Getting Over The New Normal

Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection an...
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Getting Over The New Normal

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin

In her 1969 Book, On Death and Dying, Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes the five stages of grief.  Over a 27 year career marked by mergers, acquisitions, and perpetual change, I have come to accept these five stages as necessary rites of passage that humans must endure as they navigate the inevitable shoals of change. It seems we all must endure denial, anger, bargaining and depression before we finally break through to acceptance.

While we all intellectually agree that our healthcare system is broken and is in profound need of change, most preferred that all the heavy lifting required to reduce healthcare costs as a percentage of US GDP, occurred on someone else’s watch.  As Woody Allen once quipped, “ I don’t mind dying.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

We know that chronic illness, escalating costs, opaque and uneven reimbursement practices, and a $ 38 Trillion unfunded Medicare obligation would eventually bring the nation to its knees.  However, it suddenly felt like the confederacy of agents, brokers, and consultants were passengers on a bus with no breaks that was careening toward a cliff of profound change.  And then it actually happened: health reform.  Prognosis: Uncertain.

Denial – Most brokers and agents objectively looked at reform as a flawed proposition as it failed to address fundamental cost drivers that were clearly contributing to unsustainable healthcare costs.  Brokers were witnessing 20%+ increases for small business, a limited marketplace of insurers, huge barriers to entry for competing health plans and a supply side of providers that were up in arms over serial under reimbursement from the government and a Darwinian reimbursement environment where only the strong could survive.  Our employer clients were angry with increases, predisposed to market their insurance each year to a limited field of insurers, consumed with avoiding disruption and content to cost shift to employees through higher deductibles and co-pays.  It seemed no one was willing to touch the third rail of healthcare – affordability.

High performance networks, promotion of primary care, an emphasis on personal accountability for health improvement and value based plan designs seemed too complex, cumbersome and indecipherable for many small, mid-sized and larger employers who felt they little capital left with employees to impose additional changes.  This reticence to be early adopters of critical cost management programs and the nature of fully insured pooling by carriers for smaller employers, conditioned employers to consider health insurance a commodity. Most brokers happily moved at the speed of their reluctant clients and remained in step with their insurance partners.  Instead of focusing on risk identification, and mitigation, the industry focused on risk transfer, a generation of brokers and agents built wealth but did not seem willing to risk provoking clients out of their own death spiral.  An entire industry was in denial.

Anger – As the Obama administration shifted its strategy from health reform to insurance reform, denial turned to anger as the industry found itself in the vortex of a poison populism. As insurers were pilloried for for-profit practices, and other third party players were painted as parasites draining the system of its sustainability, brokers felt their blood pressure rise.

The seeming hypocrisy of underfunded Medicare obligations, deficit financing by states facing billions in debt, a generation of consumers on the slippery slope toward chronic illness, employers overwhelmed and averse to change and an opaque and increasingly inflexible oligopoly of insurers – – led brokers to feel victimized and marginalized in the debate.

On the other side of the aisle, legitimate questions arose around broker value as critics witnessed commissions that rose with medical premiums and a lack of transparency on base and contingent compensation.  There was difficulty in determining value for services that did not seem to bend the medical trend curve, and seeming relationships of mutual convenience between insurers and brokers that created potential for conflict of interest.

When reform recently passed, brokers gazed across a horizon line of regulations and did not like what they saw.  Brokers recognized legislation as the first step in addressing fundamental flaws in the system but understood clearly that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was uniquely focused on access and insurance market reforms.  It would not materially change the trend line impacting private employers – – in fact, it could very well make it worse in the near term.  Insurers driven by demands as public companies and possessing fewer levers to pull to impact rising medical loss ratios had become less flexible and defensive.

Brokers also recognized incentives in the new legislation that could accelerate the erosion of employer sponsored healthcare as costs would inevitably rise from increased adverse selection, government cost shifting, a new vouchers system allowing individual opt outs and less onerous penalties that could create tempting incentives for employers to drop coverage.

