Jul
9

High deductible health plans don’t work

High deductible health plans do not work.

These plans, also known as HDHPs are the bluntest of instruments, intended to make patients more cost conscious and better consumers by making them pay the first few thousand dollars of their healthcare bills.

Instead, patients avoid care they should get, go bankrupt trying to pay sky-high deductibles, and even worse, don’t do a damn thing to get high utilizers to modify their lifestyle or care decisions.

Lazy benefits managers and employers looking for a quick fix to rising premiums continue to tout HDHPs despite the warning signs. Now, over a decade after these plans first became widely popular, some employers are finally getting the message.

I’d go so far as to argue that HDHPs help drive health care costs up; sick folks get sicker because they can’t afford preventive and routine care, while the 20% of members who incur 80% of the healthcare costs blow thru their deductible in March and then have no financial inhibitions.

Research shows most of those high utilizers don’t shop for care. I don’t see this as dumb behavior, rather a result of dumb plan design. If you’ve already paid your annual out-of-pocket maximum, you have no incentive to ask what something costs or even if you need that care.

I’ve been railing about this for years…alas, with the same effectiveness as Cassandra

So, if you’re looking to benefit design to control costs, what’s a better alternative?

Simple.  Replace deductibles and copays with co-insurance.  That is, have consumers share in the actual cost.  If treatment costs $100, then the consumer pays $20; if it is $4000, then the consumer pays $800.  This will make the consumer cost conscious without breaking their bank.

I understand that this will require the consumer, provider, and health plan to know what the cost of care is, ideally before treatment.  That is another major benefit of a co-insurance based program; it will speed adoption of transparent pricing and make consumers much more discerning buyers.

Yes, keep an out of pocket limit to protect consumers.  High utilizers will feel the pain of paying co-insurance far longer than they do today.  As a result, they will be better consumers overall.

What does this mean for you?

This isn’t that complicated, nor is it difficult.  Health plans that do this will gain a competitive advantage.

 


Jun
21

Why we’re not solving opioid addiction

The reason opioid abuse disorder (OAD) is such a huge problem is because no one’s figured out how to a) fix it while b) making a shipload of money.

Sure, there are “solutions” that address bits and pieces including:

  • urine drug testing identifies patients who aren’t taking prescribed drugs and/or are taking other licit or illicit medications;
  • Medication Assisted Therapy (MAT) can and does help many wean off opioids without going thru withdrawal;
  • inpatient or outpatient detox is essential for some OAD patients;
  • physical therapy and exercise is helpful for many; and
  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is essential for many patients.

But many patients require many of these services, while some do fine with one or two.

There is no single silver bullet.

What we aren’t doing is funding community-based treatment facilities and providers. This is essential because OAD is a long-term chronic disease, and patients need follow up and support for years.

The real issue is three-fold – treating OAD usually requires dealing with the patient’s chronic pain as well; OAD is a lifetime disorder; and every patient is different.

The terror of withdrawal coupled with the dread of chronic pain is hugely difficult to overcome. Patients are justifiably terrified of both, and this fear must be addressed throughout the treatment process. This is a long-term process likely involving different treatment modalities delivered by diverse providers.

Some patients respond to MAT, others do not. Some have family support systems, others are pretty much on their own. Some respond to PT and exercise, others are too afraid the effort will trigger a resurgence of pain. And the only way to find out what works for Patient X is to keep trying different approaches, providers, modalities until you find something that works.

No one has cracked the code, come up with a set process, solution or approach that works for most patients. Until someone figures out how to make gazillions fixing people with substance abuse disorder, I don’t expect the nation will make real progress.

That does NOT mean there aren’t real successes happening every day.

California’s State Fund is one of the leaders, delivering remarkable results through a careful, methodical approach.

Here’s the key – OAD can be a lifetime issue. Do not fear this, rather accept it as reality. It’s far easier to throw one’s hands up at the difficulty of it all rather than dig in and get going, but it’s also what led to hundreds of thousands of workers comp patients with OAD.

