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Health Insurance Benefits – Can You Have It Your Way?

As the percentage of large employers that consider a shift to defined contribution and/or private exchange increases, the number of options – and flexibility in those options – must also increase. Consideration for those options rose last year from 14% to 18% among large employers (500+ employees). Further, those who are considering the move to a private exchange want to because of their desire to offer more and better plan options, as well as realize cost-savings. Shifting to the defined contribution framework allows employers to moderate their subsidies to employees, and employees to make better trade-offs among plan options. Additionally, by increasing choices, defined contribution makes it easier for employers to integrate their health incentive and wellness programs by layering them “on top” of the defined contribution.

With this economic opportunity in the market, it is imperative that health plans and enrollment become more tailored to individual and company needs, in addition to the one-size-fits-all solutions of the past and present.

Private health exchanges, according to bswift, like their new Springboard Marketplace, could be the platform to give consumers that greater choice and increase individual decision-making. Given that most large employers who are considering a defined contribution will remain self-insured, bswift is taking a calculated gamble that employers will continue to invest in cost management solutions such as incentives, wellness programs, consumerism as opposed to simply shifting costs to employees under the “fix it and forget it” cost sharing approach suggested by some competitors.

Customize Your Cart

The Springboard Marketplace that bswift has created has the online functionality healthcare.gov could only have dreamed of, and the choice construction of a grocery store.  In fact, the terminology the company uses alludes to “Stocking the Shelves” with your benefit choices and “Shopping” for your ideal group of benefits. This is all done through the interactive benefits advisor, Emma, who walks employees through an online step-by-step process to fill their cart with health care options.

For those aware of bswift’s background as a tech company it may not be a surprise that the software and services offered are aimed at streamlining a very sophisticated system, and making the user experience easy. And for those that know the company’s Executive Director of Exchange Solutions Brad Wolfsen, the shopping experience and ease of transition into a new set of consumer options will easily resonate. Mr. Wolfsen, before joining the team, built and led Safeway’s wellness and retail strategy programs, and was the President of Safeway Health.

According to Mr. Wolfsen, the real benefit he sees to bswift’s products are that they, “allow employers to focus on equity for employees and shift to a retail view on providing health benefits.”  Or, as the Society for Human Resource Management labels it, From Parenting To Partnering.

New Plans Equal New Decisions

With a growing demand for health benefit options that resemble a choose your own adventure book, but with a set amount of money to spend, the development of software must also be functional for employers and employees. The Springboard Marketplace has been constructed so that functionality can simply be turned on and off, so that choices are simplified. Additionally, since there is not a standard approach to benefit choices and many legacy systems that have to be revamped due to mergers, acquisitions and partnerships, greater automation for employers means less paperwork for HR departments. By making workflow, reporting and administrative work more efficient through automation, cost-savings increase even further.

“The best and brightest clients are currently driving what is in the bswift system now,” says Mr. Wolfsen. “As we move towards expanding the suite of benefit options and meeting compliance standards, we are also investing in the shoppers experience.”

He, along with his colleagues at bswift, believe that their tech company is nimble in ways that others are not, and that with the help of their platform and Emma, more and more employers will begin the migration to defined contribution and private exchanges. If true, that growing shift could redefine how health benefit decision-making is done by employees in the future.

 

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An Engineering Feat Gives Hearts Extra Life

With the release of their new HeartAssist5 heart pump, ReliantHeart is making real-time, personalized feedback possible for the millions of Americans suffering from heart failure. The new technology allows for real-time, remote monitoring of implantable devices, years of added life for patients, and flexibility to travel without a physician nearby. With a staggering projected 46% growth in heart failure by 2030, advances in heart failure innovation are on the forefront of changing medical treatment, policy, device research and physician reimbursements. Further, with heart failure and disease disproportionately affecting minorities in the US, advances in length and quality of life could be huge strides for medical equality.

Heart Failure In America

Approximately 7.5 million people in the United States currently suffer from heart failure, a figure that is increasing over time as more people survive heart attacks and various other heart conditions. According to the Heart Failure Society of America, an estimated 400,000 to 700,000 new cases of heart failure are diagnosed each year, with deaths averaging 250,000 annually, more than double since 1979. Even worse, an estimated one half of heart failure patients die within five years of diagnosis and 20% within the first year.

With a waiting list for heart transplants at an overwhelming 3,736 at publication, and less than 2,500 hearts donated annually, the need for a bridge between heart failure and transplant is literally life and death.

LVADs

Left ventricular assist devices (LVAD) are implantable heart pumps that were created to temporarily support patients with advanced heart failure as the bridge between diagnoses and transplant. However, with new scientific advancements, LVADs are becoming a long-term tool for improving heart function without transplant.

