Entries in Cost & Utilization (60)


But Which Half?

By Kim Bellard, January 30, 2013

Advertising lore credits John Wanamaker, the department store magnate and marketing pioneer, with the famous quote: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.”  It turns out he could have been talking about spending on health care.

The British Medical Journal, through their Clinical Evidence initiative, recently reported that they’d analyzed 3,000 medical treatments that had been studied in controlled, randomized studies.  It turns out that for half of those treatments, we have no idea how well they work.  Indeed, only about a third of the treatments were found to actually be beneficial or likely to be beneficial.  The rest are likely to be harmful.

Sadly, this does not come as a surprise.

We know we don’t know enough.  The vast number of medical treatments have never even been studied in a true clinical trial.  Worse yet, sometimes even when there is clear empirical evidence about which treatments are most effective, that information does not always sway physician behavior, or does so only very slowly (for example, see this study on the use of heart stents versus medication therapy).

There is no shortage of reports of unnecessary or even harmful care.  It’s even scarier when that care is associated with high costs.  In no particular order, one could cite recent controversies with spinal fusions, hip replacements, or chemotherapy drugs.   There can be lots of money at stake for manufacturers, drug companies, and health care providers.  That kind of money can distort the question of what is truly in the best interests of the patient.

Many employers, payors, and researchers have been pushing for “evidence-based medicine” for many years now.  EBM focuses on making sure that treatments have appropriate research to support their effectiveness, and in getting the word out about such treatments.  One of the many initiatives from ACA was the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, which is charged with conducting research to provide such evidence and funded by a $1 head tax on people covered by insurers.  And, of course, AHRQ probably is wondering why we need a new organization to focus on EBM, given their many efforts on effectiveness.

In time, this may all become much easier, as more patient data become electronic and more connected, and we can make more use of computing power to track what truly happens to patients under various courses of treatments.  I mentioned a couple examples of this in my last blog, citing Optum/Mayo’s new initiative and meta-research studies in lieu of clinical trials.  Another example comes from Archimedes Inc., a firm founded by David Eddy, who was one of the early pioneers of evidenced-based medicine.  Archimedes claims to use its advanced mathematics and computing prowess “to run clinically realistic virtual trials on any population and create compelling evidence to make decisions in health and economic outcomes research, policy creation, clinical trial design, and performance improvement.”  Apparently HHS thinks they can, as it hired Archimedes last year.

Most physicians I know are very bright, care very much about their patients, and work hard to stay current on the medical literature.  Unfortunately, the latter is virtually impossible to do, given the sheer volume of that literature.  Even when there are clear results about which treatment is truly the most effective, the research doesn’t usually come with a guide as to how physicians can implement the associated changes to their practice routines.  It’s as much of a question of change management as it is the evidence to make the change.

It would seem that the situation is tailor-made for clinical decision support tools, which seek to provide clinicians with information on treatment options, potential outcomes, and possible contra-indications at point-of-care.  Unfortunately, we may not quite be ready for them.

Last summer The Annals of Internal Medicine published a study on clinical decision support systems by Bright, et. al.  They did a meta-analysis of studies on CDSSs, and found ample evidence of their efficacy in improving process measures, but sparse results on their impact on clinical or economic outcomes.  Whether this is due to the limitations of the underlying studies, the CDSSs themselves, or how they were used by clinicians is unclear. 

Similarly, KLAS Research recently released results of their survey of health care providers on their satisfaction with clinical decision support tools.  The results cited a general level of frustration, especially due to lack of integration with EHRs and “alert fatigue” caused by ineffective targeting of alerts. 

Worst yet, according to new research from the University of Missouri, patients don’t seem to trust treatment recommendations from physicians who use CDSSs, believing them to be less capable than physicians who make decisions unaided.  Patients don’t even like it when physicians consult with other physicians before making a recommendation!  They think their doctor should know everything.  I blame television for this – on medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy or House physicians pull up the most obscure diagnoses and treatments strictly from memory, without ever having to consult any reference materials.  Nobody’s memory is that good. 

