Health Care System Accepting New Math: Housing = Health

Health Care System Accepting New Math: Housing = Health

Apartment complex with swimming pool on a sunny day

The Residences at Camelback West in Phoenix has 500 rental units ranging from studios to two-bedroom apartments, of which 100 are set aside for homeless UnitedHealth Medicaid members. Photo: Tiempo Development & Management

In the course of a single year, a homeless man named Steve in Phoenix, Arizona, visited the emergency room 81 times. Only 54 years old, Steve is coping with a daunting array of medical conditions: multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, heart disease, and diabetes. Because of his health and reliance on emergency rooms, his medical costs averaged about $13,000 per month that year.

Thanks to an innovative housing program run by the nation’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealth Group, Steve no longer sleeps outside — a crucial prerequisite to improved health. He is one of about 60 formerly homeless people covered by Arizona Medicaid who now receive housing and support services in Phoenix, John Tozzi reported for Bloomberg Businessweek. The UnitedHealth housing program, called myConnections, represents the growing recognition across the health care system that improved health cannot be achieved exclusively by traditional clinical models. Getting patients off the streets is often the first — and most important — step to helping them heal, physically and mentally.

Patients like Steve wind up in the ER because they don’t fit into the ways we deliver health care. . . . [The US system] is not set up to keep vulnerable people housed, clothed, and nourished so they’ll be less likely to get sick in the first place. —John Tozzi, Bloomberg News

“Patients like Steve wind up in the ER because they don’t fit into the ways we deliver health care,” Tozzi explained. “The US system is engineered to route billions of dollars to hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and labs to diagnose and treat patients once they’re sick. It’s not set up to keep vulnerable people housed, clothed, and nourished so they’ll be less likely to get sick in the first place.”

MyConnections was the brainchild of a partnership between UnitedHealthcare (a division of UnitedHealth) and the Camden Coalition, a New Jersey–based nonprofit dedicated to improving care for people with complex health and social needs. The partnership was established in 2017 at the same time Jeffrey Brenner, MD, founder and executive director of the Camden Coalition, announced he was leaving the nonprofit to lead myConnections. He is now UnitedHealthcare’s senior vice president for integrated health and human services. UnitedHealthcare provides managed care to about six million people nationwide, according to company filings. It does not get reimbursed by Medicaid for housing assistance.

Making the Case for Addressing Social Determinants

Brenner hopes myConnections will show that both a health care and a business case can be made for investing in a Housing First (PDF) model. Tozzi reported that UnitedHealth “aims to reduce expenses not by denying care, but by spending more on social interventions, starting with housing.”

At the Residences at Camelback West, a Phoenix apartment complex of 500 apartments ranging from studios to two-bedroom units, up to 100 apartments are set aside for UnitedHealth Medicaid members enrolled in myConnections. The rest of the units are rented out at market rates. Five health coaches use an on-site office to serve as case managers and counselors for the myConnections residents. The coaches make sure that their clients remember medical appointments, and arrange transportation for them and sometimes accompany them to the doctor.

Since receiving housing and health coaching from Brenner’s team, Steve’s average monthly medical costs have dropped from $12,945 to $2,073. An analysis of the first 41 participants in Phoenix shows that “housing and support services proved cost effective for the 25 most expensive patients, reducing their overall costs dramatically,” Tozzi reported. But total spending for the other 16 increased, highlighting the complexity of this work.

“The return’s only going to work out if we target the right people,” Brenner told Tozzi. The myConnections team selects patients who are enrolled in UnitedHealth, are homeless, and who have annual medical spending greater than $50,000 mostly because of ER visits and inpatient stays. Those high-cost patients are UnitedHealth’s best bet for recovering the cost of its housing investment.

UnitedHealth is starting with 10 subsidized apartments in each new city where it’s introducing the program, including in places where there might be hundreds of homeless Medicaid members on its rolls, Tozzi reported. MyConnections will be in 30 markets by early 2020.