Questions are now being asked: Will the minimum loss ratio calculation pressure carrier’s retentions to where they will begin to unilaterally cut commissions?  Will insurance companies attempt to disintermediate us? Am I prepared to defend my remuneration in the brave new world of transparency? If I convert my larger clients to fee based remuneration will my margins be severely impacted?

Will my lack of size or premium with insurers make me less relevant and more susceptible to unilateral actions? Do I possess the resources necessary to compete in a world where impacting claims costs will be more relevant than entertaining, shopping insurance and adjusting plan design options? Will state connectors attempt to supplant my role as an advisor?

As costs increase in the near term from mandated plan design changes, underwriting restrictions, Medicare cuts and minimum loss ratios, will companion legislation not be far behind that establishes a state or federal rate authority to artificially control prices? Judging from the insanity in Massachusetts – a market exclusively managed by non-profit insurers, universal coverage has led to an affordability crisis and the most expensive healthcare in the US.  Are we headed over this same cliff?  Will a public option reemerge if we cannot reduce barriers to entry for new players to offer employers more choice? Am I going to end up living in a card board box ?

Bargaining and Depression– Career professionals are already beginning to rationalize.  “ We have until 2014 and many of the impacts will not be felt until 2018 and beyond. “  Others whistle in the dark, “ I just need to make it until my kids graduate college.”  This period of bargaining is a mental feint to prolong change as long as one can to avoid the pain of conforming to a new normal.

Some brokers may just sit down in the middle of the road resigned to a belief that if the insurers do not get them in the form of reduced compensation that employer sponsored healthcare will slowly erode and an increasingly crowded and qualified mid-sized and larger employer brokerage and consulting market will leave them little if any role to play.

Some are taking these changes very personally.  These brokers are becoming lightening rods in their local markets and catalysts elevating the discussion and debate about what next needs to happen to achieve access AND affordability.

They have accepted the axiom that any unsustainable trend eventually ends and that it has now happened on their watch.  Attention is focusing on how they can become focal points for local, regional and national change, They recognize they are not bystanders and third wheels but they are key influencers and the nexus between the supply and delivery sides of the business.  They recognize that they must write the next chapter of health reform and not merely be waiting to read each subsequent installment. Their grief has been brief, their anger channeled, their bargaining and depression endured and their entire focus now is on shaping the next stages of change.

Acceptance – Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “each person has a choice to either light a candle or curse the dark.”  The best and brightest in the brokerage community understand that to broker is to consult and to consult effectively, one must enjoy a trusted relationship with a client.  Any practice that erodes that trusted role should be avoided – especially if it is a legacy practice of an industry did not do a good job in changing our opaque and disconnected third party payer system.

Transparency creates enormous opportunity to delineate value.  If value is defined as “outcomes divided by cost”, the successful post reform broker will delineate their services, the outcomes they hope to achieve and the costs of the services they will provide.  Historically, many commission-based clients did not always know broker remuneration, did not employ service contracts and judged a good outcome as the absence of service disruption.  The world has changed.

Consolidation will create odd bedfellows and strange alliances.  However, in the brave new world, advisors must drive value across an entire employer organization.  While insurers will be struggling to dispel the notion that they are not worthy of margins beyond those of a utility, brokers will need to convey value and if they cannot achieve the critical mass and resources required to compete, they will lose business.

The pressure to create competition and choice may help lower barriers to entry in markets and create new competitors to traditional carriers.  More choice for employers requires more advisors to assist them in navigating through the minefields of competing carrier practices.  As companion legislation continues to evolve, the need to serve clients as a legal and compliance interpreter will be essential.  Merely copying new laws and emailing complex regulatory language to customers will weed out lower performers.  Clients want to know: How and when does this effect me?  What should I be thinking about?

Clients will require help in attacking the last frontier of healthcare – employee health and well-being.  The desert of good intentions is littered with the skeletons of ineffective wellness plans that merely nudged individuals toward healthy lifestyles.  True risk mitigation will require leveraging every aspect of the law to intervene to improve public health.  The best and brightest will recognize that a healthy worker is less likely to file a workers compensation claim.  A healthy worker will miss fewer days reducing absenteeism and costs associated with replacement workers. Population Health management will become as standard as loss control for property and workers compensation programs.  It is motivating to think that by structuring a preventive care plan properly, we can detect asymptomatic illness and significantly reduce the rate of lifestyle based chronic illness.

