Doctors Are Fed Up With Being Turned Into Debt Collectors

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-15/doctors-are-fed-up-with-being-turned-into-debt-collectors

Highlighting a key implication of the rise in high-deductible health plans, both on the ACA exchanges and in employer-sponsored insurance, the article describes a question now commonly faced by doctors and hospitals—how best to collect their patients’ portion of the fees they charge? As one Texas doctor tells Bloomberg, reflecting the experience of the Maldonados from the other side of the equation, “If [patients] have to decide if they’re going to pay their rent or the rest of our bill, they’re definitely paying their rent.” He reports that the number of people dodging his calls to discuss payment has increased “tremendously” since the passage of the ACA. Another Texas doctor reports that his small practice had to add an additional full-time staff member just to collect money owed by patients, adding further overhead to his practice’s costs and making it more likely that he, like many other doctors, will eventually seek shelter by being employed by a larger delivery organization. That trend, as has been repeatedly shown, further increases the cost of care, exacerbating the increase in insurance costs for families like the Maldonados. This Gordian knot of increasing costs, rising deductibles, and growing premiums has left us with a healthcare system that’s forcing difficult decisions at every turn, for patients and providers.

Physicians, hospitals and medical labs are grappling with the rise in high-deductible insurance.

Doctors, hospitals and medical labs used to be concerned about patients who didn’t have insurance not paying their bills. Now they’re scrambling to get paid by the ones who do have insurance.

For more than a decade, insurers and employers have been shifting the cost of care onto their workers and customers, tamping down premiums by raising patients’ out-of-pocket costs. Last year, almost half of privately insured Americans under age 65 had annual deductibles ranging from $1,300 to as high as $6,550, government data show.

Now, instead of getting paid by insurance companies on a predictable schedule, health-care providers have to engage in an awkward dance. One moment they’re removing a pre-cancerous skin mole. The next, they’re haranguing patients to pay what’s become a growing portion of the total medical bill.

“It’s harder to collect from the patient than it is from the insurance,” said Amy Derick, a doctor who heads a dermatology practice outside Chicago. “If the plans change to a higher deductible, it’s harder to get the patients to pay.”

Independent physicians cited reimbursement pressures as their biggest concern for staying in business, according to a report by Accenture Plc in 2015.

“If they have to decide if they’re going to pay their rent or the rest of our bill, they’re definitely paying their rent,” said Gerald “Ray” Callas, president of the Texas Society of Anesthesiologists, whose Beaumont, Texas, practice treats about 40,000 people annually. “We try to work with the patient, but on the other hand, we can’t do it for free because we still maintain a small business.”

Accenture

In 2016, Callas introduced payment options that allow patients with expensive plans to pay a portion of the bill upfront or on a monthly basis over several years. Even so, Callas said the number of people avoiding his calls after surgery has increased “tremendously” each year since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010.

Derick instituted a “time-out” option a few years back that gives patients the billing codes before a procedure, allowing them to call their insurance companies for estimates. Even with the program, collection rates are slower, especially at the beginning of the year when insurance plan deductibles reset.

Even large medical companies with national operations are facing the problem. Quest Diagnostics Inc., the lab-testing giant, said 20 percent of services billed to patients in the third quarter of this year went unpaid, costing the company about $80 million in lost revenue.

“We certainly have a high bad-debt rate for the uninsured,” Chief Financial Officer Mark Guinan said in a telephone interview. “But really the biggest driver is people with insurance. It’s their coinsurance and their high deductibles, and they don’t always pay their bills.”

Another testing company, Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings, reported its first year-over-year uptick in unpaid bills in the first quarter of 2016. At the time, Chief Executive Officer David King said high-deductible plans, higher copays and greater incidences of non-covered services led to more dollars being shifted to patients. LabCorp declined requests for comment.

Northwell Healthcare Inc., a network of more than 700 hospitals and outpatient facilities, lost $106.9 million to unpaid services in 2015. Others have reported the same: Acute-care and critical-access hospitals reported$55.9 billion in bad debt for 2015, according to data compiled by the American Hospital Directory Inc. 

“High-deductible plans have had a very big impact,” said Richard Miller, Northwell’s chief business strategy officer.

Kaiser Family Foundation, American Hospital Association

When it comes to reimbursement, a common denominator across the health-care industry is the archaic process through which bills are processed — a web of medical records, billing systems, health insurers and contractors.

High deductibles only add to the red tape. Providers don’t have real-time, fully accurate information on patient deductibles, which fluctuate based on how much has already been paid. That forces providers to constantly reach out to insurance companies for estimates.

Tarek Fakhouri, a Texas surgeon specializing in skin cancer, had to hire an additional staff member just to reason through bills with patients and their insurers, a big expense for an office of six or seven employees. About 10 percent of Fakhouri’s patients need payment plans, delay their skin-cancer surgeries until they’ve met their deductibles, or have to choose an alternative treatment.

According to a study earlier this year by the Journal of American Medical Association, primary-care physicians at academic health-care systems lose about 15 percent of their revenue to billing activities like calling insurance companies for estimates.

