A Healthcare Platform for President Trump

Photo credit: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IP

Last week, I evaluated President Trump’s healthcare platform. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to have one. At least, he doesn’t say anything about one on his official campaign website. This is in stark contrast to Joe Biden, who gives many details on his healthcare plan (see my evaluation of it here).

So, to help President Trump out, I decided to write a healthcare plan for him. Let me be clear from the outset that this is not my personal healthcare plan–it is just one of many possible ways to implement the principles outlined in the Healthcare Incentives Framework, and it’s a way I could see Republicans going about it.

One other reminder: The President doesn’t make laws! But the modern reality in this country is that people want to hear a President’s plan for fixing all sorts of problems, so there we have it. He does have the power to set the agenda and influence his party, so this is by no means a useless endeavor.

Ok, now on to his brand new healthcare plan, which I am pretending to write on behalf of his staff, with a little rhetoric mixed in just for fun . . .

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President Trump will address both of the major issues in our healthcare system: value and access.

The problem with policies designed to increase access is that they usually create market distortions that become barriers to improving value, so his plan starts by addressing how he will improve value, after which he will show how he has crafted a way to increase access that will not undermine his other efforts.

First, he intends to enable patients to act as consumers and make informed choices. This applies to their ability to shop for the best insurance plans and their ability to shop for the best providers.

Take the insurance side first. To facilitate patients shopping for insurance plans, he has a unique approach for each segment of the insurance market.

For Medicaid, which is administered state by state rather than nationally, instead of allowing states to create and administer a single Medicaid plan, he will require them to contract with multiple insurers to each offer a Medicaid plan. This gives Medicaid enrollees more choices, and their insurance is provided by private businesses rather than government beaurocrats. The good news is, more than 2/3 of all Medicaid enrollees are already such plans (known as Medicaid Managed Care), and when these policies are combined with the other policies described in this plan, they will start to generate significant savings.

For Medicare, President Trump will make a similar change. Instead of the government offering a traditional Medicare plan, Medicare will shift over to relying exclusively on private insurers to create Medicare-compliant plans, and Medicare itself will simply pay those private insurers for each enrollee they have. This is called Medicare Advantage, and 34% of Medicare enrollees are already on such plans. But, again, increasing this number to 100%, when combined with the other changes in this plan, will create greater competition and cost savings.

For the private insurance market, President Trump will continue to rely on healthcare.gov as the marketplace for private health insurance plans. Even though this website was poorly rolled out, it has become a well-known source for health insurance, and now it will rise to its full potential because Medicare Advantage and Medicaid Managed Care plans will be rolled into it, meaning every American who does not get insurance through their employer will be able to shop for their health insurance on healthcare.gov. This will simplify the experience of buying health insurance, and it will strengthen Americans’ ability to find the best plan for them.

On the topic of employer-sponsored insurance, President Trump will take a historic first step in decoupling health insurance from employment because someone who loses their job should not lose their health insurance along with it. He will take this step by extending the employer health insurance tax exemption to all people buying health insurance on healthcare.gov. Employers will also have the option to stop paying for health insurance on behalf of their employees and instead give that money directly to their employees in the form of a pay raise, which allows employees the freedom and choice to use that money to shop for an insurance plan that fits their needs better than their employer’s plan.

President Trump will also get rid of Obamacare’s innovation- and competition-destroying medical loss ratio rule, which will become unnecessary after the changes described here fix the broken insurance markets and allow them to start pricing more competitively on their own.

He will also instruct the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to sponsor bundled payment and reference pricing pilots. These are alternative payment models that enable patients to more easily compare apples to apples the prices of their healthcare provider options and then decide for themselves if they think it is worth it to pay more to go to a more expensive provider (which, in healthcare, usually does not mean better quality!). These pilots will help spread these new payment models as (1) insurers discover it saves them (and their enrollees) money and (2) providers discover that they can also make more money by lowering their prices and winning more patients.

These common-sense policies will transform the healthcare insurance market into one of honest competition and innovation.

President Trump will also make changes to improve the healthcare provider market and allow patients to more easily find the best providers.

First, he will build on the progress he has already made with healthcare price transparency by requiring all healthcare facilities to publish their cash prices for the most common shoppable services. The required price reporting will include bundled prices, when applicable. Over time, as more bundled prices become available, patients will have an even easier time shopping for the best deal because they will be able to compare up front, apples to apples, prices between providers for the same bundle of services.

In additon to price data, patients need quality data. President Trump will require healthcare providers to start tracking and reporting quality metrics that are more useful in helping patients be good shoppers. This means there will be a shift in focus away from aggregate quality ratings and toward the specific metrics that patients need to know most when deciding between different providers.

President Trump will make all those price and quality data publicly available so that entrepreneurs can use them to design creative and simple shopping websites, similar to what we see with flight booking websites.

All those changes to the insurance market and the provider market will help people become better consumers of healthcare. And when our nation has consumers shopping for the best value in healthcare, it will stimulate the kind of competition we have never gotten in healthcare–competition over value. In other words, these changes will shift insurers’ and providers’ focus of innovation onto ways to improve value for patients, and as a result quality and price improvement dividends will accumulate long after these policies have been enacted.