A Brand New Day: Health reform is not terminal.  However, it will require everyone to change.  We are entering a strange, new universe forged out of intended and unintended consequences.  However reform is also a relief because it is the beginning of a process (however unsavory) to arrest an unsustainable trend.  As citizens, free market capitalists and parents, we do not want to leave our children holding the bag with record deficits and massive public debt.  We always knew the process of taming entitlements and changing a dysfunctional third party payer system would be messy.  As most in Congress lack the political will to take on affordability, it will fall to us.

Regardless of the twists and turns in these first few chapters of what will most certainly be a Dickensonian saga, there will always be a role for smart, motivated, transparent and intellectually curious brokers and consultants.  The sooner each of us concludes our stages of grieving and gets on with accepting the new normal, the better chance we have to lock arms and demonstrate that we can be highly influential in a creating a better and more efficient healthcare system for tomorrow.

Cat’s Cradle – Untangling the US Healthcare system

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Should H.R. Stand for Health Reform?

Should H.R. Stand for Health Reform?

By Michael Turpin

There is a story of Winston Churchill addressing an exhausted and beleaguered group of young RAF pilots during the height of the Battle of Britain.  As he surveyed the demoralized men who had logged so many combat hours and had witnessed friends die in battle against a superior Luftwaffe, he stood silent and allowed a heavy pregnant pause to fill the air.  Churchill turned to the pilots and posed just two questions:

“If not you, than who?  If not now, then when? “

The primary purchasers of healthcare for over 180 million Americans are human resource and benefits professionals. The job description for most HR and Benefit professionals is managing human capital.  These increasingly difficult jobs strive to achieve a harmonic convergence of employee attraction, retention and development that leads to growth in revenues and profit.  Yet, when faced with increasingly inflationary healthcare costs and fewer choices to mitigate them, employers are increasingly taking the path of least resistance – passing on rising costs to plan participants rather than confronting more deeply embedded drivers such as poor lifestyles, lack of consumerism and a reluctance of stakeholders to be held accountable.  It’s time we grab our national health crisis by the folds of its own fat and force fundamental change. It is going to ultimately fall to human resource, benefit and other business leaders to deliver some tough messages to stakeholders who have failed to solve this crisis.

As we follow the healthcare reform debate in Congress, the silence from many employers has been deafening. The genesis of true market-based reform can only occur at the level of the employer. HR and benefits leaders must exert a level of influence over the debate. As we enter this era of tough love and economic survival, it’s time for those who are most experienced to speak up.  HR and benefits managers should consider the following eight steps as a means of seizing the high ground in driving market reforms in healthcare.

1)    Advocate “loss control for healthcare” – Most smaller and mid-sized employers feel they have little leverage or control over their healthcare costs.  Ironically, these same individuals are active and aggressive in managing the costs of occupational health through workers compensation loss control programs.  If clinical industry benchmarking data indicates that 6% of a workforce is normally diabetic and your claim data suggests less than a 2% incidence of diabetes within your claims, you may want to focus on determining whether you have a higher rate of undiagnosed illness using health risk assessments and predictive modeling instead of blindly assuming that your loss experience is tracking more favorably than industry norms.  You must design value based plans that remove barriers to care and encourage prevention. It is time we develop strategies to drive non-occupational health management as a course of business.  Call it “wellness”, “productivity improvement” or “presenteeism” – it is all about improving the health of our employees and their families.  The days of fencing with finance over the return on investment of a healthy workforce must be replaced by a corporate commitment to improve workplace health.

2)    Have an opinion – Too many HR and benefit industry professionals do not express their opinions about what needs to change.  Get involved in industry associations.  A friend who runs a major employer coalition in a large US city confided to me how difficult it was to get HR and benefit professionals to participate in roundtable discussions with insurers, hospitals and other key stakeholders.  Call it apathy or a lack of bandwidth. The absence of employers (particularly hard hit mid-sized and smaller employers) voicing strong opinions about how the next iteration of healthcare should evolve in each market creates a void that may soon be filled by politicians and academics who have a less pragmatic understanding of the irreversible downstream consequences of radical reform.

