Building a Healthcare System from Scratch, Part 8: Fixing the American Healthcare System

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This is the final installment of the Building a Healthcare System from Scratch series, and it begins with the same caveat as Part 7—to understand the rationale behind the ideas presented, you need to read and understand all the prior parts of the series, beginning at Part 1.

Now that I have explained the Healthcare Incentives Framework (Parts 1 through 6) and described what various types of systems would look like that have implemented the principles of it (Part 7), we are ready to look at something more complex: rather than building an optimal system from scratch, how can this framework be applied to an existing system that needs fixing? The American healthcare system will be a perfect case study for this.Picture1

Where it sits right now, the American healthcare system seems to land somewhere in between the libertarian-type system and the single-payer system described in Part 7, except that it fails to implement the majority of the principles of the framework. It is also overly complex, which contributes greatly to its impressive administrative expenses. So what could a much-simplified American healthcare system look like that also maximally implements the principles of this framework? With consideration for and much guessing about Americans’ preferences regarding healthcare, here is an imagined description . . .

The United States eventually chose to strengthen its individual mandate. The government now mandates all people, without exception, to have a healthcare insurance plan that covers all services included on its list of “essential health benefits.” For those who forego insurance coverage, they pay a tax penalty that ends up being nearly the same as the premiums they would have paid. If uninsured individuals receive care that they cannot afford, they usually end up having to either go on long-term repayment plans or declare bankruptcy because there is no bailout available for them.

The website has become the ultimate source for healthcare insurance shopping. All qualified insurance plans (i.e., plans that cover all the essential health benefits) are listed there, along with their coverage level (according to the metal tiers), prices, and a short description that highlights any other benefits the plan offers that may help prevent healthcare expenditures.

Premium subsidies are available to all whose premiums will exceed a certain percentage of their income, and the subsidy amount is pegged to the second-cheapest qualified insurance plan available to them. The subsidies are automatically applied at the time people are choosing a plan on Because this system worked so well and was basically duplicative of Medicare and Medicaid, both programs were slowly phased out, which decreased insurance churn and increased time horizons. However, a vestige of Medicaid remains in that, depending on an individual’s annual income, there are also limits on how much they can be required to pay out of pocket for care.

The government also did away with the employer mandate and somehow found the political willpower to repeal all tax breaks for healthcare expenditures, which eventually led to employers getting out of the business of providing healthcare insurance for their employees and just giving that money to employees directly as regular pay.

Altogether, these changes mean that all Americans shop for their healthcare insurance on For anyone who is unable to do this themselves, there is a phone number to call to connect with someone who can assist them in selecting the plan that seems best for them.

A few changes were also made to encourage more insurance options. First, many regulations were eliminated, including the medical loss ratio requirement and state insurance department approvals of rates. These became unnecessary after people began to be able to compare the value of different insurance plans and choose based on that because overpriced or low-value plans (either from too much overhead or too high of rates in general) lost market share and profit. State-specific insurance regulations were standardized so that insurers can easily expand to new markets. And a law was passed requiring transparency of all price agreements between providers and insurers, which made the process of forming contracts with providers in a new region easier. These policies led to almost all markets having multiple options for each coverage tier.

In this way, the United States achieved universal access to affordable healthcare insurance relying on the private market while preserving the ability and incentive for all people to select the highest-value insurance plan for them. As a result, insurance plans aggressively innovate to find ways to prevent care episodes so that they can offer lower premiums and attract higher market share. Insurers also found that implementing differential cost-sharing requirements led people to start choosing lower-priced providers, which also enabled the insurer to lower premiums further. Finding provider prices has become easier ever since the price transparency law was passed.

The government has had to help overcome the problems caused by a multi-payer system by enforcing some standardization, including uniform insurance forms/processes, standardized bundles of care that all insurers in a region either agree or disagree to implement together, and standardized quality metrics that providers are required to report. These quality metrics are not used for bonuses, so they have been changed to be more focused on what patients need to know to choose between providers for specific services.

These quality metrics are now reported on an additional section on that lists all providers, their quality metrics, and their prices (seen as your expected out-of-pocket cost if you log in) in an easy-to-compare format. Due to patients’ differential cost sharing requirements for most services, as well as broad common knowledge of the existence and utility of this website, most patients have begun to refer to it before choosing providers. This part of has even been developed into a highly rated smartphone app.

In response to these changes, providers found that their value relative to competitors largely determined their market share and profitability, which unleashed an unsurpassed degree of value-improving innovation. The cost of care in the United States was previously so high that the majority of those initial innovations led to much cheaper care, which led to much lower insurance premiums and eased the premium subsidy burden on the federal government. Thanks to these changes, the federal deficit has begun to sustainably diminish quicker than any budgetary forecasting model could have predicted, which has also helped stabilize the American economy.

There are still barriers to people being able to identify and choose the highest-value insurers and providers. There are many important aspects of quality that are unmeasurable. Many people do not have the health literacy required to figure out which insurance plan or provider would be best for their situation and preferences, despite the ease of comparison enabled by There are medical emergencies that do not allow shopping (although the number of these has turned out to be much less than was previously thought because most of what used to present to emergency departments were not actually emergencies).

In spite of these lingering barriers, enough patients are choosing the higher-value options that providers and insurers still have a strong incentive to innovate to improve their value so they can win the market share and profit rewards available to higher-value competitors. And the result is that Americans are being kept healthy more often and are receiving care that is higher quality and more affordable.

That concludes my imagined description of how the American healthcare system could look with the principles from the Healthcare Incentives Framework fully applied. Just as a reminder, it represents merely a guess of how it could end up given the current system. This is by no means the only way to apply the principles of this framework, nor is it my secret idealized version of how it could end up. But I hope it was useful and thought provoking as a case study!

We have come a long way in this series. Throughout it, I worked hard to make the principles of the Healthcare Incentives Framework clear, and I hope the concrete examples have helped solidify those as well as demonstrate their potential for sustainably fixing healthcare systems around the world. If you want a more academic treatment on this framework (at least the part of it that applies specifically to providers), I published that as a medical student.