Joe Biden’s plan is costly, and it is fiscally irresponsible because it has nothing in it that will make a major dent in the cost of healthcare, which is the biggest contributor to our growing national deficit.

President Trump also wants to ensure everyone has access to affordable health insurance. How can he make affordable insurance to everyone without interfering with the market changes described above?

His solution is to take the guaranteed renewable insurance approach. Here is how it will work:

At the time of implementation, everyone in the country will have the option to purchase health insurance without their pre-existing conditions being considered. Insurers will only be allowed to set premium prices based on the individual’s age and smoking status.

As long as an individual maintains continuous coverage, they will always be able to continue with the same insurance plan or even switch to a different plan without any of their pre-existing conditions being factored into their premium price.

However, if an individual chooses not to maintain continuous insurance coverage, insurers have the freedom to take pre-existing conditions into account and charge them a different price. If the individual is healthy, they could still be offered a price as low as others their same age and smoking status who maintained continuous coverage. But if the individual has pre-existing conditions, they could be charged as much as the maximum premium, which would be the premium a 64-year-old who smokes would be charged.

Once they have again maintained 12 months of continuous coverage, the prices available to them will revert back to the continuous coverage price being offered to others their same age and smoking status.

This will encourage healthy people to make the choice to maintain insurance coverage without any draconian or unconstitutional big-government mandates. Personal accountability will be maintained.

However, for these changes to work, President Trump will have to solve one more problem that Obamacare created.

Currently, people up to 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL) qualify for subsidies to make sure insurance premiums are not financially grievous. What the middle class above 400% of the FPL has found, however, is that their premiums have rapidly become unaffordable.

President Trump will eliminate that 400% FPL limit and instead switch it to a flat limit of 9% of a family’s income, enabling anyone to afford health insurance if they choose to purchase it.

In summary, President Trump’s plan to fix healthcare starts by making changes to the insurance and provider markets to refocus healthcare competition on innovations that improve value for patients, which will lead to billions of dollars saved. And at the same time, his plan will encourage and enable all Americans to purchase health insurance at affordable prices in a way that does not create market distortions that interfere with value-improving innovation.

And he will accomplish these changes all for a much lower cost than Joe Biden’s foolhardy plan to strengthen the unpopular Obamacare policies and force more people onto government insurance.

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Well, Mr. President, there you have it. A ready-made health policy platform, complete with rhetoric, to win over those last few independents and propel you into another four years as President. Let’s just hope you have congress on your side with this plan or it will go nowhere.

An Example of How Evidence Can Be Misleading (Bundled Payments Version)

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Bundled payments are a proven strategy in non-healthcare industries, only we call them by different names. We say we’re paying for a “hotel room” when really we’re paying for the use of the room, the cleaning of the room, the “free” wifi, the “free” continental breakfast, access to the concierge, etc. We say we’re paying for a “cruise” when really we’re paying for the cabin, the unlimited food, the port fees, the access to the shows, use of the onboard pools, etc. These terms (“hotel room” and “cruise” are just two examples) are shorthand terms that refer to the bundle of goods and services you get when you pay that single price. That’s how it works in every industry.

Except healthcare. When we get a bill for a knee replacement, it only contains the surgeon’s cost (okay okay, including the hardware). But there’s also a bill for the anesthesiologist. And for the operating room. And for the hospitalization if you need to stay.

Why would all those things be listed individually if you know you will need a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, and an operating room every single time you get a knee replacement?

Enter bundled payments. They finally turn healthcare a little bit more into a normal industry by allowing patients to pay a single price for the bundle of services that should always be included in that one upfront price.

Sidenote: yes, healthcare is and should always be different from other industries in many important ways. For more details on that, read Arrow’s seminal article on the topic. None of this is incompatible with those insights.

But apparently bundled payments are not very helpful according to this Health Affairs review of the evidence. What gives?

When I see a paper like that, I appreciate the effort to summarize the evidence, but I cringe thinking about all the headlines and misinterpretations and misconceptions that it will perpetuate. People are going to start saying that our large-scale efforts to implement bundled payments are a waste of money . . . and they have evidence to back them up!

But that’s totally the wrong conclusion. This is how I interpret this study: I first think about the overall purpose of bundled payments. When you put their role into the context of the Healthcare Incentives Framework, their purpose is to allow patients to know up front the full price for accomplishing the job they have (get their knee functional again). This enables the patient to compare the price of different options. If they also have quality information of those options, now patients have the ability to shop for the best value (Value = Quality / Price). And when patients start choosing which provider to do their knee replacement based on value, market share starts to shift to the higher-value providers, thus forcing the lower-value providers to change in ways that either raise their quality, lower their price, or (hopefully) both! This is the potential benefit of bundled payments–it is an essential component in stimulating a newfound evolution toward higher quality and lower prices in the market for that specific service.

