Nov
13

WCRI Annual Conference

The Workers’ Compensation Research Institute is one of the leading research organizations focused on WC. Their annual conference in Cambridge MA just concluded, and once again WCRI produced some interesting and thought-provoking studies.
This year’s conference used a slightly different format, focusing on individual states rather than comparing several, or many, states in a single presentation. Stakeholders from TX, TN, and CA presented after summary data presentations by WCRI staff.
Here’s the highlights as I saw them.
1. Drs. Peter Barth and David Neumark discussed the impact of Provider Choice on Costs and Outcomes. Interesting findings included:
— Costs were lower, and outcomes better, when the employer chose the provider, than when the injured worker chose a provider they had not previously seen.
–When an injured worker chose to use a provider they had previously seen, costs and outcomes were equivalent to those delivered by the employer-selected provider.
–The “new provider”‘s outcomes and costs were significantly worse.
2. The CompScope 4th edition was previewed; this is a summary of medical costs, disability duration, benefit amounts and other outcomes for lost time claims (and others, but we’ll only discuss LT claims) in 12 states. Items of note include:
–Of late, medical costs have been growing rapidly; with costs in all but 3 of the 12 states increasing by more than 10% from 01/02 to 02/03. California saw the highest increase at about 17%. Considering that CA is the largest WC state, that is a truly frightening number.
–There appears to be a strong correlation between medical costs and medical cost containment expenses, with most states favored by low medical costs also enjoying low cost containment expense, and high cost states also burdened by high cost containment expenses. My take is this may be heavily influenced by the percentage of savings model used in PPO deals; the higher the medical costs, the greater the “discounts”; the greater the discounts, the larger the PPO fees; and thus the greater the “cost containment expense”.
So, the higher the medical expense, the more money the deep-discount, percentage-of-savings PPOs make. Interesting incentives…
3. Disability duration factors – Worker age, education level, part-time and/or seasonal workers, and employee-supervisor trust factor were all key factors influencing disability duration. Workers over 60 had much worse return-to-work results than younger workers. There was also wide variation among states, with Texas hampered by RTW rates substantially lower than the median. Regarding education, workers with high school diplomas returned to work much sooner than drop-outs.
The full CompScope 4th edition will be available from WCRI in 2005; while somewhat weighty, it is a “must-read” for managers and executives involved in WC.
Underwriters should also pay close attention to the report; there are a wealth of “indicators” that the insightful underwriter can use to better select, and de-select, risks.


Nov
10

Discounts and doctors

Why do doctors contract with large networks to provide care at a deep discount? Do they expect to get more business from those relationships? If so, does that additional business ever arrive at their examining room? How many other physicians in their area are also contracted with that network? If there are many, are they merely joining to maintain their patient base?
Have they actually done the math to determine the impact of the discount on their finances?
Here’s an admittedly simplistic analysis of the financial impact of a discounted patient visit.

  • The “non-discounted” price would be $100
  • The discount is 20%
  • The net profit on the average patient visit (non-discounted) is 30% (an unreasonably high number, but easier to work with for our purposes)

The doctor makes a profit of $10 per discounted patient visit, and therefore must see three times as many patients to justify that 20% discount. And that’s before one factors in the additional fixed costs associated with the larger patient load – more parking, more staff, a larger waiting room, more examining rooms, and more of his/her professional time.
Perhaps more physicians are “doing the math”, and that is why managed care firms are having a much tougher time getting discounts.
The network deep discount model has other fundamental flaws, flaws that are only now beginning to be fully appreciated.