I intend to help policy makers of all types find ways to apply the principles discussed in this series. Please contact me if you have questions or would like me to help work through potential applications. Contact info is on my About Me and This Blog page. In the meantime, I hope you will follow along as I continue to blog about how to fix our healthcare system!

Building a Healthcare System from Scratch, Part 6: Barriers to Choosing the Highest-value Options

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In Part 5, we talked about the three requirements for getting market share to flow to the highest-value options, which is necessary if we want higher-value parties (insurers and providers) to be rewarded with profit. The context for why this is the crucial feature of our optimal from-scratch healthcare system is discussed in parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

As a reminder, those three requirements were for patients to have (1) multiple options, (2) the ability to identify the highest-value option, and (3) incentives to choose the highest-value option. Let’s look at examples of the common barriers to each of them so we will know what to avoid when we build our optimal healthcare system.

Multiple Options

Our goal: Avoid any policies that directly or indirectly limit the number of competitors in a market.

For providers, this means allowing them to build hospitals and clinics whenever and wherever they want. They will not do this with reckless abandon because they will know that, if they choose to build in a new region and end up delivering lower value than the incumbents, they will not get many patients and their new endeavor will not be profitable.

For insurers, this means avoiding regulations that make it difficult for them to enter new markets. Nationally standardized regulations will simplify the process of selling insurance in multiple markets, but  this does nothing to ease insurers’ greatest challenge of entering new markets, which is the challenge of negotiating prices with providers in that region. But having many provider options in a region should help with this.

And as for things that affect both providers and insurers, we will need good antitrust laws to prevent too much consolidation. And we will need to avoid policies that limit the freedom of them to vary their price and quality so that they can offer unique value propositions (otherwise we end up with many options that all are effectively the same, which defeats the purpose).

Identifying the Highest-value Option

The barriers to this are different for providers and insurers.

On the insurer side, the most difficult aspect of identifying the highest-value option is being able to predict which mixture of premium, copay, deductible, coinsurance, etc. will cover what you need in the cheapest way possible, as well as identifying/predicting which services will be needed and whether they are covered in the benefits. Having some standardization can make this much simpler (but still challenging), such as what does with multiple standardized quality tiers of insurance plans and grouping all those options together to be compared apples to apples.

On the provider side, one of the first challenges is getting people to recognize that they have multiple options that are of very different value. In almost every other industry, people are great value shoppers, but they have been conditioned historically not to even think about it when choosing healthcare providers, which is probably a consequence of the chronic unawareness of the huge variations in the quality of providers as well as the third-party payer system that so often causes people to pay the same no matter which provider they choose. This is one reason why healthcare provider quality reporting websites are so infrequently used even when they are available.

The other issues with identifying the highest-value providers can be divided into barriers to knowing price beforehand and barriers to knowing quality.

Barriers to knowing price beforehand: The biggest one is uncertainty about what services will be needed—for example, most people do not present to the emergency department with a diagnosis already, nor can they predict what additional complications might arise during a hospitalization. But for specific, well-defined episodes of care, such as an elective surgery, there are great ways to make prices knowable beforehand (look up bundled pricing for an example).

Barriers to knowing quality: People do not know where to find quality information even if they do go looking for it. And if they find it, most of what they find are quality metrics geared specifically toward comparing providers for the purpose of allocating bonuses rather than quality metrics that actually provide metrics that are relevant to helping a patient choose between providers. For example, a hospital’s overall mortality rate or readmission rate has little bearing on the quality of care a patient will receive for something like a straightforward elective gallbladder removal. Standardized, easy-to-understand, appropriately risk-adjusted, patient decision-oriented quality data are needed.

And the last thing to mention in this section are the barriers to identifying the highest-value option that will not likely be overcome. For example, medical emergencies don’t allow time to make a thoughtful decision about which hospital to go to. And low health literacy is a barrier for many people. And there are many important aspects of care that cannot easily be measured, such as a primary care doctor’s ability to diagnose the cause of ambiguous symptoms. Does the presence of these more insurmountable barriers mean that no health system will ever be able to get market share to flow to the higher-value options? No—even if many decisions about which provider to go to are not particularly logical or value-focused, as more people start choosing providers based on price and quality information, higher-value providers will begin to win more market share and the desired incentive scheme that motivates value-maximizing behaviors will arise.

Incentives to Choose the Highest-value Option

Even when people (1) have multiple insurer and provider options and (2) are able to identify the highest-value options, there are still barriers to them choosing the highest-value options.

The first barrier is when anyone but the patient is acting as the decision maker. These alternative decision makers typically have a financial stake in the decision and want to choose the cheapest option without regard for quality. For example, insurers that offer very narrow networks act almost like a first-cut decision maker to narrow patients’ possible provider choices down to only providers that are willing to accept the lowest prices. Patients/patient advocates should be the decision makers because only they will adequately weigh the quality aspects that are most important to and impactful on them.

But even when the patient is the decision maker, they will ignore prices if they are required to pay the same amount regardless of the provider or insurer they choose. This is usually not an issue with insurance plan selection, but it is a major issue with provider selection. For example, flat copays require the same payment from the patient regardless of the full price of the providers. High-deductible plans solve this problem for any service below the deductible, but, once that deductible is surpassed, they have the same problem. Ideas such as reference pricing, multi-tier provider networks, or even paying patients for choosing lower-cost providers can help with this.


If the above discussed barriers to the three requirements for getting market share to flow to the highest-value options are minimized, the healthcare system will naturally and continuously evolve toward higher value because it will motivate providers and insurers to perform their jobs in value-maximizing ways. Government interventions may still be considered for areas where natural incentives will not motivate those parties to do all the jobs we want them to do (particularly in the area of equitable access), but the “healthcare market” will start functioning to benefit patients and what they value.