Kaiser Addresses Homelessness in Its Backyard

In its home base of Oakland, California, health system Kaiser Permanente has invested $200 million in an affordable housing project, Hannah Norman reported in the San Francisco Business Times. Its help is not targeted exclusively at Kaiser members, instead aiming to benefit any residents who live in communities it serves.

The initiative was championed by Bernard Tyson, the late chairman and CEO of Kaiser, who died unexpectedly this month. In a New York Times remembrance, Reed Abelson noted that Tyson was committed to addressing social determinants of health in the places where Kaiser operates. “He had the organization examine broad issues like housing shortages, food insecurity, and gun violence and their impact on health and well-being,” Abelson wrote.

Tyson, who was the health system’s first Black chief executive, served as chair of the Bay Area Council, a business association dedicated to economic development in the San Francisco region. His chairmanship culminated in a major report (PDF) that documented the severity of the homelessness crisis and recommended ways to address it, Norman reported.

“We don’t believe as a mega-health system that our only lane is medical care,” Tyson said in April. “It’s a critical lane, but it’s not our only lane.”

Steady Rents in Buildings with Seismic Upgrades

Kaiser announced its $200 million housing initiative, the Thriving Communities Fund, in January. Since then, it partnered with Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit organization focused on affordable housing, and the nonprofit East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation to invest a total of $8.7 million ($5.2 million from Kaiser) in Kensington Gardens, a 41-apartment building in East Oakland. “The trio of organizations plans to keep the residents in place and the rent steady at $1,597 per month for a studio and $2,250 for a two-bedroom,” Norman wrote. “Some residents receive federal housing benefits, including Section 8, to help cover the cost.”

The Kensington Gardens purchase is part of the Thriving Communities Fund’s strategy to keep rents steady and to make health and safety upgrades such as seismic upgrades and new roofs.

Kaiser’s Built for Zero initiative committed $3 million over three years to a data-driven, county-level approach to understanding the dynamics of homelessness. Built for Zero tracks the homeless population in a county from month to month to understand “who they are, what they need, and even how many of them are repeatedly visiting emergency rooms,” Norman reported. Fifteen Kaiser communities, including eight in California, are participating in the program.

 

 

 

 

Opinion: ‘Medicare for all’ won’t fix soaring healthcare costs

https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-11-15/medicare-for-all-health-care-costs?fbclid=IwAR0uMTlEMcPuefoVjeuSvyIa69AIRk8v4N0d4ux6f1HMg1k4wMbM_SRElh8

Medical bill

The idea of “Medicare for all” advanced another step with the recent release of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s more detailed health proposal. It is expansive and bold, and has brought some excitement to the progressive core of the Democratic Party. While policy mavens can delight in the details, the enormity of the proposal is a sign that this debate has clearly gone off the rails.

There is no question that healthcare cost is a pocketbook challenge for all of us. Employer and employee premiums for private health insurance for a household now average $20,576, before deductibles and copayments, and before payroll and state and local taxes to pay for healthcare for the elderly and the poor.

National health expenditures increased 179% between 2000 and 2019 to $3.8 trillion, and 50% of this increase was directly due to increases in unit prices and service intensity by hospital systems and physicians. In the U.S., healthcare is 28% more expensive than the next highest cost system, Switzerland, and 78% more expensive than in Germany. For a primary care doctor in the U.S., submitting invoices to insurers and collecting payments costs almost $100,000 per year.

What we should be debating — instead of the politics around Medicare for all — is how this market evolved in such a malignant direction, and whether anything can be done to change these trends.

Hospital consolidation has been shown to drive up healthcare costs, and yet 90% of U.S. hospital markets are highly consolidated. Physician employment by hospitals and health systems has increased from 26% to 44% of the market from 2012 to 2018, increasing the pricing leverage of consolidated systems even further.

