ACA 101: Hammers. Nails and An Employer’s Search for Objective Advice


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In ancient Athens, the philosopher Diogenes wandered the daylight markets holding a lantern, looking for what he termed, “an honest man.” It seems since the dawn of the consumer economy that customers and buyers have traded most heavily on a single currency – trust. Three millennia later, our financial system still hinges on the basic premise that the game is not rigged and any trusted intermediary is defined by a practitioner who puts his client’s interests ahead of his own.

Anyone responsible for procurement of healthcare may feel like a modern-day Diogenes as they wander an increasingly complex market in search of transparent partners and aligned interests. The art of managing medical costs will continue to be a zero-sum game where higher profit margins are achieved at the expense of uninformed purchasers. It’s often in the shadowed areas of rules-based regulation and in between the fine print of complex financial arrangements that higher profits are made. Are employers too disengaged and outmatched to manage their healthcare expenditures? Are the myriad intermediaries that serve as their sentinels, administrators and care managers benefiting or getting hurt by our current system’s lack of transparency and its deficit of information?

Who’s to Blame for the Failure to Rein In Healthcare Costs?

In his recent column “Yes, Employers Are To Blame for Our High Medical Prices,” Princeton political economist Uwe Reinhardt controversially lays partial blame for the healthcare cost crisis at the feet of employers. Reinhardt suggests that some employers have been passive, uninformed and in some cases, unable to muster the internal energy to get their own leadership teams to commit time to becoming more informed purchasers of health services. Where corporate procurement might realize aggressive discounts from vendors, healthcare has remained outsourced to insurers who have been largely unsuccessful in controlling rising costs and conflicts of interest.

Poor procurement arises out of a failure to act properly – to be informed, to be prepared and to ask the right questions. Some critics of our broken system complain that employers are simply getting poor advice from consultants, agents and brokers who often move at the speed of disruption-averse clients. Some point to government for public-to-private cost-shifting, poorly conceived legislation, and poor regulatory oversight over an industry that has witnessed the rapid consolidation of hospitals and insurers into an oligopoly of control that is difficult to deconstruct.

As the next phases of reform plays out across public and commercial markets, unintended consequences, odd alliances and new conflicts of interest will arise out of the ground fog of purchasing choices. Employers without a firm grasp of the key elements of healthcare cost-management are likely to fall prey to flavor-of-the-month stop gap solutions or Trojan Horse cost-shifting schemes that may control employer costs but will do little to ameliorate underlying negative trends.

Will Self-Centered Fear Reveal the Worst of the Industry?

Healthcare industry stakeholders are scrambling to remain relevant as the locomotive of Obamacare leaves the station. Players once considered essential stewards and stations along the tracks to controlling healthcare costs are worried that they may soon be bypassed. Disintermediation is weighing heavily on anyone who sits in between those that deliver care and those who consume it. The national vision seems clear: universally affordable health coverage leading to lower costs for both the private and public sectors. And while we are at it, let’s toss in a free flat-screen TV.

Employers are naturally cynical to the legislative complexities of the ACA and are having a tough time trying to figure out how to use the momentum of health care reform to make changes that will insulate them from future cost increases. But, it’s hard to know which direction to go – especially when opinions diverge around the likelihood that market-based reforms can lead to sustained low single-digit medical trend. It’s getting hard to know whose opinion to believe, and worse yet, what is motivating their point of view.

The anxiety around disintermediation is causing many stakeholders to explore how to move up and down the services value chain in an effort to carve out a permanent role as a participant in the new age of healthcare delivery. In doing so, many firms are discovering inherent channel conflicts and developing facilities that may cannibalize their own existing business models to survive the digital transformation of an analog industry.

If we believe that any 2.0 version of a solution should be better, faster and cheaper, we should be excited about the changes that lay ahead. The challenge for employers will be to see through to the institutional incentives that are causing many players to pivot into new business models – consultants selling products, hospitals selling insurance, insurance companies becoming providers, and employees being asked to become consumers. Just how muddy is the water getting? Consider the following positions.

