Maybe This Is How PBMs Started Getting Kickbacks?

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In case you haven’t been following all the riveting posts I’ve been writing lately about pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), here are the main ones:

Pharmacy Benefit Managers: Kind of a Mystery to Me

I’m Still Confused by PBMs But Trying to Fix That

Why Does GoodRx Exist, and How Does It Work

In the “I’m still Confused by PBMs” article, I went through the step by step process of PBMs coming into existence, which they did by filling a need in the market for companies to help consumers pay the correct copay right up front when they buy a medicine.

This time, I want to think more about how they went from that simple software solution (integrating an insurer’s formulary into the pharmacy’s software system so that it can spit out the right out-of-pocket price on the cash register when a patient buys a medicine) to being seen by many as the “shady middlemen.”

The starting point is the position they found themselves in the market. They were responsible for creating formularies for several different insurers. Their goal, assuming the PBM industry is competitive, is to help insurers have the most generous formulary for the cheapest.

I bet at some point, some young upstart working for a PBM had an idea . . .

Young upstart: “If we want to offer a cheaper formulary than our competitor, why don’t we try to negotiate directly with drug manufacturers to lower the costs of the drugs?”

Old manager, feeling superior: “But how are we going to do that? You don’t understand that drug manufacturers only negotiate with pharmacy wholesalers. The wholesalers are the only party to which manufacturers sell their drugs. Nobody else buys directly from the manufacturers, so no one else can negotiate with manufacturers.” And then, with a taunting eyebrow raise, “Unless you are suggesting something radical, like that we start backward integrating to act as drug wholesalers as well?”

Young upstart, undaunted: “Not at all. How about this. Why don’t we pay a visit to a drug manufacturer that is selling a medication that has several competitors in the same drug category and make them an offer they can’t refuse. We could tell them we’ll put their medication in the lowest copay tier and all the other medications in that same category will still be in the middle copay tier. They will sell way more of their medicine and make a lot more money. But, in return, they have to pay us a “rebate” for every transaction of their medication that we process. They still make more money because they’re selling so much more of their medication, and we get some of it.”

Old manager, interest piqued: “And how is this going to allow us to offer a cheaper formulary than our competitors?”

Young upstart, gaining momentum: “We’ll simply charge less for insurers to use our formulary. Sure, they’ll have to pay a slightly larger share of the total cost of that specific medicine, but the lower price we offer them will more than make up for that. And the best part is, everyone wins! The drug manufacturer wins by increasing profit, the patient wins by paying a lower copay, the insurer wins by getting a cheaper overall formulary, and we win because we keep some of the rebate!”

Old manager, ever skeptical: “If everyone wins, then where is the money coming from?”

Young upstart: “The money comes from the other drug manufacturers, whose market share goes down. That profit that they’re losing is being divvied up among (1) us, (2) the drug manufacturer we’re contracting with, and (3) the insurers using our cheaper formularies, some of which will be passed on to patients.”

Old manager: “Ok, that makes sense, but this sounds too good to be true. You haven’t mentioned pharmacies yet–how would this impact them?”

Young upstart: “I was hoping you’d ask. This won’t impact pharmacies at all. They won’t even know about this transaction between us and the drug manufacturer. As far as they’re concerned, all they see is that they’re still getting paid the negotiated price for the medication, it’s just that patients are paying less and the insurer is paying more.”

Old manager, nodding: “So the patient pays less but the insurer pays more. Yet the insurer is saving money overall because our formulary is cheaper enough to more than compensate for that.”

Young upstart: “Exactly.”

And that is what I imagine to be the start of PBMs negotiating “kickbacks” with drug manufacturers. It was all in the name of PBMs being able to offer lower-priced formularies to insurers by orchestrating a way to help some drug manufacturers sell more drugs and get rebates/kickbacks/volume discounts in return.

This surely boosted the profitability of the PBMs that started doing it, which, when others heard about it, started doing the same thing.

Eventually, every drug manufacturer started paying some kind of rebate to PBMs, which means it became a zero sum endeavor overall for manufacturers because the net effect of having a higher market share through a specific PBM but a lower market through the others that made deals with their competitors means that they end up with essentially the same market share, the only difference being that now they are paying money to PBMs to avoid losing that market share.

Shady middlemen indeed. But I can’t blame them for doing it–this is what capitalism and competition is all about. It’s just a market failure that this specific strategy turns out to be a cost-increaser in the market.

The Non-financial Reasons for Unwarranted Regional Variations in Care Delivery

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Ever since the start of residency, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has been delivered to my mailbox without me ever subscribing to it. They keep threatening to stop sending them if I don’t pay for a subscription, but I keep finding the journals in my mailbox. Usually I will glance at the titles of the articles and read the ones I find interesting. That is why, this week, I am writing about what I read in the viewpoint article, Reducing Low-Value Care and Improving Health Care Value, by Drs. Allison Oakes and Thomas Radomski.