Nov
8

First Health and Coventry

The latest information on the Coventry acquisition of First Health may provide a sense for the future of the merged entity.
Item 1.
Profits at First Health are down, ostensibly due to “merger related charges” and steep declines in revenues from FH’s MailHandler’s employee benefit program.
The MailHandler’s program is a federal employee health benefit plan, formerly administered by CNA Insurance. Several years ago FH won the contract, taking it from CNA (who happened to be a FH customer at the time). It accounts for a significant portion of FH’s topline (revenue).
Item 2.
Coventry EVP Tom McDonough has been named to oversee the integration of FH and Coventry. McDonough joined Coventry from UnitedHealthGroup, where he was responsible for their large, multi-state employer groups. Clearly, this experience is highly relevant to FH’s present market mix.
Item 3.
Several years ago, UnitedHealthCare divested itself of its’ Workers’ Comp entities, specifically Focus Healthcare and MetraComp, after the MetraHealth acquisition. McDonough was at United at the time, as were other current Coventry executives (e.g. Harve DeMovick, now CIO).
Item 4.
Coventry and FH stock prices have not fared well since the acquisition announcement. The Motley Fool, long a critical observer of FH management, had this to say just after the announcement:
“No sooner had the buyout news gone out than 11% of Coventry’s market capitalization vanished, and McGraw-Hill’s (NYSE: MHP) Standard & Poor’s placed Coventry on its watchlist for a possible debt-rating downgrade. The reason: Coventry may be overpaying for this underperforming business. Coventry plans to pay for its purchase roughly half in stock (at a 0.1791:1 exchange rate) and half in cash ($9.375 per share of First Health). At Coventry’s Wednesday closing price, that would value First Health at $18.75 per share, imputing a valuation of $1.7 billion to First Health. Factoring in Coventry’s own share price decline in response to the deal’s announcement, however, brings the agreed value of First Health shares down closer to yesterday’s close — about $17.70.”
Currently, Coventry’s stock price remains significantly below the pre-acquisition level (from $53.50 to $44.01 today). I doubt either Coventry or FH management are terribly pleased with this…
One of the criticisms advanced by analysts is the potential for Coventry management (which is highly respected) to become distracted by the merger and the non-core FH business – PPO, Workers’ Comp, etc.
Net is this – if the Coventry stock price continues to languish, expect to see a “return to the core” – perhaps spinoff of some of the non-core assets.


Nov
5

Rx costs in workers comp

Mari Edlin in “Managed Healthcare Executive” highlights some of the factors driving inflation in prescription drug expense in workers comp.
Edlin’s article includes interviews with a number of industry sources (your humble author included), but perhaps the most insightful piece relates to the role of the physician in managing drug costs.
“George Furlong, director of medical payment products for CHOICE Medical Management Services in Tampa, agrees that managing utilization is key to controlling costs and places the onus on physicians. “Since no copayment exists in workers’ compensation, there is no incentive for the patient to ask for a less expensive drug


Nov
5

Interesting item on state WC issues

Tom Lynch’s “Workers’ Comp Insider” blog provides interesting news related to return to work, safety and risk management among other topics. The latest post is a synopsis of state-specific WC news.
A good site to bookmark and check frequently; the archives are a treasure trove of information on these topics.


Nov
5

CMS, the federal agency that oversees Medicare, announced yesterday that it will be increasing payments to physicians across the board effective 1/1/05. The increase will directly affect Worker Comp fee schedules, which (in large part) are based on Medicare’s fee schedule.
CMS’ announcement includes the following:
“The Physician Fee Schedule sets rates for how Medicare pays more than 875,000 physicians and other health care professionals. In 2005, CMS projects that aggregate spending under the fee schedule will increase 4 percent to $55.3 billion, up from $53.1 billion in 2004. The spending increase is due in part to an MMA provision that increased physician payment rates by 1.5 percent, a move that negated a previous law’s planned cut of payment rates by 3.3 percent for 2005.”
We have been telling clients and state agencies for years that basing fee schedules on Medicare is a bad idea for several reasons. Here is a clear demonstration of one of them – the state effectively cedes control over pricing to the feds.
Others include a much different mix of services (comp – musculoskeletal, Medicare geriatric, oncology, cardiac) and completely different communications requirements (none in Medicare, intensive in comp for RTW, care management, etc.)
Here’s the net. Comp insurers and self insured employers will be paying more for physician services (on a unit cost basis) than they did this year. Moreover, with the change from the planned reduction to an increase, the impact is almost 5%.
The news is not all bad for the simple reason that price per unit of service is but one of the drivers of medical inflation in workers comp. But therein lies the rub; with the overwhelming emphasis on price controls in the WC managed care industry, many have neglected utilization and frequency which are significantly more important contributors to medical trend increases.