The right ventricle pumps blood to the lungs, but the left ventricle is responsible for pumping blood to the rest of the entire body, making it much more susceptible to failure. Therefore, LVADs have been the focus of most modern research to prolong and improve life saving implants.

Patient-Centered Care

Reliant’s system acts like your car’s dashboard. “If a patient’s pump has any sign of a challenge, like dehydration or low flow, the remote monitoring system signals the change to a data-collection center that notifies the transplant center as well as the individual,” ReliantHeart CEO Rodger Ford says. This is what makes the HeartAssist5 unique; at the first sign of a problem the right people are notified immediately.

Essentially, if the engine light goes on, the heart center and patient are notified to get the engine checked.

He also notes that the patients can set monitors to send text message notifications, thus making changes in blood flow, speed and power truly personalized. Individual blood flow is collected and transmitted every 5 minutes, making one’s own body the standard comparator.

The greatest importance to Founder and CTO Bryan Lynch is his ability to use his background as an engineer to, “Get involved in a project where you can actually see how you saved a life. While the docs and nurses are the real lifesavers, we give them the tool to make it possible.” He continues that it is vitally important for engineers and innovators to gain a patient-centered approach to get a real reduction in cost burden and improve quality of life.

Sailesh Saxena, CFO, continues highlighting the patient focus of the company by telling about the origination of the design of the VAD pack. “Bryan and I used to go to Schlotsky’s Deli ($BUNZ) for lunch,” he said, “and we used to see this man wearing a coat although it wasn’t cold out. Bryan noticed immediately that he was attempting to hide an LVAD controller and batteries. Well, this happened more than once, and we recognized that he was always concealing the VAD controller. So we decided that we needed to create a unique insert so that our LVAD control system could slip right into a Louis Vuitton ($LVMH) or Gucci ($GUC) bag unnoticed. It’s the small things that make the patient feel like we understand what they really want.”

Expanding The Geography Of Care

Remote monitoring, like other methods of telemedicine, is a key to expanding the geography of health care. “As technology matures, with the help of remote monitoring, the cardiologist and patient will feel safer with greater distances between them,” says Saxena.

This growth in telemedicine as a whole, and specifically in heart care, has major implications for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as well as health care policy and reform. Because CMS is beginning to assign reimbursements and penalties based on patient outcomes instead of traditional fee-for-service metrics, it will become more and more important to have reimbursements reflect remote monitoring and its likely benefits.

Reimbursement codes also need to be reworked to genuinely target geographic discrepancies in care, which are fundamentally important for transplant centers. However, at present, CMS is slowly beginning to take growth rates of heart implants seriously based on the agency’s continued increases in payments, including their slight variations in geographic differences.

An Engineering Feat

In a recent study, researchers found that platelets flowing through the HeartAssist5 are exposed to significantly lower cumulative shear stress levels than in competitive devices tested. Ultimately, this means that the ReliantHeart product allows for what the CTO calls “a more physiologically normal cardiac output, including the pulse.”

What Bryan means is that people with failing hearts have low blood flow throughout the body, which is why they are so sick. When an LVAD is implanted, patients return to a more normal flow, but they also need blood flow that is as natural as possible. With the HeartAssist5, blood is not damaged and any pulse that the recovering heart produces is naturally transmitted to the body.

The LVAD and heart now work together to help the patient recover.

Although there are two other continuous flow LVADs on the market (THOR and HTRW), the ReliantHeart team claims their careful design capitalizes on working with the natural ventricle to the benefit of the patient, almost like a gym trainer for your heart.

Their “implantable flow probe” is also a revolutionary aspect of the HeartAssist5. This ultrasonic probe measures the blood flow from the LVAD in real-time providing critical feedback that is a one-of-a-kind technology providing data that makes the aforementioned remote monitoring so valuable. Ford says this ability to see patient-specific trends remotely in real time not only helps all patients improve quality of life, but the longevity of the HeartAssist5 creates a life support system, far beyond the “bridge” that the LVAD was originally created to be.

So this month, for American Heart Month, think about what innovation really is. It might be the ability to prolong and add quality of life for individuals and families across the nation, to share more time with loved ones.

 

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Health IT Thrives With New Startup Companies

As the health insurance exchanges opened for enrollment just days ago, the federal government, including the President and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), had to acknowledge that it was not technologically ready. The IT infrastructures by which individuals tried to sign up for health insurance crashed and were unavailable throughout the first day and the weeks after. Those same sights were supposed to track enrollment, but proved to not be as well tested and far more expensive than originally anticipated. However, despite the shortages and disappointments with government IT readiness for exchange websites, there was a surge in US-based startup companies that demonstrated just how innovative and forward thinking technology can be in the health care arena. Nine new companies, all curated through BluePrint Health were introduced at that same time three weeks ago on “Demo Day,” and were ready to show the new frontier of health care, and how to transform care delivery through technology.