Hospitals

As inpatient admissions continue to decline and larger healthcare systems find themselves burdened with brick-and-mortar overhead and high unit costs, there is pressure to continue to pivot into integrated health delivery and higher volumes of ambulatory and outpatient services. So far, so good.

With healthcare reform, these same hospitals are being encouraged to form risk-bearing Accountable Care Organizations (ACO) to help manage population health of retirees and share in the subsequent savings that could be achieved by focusing on value instead of volume. It seems an easy jump to turn an ACO into a commercial venture offering employers the ability to contract directly with the large hospital system as their medical home – essentially becoming an HMO, bearing risk for the health of its members. Incentives change from treating illness to keeping people healthy. The big problem is most of the hospital systems putting their toe in the water of these risk arrangements are also the most expensive hospitals in any PPO network.

Will these hospitals be able to achieve competitive unit cost and low year-on-year trend increases, or will they simply reduce some cost by disintermediating insurers but continue to charge higher costs for services? Once risk shifts to integrated healthcare delivery systems, expect more liability arising out of alleged conflicts of interest and rationing of care.

Insurers

Many argue that insurers, not unlike banks, have become highly risk averse and are rapidly moving toward a new role as health service and technology infrastructure providers. Most insurers have failed to become trusted consumer brands. Much of this distrust is arguably deserved given their historic insensitivities to customer service and business practices that left purchasers unable to decipher the complex and seemingly arbitrary calculus of pricing and claims payment policies. Most small and mid-sized employer renewals have become frustrating annual rites of passage.

Truth be told, most fully insured employers are beginning to understand that healthcare is like a Las Vegas casino – if you play long enough, the House always wins. The deck is further stacked against business as employers are often scared away from more efficient financing methods like self-insurance to fully insured, bundled programs where all health services are provided through a single insurer including RX, behavioral health, chiropractic and radiology. Bundling affords insurers ample pricing mobility to move required margins across a range of services to achieve their profit targets. While there is nothing illegal with these business practices, it does give rise to healthy cynicism regarding the industry’s commitment to achieve affordable care over personal profit. As one healthcare executive commented, “Look, our job is to hide the Easter eggs and your job (as an advisor) is to find them.”

Public managed care stocks are enjoying 52-week highs as Wall Street clearly sees no signs of near-term pricing pressure. Optically, the new insurer business model, which is now expanding into Medicaid and Medicare, gives the appearance that insurance firms are operating at lower margins while their health service subsidiaries report record growth and profit. It’s hard to trust a vendor who is both serving clients as claim payer and providing services through a subsidiary for undisclosed transfer pricing. This practice will give rise to conflicts of interest as payers pivot into providing care.

Consultants

Large consulting firms have long-since laid claim to the high ground of objective employer advocacy. As retiree medical and RX costs began to balloon in the late 2000’s, consulting firms saw value in carving out elements of these costs from insurers — creating owned and managed facilities to purchase drugs and offer defined contribution retiree exchanges. A rush of mergers and consolidations introduced additional services to traditional Human Resource and Employee Benefits consultants offering outsourced administration and defined contribution exchanges for active employees. The success of these first-generation facilities led to higher margin annualized revenue streams and a pressure to expand proprietary product solutions into a culture that had historically been agnostic to solutions and vendors.

As employers express interest in exchanges and alternative delivery models, consulting firms see an opportunity to leverage their trusted relationships to steer clients to owned and operated facilities. While clearly believing their owned solutions offer a better mousetrap, the fee for service consulting community is now confronted with a business model conundrum. Do we create products and proprietary facilities to meet the profitable and growing demand for administration and service platforms? If so, will our own consultants consent to steering our customers to our own facilities?

To add additional pressure, Wall Street has rewarded public consulting firms and defined contribution/benefits administration companies with generous valuation uplifts – increases in market cap well ahead of actual enrollment, creating internal pressure to promote exchange participation to deliver on analyst expectations. Certain analysts are convinced that the majority of large employers will convert to exchange-based purchasing in the next decade and in doing so, they are seeking to invest in firms that seem positioned for these future purchasing trends.