This concludes the big-picture explanation of this Healthcare Incentives Framework. In other words, we have now discussed all the ingredients that need to go into an optimal from-scratch healthcare system. In Part 7, we will solidify the implications of this framework by imagining up a few examples of different types of healthcare systems with the Healthcare Incentives Framework implemented to show how all those ingredients can come together.Picture1


Building a Healthcare System from Scratch, Part 5: Getting Market Share to Flow to Higher-value Options

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We established in prior parts of this series that, in this Healthcare Incentives Framework, there are specific identifiable jobs we want a healthcare system to do for us, and that there are parties that have incentives to perform those jobs for us. The focus then turned to how to get those parties to perform those jobs in ways that maximize value, which we saw is achieved by rewarding them with more profit when they perform their jobs in higher-value ways. And in Part 4, we saw that the only effective way to do that is by getting market share to flow to the higher-value options. In this post, we examine what needs to happen for people to choose those higher-value options.

There are three requirements that all must be in place at the same time to enable someone to choose the highest-value option:

Requirement 1: Multiple options. This one seems straightforward–no market share can flow anywhere if there is only one option available. But there is another, less obvious aspect of this. Parties also need the freedom to vary their price and quality in ways that create unique value propositions, otherwise they will all look pretty similar, so the effective options people have would be severely limited, even if the total number of options is not. For example, if there is a price floor created by some administrative pricing mechanism, it will prevent any innovation that lowers quality a little bit but significantly lowers price. Why? Because those parties contemplating that kind of innovation will know that, without the ability to offer prices significantly lower than their competitors, they will be unable to win the market share necessary to make their innovation profitable.

Requirement 2: Ability to identify the highest-value option. Remember that value is determined by two things: quality and price. People choosing from among multiple providers or insurers need to be able to compare, apples to apples, the quality and price of all their options before they select one. But having apples-to-apples comparable price and quality information is not enough. The quality information would have to be simple enough to be easily understood and also relevant to the specific dimensions of quality people actually care about. And price information would need to reflect the expected total price of the product or service, otherwise it’s mostly useless. Both quality and price can be challenging in healthcare, which creates barriers to people being able to identify the highest-value option, but those barriers will be discussed in part 6 of this series.

Requirement 3: Incentive to choose the highest-value option. Even if people have multiple options and are able to easily tell which is the highest-value option, they will not choose that highest-value option without the right incentives. This applies to both their insurance plan selection and their care providers selection. Consider this example about choosing the highest-value care provider: suppose a patient has the choice to have a procedure at a nearby world-renowned hospital (95% success rate, $80,000) or the local community hospital (92% success rate, $40,000). Further suppose that this patient will pay $10,000 out of pocket (their annual out-of-pocket max) regardless of which hospital they choose. Which will they choose? An additional 3% chance of success for an extra $40,000 seems steep, but since they’re not paying the difference, most people would go for the world-renowned hospital regardless of the difference. Extracting the principle from this example, people need to pay more when they choose a higher-priced provider (or less when they choose a lower-priced provider); this doesn’t necessarily mean they always need to pay the complete difference between the two, but they at least need to pay some of that difference. Same goes for the quality aspect of value. If someone other than the patient (say, the insurance company) is choosing where the patient will receive care, they generally care a lot more about the price than about the quality differences between the options since they aren’t the one who bears the consequences of going to a lower-quality option. So, in summary, regardless of whether the discussion is about choosing providers or choosing insurance plans, the individual making purchase decisions needs to bear the price and quality consequences of the decision.

By now it should be clear that if any of these three criteria are not fulfilled, market share will not flow to the highest-value options, and the whole incentive scheme we are creating falls apart.

There are, you may have figured, many many barriers to these things working in current healthcare systems, some of which would be present even in our optimal healthcare system we are building. But that’s the topic of Part 6.


Building a Healthcare System from Scratch, Part 4: Levers that Determine Profit

leverIn parts 1, 2, and 3, we looked at what we want a healthcare system to do for us (the “jobs”), we figured out which parties in a healthcare system have an incentive to perform those jobs, and then we discussed that, for those parties to have an incentive to maximize value while performing those jobs, they need to make more profit when they deliver higher value.


The next part of the Healthcare Incentives Framework takes a look at the different levers that affect profit to see which can be used to reward higher-value parties with more profit.

Let’s review how profit is calculated:

Profit = Revenues – Costs

Profit = (Price x Quantity Sold) – Costs

And since most companies sell more than one product or service, . . .

Profit = ∑((Price x Quantity Sold) – Total Costs)

These are the only four factors that determine a company’s profit: service mix, price, quantity sold, and total costs. So, which can be used to reward higher-value parties with more profit?

Service mix: Companies in healthcare already generally have the freedom to dedicate their resources in ways that maximize the amount of higher-profit services they deliver (why do you think my hospital renovated the orthopedics floor first?), so I won’t go into depth on this one other than to say that we need to allow them to continue doing that.

Price: Could we use prices somehow to reward higher-value parties with more profit? How about we try giving bonuses to higher-value providers? Those bonuses would essentially raise their prices, which actually lowers their value (remember, Value = Quality/Price). Sure, other providers would be motivated to raise their quality to get the higher prices too, but all we’d end up with is a little better quality at a little higher price, with no clear path to much else. Therefore, this approach doesn’t do a very good job of accomplishing the core goal of rewarding higher value with more profit. It’s not the lever we are looking for. But, while we’re talking about prices, there’s one crucial aspect of price that we need to include in our optimal healthcare system: providers and insurers need the freedom to set their prices themselves. The reasons for this will become clearer in subsequent posts.

Costs: Finding a way to lower the costs of higher-value providers is basically the same as raising their price–either way, more money is given to them, which raises their profit but lowers the value people obtain from them. So, the same problems exist with using costs as a lever to reward value with profit.

Quantity Sold: We’re left with one last lever, and I saved it for last on purpose. What would happen if higher-value insurers or providers all of a sudden were getting more patients flocking to them? They would certainly get more profit (assuming they have the capacity to take on more patients/subscribers). And the patients are happy because more of them are getting higher-value services. Now think beyond that static world. Over time, higher-value parties would continue to make more money and expand, and lower-value parties would be forced to improve their value or just go out of business. Parties would have an incentive to take big risks on innovations that improve value because they would know that, if the innovation ends up improving value for people (lower price, higher quality, or both), it will be rewarded handsomely with profits.

In summary, the best way to reward higher value with more profit is to get more patients to flow to them. This is how to permanently “bend the cost curve” and weed out low-quality options.


