicker – the biggest long-term concern for workers’ comp is global warming...yet this is getting zero attention.

There’s going to be an inevitable increase in issues related to heat, flooding, fires, drought, tornados and hurricanes. This is getting more real every day yet remains all-but-ignored by pundits, policy-makers  and rate-makers.  We can expect more heat-related claims. Hurricanes, fires, and tornados will increase in number and severity; affecting logistics, labor, construction, and claims. The research is clear.

Verdict – True.

Yep this is going to be a controversial finding, especially among the human-driven climate change deniers (and other flat-earthers).

Storms are getting more severe, heat-associated “injuries” increasing, and other major weather events (tornadoes, massive blizzards, deep cold snaps) are happening more often and with more intensity.

The verdict.

I got 8 correct, one flat-out wrong, and one is TBD.  


Jan
4

2022 Predictions for workers’ comp – How’d I do?

Proving I never learn, we return to score how I did on my 2022 predictions for workers’ comp…

a sneak peek inside Health Strategy Associates’ intergalactic HQ as the analytical team finalizes its prediction algorithm

today we’ll look at the first 5.

  1. Prediction – The soft market will continue.
    Carriers are still over-reserved, rates are still too high (see the opioid hangover), capital is still flowing into workers comp (gotta love that looooong tail), and employment growth may continue to be modest (low wage workers have discovered that working at crappy jobs isn’t always a have-to, especially when child care is unavailable and unaffordable).
    On the other side, wage growth will likely continue (thus partially mitigating the above drivers) as more employers finally figure out that people aren’t interested in crappy jobs for crappy wages.
    Caveat – towards the end of 2022 we may well see a bit of tightening as construction, infrastructure, green energy and other initiatives start up and get operational.
    Verdict – True. The most recent reporting from NCCI has the combined ratio at 87.2% – a clear indication that rates remain too high, and it’s a sure bet reserves are as well. The same report says “NCCI expects premium to decrease in 2022 by 7.5%, on average…”
    That, dear reader, is proof positive the soft market continued…
  2. TPAs will add more business, mostly from carriers.
    As work comp continues to shrink, insurers will ramp up efforts to shed assets and expenses to reduce their cost structure. By outsourcing claims, carriers are trading the high fixed costs of a claims infrastructure for the variable cost of a per-claim admin fee.
    The smarter carriers will negotiate hard so they don’t get screwed by medical management and other non-fixed fees…but many carriers aren’t that smart.
    Verdict – True.
     Gallagher Bassett is now handling the vast majority if not all of AIG’s WC claims. Other TPAs – Tristar, Broadspire and Sedgwick among them – added carrier business as well.
  3. Insurers will reduce staff, particularly in claims.
    Well, of course. see #2 above. However, TPAs will look to add claims staff, so experienced, well-trained claims folks will be highly sought-after.
    Verdict – True
    . AGI slashed staff – but GB hired many.
  4. IF total medical costs go up – and I doubt they will  – the increase will be marginal.
    Yeah, I know there’s lots of press and punditry about work comp medical costs aka “severity” increasing – and most of it is flat out wrong.
    Verdict – no conclusive data available yet.
     It’s too early to tell.
  5. That said, facility and therapy costs will go up.
    Mostly because a) Medicare is increasing reimbursement for therapy which trickles down to work comp fee schedules, and b) some healthcare systems and for-profit entities (looking at you, HCA, especially in Florida) have figured out how to bust open the work comp piggy bank.
    Verdict – True
    anecdotal reports of higher facility costs abound, as does news of higher costs for physical medicine (PT, OT, and chiro). I will come back to this after NCCI’s annual meeting in May to finalize the verdict.

Tomorrow – the other half.


Jan
3

Today’s the latest in a three-part update on Russia’s war on Ukraine – we covered military manpower and the motivation to fight before the holidays, today we finish with (a very brief) discussion of losses and supplies of materiel and ammunition, and the overall supply (logistics) situation.

Weapons

According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, Russia has lost over 2000 artillery systems, 4700 trucks and fuel tanks, 550 planes and helicopters, 3000 tanks and over 6000 armored trucks to date. I’m skeptical; opponents’ claims re the casualties and destroyed materiel and machines suffered by the other side are usually pretty – if not downright wildly – optimistic.

I’d suggest the UK’s figures are more accurate:

4,500 armored vehicles, 63 fixed-wing aircraft, 70 helicopters, 150 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), 12 naval vessels, and over 600 artillery systems.

And yet another source which seems to have pretty specific data…and is summed up neatly in this piece.

The latest analysis shows that in the ongoing war in Ukraine, total Russian equipment losses reach 8,515 as of 21 December. In contrast, Ukraine’s military has lost 2,613 pieces of equipment in combat.

Russia had far more materiel at the outset, but is having a very difficult time replacing losses of their more modern equipment and vehicles.

From Army Technology – Ukraine has received:

the Patriot air defence missile system is on the way – this will help combat Russia’s assault on civilian infrastructure

US has provided or promised to provide more than 11,000 military platforms for the land, sea, and air domains (crewed and uncrewed) and more than 105 million small arms, mortar, and artillery munitions, among an undisclosed number of other high-end missiles.

Platforms provided include Mi-17 helicopters and T-72 tanks, and western equipment such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, 155mm, 122mm, and 105mm artillery, and armoured mobility vehicles such as the M113, M1117, and Mine Resistant Protected Vehicles, also known as MRAPs.