They start the article by talking about how there’s a lot of low-value care delivered in U.S. healthcare, even in the absence of financial incentives for delivering more care. They cite some studies from places like the VA system and the Alberta, Canada, system (my home province!), showing how they, too, deliver lots of low-value care. This is their great encapsulation of that important insight: “The provision of low-value care when financial incentives are not present suggests that there are other motivating forces that contribute to overuse. . . .”

Next, they talk about regional variation, saying that from one region to another, there are “systemic differences in care delivery.” But how could doctors act so differently from one region to another? Their answer, at least in part, is that “organizational culture influences patterns of low-value service use. Individual organizations have distinct overuse profiles.” I like that phrase: distinct overuse profiles.

And it’s true. Very true. I’ve worked in the midwest, the northwest, and the mountain west, and I see it. For example, almost no one ordered blood ammonia levels at one hospital, and at another it’s an almost expected part of any workup of confusion, even if the patient has no liver history.

Another example: Just today a colleague was telling me about how if she ever ordered a certain kind of fluids (LR), she would get multiple phone calls checking to see if she’d really meant to order that. Evidence is fairly convincing these days that LR is usually better than normal saline, but that hadn’t caught on at her old hospital. At her new hospital, there’s literally a pop-up warning for anyone who tries to order normal saline that says, “LR is better.” And it offers to switch the order to LR for you.

Another example: At my current hospital, I very frequently see a urinalysis ordered on patients who presented to the ED without any complaints that would make me suspect a UTI. And since urinalyses are commonly falsely positive, those questionable urinalysis orders frequently lead to questionable antibiotic administrations. At other hospitals, the ED physicians’ culture is to have a much higher threshold for ordering urinalyses, and even when they are ordered, the likelihood of treating “asymptomatic bacteruria” is much lower.

Another example: The likelihood of the radiologist reading a chest x-ray as having an opacity that could be pneumonia seems to be different from hospital to hospital. And even if the patient hasn’t had any other symptoms of pneumonia, if they have any sort of respiratory complaint and the chest x-ray report says possible opacity “consider pneumonia,” it seems they always end up getting admitted for pneumonia and started on antibiotics.

These are just a few examples of how the practice of clinical medicine is so different from facility to facility in 1,000 tiny ways. And I understand why it happens.

In residency, your practice patterns are being strongly shaped by what your attendings do. But they’re also shaped, to a large degree, by the personal studying you’re doing and by presentations given at noon conferences and morning reports, where the presenter has spent a lot of time reviewing the newest evidence on the topic. There is a ton of active learning, and your connection to the newest evidence is fairly strong. Although, possibly as a side-effect of this, you also seem to add rare diagnoses to your differential more often, and this probably leads to more low-yield testing.

After residency, working as a regular attending not affiliated with a residency program, the focus is very different. The overall goal of practicing medicine is the same–delivering great care for patients–but there isn’t nearly as much active talk about ways your group might be practicing low-value care. (Instead, ensuring adequate coding and documentation dominates the discussion topics.) The connection to the newest evidence is a lot weaker. And there seems to be more of a focus on avoiding malpractice, which leads to having a lower threshold for ordering tests and scans for common diseases, which also counts as low-yield testing when the diagnosis in question is unlikely in that given scenario.

Individual physicians will still learn new things through personal study, but it’s an uphill battle to justify doing something different than your colleagues. So as you take over your colleagues’ lists of patients when you come on service, and as you take over newly admitted patients from the night before, you are frequently seeing and slowly being influenced by how others in your group are practicing medicine. The practice patterns naturally homogenize. I was once asked by a colleague to send an email to my hospitalist group about the evidence backing up something that I was doing because it was different than the other hospitalists.

This is how particular practice patterns spread and homogenize throughout an organization. Combine those effects with the other active pushes for practice pattern changes that come through leadership communications and EMR integrations (like the “LR is better” pop-up warning), and distinct overuse profiles start to make a lot of sense.

All these cultural factors that lead to systemic but regionally different low-value care delivery will need more than simply top-down Medicare reimbursement changes.

I stand by my solution that, if value-sensitive decisions in healthcare became more widespread, the financial incentives for decreasing low-value care would not only change the macro incentives, but they would be strong enough to induce healthcare managers/clinical leaders to go about finding creative and effective ways to make the organizational changes necessary overcome the cultural factors I’ve talked about in this post.

I’m Still Confused by PBMs But Trying to Fix That

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Last week was the first week in a long time that I haven’t had a Tuesday blog post. Sometimes life happens, and that’s ok. My interest and passion for fixing healthcare continues unabated.

Every time I try to remember the important details about pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) since writing about them a couple months ago, I have to go back to that post and re-read it. This is annoying to me, and it’s a hint that I haven’t grasped them well enough yet. So this post is me trying to process PBMs more thoroughly.

I haven’t yet talked to anyone who works at a PBM (working on that–let me know if any of you readers have any contacts at one!), but pending that additional information, here is what I understand based on all my research.

But first, a meta thought.

Maybe you haven’t noticed in my writings, but I try to describe the problem needing a solution before I discuss that solution. When a solution is presented in the context of a clear explanation of the problem that preceded it, the solution becomes intuitive why it was created rather than coming across as “interesting and comprehensible yet still kind of a mystery as to its purpose or how it fits into the bigger picture.”