In Part 5, I will enumerate the core elements required for people to do that.

Building a Healthcare System from Scratch, Part 3: Getting the Incentives Right

carrotIn Part 1, I enumerated the jobs we want a healthcare system to do for us. In Part 2, I explained which parties in the healthcare system (providers or insurers) have incentives to perform each job. The next part of the Healthcare Incentives Framework is the biggest challenge: how do we shape those incentives so that they don’t just reward parties for merely performing those jobs, but so they also encourage them to perform their jobs in the best way possible? (“Best way possible” will be more precisely defined below.)

To understand this discussion, two key definitions must be absolutely clear.

First, the definition of value.

Value = Quality / Price

High value can be found at any price point. For example, it could be reasonable quality for a super low price, or it could be the absolute best quality for a not-crazy-high price. It just depends on how much money is available to be spent.

And just as a brief sidenote, I’ll mention that “quality” has many facets, and it’s the patient who–as the person consuming the service–ultimately gets to decide what constitutes quality. And “price” denotes the actual total amount of money paid for the service.

Second, the definition of a financial incentive. A financial incentive is something that rewards behavior with increased profit. Profit is the key here. Companies (or, the people who run them) don’t take huge risks and expend great effort that won’t result in more money for them. (This also applies to non-profit organizations, only they call it “surplus.”) So a project that is projected to increase revenues but also increase costs just as much is a waste of effort from a company’s standpoint.

With those two definitions in mind, here is the principle: Our goal is to create financial incentives that reward value for patients. In other words, a provider or insurer needs to make more profit when they provide higher value for patients. This would motivate them to out-compete and out-innovate their competitors. And the form of that competition wouldn’t be destructive corner-cutting and responsibility-avoiding–it would be to actually provide higher value for patients.

Instead of hospitals spending fortunes on beautiful lobbies, they would be competing on how to make care cheaper, faster, and more convenient. Because that’s how they would make more profit.

Instead of insurers climbing over each other to find ways to cream skim the healthiest patients and creatively design networks to get sick patients to avoid them, they would be competing on how to most efficiently provide cost-saving prevention and how to have the best customer experience. Because that’s how they would make more profit.

Some say financial incentives have no place in healthcare. What they don’t understand is that there will always be financial incentives in any industry where people get paid for their work. We can’t ignore the inescapable presence of financial incentives in healthcare. But we can shape them in a way that motivates providers and insurers to maximize the value delivered to patients.


In Part 4, I’ll enumerate the four levers that affect profit, which will then lead to an explanation of the barriers healthcare systems commonly have to those levers being used to reward value with profit.

Building a Healthcare System from Scratch, Part 1: Jobs

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This series explains my framework for understanding healthcare systems. For ease of reference, I call it my Healthcare Incentives Framework. I use it to make sense of everything I see happening in a healthcare system. And one could use it to build a healthcare system from scratch. Each subsequent post builds on all the prior posts, so I strongly recommend reading them in order. For convenience, here are links to parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.

I developed the majority of the Healthcare Incentives Framework over 5 years (2010 – 2014), during which time I was thinking/reading/studying about healthcare policy almost every spare thinking moment. I just had this insatiable drive to make sense of the evidence I was reading as well as what I was seeing in the world. It was the ultimate puzzle. Luckily, my wife was patient and convincingly interested in my thoughts, which I shared almost daily. Every time I came up against a phenomenon that I couldn’t understand or explain within the context of the greater Framework I was developing, I would struggle with it in my mind, sometimes for weeks, until I figured out what it meant and how it fit. Most of the posts on this blog came as a result of those struggles, and everything I now write about health policy is based on the foundational understanding encapsulated in this Framework.

The Healthcare Incentives Framework starts by enumerating the jobs you want a healthcare system to do for you. Initially, it seems like only two jobs: prevent disease and treat the disease that cannot be prevented. But, because incentives work differently for different kinds of prevention, I will split that job into cost-saving prevention and cost-effective prevention.

Cost-saving prevention saves more money down the road than it costs up front. For example, maybe hiring someone to visit the homes of people with really bad heart failure will prevent enough hospitalizations that it more than compensates for the salary of the person doing the home visits.

Cost-effective prevention ends up increasing total spending–that is, the money saved (if any) doesn’t outweigh the upfront investment–but the benefit is large enough to justify that investment. For example, screening for colorectal cancer costs a lot, but it catches a lot of cancers early and saves enough lives that the investment is worth it. The exact definition of what’s cost-effective and what isn’t depends on the society, but the metric used is the cost for each quality-adjusted life year you gain ($/QALY).

In addition to those three jobs related to maximizing health, and because healthcare is characterized by rare, unpredictable, potentially financially catastrophic treatment episodes, a healthcare system must also provide financial protection in the form of risk pooling.

And, finally, most people in most societies believe a healthcare system has a responsibility of providing these services even for people who cannot afford them, so equitable access (as defined by the society) can be added as the fifth and final job of a healthcare system.

The utility of enumerating these jobs will be seen in Part 2, when we will look at which parties in a healthcare system have financial incentives to perform which jobs.


Nuts and Bolts of Implementing Bundled Payments

My last post described the design of a patient engagement pilot. A central (and most challenging) part of that pilot would be bundled payments. While designing the pilot for Utah last year, I worked out some of the nuts and bolts of implementing bundled payments, which was a crucial step in designing the pilot because, to this point, no private-sector bundled payment pilot has really truly completely gotten off the ground due to huge challenges with (1) defining the bundle of services included in the lump-sum payment and (2) amending contracts (i.e., figuring out how to dispense that payment to the various participating caregivers). So, if you happen to know someone working on bundled payments, this might be a good resource for them.

1. Defining the Bundle – Guiding Principles

We need a neutral steering committee to arbitrate any impasses. Decide on this at the first meeting where the bundle definition will be discussed.

We want to minimize exclusions, which will help providers have enough volume so they can wholeheartedly redesign care processes and spread redesign costs over a larger number of patients. Good stop-loss provisions will limit their risk. As described in the payer-hospital contracting section, including good stop-loss provisions will not have a net effect on the amount payers are reimbursing.