The administrative services that accompany many proprietary online enrollment platforms will benefit exchange managers, creating almost captive relationships as employers see higher frictional costs moving from one exchange to another. Employers may essentially be stuck paying annual administration and commissions as part of an exchange-based relationship. Where a consultant should play the role of trusted advisor to help choose the exchange that is best for their client, firms will now be pushing their people to endorse their own exchanges, and in some cases, promote financing arrangements that defy decades of empirical data — in particular those exchanges that are encouraging employers to convert from self-insurance back to fully insured financing as a means to promote purer competition between carriers. Befuddled HR professionals are increasingly torn between long-term institutional relationships and a nagging suspicion that their consultant is now promoting a model out of self-interest. Now armed with hammers, it appears that every client is beginning to go look like a nail.

Brokers/Agents

Brokers and agents have long enjoyed a too-cozy rapport with their HR and Benefits counterparts in small and mid-cap America. In the world of middle-market brokerage, generalists are often advising generalists and relationships routinely trump fiduciary accountability. Brokers leverage relationship-based trust and are often heavily influenced by how they are remunerated. Some brokers prefer fully insured plans as administrative costs, taxes, fees and commissions are commingled and not as visible to a cursory review of costs. One could argue that commissions by their very nature create conflict of interest. The continued practice of volume and contingent-based bonus payments also clouds the broker’s ability to claim total objectivity.

Most relationship-based employers do not question or understand their broker’s remuneration arrangement or in some cases, may knowingly pay higher commissions to their broker so the broker might serve as an outsourced benefits staff – using headcount that HR could never successfully justify internally because of finance and staffing controls.

Healthcare 2.0 will be characterized by data – lots of data and an increased dependence on compliance and technical resources that will shake the traditional transactional broker profit model to its core. Informed clients will desire transparency and accountability for all services, and judge value based on a numerator of outcomes divided by a denominator of cost of services. Brokers will need to be able to demonstrate actionable interventions, improve clinical trends, assist with optimal financing arrangements (including actuarial support for plan value-setting and financial forecasting), provide strong communications and HR support for concierge and employee engagement tools, and understand healthcare economics expertise to hold insurers accountable for achieving network discounts while limiting hidden margins and fees. Transactional placement skills will be table stakes as the 2.0 broker reinvents themselves as a solutions provider with no embedded conflicts of interest. The big question remains: Is it possible for the broker’s goals to align completely with the client’s goals?

Human Resources

A Human Resources manager facetiously shared with me, “I got into the business because I really liked people and I hated math. I now spend my days with a calculator trying manage a massive human capital spend and I don’t really like people.” If you watch where most HR and Benefits Managers’ feet go, it is not in the direction of disruption and greater intervention into the personal and consumer healthcare habits of employees. America’s C Suite has been surprisingly unwilling to spend the time with HR to understand the root causes of their healthcare costs and instead condones what is now a regular and unimaginative annual cost-containment exercise of cutting benefits and increasing contributions as a means to achieve a workable healthcare renewal price point.

While Professor Reinhart’s gentle rebuke of HR may have been a bit undeserved, it is not completely without merit. Structure has long since trumped strategy in employer healthcare plan management. A good renewal sees very little changing, when in fact, change must occur if behavior is going to change. “Disruption” is a broad, amorphous HR term used to describe anything that creates additional work in the form of employee complaints and additional distractions from the job of doing one’s job. To avoid the steeper slopes of the healthcare cost-containment mountain, those charged with overseeing Human Capital have travelled the easier, well-trod trails of cost-shifting, resulting in the erosion of take-home pay.

Given that 90% or more of America’s HR and Benefits professionals are responsible for healthcare but are not rewarded for delivering low, single-digit medical trend, it’s no wonder that their focus is on where they do get rewarded – limiting noise, smoothing feathers and keeping the planes and trains of human capital running on time.

One HR Manager related, “It’s hard to get management to focus on the complexities of healthcare spend. They want to see the year-over-year costs and whether their doctor is still in the PPO network. They don’t have the attention span or interest in tackling all these issues.” Sound familiar?