Compare that to how these studies evaluated the utility of bundled payments: They implemented them for a single procedure and usually with just one of many insurers a provider contracts with. Thus, in most cases the providers were still reimbursed the old fashioned way by all their other insurers. And I would guess that very few competitors in any given region were participating in the same bundled payment program. Therefore, there was no way providers were going to completely shift how they deliver the service because of the narrow scope, a lack of uniform incentives, and a lack of any strong financial imperative to do so (their biggest risk was only of losing a percentage of revenue on small portion of their patients–enough to motivate them to try to do some things a little differently but not to completely redesign how they deliver care–and the risk of losing market share to their competitors due to low value was almost nil). In short, these studies did not get even close to creating the environment for an evolution toward higher value.

With this as context, it’s a surprise to me that any of these bundled payment studies found any benefit at all!

Now, if I could perform my dream study (the design details here and here), that would make a splash. It would get us much closer to the true estimation of how impactful bundled payments could be in healthcare. And until a study like that is done, remember the importance of context, and take any evidence on the impacts of bundled payments with a large grain of salt.

Next week I’ll start looking at Joe Biden’s healthcare plans, so look forward to that!

Evaluating the ACP’s Vision for Our Healthcare System, Part 3 of 3: Coverage and Cost of Care

The last in my series evaluating ACP’s “vision for a better U.S. health care system.” Check out the intro to the series, Part 1, context for Part 2, and Part 2.

This is the paper that generated the most media attention, much of which incorrectly asserted that the ACP endorsed “Medicare for All.” So let me, at the outset, clear this up: The ACP doesn’t endorse Medicare for All in this paper. It endorses a couple different options to achieve universal coverage, one of which is a single-payer system. There are many ways to achieve a single-payer system, and Medicare for All is just one way to do that. Maybe this sounds like semantics, but I think it’s important to be accurate here because the term “Medicare for All” carries with it a lot of specific ideas about how a single-payer system should be implemented, and it also carries with it specific political affiliations. The ACP was not committing to any of those specific ideas or political affiliations; the writers were only endorsing the general single-payer system approach as one of two options for how to increase insurance coverage.

Now, on to assessing the details of the paper.

Part 1 of this paper reviews the state of insurance coverage and healthcare spending, which sets the stage for Parts 2 and 3 to talk about ways to expand coverage and lower care costs.

Part 2 is mostly what I want to talk about. First, it asserts unabashedly that the ACP feels that universal health insurance coverage is essential. And since having insurance coverage is pointless if its spending requirements are not affordable or if providers are unavailable, it adds those access details in as also being essential.

Then it lists two options that it sees as being able to achieve that goal: a “single-payer financing approach” and a “publicly financed coverage option.” Let’s look at each one.

Single-payer financing approach. This means a single government-run insurance company provides insurance for everyone in the country. It doesn’t necessarily prevent people from purchasing private supplemental insurance, but it would cover everything considered to be essential. The paper then discusses some of the well-known benefits and concerns that come along with having a single-payer system. The interesting part to me, which makes sense coming from a physician organization, is their particular concern about how this would affect physicians. It could decrease administrative burden and uncompensated care, but it could also decrease autonomy. And the big concern is that if it relies on “Medicare’s flawed payment system,” it would perpetuate a few undesirable things, including bad incentives (such as an over-reliance on fee for service), the overvaluing of certain services (procedures), and unsustainably low reimbursements (that would make some providers go bankrupt). Any prior “Medicare for All” proposal I’ve seen relies on Medicare’s payment system, so this is a good example of why the ACP is not endorsing Medicare for All specifically.

Publicly financed coverage option. Another name for this is a “public option.” Basically it’s a government-run insurance plan that will be offered alongside private insurance plans. It would be available for employees to opt into rather than use their employer-sponsored insurance as well. An essential part of this insurance plan is that it would have premium and cost-sharing subsidies (so that, again, lower-income people don’t end up with useless coverage). Later on in this paper, they say that no matter which option is chosen, it needs to have included with it a mandatory or automatic enrollment component. I’m not sure how premiums would be paid for by people auto-enrolled into the public option plan–possibly through filing their taxes–but isn’t this looking more and more like the Affordable Care Act? Require people to have insurance coverage and subsidize lower-income people to be able to buy it? Yes, that’s the ACA. The one difference is that one of the insurance plans people can select from will be run by the government (which, incidentally, was originally part of the ACA plan).

So those are the two options the ACP supports. They also mention another approach: convert all insurers to non-profits and require everyone to have health insurance (another variation of the ACA, but this time there’s no public option and instead all the insurers are non-profits). But they say there is not enough information on how such a system could be applied to the U.S., so they don’t endorse it. And all the other options for reform that are out there (such as “market-based approaches”) would not achieve universal coverage, so they were eliminated from consideration.

Even though the ACP is politically neutral, you can see that their foundational beliefs and priorities line up much more closely with modern liberal thinking rather than conservative thinking/beliefs/priorities. This is what I expected, and I discussed it in my intro to this series.