These changes directly result in higher prices for commercial health insurance as hospitals use their exaggerated hospital “charges,” often many multiples of their costs or of the market price, to drive up their reimbursement rates for in-network care and especially for out-of-network care, where there is no price negotiation. Further, even at most not-for-profit healthcare systems, hospital leaders are compensated based on the profits they generate, not premiums they reduce, as is the case with leaders of for-profit hospital systems.

The pharmaceutical market has also come under scrutiny for the enormous prices of newly approved medications, and for price increases of existing medicines such as insulin. Behind the scenes are layers of businesses that further exploit this market. For example, one pharmaceutical benefit manager (a company hired by a health plan or employer to oversee prescription drug benefits) reported profits of $1.8 billion in 2013 that rose to $4.5 billion in 2017 despite a 4% reduction in revenue reported over this period.

It’s easy to see that consumers need relief from this market. One might imagine that politicians from both political parties would band together in a search for actionable solutions. Yet the debate has migrated from a discussion of why costs are spiraling out of control to a simple and unrealistic answer — Medicare for all. Here are some ideas on how to frame a meaningful discussion about costs.

Reducing administrative costs has been a stated policy goal of the federal government since the passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in 1996, yet these costs continue to increase. To reduce these costs, we have to simplify the complexity of the billing process for hospitals and physicians across the multiple different health plans in the market, and we need to transform the expensive set of public data reporting mandates into a model in which we are assured these data are used by providers internally to improve the quality of care they provide.

We need to rebalance negotiating power between hospitals and physicians and insurers. Hospitals and other providers have been allowed to set their list prices without any relationship to the cost of care they provide. These inflated prices are then imposed on out-of-network patients, most egregiously in the practice of surprise medical billing in which patients encounter deliberately out-of-network air ambulances and independent anesthesiologists. In billing disputes, state law should offer these patients a default of a market price closer to Medicare payments than to hospital charges.

Finally, it’s time to stop the practices that are driving up prescription drug costs for all of us. Secret payments between pharmaceutical manufacturers and pharmaceutical benefit managers and distributors totaled over $100 billion in 2016. This business model needlessly inflates drug prices for the benefit of intermediaries in the market. We need laws requiring price transparency at the pharmacy for brand and generic drugs, and price competition for medications at the retail level.

The problem with focusing on Medicare for all is that rather than developing practical approaches, the debate is heading down a path likely to leave us without any tenable solutions to address healthcare costs — the issue that ignited the public’s interest in the first place.

 

 

 

Healthcare delivery is moving “up and out”

https://mailchi.mp/699634d842fa/the-weekly-gist-november-1-2019?e=d1e747d2d8

 

Our graphic this week captures a phenomenon that we’ve observed in our strategy work with regional, “super-regional” and national health systems. We call it the “up and out” phenomenon—healthcare delivery is increasingly being pulled up and out from local, siloed hospitals. The traditional hospital enterprise, operating in what we refer to below as the “fee-for-service zone”, has typically pursued a service approach that delivers all things to all people. Commonly, the combination of reimbursement incentives and health system governance structures has encouraged hospital executives to prioritize facility profitability over system performance.

One important source of value creation for regional systems is service line rationalization—essentially, consolidating key services in one facility rather than performing duplicative services in every hospital. Centralizing open heart surgery, for example, in one “center of excellence” in a region often results in both lower cost and higher quality, thanks to clinical and operational scale economies. But the economies of scale don’t necessarily run out at the regional level—for some high-end specialty services (transplants, for example) it makes sense to consolidate at a super-regional or national level. For a better outcome and lower price, consumers will be increasingly willing to travel to receive the best value care.

