The Great Wellness Revolt of 2011

Revolutionary Russian sailors of Russian Imper...
Image via Wikipedia

The scene opens with a fit, thirty-something man running down the hallway of an office building.  His white shirt is stained on right side by what appears to be orange juice. He frantically looks behind him to see if anyone is following him and knocks over a female colleague – spraying papers into the air.  He spins, tumbles, hesitates and then runs through a door marked, “ Human Resources – Compensation and Benefits”

He bursts into an inner office where a 50ish woman is on the phone – laughing.  She frowns glancing at him as he shuts the door and peers between her Levolor blinds.

Carol: (Covering the phone) What the hell are you doing, Johnson ?  Aren’t you supposed to be downstairs conducting the annual benefit enrollment meetings?

Johnson (Terrified, turning to show his stained shirt) : Are they coming?  Did you see anyone?  Those five women – you know the ones who go walking every day at lunch – one of them threw an orange at me right in the middle of my presentation.

Carol: (Swivels in her chair, turning her back on Johnson and is about to speak into the phone when she sees all her phone console lines blinking at once. Her cell phone begins to vibrate in her purse. She speaks into the phone)

Tim, let me get back to you.  Something seems to be going on here at Corporate. (she hangs up and let’s her phone start to ring. )

Cindy grab those calls will you?  (she glances at her cell and sees it is her West Coast HR representative. She holds up her hand to Johnson who is about to say something) Shhh! I have to take this cell call. (She answers the cell)

Phil, I hope this can wait.  I have a …..

( She listens intently as a barely audible voice is whispering on the other line )

Phil, I can barely hear you.  (frowning again) You’re where?  The women’s bathroom – – in a stall?  Phil, I don’t need to tell you that.  What?  Who is after you?  Well, did you call security?  What do you mean, the elevator is not working? The security guard says it’s too far to climb eight flights of stairs?

(She listens and stands up.  She looks out her front window and notices that several employees in suits are doing push ups and jumping jacks in the parking lot.  There are signs being removed from the back of a truck that read, “ Lower Your Cholesterol, Lower My Cost for Health Insurance”, “ That Donut You’re Eating Just Cost Me $50.00”, and “Cut Your Risk Factors, Not My Benefits.”

What the hell is going on?   What?  No Phil, I was not talking to you.  What happened? At your enrollment meeting? Flesh mob? Flash Mob? What did you….Vending machines?  A glasscutter?….Only the candy bars and chips? Apples?  How the hell did someone smuggle 500 apples into the office without us seeing them? Every desk? What?  ‘An apple a day, keeps your colon okay?” Who the hell wrote that?

A flustered secretary opens the door and Johnson hides under her desk with his butt sticking out of the narrow opening.  Carol looks down and barks.

Johnson, for God’s sake get out from underneath that desk.  Cindy, WHAT IS IT? “

Cindy (talking very quickly): Every HR representative is calling from the field.  Apparently, during the open enrollment session this morning, there was a coordinated protest over our raising premiums and decreasing benefits. Several people removed their business suits and were wearing workout clothes.  They started exercising and chanting inappropriate slogans about how this company does not care about employee healthcare.  Someone turned over all the vending machines in St Louis.  A group of CSRs in Dayton who conduct Zumba classes every day at noon have demanded that we do biometric testing on all the people working in the call center.  They seem to have somehow figured out that all of our big medical claims came from several people who have not seen the doctor in years.”

Carol looks out the window and sees an overweight security guard trying to take a sign away from a younger, much thinner man in a track-suit.  The young man is taunting the guard and running just ahead of him until the guard stops and places both hands on his knees and throws up.

Carol (talking to herself): This is getting out of hand. Ok, has anyone been hurt?

Johnson ( muffled, still under the desk ): I told you that this was a problem.  I told you.  Just look at Safeway.  They found that 66% of their diabetics were not compliant with their own treatment regimens. They cut premiums for people who engage. raising premiums for people who refuse to make lifestyle changes. Driving employee engagement.  Remember that note I brought you that someone had left next to all those cookies in the lunchroom? It was a warning from this, whatever they call themselves – wellness terrorist group.  It said, “If your LDL is over 130, don’t even think about it.” Remember, you thought it was some kind of a joke?  Well, what about the sticky note on Larry’s (the CFO’s) door: “Dear Larry, ever thought about the relationship between a lap band operation and operating income?”  Think about it, Ms. Whiffler. It all makes sense. This is a wellness rebellion!