Part 3 discusses strategies they support to lower healthcare costs. There are 5 of them: invest more in primary and comprehensive care, reduce excessive pricing and improve efficiency, reduce low-value care, rely more on global budgets and all-payer rate setting, and use more reference pricing.

Rather than get into the merits and drawbacks of these different policies here, lets finish this series with a brief discussion about whether the two options they endorse to attain universal coverage will get in the way of the ideas we talked about in Part 2.

If you will recall, the second ACP paper we discussed gave 6 different recommendations, the two main ones being to (1) give patients price and quality information to help them choose higher-value providers and (2) getting providers to shift to value-based purchasing arrangements (especially different forms of capitation) with insurers.

With a single-payer system, usually the implementation involves setting a uniform nationwide price for each service (adjusted by region for cost of living). This would completely ruin their idea of getting patients to choose providers based on value because the price would be the same for all providers. I will not get into detail on how, but setting a price floor like that completely distorts providers’ innovation incentives. It would kill pretty much any cost-lowering innovation that results in slightly reduced quality, even if the innovation could result in drastically lower cost.

But, on the upside, since there’s only one insurer to deal with, a single-payer system would allow for perfectly uniform incentives for any provider that chooses to enter a VBP arrangement!

With a public option like they have described, there is the exact same problem with distorted/ruined incentives due to uniform pricing, but at least the extent of the problem is limited to the number of patients who are on the public option plan. And, as for providers’ efforts to enter into VBP arrangements, it would probably make it slightly easier to get uniform incentives because I assume VBP arrangements would be harmonized between Medicare and this public option. But any provider who wants to design their own VBP arrangement is going to have to have an even harder time attaining uniform incentives because I suspect they would have to convince the plan administrators of Medicare and the public option independently, which means they’re trying to win over yet another public payer to be able to move forward with their idea.

Am I saying that the ACP’s efforts to accomplish universal coverage will interfere with their efforts to improve the care delivery system? Yes. The two options they endorse don’t necessarily need to be implemented in a way that does that, but I see nothing in what they’ve written that specifies that they should be implemented in a way that mitigates those problems. (For details on how this could be done, see what an optimal single-payer system would look like here and what an optimal ACA-type system would look like here.)

I think different groups of people were working on each paper, and even though they were reporting their findings and recommendations to the same group of ACP leaders for approval, it’s quite a difficult task as one of those ACP leaders to be presented with complex recommendations from two different groups and figure out exactly how they might conflict with each other.

Well, there we have it. The ACP endorsed some things that would be very beneficial, but they fell into the same trap of not thinking about these things from a complete system perspective, so their efforts to get more people into the system will interfere with the changes the system needs to deliver better value over time. This is why any healthcare reformer first needs to have a firm understanding of the core causes of low value and how those can be resolved before deciding on the details of how to enact universal coverage.

But I am happy the ACP jumped directly into this arena. It shows that powerful physician groups are also interested in figuring out how to fix the healthcare system. Maybe the biggest benefit from their efforts of researching and releasing these papers (and then having them critiqued) is that it will make the ACP and other provider groups more likely to recognize and support policies that will truly move us closer to fixing our healthcare system.

My Ideas Versus Congress’ Ideas to Transition to Alternative Payment Models

Next week I’ll finish looking at the ACP’s papers on fixing healthcare. But this week, I wanted to say one more thing about alternative payment models (APMs)–how to transition to them.

First, let’s think about this task without using the Healthcare Incentives Framework. How would a policy maker go about trying to get our healthcare system to shift from FFS to APMs (ignoring the fact that this is the wrong way to look at it)?

They would probably start by saying, “We need to find a way to give incentives to providers and payers to try out these different APMs.” This would be fairly easy to do through Medicare, so they would create some Medicare APM programs and structure them in a way that makes the benefits of joining large enough that lots of providers will want to participate.

They would also encourage private insurer-provider diads to start using APMs. How could they do that? They would probably just have to offer them money to do so.

These two approaches are what we’ve seen policy makers do. Medicare has the Medicare Shared Savings Program to get providers to enter into ACO contracts with Medicare, and the Bundled Payments for Care Improvement initiative to get providers to enter into bundled payment contracts with Medicare.

And to encourage private insurer-provider diads to start using APMs as well, I am only aware of two initiatives:

  1. Medicare joined up with a bunch of private payers to institute a patient-centered medical home program called Comprehensive Primary Care Plus.
  2. In 2015, congress passed the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA). A major part of this law is something called the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS). MIPS applies to all providers receiving reimbursements from Medicare, and it says they will now get a bonus or penalty based on a few criteria (quality, cost, EHR use, and quality improvement efforts) UNLESS they are actively participating in enough APMs (including qualifying programs with private payers!), in which case they are exempted from MIPS bonuses/penalties and instead they get an automatic 5% bonus.

I don’t think congress has passed any direct-to-private-insurer incentives to create APM programs (unless you count the Comprehensive Primary Care Plus program), but congress is influencing private insurers indirectly through providers because providers who want to get the 5% bonus and be exempted from MIPS will be pressuring private insurers to sign APM contracts with them.