“It’s an unnecessary added cost to the health-care system to have to hire staff just to sit there on hold with insurance companies to find out what a patient’s deductible status is,” said Fakhouri.

Callas, Derick, and Fakhouri said they all know physicians who have left private practice altogether, some for the sole purpose of ending their dual roles as bill collectors. According to a study by the American Medical Association, less than half of doctors were self-employed as of 2016 — the lowest total ever. Many left their own practices in favor of hospitals and large physician groups with more resources.

To cope with the challenge, labs and hospitals are investing millions in programs designed to help patients understand what they owe at the point of care. Northwell has been implementing call centers and facilities where patients can ask questions about their bills.

“There’s a burden on both sides,” said Callas. “But health-care providers get caught in the middle.”

 

Health Systems Need to Completely Reassess How They Manage Costs

https://hbr.org/2018/11/health-systems-need-to-completely-reassess-how-they-manage-costs

A recent Navigant survey found that U.S. hospitals and health systems experienced an average 39% reduction in their operating margins from 2015 to 2017. This was because their expenses grew faster than their revenues, despite cost-cutting initiatives. As I speak with industry executives, a common refrain is “I’ve done all the easy stuff.” Clearly, more is needed. Cost reduction requires an honest and thorough reassessment of everything the health system does and ultimately, a change in the organization’s operating culture.

When people talk about having done “the easy stuff,” they mean they haven’t filled vacant positions and have eliminated some corporate staff, frozen or cut travel and board education, frozen capital spending and consulting, postponed upgrades of their IT infrastructure, and, in some cases, launched buyouts for the older members of their workforces, hoping to reduce their benefits costs.

These actions certainly save money, but typically less than 5% of their total expense base. They also do not represent sustainable, long-term change. Here are some examples of what will be required to change the operating culture:

Contract rationalization. Contracted services account for significant fractions of all hospitals’ operating expenses. The sheer sprawl of these outsourced services is bewildering, even at medium-size organizations: housekeeping, food services, materials management, IT, and clinical staffing, including temporary nursing and also physician coverage for the ER, ICU and hospitalists. More recently, it has come in the form of the swarms of “apps” sold to individual departments to solve scheduling and care-coordination problems and to “bond” with “consumers.” There is great dispersion of responsibility for signing and supervising these contracts, and there is often an unmanaged gap between promise and performance.

An investor-owned hospital executive whose company had acquired major nonprofit health care enterprises compared the proliferation of contracts to the growth of barnacles on the bottom of a freighter. One of his company’s first transition actions after the closure of an acquisition is to put its new entity in “drydock” and scrape them off (i.e., cancel or rebid them). Contractors offer millions in concessions to keep the contracts, he said. Barnacle removal is a key element of serious cost control. For the contracts that remain, and also consulting contracts that are typically of shorter duration, there should be an explicit target return on investment, and the contractor should bear some financial risk for achieving that return. The clinical-services contracts for coverage of hospital units such as the ER and ICU are a special problem, which I’ll discuss below.

Eliminating layers of management. One thing that distinguishes the typical nonprofit from a comparably-sized investor-owned hospital is the number of layers of management. Investor-owned hospitals rarely have more than three or four layers of supervision between the nurse that touches patients and the CEO. In some larger nonprofit hospitals, there may be six. The middle layers spend their entire days in meetings or on conference calls, traveling to meetings outside the hospital, or negotiating contracts with vendors.

In large nonprofit multi-hospital systems, there is an additional problem: Which decisions should be made at the hospital, multi-facility regional, and corporate levels are poorly defined, and as a consequence, there is costly functional overlap. This results in “title bloat” (e.g., “CFOs” that don’t manage investments and negotiate payer or supply contracts but merely supervise revenue cycle activities, do budgeting, etc.). One large nonprofit system that has been struggling with its costs had a “president of strategy,” prima facie evidence of a serious culture problem!

Since direct caregivers are often alienated from corporate bureaucracy, reducing the number of layers that separate clinicians from leadership — reducing the ratio of meeting goers to caregivers — is not only a promising source of operating savings but also a way of letting some sunshine and senior-management attention reach the factory floor.

However, doing this with blanket eliminations of layers carries a risk: inadvertently pruning away the next generation of leadership talent. To avoid this danger requires a discerning talent-management capacity in the human resources department.

Pruning the portfolio of facilities and services. Many current health enterprises are combinations of individual facilities that, over time, found it convenient or essential to their survival to combine into multi-hospital systems. Roughly two-thirds of all hospitals are part of these systems. Yet whether economies of scale truly exist in hospital operations remains questionable. Modest reductions in the cost of borrowing and in supply costs achieved in mergers are often washed out by higher executive compensation, more layers of management, and information technology outlays, leading to higher, rather than lower, operating expenses.

A key question that must be addressed by a larger system is how many facilities that could not have survived on their own can it manage without damaging its financial position?  As the U.S. savings and loan industry crisis in the 1980s and 1990s showed us, enough marginal franchises added to a healthy portfolio can swamp the enterprise. In my view, this factor — a larger-than-sustainable number of marginal hospital franchises — may have contributed to the disproportionate negative operating performance of many multi-regional Catholic health systems from 2015 to 2017.