Carol: (disgusted) Get a hold of yourself, Johnson.  This is not the Russian Revolution.  It’s a coup of those exercise nuts we see running and walking every day.  They are trying to get us to spend a lot of time and energy on something that can’t be proven to show an adequate return on investment.  I mean have you seen the call center staff in New Hampshire? Do you really think we are going to change these people’s lifestyles and get them to stop smoking and overeating? Have you ever seen what happens when we put any free food in that lunch room?  I mean I could put dog dirt on that table and if it said ”free”, someone would eat it.

(Carol suddenly remembers the king-sized Butterfinger bar she has in her desk drawer. She sighs and thinks: what I would not give to eat that baby and take a nap. The phone rings.  Cindy looks at the console.  She glances up)

Cindy: It’s Mr. Lawson on line one (the Chief Financial Officer )

Carol: Ok, nobody panic. (looks at Johnson and hisses ) and no more talk about fitness mutinies and exercise insurrections. (Picks up the phone and composes herself) Hi, Larry.  What can I do for you?  (A loud voice penetrates the entire office out of the handset) What? Oh my. Well, yes, I….No, I did not know someone left that note on your door until a few days ago.  What?  What did this one say? (she stops and tries to suppress a smile) A manatee? Oh, yes, now I remember – the large, endangered mammals in Florida?…..No, I do not think they were threatening you by choosing to compare you to an endangered species…..Absolutely, we will fire the person on sight if we can find them. Yes, yes, ok…I will circle back to you in a few hours.  We seem to have some issues with the employees around the benefit plan cuts and premium increases.  (more yelling)

Yes, I think they understand we have a new private equity owner who expects us to improve earnings. Yes, better cutting benefits and increasing contributions than reducing the workforce.  No, I don’t think they know how thankless our jobs are. (She glances at Johnson who has now emerged from under the desk. He is rolling his eyes and sticking his finger down his throat and pretending to gag. She gives him a sharp disapproving look. ) Yes, yes, right away.

Johnson: You know he could stand to lose about 50 lbs. I bet he thinks BMI is a kind of foreign car and that a Statin is a Borough of Manhattan. He’s the one who stopped us from reducing the PPO network and implementing some of those changes that would have redirected people to lower cost, higher quality hospitals – all because his doctor was not in the narrower network.

Carol looks out the window.  Over 50 people are engaged in an impromptu Zumba class.  Three overweight security guards are seated watching them in a golf cart.  One is drinking a Coke and smoking.

Carol: Well, he is the boss.

Johnson: Yes, a boss that dropped on our heads like a 300 lb wrecking ball.

Well, boss, what are you proposing we tell everybody around the country?   We have HR reps hiding in bathrooms. The “Fitness Taliban” in control of a half a dozen offices. I can count the lawsuits now from our overweight employees claiming a hostile work environment. (Imitating Keifer Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer  in “24” ) Well, Madam President, what is our next move? Your team is awaiting further instructions.

( Silence. Johnson continues) You know, if we had just dug in our trainers around biometric testing, penalties for smoking, incentives for wellness and compliance based rewards to make sure people adhere to their chronic illness medications, we could have prevented this mutiny.

Carol: (Irritated) Quit using that word.  Who the hell is going to do all this testing and keeping track? You?  Me? We just fired four HR reps. We have cut our budget and we now have the lowest ratio of HR/Benefits staff to employees in our industry.  The sad truth is, Johnson, it’s easier to pay the increased costs and then pass them on to all employees then try to get them to change.  We are in the business of selling HR and payroll administration systems, not the business of trying to get someone’s spouse from eating Oreos.