So there we see the evidence of how policy makers not using the Healthcare Incentives Framework are approaching this effort to shift to APMs.

What would I do, knowing the principles illustrated in the Healthcare Incentives Framework?

First, I would discard the assumption that, for APM usage to increase, artificial incentives need to be created. The Healthcare Incentives Framework makes it clear that if an APM could truly offer increased value to patients, it would naturally arise in the market IF there are no barriers to it doing so. Next, I would go about looking for barriers and eliminate them. And only after doing that, if I want to accelerate the uptake of APMs, I could also offer artificial incentives.

APMs are a contract between an insurer and a provider, so let’s look at both parties.

Providers: Their incentive is to provide care of all kinds–this is how they make money. And any investment that enables them to raise their value relative to their competitors and that is not too risky will be desirable to them AS LONG AS they can be reasonably assured that patients will be able to identify their value as being higher than competitors’ and also have an incentive to choose the highest-value option. So, from a provider perspective, as long as any APM contract being offered by an insurer meets those requirements, they will be happy to participate.

Insurers: Their incentive is to minimize the total cost of care because they are getting a fixed amount of money in premiums, so any expenditure that is prevented is money that stays in their pocket (assuming those frustrating medical loss ratio rules instituted by the Affordable Care Act don’t come into play). The problem is, insurers don’t have much control over the total cost of care. Sure, they can try to negotiate the lowest prices possible, but providers are the ones that largely determine the total cost of care because they are the ones with the ability to prevent care episodes and to determine how much care is needed for care episodes that cannot be prevented. What I am saying is that insurers have the incentive to reduce the total cost of care, but providers are the ones able to make that happen. Therefore, insurers need to pass along their incentives to providers with these APM contracts. And insurers are happy to give money to providers to institute and run these programs if they can reasonably expect to save a lot more money than what they are giving.

With all that as context, what would I do to transition our healthcare system to APMs?

First, I would make sure providers are willing to join APM contracts by reasonably assuring them that if their investments into the program successfully increase their value, they will win more market share (and, therefore, profit).* How can I do that? By enabling patients to identify the highest-value provider up front and also ensuring that they actually have an incentive to choose the highest-value provider. I won’t go into details here on how to accomplish those things because I’ve written extensively about them before. But the result of those changes is that it would make providers see APMs as a potential for being very beneficial not only to their patients but also their profitability, which would probably result in them taking the lead in designing many of the APMs since they’re the ones who know best what changes could make a difference.

Next, I would make sure insurers are also willing to sign on to these APM contracts. Since insurers don’t like investing a lot of money into a program and then being required to give away all the financial benefits of that investment, I would eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s medical loss ratio requirements.

Next, lest you worry that insurers will forever keep all the savings generated by these APM contracts, I would enhance the ability for patients to compare the cost and quality of different insurance plans. That way, insurers will want to lower premiums because they will be assured that patients shopping for insurance will see that they are offering higher value (particularly in the form of lower premiums), so more patients will choose them, thus raising their profit as a result of increased market share.

Next, I would probably continue the programs Medicare is already doing, but I would also allow Medicare to sign on to other APM contracts happening between private insurers and providers. This would enable providers to get all insurers to reimburse them using the same contract, which would give them uniform incentives and make a huge difference in how much they are able to optimize toward that program.

Finally, if I do all that and am still unsatisfied with how fast this shift to APMs is happening, I would offer bonuses paid through Medicare to providers who are working hard to implement APMs (like the 5% bonus Medicare already implemented, described above). And if all that fails at getting this shift to happen as fast as I want, I would consider also offering grants to providers and insurers to try out APMs so that they don’t have to risk their own money designing and implementing them.

This approach is very different than the one currently being used by policy makers, and it would require changes that might be more difficult to make, but it would also not be limited by our current understanding of the “best” APMs. Instead, it would create the right environment for our healthcare system to continually shift toward better and better payment models as they are invented and refined.

* I know that an increase in market share does not automatically increase profitability, but this is my shorthand way of saying that it will increase their market power, which leads to increase profit either through a low-margin high-volume pricing strategy or through a high-margin low-volume pricing strategy. And my prediction is that, given where prices in healthcare are these days, the vast majority of providers would find that the profit-maximizing pricing strategy would be a lower-margin higher-volume option inasmuch as provider capacity allows.

How to Reward Value Instead of Volume

Who has heard the favorite healthcare reform saying these days? “We need to reward providers for value, not volume!” It has almost become cliche. And conventional wisdom would teach that something touted frequently would be well thought through by the people touting it; but we all know conventional wisdom is often wrong. (Did I just say that the knowledge that conventional wisdom is often wrong is conventional wisdom?) I admit that I have not read everything by everyone doing the touting, but I’ve never heard anyone break down exactly how we can reward value instead of volume. So I’ll tell you.

There are only two ways to do it: a dumb way and a smart way. But first, let’s review how a healthcare provider makes money:

Revenue = Price x Quantity

Do you see that there are only two components (that we can control, at least) that determine how much money a company makes? We can change the prices we pay them or the quantity they sell.