So Who Can An Employer Trust?

Trust and transparency must be the currency that anchors the employee benefits marketplace of tomorrow. No one in a corporate HR and Benefits role can afford to be seen as a friend and not be seen as a fiduciary. Stakeholders – insurers, consultants, brokers, providers – are all scrambling to preserve their roles as trusted B2B advisors while nervously anticipating a growing consumer market. While public exchanges limp along and blue states and red states fight over the notion that reform is succeeding, employers will be on their own for the foreseeable future – forced to revisit their vision, strategy and structure for healthcare and benefits. In the end, it’s all about aligning incentives. If a CEO tells his/her HR team that 2015 bonuses hinge on managing medical costs to a 3% trend or less – without raising contributions or reducing benefits – one wonders whether friends will become overnight fiduciaries.

In the months and years ahead, employers will find themselves wandering among the tall trees of monolithic insurers and a dizzying new roster of online and consumer engagement tools. It will be all about alignment of interests and holding people accountable for results – not bedside manner. Purchasing will require a lot of homework, faith and a strong sense of the corporate values of the partners you choose to help you shape your plans.

If ever there was a time for honest, unfiltered advice, it’s now. The search is on for affordable healthcare and for stakeholders who are beholding only to their client’s interests to get costs under control

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About Michael Turpin

Healthcare executive with experience working in the US and in Europe. I have sharpened the flinty edge of my personal humor and opinion pieces over a 30 year career in managed care organizations, insurance brokerage and consulting where I have witnessed a lifetime of missed opportunities and black comedies. I speak and write regularly on a range of business, public policy, humor, family and personal opinion topics which are published weekly in two local CT newspapers - The New Canaan and Darien News Review. In June, 2012 I published my first novel T-Rex By The Tail - a comical journey through the looking glass of parenting as we contrast the Jurassic style of 1970s fathers and mothers to the more politically correct Baby Boomers who now negotiate with their teen terrorists. The novel was followed by a second, a prequel entitled Bicentennial Rex, a descent back into 1976 - a dark time in the Force for Conservatives. Both books are available on Amazon, The San Marino Toy and Book Shoppe and at New Canaan's Elm Street Books.
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4 Responses to ACA 101: Hammers. Nails and An Employer’s Search for Objective Advice

  1. William R Caldwell says:

    Hi Mike,

    This blog is absolutely terrific. I wish you could get this article published in the WSJ. Can you make this happen? Your resume just might make it possible.

    I am going to see the Smocks this weekend at Three Rivers.

    All the best!

    Bill Caldwell

    ________________________________

  2. lilclose says:

    After spending 10 years on the HR side of this, I had to chime in.

    Here’s how the conversation with business executives really goes in one version or another:

    We buy a lot of different types of insurance. Why do we need a broker, why cant we buy it ourselves. (Why is this so complicated compared to all other insurance) Who the hell are they saying we need a 20% increase? Did I increase sales 20% (this is unsustainable). If they know so much about healthcare, where the is their wellness program. Get a wellness program (control inputs). I have a business to run and this is ridiculous – our hands are tied and there’s no one to trust.

    I spent half of my career irritated by their lack of wanting to get into the details of this mess and the later half of my career agreeing with them and disgusted by the insurers and the healthcare system. Their fight is akin to getting mad at kids for not wanting to spend their days in a crappy school doing worksheet after worksheet. But alas, the education system is failing, so it must be the kids fault right?

    Of course it’s the employers fault, right? Let’s blame the consumer too. They obviously don’t know how to price out services, exercise, or eat right, either?

    If any other industry had the GALL to blame their end users, they would be out of business. But not our holy insurance companies in America. Blessed be their profits.

  3. lilclose says:

    Ps – great post. Can you tell this subject gets me a little jazzed up?

    • Loved it. The only way to change this mess is to get ticked off. I always warn audiences before I give presentations,” this is really going to piss you off if I have correctly presented the information.” This is really about horribly unaligned incentives. The guys who wrote Freakonomics got it right. You want to change anything. Change the incentives. Thanks for sharing !!!

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