Clinical decision support systems aren’t going to replace doctors; they are simply tools to aid health care professionals, much as a stethoscope or a thermometer does.  One can imagine a future where CDSSs -- and EHRs -- fit seamlessly into patient visits, providing real-time, interactive information while with the patient.  The line between evaluation, documentation, and clinical decision support should blur, in order to more accurately diagnosis patients and determine the best course of treatment.  

In the meantime, it’s somewhat of a crapshoot.

A recent study by Deloitte indicates that 62% of Americans believe that, in fact, over 50% of U.S. health spending is wasted, which is up from the already high 51% in 2009.  The message about necessary spending may be getting out, but consumers may be getting the wrong idea – only 18% thought the problem was not using evidence-based treatments, versus 69% who blame fraud and abuse in the payment system.  In other words, the problem can be blamed on greedy crooks, not on well-meaning health care providers.  Defensive medicine and unnecessary paperwork were each also cited by about a third of respondents. 

I agree that fraud, defensive medicine, and inefficient administration contribute cause us to spend money we shouldn’t, and each should be addressed, but I suspect more of unnecessary spending comes from well-intentioned treatments that aren’t really best for the patients.  As professionals, health care providers should be more stringent about basing their treatment recommendations on evidence that truly supports them.  More importantly, as the people whose health is going to be impacted by those treatments, it’s incumbent on us to demand that evidence.

Maybe one day we’ll have Star Trek’s tricorder to non-invasively diagnosis or even Star Trek Voyager’s holographic doctor to treat.  Maybe someday nanobots will fix all our ills without our even being aware of their work.  All that is in the future.  For right now I’d settle for simply being able to know the odds that a recommended treatment will actually benefit me.


Mercer Weighs in on Employer Health Benefit Cost Projections

By Clive Riddle, November 16, 2012

Here’s what Mercer has to say about the rise in  health benefit costs:  “growth in the average total health benefit cost per employee slowed from 6.1% last year to just 4.1% in 2012. Cost averaged $10,558 per employee in 2012. Large employers – those with 500 or more employees – experienced both a higher increase (5.4%) and higher average cost…. Employers expect another relatively low increase of 5.0% for 2013. However, this increase reflects changes they plan to make to reduce cost; if they made no changes, cost would rise by an average of 7.4%.”

This is based on results from Mercer’s annual National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans, which includes public and private organizations with 10 or more employees; with 2,809 employers responding in 2012. The full survey results will be released in April 2013.

 How does this compare to what other major human resources/benefits consulting firms are estimating? Here's what we reported in our Tidbits column in the October 6th edition of MCOL weekend:

Aon Hewitt reports that "the average health care premium rate increase for large employers in 2012 was 4.9 percent, down from 8.5 percent in 2011 and 6.2 percent in 2010. In 2013, however, average health care premium increases are projected to jump up to 6.3 percent."  Towers Watson's survey "projects a 5.3% net increase in total health benefit plan costs after any plan changes are taken into account, increasing the average cost per active employee from $10,925 in 2012 to $11,507 in 2013. Of the 2013 total, employees will pay an average of $2,596, or 22.6%, up from $2,436 in 2012." The Segal Company  projects 8.8% increases in 2013 for open access PPOs (10.0% in 2012; 8.2% increases in 2013 for HMOs (9.6% for 2012) and 9.1% increases in 2013 for HDHPs (10.4% in 2012.)

Mercer makes particular note of the impact of CDHPs in the employer benefit arena. They state that “with a growing number of employers now positioning a high-deductible, account-based consumer-directed health plan as their primary plan – or even their only plan – employee enrollment jumped from 13% to 16% of all covered employees in 2012. Many employers see these plans as central to their response to health care reform provisions that will raise enrollment. Over the past two years, offerings of CDHPs have risen from 17% to 22% of all employers, and from 23% to 36% of employers with 500 or more employees. Well over half (59%) of very large organizations (20,000 or more employees), which typically offer employees a choice of medical plans, now offer a CDHP. With the cost of coverage in a CDHP with a health savings account is about 20% lower, on average, than the cost of PPO coverage – $7,833 per employee compared to $10,007 -- employers are increasing willing to make the CDHP their primary or even their only plan. Among large employers that offer an HSA-based CDHP, average enrollment rose from 25% to 32% in 2012. And, when asked if they expect to offer a CDHP five years from now, 18% of large employers say they expect to offer it as the only plan, up from 11% in 2011.”