Minimizing exclusions will mean that the risk level of patients being cared for on a bundle will vary quite a bit. In order to avoid providers shunning those higher-risk patients, we need to create risk categories after we’ve defined the bundle. A patient’s risk category should be based on criteria that are easily available up front (before the surgery). When payers and providers set bundled prices, they will set a different bundled price for each risk category.

All participating in the bundle definition decision should be very familiar with the information in the payer-hospital contracting section.

A simpler bundle definition may not be as conceptually appealing, but it will allow the bundle definition to be completed faster so that momentum will not be lost. We can use the work already done by others and make minor adjustments (if necessary).

After the episode is selected, we need to collect all the bundle definitions out there and see where they are the same and where they differ so that the bundle definition decision can be narrowed down to a limited number of specific decisions.

A guiding principle in the bundle definition decision should be to include everything a patient would need to buy the “product.” The product of a knee replacement is to have the knee returned to full function. The product of a CABG is to have a heart fully perfused again and the patient is back to normal functioning.

Including post-acute care/rehab-type services in the bundle: Reasons to include it are (1) because the patient/insurer will know what the total price of the episode (i.e., product) is up front and (2) to encourage the reduction of avoidable services.

We probably shouldn’t include pre-procedure services because it just adds more administrative complexity than it’s worth.

When deciding on the standardized bundle, don’t forget to decide what day the 90-day window starts (on the day of discharge? on the day of the surgery?) and what to do with an in-bundle service that starts on the 89th day and continues past the end of the window (prorate it? cover the full cost of it?).

2 a) Amending Contracts Between Payers and Hospitals

This section has been prepared to simplify the process that payers and hospitals will go through to amend their contracts so that they can comply with the pilot requirement to prospectively determine prices for the standardized bundle.

To simplify the language in this guide, “hospital” is the term used to denote the primary contracting entity with a payer, although this party may be either a hospital or a healthcare system.

Instead of a contract amendment, payers and providers could opt for the less formal “partnering letter,” which defines the terms without needing to make any adjustments or amendments to existing contracts. Legal counsel can provide further clarification on this option.

Please see the hospital-caregiver contracting section for details on the process hospitals/healthcare systems and caregivers will go through to determine risk-sharing arrangements.

Step 1: Determine the bundled price

  • Using the payer’s claims history, do a retrospective reconstruction of each care episode (using the standardized bundle) that took place in the hospital over the last few years and trend those episode amounts forward to test-period prices
  • If different bundled prices will be set for different patient populations (e.g., male with BMI under 35, male with BMI over 35, female with BMI under 35, female with BMI over 35), organize those episodes into their appropriate groups and then average each group to get a test-period estimation of each group’s average price of a care episode
  • These averaged prices will be reduced in proportion to the net additional amounts the payer is expected to pay out for in-bundle services according to other provisions discussed in this guide (see Step 2 Option 2.2, Step 4, Step 5, Step 6, and Step 7) so that the average episode reimbursement level stays the same as it would be without this contract
  • Additionally, if any of the providers involved in providing care in an episode are already being reimbursed by the payer in a capitated manner, the bundled price will be reduced by the percent that historically has gone to that type of provider (this does not preclude capitated caregivers from participating in hospital-caregiver risk-sharing arrangements)

Step 2: Determine the reimbursement method

  • Option 2.1: Normal FFS with retrospective reconciliation
    • This is the simplest option, but it risks providers (hospitals and caregivers) having to pay money back to the payer if their up-front FFS reimbursements end up being more than what the retrospective reconciliation determines they should receive
    • The payer would take the role of performing the retrospective reconciliation—including using the hospital-caregiver risk-sharing agreements—to determine how much to reimburse/bill each participating provider
    • Aspects of the hospital-caregiver contracting section relating to avoiding back-billing can be ignored when hospitals and caregivers negotiate their risk-sharing arrangements
  • Option 2.2: Reduced FFS with retrospective reconciliation
    • Providers will continue to be reimbursed normally according to existing reimbursement processes, only reimbursement levels will be set to X% of normal reimbursement
    • Assumed as part of this option is that there would not be any back-billing; in other words, any reimbursement to a provider would not be required to be paid back even if that provider ended up being reimbursed more than what the retrospective reconciliation dictates and even if the payer’s total reimbursements for the care episode end up being more than the total bundled price
    • The payer would perform the retrospective reconciliation to determine how much additional money, if any, is owed to the provider group (according to the prospectively determined price), and then send that amount either to the hospital (which would make the hospital responsible for distributing that money according to hospital-caregiver risk-sharing agreements) or to the individual providers directly (which would make the payer responsible for performing the retrospective reconciliation, including taking into account hospital-caregiver risk-sharing arrangements)
    • Principles to guide the decision on where to set the reimbursement percentage:
      • No matter how high the reimbursement percentage is set, it does not affect providers’ upside risk as determined in the hospital-caregiver contracting section
      • A higher reimbursement percentage allows providers to receive more of their reimbursements earlier
      • If the reimbursement percentage is set high, it increases the likelihood of providers being overpaid if their costs for a bundle are higher than expected, which means the non-overpaid providers will be underpaid; in this situation, the reimbursement percentage acts as a cap on how much providers can be underpaid and instead causes the payer to pay out more than the bundled price, which, as described in Step 1, means the bundled price will be set lower to compensate for these additional expected outlays
      • The net effect on providers of a too-high reimbursement percentage is that it increases the downside risk of providers whose risk allocation is lower than 1 – Reimbursement Percentage and decreases the downside risk of providers whose risk allocation is higher than 1 – Reimbursement Percentage
      • Reimbursement percentages that seem to best balance all these factors are 80%, 85%, or 90%
    • Option 2.3: Lump sum paid to hospital up front
      • The hospital will be given the total bundled price as soon as an eligible episode is initiated
      • The hospital’s distribution of this lump-sum payment will be determined by hospital-caregiver negotiations
      • All providers would still need to submit claims to the payer for purposes of helping the hospital do a retrospective reconciliation to appropriately distribute the bundled payment with caregivers; these claims could either be submitted as no-pay claims or as regular claims and the payer would have to institute a regular review process to pull the ones that have already been paid for as part of the care episode
      • This option risks hospitals having to pay money back if the episode payment has to be reduced (see Step 4, Step 5, and Step 6); the payer performs a reconciliation for each episode (according to the decisions made in Step 3) to determine if any money is owed back to the payer
      • The hospital would be responsible for performing the reconciliation for the purpose of distributing the money according to hospital-caregiver risk-sharing agreements
    • Option 2.4: Monthly payments paid to hospital over course of episode
      • This is the same as Option 2.3 except the bundled price would be paid to the providers monthly over the course of the episode instead of as a single up-front payment
      • To determine what percent of the total bundled price should be paid each month, conduct an analysis of the historical percent of care episode costs incurred each month and break up the total bundled price over the episode window according to those percentages
      • Decide when monthly payments are due (e.g., on a certain day of the month, on the first day of each 30-day episode period, on the last day of each 30-day episode period)
      • This option has a lower risk of hospitals having to pay money back if the episode payment has to be reduced, but there is still some risk (see Step 4, Step 5, and Step 6) because the payer will perform a reconciliation for each episode (according to the decisions made in Step 3) to determine if any money is owed back
      • The hospital would be responsible for performing a retrospective reconciliation for the purpose of distributing the money according to hospital-caregiver risk-sharing agreements