What does this mean for you?

Those who are in it for the long haul are going to be the difference makers.


Jun
19

Roads to stability

After eight days with family in Tuscany, it’s back to work.

Before we dive into the mundane, an observation from my travels.

This is a road built by the Romans about 2000 years ago. It’s still pretty functional, as were most of the ones we rode on in the hills and valleys of Tuscany. Sure, it could be smoother and a bit less steep (or a LOT less steep) in places, but it’s still there.

The Romans built these by hand, with nothing but human and animal power, with no electronics or computers or drones or satellite or engineering apps, no internal combustion or hydraulics or steam- or coal- powered machines. And they’re still here.

The Romans built these roads to speed communications, trade, and security. The labor that built these roads was drawn from the poor in the cities, local farms and landowners.

Somehow, that bumpy, narrow road of stones buried in the dirt eons ago felt a lot more…reliable.

All those opioid bills in Congress

Now we know why Congress can’t get anything done – At last count there were about 30 opioid-related bills in various stages in the House or Senate – over 20 have actually been passed by the House. One of the bills that addresses the Institutions for Mental Diseases is pretty contentious.

According to the Washington Post, the “IMD exclusion”  prohibits federal Medicaid reimbursements for inpatient treatment centers with more than 16 beds whose patients are mainly suffering from severe mental illness. The House bill would lift the exclusion for treatment of opioid addiction- but ONLY opioid addiction.

This ignores the very real and pervasive nature of other-substance addiction that has long plagued poor rural, minority and inner-city populations – crystal meth is just one example.

Why we’d pass a bill that doesn’t address crystal meth, which is a disaster in many rural communities from Maine to Arizona, is beyond me.

But there’s another issue here that’s even more troubling; this bill ignores the real problem; community-based treatment has always been starved for funds, unable to help millions of people who endlessly wait their turn for treatment.

Experts believe we need north of $10 billion per year to make a real impact on substance abuse disorder

Fact is, many with substance abuse disorder want to get treatment – there just isn’t any available. And allowing Medicaid to spend billions on care delivered in large institutions sounds a lot like a hand-out of taxpayer dollars to big business-owned “treatment” centers.

The IMD exclusion repeal is just window-dressing, a way for politicians to claim they’re doing something while handing billions to an industry with really good lobbying.

What does this mean for you?

The Romans built very expensive and very solid, stable, and durable roads that led to the long-term survival and success of the Empire.

We give truckloads of taxpayer dollars to big business while ignoring the devastation of the rural and inner-city poor.

Where will our decision lead us?

 


Apr
25

Single payer is inevitable.

Some variation of “single payer” healthcare is going to happen, for one simple reason – the current “healthcare system” is going to blow up.

People are  broke, fed up, and angry – and support Medicare for All.

Health insurance is not useful for most of us: many can’t afford the deductibles, and premiums are just stupid expensive.

The people running Washington aren’t interested in or capable of fixing anything, they just want to blow stuff up.

While most think Medicare for all will happen, I lean more towards a standardized “Medicaid for all” option.  Medicaid:

  • allows for a lot of experimentation by states,
  • serves a much broader population,
  • is focused on the biggest problems in healthcare – the disabled, poor, disenfranchised, chronically ill, addicted, and
  • is a lot easier to understand than the alphabet soup of Medicare A, B, C, D etc.

Our last best chance of keeping the “healthcare system” we had was the ACA, a solution rooted in a Heritage Foundation plan that relied on private insurers. When the GOP gutted it, the writing was on the wall.

Here’s a quick summary of steps Republicans took that harmed ACA. (more here; a LOT more here)

  • Removed funding for risk corridors which kept co-ops and other plans alive
  • Didn’t expand Medicaid in 17 states
  • Hobbled ACA marketing efforts in multiple states
  • Sued the Obama Administration to block premium supports

I don’t know when this will happen, I just know that it will.

 

 


Feb
9

Gas, meet fire.

I’m no economist. But I get math.