For example, before I explain something like bundled payments, I need to clarify the ways that healthcare stupidly separates out so many things that should really be seen as a single job and how that separation of jobs interferes with people being able to compare prices to make value-sensitive decisions.

I believe most healthcare writers fail to coherently explain the problem before they start describing reforms, and it makes healthcare seem way more complicated than it is.

So, what is the context that created a need for PBMs? My understanding is this . . .

When a patient buys a prescription, the price of that medication is the result of a negotiation between the pharmacy and the insurer (unless, of course, the pharmacy and insurer have no agreement, in which case the total price is whatever the pharmacy has set it at). And that negotiated price gets split into two–the patient pays part and the insurer pays part.

At some point along the way, pharmacies and insurers must have decided that it’s undesirable for patients to pay the full price up front and also it’s undesirable for insurers to pay the full price up front.

Think about it. Patients would hate having to pay the full price up front and then get some of that reimbursed by their insurer weeks later. And patients would also hate to pay nothing up front only to get a bill from their insurer weeks later asking them to pay some crazy amount they never would have agreed to. Additionally, either one of those scenarios would create a post-transaction reconciliation nightmare.

The obvious solution would be to get pharmacies to charge patients the correct copayment right up front.

This would require insurers’ formularies and copayment policies to somehow get integrated into pharmacies’ software systems to calculate the price for the patient right then and there when they ring up the medication. This cannot possibly be a straightforward process, especially when miscalculations can cause people to lose tons of money and get very angry. Maybe large insurers have the resources to hire the right people and build the right process knowledge and software, but wouldn’t it be great if companies existed to do this sort of thing for them so they could focus on their core business?

Suddenly, hiring a separate company–let’s call it a “pharmacy benefit manager”–to do this for them makes a whole lot of sense.

Better yet, a large insurer, acting as an entrepreneur, could see this need in the market and create a spin-off subsidiary that could do that job for them and also do that job for a bunch of other smaller insurers. Boost that revenue, right?

Okay, that helped me to process many of the steps I’d skipped the first time I tried processing this topic. I tried to cover too much ground before. I will continue spending a little more time on these topics. I pity the fool who doesn’t find all of this fascinating!

Groups of Passionate People Change the World . . . Join Me?

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Have you ever noticed the electricity and vibrant energy that abides on a university campus? I think it’s more than just the result of thousands of young people collected into one place. It’s the result of big ideas, of people discussing and debating issues they’re passionate about, of them envisioning the world as being different and better through collective action.

I have being going it alone in health policy for too long. This has been useful in some ways–blazing your own trail is the only way to discover new land. But without others on this trail with me who have different opinions, backgrounds, and skill sets, I am not challenged to learn as much or, more importantly, do as much.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because a group of my friends and friends’ friends from medical school recently reconvened (virtually) a discussion group they had from the Cleveland days. (Sorry I missed it guys!) There’s nothing quite like meeting up physically, and maybe one day I can live in a place dense enough with health policy folk to do that, but until then I think virtual is good enough.

So this is my request: If you or anyone you know is passionate about health policy and wants to start talking about it occasionally (maybe quarterly), I want to hear from you. I don’t care if you’re an old retired professor or a young student or just a normal person interested in this topic. As long as you bring passion and questions and an open mind, I want to hear from you. Email me directly at tjaychristensen@gmail.com. And even if you’re reading this 10 years after it’s published, I still want to hear from you.

I don’t know where those talks will lead, but this is how it starts.

Another Article Shows that Price Transparency Tools Don’t Work (Plus My Explanation Why)

I have a bunch of papers I’ve saved to read, and I think it’s time to start going through them.

This one is called Online Advertising Increased New Hampshire Residents’ Use of Provider Price Tool But Not Use of Lower-Price Providers. It’s in Health Affairs, 2021, and was written by Sunita Desai, Sonali Shambhu, and Ateev Mehrotra. I always look forward to reading studies that Dr. Mehrotra was involved in.

Based on the title, you can guess that this paper will be good to challenge my assertions that people can make value-sensitive decisions if they are given the right information. Let’s see what they found!

The background to this study is that price transparency efforts are “plagued by low consumer engagement.” Typically less then 15% of people actually use whatever price transparency tool (usually a website) was provided, and often the number is much lower. So the question is, are so few people using these price transparency tools because they don’t know they exist, or is it for some other reason? Possible other explanations the researchers provide include patients just plain not being interested in using the price transparency information, and patients wanting to use the information but being unable to for some reason.

To answer their question, the researchers launched a “large targeted online advertising campaign using Googe Ads to increase awareness of and engagement with New Hampshire’s price transparency website.” Then, if the ads drove awareness of/traffic to the price transparency website but the claims data still did not reveal any changes in how often patients select lower-price providers, they could conclude that awareness isn’t the main contributor to the ineffectiveness of price transparency websites.