Now, let’s suppose we are able to identify an objectively highest value healthcare provider out there. Let’s further suppose that we want to reward this high-value health system for its amazingly high value so that it can be financially rewarded for being so awesome and so (we hope) others will copy them to have high value and be rewarded, too. How can we do it? Let’s look at our two options:

Increase price: You’ll recognize this as what Medicare is trying to do. Will it have the intended effect? Probably. High-value providers will be rewarded with higher prices. But hold the phone–isn’t our true intended effect to get society the highest-value healthcare we possibly can? So how are we maximizing value if we’re raising prices? Raising prices lowers value. So we’re identifying the highest-value providers and then lowering their value. Hm. Ah, but maybe there will be an overall aggregate effect of higher value because we won’t raise prices much, but we’ll get lots of low-value providers to improve their quality. I guess. But all this seems to be doing is increasing the total money we pay on healthcare, which is not a good idea right now. So I call this the dumb approach. But people haven’t thought hard enough to know there’s also a smart approach . . .

Increase quantity: What this means is getting more people to the highest-value providers, so now we’re rewarding value with volume. Their hospital beds are full, their specialists are performing lots of high-margin surgeries, etc., and they are rewarded handsomely for being high value. Not only does this reward the high-value provider, but look what happens to patients–they get to have higher-value care because they’re going to the high-value providers! In other words, society collectively will be receiving higher-value healthcare. And the low-value competition, meanwhile, will not be so busy anymore, they’ll start to lose money, and they might actually go out of business UNLESS they improve their value as well. That’s quite an incentive to change (probably the most powerful one, actually).

So why aren’t we doing this rewarding value with volume thing? I could list a bunch of reasons why we’re not, but that wouldn’t be very clear thinking now, would it? Instead, I’ll ask this: Who is deciding which providers patients will go to? Whoever is making that provider selection (sometimes it’s the insurer or employer, sometimes it’s other providers, usually it’s the patients themselves) needs to (1) have the price and quality information necessary and be able to determine which provider they think is the highest value and (2) bear the financial consequences of their choice (otherwise they’ll just choose the highest quality every time without regard for price!). If the provider-selecting party can meet both of those conditions, they will be making what I call value-sensitive provider selections.

In summary, policy ideas to reward value with higher prices will not do much for aggregate healthcare value our society is purchasing. But policy ideas that can get those 2 conditions fulfilled for the parties making the provider selections will successfully reward value with volume and concomitantly provide low-value providers with an ultimatum to either improve value or go out of business.

So the questions we should be asking ourselves if we want to “reward providers for value, not volume” is How can we remove the barriers to value-sensitive provider selection?” When will I write another post that enumerates all of the most salient barriers and how to remove them? Ask me tomorrow, but not today.

How to Make the Cost of Care Cheaper

I’ve been leading up to this for a long time. Lowering the cost of the actual provision of care is one of the most important things all countries with unsustainable health spending growth need. And, at the outset, I’ll say I don’t have all the answers. But here’s what I’ve got, explained in maybe a roundabout way, but hopefully it makes sense by the end.

Think about providers’ incentive to innovate. Do they have one? Hopefully your initial response is “yes,” because you’d be right (partially). Assuming this is a provider that operates as most in the country do, its prices are determined based on market power, not costs. So, with the assurance that prices will stay the same regardless of costs, providers have a great incentive to lower costs! Any cost decrease will go straight to their bottom line.

At this point, I picture in my head a little map of the United States with a vertical pin sticking out of it for each hospital, with the height of the pin representing that hospital’s costs of delivering care. The taller the pin, the higher the costs. So, the incentive for each hospital is to lower their costs as much as possible in order to maximize profits, and different hospitals succeed to varying degrees. The pins get pushed down with each successful cost-cutting initiative, some more than others.

Now let’s say there is a hospital that finds a really innovative way to deliver care, and their costs are way lower than everyone else’s. They want to get more customers in an effort to continue generating more wealth, but they’re stuck! Why are they stuck? Because even though their costs are so much lower, they don’t really get to set the prices the patients actually pay when choosing which hospital to go to for care. High-value providers can’t expand to new cities because they’d have to set their prices lower than existing providers’ prices, steal a whole bunch of the market share, and most likely force some of the lower-value incumbents out of business. But if they could, do you see what would happen to the pins? The one really low pin would start spreading, making the tallest pins get taken off the map completely with each market that it spreads to. It would be beautiful! Different kinds of cost-saving innovations would be spreading all over the country.

So, to repeat David Cutler’s question, Where are all the healthcare innovators? They’re out there, all over the country, but they’re stuck in their current markets; thus, we don’t see or even hear about most of them.

In summary, think of the two ways a company can make more money:

  1. Sell items at a higher margin
  2. Sell more items

Providers in our healthcare system can only do the first one. The second one is mostly not functioning, and thus we don’t have the harsh (and absolutely crucial) evolutionary force of putting lower-value providers out of business and lowering the cost of healthcare.