Round Up the Usual Suspects 

By Kim Bellard, September 11, 2012

Two recent reports have added more empirical support to the widely held belief that our health care system wastes significant amounts of money.  I’m shocked, shocked!  As Captain Renauld said in Casablanca, round up the usual suspects. 

The first report, published in Health Affairs, was from UnitedHealth Group.  The authors examined data from 250,000 physicians around the country, focusing on the privately insured population.  Consistent with the years of data from the Dartmouth Atlas on the Medicare population, it showed widespread variation.  The authors report episode costs for procedures vary 2.5 times, while episode costs for chronic conditions vary 15-fold.  Overall, the report concludes that costs could be 14% lower if delivered by physicians meeting certain quality and cost-efficiency designations. 

An even more assertive claim was made by the prestigious Institute of Medicine (IOM).  Their report, Best Care at Lower Cost, believes that as much as a third of spending is wasted – some $750 billion based on 2009 health spending.  The IOM is no stranger to big claims, including the oft-quoted 98,000 deaths annually due to medical error in their landmark report To Err is Human.  In their new report, they conclude that 75,000 deaths could be avoided if every state delivered care as well as the best performing state.  The IOM was more granular than simply claiming the waste is all unnecessary care: $210 billion in unnecessary services, $190 billion in excessive administrative costs, $130 billion from inefficiently delivered services, $105 billion due to prices that are too high, $75 billion in fraud, and $55 billion in missed prevention opportunities.  That’s a lot of targets of opportunity.

The IOM notes some lessons from other industries, and believe significant improvement is possible, on a variety of fronts: using information technology more effectively, creating systems to manage complexity, more focus on making health care safer, improving transparency of costs, quality and outcomes, promoting teamwork and communication between providers, partnering with patients, and decreasing waste/improving efficiency. They believe that the technology is here to support all these, and the problem is better application of it to health care systems and processes.  No mention was made of “death panels” (!), although I’m waiting for someone to bring up that specter.

There are too many examples that illustrate the flaws in the current system.  For example, Johns Hopkins recently reported that as many as a quarter of adult patients in ICUs may die as a result of missed or incorrect diagnoses, resulting in some 40,500 deaths annually.  The authors note that is more people who die each year from breast cancer.  One would think that ICU patients are getting pretty close attention, more than other patients, which make these results all the more troubling (to be fair, of course, they likely have complicated sets of conditions, making diagnosis harder).

More troubling are recent allegations and lawsuits about unnecessary heart surgeries aimed at increasing hospital revenue/physician income, including HCA and St. Joseph-London in Kentucky.  If these allegations are shown to be valid, these practices may just be the tip of the iceberg.  Throw in recent warnings about the overuse of well-intended but over-used diagnostic tests like screenings for ovarian cancer or prostate cancer, or the cost-benefits from increased exposure to radiation via increased imaging, and it makes one wonder if treatment recommendations should come with a warning label. 

The IOM cited technology as a tool to help support improvement in how the health system performs, and there is data which suggest this hope is not in vain.  The CDC reports that 55% of physicians had an electronic health record in 2011, and half of the remaining physicians expected to be using one in the next year.  Clearly, HITECH has helped spur this adoption, as has the trend of health systems purchasing physician practices.  Solo practitioners significantly lag in adoption (29%), and CDC reports a statistically significant difference in adoption from physicians over 50: 49% versus 64%.  More importantly, about three-quarters of adopters believe that the EHR both enhances patient care and meets Meaningful Use criteria. 

Also encouraging is a report from Medpage Today on physician technology use.  They report 9 out of 10 physicians experienced an increase in the use of the Internet in their practice: 71% spend 3 or more hours a day on a computer, 24% use a mobile device 3+ hours a day, and 18% use a tablet 3+ hours per days, all in support of their practice.  Unlike the CDC results, though, they see very little impact of age on technology adoption, except in use of a smartphone.  The Medpage respondents are a stressed bunch, seeing more patients each day and, as a result, seeing fewer drug reps, spending less time with each patient, and reading fewer medical journals/attending fewer conferences.  The last point is particularly concerning to build the nimble “learning” culture that the IOM advocates, which helps account for the finding that almost all respondents are using their devices to keep up-to-date on clinical news and medical education. 