They created ads for three specific services: emergency department visits, physical therapy services, and imaging services, all chosen because they’re generally shoppable (yes, that includes emergency department visits, a high percentage of which would be more amenable to urgent care!) and because their cost is typically low enough that people will not meet their deductible by receiving the service, which means they’ll be paying out of pocket for some percentage of the service.

The ads took people straight to the NH HealthCost website, which uses as its source data actual negotiated prices between provider-insurer diads (oh, the magic of all-payer claims databases!) (gag clauses be damned), although it doesn’t plug a patient’s exact plan or year-to-date spending info into the website to give an exact out-of-pocket cost; the best it can offer is an “estimate of procedure cost” and it also gives a “precision of the cost estimate” (low or high).

After spending $39,000 on ads over the course of 6 months, the website traffic went up from 265 visits/week to 1,931 visits/week. People who clicked on the ads spent, on average, about 30 seconds on the site. I just tried going to the site myself, and 30 seconds is definitely not enough time to truly search for a procedure and use the results to choose a provider. But maybe they returned later and spent more time on the website, which is plausible since the non-ad-related visitors typically spent more time than that.

Voila, awareness can drive traffic to a price transparency website! They cannot exactly calculate what percent of all patients who used one of those three services during the study period visited the website, but best-case estimations are 77% of ED visits, 13% of imaging services, and 54% PT visits. The true numbers may be much lower. But still, it’s enough that you’d think there would at least be some measurable difference if going to the website impacted provider selection.

Nope. Not at all. When compared to other states (as a control group, using a difference-in-differences analysis), there was absolutely no measurable impact on provider selection.

Before reading this paper, I was a little surprised at the title. But now, having read the paper and checked out the website myself, I’m not surprised.

Think about it this way: We all compare Amazon prices when we’re shopping at Walmart, don’t we? Americans seem to be very interested in saving money and getting the best value as often as we can. But if we’re at Walmart and the best we can get when we pull up Amazon on our phones is, “This item will cost approximately $10 less than what you’re seeing right now in Walmart, and the precision of this estimate is low. Also, we can’t say anything useful about the quality of this product since there are no helpful reviews.” How influential do you think that would be for people? It almost seems like the risks of ending up with a more costly or lower-quality product are high enough that you might as well go for the sure and familiar thing right in front of your face. So it is with provider decisions.

The investigators nailed it when they said, “Our findings emphasize that awareness of prices does not simply translate into price shopping and lower spending. There are numerous barriers to using price information. People might not know the details of their benefit design to infer their out-of-pocket expenses. Customized out-of-pocket spending estimates may be critical.”

Agreed. They nailed it. And another thing is critical: easy-to-understand and relevant quality information. I’ve still never seen a research study that’s been able to give patients both exact out-of-pocket prices and relevant quality information side by side. Those two details, plus insurance plan designs that require patients to pay more if they choose a higher-priced provider, are all essential to actually impacting patient decisions about where they will receive care.

Think of these efforts to get patients to alter their provider decisions as a bridge. This bridge has to span a deep chasm 30 metres wide. If the bridge is made of three piles, each supporting a 10-metre long deck, the only way to cross to the other side is by having all three of those decks in place at the same time. Even if you build two of the three decks, nobody is going to cross that bridge (except, maybe, a few daredevils willing to risk their lives). Likewise, very few patients will risk choosing a different provider than the default one (the nearest one, the one their friend recommended, the one their doctor mentioned, the one they’ve gone to before, etc.) unless they have all three of those pieces in place.

Do these findings change by mind in any way? No. It was certainly a useful and well-performed study, but until I see a study that gives patients all three decks of that bridge (and make them aware that the bridge exists!), I doubt I will ever see a study on price transparency tools show any significant impact on the number of value-sensitive decisions. Which makes me mourn all over again that CMS did not fund the study I designed for the Utah Department of Health. It would have been the first to build that bridge and then watch what happens to patients’ provider selection and prices and quality in the market.

“The Doctor Said I’m Crazy”

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This last week of work, I had a lot of patients with functional disorders, and it has motivated me to help more people in this world understand functional disorders and the people who experience them, which will probably be all of us at one time or another.

First, let’s start with my favourite thing: an exhaustive, mutually exclusive categorization.

I categorize all symptoms into three broad groups: organic, functional, and malingering.

Organic symptoms are caused by the body. For example, if you have a bowel obstruction and your stomach is super distended, that will trigger the nausea receptors in your GI tract, and you will have significant nausea.

Functional symptoms are caused by the mind. These symptoms are felt just as surely as organic symptoms are, it’s just their source is different. For example, if you have a major psychological stressor, it will activate nausea receptors in your cerebral cortex, and you will feel nausea just like if you had a bowel obstruction. The common symptoms of functional disorders that I see all the time are pain (anywhere, but often abdominal pain, chest pain, back pain, headaches), generalized symptoms (fatigue, weakness), psychological symptoms (brain fog, depression, anxiety), GI symptoms (nausea, diarrhea), and neurologic symptoms (altered sensation, focal weakness). Any of those symptoms could come from an organic source or a functional source.