Johnson: Well, I’m telling you that our costs have increased 50% in the last three years and we have passed on 80% of those increases to our people.  Wages have increased by about 12% in that same period.  My guess is most people’s take home pay has been consumed by our new high deductible plans, increased cost sharing and new drug plan formulary.  They are pissed off.

Carol: So, what do you propose, Mr Bleeding Heart?

Johnson: Actually, my heart is in great shape. Cholesterol? 145.  Triglycerides? 110. Fasting glucose ? Less than 80. I run three days a week and I have given up dairy. Cherie (his girlfriend ) has just turned vegan.

Carol: ( Rolling her eyes) You sound like one of those P90X terrorists.

Johnson: Well, if the shoe doesn’t fit, then you can’t wear it. Look, I say, we immediately circle back to all employees and tell them that we have heard them.  We can easily launch a voluntary biometric plan for our renewal and offer to hold premiums flat for those who participate.  For those who choose to not get tested, they will pay the increased cost of coverage.

We can get our insurer to pay for the testing and use the penalties to offset the partial costs of the increase.  We then meet with Larry and Ron (the CEO) and show them a five-year pro forma of our current medical trends and the impact of us reducing medical trends by 3% each year. Those guys understand profits.  Every dollar saved times a 10X multiple is money in their pocket when we go public.

We pay over $ 15mm in claims.  The savings of a lower compounded medical trend, reduced catastrophic claims, improved productivity and morale will more than make up for the “hassle factor.” Quite frankly, those that consider healthy living an imposition are probably the same ones back at their desks today eating Krispy Kremes while the healthy employees are protesting. If we can just find people who are sick and don’t know it and stabilize those that are chronically ill by reducing financial, physical or mental barriers to care, we would be a great shape. (He smiles) No pun intended.

Think about how we nickel and dime our people on travel and other administrative costs, yet we completely ignore these rising costs because we find it easier and less “disruptive” just pass to them on to the employees.  Well, guess what?  They are telling us, enough is enough.  We have to do something different and be more responsible.  You cannot engage employees if your management is not engaged.

Carol: (looking out the window.  One of the security guards has joined the Zumba class while the other two have left the parking lot on foot leaving the golf cart behind) Okay, call all the reps and let’s have an emergency follow-up meeting this afternoon.  Dust off that proposal from the insurer and our broker and let’s put some numbers around it.

Johnson smiles approvingly and leaves her office.  She shuts the door and falls back into her chair.  A button pops off her blouse and she shakes her head, feeling sorry for herself.  She remembers the Butterfinger and opens the drawer.  She glances at it and then picks it up.  She stands and goes to the window. She tears open the wrapper.

She turns and decisively walks out to her secretary’s desk.  She drops the candy bar in the waste can.

Cindy, hold my calls. I’m going outside to do some Zumba.

Is Your Lack of “MQ” Costing You Money ?

Dunce
Image by I like via Flickr

As health reform continues to play out across state legislatures and within Washington, employers continue to wrestle with rising costs and the corrosive effects of skyrocketing medical trends. It’s clear that there is enormous variability among employers in their confidence and abilities to identify, mitigate and manage the complexities of the employer sponsored healthcare delivery system.

Many industry pricing and billing practices are opaque. Employers are not always getting good advice and often have to entrust the management and control of employee benefit plans to generalists who do not have the time, resources or ability to engage in managing a corporate expense that has eclipsed a composite average of $11,000 per covered employee.

If employer sponsored healthcare is going to survive to drive market based changes that cut fraud, waste and insist on personal health improvement, corporate decision makers must improve their Medical Quotient (MQ). While larger employers such as Safeway have begun to reap the dividends of lower costs by driving employee health improvement and employee engagement through prevention and chronic illness management, small and mid-sized businesses are increasingly getting failing scores for understanding and managing their own cost drivers.

Success in managing medical costs begins with understanding one’s own MQ and committing to improve it against a rapidly changing market that is exceeding the rate of change of many HR and financial professionals. Jack Welch once commented, “When the rate of change outside an organization exceeds the rate of change within, the end is near.” While ignorance can be bliss, it is an expensive consequence in employer sponsored healthcare. Can HR generalists and less engaged CFOs and CEOs finally grab the horns of their own population health costs and drive toward a healthier tomorrow?