Step 3: Decide on reconciliation timing

  • Decide how many months to wait after episode window has ended (to allow all episode-related claims to trickle in) before the episode will be considered eligible for reconciliation
  • Decide how frequently the payer should do reconciliations (e.g., monthly, quarterly, biannually)

Step 4: Set provisions for patients who change payers before the end of the episode

  • If doing Option 2.1 or Option 2.2, use that bundle’s Reduced Price (see below for how to calculate this) when doing reconciliation
  • If doing Option 2.3, need to get the appropriate amount back from the hospital (Appropriate Amount = Total PriceReduced Price)
  • If doing Option 2.4, the final episode payment will have to be pro-rated so that all payments for that episode add up to the Reduced Price
  • Calculating the Reduced Price:
    • First, need to determine the historical percentage of episode costs that accrue during each 30-day post-discharge period (these numbers will be known as % of Costs1-30, % of Costs31-60, and % of Costs61-90)
    • Next, need to determine the number of days the patient was no longer covered during each 30-day post-discharge period (these numbers will be known as # Not Covered1-30, # Not Covered31-60, and # Not Covered61-90)
    • Next, plug that information into the following formulas:

Reduced Price = Total Price x (1 – % Reduction)

% Reduction = (% of Costs1-30 x # Not Covered1-30 /  30)  + (% of Costs31-60 x  # Not Covered31-60 /  30)  + (% of Costs61-90  x # Not Covered61-90  / 30)

Step 5: Set leakage provisions (leakage = a patient receives in-bundle services from an outside provider during the episode window)

  • Option 5.1: Reduce the patient’s bundled price by X% of the total amount the payer had to reimburse outside providers for performing in-bundle services
  • Option 5.2: Each time the payer has to reimburse an outside provider for performing an in-bundle service, reduce that patient’s bundle price by the amount the inside provider would have been reimbursed for performing that same service (or, if the amount the payer had to reimburse the outside provider was less, then reduce that patient’s bundled price by that lesser amount instead)

Step 6: Determine complications penalties

  • If the bundle definition does not include all avoidable complications that could be attributed to services rendered as part of the care episode, a complication penalty should be implemented as an incentive for providers to work to reduce those avoidable complications
  • Determine the historical average cost to treat that complication and then use that number as a starting point to set the flat dollar amount penalty that will be used to reduce a patient’s bundled price if the patient experiences that complication
  • If the complication can only be partially attributed to services rendered as part of the care episode, that complication’s penalty should be reduced accordingly
  • This process can also be used if post-acute care is not included in the bundle definition and payers want to create an incentive for providers to minimize unnecessary referrals to post-acute care (or could instead offer a “non-referral bonus” instead of having it be a “referral penalty”), but need to make sure the pilot’s standardized quality metrics keep providers accountable for referring patients to post-acute care when indicated

Step 7: Determine stop-loss provisions to cap provider risk (not necessary if doing Option 2.2)

  • Option 7.1: An additional per diem amount for each day over X inpatient days will be added to any patient’s bundled price
  • Option 7.2: The payer will increase any patient’s bundled price by the amount of costs over X% of the original bundled price

Step 8: Decide on frequency of data sharing

  • Payers should regularly share claims data (e.g., monthly, quarterly, biannually) with providers to enable them to perform reconciliations and to help them track their episode utilization trends

2 b) Amending Contracts Between Hospitals and Caregivers

This document has been prepared to simplify the process that hospitals and caregivers will go through to create a risk-sharing arrangement for the bundled reimbursement they will be receiving from payers.

Instead of creating a contract, hospitals and caregivers could opt for the less formal “partnering letter,” which defines the terms without needing to make a formal contract. Legal counsel can provide further clarification on this option.

If any of the caregivers involved in providing in-bundle services are salaried by the hospital, please refer to Step 6 for instructions on how to adjust the processes described in Step 1 – Step 5.

If any of the caregivers involved in providing in-bundle services are reimbursed by the payer in a capitated manner, please refer to Step 7 for instructions on how to adjust the processes described in Step 1 – Step 5.

Please see the payer-hospital contracting section for details on the process payers and hospitals will go through to amend their contracts for bundled reimbursements.