3)    Insist that double digit trend increases are unacceptable – For insurers to continue to deliver core trends in excess of 8% and fully loaded trends well into double digits indicates that payers have not delivered on promises to offer lifestyle changing medical, disease management and claims management impacts. Insurance company underwriting and trend setting practices are an opaque alchemy.  Any vendor who purports to offer health plan management services should have their remuneration tied to managing your medical trend.  In the final analysis, trend drives cost.   If the best that the for profit and not for profit healthcare industry can offer is double digit increases, it deserves to be replaced by an alternative system.

4)    Force the C Suite to get help amplify your message– Senior management, finance and HR must work in partnership to assess risks, seek to eliminate and/or mitigate them, determine which risks should be retained through self insurance and which should be defrayed through risk transfer.  The days of treating insurance renewals like the purchase of a car – “If they get to 10%, tell them we will renew.  Otherwise, put it out to bid” – must be replaced with a more thoughtful year long discussion on claim cost drivers and ideas to mitigate near term and longer range claim costs.  Benefits are an investment, not a commodity.

5)    Understand cost shifting is not cost containment – Managing healthcare expenditures does not mean merely cost shifting increases to employees.  It means engaging and communicating with employees around cost drivers, lifestyle obligations and plan changes that are designed to improve health. Many employers opt for open access networks allowing employees the ability to bypass primary care in favor of more expensive specialty care self-referrals.  These paternalistic designs limit disruption but drive higher medical inflation which in turn, requires more cost shifting to employees. With new claims and episode of care data helping to designate providers who deliver higher quality and lower cost outcomes, we can design a new healthcare system around superior providers and higher quality outcomes.  We can focus on rewarding primary care providers for keeping people healthy instead of bankrupting our system around a legion of medical specialties that are exponentially growing to serve the needs of tomorrow’s chronically and catastrophically ill.

6)    Develop a plan – When was the last time your broker or consultant sat down with you during your budget cycle and helped develop your cost assumptions for the coming fiscal year?  Every 100bps of medical trend saved translates into dollars contributed to earnings, shareholder value or private equity owner returns.  HR and Benefits can been seen in a much more strategic light when a plan is developed and followed – particularly one that drives so much annual cost and increases disproportionately to all other corporate costs each year.

7)    Participate in provider negotiations – Insurers are often maligned for their business practices.  While health plans are clearly focused on shareholders and profits, they are critical partners to managing medical trend.  Most insurers privately confide their lack of confidence that employers will support them if they get into a major fee dispute with a large hospital system or medical group. Larger hospital systems are banking on the fact that employers will not tolerate the noise from employees resulting from the loss of a major healthcare system from their network.  This lack of solidarity forces the insurer to agree to pay larger fee increases in contract negotiations – leading to higher medical trends for the employer.

8)    Calculate broker value as outcomes divided by cost -.  There are 28,000 consultants, brokers, financial advisers and agents delivering advice on healthcare to employers across the US.  Like any industry, there is wide variability among intermediaries.  Many of these middlemen are reactive, focusing on annual plan marketing, issue resolution and administrative support services for HR. In the end, the calculus of determining service value should be outcomes divided by cost.  If you cannot measure outcomes (e.g. year over year trend mitigation, claims and vendor performance management) and you do not know what your broker or consultant charges, it is impossible to determine the value of services.

The greatest single asset we possess in American business is our workforce.  HR and benefits are the ombudsmen and advocates for these human resources and must use benefit plans as levers to drive productivity and process improvement.  Sounds like a big responsibility?  It is.  While HR and benefit leadership may seem thankless in these dark days of recession, rising medical costs, declining profits and layoffs, it can be a highly rewarding platform for those capable of elevating themselves to the role of business leader – helping ensure the personal health of employees, their families and ultimately their company.