Entries in health plans (39)


Someone Must Be On Drugs

By Kim Bellard, November 11, 2015

As is probably true for many of you, I'm busy looking at health plan open enrollment options for 2016. The past few years I've been guilty of just sticking with the same plan, so it has been too long since I've had to shop. Plus, I'm helping my mother pick her Medicare options for next year. All in all, I'm awash with health plan options.

I've got different levels of HMO, POS, and PPO options, from multiple carriers. My mother has many choices of Medicare Supplements, with Part D options, as well as Medicare Advantage options (both HMO and PPO), each from multiple health insurers.

It's not that there aren't plenty of options. It's just that, well, the options are so damn confusing.

Austin Frakt recently wrote in The New York Times about this problem. He cited a few studies specifically on point about health insurance, such as:

  • One study found that 71% of consumers couldn't identify basic cost-sharing features;
  • Less than a third of consumers in another study could correctly answer questions about their current coverage;
  • Researchers found that consumers tended to choose plans labeled "gold" -- even when the researchers switched the "gold" and "bronze" designations, keeping all other plan details the same.

Many consumers tend to stick with their existing choice even when better options are available, simply because switching or even shopping is perceived as too complicated.

I'm most frustrated with prescription drug coverage. Not that long ago, the only variables were the copays for generic versus brand drugs. Now there are often five or six different tiers of coverage -- such as preferred generic, other generic, preferred brand, other brand, and "specialty" -- with different copays or coinsurance at each tier, each of which can also vary by retail versus mail order, and for "preferred pharmacies." 

Moreover, the health plan's formulary, which determines what tier a drug is in, can change at any time. Plus, as has been illustrated recently, the prices of any specific drug can change without notice, sometimes dramatically. If either of those happens to one of your drugs, say goodbye to your budget.

It's all enough to make your head spin.

The health plans would no doubt argue that their various approaches to prescription drug coverage are necessary in their efforts to control ever-rising costs for prescription drug costs. Well, they aren't working.

Prescription drug prices continue to soar, even for generic drugs. They have become a political issue, with the Senate now launching a bipartisan investigation into prescription drug pricing and the Presidential hopefuls from both parties being forced to take positions on how they would control them. For once, politicians are in sync with their constituents; the latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found that affordability of prescription drugs tops their priority list for Congress and the President.

I've long thought that the pharmaceutical industry was ahead of the rest of the health care industry. They were doing electronic submission of claims over forty years ago. They pushed for direct-to-consumer advertising in the late 1980's, and quickly jumped on that bandwagon. While providers only grudgingly adopted EHRs, they quickly moved to e-prescribing.  Other health providers had to move away from discounted charges twenty years ago, whereas drug companies still mostly use that approach and are only starting to tip-toe into more "value-based" approaches, as with the recent Harvard Pilgrim-Amgen deal.

And the backroom rebate deals between drug manufacturers and payors put a lie to any claim that at least drug pricing is transparent.

It's not only prescription drug coverage that is increasingly complicated, what with narrow networks, gatekeepers, different copays for different types of medical services, bundled pricing, or numerous other gimmicks used in health plan designs.  The collateral damage in the ongoing payor-provider arms race is consumer understanding. 

Making things more complicated for consumers is not the answer.

In typical fashion, the health care industry has tried to address the confusion by creating a new industry that doesn't actually solve the problem but does manage to introduce new costs. Many enrollment sites --the Medicare plan finder, public exchanges, private exchanges, broker sites like ehealth, or health insurer sites -- offer tools that purport to estimate your costs under your various health plan options. Yet consumers still don't understand their options.

We keep treating health care as a multi-party arrangement between providers/health plans/employers/government/consumers, which is why everything ends up so complicated. Drug company rebates or medical device manufacturers' payments to providers are prime examples of the kind of insider trading that goes on. It's usually the consumers that come last. And that's the problem.

I think back to 1990's cell phone plans. Consumers never knew what their next bill would bring, between peak/non-peak minutes and the infamous roaming charges. No one liked it, no one understood it, and for several years no one did anything about it. Then AT&T came out with a flat rate plan that essentially said, "we'll worry about all those for you," and soon all carriers had to adopt a version of it.

I keep hoping for that kind of breakthrough with health insurance.