Meanwhile, many services currently performed in the hospital can be more efficiently performed in non-hospital settings and should be distributed across the market in ways that are more convenient and accessible for patients. Traditional hospital economics make the “inpatient-to-outpatient shift” problematic, but as price and access become important consumer engagement levers, there’s little use fighting that shift. Indeed, the logical setting for much care delivery is in the patient’s home itself. This puts systems in the position of pushing care delivery to the hyper-local level, a strategy that can be powered by digital medicine delivered at a national level. All of this raises an important question for the regional health system: as hands-on care is increasingly pulled “up” to the national level (centers of excellence) and pushed “out” to the community setting (home-based care), and as national providers of digital health services can deliver services to anywhere, from anywhere, what is the value of the regional system? We’re working with a number of members to better understand and prepare for this new operating model.

 

The Huge Waste in the U.S. Health System

A study finds evidence for how to reduce some of it, but also a large blind spot on how to remove the rest.

Even a divided America can agree on this goal: a health system that is cheaper but doesn’t sacrifice quality. In other words, just get rid of the waste.

A new study, published Monday in JAMA, finds that roughly 20 percent to 25 percent of American health care spending is wasteful. It’s a startling number but not a new finding. What is surprising is how little we know about how to prevent it.

William Shrank, a physician who is chief medical officer of the health insurer Humana and the lead author of the study, said, “One contribution of our study is that we show that we have good evidence on how to eliminate some kinds of waste, but not all of it.”

Following the best available evidence, as reviewed in the study, would eliminate only one-quarter of the waste — reducing health spending by about 5 percent.

Teresa Rogstad of Humana and Natasha Parekh, a physician with the University of Pittsburgh, were co-authors of the study, which combed through 54 studies and reports published since 2012 that estimated the waste or savings from changes in practice and policy.

Because American health spending is so high — almost 18 percent of the economy and over $10,000 per person per year — even small percentages in savings translate into huge dollars.

The estimated waste is at least $760 billion per year. That’s comparable to government spending on Medicare and exceeds national military spending, as well as total primary and secondary education spending.

If we followed the evidence available, we would save about $200 billion per year, about what is spent on the medical care for veterans, the Department of Education and the Department of Energy, combined. That amount could provide health insurance for at least 20 million Americans, or three-quarters of the currently uninsured population.

The largest source of waste, according to the study, is administrative costs, totaling $266 billion a year. This includes time and resources devoted to billing and reporting to insurers and public programs. Despite this high cost, the authors found no studies that evaluate approaches to reducing it.

“That doesn’t mean we have no ideas about how to reduce administrative costs,” said Don Berwick, a physician and senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and author of an editorial on the JAMA study.

Moving to a single-payer system, he suggested, would largely eliminate the vast administrative complexity required by attending to the payment and reporting requirements of various private payers and public programs. But doing so would run up against powerful stakeholders whose incomes derive from the status quo. “What stands in the way of reducing waste — especially administrative waste and out-of-control prices — is much more a lack of political will than a lack of ideas about how to do it.”

While the lead author works for Humana, he also has experience in government and academia, and this is being seen as a major attempt to refine previous studies of health care waste. Reflecting the study’s importance, JAMA published several accompanying editorials. A co-author of one editorial, Ashish Jha of the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said: “It’s perfectly possible to reduce administrative waste in a system with private insurance. In fact, Switzerland, the Netherlands and other countries with private payers have much lower administrative costs than we do. We should focus our energies on administrative simplification, not whether it’s in a single-payer system or not.”

After administrative costs, prices are the next largest area that the JAMA study identified as waste. The authors’ estimate for this is $231 billion to $241 billion per year, on prices that are higher than what would be expected in more competitive health care markets or if we imposed price controls common in many other countries. The study points to high brand drug prices as the major contributor. Although not explicitly raised in the study, consolidated hospital markets also contribute to higher prices.

variety of approaches could push prices downward, but something might be lost in doing so. “High drug prices do motivate investment and innovation,” said Rachel Sachs, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

That doesn’t mean all innovation is good or worth the price. “It means we should be aware of how we reduce prices, taking into consideration which kinds of products and which populations it might affect,” she said.

Likewise, studies show that when hospitals are paid less, quality can degrade, even leading to higher mortality rates.