Consider the following as you gauge your own MQ:

1. A Value based plan design:

a) indexes an employee’s maximum out-of-pocket to their gross earnings

b) limits co-pays and out-of-pocket costs for drugs and specific treatment therapies to facilitate chronic condition compliance

c) offers multiple plan design options based on an employee’s gross earnings

d) waives all cost sharing for all benefits to remove barriers to care

e) establishes a fixed fee amount that an employee must pay for every service rendered under a health plan to promote consumerism

2. The American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) preclude an employer from:

a) collecting and evaluating (through Human Resources) claims data on each employee and then setting contribution penalties based on chronic conditions

b) collecting and evaluating (through a Third Party) claims data on each employee and then setting contribution incentives based on prevalence of risk factors and compliance with wellness program engagement

c) relegating smokers to a less comprehensive plan design if they refuse to engage in smoking cessation

d) charging up to 30% contribution differentials to those employees or spouse who do not participate in a health risk assessment, biometric testing or general wellness program

3. Match the following percentage of modifiable risks per 100 workers in an employer population:

a) Obese/Overweight                               1. 21%

b) Smoking                                                  2. 66%

c) Sedentary Lifestyle/No Exercise       3. 29%

d) Stress/Anxiety/Mental Health         4. 39%

e) High Blood Pressure                            5. 33%

4. What did a recent National Business Group on Health survey calculate as the additional percentage of cost increases that unengaged employers are likely to pay for healthcare versus employers who have committed to managing population risk and employee engagement:

a) 2%

b) 5%

c) 10%

d) 20%

e) No difference

5. Match the average percentage of retail charges for medical care that is generally charged by physicians and reimbursed based on the plan payer:

a) Medicare                                  1. 126%

b) Commercial Insurance        2. 250%

c) Uninsured Consumer           3. 67%

d) Medicaid                                  4. 84%

6. Match the percentage of your claims dollar attributable to its corresponding category of costs:

a) Facilities – Inpatient & Outpatient                            1. 50%

b) Physicians (Primary Care)                                          2. 12%

c) Prescription Drug                                                           3. 23%

d) Physician (Specialists)                                                 4. 15%

7. According to Compass Consumer Solutions, contracted rates for services can vary by as much as what % within the same approved PPO network?

a) 15%

b) 300%

c) 75%

d) 1000%

e) No variation – all contracted rates are consistent between providers

8. In 2014, health insurance exchanges will offer the following:

a) community rated plans that allow for preferred pricing if employers achieve health improvement and lower utilization

b) federal subsidies for all employees who choose to purchase through the exchange

c) access to the Federal Employee Benefit Plan to take advantage of government employee purchasing economics

d) bronze, silver and gold coverage options for consumers and employers under 50 employees seeking to purchase pooled, insured coverage

e) tax credits for employers who choose to drop coverage and subsidize coverage for all employees purchasing through the exchange

9. Under new health reform legislation, an insured employer of 50 or more employees’ individual loss ratio ( claims as a percentage of total premium ) cannot be less than:

a) 80%

b) 85%

c) 75%

d) 90%

e) Loss ratio rules do not apply to each employer, only across insurer books of business by license and by state

(See Answer Key for scores)

A higher MQ means a lower cost – As you tally your scores and ponder the range of questions and answers, understand that a lower MQ is costing you money. If you are relying on a broker or advisor who does not help you understand the increasing complexities of insurer underwriting, network economics and provider contracting, you are not getting full benefit for your advisory spend. It’s not enough to delegate the role of managing plans to a third-party.  A high will, but low skill brokerage relationship may have you permanently stuck in remedial Health 101 with no hope of graduating to lower costs.

Employers need to understand an increasingly complex landscape and be capable of deconstructing their healthcare spend.  Ignorance literally is costing you money. A higher MQ requires knowledge of: every insurer’s product plan design options, population health management programs, utilization data analytics options, predictive modeling tools that can forecast future utilization trends, options to identify high risk and at risk insureds through biometric testing, clinical outreach programs intended to stimulate engagement, state and federal legislative trends and more cost effective risk financing options such as self insurance. If you have a low MQ, the odds are you are probably paying too much for your risk transfer (insurance) and not enough time on understanding your claims.

