Insight, analysis & opinion from Joe Paduda

Apr
3

What worked then, works now.

In 1992, worker’s compensation case managers were finding their patients were often unable to get to their doctor’s office, PT appointments, or to the drug store to get their prescriptions filled. Many didn’t have their own vehicles or relied on friends, family members or public transportation, all with their own challenges.

Without prompt care, therapy, and medications, recovery was hampered and disability extended.

One case manager found a college student to help, and Cem Kus started transporting her patients using his own vehicle [Cem and the case manager – Janet Kus – are now the co-owners of MTI]. Cem did this for five years – in addition to scheduling and later hiring and managing additional drivers.

MTI’s first transport vehicle and driver

Cem got to know most of the patients personally – and what each needed. One particular patient stands out. A fireman was hurt in a fire; as his friend carried him out of the building on his back, he missed the last step. They fell and the friend landed on his back, injuring his spinal cord; since then he has been confined to a wheel chair. Cem; “We have helped him get to and from treatment ever since that injury. We bought wheelchair vans to accommodate this patient and others; since there were very few wheelchair-accessible vans available in the 1990s, MTI customized the vans ourselves.”

As time passed, the company hired more drivers, handled the communications with payers, payroll, and dispatching. Just a few years after that first trip, Cem and Janet formed Medi-Trans Inc (MTI) and hired their first person to take incoming calls, handle the scheduling, and arrange for dispatching.

What drove MTI’s initial growth was simple – responding to their customers’ need for prompt, accurate, and comprehensive communication. Patients, adjusters and case managers wanted and expected timely updates, status reports, and notice of issues, and wanted their transportation partners to stay on top of files to make sure everyone was picked up on time, arrived, and returned according to plan.

It wasn’t just communications. Work comp patients needed a lot more flexibility than the normal cab service was able or willing to provide.  So, MTI was flexible in terms of pick up and drop off locations and accommodated patients who needed to pick up medications. The company became adept at handling everything from scheduled care on an ongoing basis – PT visits, for example, and one-time services such as trips to an MRI facility.

Fast forward 20+ years, and nothing’s changed. Simply put, MTI thrived for two reasons – because it took work off their customers’ desks, put it on their’s, and treated patients as individuals with unique needs.

It’s still about people handling each service, communicating with the parties, and adapting as things change.

According to Cem; “we have to be flexible to meet the patient’s needs and keep adjusters and case managers aware if something unusual occurs.  That is why we take special instructions and communicate with claimants and update service on a ongoing basis – different customers and different situations require it.

The company has just completed a major systems upgrade, allowing for more timely communication and integration of its various services – transportation/translation, DME/Home Health Care, imaging, and PT. But the system won’t replace the personal touch – because it can’t.

Patients, physicians, adjusters and case managers needs’ change, sometimes from minute to minute. Quick access to a person who is knowledgeable, experienced, and thorough is critical.

It is also something no automated system, no matter now sophisticated, will ever be able to replicate.

What does this mean for you?

It always has been, and always will be, about customer service.

[disclosure – MTI is an HSA consulting client]

 


Apr
1

Didn’t see this coming – the Republicans’ healthcare “plan”

In a move that caught all Capitol Hill – and me – by surprise, President Trump and key Senators finalized the outline of the GOP’s new healthcare plan over the weekend.

Set to be announced later today, the plan builds off the faith-based “sharing” programs already in place in the ACA, greatly expands their reach, incentivizes employers to adopt faith-based coverage, and enables these programs to compete in the senior market. There are a half-dozen or so ministry/faith-based programs now in operation with total membership around the million mark.

Unlike regular insurance, members “share” the cost of care by paying into a central fund that then reimburses individuals for needed medical services.

Currently faith-based coverage is provided by entities including Liberty HealthshareChristian Medi-ShareSamaritan Ministries, and Altrua Healthshare. As of today, these entities don’t have to provide the same level of benefits, coverage, or financial protection insurers do under the ACA. And, they are pretty much exempt from regulation as they aren’t “insurance” per se.

Faith-based sharing programs will compete with the big healthplans for members in the federal – and perhaps states’ – healthcare exchanges. The plans, which are much less expensive than “regular” health insurance, may well see huge gains in membership.

On ABC’s thisweek Sunday talkshow, Whitehouse Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney  asserted the plan would deliver on the President’s promise to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions. “We’ve heard it over and over again, Americans trust their churches and ministers to do the right thing [which includes addressing pre-existing condition coverage]. So, we’re going to build off the amazingly successful faith-based programs now in place, expanding their reach and helping them compete in the free market.”

When asked how the new plan would maintain or expand the number of Americans covered by health insurance, Mulvaney didn’t get into any details other than claiming “faith-based programs will have much lower administrative costs as they don’t have all the overhead the big insurers do…this will make insurance much less expensive, which means more people can afford it.”

It appears Vice President Mike Pence has been strongly advocating for the faith-based approach for some months.  Evidently Pence, a self-described evangelical Christian, was prepared when the President publicly called for Republicans to be “the party of great healthcare” last week. The VP met with Trump, Mulvaney, and key Senators over the weekend and finalized the outline of the plan.

Mulvaney, who is one of the members of Trump’s team leading the charge on repealing Obamacare, said Sunday “There’s absolutely zero daylight between the president and vice president on this issue.”

Interviewed on CNN’s State of the Union yesterday, Mulvaney went further, describing the plan as fulfilling Senate Republicans’ request that the Administration provide them with “principles” that they could build a healthcare plan around.

Here’s the issue. Faith-based programs don’t have to keep a certain level of financial reserves, can deny payment for any reason, exclude any condition, and cancel coverage. And, in most states no regulator is watching over the programs.

Sure, this will make “coverage” cheaper, but there’s no guarantee it will be there when the buyers need it.

I’d expect this approach to face tough sledding in the Senate, and likely won’t be considered at all in the Democratic – controlled House. However, it’s likely Trump will try to do much of the heavy lifting via regulatory means and Executive Orders. However, these efforts will undoubtedly be challenged in court, where Trump has had a pretty poor record. I’d also expect the big healthplans will roll out their lobbying big guns.

But…the move further cements Trump’s standing with evangelical. As he’s clearly playing to his base to prep for the next election, it will serve him well.

What does this mean for you?

Just when you think you’ve heard it all…


Mar
29

Another reason Single Payer is inevitable

Earlier this week President Trump called for the GOP to become “the Party of Great Healthcare.”

He wants three Senators to come up with a “terrific, beautiful” healthcare plan.

What Trump is actually doing is accelerating the day when Single Payer becomes reality.

In one tweet, here’s why:

Stick with me here. The President doesn’t know the difference between tax policy (deductibility) and healthcare benefit design (deductibles). Unless, of course, he was referring to the deductibility of health insurance premiums, which many think is “ridiculously high”. Except, of course, Trump wasn’t.

Many may say, “yeah, that’s just a typo”, or “doesn’t matter, we know what he meant”.

And those many are dead wrong.

Trump  – and his gang of three who are supposed to come up with a new Great Healthcare Plan – don’t know anything about the healthcare problem in this country, what’s driving it, how financing works, how people are affected, what the tradeoffs are, or anything else.

Healthcare is enormously complicated, accounts for 1 of every 6 dollars in our economy, employs 16 million Americans, and is deeply personal. The GOP has never come up with any plan that remotely addresses the problem with healthcare, namely prices are too high, many can’t afford insurance and quality is spotty at best.

Their go-to solution – the free market – is no solution at all.

In the “free market”, no insurer is ever going to insure your pre-existing condition, nor will it ever  cover your kids to 26, nor will it pay for all your care no matter how sick you are or how expensive it gets. 

About 5 minutes after Trump’s gang of three starts working on their Great Healthcare Plan their heads will explode. They have no idea what they are doing and a real solution requires them to abandon long-held fictions about healthcare and the economy.

Which is why Trump’s Great Healthcare Plan will make Single Payer reality.

To quote Winston Churchill;

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.

(here’s a very funny infographic on TrumpCare)


Mar
28

Arkansas is the canary

Facility costs are the fastest growing cost in workers’ comp.

Rural hospitals are in deep financial trouble – many are shutting floors, wings, or are closing entirely.

Medicaid is all that is keeping many rural hospitals afloat – Mercy Hospital’s days are done…And work requirements will cost hospitals billions.