I’ve often been critical of physicians’ reluctance to adopt technology solutions, but I’m increasingly coming to the point of view that it is technology that is failing them.  We’ve laboriously endeavored to get medical records into an electronic state, when the real challenge is deciding what health data we want tracked, and what views/inputs are needed by different types of users – including patients.   I’ll point to a nice column by Shahid Shah that details some of the kind of patient-centered forward thinking we need, as well as to a recent study by Hripcsak and Albers that reminds us that poorly designed data going in has damaging effects on the usefulness of that data. 

Maybe we need to scrap all those legacy practice management systems and EMRs and study what modern CRM systems in other industries can teach us about tracking and knowing patients, as well as take advantage of lessons learned from just-in-time manufacturing to improve care delivery efficiencies.  Add to those all the real-time data that mobile tracking apps and other monitoring devices can provide on patients’ health and we have a shot at disruptive innovation. 

Job number one in improving our health system has to be measuring who is doing what to which patients, and what impact it is having on those patients’ health.  Without better data on those, we’ll still just be rounding up those usual suspects.  


Too Bad About Your Coverage 

By Kim Bellard, July 30 2012

There’s more data that shows health coverage is good for people.  Too bad fewer people than expected will have it. 

The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported on a study by Sommers et. alia which showed that Medicaid expansions can be linked to lower mortality rates in the impacted populations, along with better access to care and improved self-reported health status.  Not surprising, really, especially on top of last year’s study from the Oregon Medicaid program, that also showed that those lucky enough to win their coverage “lottery” did fare better. 

ACA was supposed to greatly increase the population covered by Medicaid, but with the Supreme Court ruling’s loophole on states adapting the expansion, that picture no longer looks quite as rosy.  The Congressional Budget now estimates that 6 million fewer people will get coverage through Medicaid and CHIP, although they obviously do not yet know which states will elect not to expand their programs.  CBO believes that half of those 6 million people will get coverage via the insurance exchanges – although I’m not clear why someone who would have gotten coverage in the Medicaid expansion would have income above the magic 133% of poverty level – leaving a net increase of 3 million more uninsured than under the original ACA estimates. 

CBO also believes those 3 million additional enrollees in the insurance exchanges will cost more than average, and as a result add about 2% to the cost of individual insurance in the exchanges.  That is another hidden “tax” on the private sector.

Whenever I think about the injustice of millions of poor people not having access to coverage while middle class people get subsidies, I remind myself that this is nothing new.  We’ve been doing that with the tax preference for employer health coverage for decades, so this latest indignity merely makes things quantitatively worse, but is not qualitatively new. 

Speaking of employer health benefits, Deloitte’s recent survey of employers forecasts 9% of employers will drop their health coverage, with another 10% uncertain what they will do.  This compares to the GfK study estimate from last winter of 12% drop/32% uncertain, and the now infamous McKinsey estimate from last summer that 30% of employers would drop coverage.  Deloitte’s survey, though, was only of employers with more than 50 employees; if smaller employers were included, the number would no doubt be higher than the 9%.

Reasonable experts can probably agree that the estimate of employers initially dropping coverage is somewhere in that 10-20% range, recognizing that many employers have not yet made up their minds.  The trouble I see is that once this ball starts rolling downhill, it won’t stop; it’s only going to pick up speed.  No one is going to want to be the last one in the benefits pool.

A little history lesson might be helpful.  Health insurance used to be virtually all fully insured and community rated.  That worked for a while, until some employers and insurers figured out that both could benefit by offering lower rates to employers with lower cost populations.  That gradually led to the demise of community rating – HMOs were the last to give up the ghost – in the group market, as fewer and fewer employers were willing to subsidize their higher cost fellow employers.  Use of employer-specific claims experience became the norm, especially for larger employers.  In the early 1970s, spurred by the passage of ERISA, employers also realized even with experience rating, being part of the insurance pool at all still had limitations they wanted to avoid, and they began to adopt various forms of self-funding.  It initially was only for very large employers, but, again, gradually became adopted by employers or more and more sizes – some of whom were/are really too small from an actuarial point of view to justify it.  Again, once some employers escaped being insured, other employers became more uneasy about still being part of the insurance pool.