This post is an abridged version of the posting in Kim Bellard’s blogsite. Click here to read the full posting


Juggling Risk

By Cathy Eddy, Health Plan Alliance, November 4, 2015

The insurance industry is based on managing risk. Health insurance has managed medical costs for years. With the Affordable Care Act, the federal government has set a minimum target for the medical loss ratio at 80-85%.

But managing risk has become so much more challenging for the health care industry than just managing medical claims. We are now juggling lots of types of risk at the same time. We are hoping not to drop the ball on any of these or it could mean losing millions of dollars or even going out of business. The number of Co-ops that have closed this year is a clear indication of just how hard it is to do business in the public exchanges.

Here are the types of risk that health plans are now simultaneously juggling:

  • Risk adjustment
  • ORSA
  • Risk Corridors
  • Value-based reimbursement
  • Bundled payments
  • Upside risk and maybe downside risk
  • Cyber Risk
  • Business interruption and disaster recovery
  • Key employee risk

And the Alliance health plans are right in the middle of these challenges. As we are planning our programming for 2016, we are looking at ways to share how plans are trying to align with providers to be successful.

During 2016, the Alliance will expand its membership to include health systems that our members identify. We will discuss their strategic priorities, build informational profiles on these systems and develop our meeting agendas to focus on the areas where our health plans intersect with the providers. We hope that health systems will take advantage of the content at these meetings:

  • April 13-14  Clinical Integration and Payer/Provider Partnerships
  • June 7:  Board and Governance Strategic Issues and Performance
  • June 8-9: Health System/Health Plan Strategic Alignment
  • Sept 28-30 Care Management/Care Coordination
  • Oct 19-20: Managing Risk Reimbursement Arrangements
  • Dec 6-8 Managing Populations with Data

We will also be collaborating with other organizations that are working with providers to serve as a resource for content. Many providers have indicated an interest in taking on more risk and either starting up a health plan or working with partners to offer a private label plan in their market. We would like to leverage the Alliance’s 20 years of experience in the provider-sponsored health plan space to help those providers that are entering or reentering the health plan business.

As the rest of the insurance industry consolidates into a few very large players, we’d like to see integrated delivery system with health plans and those independent health plans working closely with providers be able to offer a viable option to the other types of health insurers.

And to be successful, our plans and health systems will need to juggle all types of risk collaboratively.


The Nexus of Payviders

By Clive Riddle, October 16, 2015

To what degree will the mega-merged health plans dominate the landscape in the balance of this decade? We’ve recently discussed the topic: will health plan start ups and provider sponsored plans fill the competition gap? We noted then, that the airline industry demonstrated opportunities that might apply in the current health plan environment,  “where the post-merger environment after established airline joined forces didn’t prevent the emergence or growth of carriers like SouthwestJet BlueVirgin America  and many others.

It’s looking more and more like the gap won’t be significantly filled by co-ops, with theKentucky Health Cooperative being the latest co-op to bite the dust. Much attention, and Wall Street dollars, is being given to the venture-capital backed startups. But it remains to be seen if they will take over the world or suffer the fate of a number of the co-ops.

In the meantime, regional independent plans, a large portion being provider sponsored, have much more of a track record and maturity to fall back on. A Reuters article this week, As U.S. insurers aim to get bigger, hospitals eye health plan entry, discusses established integrated delivery systems such as Kaiser and Geisinger, as well as the re-entry into this business by hospital companies such as Tenet, who now owns six health plans with about 100,000 members. Companies like evolent health are also covered, who are doing big business working with hospitals on developing new plans and risk-bearing networks.  

During the course of 2015, a term emerging into the lexicon around the country has been “Payvider”, which hopefully is self-explanatory. Let’s listen in a discussion about Payviders from Cathy Eddy, President of Health Plan Alliance:  

“….we met with the research firm KLAS. They are conducting a survey with “Payviders,” or health systems that have their own health plan.  This is a new term for a concept that has been around for more than 30 years, but seems to be gaining traction again as more providers move into value-based reimbursement (don’t call it capitation – that is so 90s), and more are leveraging their existing health plan, partnering with one, or even starting a health plan. I’ve been working in the space between payers and providers since 1982 and running the Health Plan Alliance for nearly 20 years.  What seems different now is the level of strategic alignment between the plans and their provider sponsors.  The expertise that exists in a health plan is a great (essential? necessary? logical?) resource for a health system that is moving into Population Health, establishing ACOs and negotiating contracts for value-based payments and incentives. Many of the competencies it takes to run a health plan are critical elements for health systems that are taking on risk.”