Health IT Incubators Driving Innovation

Blueprint Health is an accelerator program geared towards health care companies that want an intensive three-month mentorship to help find customers and capital, and learn from leading industry experts. The companies that are selected for the program range from individuals with a clever value proposition to well-established organization leaders that have existing customers, investors and are generating significant revenue, but with new ideas. According to Doug Hayes, a Principal at BluePrint Health, “We are seeing an acute need for innovation at the seed stage of the health care ecosystem. With top-down changes in regulations and quickly shifting incentive structures, the most successful companies will be those who can nimbly adapt.”

He asserts that what makes BluePrint successful is that it is, “uniquely positioned to attract, identify, and support the entrepreneurs that fill the gaps of service left in the wake of massive industry changes.” The accelerator program promotes the mindset that new businesses should not have to focus exclusively on fundraising. Hayes says, “Building a company is extremely difficult, and a founders’ time is best spent on customer and product development, not fundraising.” With that mentality, BluePrint does not use many pre-established filters when evaluating the near 1,000 applications it receives each year, but instead concentrates on business models.

The nine particular startup companies that were cultivated during the summer of 2013 range from Healthify, which focuses on creating platforms that connect and standardize medical homes to treat social needs to Board Vitals, an organization that improves the testing system of our nation’s providers. Each of these new businesses gives hope to innovators and entrepreneurs.

The Companies

Artemis

Artemis is a health care analytics firm specializing in benefit claims. With employers spending billions of dollars on health care, benefits managers need more information than the historical, once a year paper reports of the past. With the Artemis platform, benefit managers have graphical, real-time updates for claims and assessments. The creators claim that that deploying its tactics not only saves money for organizations, but also heads off future costs through prevention and determination of key cost drivers.

Board Vitals

Board Vitals brings together publishers, universities, and top physicians into a single digital platform for medical specialty education, with pass rates that are 10% higher than the national average. According to co-founder, Dan Lambert, “Content is continually voted up and down, meaning that the very best material comes to the top and outdated or incorrect content is voted out.” His partner, Andrea Paul added that their aggressive, but attainable, goal is to have materials for 20 of the 35 specialties in 2014.

CredSimple

The founders of CredSimple created a system to make the mandatory credentialing of physicians cheaper and more efficient. According to co-founder Garry Choy, at present, credentialing takes two to three months per physician and hospitals spend millions a year on the routine, but inefficient process. CredSimple uses an impressive 214 data sources to verify credentials, saving all provider parties time and resources, with downstream positive implications for entire hospital systems.

Genterpret

Pharmaceutical companies strive to gain pricing power and market share using genetic information about how patients respond to drugs. Genterpret, started by two system biology PhDs, links genetics to drug responses in one-third of the time (six months) of previous genetic testers. The faster turn-around time and vast outreach program created by the founders suggests that the Genterpret technology can soon be applied to thousands of diseases, improving health outcomes and saving money.

Healthify

After years of working in Baltimore health clinics, the creators of Healthify joined forces to start a company that addresses social needs such as food insecurities to improve health in communities. Medicaid spending on medical homes averages about $15 billion, much of which is spent on social needs. The data collected by Healthify will become vital as medical homes and accountable care organizations begin to address social needs as integral to overall health and well being.

ReferBright

ReferBright helps health practitioners with digital marketing in a world full of medical advertisements. The goal, according to the founders, is to improve outreach and referral rates for various kinds of professionals. Additionally, the automated system makes updating personal information easy for practitioners and makes vetting of practitioners easy for hospitals, knowing the information on ReferBright has been inspected and verified.

SpotMe Fit

According to co-founder, Jarrod Wolf, SpotMe, “allows employers to reward their employees for attending any fitness facility, running in races, or for using fitness apps and devices. When the barrier to incentives are removed–like eliminating paperwork and providing immediate rewards–and employees are given the flexibility to choose how they engage in fitness, then program participation rates skyrocket.” This focus on wellness and fitness programs is to improve health outcomes and lower health costs through incentives, monetary and physical.

Staff Insight

The premise of Staff Insight is to increase workforce productivity, specifically through hospital leadership being able to understand and staff facilities to the optimal levels. The company aims to use real-time dashboard to identify staffing levels in units, test baseline productivity, set new benchmarks for productivity and ultimately save revenue for facilities by optimizing productivity. The founders claim that early adopters have already seen a two to four percent increase in productivity.

WellTrackOne

WellTrackOne conducts a Medicare-approved personal assessment that hospitals can use to track patient data and identify potential risk factors. To lessen the administrative burden and disruption to the workflow, WellTrackOne claims that it can integrate all electronic health records, from multiple systems to improve data and health outcomes.

The Future Of Health Technology

Despite the federal governments success in getting support from professional athletic organizations and celebrities like Jennifer Hudson, the technological infrastructure just wasn’t ready for consumer usage. In contrast, Doug Hayes says that a key reason BluePrint startups were ready on Demo Day is due to the mentor community and outreach.