In addition to this problem, many regional systems comprised of multiple hospitals that serve overlapping geographies continue to support multiple, competing, and underutilized clinical programs (e.g., obstetrics, orthopedics, cardiac care) that could benefit from consolidation. In larger facilities, there is often an astonishing proliferation of special care units, ICUs, and quasi-ICUs that are expensive to staff and have high fixed cost profiles.

Rationalizing clinical service lines, reducing duplication, and consolidating special care units is another major cost-reduction opportunity, which, in turn, makes possible reductions in clinical and support personnel. The political costs and disruption involved in getting clinicians to collaborate successfully across facilities sometimes causes leaders to postpone addressing the duplication and results in sub-optimal performance.

Clinical staffing and variation. It is essential to address how the health system manages its clinicians, particularly physicians. This has been an area of explosive cost growth in the past 15 years as the number of physicians employed by hospitals has nearly doubled. In addition to paying physicians the salaries stipulated in their contracts, hospitals have been augmenting their compensation (e.g., by paying them extra for part-time administrative work and being on call after hours and by giving them dividends from joint ventures in areas such as imaging and outpatient surgery where the hospital bears most of the risk).

The growth of these costs rivals those of specialty pharmaceuticals and the maintenance and updating of electronic health record systems. Fixing this problem is politically challenging because it involves reducing physician numbers, physician incomes, or both. As physician employment contracts come up for renewal, health systems will have to ask the “why are we in this business” and “what can we legitimately afford to pay” questions about each one of them. Sustaining losses based on hazy visions of “integration” or unproven theories about employment leading to clinical discipline can no longer be justified.

But this is not the deepest layer of avoidable physician-related cost. As I discussed in this HBR article, hospitals’ losses from treating Medicare patients are soaring because the cost of treating Medicare patient admission is effectively uncontrolled while the Medicare DRG payment is fixed and not growing at the rate of inflation. The result: hospitals lost $49 billion in 2016 treating Medicare patients, a number that’s surely higher now.

The root cause of these losses is a failure to “blueprint,” or create protocols for, routine patient care decisions, resulting in absurd variations in the consumption of resources (operating room time; length of stay, particularly in the ICU; lab and imaging exams per admissions, etc.).

The fact that hospitals have outsourced the staffing of the crucial resource-consuming units such as the ICU and ER makes this task more difficult. Patients need to flow through them efficiently or the hospital loses money, often in large amounts. How many of those contracts obligate the contractual caregivers to take responsibility for managing down the delivered cost of the DRG and reward them for doing so? Is compensation in these contracts contingent on the profit (or loss avoidance) impact of their clinical supervision?

These are all difficult issues, but until they are addressed, many health systems will continue to have suboptimal operating results. While I am not arguing that health systems abandon efforts to grow, unless those efforts are executed with strategic and operational discipline, financial performance will continue to suffer.  A colleague once said to me that when he hears about someone having picked all the low-hanging fruit, it is really a comment on his or her height. Given the escalating operating challenges many health systems face, it may be past time for senior management to find a ladder.

 

 

Sean Parker: Health care’s big breakthroughs aren’t going to come out of Google or Amazon

https://www.statnews.com/2018/11/13/sean-parker-health-cares-big-breakthroughs-arent-going-to-come-out-of-google-or-amazon/?utm_source=STAT%20Newsletters&utm_campaign=033f0dac05-MR_COPY_12&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_8cab1d7961-033f0dac05-150487325

Sean Parker, the tech billionaire and cancer research philanthropist, may be a product of a Silicon Valley tech giant — but he’s skeptical about the impact those companies will have as they increasingly make a play in medicine.

“I just don’t think the innovations that are going to drive this revolution in health care and discovery are going to come out of Amazon or Google,” Parker said Tuesday at an event put on by the Washington Post. “Google has a big group that’s focused on this — they’re really smart, they’re not unsophisticated, they’re not naive — but I don’t think that’s where you’re going to see the big breakthroughs happening.”

Silicon Valley’s tech giants have invested significant resources in health care and science in recent years — and attracted big-name talent.

Amazon, along with JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway, has launched a new health care company aimed at developing solutions that could be implemented elsewhere in the U.S. health care system.

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has been scooping up some of the biggest names in health care. Google just hired David Feinberg, the forward-thinking CEO of the Geisinger health system, the Pennsylvania health plan and hospital system confirmed last week. Dr. Toby Cosgrove, the longtime president and CEO of Cleveland Clinic, joined Google earlier this year. And Dr. Robert Califf, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, last year joined Verily, Alphabet’s unit working on solutions to disease.

While coders face their own formidable challenges, Parker said, “tech people coming from tech to biology so dramatically underestimate the complexity of the human body. It’s not designed by us. It doesn’t work in ways that make sense.”

Parker, the former president of Facebook, has since become a major funder of research into therapies that seek to fight cancer by harnessing the patient’s own immune system through his foundation Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which he founded in 2016. It has funded prominent research scientists across the country, most notably James Allison, one of the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine.