Insight, analysis & opinion from Joe Paduda

May
19

Center for Study of Health System Change

The Center for the Study of Health System Change is a non-partisan organization that is focused on finding intelligent, practical means of improving the nation’s health care system. Under the leadership of Dr. Paul Ginsburg, CSHC provides a forum for discussion of topics ranging from pharmaceutical issues and the problems of uninsurance, to macro trends shaping health care policy.
CSHC has an excellent seminar planned for July in Washington. Here’s the details:
HSC’s Wall Street Comes to Washington Conference Scheduled for July 13
The 10th annual Wall Street Comes to Washington conference will be held on Wednesday, July 13. The conference will feature roundtable discussions with Wall Street health care industry analysts and Washington health policy analysts. A partial list of panelists includes:


May
18

Medicaid and hiding assets to qualify

An interesting post in HealthSignals New York addresses the “problem” of seniors hiding or transferring assets to qualify for Medicaid reimbursement for nursing home care. According to a study done by Georgetown University, the problem is not nearly as pervasive as one might think, nor does it have much of an impact on total Medicaid expense.
However, the caveats are that the data used are somewhat dated. Nonetheless, this may be less of a problem than politicians’ rhetoric indicate.
To quote HealthSignals New York:
“As they say, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This report is helpful and it sets a balanced tone, but by no means does it end the argument.”
What does this mean for you?
Probably not much, but it does indicate how important it is to look beyond the rhetoric to the underlying data.


May
18

Medicare Part D explored

Several readers have noted that there are other reasons for getting involved in the new Medicare drug program, citing the government’s “loss prevention” financial arrangements, the sophistication of PBMs in managing formularies, and the desire to enter what will be a growing and eventually huge market.
The Piper Report has an excellent summary of th program and pays particular attention to a partnership between Cigna and NationsHealth. The post also has numerous links to other sources that further explain part D.
While all this is interesting, I sense a “bleeding edge” aspect to these programs. For most entrants into this market, this will be their first large-scale initiative into senior drugs management. The challenges they face will include:
–inexperience about seniors and their drug-consuming habits
–the inherent problems with adverse selection noted in previous posts here
–their inability to control, or even impact, the treating physician, widely acknowledged as the primary driver of pharmaceutical utilization
This last may be the most significant. At the end of the day, PBMs are transactions processors, administering (in large part) what physicians order. If they can’t intelligently address and positively impact prescribing behavior in a way that does not put the beneficiary in the middle, they will find themselves caught between the doc and the patient – a very uncomfortable position.
What does this mean for you?
It is highly likely that early adopters will get burned in this deal, and slower movers will glean vital knowledge from observing without entering the fray. This is one of those rare circumstances where I would advise caution.


May
17

NCCI’s report on drugs in Workers comp

Workers’ Comp Insider has an excellent summary of NCCI’s recent report on prescription drug costs in workers’ comp. Author Jon Coppelman raises some interesting questions, including:
“why are doctors relying on brand names, when there are very powerful generic drugs available for pain? Why prescribe Oxycontin? Why is Neurontin so popular?
Is this what consumers want?”
Coppelman rightly cites the power of detailers, the armies of attractive, intelligent, well-dressed primarily young men and women who call on physicians to encourage them to write scripts for their particular drugs.
I would also note that PBMs make money only when scripts are filled through their contracted pharmacies. Therefore, while there is indeed an incentive to the PBM to drive network penetration, there is also no incentive to prevent scripts. Certainly some PBMs work hard to “do the right thing” and there are some notable successes, but when they are financially motivated to fill scripts, there is somewhat of a conflict of interest.
Moreover, some PBMs do not understand the WC business, but are jumping into the market because margins are much more attractive than those in group health.
What does this mean for you?
Watch drug utilization growth carefully, learn about this business, and start talking to your PBM about alternative fee structures. There is no quick answer but with drugs accounting for 12% of WC medical spend, it is well worth your time to look for a longer term solution.


May
17

Medicare’s drug answer

The growing popularity of Medicare Part D (the Medicare Drug program) among health plans pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), is a mystery. As I have noted before, the program as presently conceived is guaranteed to drive adverse selection with only the seniors who will get more from the program than they will pay in likely to subscribe.
I asked national health policy expert Bob Laszewski of Health Policy and Strategy Associates (not affiliated with my firm) if I’m missing something, if there is a good reason why PBMs and health plans are jumping into this business. Bob pointed to a Brandeis University study that indicated those seniors who purchased the drug discount card tended to he high users of drugs. No surprise there – what is revealing is the underlying statistics. Drug card purchasers saved 20% (on average) but used the card twice as often as seniors who received a card automatically from their health plan.
Defenders of the Part D program cite PBMs’ expertise in formulary management, bulk pricing arrangements, cost-sharing with seniors (co-pays etc.) as evidence of their ability to control costs.
Perhaps most telling is the Federal government’s announcement that they will protect PBMs and health plans from excessive losses incurred as a result of their Part D drug programs.
The net – this is one of those “if everyone else is doing it, we better too” businesses. It is reminiscent of the pricing cycles in property and casualty insurance, where as soon as carriers start losing money they raise prices, and as soon as they start making money they cut prices to capture volume. This pattern has been as consistent as the tides, and likely as inevitable.
What does this mean for you?
For those of us on the sidelines, observing the outcome of the rush into Medicare Part D drug cards will be instructive. It is possible that I am missing something here, that PBM programs actually can address utilization (although I have never seen evidence that they do, and because they traditionally make money only when prescriptions are filled, utilization management is not in their DNA).
But I doubt it.


May
16

Ambulatory Surgical Centers’ future

So-called “specialty hospitals“, facilities typically owned by for-profit firms and/or practicing physicians, have been the subject of much debate by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Now, it looks like CMS will continue their ban on new facilities at least until the end of the year (and just possibly till 1/1/2007) while they study their impact on cost, quality, and the full service hospitals they compete with.
Specialty facilities focus on a relatively narrow branch of medicine (e.g. spine, cardiac, orthopedics, cancer), are often owned by a partnership including the physicians admitting patients and a for-profit corporation, and rarely have an Emergency Department, overnight stay capacity, or trauma units. What they do have is state-of-the-art facilities, excellent “customer service”, efficient management, and lots of profit potential for the owners.
At issue with CMS is the definition of hospital and whether the specialty facilities meet the CMS definition. This is important because reimbursement is typically better for “hospitals” than for non-hospital facilities (many of these specialty hospitals would likely be classified as ambulatory surgery centers which receive lower reimbursement).
According to Congressional Quarterly,
“The (CMS specialty hospital internal) review also could lead the agency to require some specialty facilities to add emergency departments, which “ten[d] to attract Medicaid and other low-income patients,” CQ HealthBeat reports (CQ HealthBeat, 5/12).
California HealthLine also reports “In addition, CMS is expected to adjust Medicare reimbursement rates for all providers to better reflect the severity of patients’ illnesses, which could lower reimbursement rates for some specialty services.”
Congress appears to favor allowing new specialty hospitals into the CMS provider world, with House Energy and Commerce Cmte Chair Barton (R TX) noting he considers McClellan’s action to be a reasonable compromise.
“The rise of specialty hospitals will press traditional community hospitals to become leaner, faster and better,” he said (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 5/12). Speaking in response Democrats’ concerns about physician self-referrals, Barton said, “The real fight … here is not about quality of care,” adding, “It’s about control and ownership.” He said that banning specialty hospitals goes “against everything in the American culture that says specialization is good.”
What does this mean for you?
As the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) goes, so go commercial payers. The moratorium on specialty hospital construction has served to halt, or at the least reduce, the number of new facilities seeking licensure throughout the country. If CMS moves forward and allows new construction, watch for changes in reimbursement.
It is possible, and some say likely, that reimbursement levels for these facilities will be lower than for full-service hospitals. As many commercial and state (e.g. workers’ comp and auto liability) fee schedules and reimbursement contracts are based on CMS’ Medicare rates, there will likely be a significant impact on the volume of services delivered through these facilities and the price as well.


May
13

More on cheating docs

Gary Schwitzer has posted a quick item in his blog providing more detail about the financial benefits to physicians of “leasing” imaging services. For those who missed the article in the Wall Street Journal, Schwitzer’s blog has a link and excerpts.
The net – a physician referring two MRIs per day would net over $120,00 annually.
What does this mean to you?
Hmmmmm, some perverse incentives to increase imaging utilization, perhaps? A more subtle way to cost-shift, to capture more income to offset lost income due to reduced Medicare reimbursement? Outright fraud? or all of the above?


May
13

GM, WalMart, and health care reform

Two articles in today’s press highlight the growing impact of health care costs on US business. One, an opinion piece by Paul Krugman in the New York Times (subscription required) , compares the workforce compensation of GM and WalMart, noting WalMart’s significantly lower per-employee wages and level of health benefits programs. The other appears in the Economist, a publication with a more conservative bent, and notes the impact of health care and pension expenses on the Big Three (well, now that Toyota is one and Chrysler is not, perhaps the Big Two and Number Four) automakers.
Krugman’s comparison of WalMart and GM is illuminating. Here are his main points.
1. GM pays about $1500 per car for health benefits.
2. GM has about 2.5 retirees for each working employee
3. GM used to be the largest employer in the nation. Now, WalMart is.
4. When GM was the largest employer, average wages were equivalent to $29,000 annually in today’s dollars. WalMart employees average $17,000.
5. Essentially all of GM’s workers have incredibly generous health coverage. About half of WalMart’s have any company-paid health coverage.
6. This is not to praise or denigrate either company, just to illustrate how the US economy is changing and the impact on the “average” worker is a reduction in income and health benefits coverage.
The Economist (perhaps the best newsmagazine in existence) has an equally interesting perspective on the US auto manufacturers. Here are the main points from their article on GM and Ford, subtitled Detroit’s car industry and its unions now have to reduce legacy employment costs (available by subscription or free to print subscribers).
1. “GM’s 30-year slide from 60% of the American market has now taken it to 25%; Ford’s share is under 20%: neither shows any sign of arresting this trend, which looks dangerously close to tilting into precipitous decline, at least in their home market (both are now faring better abroad).”
2. “the American transplant factories of their Asian and European competitors have none of these (health care and pension) costs, and have young, non-unionised workforces.”
3. “the really big challenge for GM and Ford is attacking those legacy costs. That boils down to one thing: Detroit must persuade the unions to give some ground on pensions and health-care.”
4. the article goes on to point out that big steel, textiles, and heavy equipment have all weathered this storm and come out stronger, but the storm may well be hurricane-strength.
My conclusion? Health care costs and their attendant drag on American business have become an issue of survival. At long last, big business is recognizing that they cannot compete in the global economy without major reform of the US health care system.
What does this mean for you?
Health care reform is going to happen, and will be driven by both sides of the political aisle (Krugman representing the liberal and big business and the Economist the intelligent conservative). There will be a major effort at health care reform in the next two years. Pay close attention, and seek to understand the underlying motivations, for therein lies the impact on your organization.


May
10

Medicare cuts in MD reimbursement

California HealthLine has an excellent roundup of Medicare news. Most significant is their take on physician reimbursement, which is slated to be cut by 4% on 1/1/2006. Lawmakers appear to be interested in rescinding the cut, which would be consistent with their actions the last time Medicare physician reimbursement cuts were slated to take place.
Expect changes late in the year or early next – I know, early next year would be after the cuts are scheduled to take effect. The political winds are moving in that direction, with the AMA and AARP staking out positions (no surprises there)
What does this mean for you?
1. With most state WC and other fee schedules tied to Medicare rates, cuts in physician reimbursement will directly affect payouts in these lines of insurance.
2. If Congress does not act until early next year, companies tasked with implementing fee schedule changes will find themselves burning the midnight oil to build fee schedule tables that can meet either eventuality -cut or no cut.
3. PPO discounts are often pegged to Medicare, so their revenues will either increase or stay the same, depending on what Congress does.
4. And most important, a decrease in reimbursement will lead to more physicians dropping out of Medicare, Medicaid, and any reimbursement program tied directly to Medicare. Today physicians ask for, and receive, reimbursement higher than the state fee schedule in WC in Massachusetts. Florida raised its fee schedule from 87% of Medicare (on average) to 114% in large part due to physicians refusing to take the lower reimbursement. Early evidence is physicians are returning to the system, and utilization has not increased.
Editorial statement – price controls simply do not work. When will the politicians, managed care “experts” and PPO companies learn this?


Joe Paduda is the principal of Health Strategy Associates

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