And so does the stock market. There’s a very good reason portfolio values have crashed; Congress just dumped a whole lot of gas on what was a controllable fire.

After eight years of slow but steady economic recovery we’re about to see a return to inflation – and all the bad stuff that comes with it.

Congress just voted to pass a budget that will add over $2 trillion to the deficit, weeks after ramming thru a devil’s brew of huge tax cuts for the wealthy, real estate investors, and big corporations.

The economic stimulus that will come from the budget and tax breaks is coming exactly when it isn’t needed – when the economy is well and truly recovered from the 2008 recession. Instead, this huge flood of cash arrives just as labor markets are tightening, wages are increasing, debt is getting more expensive and loans tougher to find.

In other words, inflation.

  • Government borrowing is about to increase a lot.
  • The cost of debt for companies, cities, states, school districts is about to go up – a lot.
  • Millions of baby boomers are retiring every year, hoping to live off their 401ks. Which are worth a lot less today than they were – and will likely lose more value in the coming weeks and months.
  • Demographics will drive health care costs ever higher – soaking up more of your personal funds and tax dollars.

From The Economist:

Public borrowing is set to double to $1 trillion, or 5% of GDP, in the next fiscal year. What is more, the team that is steering this experiment, both in the White House and the Federal Reserve, is the most inexperienced in recent memory.

American fiscal policy is being run by people who have bought into the mantra that deficits don’t matter. [emphasis added]

From Andy Roth, vice president of the conservative Club for Growth.

“With this deal, we will experience trillion-dollar deficits permanently…That sort of behavior, the last time I checked, is not in the Republican platform.”

From Paul Winfree of Heritage Foundation and former Trump economic adviser:

There will be ups and downs in the stock market, but the irresponsible combination of unnecessary tax cuts and huge increases in spending means inflation is inevitable.

And the current crop of morons in DC doesn’t give a rat’s ass.

What does this mean for you?

Electing responsible adults would be a good start.

 

 


Feb
5

An anesthesiologist on opioid addiction and treatment

Some doctors are changing the way they talk about and address pain, offering hope that fewer opioid addicts will be created.

And we are starting to learn how to better help those with substance use disorder – a term that better describes those addicted or dependent.

I learned a lot in a recent interview with Faye Jamali MD, a California anesthesiologist who found her brain “hijacked” by opioids.

According to Dr Jamali, It began with a fluke of an accident at a child’s birthday party, in which she broke her wrist. Two surgeries followed. Sidelined and in pain, Dr Jamali turned to painkillers prescribed by her doctor. Feeling increasingly depressed, and with easy access to drugs, Dr. Jamali began to inject herself, rather than heading to the ER. “That’s when my brain got hijacked,” she says, adding that “I knew nothing about addiction.”

After going thru the recovery process, she’s been sober for eight years, and recently left Kaiser Permanente to help other physicians recover. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation. (Note emphases are mine, and I while tried to capture her comments precisely I may have made errors)

MCM – How has pain management changed?

Dr Jamali – Over the last 4-5 years there’s been a big push to limit amount of narcotics prescribed. Before, it was taught that if patient has pain, just give them as much as they want…that’s changed, that isn’t being taught now, we are on the right track now.

[Instead medical students are being taught] multimodal analgesia, NSAIDs, nerve blocks, and to use PT more.

In California there has been a big push to look at pain holistically and change patients’ expectations about discomfort levels. You can help manage it using different medications and medical services.

MCM – Can you talk about specific changes you are seeing with pain management?

Dr Jamali – with pre-emptive analgesia, there’s less post operative pain if you block it first with nerve blocks [before surgery is performed], then keep using nerve blocks to reduce the need for opioids after surgery. We found that that the care type was key to minimize the amount of opioids needed pre- and post- surgery. Patients who have pain in the hospital are much less likely to get up and walk around, so [nerve blocks help patients be] ready for more activity.

Patient acceptance of pain is also important; We have worked to help patients understand about managing pain, by decreasing opioids or [prescribing] no opioids, you feel better because your mind will be clearer and you will recover faster. There are other ways to manage the pain, to get you comfortable enough to do your errands. Lots of positive reactions from patients to this as opposed to the last time they had this.

