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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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Primary Care Deserts Do Not Disappear With Nurse Practitioners

In coming years the US could see growing shortages in the availability of primary care physicians (PCPs). With the number of individuals seeking care increasing and the current medical system continuing to incentivize physicians to specialize, the number of available PCPs will decline proportional to the population. To fill that gap, Ezra Klein and others have asserted that expanded scope of practice will allow nurse practitioners (NPs) to serve as viable substitutes for primary care shortages.

While NPs serve a vital role in the system and meet need, the argument that they are a 1:1 substitute for PCPs (but for the greedy doctors and pesky regulations holding them back) is singular and shortsighted. The argument also fails to address broader policies that influence both NP and PCP behaviors. Policies that unjustifiably lead to the unequal distribution of caregivers, location or expertise, inherently parlay into unequal care for patients. Sadly, a broader scope than “freeing nurse practitioners” is necessary to meet primary care needs, as NPs are complements, not substitutes. Policy must address the need for more primary care and assist to realign the system to meet our country’s basic care and equality through redistribution.

Primary care is the foundation of the evolving health care system, with equal access the intended goal of the ACA. Along the way to meeting future demand for primary care, NPs can be increasingly utilized to meet the needs of Americans and improve the health of the nation. And let it be known I am a strong proponent and supporter of nurse practitioners and all non-physician providers and coordinators. However, the argument that most NPs practice in primary care and will fill the primary care gap, estimated at about 66 million Americans, is inaccurate. It isn’t a 1:1 substitute, especially given that models of the solo practitioner are vanishing in lieu of complementary and team-based care.

The US, unlike many western countries, does not actively regulate the number, type, or geographic distribution of its health workforce, deferring to market forces instead. Those market forces, however, are paired with a payment system whose incentives favor high volume, high return services rather than health or outcomes. These incentives are reflected in where hospitals steer funding for training, and in the outputs of that training.

Throughout the US there are geographic pockets that fail to attract medical professionals of all kinds, creating true primary care deserts. These deserts occur in part due to the unequal distribution of practitioners in the health care system, with our medical schools and salary opportunities producing low numbers of generalists across the board. We have even continued to see shortages in nurses throughout the US.

In fact, 2012 residency matching rates not only show continued unfilled positions in primary care, but that the rates of graduating minorities are highly skewed from programs. This contributes to even greater problems with finding primary care providers that reflect the populations they serve. Sadly, this is also true for nurse practitioners, where only 4.9% are African American, 3.7% are Asian or Pacific Islander and 2% are Hispanic. Further, the geographic distribution of NPs and physicians assistants alike is close to that of physicians. A June 2013 assessment found that the distribution for urban, rural and isolated rural frontier primary care providers is within a few percentage points for NPs and PCPs.

Ezra Klein was not wrong in his assessment that physicians are often influenced by income. However, it seems likely that financial incentives are drivers for many professionals in the health care sector, including nurse practitioners, registered nurses and physicians assistants (PAs). Dr. Andrew Bazemore, Director of the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Primary Care in Washington, DC has done significant research in this area. His perspective is that, “The suggestion that runaway health system costs could be contained simply by replacing higher salaries of physicians for lower salaried substitutes with less training misses the point – that cost containment will most likely result from optimizing primary care functions such as prevention, population management, care coordination, and avoidance of unnecessary referrals, procedures, ER use and hospitalizations of primary care providers.” Dr. Bazemore asserts that, “Achieving that level of effectiveness likely involves teams that include primary care physicians, NPs, PAs, behavioral and community health workers, and other important components, operating in a transformed practice setting.”

It is also correct that regulation on NPs is onerous and sometimes oppressive. Across the nation, regulation on NPs is exceptionally disjointed and often results in unnecessary hurdles for all involved, called scope-of-practice laws. Although impediments are common in the health care system, it is extensively difficult for NPs and similar non-physicians to break into a system that is deeply rooted in tradition.

However, by honing in on one piece of the puzzle, Mr. Klein missed the bigger picture. The principals of substitution do indicate that on the supply side, NPs stepping into roles for PCPs would better meet demand. But that is not the real world outcome. The broader landscape shows us that instead of a 1:1 substitution, nurse practitioners are compliments in the overall care system, important roles that fulfill many primary care needs.

Therefore, policy changes are still needed to improve patient health outcomes and forge a team-based relationship between care providers. Incentives to enter primary care and needed across the disciplines, as are models of team-based training that build on the strengths of each in managing whole persons and populations. Ezra Klein fails to note that most primary care shortage estimates implicitly include NPs and PAs already working in primary care while not accounting for the fact that NPs and PAs are choosing specialization over primary care for the same reasons as physicians.

Instead of an environment where NPs and PCPs are positioned to compete with one another, federal and state legislators should spend more time crafting policy that equalizes the distribution of care providers across the system. That redistribution means incentivizing, monetarily or otherwise, primary care clinicians to stay in general medicine and work in tandem with other providers. Whether it be the reformation of medical school, constructing a more honest approach to population health or restructuring pay scales and incentives, team-based medicine with improved access and outcomes should be the real discussion.

 

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