Self-funding had the specific advantage of escaping state benefit mandates, although recent federal mandates, including ACA’s, are rapidly eroding this advantage of self-insurance.  The ACA requirements have added costs to most employer plans – e.g., coverage dependents, unlimited maximums, no coinsurance on preventive services – and the government’s involvement in their benefit design is probably not sitting well with many employers who thought they had escaped it.

At this point in time, most group business is self-funded.  Kaiser Family Foundations’ 2011 Employer Health Benefits survey found 60% of employees were in self-funded plans, up from 49% in 2000.  Over 80% of employees in firms with 200 or more employees are in self-funded plans.   I.e., to the extent they can, employers have made rational business decisions not to subsidize anyone they don’t have to.

Why anyone would believe employers would not act the same way once some employers start dropping their health plans is beyond me. 

Employers have invested a lot in their current health plans.  They have shown much thought leadership in driving changes to both insurers and providers, but the auto and steel industries, to pick two, have shown us how legacy health costs can hamper domestic and local competitiveness.  Right now, not offering health plans is a huge disadvantage in attracting and retaining employees; Deloitte’s survey shows over 80% of employers cite attracting/retaining employees as a key reason for offering health benefits.  However, it would only take a few bellwether employers to start dropping coverage to start a rush by other employers for a similar exit.

Employer coverage still has the advantage of the tax preference, plus the fact is that the health insurance exchanges are not up and running and the individual market is not yet reformed or robust.  Come 2014 or 2015, though, the exchanges may be a more appealing option, especially for smaller employers, and if anyone believes the tax preference will survive as is in the coming deficit reduction wars, well, good luck with that.

People aren’t going to keep their current health plan.  Many poor people will still not be protected by Medicaid.  We will still have some 30 million uninsured.  And we’re still not getting good value for our exorbitant health care spending.  Until that problem is solved, everyone’s coverage is in danger.


The Role of Pharmaceuticals in Value-Based Healthcare

by Clive Riddle, July 19, 2012

Who is the “Working Group on Optimizing Medication Therapy in Value-Based Healthcare” you ask? They consist of National Pharmaceutical Council (NPC), the American Medical Group Association (AMGA) and the Premier health care alliance, along with seven provider organizations, formed to develop a “framework for considering the role of pharmaceuticals in achieving value-based success.”

It could seem somewhat self-serving, given the National Pharmaceutical Council was a driving force in the initiative and issued the press release about their newly published framework. However the group does say some interesting things. Their entire thoughts on the matter are published in a web article,  Role of Pharmaceuticals in Value-Based Healthcare: A Framework for Success, in the American Journal of Managed Care.

NPC Chief Science Officer Robert Dubois, MD, PhD tell us “Providers are shifting to value-based care models to provide better care for individuals, improve population health and slow cost growth. Many of these models, such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' Medicare Shared Savings Program, include quality benchmarks and incentives for reducing costs. As providers evaluate optimal care for their patient populations in these new models, prescription medications should be thoughtfully integrated into the process.”

Here’s the components of the framework they have constructed:

  1.  Success in a value-based environment will depend on understanding the unique contribution of medications and utilizing them optimally across conditions and populations.
  2. Medications cannot be viewed as a siloed expense item in a value-based environment. They need to be integrated so that the cost offsets and quality benefits resulting from optimized pharmaceutical use can be recognized and calculated.
  3. Services meant to optimize patient outcomes cannot be undertaken as a one-size-fits-all approach; the role, impact and characteristics of these services will vary by a patient's condition.
  4. Overall risk factors can be used to identify patients who are candidates for medication therapy management strategies to watch for drug-drug, drug-disease, or polypharmacy concerns.
  5. In each circumstance where there are condition-specific incentives to achieve cost savings, there should also be a quality metric to detect under-use of pharmaceuticals.

The group views ACOs as a centerpiece of value based programs. Doctor Dubois leaves us with this thought: "It is crucial for ACOs to view prescription drugs as a tool, not simply an expense.”