Other categories of waste examined by the JAMA study encompass inefficient, low-value and uncoordinated care. Together, these total at least $205 billion.

With more than half of medical treatments lacking solid evidence of effectiveness, it’s not surprising that these areas add up to a large total. They include things like hospital-acquired infections; use of high-cost services when lower-cost ones would suffice; low rates of preventive care; avoidable complications and avoidable hospital admissions and readmissions; and services that provide little to no benefit.

In addition to wasting money, these problems can have direct adverse health effects; lead to unwarranted patient anxiety and stress; and lower patient satisfaction and trust in the health system.

Here the study’s findings are relatively more optimistic. It found evidence on approaches that could eliminate up to half of waste in these categories. The current movement toward value-based payment, promoted by the Affordable Care Act, is intended to address these issues while removing their associated waste. The idea is to pay hospitals and doctors in ways that incentivize efficiency and good outcomes, rather than paying for every service regardless of need or results.

Putting this theory into practice has proved difficult. “Value-based payment hasn’t been as effective as people had hoped,” said Karen Joynt Maddox, a physician and co-director of the Center for Health Economics and Policy at Washington University in St. Louis and a co-author of another editorial of the JAMA study.

So far, only a few value-based payment approaches seem to produce savings, and not a lot. Some of the more promising approaches are those that give hospitals and doctors a single payment “as opposed to paying for individual services,” said Zirui Song, a physician and a health economist with Harvard Medical School.

“Savings tend to come from physicians referring patients to lower-priced facilities or cutting back on potentially lower-value care in areas such as procedures, tests or post-acute service,” he said.

There is evidence of savings from some bundled payment programs. These provide a fixed overall budget for care related to a procedure over a specific period, like 90 days of hip replacement care. Accountable care organizations also seem to drive out a little waste. These give health groups the chance to earn bonuses for accepting financial risk and if they reach some targets on quality of care.

The final area of waste illuminated by the JAMA study is fraud and abuse, accounting for $59 billion to $84 billion a year. As much as politicians love to say they’ll tackle this, it’s a relatively small fraction of overall health care waste, around 10 percent. More could be spent on reducing it, but there’s an obvious drawback if it costs more than a dollar to save a dollar in fraud.

Because health care waste comes from many sources, no single policy will address it. Most important, we have evidence on how to reduce only a small fraction of the waste — we need to do a better job of amassing evidence about what works.

 

 

 

NY Local employers predict 3.6% increase in health benefit costs in 2020

https://www.crainsnewyork.com/health-pulse/local-employers-predict-36-increase-health-benefit-costs-2020?utm_source=health-pulse-tuesday&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20191028&utm_content=hero-readmore

Image result for chronic care management

Employers in the metro area expect their spending on benefits to rise 3.6% next year after accounting for changes designed to hold down costs, according to an analysis by Mercer.

That trend would be lower than the 3.9% increase employers experienced this year, with local organizations spending $16,059 per active employee. That’s more than 20% higher than the average cost per employee nationwide.

The benefits consultant broke out the responses of 170 employers in New York City, its surrounding counties, northern New Jersey and southern Connecticut for Crain’s from its 2019 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans.

In the area, the average contribution to premiums for an individual employee is $199 a month in a PPO plan, $169 a month in an HMO and $107 a month in a consumer-directed health plan, which tends to have a higher deductible.

The median deductible for members in a PPO plan was $500 locally.

Nationwide, there was a split, with the average deductible for businesses between 10 and 499 employees increasing nearly 13%, to $2,285, while employers with 500 or more workers raised the average deductible in a PPO plan just $10, or 1%, to $992.

Companies are looking to telemedicine and management programs for their highest-cost members as ways to keep fees down, said Mary Lamattina, a senior consultant at Mercer. She said most clients she works with have at least one beneficiary with $1 million in annual medical expenses.

“Employers are getting away from cost shifting and looking at other ways to tackle affordability,” she said.

