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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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Expanding Insurance May Not Mean Long Lines and Trouble Seeing the Doctor

When health reform made it on the agenda in 2008-9, it took almost no time to hear the old familiar line that government-run health care will mean rationing, with crowded waiting rooms and the dreaded prospect of it taking months or years to get seen by the doctor or have an important surgery performed. It didn’t matter when Brits and Canadians chimed in to say “Actually, it’s not like that here at all.” Americans succumbed to the combination of logic and fear. The logic is apparent: If more people have the ability to go to the doctor, and there isn’t suddenly a corresponding increase in doctors, then either doctors are going to have to see more patients in less time (potentially reducing quality), or patients are going to have to wait to be seen (and we don’t like to wait). Given my parenthetical explanations in the preceding sentence, do I even need to elaborate on the fear aspect?

There’s just one important question: Is that really what will happen? This is where the good folks at Harvard who do health policy and health services research are so lucky. In Massachusetts, which basically implemented ObamaCare at the state level years before ObamaCare came into being, we have a nice policy laboratory to investigate this question. That’s precisely what Karen Joynt and colleagues did, as they report in a recent article in Health Services Research.

The very short version of what they did is this: Using Medicare data, they looked to see if people with chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension had fewer outpatient visits to the doctor after the Massachusetts health reform was enacted, compared to the number of visits they had before the reform. They also looked at some quality metrics in the same way. That is, did the patients get the treatments we know they are supposed to get? And they also looked at health care costs. The cool thing about this is that they were able to use patients in other New England states that didn’t have health reform as controls. That means that their study design is really able to attribute any changes they see in Massachusetts above and beyond what they see elsewhere in New England to the health reform in Massachusetts.

The very short version of what they found is this: There was no decrease in health care visits or health care quality in Massachusetts because of health reform, but there was an increase in costs. Now, there are some limitations to what they did, but the authors acknowledge these nicely. The biggest issue is that Massachusetts had a low rate of uninsured persons to begin with, so their health care system was less flooded with newly insured than other places–like Kentucky–might be thanks to the ACA. The other big issue is that the study only examined the Medicare population age 65 and up, so we have no idea if the under-65 disabled Medicare population and everyone else may have experienced issues getting seen by a doctor. Still, despite these limitations, the study offers a ray of hope that our health care delivery system is responsive enough to adapt to an increase in demand without making us suffer lengthy waits to be seen for outpatient care, and that the ACA may well end up doing more good than harm.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2014 in "Rationing", Recent Research

 

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Rationalizing Rationing

When will we ever be free of the dreaded “R” word in health care? Will we ever accept that we can’t have our cake and eat it too? I’ve written about rationing many times before. Today, I want to share with you the words of Dr. Don Berwick, outgoing director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In a speech at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement National Forum on December 7, 2011, Dr. Berwick had this to say:

“Inscribed on the wall of the great hall at the entrance to the Hubert Humphrey Building, the HHS Headquarters in Washington where my office was, is a quotation from Senator Humphrey at the building’s dedication ceremony on November 4, 1977. It says: ‘The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.’

I believe that. Indeed, I think that Senator Humphrey described the moral test, not just of government, but of a nation. This is a time of great strain in America; uncertainty abounds. With uncertainty comes fear, and with fear comes withdrawal. We can climb into our bunkers, each separately, and bar the door. But, remember, millions of Americans don’t have a bunker to climb into–they have no place to hide. For many of them, indeed, the crisis of economic security that we all dread now is no crisis at all–it is their status quo. The Great Recession is just their normal life….

Cynicism diverts energy from the great moral test. It toys with deception, and deception destroys….If you really want to talk about ‘death panels,’ let’s think about what happens if we cut back programs of needed, life-saving care for Medicaid beneficiaries and other poor people in America. What happens in a nation willing to say to a senior citizen of marginal income, ‘I am sorry you cannot afford your medicines, but you are on your own?’ What happens if we choose to defund our nation’s investments in preventive medicine and community health, condemning a generation to avoidable risks and unseen toxins? Maybe a real death panel is a group of people who tell health care insurers that it is OK to take insurance away from people because they are sick or are at risk for becoming sick….

And, while we are at it, what about ‘rationing?’ The distorted and demagogic use of that term is another travesty in our public debate….The true rationers are those who impede improvement, who stand in the way of change, and who thereby force choices that we can avoid through better care. It boggles my mind that the same people who cry ‘foul’ about rationing an instant later argue to reduce health care benefits for the needy, to defund crucial programs of care and prevention, and to shift thousands of dollars of annual costs to people–elders, the poor, the disabled–who are least able to bear them. When the 17 million American children who live in poverty cannot get the immunizations and blood tests they need, that is rationing. When disabled Americans lack the help to keep them out of institutions and in their homes and living independently, that is rationing. When tens of thousands of Medicaid beneficiaries are thrown out of coverage, and when millions of seniors are threatened with the withdrawal of preventive care or cannot afford their medications, and when every single one of us lives under the Sword of Damocles that, if we get sick, we lose health insurance, that is rationing. And it is beneath us as a great nation to allow that to happen.”

Why don’t you ponder that over the next few days, and have a Merry Christmas!

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2011 in "Rationing"

 

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Wasting Money At the End of Life?

Peter Bach is a physician with a recent op-ed appearing in the New York Times. Dr. Bach’s piece about whether or not end-of-life health care spending is wasteful is compelling. I recommend you read his essay, but I want to hit some of the high points.

The first is that we may be making an error based on hindsight. Precisely because hindsight is 20/20, we can fall into the trap of evaluating health care decisions after the outcome is known, which is not how health care decisions are actually made. So, as Dr. Bach stresses, a tremendous amount of health care spending may be deemed warranted if it saves the life of the patient, but the same spending would be labeled wasteful if the patient dies. This is an excellent point.

Other points Dr. Bach makes relate to supposed sources of bias. For example, sick people need more health care (which costs more money) and are also more likely to die. Ergo, the link between health care spending and death is likely to be positive, but the reality is that health status is the common denominator. He also laments the fact that data on end-of-life spending is much more readily available than data on other types of health care spending. That’s also a pretty accurate assertion.

It’s in his concluding remarks that Dr. Bach gets to the real matter at hand: We don’t know who is going to benefit and who isn’t. In his essay, he describes how he saved someone’s life. As it turns out, the condition that person had is fatal in about 1 of every 8 cases. In other words, paying to intervene for that condition seems like a good bet. If, on the other hand, only 1 out of 8 people with the condition survived, it might be a tougher sell. Of course, what that scenario underscores is that the overall costs and benefits are important to understand, but so are the individual risks and benefits. For example, if you have the condition, you are probably hoping that you are the 1 person who will survive after receiving the intervention, not counting on your being 1 of the other 7.

Research that can help us understand not only which procedures are generally more effective than others, but also who the 1 person who loses or benefits (given the two scenarios above) will be, are the next frontier in improving the health care system–cutting costs without harming quality. Of course, this type of research will bring accusations of “death panels” back out of the woodwork. I just hope few people will actually take such things seriously, so that the necessary work can proceed. Without it, I’m not sure that there’s much hope.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2011 in "Rationing", Physicians, Quality

 

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