Step 1: Decide which types of providers will bear risk

  • Make a list of all the provider types that will be needed to provide services included in the standardized bundle
  • For each provider type, determine if they will need to directly coordinate with the hospital and/or surgeon to reduce costs/improve quality
  • In the risk-sharing arrangement, include each provider type with which direct coordination is expected
  • For all other provider types, do not share the risk, but determine how they should be reimbursed
    • Option 1.1: Normal FFS
    • Option 1.2: Give a flat prospectively determined amount for each patient (and, if desired, can integrate provisions similar to those listed in the payer-hospital contracting section, such as stop-loss provisions)

Step 2: Determine the percent of the bundle that should be allocated to each provider type (this step is not necessary if the payer-hospital contract is using FFS or reduced FFS as the reimbursement method)

  • After subtracting out the amounts going to non-risk-sharing providers, determine the percent of the remaining amount that should go to each provider type according to historical average percentages

Step 3: Determine the withhold percentage and then do an initial allocation (this step is not necessary if the payer-hospital contract is using FFS or reduced FFS as the reimbursement method)

  • Before allocating anything to the risk-sharing providers, a percent of the bundle should be withheld until the retrospective reconciliation (described in Step 5) has been completed
  • Distribute the non-withheld portion of the bundle according to the percentages determined in Step 2
  • To avoid back-billing, each provider will be guaranteed to keep these initial allocations
  • The appropriate withhold percentage should balance the following factors:
    • A lower withhold percentage allows providers to receive more of their reimbursement sooner
    • Because providers will be guaranteed to keep their initial allocation, a lower withhold percentage also increases the frequency of providers being overpayed (especially considering the possibility of the bundle being reduced according to provisions in the payer-hospital contracting section), which means other providers will be underpaid more frequently, effectively increasing their risk to levels higher than arranged

Step 4: Decide what percent of the risk each provider will bear

  • Each at-risk provider must decide what percentage of the risk to bear
    • If the hospital decides to bear 70% of the risk and the total reimbursements for an episode add up to $1,000 less than the bundled price, the hospital will receive $700 of that excess; alternatively, if the total reimbursements for an episode add up to $1,000 more than the bundled price, $700 of that overage will come from the hospital (how this is done is explained in Step 5)
  • Option 4.1: Use the same percentages as the payment allocations from Step 2
  • Option 4.2: Use the percent of savings that would be attributable to the work of each provider type
    • If we think that 30% of the potential savings could be generated by surgeons’ efforts to lower costs, surgeons would bear 30% of the risk

Step 5: Agree to a process for performing retrospective reconciliations

  • If the hospital is required to perform retrospective reconciliations to allocate money according to hospital-caregiver risk-sharing arrangements, follow the same schedule as the one the payer uses for its reconciliations (see Step 3 of the payer-hospital contracting section)
  • Here is the recommended process for calculating the reconciliation payment that should be given to each risk-bearing provider (this process works the same regardless of the reimbursement method used by the payer-hospital contract):

Reconciliation Payment  = Total Deserved Reimbursement  – Amount Already Paid

Total Deserved Reimbursement  = Episode-related Claims  + Risk-sharing Amount

Risk-sharing Amount  = Risk %  x (Reduced Bundled Price  – Total of All Risk-sharing Providers’ Episode-related Claims)

Reduced Bundled Price  = Net Bundled Price Received from Payer  – Total Amount Already Paid to Non-risk-sharing Providers

Net Bundled Price Received from Payer   =   Total Bundled Price   +/-   Adjustments Made During Payer’s Reconciliation Process

  • If any reconciliation payment is calculated to be negative (meaning the provider was already paid more than the Total Deserved Amount), that provider will not be back-billed; instead, the following adjustment formula can be used to adjust the reconciliation payments for all the non-overpaid risk-bearing providers:

Adjusted Reconciliation Payment  = Reconciliation Payment  – Adjustment

Adjustment  = Adjusted Risk %  x Total Amount Overpaid to Risk-bearing Providers

Adjusted Risk %  = Risk %  / (100%  – Sum of Risk Percentages of Overpaid Providers)

  • In the event that a provider’s Adjusted Reconciliation Payment is calculated to be negative, repeat the adjustment formula after performing the following adjustments:
    • Set that provider’s Adjusted Reconciliation Payment to zero
    • Subtract that provider’s Reconciliation Payment from the Total Amount Overpaid to Risk-bearing Providers
    • Add that provider’s Risk % to the Sum of Risk Percentages of Overpaid Providers

Step 6: Changes to Step 1 – Step 5 for salaried caregivers

  • Step 1: If the salaried caregiver will not bear risk, no reimbursement changes are necessary—the caregiver will not be included in this contract
  • Step 2
    • If the payer-hospital contract is using FFS or reduced FFS as its reimbursement method: This step is not necessary
    • If the payer-hospital contract is using lump-sum payments paid up front or monthly as its reimbursement method: The bundle percentages allocated to salaried caregivers will be added to the employing hospital’s (for use in paying their salaries)
  • Step 3
    • If the payer-hospital contract is using FFS or reduced FFS as its reimbursement method: This step is not necessary
    • If the payer-hospital contract is using lump-sum payments paid up front or monthly as its reimbursement method: The hospital will contribute the appropriate amount of its allocated bundle percentage, which, as described in the changes to Step 2 above, includes its bundle percentage and the salaried caregiver’s bundle percentage
  • Step 4: No changes necessary; the salaried caregiver can still be allocated a risk percentage just like any other caregiver (refer to the changes to Step 5 below for an explanation of how this will work)
  • Step 5: Perform reconciliation calculations for salaried caregivers the same as for other caregivers except for the changes described below
    • The salaried caregiver’s Episode-related Claims and Amount Already Paid will be set to $0 and both will be added to the employing hospital’s amounts instead
    • In cases where the Total of All Risk-sharing Providers’ Episode-related Claims > Reduced Bundled Price, the salaried caregiver’s Risk % will be set to 0 and will instead be added to the employing hospital’s Risk %
    • The effect of these adjustments is to shift salaried caregivers’ downside risk to their employing hospitals but to preserve salaried caregivers’ upside risk so that they will share in the savings when they coordinate with other providers to lower costs

Step 7: Changes to Step 1 – Step 5 for caregivers that are reimbursed by the payer via capitation

