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Relative Value Health Insurance And Pay For Performance For Insurers: Complements, Not Substitutes


September 19th, 2014

Background

The quest for value dominates contemporary health policy.  Value, properly defined, is not about cost-savings but about the balance of costs and health benefits — improving the average cost-effectiveness of health interventions.  In choosing which care is funded, insurers are a crucial but commonly neglected driver of health system value.

Insurers can increase health system value by covering fewer cost-ineffective interventions or covering more cost-effective interventions.  Perhaps the earliest attempt to reform insurance, managed care, attempted to pursue both goals, but by the time it was implemented it widely focused (or was perceived to focus) on cost-containment.

A recent insurance reform proposal, known as Relative Value Health Insurance (RVHI), received considerable attention, for instance, in The Upshot, The Incidental Economist, and Forbes.  RVHI enables insurers to reduce their contractual obligation to cover “usual and customary” care.  This and similar earlier proposals rely on the insurers’ natural incentive to cut costs.  Less well-covered, however, are proposals to alter the very incentives of insurers to improve health, which we will call “pay-for-performance-for-insurers” (P4P4I).

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Pediatric Asthma: An Opportunity In Payment Reform And Public Health


September 18th, 2014

Editor’s note: The post is informed by a case study, the third in a series made possible through the Merkin Initiative on Physician Payment Reform and Clinical Leadership, a special project to develop clinician leadership in health care delivery and financing reform. The case study will be presented on Wednesday, September 24 using a “MEDTalk” format featuring live story-telling and knowledge-sharing from patients, providers, and policymakers. 

The Clinical Challenge: A Chronic, but Manageable Illness

Asthma affects 7 million children – more than 10 percent of kids in the U.S. – and is the most common chronic childhood disease. Yet even with high levels of insurance coverage, 46 percent of pediatric patients have uncontrolled asthma. There are substantial gaps in appropriate prescribing and adherence to effective medications. In addition, a multitude of non-medical issues influence a child’s ability to control their asthma: low parental health literacy, poor quality housing, and environmental triggers such as pests, mold, and cleaning chemicals. As a result 800,000 kids visit the emergency department (ED) for asthma each year.

In 2007 (the latest year which data are available) the U.S. spent over $56 billion on asthma care, of which nearly $27 billion was spent on pediatric asthma. Medicaid is the primary payer for pediatric asthma related hospitalizations with 55 percent of the market. Better control may also mean lower medical costs, due to reductions in ED visits, admissions, and other health care utilization – patients with poorly controlled severe asthma cost nearly $5,000 more per patient per year compared to average pediatric asthmatic costs.

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Reference Pricing And Network Adequacy Standards: Conflict Or Concord?


September 18th, 2014

With benefit designs and enrollee cost-sharing increasingly standardized across health plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), one of the remaining levers plans have to differentiate themselves—and to control premiums—is the size of their provider networks. Regulators have been caught in a crossfire between advocates of narrow networks who say they promote quality and keep prices down, and those who feel narrow networks could constrain access to necessary services.

Unfortunately, recent federal guidance – addressing, among other related items, the issue of “reference pricing” — blurs the distinction between in-network and out-of-network providers and may make it more difficult for regulators and consumers to understand the effective “size” of a particular network.

This confusion could undermine the goal of improving transparency in consumers’ health care choices and make it difficult for consumers to use prices in choosing providers. More troubling, expanded use of “reference pricing” under the guidance could leave patients paying unexpectedly large out-of-pocket amounts for services provided by ostensibly in-network providers.

Below, we characterize reference pricing as a “sub-network” contracting strategy, and we describe some of the implications of reference pricing and the guidance for consumers, regulators, plans, and providers.

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Reading Piketty In DC: Does Income Inequality Squeeze Health Spending?


September 16th, 2014

In the past year, an element of mystery and suspense has crept quietly into the long-running saga of health care spending growth, in most times a dreary tale of predictability and frustration.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO)’s August forecast of significant reductions in Medicare spending growth in the next decade will help stoke a running debate about whether the spending slowdown that has outlasted the 2008-2010 recession is merely a delayed effect of the slump or a symptom of structural changes with a life of their own.