I’ll admit, the proliferation of high-deductible plans and new kinds of deals between providers and insurers are starting to overcome this. But there are probably other ways to increase the pace of the elimination of these barriers, and I would think the government should be focused on figuring out what they are if they want to solve this country’s budget problems. Or they could continue to argue over how to how to reduce volume and price while largely ignoring costs.

The Only Two Ways to Reduce Healthcare Spending

If you’ve graduated from elementary school, you have probably learned this formula:

Money Spent = Number of Units * Price per Unit

If we’re talking healthcare (and we are), the “Money Spent” part would be the approximately 18 percent of our GDP that goes to healthcare. The number of units would be the number of doctor visits, ER visits, x-rays, cardiac catheterizations, pills, MRIs, etc. that we buy each year. And the price per unit would be the actual cost of the provision of care plus some amount of profit.

So, if we are to solve our healthcare spending crisis, we need to either reduce the number of units we buy or the price per unit. Those are the only two ways.

It’s been interesting lately as I read/hear about healthcare reform ideas with this in mind. I’m not sure any of them have actually proposed something that will directly reduce the actual cost of the provision of care, which, in my mind, is what we need to be worrying about. Think about it: We can reduce the number of units by doing more preventive care and rationing; we can reduce healthcare organizations’ profits by having the government set prices lower; but healthcare will still cost a lot of money! The real money-saving potential lies in reducing the actual cost of the provision of care.

Is that possible? YES.

How? Evolution of the healthcare industry through better information, business model innovation, and technology. (See The Innovator’s Prescription by Christensen, Grossman, and Hwang, which doesn’t have all the answers, and the ones provided are disputed, but I think they’re on the right track.)

How to Keep Insurance Companies from Stealing Healthcare Cost Savings

In February 2011, I posted on what healthcare delivery reform proposals are getting wrong. Here’s the brief rundown on what I explained:

  • Most reform proposals will make care less expensive for patients (due to more integrated care plans, a better focus on preventive care, fewer complications, etc.)
  • Providers are the ones charged with making these delivery changes
  • Patients saving money = providers getting paid less
  • Why would providers make the changes only to lose money? They somehow need to financially benefit from their efforts and improvements
Are there solutions to this? Of course! Here are my favorite two:

 

First, integrated delivery. If the organization charged with making changes to how care is delivered is the same that will benefit financially, it works. An example might help. I live in Utah, where Intermountain Health Care (IHC) dominates. IHC is really good about doing research and finding ways to improve quality. So let’s pretend they do a lot of heart valve replacements, and that they’re usually paid $20,000. But, if they have a complication, they have to do all sorts of extra work, and they end up getting paid $30,000. (I’m making the numbers up, but I’m not lying about the fact that providers often get paid more for procedures when there were complications.) So, IHC finds that they can tilt the bed at a 20-degree angle and that magically reduces complications by 25%. But that means they’re getting paid $10,000 less every time they avoid that complication! The patient whose complication was averted with the tilting of the bed maybe ends up paying $2,000 less in co-pays than he would have, and the insurance company saves the other $8,000.

 

Poor IHC, right? They spent thousands of dollars on the research that produced the bed-tilting idea, and now the patients’ and insurance companies’ wallets are benefitting. Except, IHC has a secret. The insurance that patient was on is Select Health, which is IHC-owned! So, really, IHC just saved its patient $2,000 and saved itself $8,000. Not bad! This scenario, when the provider and insurer are the same entity, is called “integrated delivery,” and it creates excellent incentives to improve quality. The only time this breaks down is when IHC averts all sorts of complications for patients on different insurance companies. [Update: There are downsides to integrated delivery organizations, including ACOs, that relate to their limiting of the options available to patients and, thus, interfere with value-sensitive decisions. I won’t explain it here, but I’ve learned more since writing this post.]

 

This brings me to the second solution, which can sometimes work when it’s not an integrated delivery situation. So when IHC goes to renegotiate their contract with, say, Altius, they will have their reduced-complication-rates data in hand, and they will say, “Hey, we have 25% fewer complications than before, so your average cost will go down from $22,500 to $21,000. But we want some of those savings since you didn’t do anything to warrant saving all that money, so we’ll raise your rates a little bit to make your average cost $22,000, which is still lower than it was before, and we’ll be getting some compensation for all this hard quality-improvement work we’ve been doing.” I guess this solution could be called “splitting the savings.” [Update: Since writing this, an amazing idea called “shared savings” became popular. It’s exactly what I describe above. But it has a pithier name.]

 

The providers will still be losing some of the savings to the patients and external insurance companies, but at least they’re improving quality and their reputation!

How Doctors Make Prices

I’m venturing out a little bit on this post because I don’t know if the pricing process I’m about to explain is used by all providers or not. That’s my disclaimer.

Now I’m going to pretend I’m a doctor with a brand new self-run clinic. I’ve just hired all my nurses and bought all my computers, etc. My next step is to decide on a fee schedule. How do I do it?