He claims that a by-product of their focus on business models and portfolio is that it, “includes many enterprise solutions. The long sales cycle and disparate channels within health care makes enterprise sales an especially tough nut to crack. However, our experience within enterprise and our mentor community, 150 strong, makes us especially well positioned to help founders sell into large payers, provider networks, pharma, and other enterprise customers.

 

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Health Inequality And Modern Day Slavery

“They never took me to the doctor when I was ill.” These are the words spoken by Merieme Mint Hamadi when asked about her life as a slave. Merieme, one of an estimated half a million people in Mauritania who are enslaved, lives in some of the world’s worst conditions. Her country, which has a population estimated to rival Chicago, was the last country in the world to make slavery a crime. However, since that 2007 law was passed – almost 150 years since Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the US – only one person has been successfully prosecuted for owning another human in Mauritania. The health and human rights violations that exist there today have led to the UN ranking Mauritania at 155 out of 187 countries on its 2013 inequality-adjusted Human Development Index.

The UN estimated that in 2012 for every 100,000 live births in the country, 510 women die from pregnancy, with significant disparities between the death rates of Black slaves and Arab owners. Of even greater concern is that due to female slaves being forced to have children with owners, an estimated 71.3 births per 1,000 live births are to adolescents who suffer extreme mental and physical abuse. In John Sutter’s captivating CNN coverage of oppression, Slavery’s Last Stronghold, he reports that, “In Mauritania, the shackles of slavery are mental as well as physical.” He goes on to describe the political and societal methods through which the lighter-skinned Arabs maintain their ownership of the dark-skinned peoples.

Kevin Bales, an expert on modern day slavery, wrote in his book Disposable People that even if someone of bondage attempts to leave an owner, “for most, freedom means starvation.” He claims that because slaves are, “immediately recognizable by color, clothing and speech” they will not be given shelter or proper care by others. Further, Mr. Bales asserts that on the streets of Mauritania, “ there are already a good number of beggars, many of them disabled, to remind slaves of where they almost certainly end up” if they were to leave their masters.

“Mauritania is a country with scarce resources – including access to medical care. The health needs of slave owners come first in Mauritania; the health needs of slaves come last. Slave children are chronically malnourished. Slave women are frequently victims of sexual assault by their owners and the devastating health problems that result.” says Sean Tenner, Co-Founder of the Abolition Institute, an organization focused on ending Mauritanian slavery and a veteran of numerous public health campaigns.

Despite the country’s open system of ownership, to date, the US has not taken a stance against the practice. The country, located on the western fringe of the Sahara, is not densely populated, and therefore practices of the owners are not easily monitored by the government. Further, the country’s ruling elite makes no attempt to fight slavery, as they claim to the UN that slavery does not exist.

However, what is most surprising in 2013 is not the lack of Mauritanian action against their own traditions, but the lack of American recognition and action. At a time when the US tries to face its own challenges with inequality, health, human rights and foreign policy, it is saddening to know we also neglect others.

Mauritania is also deeply divided by access to basic human rights such as health. In 2000, it was estimated that only 37% of the country had access to safe drinking water and 33% to adequate sanitation. Life expectancy has hovered around 57 for both sexes for many years, but with great disparities between the slaves and owners.

The US has done nothing to date but overlook the unlivable health conditions and human rights violations in the region for those that are born into bondage.

In the United States however, one group is taking action to make Americans aware of the atrocities faced by the Mauritanian slaves, and the health and human rights violations that exist. The Abolition Institute, founded in Chicago by Mr. Tenner and former Mauritanian slaves, was recently formed to end the practice of slavery in Mauritania, and bring freedom to those suffering under the inhumane circumstances of maltreatment, malnourishment and abuse.

The organization does everything from educating the public on the religious aspects of modern day slavery to informing about the living conditions and health of slaves through noting disparate practices such as “gavaging” in Mauritania, where women of Arab decent try to gain weight to show that they are wealthy elite and not poor slaves with emaciated frames.

However, the devastating effects of slavery run much deeper than the physical effects. The extreme consequences the effects of slavery have on mental health know no bounds.

In Slavery’s Last Stronghold, a leader of an abolition group tells Sutter that many similarities exist between modern slavery in Mauritania and that in the United States before the Civil War, but that the one fundamental difference between the two in his mind is the use of physical restraint. “Chains are for the slave who has just become a slave, who has . . . just been brought across the Atlantic,” Boubacar said. “But the multigeneration slave, the slave descending from many generations, he is a slave even in his own head. And he is totally submissive. He is ready to sacrifice himself, even, for his master. And, unfortunately, it’s this type of slavery that we have today” — the slavery “American plantation owners dreamed of.”

 

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