The mystery and suspense come from month-to-month uncertainties and inscrutable data about which way the trend lines are bending, and why.

Health Spending and Employment

A useful slant on the puzzle is offered in an August Health Affairs analysis by Dave Dranove and colleagues that examines small area variations in spending growth and correlates them with employment data. Dranove et al. found that relatively higher health spending occurred where employment levels were relatively high, and high unemployment translated into less spending on health. So whether it’s copays, deductibles, insurance contributions, or some other cost associated with obtaining care, personal income is a factor in spending levels, just as health costs are a factor in personal income.

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The Latest Health Wonk Review


September 12th, 2014

At Health Business Blog, David Williams is not ashamed to be a wonk in his September 11 edition of the Health Wonk Review. David highlights many great posts, including “The 125 Percent Solution,” suggested by Jonathan Skinner, Elliott Fisher, and James Weinstein on Health Affairs Blog, which would give consumers and insurers the option of paying 125 percent of the Medicare price for any health care service.

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Birth Control Pills Should Be Available Over The Counter, But That’s No Substitute For Contraceptive Coverage


September 10th, 2014

In recent weeks, some opponents of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraceptive coverage guarantee have promoted the idea that oral contraceptive pills should be available to adult women without a prescription. Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY), for example, recently introduced the so-called Preserving Religious Freedom and a Woman’s Access to Contraception Act, a bill that would urge the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to study whether to make contraceptives over the counter (OTC) — though for adults only.

Making birth control pills available over the counter, if done right, would meaningfully improve access for some groups of women. However, such a change is no substitute for public and private insurance coverage of contraceptives — let alone justification for rolling back coverage of all contraceptive methods and related services for the millions of women who currently have it.

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Employer-Sponsored Family Health Premiums Rise 3 Percent In 2014


September 10th, 2014

Average annual premiums for employer-sponsored family health coverage reached $16,834 this year, up 3 percent from last year, continuing a recent trend of modest increases, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF)/Health Research & Educational Trust (HRET) 2014 Employer Health Benefits Survey released today. Workers on average pay $4,823 annually toward the cost of family coverage this year. Health Affairs Web First article published today contains select findings from the KFF/HRET report.

This year’s increase continues a recent trend of moderate premium growth. Premiums increased more slowly over the past five years than the preceding five years (26 percent vs. 34 percent) and well below the annual double-digit increases recorded in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This year’s increase also is similar to the year-to-year rise in worker’s wages (2.3 percent) and general inflation (2 percent).

Annual premiums for worker-only coverage stand at $6,025 this year.  Workers on average contribute $1,081 toward the cost of worker-only coverage this year.

“The relatively slow growth in premiums this year is good news for employers and workers, though many workers now pay more when they get sick as deductibles continue to rise and skin-in-the-game insurance gradually becomes the norm,” Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman, said.

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Projected Slow Growth In 2013 Health Spending Ahead Of Future Increases


September 3rd, 2014

Insurance Coverage, Population Aging, and Economic Growth Are Main Drivers of Projected Future Health Spending Increases

New estimates released today from the Office of the Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services project a slow 3.6 percent rate of health spending growth for 2013 but also project a 5.6 percent increase in health spending for 2014 and an average 6.0 percent increase for 2015–23. The average rate of projected growth for 2013–23 is 5.7 percent, exceeding the expected average growth in gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.1 percentage points.

Increased insurance coverage via the Affordable Care Act (ACA), projected economic growth, and population aging will be the main contributors of this growth, ultimately leading to an expected 19.3 percent health share of nominal GDP in 2023, up from 17.2 percent in 2012.  This compares to the Office of the Actuary’s 2013  report, published in Health Affairs, predicting an average growth rate of 5.8 percent for 2012–22.

Every year, the Office of the Actuary releases an analysis of how Americans are likely to spend their health care dollars in the coming decade. The new findings appear as a Health Affairs Web First article and will also appear in the journal’s October issue.