I start by checking prices of other doctors in the area. Or not, because I can’t find any of those. So then I ask some of my physician friends, who say they generally charge 100 to 120 percent of Medicare fees. “That’s quite a range,” I say. But then they say it doesn’t matter too much what I set my fees at because my future patients’ insurance companies will basically choose how much they are going to pay me anyway.

Insurance companies decide the price? I guess that makes sense because they have all the bargaining power over me, a lowly solo doctor running my own clinic. So I somehow find a way to take a look at compensation schedules for different insurance companies, including Medicare and Medicaid. Their prices are all over the board for every procedure! For a single billing code (maybe it’s the one for setting and casting a broken arm), Insurance Company X will pay $1,100, Insurance Company Y will pay $1,000, Medicare will pay $900, and Insurance Company Z will pay $1,200.

Now I start thinking strategically about this. If patients are never going to ask me how much I charge, since their insurance companies will handle all of that, I decide to set my price for setting and casting a broken arm at $1,200. Why? Because if I set it at $1,000, I’m only going to get $1,000 from Company X, who was willing to pay me $1,100, and $1,000 from Company Z, who was willing to pay me $1,200. Why would I set my price low and leave all that money on the table? So as long as I set my price at $1,200 or higher, I’ll get the full $1,200 from Company Z, the full $1,100 from Company X, the full $1,000 from Company Y, etc.

So how do the insurance companies decide on these fees? I hear stuff about this specialist-dominated group of physicians who, working as a committee (known as the RVS Update Committee, or RUC), get to update the Medicare fee schedule every year. And people keep telling me that’s why I, as a primary-care doc, don’t get paid as much as I should because those darn specialists in that committee overvalue work done by specialists and undervalue work done by primary-care physicians.

At this point, I give up worrying about prices and just trust that the money that comes in every month will be more than the money that goes out every month. And, after a few years, that seems to consistently be the case, so I just stop worrying about it.

. . . That is, until patients on high-deductible insurance plans start calling my receptionist and asking what our prices are for various procedures. We’re not sure we want her to admit that our price for setting and casting a broken arm is a whole $1,200, so we prepare a canned response to such inquiries: “We’re not allowed to quote prices over the phone. You’ll just have to come in so the doctor can take a look at you first.”

What Healthcare Delivery Reform Proposals Are Getting Wrong

Let’s pretend I own a primary care clinic. There are quite a few doctors who work in my clinic (primary-care and specialists), and everything’s going great–we have plenty of patients, have a good reputation in the area, and are fairly profitable.

And then I am told I have to start doing this “patient-centered medical home” thing, which means I will now be responsible for all aspects of my patients’ care plans. If my patients go to other doctors, I need someone to talk to those outside physicians and find out what they did. I need to have someone available to answer questions and solve problems at all hours of the day and night so my patients will have continual guidance on how to make good decisions if something goes wrong. I need to hire a “care manager” to keep a close eye on all my high-maintenance patients (e.g., ones with multiple chronic diseases or social disabilities), calling them to make sure they’re taking their medications, teaching them how to follow their care plan the best, and all sorts of babysitting-type things like that. I also need to invest in a more comprehensive electronic health record system so I can keep track of all of this stuff. And I should probably also periodically pay someone to perform a data analysis on how efficiently the doctors in my clinic are performing so that I can find ways to further improve patient health and reduce the cost to my patients. And, as an incentive for my physicians to go along with all of this, I should probably find a way to adjust compensation to reward them for improving their patients’ health and lowering costs. . . . You get the picture.

So now I, the clinic manager, am faced with a choice: turn my clinic into a medical home OR just leave things the way they are.

In evaluating the first choice, I think about the upsides. Most of my patients will be healthier and better taken care of. Maybe even my physicians will have greater job satisfaction, which leads to increased productivity and lower turnover.

And then I think about the downsides. I will expend a lot of energy and money doing all of those things. I stand to lose profits from those increased costs and because my doctors will probably be performing fewer high-profit procedures. This loss of profit might be mitigated by the fact that my physicians will now have more time to take on additional patients, but that assumes I will be able to strengthen my reputation so much that I can steal market share from local competitors.

In summary, I figure the main upside is that my patients will be healthier, and the main downside is that it will generate a net loss in revenue. As high-minded as I am, I am not willing to risk my business’ very viability to potentially improve my patients’ health by implementing this medical home thing, so I choose to leave things the way they are.

Now, step out of the clinic manager perspective and analyze this with me for a second. This whole conversation begs the question: If medical-home patients’ care is so much less expensive (because of fewer procedures, ER visits, and the like), who is getting all of those savings? It’s obviously not the clinic (who, interestingly, is the one being asked to make the effort to change and assume all the attendant financial risk). Have you figured it out? It’s the payer! So patients and insurance companies will reap all the benefits, while the provider will take all the risks, make all the effort, and sacrifice profitability.

If any delivery reform proposal (e.g., ACOs, medical homes, etc.) is to be widely accepted by providers, that reform idea must include a way for the providers to reap some of the financial benefits. And that’s where many of these trendy reforms go wrong.