Nationwide, employers spent 3% more on health costs this year, driven in part by specialty drug spending. Costs for specialty drugs rose 10.5% this year.

Ninety percent of employers with 500 workers or more said they viewed monitoring or managing high-cost claimants as important or very important. One strategy companies reported using was introducing a tech-enabled chronic care management program for conditions such as diabetes.

About 88% of large employers said they offer telemedicine as an option, but only 9% of eligible employees had taken advantage of the programs.

Lamattina pointed out that utilization was nearly four times higher at organizations that waived a copay for telemedicine use, compared with employers that charged a $40 copay. “

“Utilization can be driven by the cost,” she said. “Convenience is really key to getting people to use the benefit.” —Jonathan LaMantia

 

If there’s a turning point on health costs, it’ll come from employers

https://www.axios.com/health-care-employers-cost-expensive–778f9435-7dd5-4562-8df6-5d252f1c6ff4.html

Illustration of a pill bottle casting a shadow of a businessman

Employers are the linchpin of the U.S. health care system. But they don’t always act like it.

The big picture: Employers play a minor role in the political debate over health care costs, but they have a lot on the line — and a lot more political muscle than they’re choosing to flex. An increasingly bipartisan cadre of policy experts is trying to tell them that staying on the sidelines is both counterproductive and unsustainable.

Collectively, private-sector employers are one of the biggest and most politically powerful stakeholder groups in the health care debate. They cover more people than any other source, and account for about 20% of all health care spending — almost $700 billion in 2017.

  • You would think that employers have a ton to gain by engaging in these discussions” around cost, said Dan Mendelson, the founder of the consulting firm Avalere Health. But they have consistently “failed to realize those expectations.”

The catch: Even though businesses are the core of the health care system, health care typically isn’t the core of what they do. They have similar structural interests, but they’re not necessarily organized around those interests.

  • For years, businesses have responded to rising health care costs primarily by shifting more of those costs onto their workers, through higher deductibles and other cost-sharing. The average deductible is now 212% higher than it was in 2008.
  • If employers ever reach the conclusion that they’ve taken this kind of cost-shifting as far as it can go, they could be powerful voices in the political debate over more aggressive cost-control measures — and they do want to control costs. But for now, they’re still on the sidelines.
  • “The frustration is definitely rising, but I would be hesitant to predict a breaking point,” Mendelson said. “It would be great if they were more engaged, but at the same time it’s rational that they are trying to reduce their exposure.”

There are exceptions. Walmart, for example, has undertaken an especially aggressive effort to overhaul its health benefits, even ditching traditional insurers and bargaining directly with health systems that have reputations for high-quality care.

  • Then there’s Haven, the joint effort from Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. But it’s still not clear whether that project will try to affect systemwide change, or simply a better deal for its many employees, more similar to Walmart’s direct-purchasing goals. Those tools are only available to the largest companies.

Most employers still rely on their insurers to negotiate the best prices, preferring to stay out the weeds themselves. But insurers are becoming increasingly vocal about the difficulty of negotiating big discounts on hospital care, as hospitals consolidate, and for new prescription drugs that don’t have any competition.

  • Government-led efforts to directly control those costs run into fierce industry opposition. But if anything could help them break through politically, the most likely inflection point would likely be some kind of “enough is enough” moment from employers.
  • “I think you’re going to see more and more pressure, and even openness to public policy interventions that take advantage of negotiations” — for example, tying some private payment rates to Medicare’s, Democratic health care strategist Chris Jennings said.

It’s not just Democrats.

  • John Bardis, a former Trump administration health care official, said in a speech this week that employers need to take more aggressive stances toward cost containment.
  • Avik Roy, a conservative policy analyst who advised Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign on health care, has also endorsed more direct intervention. In the most concentrated, least competitive markets, the government should cap how much hospitals can charge private insurers, using Medicare rates as a baseline, he says.

The bottom line: If there’s ever going to be a turning point that would make cost containment more politically attainable, employers would probably need to be the ones who drive it.