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Transcending Obamacare? Analyzing Avik Roy’s ACA Replacement Plan


September 2nd, 2014

Avik Roy’s proposal, “Transcending Obamacare,” is the latest and most thoroughly developed conservative alternative for reforming the American health care system in the wake of the Affordable Care Act. It is a serious proposal, and it deserves to be taken seriously.

Roy’s proposal is a curious combination of conservative nostrums (limiting recoveries for victims of malpractice), progressive goals (eliminating health status underwriting, providing subsidies for low-income Americans), and common sense proposals (enacting a uniform annual deductible for Medicare).

Most importantly, however, Roy proposes that conservatives move on from a single-minded focus on repealing the ACA toward building upon the ACA to accomplish their policy goals. He supports repealing certain features of the ACA—including the individual and employer mandate—but would retain others, such as community rating and exchanges. As polling repeatedly shows that many Americans are not happy with the ACA, but that a strong majority would rather amend than repeal it, and as it is very possible that we will have a Congress next year less supportive of the ACA than the current one, Roy’s proposal is important.

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The Winding Path To Effective Bundled Payment


August 28th, 2014

Tom Williams and Jill Yegian’s excellent blog post makes a great companion to our recent paper on the evaluation of the Integrated Healthcare Association (IHA) Bundled Payment Demonstration. Williams and Yegian offer lessons from their experience implementing a demonstration project that failed to meet its original objectives. This type of analysis is essential.

It’s not unusual for a demonstration to fall short of its original objectives. Learning from such cases is part of the innovation process. This is especially worthwhile for bundled payment, which has many potential benefits for patients, providers, and payers.

None of the barriers encountered in IHA’s demonstration signal a “death sentence” for bundled payment. However, the demonstration clearly shows that bundled payment is difficult to implement.

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The 125 Percent Solution: Fixing Variations In Health Care Prices


August 26th, 2014

Summer vacation’s finally here. You’re strolling along the beach, not a care in the world when – ouch – you step on a piece of broken glass and need a few stitches at the local hospital. Such routine procedures are painless enough, but depending on where you’re treated and by whom, the real pain could occur when you’re handed the ER bill.

In some of the latest evidence on the crazy-quilt patterns of U.S. health care prices, Castlight Health found prices in Dallas TX ranging from $15 to $343 for the same cholesterol test.  What makes these price variations particularly egregious is that the highest prices are typically reserved for those least able to pay, such as the uninsured.

What’s the solution?  In the long run, we need to establish a more transparent system where consumers can choose easily based on reliable quality and price measures.  But our current measures of quality are, to put it politely, inadequate, and people with insurance are often insulated or can generally afford those higher prices.  Reference pricing, in which insurance pays only enough to reimburse providers with adequate quality and relatively lower costs, would help to restrain high prices, but distracted patients or those with strong attachments to specific doctors or hospitals could still get stung with a big bill.

Capping payments at 125 percent of Medicare rates. We suggest a short-term solution: The federal Medicare program has in place a complete system of prices for every procedure and treatment.  It’s not perfect, but it is uniform across regions, with a cost-of-living adjustment that pays more in expensive cities and less in rural areas.  If every patient and every insurance company always had the option of paying 125 percent of the Medicare price for any service, we would effectively cap the worst of the price spikes.  No longer would the tourist checked out at the ER for heat stroke be clobbered with a sky-high bill.  Nor would the uninsured single mother be charged 10 times the best price for her child’s asthma care.  This is not just another government regulation, but instead a protection plan that shields consumers from excessive market power.

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The “Failure” Of Bundled Payment: The Importance Of Consumer Incentives


August 21st, 2014

Bundled payment for orthopedic and spine surgery and other major acute interventions has many attractive features, in principle. But implementation has been difficult in practice.  The recent Health Affairs paper by Susan Ridgley and colleagues, and the Health Affairs Blog commentary by Tom Williams and Jill Yegian, list quite a few practical implementation problems, and the points raised in both these pieces are well taken.