Malingering is straight up lying. The person doesn’t have symptoms, they’re just making them up so they can get something. For example, if someone really likes the high some IV diphenhydramine plus promethazine can give them, they’ll say they have nausea and itching and that the oral versions of those meds don’t work.

I believe malingering is rare. But functional symptoms are very common.

Sometimes symptoms are a mix of organic and functional. And sometimes the symptoms started out as organic but perpetuate as functional.

Functional disorders are diagnoses of exclusion, meaning we have to exclude the other likely organic causes before we can give the diagnosis of a functional disorder. This is because we currently have no lab test or imaging modality that will be definitively diagnostic for a functional disorder. Sure, we can find objective things as a result of functional disorders; people will truly get diarrhea, which is pretty objectively identifiable. And people will get metabolic alkalosis if their functional nausea has been causing them to throw up all their body’s acid. But no test will be able to definitively identify the cause of that diarrhea or that nausea.

Because functional disorders are diagnoses of exclusion, patients will first get worked up for increasingly rare organic disorders until, eventually, the doctor determines that even though there’s still a small chance they’ve missed something organic, the likelihood of the patient’s symptoms being from an organic disorder is small enough that it’s no longer worth further testing, and they should instead proceed with trying to treat the functional disorder to see if that resolves the symptoms. This means that, sometimes, the diagnosis of a functional disorder will be wrong. That’s the nature of the statistics of diagnoses of exclusion.

When a doctor gives a functional diagnosis, they’ll usually say something like, “All of your tests came back negative; I think it’s being caused by stress. You need to see a psychiatrist or a therapist.” And what the patient hears is either, “I don’t believe you’re having nausea,” or, “I think you’re crazy.”

And what does the patient do next? They find another doctor. The workup starts all over again. Increasingly rare causes are tested for. The patient Googles their symptoms and finds all sorts of things online that lead them to request testing for rare disorders, which are often expensive and/or invasive.

Sometimes, if the second round of testing turns something up, they are even more convinced the first doctor was horrible. And they latch onto that diagnosis, even if there’s a good chance it was a false positive or only explains a part of their symptoms.

I try to avoid all of that by explaining to patients the three categories of disease and then being very clear about two things. First, that functional disorders are not malingering; I tell the patient I am absolutely not saying they are making up these symptoms. I tell them functional symptoms are felt just as truly as organic symptoms are felt. Second, I tell them that it’s normal for our minds and bodies to cope in any way they can with something, and often that means creating physical symptoms. And with that understanding that it’s caused by the mind, the treatment is to see a professional who can pull that stress/trauma/hurt out of their mind and help them process and resolve it. That is the only effective treatment for what they have, and it will resolve their symptoms after that core cause is treated.

The challenge is finding a professional who can accomplish that because there’s still so much we don’t understand about the mind and how to help people process those things. Finding the right one and the right treatment modality may take several tries. But it is possible to cure functional disorders!

The Argument for Putting a Price on People’s Lives

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There are arguments out there that say we need to cover everything for everyone; that it’s immoral to ration care. Each human life is priceless, and choosing not to pay for a service that could save or prolong a life is trying to put a price on something that is priceless. It violates the moral test of government:

The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

Former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey

I disagree. And having recently read The Road to Serfdom by Hayek, I’ll put it in his terms because he’s given the best explanation of the counter-argument.

If we spend all that money on healthcare and ignore all the other potential uses for that same money, we are making a huge spending decision without even being able to determine whether that money was put to its best use.

How about an example?

If a grandma has the choice to (1) spend $300,000 on cancer treatment that is likely to give her about two more months of life or (2) spend that same sum on 4 years of university tuition for her granddaughter who would not otherwise be able to afford university, what would she choose? Maybe some would choose to live two months longer, but I suspect most grandmothers would put a price on their own life by choosing a better use for that money.

I know–she’s getting to make the decision for herself, which is a very important difference. But I hope the principle is clear: Governments could choose to spend a huge portion of their limited resources on covering every single healthcare service for every single person, but that crowds out other virtuous options, such as school lunches for low-income kids, housing programs for the homeless, mental health treatment for incarcerated individuals, . . .

(Incidentally, in the context of the grandma’s decision, it seems better for the grandma herself to decide what’s best with the money, which is the same argument I have been giving all along that we should allow patients to bear directly some percentage of the cost differential between their various options.)

If we don’t let micro- and macro-considerations of the alternative uses of limited resources enter into our economic decisions, we are headed down the same road that all planned economies in the past have traveled.

NEJM’s Fundamentals of U.S. Health Policy, Part 7b: My Commentary on Creating a More Efficient Delivery System

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In last week’s post, I summarized this article, which is the last in the Fundamentals of U.S. Health Policy series published by The New England Journal of Medicine. The article was written by Michael Chernew, Ph.D., and discusses the role of market forces (more specifically, competition) in improving our healthcare delivery system.

I’m heavily biased toward using competition inasmuch as it is possible (for good reason), but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to our failed attempts at improving competition in healthcare. And Dr. Chernew does a great job summarizing many of those failed attempts while remaining optimistic that competition still has a role in improving our healthcare delivery system.