Nov
3

Geographic variation in medical treatment and costs in Texas

The wide geographic variation in treatment has received extensive coverage in the Medicare and group health arenas, with one of the most-cited studies coming from the Dartmouth Medical School. The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care uses Medicare data to illustrate the difference in frequency and utilization across states and MSAs, and is required reading for anyone pursuing this subject.
One of the questions raised by the Atlas is “does this variation also occur in other lines of coverage?” While there is not nearly as much data available on this subject, two fairly recent studies in Texas indicate that disparities in cost are not limited to the Medicare world.
The Research and Oversight Council’s (ROC) Analysis of the Cost and Quality of Medical Care in the Texas Workers’ Compensation System provides an excellent (and brief) summary of the two studies, one by the Council itself and the other by the well-respect Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI). Of note, the ROC’s study indicates that the average annual medical cost per claim range from $4242 in the Dallas/Fort Worth area to $2835 in San Antonio/Austin.
Undoubtedly this variation exists in other states as well. This raises some interesting issues, including:
–In states with regulated rates, do underwriters select risks based on lower-cost medical areas? If not, why not?
–Can payers focus their managed care efforts on high cost areas and away from low cost areas, and if not, why not?
–What is going on? Are treatment patterns different? Are costs higher? Are injuries or illnesses different? Is there a different mix of providers?
Clearly, medical care is delivered in different amounts, by different types of providers, via different procedures, in different areas. That being the case, why are managed care programs so generic? And could that be one of the reasons why they are both frustrating to the provider and ineffective at moderating health care cost increases?


Oct
29

NCCI prescription drug survey

NCCI recently released the 2004 WC Prescription Drug Survey update. Key findings include:
Rx costs now account for over 12% of WC medical expense, up from 11.8% last year and 10.1% in 1997
Price has overtaken utilization as the primary driver of inflation, although utilization is still a significant contributor
– PBMs are seen as part of the answer, but certainly not all
The survey also notes that three classes of drugs account for 87% of scripts – painkillers, muscle relaxants, and antidepressants, with Celebrex(r) and Vioxx(r) holding down the top and third spot in terms of total dollars paid.
Watch this space for updates on HSA’s Second Annual Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers’ Comp(sm). This Survey will expand on the First Annual Survey.


Oct
15

Coventry to acquire First Health

Coventry Health Care announced yesterday it is going to acquire FirstHealth Group for stock and cash equivalent to about $18.70 per share. Coventry is a second-tier managed care company focused on small group, fully insured business, in 15 states.
This may well indicate a change in Coventry’s strategy, as it evolves from its tight focus on small group insurance in limited markets. The acquisition gives Coventry a national PPO for work comp and group, ownership of the federal MailHandler’s health benefit program, and ancillary or related services including PBM capabilities and Medicaid services.
Notably, there were no indications on the part of Coventry senior staff of a desire to retain FH senior management over the long term; while this is conjecture the tone and wording of their statements does not give one the sense that the top layer of FH management is around for the long term.
One interesting question is what will Coventry do with the WC business? Coventry is managed by people who have little past experience with WC, and actually worked for firms that rid themselves of WC subsidiaries (UnitedHealthGroup selling MetraComp and Focus) to focus on core business. My sense is Coventry will leave the WC alone for now, and see what develops – stay tuned over the next six months, as any change in this may happen around the middle of next year.


Oct
15

Oxycontin in WC

Interesting item from Workers Comp Insider today:
There is an interesting convergence of issues concerning the pain killer, Oxycontin. Originally developed to combat cancer pain, Oxycontin has been aggressively marketed over the past three years by its manufacturer Purdue, to the point where the drug is now the pain-killer of preference for work related injuries. This drug is twice as powerful as morphine and, while not technically addicting, it can create withdrawal symptoms when a person stops taking it. According to a study by NCCI, Oxycontin is prescribed for pain in 69% of permanent partial disability cases. This same study also points out that 49% of these prescriptions go to people with back injuries. When you combine that with the next interesting piece of data – Oxycontin is almost always dispensed in 50 day supplies (100 tablets) — you have a potentially volatile mix.