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Discounts and Cost Shifting: Today’s challenge for Self-funded health-plan managers December 11, 2012

Posted by medvision in Chronic Disease, health data, Healthcare Costs, Healthcare Reform, Insurance Plans, Risk Management, Rx Costs, Uncategorized.
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health, paying for healthcareIn my experience in health plan risk management and benefits planning, nearly all large self-funded plans don’t have dollar shortages.  They have allocation problems. In today’s healthcare environment, managers need to know their “real” problems and their vast improvement opportunities. Independent, member-centric, HIPAA-compliant data is not a luxury — it’s the “oxygen” necessary to ensure plan survival in today’s economic climate.

If ever a cat and mouse game existed, it could be best illustrated by today’s billing practices confronting self-funded plan managers.

Years ago, consultants badgered insurance companies and providers over their in-hospital daily rates. Hospitals quickly realized many of the in-patient procedures could be performed in an outpatient setting and, in turn, made up their inpatient financial losses by loading outpatient billing rates.

Consultants, MCO’s and plan managers maintain an on-going tit-for-tat game in the provider discount arena.  Basically, no consultant can definitively analyze a MCO’s overall discount because they cannot access hospital contracts, and hospital charges make up 60-70% of annual plan expenses. Given this lack of hospital contract knowledge, they rank health plans by a stated percent discount off of billed charges. Providers have the ability to increase their billing, charge master,  thus, the discount off billed charges is less relevant.

A more relevant measurement is the amount self-funded employer plans pay as a percentage of Medicare provider reimbursements, for given geographic areas. In my consulting practice, we employ independent, deep-mining healthcare software to analyze the clinical and financial status of the plan’s performance. Recently, with the advent of the national healthcare reform law, PPACA, we discovered certain data elements being charged in manners never seen.

For instance, most plan sponsors today see aggregate annual outpatient claims almost equaling annual inpatient claims.  Outpatient procedures are when the patient comes to the facility, usually in the morning, receives a medical procedure, and goes home in the afternoon. By definition, outpatient procedures cannot be of a very serious nature, although the patient can have serious disease. In contrast, inpatient procedures require 24-hour care by physicians and nurses and can last weeks or months.  As an example, some patients with heart disease are well enough to undergo heart catheterization/angioplasty in the outpatient setting.

Let’s get to the billing issue now.  On average across America, Medicare reimburses hospitals, in the outpatient setting, for angioplasty an amount averaging $4,000. The physician, interventional cardiologist, receives approximately $800. But I’m seeing multiple instances in which our self-funded plan sponsors are paying in the neighborhood of $40,000 plus or minus. Rough arithmetic would show the $40,000 payment to be 800% to 900% above the average annual Medicare reimbursement.  I’m sure this is not a shock to many plan managers as everyone knows the commercial side of healthcare helps finance shortages from Medicare, Medicaid, and unreimbursed indigent care.  Employer plan sponsors can do much better than this ratio by direct contracting with best-of-class interventional cardiac providers.

Now for the jaw-dropping part: If a consultant requests the plan sponsor’s average cost for angioplasty, he or she would probably supply a list of codes aligned to angioplasty, outpatient,   and wait for the answer.  What we are discovering is that the paid billing indicates the codes aligned with angioplasty are populated by very small dollar amounts; however, on the date of service, a large dollar billing of $40,000 is described as a low-cost medical service, sterile IV solutions (saline), listed under the procedure description, while the actual descriptive procedure, CPT code, is listed under a blinded aggregate hospital revenue code. This produces a scenario in which normal queries would not identify the large $40,000 amount paid and requires a detailed, line-by-line billing to investigate the appropriateness of the charge.

How prevalent is this practice? In one instance, medical claim dollars listed under sterile IV solutions, pharmacy incidental to radiology, generic pharmacy, and non-assigned pharmacy equaled $25 million over 24 months.

Without further investigation, it is virtually impossible to ascertain if these dollars are being spent correctly under contracted arrangements. At best, it represents new escalations in the game of hide-and-seek.

And the real concern lies in the subject of cost shifting. Ponder this question: Not counting physician office visits, what percentage increase is fair in addition to the amount providers receive from Medicare reimbursements? Remember that with high-cost healthcare procedures your plan is reimbursing providers much more that Medicare for the exact same treatments/procedures.  It’s a tough question.  Although if we are to maintain employer-sponsored healthcare, it must be addressed. My guess, 200-300% is fair.  And 800-1000% is unreasonable.

This issue is important as commercial plans cannot meet the financial shortages coming in the future.  Another outpatient assumedly situation showed a payment of $78,000 to a hospital assumedly all under contracted rates, in network. If the patient spent eight hours at the facility, employer’s bill equaled $9,750 per hour. This seems expensive.

Another plan management “treat” is represented PBM vendors charging plans 1000%+ more for common generic drugs than members can pay at retailers, Costco, Target, and Walmart. Yes, employer plans save a few dollars from generics, but the lion’s share of savings are gobbled up by PBMs.  Moral of this story: Study your contracts carefully and know that it could be in your organization’s best interest to seek support from a health-plan risk management firm relying on independent health & pharmacy data software.

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