I completely agree with his conclusion that where the market fails, we need government involvement. It’s a conclusion that is commonly agreed upon amongst researchers in this field.

But the difference between me and most other health policy researchers is this: I believe the market will work to a much greater degree than others do. Maybe this is because my original bias toward decentralized decisions and efficiency led me to question harder why all those supposedly market-improving reforms failed.

Others may say, “Well, all these reforms failed, so I guess the market just won’t work in healthcare, so let’s see what the government can do to fix this mess instead.” But I say, “Let’s figure out why they failed. And if the reason they failed is because markets just won’t work in healthcare, great! Let’s turn to the government for help.”

The answers I’ve found over the last several years about why all those competition-improving efforts have failed tell me that markets can work to an extensive degree in healthcare, we’ve just never created the environment for it to happen.

I’m passionate about this because if we don’t understand that environment and then create it, the future fiscal health of most countries will sooner or later be ruined because the non-market government solutions they’ve come up with so far are insufficient at stimulating the cost-reducing innovation necessary to make healthcare systems sustainable.

My concerns with Dr. Chernew’s paper are in the section where he lists all the ways transparency efforts and benefit design change efforts have failed and then gives as the explanation for these failures that, “The core problem is that for markets to work, patients must face the economic consequences of their choices, but labor-market concerns dampen employers’ enthusiasm for adopting plans that impose such consequences.”

Translation: Employers don’t want to force employees to face big out-of-pocket spending in the plans they offer them because that’s not popular among employees, which will lead to employee dissatisfaction and possibly even lead to the best recruits choosing other jobs. And so employers are unwilling to adopt the insurance plan benefit designs that are necessary to make competition work in healthcare.

I disagree for a few reasons. First, an insurance plan does not have to make the patient pay the entire price out of pocket for them to be price sensitive. They only have to make the patient pay some of the price difference between their provider options. Second, employers can offer a few plan options to employees, only one of which would impose such requirements. Third, if there were multiple plan options to choose from, the one with such requirements would likely be fairly popular because the premium would be much lower on account of all the savings generated by those requirements leading enrollees to choose lower-priced providers.

The main potential limiter to the popularity of such a plan would probably be in its implementation. Is there an app that the patient can use that would easily tell them the provider options in their region and what their out-of-pocket cost would be for each one? Better yet, does that app also integrate patient-relevant quality information? Such apps are out there. And providing an explanation about the benefit design purpose and the accompanying app in the plan’s description would probably overcome a big chunk of the issues causing people not to use transparency information.

So I disagree with Dr. Chernew’s implication that competition in healthcare is going to be fairly limited because employers are unwilling to implement such plans. I actually wonder if there aren’t already groups of large employers banding together in different regions of this country making plans to all make such benefit designs available to their employees at the same time in an effort to get so many people in the region choosing based on quality and price that the providers are forced to respond in value-improving ways. (If any employers are out there considering such an attempt, I am happy to advise!)

But I do think that this last topic was the perfect one to end the series with, and Dr. Chernew was one of the best people they could have chosen to address the topic so effectively. How to increase the efficiency of the delivery system is the big challenge that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats seem to have an answer to, but it’s the issues that is going to loom larger in the future, especially if we turn to more administrative pricing and quickly discover that the price floor (the point at which the price is too low because it makes providers unprofitable) is actually incredibly high.

Well, that wraps it up for this series. I learned a ton and I appreciate NEJM’s efforts to educate more people about health policy!

NEJM’s Fundamentals of U.S. Health Policy, Part 7a: Creating a More Efficient Delivery System

It’s a market. Photo by Mark Stebnicki on Pexels.com

This is the last part of the Fundamentals of U.S. Health Policy series! And it’s a super interesting one. Michael Chernew, Ph.D., wrote about the role of market forces in U.S. health care. Since this is squarely in my area of focus, I have a lot of thoughts. Thus, this week I’ll stick to summarizing Dr. Chernew’s article, and then next week I’ll provide some commentary.

Forewarning, I’m following the paper’s logic flow, which, to my brain, is a little meandering, so it’s easy to lose one’s place, but I’ll clarify as much as I can now and then attempt to provide additional insight next week.

Remember how Total Healthcare Spending = Price x Quantity? (Well, actually, it’s the sum of the price x quantity of all the different services being provided in our healthcare system.) Dr. Chernew is basically using that equation when he starts out by saying that our challenge is to reduce the quantity of low-value services provided and to lower prices.

And then the big question . . .

What role should markets play in doing that?

He finally gets to the answer at the end, which is that markets and government should both be used to complement each other. Markets can be leveraged inasmuch as they will help, and this should be paired with the government regulations needed to help them work as well as they can.

I won’t list his specific recommendations quite yet about how we could do that because first I need to review what he says in the rest of the article about markets and how they work.

First, he says that markets are the “foundation of our economy,” and they promote efficient production and cost-reducing innovation. He doesn’t exactly give the step-by-step explanation of how they do that, but you can gather it from his next several paragraphs. Markets create competition, which is when consumers (in this case, patients) have “the ability and incentives . . . to seek low-price, high-quality providers. . . .” And because of that competitive pressure to win consumers, the players in a market are forced to innovate in ways that make production more efficient.