Patients have been very happy with the nerve blocks and nerve catheters… patients doing a second knee replacement said this [change in pain management] was night and day with them, [they were] more clear headed, more comfortable, could do their PT…We take pain seriously – pain impedes recovery, this different strategy was better for them.

MCM – For those already addicted– what has worked?

Dr Jamali – [The most successful] Programs for recovering physicians are completely holistic, not a 28 day approach, may be 90 days. Physicians in recovery should have a 5 year plan of what you should be doing; weekly group, Medication Assisted Therapy, practice monitors. For the general population it is extremely expensive to go to inpatient treatment.

12 step is the only one that is free, but there is very little data [on success rates] as it is anonymous.,. Basic data indicates [long-term success is] 8-10% [of patients], AA-type programs say it is higher. Patients do it because it is free. In and of itself it isn’t enough. Should be longer, include component of what made this person get into addiction, lot of times there are factors that enabled addiction, in many instances that isn’t covered [by these programs].

Relapse occurs because we aren’t treating the disease…we don’t only treat the first 90 days of diabetes…. It [substance abuse disorder (SAD)] is a medical disease that needs long-term treatment.

We need to think of addiction as a disease and not stigmatize it. As long as there is a stigma we won’t treat it as we do with other diseases. All evidence indicates it is indeed a disease, this is a powerful highjacking of the brain that leads to this behavior.

There should be national or state standards for treating SAD, requiring enough long term treatment…Can’t just lock them up, need to have a plan. There should be a gold standard for what should be offered to patients who are addicted right now. Look at the causes, what is needed to deal with that over the long term.

Public perception is changing, it used to be addicts are bad people, now we see doctors, soccer moms, teenagers who are part of the problem, they can’t get more drugs so are doing heroin.

MCM – What is the role of opioid manufacturers?

We dealing with the intersection of profits and what is best for society. Far too many pills are going to small towns. Incentives are in the wrong place. Free market has a role in many areas, in healthcare it should not be a free market system…Should not be a profit in treating patients with illness. There’s no financial incentive to prevent a disease if they can profit from it.

Key takeaways:

  • Substance Abuse Disorder is a chronic disease
  • We need to stop stigmatizing sufferers
  • Long-term multi-modal treatment is critically important

 

 

 


Jan
15

So much for the “Opioid Crisis”

A 24-year old is acting as chief of staff of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Of course he has no experience, qualifications, or background that qualifies him for this role. And, ts ONDCP has no Director or Chief of Staff, this kid has been one of, if not the, senior executives at the federal agency tasked with addressing the opioid crisis.

Taylor Weyeneth, who happens to be from our town, also submitted a resume to the federal government that exaggerated his “credentials” (he claimed a graduate degree he does not have).

According to newspaper reports, he was involved with a “family company” here that federal records show was “secretly processing illegal steroids from China as part of a conspiracy involving people from Virginia, California and elsewhere.” Weyeneth’s resume claims he was head of production for this company when he was 16.

Weyeneth is the symptom, the Administration’s complete lack of attention to the opioid crisis is the problem.

This personnel debacle follows the Administration’s attempt to appoint Tom Marino as Director of ONDCP. Marino is a politician that sponsored a bill greatly limiting federal oversight of the opioid industry. an attempt that fortunately collapsed amidst bi-partisan outrage.

Seven Administration appointees have left the Office over the last year; that’s more than 10 percent turnover in the 65 person office. There is no Director in place, and no indication there are any plans to appoint one.

The President gives speeches about the crisis, and claims the Administration is doing everything possible to attack the drug crisis – and Taylor Weyeneth is appointed Deputy Chief of Staff.

Words are one thing, actions another.

What does this mean for you?

We aren’t going to get any help from the White House on opioids.

 


Jan
2

We haven’t seen anything yet.

Healthcare is changing really quickly and quite dramatically. Stuff we never would have thought of is happening every day.