Arkansas has already kicked 18,000 people off Medicaid – mostly because the state’s Medicaid work requirement program is unbelievably poorly run, its leaders don’t know a damn thing about challenges faced by poor people, and no one at the state or federal level is demanding they get their stuff together.

(A federal judge just blocked the state’s work requirement.)

So, what does this mean for work comp payers in Arkansas?

  • 18,000 more Arkansans are now uninsured
  • Rural and urban hospitals are looking for pennies in the couch cushions.
  • Work comp has lots of pennies.

Mar
27

WTF are they doing??

Yesterday’s announcement that the Justice Department will move to kill the entire ACA – with NO replacement legislation – sent shock waves thru the healthcare world.

And will send many Americans straight over the edge.

If the Trump Administration is successful, 21 million of us will lose healthcare.

Up to 133 million Americans will lose coverage for pre-existing conditions for individuals and small employers.

Insurers will be able to charge older Americans whatever they want for insurance policies.

Seniors’ drug costs will increase dramatically – along with costs for wellness checks, copays, and premiums.

Hospitals will get hammered as they are forced to treat uninsured people with no chance of reimbursement.

Treatment for opioid abuse disorder will be cut by $874 million.

Insurers will be able to cap what they spend on your healthcare costs.

You may find your kids between 18 – 26 are no longer covered by your insurance.

What’s even more stunning is the Trump Administration is doing all this with no plan to fix healthcare.  No legislation, no regulations, nothing at all.

For the vast majority of Americans this is catastrophically stupid and for Republicans politically idiotic.

The Trump Administration is shoving Americans off a cliff, with no regard to what lies beneath.

What does this mean for you?

If Trump et al succeed, you’re going to pay a lot more for worse coverage  – if you can get it – that has caps on what your insurer will pay for and your kids over 21 are on their own.

 

 

 


Mar
25

Why are California’s work comp costs so high?

A few possible contributors –

  • more providers than average – which creates demand,
  • facility costs  – and declining quality – due to significant healthcare system consolidation,
  • attorney fees driven in large part by regulatory enablement,
  • creative providers looking to suck dollars out of taxpayers and employers’ pockets, and
  • the actions of a handful of providers seeking to crash the medical management process.

California has 380 physicians per 100,000 population, whereas the US has 295 per 100,000 – that’s many more docs looking to do many more procedures on the same number of patients. Unlike market-driven businesses, in healthcare supply creates its own demand.

The lower the number above, the fewer health systems competing for business

60 percent of healthcare markets in California are highly concentrated, so the dominant provider systems have much more pricing power – which leads to higher health insurance premiums – than in days past.  According to HealthAffairs:

the estimated impact of the increase in vertical integration from 2013 to 2016 in highly concentrated hospital markets was found to be associated with a 12 percent increase in Marketplace premiums. For physician outpatient services, the increase in vertical integration was also associated with a 9 percent increase in specialist prices and a 5 percent increase in primary care prices.

If health systems can jack up prices to giant group health insurers by 12 percent, imagine what they are doing to work comp payers – who represent perhaps 2 percent of their total business.

Unlike most other states, plaintiff attorneys are compensated for a seemingly endless variety of filings, medical management disputes, disagreements, hearings, UR and IMR disputes.

As reported by CWCI in last week’s annual meeting, Texas had 1506 dispute letters, while California had over 180,000. Texas saw a decline over time as providers realized that no matter how many times they asked to get a specific procedure authorized, the answer was consistently no.

Not so in California, where the same providers keep flooding the system with appeals for the same stuff, knowing full well they will be rejected.

The good news is several of last year’s top IMR appellants are no longer in the top 10, as they’re no longer allowed to deliver medical care.

What does this mean for you?

Attorneys get paid to dispute the higher volume of services prescribed by a larger number of providers employed by healthcare systems that have a lot more pricing power. 

 

 


Mar
22

Why I love the CWCI Conference

The 9 reasons I love CWCI’s annual conference.