As leaders in the Integrated Health Association (IHA) bundled payment initiative, we shared the same hopes, devoted the same energies, and share the same frustrations with the modest results.  We feel it is important to emphasize what we consider to be the initiative’s most important design failure: the lack of engagement and alignment on the part of the consumer.  No one will ever reform the U.S. health care system without bringing the consumer along and, indeed, placing consumer choice and accountability at the very center of the reform initiative.

On an optimistic note, this design failure is being addressed by the larger health care marketplace in the wake of numerous failed attempts to reform health care by focusing exclusively on provider payment and incentives.

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Key Takeaways From The Medicare Trustees’ Report


August 14th, 2014

Depending on which article you read, either the Medicare Trustees think the program is coming to an end, or the news is great and we don’t need to do anything.

The reality is that the recent Trustees’ report contains both positive and sobering news: while costs have been flat for the last two years and growth is expected to moderate for some years to come, Medicare’s financing is still not in good shape over the long run. Current law benefits exceed financing to pay for them, and the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be unable to pay full benefits in 2030.

We cannot assume the problem will resolve itself, and action is needed to ensure the program’s stability.  Moreover, health care remains a substantial portion of the national budget – a whopping 25 percent — and addressing federal fiscal imbalances must include health programs.

Below we provide our key takeaways from this year’s Trustees’ report.

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Having A Baby: Media Confusion Over Charges, Costs, And The Benefits Of Insurance


August 6th, 2014

Recent discussion about the Affordable Care Act has intensified the media’s interest in the cost of medical care. While as health services researchers we are perhaps in the best position to provide information on complex health care topics, we may need to improve our ability to distill information into one minute sound bites.

A particularly interesting example of the disconnect between media reporting and a more nuanced analysis occurred earlier this year, on March 4, when NBC ran a story about the cost of having a baby. The story confused the very different concepts of what health care providers charge, what they are actually paid, and what consumers owe, and in so doing obscured one of the key benefits for consumers of being insured.

We were startled to hear that, according to NBC, the cost of having a baby has increased more than 300 percent in the past 10 years. According to the report, the cost of a vaginal delivery went from $7,700 to $32,000, while the cost of a cesarean birth went from $11,000 to $51,000. A small heading in the table presented by NBC cited Truven Analytics as the source of these data.

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The Payment Reform Landscape: Accountable Care Organizations


August 5th, 2014

“The accountable care organization is like a unicorn, a fantastic creature that is vested with mythical powers. But no one has actually seen one,” said former California HealthCare Foundation CEO, Mark Smith, MD, in 2010. Over the last four years, we’ve certainly seen a proliferation of unicorns and we’re now reaching the point where fantasy—at least in a handful of cases—is becoming a reality.

A growing number of large employers are piloting accountable care organizations (ACOs), working through their health plan; in some cases they are doing so directly with provider systems, such as the new Boeing arrangement with Providence Health and Services, Swedish Health Services, and University of Washington Medicine and Intel’s contracting efforts in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon. The large employers and other health care purchasers with whom we work — eager, if not desperate, for solutions to contain the costs of health care and improve its quality — are watching these first movers carefully to see if ACOs prove to be a viable strategy for improving population health and bending the cost trend.

These leading purchasers intend to set the bar high. They cannot make the investment to pursue these ACO relationships if they are not assured that their populations will see meaningful, measurable gains in their health care and its affordability, as well as their health. That often means contractual commitments to lowering total costs of care and showing improved patient outcomes for targeted populations — like high risk, medically complex patients. Our purchaser colleagues who have been among the early adopters of ACO arrangements have begun to identify the features critical to successful ACOs; these are the elements other purchasers will look for when deciding if it’s worth proceeding.

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Bundled Payment: Learning From Our Failures


August 5th, 2014

Seeing “IHA” and “Fails” together in the title of an article in the nation’s premier health policy journal was not an outcome that we anticipated when the bundled payment initiative described by M. Susan Ridgely et. al in the August issue of Health Affairs was launched.