While Russia is getting drones, some armored vehicles and tanks and ammunition from a few allies/suppliers, it doesn’t have near the supply chain enjoyed by Ukraine. The NATO equipment is more modern, more lethal, and harder to locate and destroy than much of the equipment Russia is now using as replacements for lost equipment.

US Javelin rocket – used against armored vehicles

HOWEVER, a rule of thumb is about a third of equipment is out of action at any one time due to maintenance, repair, upgrade, or training.

AND, there are reports that NATO and US supplies of some munitions and equipment are running low, and replacement/restocking will take time. A very detailed study is here.

Logistics

I wrote a pretty detailed post 10 months ago about logistics, which is simply getting enough supplies to the units that need them – when they need them. Simple enough in concept  – incredibly hard in practice, and while one could certainly think planning is everything, history suggests that pre-war plans are usually based on the wrong assumptions.

Here are key takeaways…

  • Russia’s incredibly corrupt government has enriched a handful of oligarchs. These gazillionaires got huge contracts to supply tires, medical kits, rations, clothing, winter gear and spare parts; build military bases; fabricate tanks, airplanes, helicopters, rockets, ammunition, armored vehicles, airplanes, trucks and artillery; and spent most of those rubles on huge yachts, estates in Switzerland, supercars, Caribbean resorts, designer baubles and personal security staff. As a result, the military is short of pretty much everything, which is why…
  • Russia is running out of ammunition.  Reports indicate it may need to use artillery shells that are years past their use-by dates. turning to Iran and North Korea for ammunition, drones, and other materiel.
    This from Military.com

    • Degraded ammunition can injure or kill troops who fire it. “You load the ammunition and you cross your fingers and hope it’s going to fire, or when it lands that it’s going to explode,” the official said.

(a very good discussion of this is Martin van Creveld’s SUPPLYING WAR)

What does this mean?

Ukraine is winning. That does NOT mean it has – or will – win.

That depends on continued support from NATO and all of us. 


Dec
22

Wildly off-topic #11 – the Will to Fight

Last night, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to both Houses of Congress, both parties, and all of us.  He spoke eloquently and passionately, describing the suffering of his people and their total commitment to defeating Russia and reclaiming all Ukrainian lands stolen by Putin.

What Zelenskyy knows – and I mean KNOWS – is the more Putin bombs Ukrainians, the stronger those Ukrainians become, and the more committed they are to seeing this through to Putin’s bitter end.

Net – Putin’s attack on civilian targets will strengthen Ukrainian resolve, not weaken it.

Here’s why.

I had long thought that the horrific bombing campaigns of World War II helped bring the war to a close by battering Germans and Japanese into submission. [full disclosure – my father was a machine gunner, bombardier, and armorer in the 8th Air Force in England during the second World War.]

Boy was I wrong.

Credible research indicates German production actually increased during the war; while it didn’t reach planned levels (which were likely overly optimistic) it did exceed pre-bombing campaign volumes. Research by the US Strategic Bombing Survey came to the opposite conclusion, however there’s a) big time confirmation bias and b) no evidence that the Survey captured civilian morale data.

Research conducted during Germany’s Blitz (aerial bombing) of UK cities concluded…

the Germans gained nothing from their investment in bombing British civilian targets as part of “The Blitz” (1940-41). Before “The Blitz”, they may not have been happy about having their air force destroyed by the Nazis, but they were also not eager to put their lives on the line to support a hereditary aristocracy that just over 20 years earlier had wasted a substantial portion of a generation of young men in a senseless war. However, as their homes were being destroy and their neighbors killed or wounded by German bombs, ordinary British men and women did not all rabidly support Churchill’s exhortation, “We shall never surrender“, but they continued to work, and they took action to ensure that essential services were provided when their official leaders failed to do so.

long as I get my cuppa tea, dearie…

TO be sure, this was NOT the whole story; there were many instances of looting, bigotry and finger-pointing, panic and social conflicts. That said, definitive research into civilian morale during the Blitz found the bombing produced:

a people who became actively committed to the project their leaders put before them, who cooperated with the drastic re-ordering of daily life that this entailed, and who, on the whole, did so in a spirit of stoical endurance that did not exclude good humour’. [emphasis added]

Further research on the impact of aerial bombing from 1917 to 1999 found:

(1) air power coercion attempts are more likely to work if they exploit military rather than civilian vulnerabilities, (2) the regime type of the target affects the chances of success, and (3) success is less likely if the attacker demands that the target change its leadership. Results show that coercion is more likely to work if the target’s military vulnerability is higher, but higher levels of civilian vulnerability have no effect on the chances of coercion success; that target regime type has no effect; and that success is less likely when the attacker demands the target change its leadership

In his book TRIBE, author Sebastian Junger details how people react to  having a common enemy, using examples from the Serb-Croat war’s effects on teenagers in Sarajevo and data on depression, anxiety, suicide among British citizens during the Blitz…the net is those issues declined rather significantly. Junger concludes that a common enemy draws people together, all working as one to defeat a single threat.

What does this mean for you?

Ukraine will win.

The more support we give them, the sooner this happens and the fewer Ukrainians will suffer and die. 

 


Joe Paduda is the principal of Health Strategy Associates

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