  1. Consistently great content– timely, up-to-the minute data is analyzed and presented by experts who really understand the California work comp system, have deep experience in that system, and use that experience to draw inferences and conclusions that are highly relevant. No one does it better.
  2. Topics are different than you find most anywhere else – this is a huge challenge for conference organizers, yet every year Swedlow & Co. focus our attention on key issues.
  3. Example – Dr Kathryn Mueller’s discussion of what’s needed to obtain the best possible care and outcomes for work comp patients. Dr Mueller described what good “evidence” is, how it should be used in developing guidelines, and the integration of guidelines with utilization review. She also walked thru different approaches to best practices for RTW, the critical importance of functional outcome measures, and ended with a discussion of the latest thinking on pain management.

    That’s about 4 sessions’ worth of education in an hour, delivered by one of the nation’s leading experts. Damn she’s good.

  4. It’s not just about California. While the focus is on the Golden State, we learn a lot that is just as useful wherever you work. CWCI was one of the first to come out with definitive proof that physician dispensing is a costly scam, focused our attention on compounds before most of us had heard of them, researched spinal fusion claims, and examined the impact of the new ICD-10 coding scheme on work comp.
  5. They do all this in less than a day, yet…
  6. There’s plenty of time built into the agenda to meet and catch up with colleagues built.
  7. You get to hear Alex Swedlow, who may be the best presenter in the business. I’m biased as Alex is a good friend, but his dry-as-Death Valley wit, the way he weaves in lessons learned decades ago, and ability to pick out the one most important takeaway and ensure you understand it is unmatched.
  8. There’s a bar. I don’t mean a bunch of lawyers, altho there’s plenty of them, but an actual place to get cocktails. At lunch.
  9. It’s in Oakland, which means I have to travel to the west coast, where two of our kids are living, so I get to see them!
    Molly says hello from Santa Monica

 


Mar
21

Which way is California’s work comp system headed?

There seemed to be a bit of nervous tension as CWCI’s annual meeting kicked off. After years of relative stability, and dare I say it steady improvement in many areas, it’s no wonder stakeholders are a bit trepidatious.

With a new Governor in office, new appointments in the offing, and some seemingly intractable problems still challenging stakeholders, the nervous tension is certainly understandable.

Fortunately, the first speakers addressed this head on.

General Counsel Ellen Langille led off with a summary of legal activity in the Golden State. My big takeaway was the King case.  CWCI filed an amicus brief in King v CompPartners which big win for all employers, taxpayers and yes patients. The Supreme Court upheld the exclusive remedy protection for utilization review organizations. Briefly, UR physicians were not deemed to be “treating physicians”, a sensible ruling indeed.

Ms Langille turned things over to Jeremy Merz and Jason Schmelzer for a summary of what’s coming. Both gave kudos to CWCI for providing much-needed data to help legislators understand what is really going on.

Schmelzer made a key point – politicians do not want to talk about workers compensation – they think it should just work. He also noted former Democratic Gov Brown vetoed more work comp bills viewed as problematic by employers than his Republican predecessor – Arnold Schwarznegger.  Point being, just because one is in this party or that does not mean they will hew to what you’d think is the party line.

While Gov Newsom is moving quickly on key issues, he has yet to show his hand on workers’ comp issues. The two experts opined that:

  • Significant reform in work comp is unlikely as the system is seen as generally working well
  • While it is expensive – it’s better than it was
  • Key stakeholders, e.g. labor and employers – have bigger priorities.

One potential big issue is the independent contractor issue. While several bills are under consideration, it’s not clear any will get traction over the near term.

I would just add that there are lots of other issues that are way more important to important people than work comp; climate change’s impact on the state, water projects, battles with the federal administration on any number of issues, taxes, education, and many more. So, unless work comp is about to implode or explode, it is not going to get any traction.

What does this mean for you?

In California’s work comp system, things are likely going to remain stable at least for this year – and likely next.


Mar
20

Work comp services – quick takes

Over the last two + weeks I’ve had a dozen or so calls with investors asking about the workers’ comp space.  Mostly this seems driven by the OneCall debt issuance and financial situation, but the conversations all started with a high-level view of what’s happening in work comp.

To save you investors money and me time, here’s my view from 30,000 feet.

Work comp is shrinking

Fewer workers are getting injured. Premiums continue to decline. The injury rate is declining.  Folks, we are in a shrinking business, and that isn’t going to change. If anything, when the next economic downturn hits, comp is going to get hit harder.