The good news is that a low MQ is treatable and that sophisticated solutions are no longer the exclusive domain of the larger employer. In an industry crowded with advisors, there are no bad students, only bad teachers. A good teacher pushes their student out of their comfort zone.  In healthcare, a strong advisor forces an employer to understand the difference between change and disruption. For most mid-sized employers, the MQ resources required to properly understand and manage costs do not have to exist within your own organization. They can reside with other knowledge workers – your insurer, your broker/consultant, and third-party vendors who specialize in managing health risk. However, each year, your own understanding of your costs and the industry should be improving. In the end, the investment you make to understand your own corporate health will be paid back through the significant dividends of lower average medical costs and a greater sense of control in a turbulent market.

Answer key and explanation:

1. b Value based designs are intended to improve compliance for at risk and chronically ill employees to ensure stability in those populations and prevent higher rates of catastrophic illness arising out of unstable conditions. A Safeway study revealed a staggering 55% of diagnosed diabetic employees not complying with recommended courses of treatment. Value based designs eliminate financial barriers to care for specific conditions and help remove excuses for chronically ill to remain compliant.

2. a Contrary to those who might use ADA and HIPAA as a reason to not engage in wellness, the legislation affords employers more than enough latitude to gather biometric data through a third party ( you cannot do it yourself ),  warehouse aggregated population data through a third-party vendor and evaluate health risk profiles and trends to better understand how to impact your population’s health. You can target smoking cessation, obesity, and a range of lifestyle based behaviors that can give rise to catastrophic or acute episodic claims. This data coupled with additional information gathered through claims reviews and health risk assessments can aid any employer in better structuring incentives for employees to improve health status.

3. a2, b1, c4, d5, e3 Most employers have no line of sight on the risks that exist within their specific population. Many of these risks arise out of modifiable behaviors. An alarming number of catastrophic claimants had not filed a claim in the preceding 24 months prior leading up to their event suggesting that they were not under a physician’s care, not compliant with basic preventive services and/or asymptomatically ill but had not seen a physician in the prior 24 months. An alarming 40% of men over 40 years of age have not seen a primary care provider in the last 24 months.

4. c In 2010, medical trend increases for engaged employers tracked a full 10% less than those of their less committed peers. To put this in perspective, calculate your total medical spend in 2010 for claims and administrative expenses. Now reduce that by 10%. Is this 10% dollar savings worth it to you to begin the process of improving your MQ?

5. a4, b1, c2, d3 As government begins to cut back reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid, cost shifting to the uninsured and commercial insurance will accelerate. Once the uninsured are covered under PPACA in 2014, employers over 50 lives will be vulnerable to cost shifting and will need to understand the implications of this commercial pricing shift to avoid subsidizing the major shifts in healthcare reimbursement

6. a1, b2, c4, d3 Employers need to understand where services are being delivered to employees. A simple access shift such as reducing emergency room visits, expanding the use of primary care providers, using soft steerage techniques to guide employees to lower cost, equal quality outpatient care centers can save as much as 15% of one’s medical spend. This savings could be equivalent to the entire administrative spend an employer may make in a year! Loss control and financial management begin with understanding where care is most cost effectively delivered and creating incentives to access the system through these points of entry.

7. b Most employers do not realize the difference in pricing for the same procedures within their own preferred provider network. There is a significant cost an employer bears by insisting on the broadest networks and open access PPOs. Insurer negotiated fee for service discounts do not eliminate the significant variability in charges from one hospital or provider to another. Employers must possess better consumer engagement tools and create financial incentives for people to choose higher quality, lower cost providers or you will end up paying dearly for the cost of your ignorance.

8. d Sadly, health insurance exchanges will not offer significant flexibility or reduced premiums to employers over 50 employees in 2014. In many states, exchanges will not even be available until 2017 for larger employers. The exchanges will be required to engage tight community rating rules limiting the benefits an engaged employer might receive over a less healthy employer. Additionally, a surge in previously uninsured participants covered under expanded Medicaid coverage could lead to a less than desirable risk pool as chronically ill individuals, now covered under Medicaid, seek care through emergency rooms – unable to find providers willing to accept Medicaid.

Regulators will work to control proposed insurer increases with price controls on renewals but these will only serve as stop-gap measures. Employers with over 50 covered insureds need to understand reform was designed to expand coverage for the uninsured and to facilitate aggregated purchasing for individuals and small employers. As insurers lose the ability to make higher margins on smaller business, costs will move to insured employers over 50 lives who will continue to procure healthcare outside exchanges.

9. e Minimum Loss Ratios will be calculated by each insurer – by license and by line of business in each state. Employers may still experience low loss ratios but be underwritten in such a manner that they may receive higher rate increases. Pooled insurance will continue to cost shift from bad risks to good risks. This will drive smaller employers to begin to consider self funding risks to avoid state mandates, premium taxes, insured pooled underwriting cost shifting and limited line of sight on one’s own claims experience.

17-20 points – Valedictorian – You understand the issues. You should be achieving low, single digit trends

14-17 points – Honors – You know what you don’t know. Now do something about it

10-14 points – Passing – You still have a lot to learn. Ask for help.

< 10 Points – Remedial  – You may need to repeat another year of high increases

Be Careful What You Wish For America – The Debate Over Minimum Essential Benefits

President Barack Obama's signature on the heal...
President Barack Obama's signature on the health insurance reform bill at the White House, March 23, 2010. The President signed the bill with 22 different pens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Affordable Care Act is officially under construction.  The framework for the minimum mandatory levels of benefits offered through state exchanges is now being researched and will soon be ready for prime time debate.

The Institute of Medicine, a non-partisan research group, has been retained by Health and Human Services to conduct public and private planning sessions to help shape final recommendations on what standard levels of benefits should be required as a “floor” for all health plans.

The queue of industry and special interest groups increases daily as stakeholders wade in to offer personal perspectives on why certain levels of benefits should be considered as “essential”. The stories will be heart wrenching as individuals plead for broader coverage terms and looser definitions of medical necessity to cover a range of therapies treating orphaned or difficult conditions that do not neatly fit into today’s definitions of coverage.  The unfortunate fact also remains that the average consumer expects “essential coverage” to be synonymous with open access, comprehensive coverage, minimal out-of-pocket cost sharing and an affordable price tag.  In effect, everyone wants a Cadillac when the nation can barely afford a Corolla.

As the IOM solicits perspectives from a range of medical, academic, public and private stakeholders, it is gaining valuable insights into the opportunities and land mines associated with attempting to define a basic level of benefits that can guarantee affordable, sustainable and high quality healthcare.  Those states that have already walked the path of attempting to define mandatory benefits are perhaps the best leading indicators of the intended and unintended consequences of setting benefits levels too high or at more minimal levels.  States such as Maryland, Massachusetts and Utah have struggled and led efforts to set up universal and affordable benefits anchored by standard benefits and medical necessity protocols.  In determining what should be covered by commercial insurance and Medicaid, these and other states can offer valuable lessons to legislators seeking to establish the boundaries of the coverage requirements under ACA.

As the IOM and subsequently HHS consider the flood of opinions from stakeholders, a few unenviable considerations loom large:

Essential benefits will dramatically impact the future level of benefits many employers choose to offer.  Essential benefit levels will determine whether employers continue to offer healthcare and/or what benefits are no longer subsidized. Many believe that if HHS establishes a “national” level of essential benefits, it will become the floor as well as the “mean” to which many employers will gravitate their current medical coverage levels.

A national essential benefit design that establishes lean levels of benefits will prompt some states to consider mandating levels of benefits above and beyond those required in a national essential benefits design. A national design that is too rich could accelerate the budget crisis in states as more employers drop coverage sending employees into exchanges and expanded Medicaid pools increasing the financial burdens already crushing state coffers.

States will naturally argue for the flexibility to administer their own versions of essential benefits, largely because of fear over escalating obligations under Medicaid, legacy coverage and provider issues, the recognition that healthcare is local and that there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” plan.  Legacy budget deficits, the unique nature of each state’s demographics and healthcare delivery systems (single hospital towns vs. large healthcare systems, urban vs. rural care ) and the political mood of its constituents will figure heavily in determining the appetite of each state to advocate a richer or leaner level of mandated essential benefits

While fiscal hawks fear an essential benefit plan that is too comprehensive and therefore too expensive, there is the potential that more pragmatic designs could prevail leading to an essential benefits plan that is less expensive and better designed than many current plans in the market.  Plans anchored by primary care based gatekeepers, value based plan designs, effective cost sharing to promote personal responsibility and consumerism, and network tiering to ensure plans only reimburse at the highest level those providers that practice efficient, high quality care – are likely to run at significantly lower medical trends and in doing so, be able to support lower premiums over a longer period of time.

Change Behavior or Ration Access – Nationalized, single payer health plans offer rich preventive and catastrophic care but suffer the reputation of rationed access issues when delivering elective or non-emergency care. In a political environment where there is often no will to change the underlying behaviors of those utilizing the healthcare system, the only way to control the costs that arise out of unlimited demand and finite resources is to ration access and reimbursement.

CMS may soon be dealing with similar issues if delayed Medicare cuts are ratified by the 112th Congress. Medicare and Medicaid recipients may find themselves with rich benefits but fewer providers willing to accept reduced levels of reimbursement as payment for services. If the provider does accept coverage, the coverage will undoubtedly carry longer waiting times. Providers will either limit the number of recipients they treat or continue down the path of the “triage” encounter as they attempt to make up in volume what they are losing in unit cost.

It is important to note that access does not equal quality.  Yet, many Americans currently believe access is synonymous to quality. In a two tiered public/private system, access is as much a privilege as it is a right. The single payer country determines the pace of one’s access based on medical necessity. The ability to pay for the right to opt into private alternative delivery is the only way of bypassing a payer’s medical necessity and access protocols. While many argue that today’s current for profit system already functions in this capacity, the majority of medical necessity issues arise out of insured individual and small business coverage issues where there is no purchasing leverage and scarce clinical data to support broader coverage.  Individuals working at larger, self insured organizations generally do not have these issues as employers act as plan fiduciaries and have the ability to make the final decisions on medical necessity and reimbursement.

Larger Employers Still Offer The Best Coverage and Most Balanced Cost Sharing – In the last ten years, employee out-of-pocket health cost sharing has risen 149% while wages have only risen 37%. According to a recent Towers Watson survey, the composite cost of healthcare per worker was $ 10,212 in 2010. The average cost sharing contribution per employee was $2,292. The average American worker makes $ 40,000 a year.  The total composite cost of health care per worker as a percentage of salary is 25%.  Employees currently share approximately 22% of coverage cost but only 5.5% of the total cost of this coverage as a percentage of their own gross earnings.

These numbers do not tell a complete story.  Cost sharing is greater among individuals working for smaller organizations as most small employers tend to subsidize less coverage and have less flexibility to affordably purchase more generous plans.  In addition, the average median wage for individuals working for employers of fewer than 50 employees lags those working for larger employers.  The crisis of affordability has been most acute among those who can least afford it.

At the same time as small employers are dropping coverage or fatiguing under its costs, as many as 75% of employees in a recent PWC survey, said that they would prefer to be paid salary in lieu of benefits – opting to purchase healthcare as individuals through newly established exchanges.  It is interesting to note in this PWC study that many of these same employees grossly overestimated what they believed their coverage was worth in additional salary. The question remains for many employers and for those watching healthcare reform develop – can affordable and sustainable essential benefits be established that can incent smaller employers to maintain and even potentially, rejoin those offering coverage?

As many as 70% of Americans earn less than 400% of the Federal Poverty level – the current cut off for ACA offering pro rata subsidies to purchase healthcare through exchanges. If essential benefits begin to eclipse those benefits currently offered by employers and subsidies net a savings to consumers, we may witness a larger migration of employees and their employers out of employer sponsored plans. It then falls to the Congressional Budget Office to recalculate whether the larger base of exchange participants and subsidy recipients has turned a modeled $ 140B reduction in public spending into a massive drag on the national deficit.

A more basic level of affordable essential benefits could induce employers back into the market as well as usher in a return to defined contribution style cafeteria plans – An essential benefits plan anchored by 100% coverage for primary care, shared responsibility through a health savings account, tiered networks, centers of excellence for chronic care, primary care delivered through medical homes and/or gatekeepers and compliance incentives could achieve cost savings while offering coverage  greater than bare-boned mini-med coverage.

A lower level of mandated essential benefits could also prompt employers to reduce richer coverage to a new, more affordable common denominator.   In aligning their benefit plans to a national norm, employers could adopt a defined contribution benefits approach – choosing to fund up to the level of benefits required by law and then grossing up individuals’ salaries one time to afford them the opportunity to spend dollars as they see fit e.g. greater take home pay, purchasing of voluntary benefits, upgrading to more generous medical designs etc.

Better Coverage Does Not Translate To Better Health – Coverage and consumer advocates will be pushing for expansion of coverage definitions to include diseases and medical conditions that have historically been excluded from private insurance.  The definition of medical necessity will be debated as advocates argue that comprehensive coverage will translate into improved public health. One has only to look at financially distressed municipal and collectively bargained plans that offer rich, first dollar coverage combined with broad open access networks to see that better coverage does not translate to better health.

To define and mandate essential coverage is to walk a mine field of ethical, moral and social issues. Some therapies may not necessarily improve the status of one’s health condition but may prevent it from becoming worse.  The unenviable task of establishing a process for determining medical necessity is the first step toward the difficult process adopted by other countries who have wrestled with the cost/benefit of determining what gets covered and what does not.

The UK’s National Institute of Clinical Excellence which determines medical necessity and establishes the basis for reimbursement of certain therapies is often maligned for the difficult choices it makes regarding palliative care and determinations surrounding when and how it may pay for experimental therapies. This is the unenviable role of any payer. Whether it is government making the call or a for profit insurer, any thing that falls to the unreimbursed side of the ledger will be viewed as a diminishing coverage and ultimately public health.

Now is a time for austerity – The dangers of creating unsustainably rich benefits plans are real. Not unlike Medicare, a rich essential benefit plan that drives higher medical trends will contribute to rather than reduce the public debt. If employers choose to drop coverage and more consumers receive federally subsidized coverage, the market will reach a tipping point where federal expenditures for healthcare outstrip the government’s ability to pay.

Aside from raising taxes and increasing assessments for failure to cover employees, the government will want to pressure the provider side of the market to reduce the costs of its services.  If the private insurer market can not reign in the costs of a rich essential benefit design (and they will not), there is a strong possibility that there will be a renewed call for a public option.  Once enough individuals join a cheaper, taxpayer subsidized public option, the public option payer will begin to ration reimbursement to providers as CMS has done with Medicare.  While single payer advocates argue that doctors and hospitals would have no choice but to accept reduced single payer reimbursement, most industry professionals argue that price controls as a means of controlling costs will lead to diminished quality and reduced investment in innovation. This is happening today under Medicare and Medicaid.

The table is being set for another food fight around health reform.  As healthcare impacts every American, we can expect 300 mm opinions on what “essential benefits” should cover.  It is a critical argument at a historic time for our country.  Without introducing fiscal restraint and evidence based medicine into this debate over essential benefits, we may end up with a rich and totally unsustainable level of healthcare.  As a nation we are already suffering from the palpitations of fiscal heart disease and the obesity of public debt. Offering too generous essential benefits could very well induce a budget coronary from which it will be hard to recover.

Be careful what you wish for, America. You may get it.

Michael Turpin is Executive Vice President and National Practice Leader of Healthcare and Employee Benefits for USI Insurance Services. USI provides a range of business and risk brokerage, consulting and administration services to mid-sized and emerging growth companies across the US. USI is privately held and is a portflio company of Goldman Sachs Capital Partners.  Turpin can be reached at Michael.Turpin@usi.biz

Getting Over The New Normal

Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection an...
Image via Wikipedia

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.