Great, so a good healthcare market will help patients choose low-price, high-quality providers. Unfortunately, healthcare markets are more imperfect than other markets. Want a big piece of evidence for this? Look at the extent of unwarranted price variations that exist in healthcare. It’s way more than in other markets.

But why is the healthcare market so bad?

“Competition in health care fails for several fundamental reasons. First, patients often lack the information needed to assess both their care needs and the quality of their care. Second, illness and health care needs are inherently difficult to predict, exposing people to financial risks that they must insure against. This risk gives rise to an insurance system that shields patients from the price of care, dampening their incentive to use care judiciously and to seek care from providers offering high-quality care at affordable prices. The information problem, amplified by insurance, reduces the ability and incentives for patients to seek low-price, high-quality providers and impedes well-functioning markets. This problem has been magnified lately by consolidation of health care providers.”

So, basically, it’s difficult for patients to really know what care they need, they have a hard time assessing quality of care, they’re shielded from prices because of insurance, and consolidation has limited their options. The result of all that is they have neither the ability nor the incentives to choose low-price, high-quality providers.

This, by the way, sounds almost exactly like what I’ve written (or linked to) a thousand times before, which is that patients need to start making value-sensitive decisions, and to do that they need (1) multiple options, (2) the ability to identify the value of each option, and (3) the incentive to choose the highest-value option.

Regarding consolidation, he gives some interesting data, which show that only 51% of markets have 3 or more hospital systems.

Based on all of that, many would conclude that we should abandon markets altogether in healthcare. But he says, “The weaknesses associated with market-based health care systems are severe, but that does not mean the market should be abandoned.”

And then he proceeds to give a few examples of beneficial things that have come from markets already, such as new payment models, telemedicine, a shift from inpatient to outpatient care, and narrow networks (which allows for lower prices).

Those, however, end up being overshadowed by the list of ways we’ve tried and failed to bolster market function by providing patients with better information about quality and prices and by changing insurance benefit designs.

The summary of this section of the paper is that giving patients better information about quality and prices have had very little success because . . .

  • Patients rarely use price- and quality-transparency tools
  • These sorts of decisions are complex
  • Patients fear disrupting their relationships with their physicians

Changing benefit designs to get patients to directly pay for more of their care (e.g., implementing high deductibles) has had a larger effect on utilization, but it hasn’t significantly impacted the market because . . .

  • What tends to happen is higher-value and lower-value care both decrease
  • Not enough patients end up getting steered toward higher-value providers to actually impact market prices.

He provides his explanation for all these failures: “The core problem is that for markets to work, patients must face the economic consequences of their choices, but labor-market concerns dampen employers’ enthusiasm for adopting plans that impose such consequences.”

In the realm of getting patients to choose higher-value insurance plans, there’s been a little bit of headway with insurance exchanges, although there are many drawbacks to those, too . . .

  • Beneficiaries make poor plan choices
  • Insurance exchanges induce more price sensitivity, which leads people to choose lower-premium plans that impose greater financial risk on them, which they often cannot bear

And, to make things worse, many of the downsides of insurance exchanges can worsen inequity.

Dr. Chernew is not exactly giving a glowing review of market-based reform attempts, is he? His comments are all accurate though.

Next, though, he says that “in evaluating their merits, we need to compare them with other systems, such as government-run models.” And government-run models have their own set of limitations.

Luckily, we are not facing an either-or decision. The important question is how government and markets can complement one another. “We do not need to abandon markets–we can make them better.”

Finally, getting to his recommendations about how to use markets and government to complement each other, he says we could work to increase the effectiveness of transparency initiatives, limit provider consolidation, and impose gentle regulations to prevent the most severe market failures (like limits on surprise billing and instituting price caps on the most excessive prices).

Dr. Chernew’s conclusion is that, “If we fail to improve market functioning, stronger government involvement will most likely be needed.” Agreed.

Next week, I’ll give my thoughts on all this!

NEJM’s Fundamentals of U.S. Health Policy, Part 6: The Future of U.S. Health Policy

Photo by Victoria Borodinova on Pexels.com

This is the second last paper in the NEJM series, and I think they’ve done a great job covering the major topics so far to give the “lay of the land” of this incredibly exciting field.

This one, written by Matthew Fiedler, Ph.D., gives an overview of the different camps that are vying for their respective visions of how to reform the healthcare system. And I’ll start by giving a quick summary of all his main points, then I’ll discuss some issues I have with this paper after that.

He first defines the main big-picture policy issues that are being debated by the two competing groups (essentially Republicans and Democrats, although he doesn’t refer to the groups by those names): What role should government play in ensuring broad health insurance coverage? And, How should we cope with the lack of competition in many health care provider markets?

Then Dr. Fiedler explains that the two groups disagree about which problem should be solved first. There’s the group that advocates first for universal coverage, which is because their beliefs are that health insurance substantially improves health and financial security, and that the well-being of lower-income people is particularly important, and that governments should have broad latitude to intervene in the health care system. And the other group, he explains, disagrees, and they instead believe that federal coverage programs, particularly those serving lower-income people, are too expansive.