  • Step 1: If the capitated caregiver will not bear risk, no reimbursement changes are necessary—the caregiver will not be included in this contract
  • Step 2
    • If the payer-hospital contract is using FFS or reduced FFS as its reimbursement method: This step is not necessary
    • If the payer-hospital contract is using lump-sum payments paid up front or monthly as its reimbursement method: The payer will subtract the bundle percentages allocated to capitated caregivers from the bundled price before giving it to the hospital (because the payer has already reimbursed the capitated caregiver for the services that will be rendered as part of the bundle)
  • Step 3
    • If the payer-hospital contract is using FFS or reduced FFS as its reimbursement method: This step is not necessary
    • If the payer-hospital contract is using lump-sum payments paid up front or monthly as its reimbursement method: Capitated caregivers will not be asked to contribute any of their capitated payments into the withhold, which means they will have no downside risk, but see the changes to Step 5 described below for an explanation of why an unequal upside/downside risk allocation for capitated caregivers is reasonable
  • Step 4: No changes necessary
  • Step 5: Perform reconciliation calculations for capitated caregivers the same as for other caregivers except that the capitated caregiver’s Amount Already Paid and Episode-related Costs should both be set to equal the amount the payer initially subtracted from the bundled price due to the caregiver being capitated
    • The effect of these adjustments is to make the bundle costs attributed to capitated caregivers always be the same, which means their direct costs will not place a financial burden on other providers by contributing to any overages; but, because upside risk will still be allocated to capitated caregivers, they will have an incentive to coordinate with other providers because they will get to share in the savings generated

A Patient Engagement Pilot

If I could do one pilot to show how healthcare needs to change, this is what I would do . . . (See my next post for the nuts and bolts of how this could be implemented.) (P.S. I know this isn’t of general interest even to people interested in health policy, but I wanted it to be available to the world, so here it is.)


  • Remove barriers to patients being able to choose the highest-value providers, which will reward those providers financially for being higher value and encourage lower-value providers to innovate to improve their value as well


  • Initially, the pilot will only focus on a single care episode (for example, hip replacements)

Two Core Design Principles of the Pilot

  1. Uniform incentives for providers
  2. Engage patients to use quality and price when choosing among providers

How These Principles Will Be Implemented

  • All payers (public and private) will be encouraged to participate inasmuch as regulation allows (see the note on Medicare and Medicaid participation below)
  • Payers and providers will participate in determining the care episode to be tested, what services will be included in that care episode, and which quality metrics will be reported by all participating providers
  • Providers will report the standardized quality metrics, which will be made available for patients to view on (this website needs to be a widely known one-stop-shop for patients to get information on healthcare providers’ quality)
  • Payers and providers will amend contracts (if needed) to reimburse for the care episode via episode-based pricing; capitated contracts could also work, but there are issues*
  • Payers will adjust cost-sharing requirements for the care episode to allow patients to bear all or part of the price differential between providers (by having patients pay less out of pocket when they choose lower-priced providers and/or by having them pay more out of pocket when they choose higher-priced providers) (for example, reference pricing or different copay tiers)
  • Payers will also have mechanisms to assist patients who need help understanding these plan benefit changes

Predicted Impacts of the Pilot

  • Short-term effect: More patients will choose higher-value providers (lower prices and/or higher quality) because they will have price and quality information and will have cost-sharing incentives to use that information when they make decisions among providers
  • Long-term effect (will have a more significant impact on value): Providers will be assured profit increases via increased market share if they can innovate to raise their value relative to competitors, so provider-led value-improving innovation efforts will increase
    • To be able to observe this long-term effect, we need to choose a care episode that is complex enough and variable enough in its cost and outcomes that there is a significant opportunity for care redesign to improve value (e.g., hip and knee replacements, coronary artery bypass grafts)

Why Broad Participation Is Key

  • Without the majority of patients being engaged in this way, providers’ potential market share rewards for value improvements may be insufficient to spur innovation efforts
  • If payer reimbursement policies are not uniform, providers’ value-improving innovations may result in reimbursement reductions (and, therefore, opposing incentives) from non-participating payers
    • e.g., a provider redesigns post-surgical knee replacement care and reduces readmissions within 90 days by 50%; that provider will still receive the same amount of reimbursement from participating payers, but it will lose a substantial amount of revenue from non-participating payers, and this revenue reduction could be enough to dissuade providers from doing these care redesigns

Pilot Evaluation

  • Data from an all-payer claims database will be used to track the average total price of the care episode in the market
  • The pilot’s standardized quality metrics will be used to track to average quality of care

A Note on Medicare and Medicaid Participation

  • Regulations on cost sharing for publicly insured patients will limit the ability for public payers to amend cost-sharing requirements; but, for the sake of providers having uniform incentives, public payers are encouraged to still participate by at least amending contracts with providers to reimburse them in the ways described above
  • Public payers can be rewarded for pilot participation because they can set prospective prices at historical averages minus 2%, and providers will most likely be willing to accept the slight price reduction because it will be more than compensated for by the fact that they will get to keep all the savings they generate through their cost-lowering care innovations

* I won’t get into them now, but the issues have to do with the dilution of incentives caused by one party doing a lot of work to innovate and then having to share the benefits of that innovation with everyone in the organization. Would you do extra chores if your parents split the extra allowance you earned between you and all your siblings?


I read this book once–it’s called Complications by Atul Gawande. Two things happened: (1) I decided Dr. Gawande is awesome, and (2) I realized that the delivery of healthcare is imperfect. I don’t know how I missed it before. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I grew up in Canada. (The secret’s out!)

From reading that book until now, I’ve read nearly everything I’ve been able to get my hands on about health policy. So, in the midst of taking the MCAT (twice) and my wife giving birth (twice), I’ve been reading about this. And I have some goals to go along with this reading. I’m convinced I can improve the delivery of healthcare in this land of freedom. I can make it more efficient and effective. How? Well, I’m studying business strategy. I’m studying health policy. I’m studying the delivery of healthcare from the front lines–as a physician (in training). I figure being a student of these aspects of the health system is a good start. Another good start is this blog. This is my place for synthesis of information. It’s where I turn disparate facts about the health system into useful knowledge and understanding. So, thanks for joining me. If you learn from this blog something–anything–about how healthcare works in the United States, then maybe you will be more likely to know a good policy when you see one. So let’s figure out how this system works, the causes of its problems, and how to solve them.

Who understands health policy?

A better question is, Who can explain health policy if they understand it? Well, I figure a student is often more likely to be able to explain simply what little he knows than some high-level expert who is thinking at a completely different level than 95 percent of Americans. Let the fun begin.

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