That means fewer medical services, fewer scripts, fewer first notices of injury, fewer claims.

Pharmacy is leading the shrinkage

Several new “work comp” PBM start-ups have emerged over the last couple of years, most of them talking “transparency” and better customer service for smaller payers.  Over the last 7 years, PBMs have done a pretty good job shrinking their top lines as they work with payers to reduce unnecessary opioid use and compete on price. Yes, there is money to be made here, but size and service matter – a lot. (more on this in a month or so when we do the next Survey of PBM in WC).

Why these folks are investing start-up funds in a business that has been declining by near-double-digits for several years is a puzzle indeed.

Big caveat – Coventry First Script won the Department of Labor PBM contract, which may well be the largest WC PBM deal awarded to date. Hats off to the Coventry folks who made that happen.

The big keep getting bigger

And that’s going to continue.  In a mature/declining business, the only way most companies can grow is to acquire other businesses, then reduce expenses.  This works even better when the businesses you acquire can replace external vendors you were using before – so you can count their revenue as top line and margin as profit. This is what Mitchell/Genex is doing with Priority Care Solutions.

Big caveat #2 – MedRisk continues to do quite well – proving that doing one thing really really well is the strategy that always works, everywhere. Of course, it’s also the hardest to get right and sustain. (MedRisk is a consulting client)

TPAs are one of the few niches that are “structurally growing”

Sorry about that terminology – but I couldn’t think of any other way to characterize the growth that TPAs are enjoying as insurers continue to outsource claims services to the industry. As premiums decline, insurers have fewer dollars to invest in people, technology, buildings, etc – so buying claims services on a variable cost basis looks a lot less risky than building/fixing/developing your own stuff internally.

And this will continue.

Yet, every work comp insurer I have spoken with is going to grow.

Which is NOT going to happen. The question is, will this quest for growth turn into a “how far over the stupid line will we jump before we figure out we’re screwed” contest.

Some will win, some will lose – and some are born to sing the blues (kudos to you if you know the band that sang these lines...) Those that are embarking on a quest up to the edge of the line may want to research Reliance Standard, Golden Eagle, Atlantic Mutual, and Kemper.

Jeez I’m getting old.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re an investor you’ve just saved a lot of money and time.


Mar
18

Why “Medicare for Some” may be here faster than you think

Healthcare was the top issue for Independents (and Democrats) before the 2018 midterms.

Notice the emphasis on “Independents”. Dems are going to vote blue, Republicans will vote red, so the 2020 election is going to be decided – like most elections – by independent voters.  You can expect every Democratic candidate to hammer away on healthcare in language that worked well last fall.

And they will be focusing on costs and access, issues top-of-mind for voters concerned about healthcare.

There’s a busload of Democrats who’ve announced they’re going to run for President in 2020, and it looks like the bus is going to be standing room only when Biden and perhaps others announce.

Pretty much every of the 354 announced Democratic presidential candidates have signed on to some form of Medicare for All; while I’d argue most haven’t demonstrated any real grasp of the details, the issue is clearly a winning one.

Meanwhile, the President has released a budget calling for a $2.3 trillion cut to Medicaid and Medicare. You may recall that then-President Obama called for many of the same changes to Medicare that Trump is hawking now – primarily reducing reimbursement for hospital-based providers.

Kudos to whoever put this language into the latest budget – it made sense then, and it makes sense now.

BUT – while Dems will be talking about protecting Medicare and Medicaid (which pays for most nursing home care than any other payer), Republicans will be trying to convince healthcare voters  that slashing $2.3 trillion from their Medicare and Medicaid is the right answer.

The GOP may figure out how to get seniors and others to support slashing their healthcare – a feat that is possible as Republicans are way better at messaging that Democrats.

Democrats may be able to stick to their message – as they did to telling effect in the 2018 mid-terms. If they do, and if they win the White House and Senate, the first thing they will do is pass Medicare for Some legislation. The major candidates are all talking about doing big things, they need to deliver big results early, and healthcare was – and is – a winning issue.

What does this mean for you?

For healthcare, 2020 will be the most consequential election ever.

 


Joe Paduda is the principal of Health Strategy Associates

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