The Health Plan Alliance represents almost fifty provider-sponsored and independent health plans, that range in size, from less than 50,000 members to more than I million members, and operate in all lines of business, including commercial, Medicaid, and Medicare. Perhaps they are the nexus of the source of competition in the health plan industry for the rest of this decade.


Will Health Plan Start Ups and Provider Sponsored Plans Fill the Competition Gap?

By Clive Riddle, September 18, 2015

The AMA recently released a special analyses of commercial health insurance markets that found the "combined impact of proposed mergers among four of the nation's largest health insurance companies would exceed federal antitrust guidelines designed to preserve competition in as many as 97 metropolitan areas within 17 states," and that "all told, the two mergers would diminish competition in up to 154 metropolitan areas within 23 states."

Art Caplan, a professor at NYU and a correspondent for NBC News, responded to a recent New York Times editorial, Regulators Need to Scrutinize Health Insurance Mergers, with a humorous post in The Health Care Blog, entitled Merge Away!!!. Here’s the heart of Caplan’s argument: ” Blocking these deals is a terrible idea. The mergers should be allowed to continue. In fact they should proceed until there is only one private insurer left. Only, at that point should the government step in, declare the last company standing to be required to merge with Medicare thereby letting the free market produce what many reformers have only been able to dream of—a single payer system.”

Will the mega mergers result in a vacuum of competition, and perhaps a default single payer system, or perhaps as some noted healthcare pundits have wondered out loud: where health insurance becomes the new cable television provider? Or will emerging players fill the void left in the coming competition gap? This did occur in the airline industry – where the post-merger environment after established airline joined forces didn’t prevent the emergence or growth of carriers like Southwest, Jet Blue, Virgin America  and many others.

Two potential candidates to fill the health plan competition gap are provider sponsored plans and well funded health plan start ups. Provider sponsored plans have always been around, but with today’s environment is much more conducive for their long-term prospects: the growth in Medicaid strengthens the prospects of regional provider backed Medicaid plans; the proliferation of ACOs that can serve as health plan incubators; the emergence of value based payment systems and clinical integration that nudge health systems closer towards the purchaser end of the spectrum.

And then there’s the potential of VC backed health plan start ups. Everyone continues to write about Oscar Health. Here’s a typical headline from last month: Oscar's losses are huge but investors don't care - How one insurance startup with only 40,000 members is worth $1.5 billion.

Oscar Health has been held up as the disruptive innovator embracing tech and customer service for health insurance, in the manner the Uber entered the personal transportation scene. Now this week, you can add this headline to Oscar’s mantle: Google Backs Startup Oscar Health Insurance - Internet company’s growth-equity fund makes $32.5 million investment.

And Oscar isn’t the only VC darling health plan startup. Fortune magazine this week, in their article How this startup is trying to upend health insurance, profiled Clover Health, who just announced a $100 million round of equity and debt funding to expand its presence. Clover is focusing just on Medicare Advantage, and like Oscar, has started small. Founded in 2014, they currently operate in only six New Jersey counties. Also like Oscar – their vision involves embracing technology in a more disruptive means than the traditional health plan approach.

It should be a reasonable wager that Clover and Oscar won’t be the only VC backed startups making news a year from now.


Snapshots of the Mega-Mergers

By Clive Riddle, July 24, 2015

With Anthem and Cigna’s merger announcement, the dance card has been filled out. Here’s what they had to say about their deal:  

“Anthem will acquire all outstanding shares of Cigna in a cash and stock transaction and Cigna shareholders will receive $103.40 in cash and 0.5152 Anthem common shares for each Cigna common share. The total per share consideration equates to approximately $188.00 for each Cigna share based on Anthem's closing share price on May 28, 2015, valuing the transaction at $54.2 billion on an enterprise basis.”

So let’s take a look at the mega-health plan profiles, before and after these mergers, understanding that the “after” picture will undoubtedly change due to regulatory required divestures in certain markets:


Here’s a couple of edited graphics from by the plans that provide some additional insight into their merged companies:



It will be interesting to see how long the regulatory hurdles take for these three deals, and how many regulatory concessions, including specific market divestures, are required.