He then talks more about the first group, explaining that there is actually a division between those who want to expand on the ACA-type approach of keeping the patchwork of coverage and those who want to replace the coverage patchwork with a single integrated coverage program. The second option would be simpler and impose smaller administrative and hassle costs, but it would require higher taxes and greater disruption to existing coverage arrangements.

Circling back to the group that feels that programs that serve lower-income people are too expansive, Dr. Fiedler says that their plan is to repeal things and take away subsidies for helping individuals obtain coverage. That’s why the CBO concluded that their approach would increase the uninsured by more than 20 million (but would also substantially reduce federal spending).

As for the second issue that he defined at the beginning of his paper–that of dysfunctional health care competition–he seems to attribute it to concentrated health care markets (for example, 90% of hospital markets meet the threshold for being highly concentrated), and then he explains the implications of that and approaches to addressing it.

The implications of concentrated markets are, as he explains, that it allows providers to demand high prices from private insurers, which increases the cost of insurance. It may also encourage providers to operate inefficiently and can even reduce providers’ pressure to improve quality because patients’ ability to switch providers is limited.

One approach to addressing this issue is a combination of several efforts, such as strengthening anti-trust enforcement, eliminating other policies that weaken competition (such as certificate-of-need requirements, which limit market entry, and “any willing provider” requirements, which keep insurers from offering providers increased volume in exchange for lower prices), and enhancing price transparency. About price transparency, he says it is pursued in hopes of encouraging patients to seek out lower-priced providers and encouraging providers to price more competitively, “although prior experience with price transparency is uneven.”

Limitations of this competition-enhancing collection of policies are that enhancing antitrust enforcement is too late in already-concentrated markets, and even if the other efforts help, robust competition may not be realistic (or even desirable) in some smaller markets anyway given the fixed costs associated with operating another hospital or physician practice.

Dr. Fiedler then discusses the other approach to addressing non-competitive healthcare markets and their high prices, which is to turn to administrative pricing. This could include price caps, and it could also include a “public option,” which would be a new publicly run insurance plan that would compete alongside private plans, thereby keeping private insurers honest in their premiums. He gives the downsides of these policies, especially that they may decrease providers’ incentives to improve quality because they prevent providers from parlaying investments in quality into higher prices or lucrative new volume, but then he acknowledges that the magnitude of this effect is uncertain.

That pretty much summarizes his main points. On the upside, I think he did a good job approaching the topic in an organized fashion. On the downside, I think this paper was incredibly (yet subtly) biased, which is totally inappropriate for a series of articles that is ostensibly providing a neutral introduction to health policy. This does NOT mean I’m accusing Dr. Fiedler of trying to trick people–I think this paper is simply an accurate reflection of his political influences and his understanding of these health policy topics. The fact that the NEJM editors did not make him change many of these things before publishing this paper is probably a reflection of their political persuasions as well.

This post is already long enough, but I’ll try to succinctly point out some of my main issues.

First, framing the two problems as a coverage issue and a “competition” issue. The second one is not just about healthcare competition. It’s about reigning in healthcare spending, which, if it continues on its current trend, will be the primary cause of bankrupting our country. His narrow focus on competition minimizes the problem, which then undermines the legitimacy of the group that wants to focus on that problem first rather than focus on the coverage issue first. He would have done well to at least parrot conservatives’ statements about not wanting to put even more people into an already unsustainable healthcare system and push us even faster toward bankruptcy but instead to get the costs down first, which would have the side-benefit of pricing many of the uninsured into the system as well.

Next, he describes liberals’ beliefs about the benefits of insurance and their interest in getting coverage for the poor, and then his description of conservatives’ beliefs and priorities is . . . nonexistent, other than to say that they “disagree” and then list all the things they want to take away without providing any rationale for why this might also be a reasonable approach (depending on your core values and priorities). It’s a subtle marginalization of the other side and, unfortunately, reflects all too well our current intolerant political atmosphere.

Another concern, which I’ll make my final concern, is how he makes a show of providing the downsides of his favoured policies but then immediately minimizes them as if to say the downsides are minor, and, conversely, how he describes much more persuasively the downsides of his unfavoured policies without any minimization. A good example of this is his entire discussion about the two different approaches to addressing non-competitive healthcare markets. I’ll spare you long quotations; go read directly from the paper if you have access, starting at the last paragraph of the second page of the article.

I realize Dr. Fiedler did not have room in that article for a thorough analysis of the huge and multifaceted issues he was introducing, so I hope one day to meet him and discuss some of these topics with him. Until then, for anyone interested in a few more details on these topics, here are some links to material I’ve written on these topics before . . .

For how market consolidation fits into our overall spending issues, see here. For a more complete discussion on price transparency, see here and here. For the potential harms and potential benefits of administrative pricing, see here. For some discussion on public options, see here. And for a thorough evaluation of Medicare for All versus other options, see here and here and here and here.