The key objective of the Integrated Healthcare Association (IHA)’s initiative was to implement over 20 payer-provider bundled payment contracts, resulting in completion of more than 500 bundled cases within the first two years of the project. During the third year of the project, researchers were to conduct both a clinical and an economic evaluation to test how bundled payments affect the quality and cost of care, in conjunction with an implementation evaluation to determine the scalability of this approach.

Looking back, these targets seem highly optimistic; but at the pilot’s launch, both IHA and its stakeholders had a number of reasons to be confident. The pilot was well funded by a three-year grant from the Agency for Health Research and Quality (AHRQ), building on two rounds of planning and feasibility work over four years funded by the Blue Shield of California Foundation and the California HealthCare Foundation. In addition, there was a high level of interest and enthusiasm among a core group of providers and health plans that had a prior history of collaboration in a California physician pay for performance program.

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Health Affairs August Issue: Variations In Health Care


August 4th, 2014

Health AffairsAugust variety issue includes a number of studies demonstrating variations in health and health care, such as differing obstetrical complication rates and disparities in care for diabetes. Other subjects in the issue include the impact of ACA coverage on young adults’ out-of-pocket costs; and how price transparency may help lower health care costs.

For mothers-to-be, huge differences in delivery complication rates among hospitals.

Four million women give birth each year in the United States. While the reported incidence of maternal pregnancy-related mortality is low (14.5 per 100,000 live births), the rate of obstetric complications is nearly 13 percent.

Laurent Glance of the University of Rochester and coauthors analyzed data for 750,000 obstetrical deliveries in 2010 from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization’s Nationwide Inpatient Sample. They found that women delivering vaginally at low-performing hospitals had twice the rate of any major complications (22.55 percent) compared to vaginal deliveries at high-performing hospitals (10.42 percent

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Decoding 2015 Health Insurance Rate Increase Requests


August 4th, 2014

Note: In addition to Christopher Koller, Sabrina Corlette coauthored this post.

The rates are coming, the rates are coming.

While there seem to be fewer “latest verdicts on the ACA,” breathlessly reported in the popular press, as we move through the second half of 2014, the filing of 2015 rate requests for individual and small group products on the health insurance exchanges offer one more piece of catnip for pundits.

Who is up? Who is down? How much? Is this the dreaded death spiral for the ACA? Or its vindication?

As discussions and analysis of these increases are disseminated, it is important to remember the following points

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Revisiting Primary Care Workforce Data: A Future Without Barriers For Nurse Practitioners And Physicians


July 28th, 2014

Editor’s note: Debra Barksdale and Kitty Werner also coauthored this post. 

With the full implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), there have been major concerns about the looming primary care provider shortage. The National Center for Health Workforce Analysis predicts shortages as high as 20,400 physicians by 2020, and increases in medical school graduates entering primary care residencies have been anemic.

Physician shortages can be addressed by the rapid growth of nurse practitioners (NPs), trained in primary care, along with the redesign of primary care to include teams that can be led by both physicians and NPs. But our nation’s primary care needs can only be met if states allow NPs to practice to the fullest extent of their training without unnecessary requirements for physician supervision.

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Examining Medicare’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program


July 24th, 2014

New financial incentives and penalties in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) designed to optimize health care system performance are proving difficult to manage, but they are also providing new opportunities for leaders to foster collaboration between acute and post-acute health care providers.

Perhaps one of the most promising, albeit controversial, programs has been Medicare’s Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), which penalizes hospitals with excess 30-day readmissions for health conditions such as pneumonia, myocardial infarction, and heart failure. Although not all hospital readmissions are preventable, many could be avoided with improved post-discharge planning and care coordination.

The HHRP was designed to penalize hospitals with excess 30-day readmissions regardless of whether the patient was readmitted to the same hospital or another hospital. Although there are some exceptions (for example, readmissions due to hospital transfers or planned readmissions), most readmissions of patients with health conditions targeted by the HHRP will count against a hospital.

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