  • A huge PBM is buying one of the largest health insurers in the world.
  • Provider consolidation is rapidly accelerating.
  • Many insurers are vertically integrating; they own thousands of providers, care-delivery locations, and are racing to build even more infrastructure.
  • Private insurers are pushing hard and fast into the Medicaid and Medicare markets.
  • Pharma is making gazillions in profits and driving medical costs higher: many employers are beginning to rebel.
  • The world is finally taking opioids seriously, while many fraudulent and sleazy people and companies are looking to profit from the crisis.
  • Medicare and Medicaid are facing major changes; the Trump Tax Bill is just the beginning of efforts to cut benefits and reimbursement.

The healthcare infrastructure of 2021 will look a lot different than it does today.

A couple things to think about.

  1.  While scale is critically important, the bigger the organization, the harder it is to anticipate and adapt to change. Huge health insurers and healthcare delivery systems must force their people to take risks and innovate – but most of these institutions are led by executives with little tolerance for failure. 
  2. The fee-for-service system is deeply entrenched in our entire industry. Provider practice patterns, sales rep incentive programs, provider marketing strategies, employer healthplan purchasing priorities, hospital financial systems, billing and reimbursement infrastructure, insurer business models all are fundamentally based on fee-for-service. Improving outcomes and reducing costs cannot happen without disrupting the very roots of our healthcare “system”.
  3. Our healthcare system is vastly inefficient – and that is precisely why tens of millions of Americans live off that system. Disrupting that system will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

What does this mean for you?

The winners will be those that understand where things are going.

There are two basic strategic options: those with a long-term view must become part of the disruption or short-termers will have to carve out a niche that’s sustainable over the near term.

This is the third option, which most will inadvertently pursue.  Business-as-usual folks will wake up one morning and find out they’re toast.


Nov
3

GOP budget’s impact on healthcare

The budget resolution that Republicans are basing their budget on would cut $1.8 trillion from healthcare, mostly from Medicaid over the next decade.

The impact of this on healthcare would be akin to Harvey hitting Houston. 

We will leave aside Republicans’ wildly optimistic economic growth projections and Congress’ elimination of scoring by the CBO – but you shouldn’t. (from former Reagan and Bush economic adviser Bruce Bartlett, discussing GOP growth projections... “[it’s] wishful thinking.  So is most Republican rhetoric around tax cutting.  In reality, there’s no evidence that a tax cut now would spur growth.”

Instead, the plan would cut Medicaid funding by 30 percent over the next ten years and slash Medicare by another half-trillion dollars.

This is a massive cut, one substantially larger than those proposed in either of the GOP’s failed ACA repeal bills.

There are NO details on how these cuts would be made or which providers and beneficiaries would lose what. This is classic Washington; they don’t want to highlight any specifics because the lobbyists will flood their offices.

Without those details, it is clear that doctors, hospitals, clinics and therapists would all face massive cuts in Medicaid reimbursement, and millions of families and kids would lose coverage. 

If something like this becomes law;

  • doctors and hospitals are going to jack up prices and increase utilization for privately-insured patients,
  • insurance markets will be thrown into disarray as the budget blueprint slashes ACA subsidies, and
  • the health status of millions of kids will decline.

What does this mean for you?

IF something like this passes – which I believe is highly doubtful – the US healthcare “system” will be hugely disrupted, with major implications for employment, private insurance costs, and workers’ comp.


Oct
27

Coventry work comp services will NOT be sold anytime soon

It’s been apparent for some time that the senior suite at parent Aetna has way too much on it’s plate to even begin to think about selling off Coventry’s work comp unit.

That plate just got heaped with a whole lot more; CVS Caremark is looking to buy Aetna for $66 billion. (thanks to Richard Krasner for the head’s up!)

Reportedly the two companies’ CEOs have been discussing the potential deal for several months, which implies they are in favor of the transaction.

There’s a lot more to this – but I gotta hit the campaign trail.

For now, Coventry work comp isn’t going anywhere.