How Business Can Save America from Health Care

Brian Klepper

Published 6/09/14 in Employee Benefit News

ALP_H_BK_0010One of America’s most enduring mysteries is why the organizations that pay for most health care don’t work together to force better value from the health care industry.

We pay double for health care what our competitors in other developed nations do, but studies show that more than half of our annual health care spend – equal to 9% of GDP or our 2012 budget deficit – provides zero value. Every health care sector has devised mechanisms that allow it to extract much more money than it is legitimately entitled to. Health plans contract for and pass through the costs of products and services at high multiples of what any volume-based purchaser can buy them for in the market. Medical societies campaign for excessive medical service values that Medicare and commercial payers base their payments on. Hospitals routinely over-treat and have egregious unit pricing. There are scores of examples.

Decades of these behaviors have made health care cost growth the most serious threat to America’s national economic security. Medicare and Medicaid cost growth remains the primary driver of federal budget deficits. Over the past decade, 79% of the growth in household income has been absorbed by health care. Health care’s relentless demand for an ever-increasing percentage of total resources compromises other critical economic needs, like education and infrastructure replenishment.

Health care costs have been particularly corrosive to business competitiveness. Three-fourths of CFOs now report that health care cost is their most serious business concern. Commercial health plan premiums have grown almost five times overall inflation over the past 14 years. Businesses in international markets must overcome a 9+ percent health care cost disadvantage, just to be on a level playing field with their competitors in Australia, Korea or Germany.

The health care industry’s efforts to maximize revenues have been strengthened by its lobby, which spins health policy to favor its interests. In 2009, as the Affordable Care Act was formulated, health care organizations fielded eight lobbyists for every Congressional representative, providing an unprecedented $1.2 billion in campaign contributions to Congress in exchange for influence over the shape of the law. These activities go on continuously behind the scenes and ensure that nearly every health care law and rule is structured to the industry’s advantage and at the expense of the common interest.

Health care is now America’s largest and most influential industry, consuming almost one dollar in five. Only one group is more powerful, and that’s everyone else. Only if America’s non-health care business community mobilizes on this problem, becoming a counterweight to the health care industry’s influence over markets and policy, can we bring health care back to rights.

In every community, employers represent loose groupings of lives covered by health benefits, each with different approaches and results on health outcomes and cost. There are few standards and divergent opinions – mostly based on ideology rather than evidence – on plan structure, service offerings, cost sharing, incentives and many other variables.

Business health coalitions represent the opportunity for health care purchasers to collaborate and become more consistent. They can move collectively toward best practice and market-based leverage, with better health outcomes at lower cost. Coalitions like those in Savannah, Ga.  and Madison, Wisc., have shown impressive, measurable impacts. Many others could benefit from shared access to advanced risk management capabilities that can change how benefits and health care work.

Another critical missing component has been the direct involvement of business leaders. Many senior executives may not fully appreciate health care’s often blatant inappropriateness, and possibly haven’t thought through the scale of financial impact on their own businesses and the larger economy.

It will take businesses collaborating, harnessing their immense purchasing power, to disrupt health care’s institutionalized mechanisms of excess. By leveraging their collective strength, purchasers can convey that health care profiteering will no longer be tolerated, and that America’s economic success is dependent on the right care at much fairer pricing.

These goals are worth pursuing for our employees and their families, our businesses and the country. And we call on America’s employers to join us.

Brian Klepper, PhD, is chief executive officer, National Business Coalition on Health, a non-profit membership organization of purchaser-led business and health coalitions, representing over 7,000 employers and 35 million employees and their dependents across the United States.

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Would A Single Payer System Be Good For America?

Brian Klepper

ALP_H_BK_0010berwick_donOn Vox, the vivacious new topical news site, staffed in part by former writers at the Washington Post Wonk Blog, Sarah Kliff writes how Donald Berwick, MD, the recent former Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Founder of the prestigious Institute for Healthcare Improvement, has concluded that a single payer health system would answer many of the US’ health care woes. Dr. Berwick is running for Governor of Massachusetts and this is an important plank of his platform. Of course, it is easy to show that single payer systems in other developed nations provide comparable or better quality care at about half the cost that we do in the US.

All else being equal, I might be inclined to agree with Dr. Berwick’s assessment. But the US is special in two ways that make a single payer system unlikely to produce anything but even higher health care costs than we already have.

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Klepper Interview, Midwest Business Group on Health Conference, Chicago, 4/30/14

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Klepper Interview – World Health Care Congress 4/07/14, DC

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Getting Beyond Fee-For-Service

Brian Klepper

Posted 12/02/13 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog

ALP_H_BK_0010The catchy title of a recent Harvard Business Review Blog post, The Big Barrier To High Value Health Care: Destructive Self-Interest, suggested that the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) is forging arrangements that can overcome fee-for-service reimbursement’s propensity to drive excess. As the honest broker, IHI could advocate for arrangements of mutual self-interest based on the right care, better outcomes and less money. Employers and unions would get lower costs, with improved health and productivity. Health systems and health plans would win more market share (at their competitors’ expense), realizing longer term relationships that could facilitate sustainability as market forces intensify.

The substance of IHI’s description was less satisfying, though. Their principles – common goals, trust, new business models, and defining roles for competition and cooperation – are obvious ingredients in any workable business arrangement. But the authors never talked about the money. That left plenty of room for skepticism by those of us who have heard more than one CFO ask, “Why should we take less money until we have to?” What, exactly, is the incentive for health care organizations to moderate their care and cost patterns?

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Predatory Health Care

Brian Klepper

Posted 11/17/13 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog

ALP_H_BK_0010Recently I was asked to intervene on behalf of a patient who, trapped by circumstance, was paying off an enormous bill for a lithotripsy procedure. What I uncovered wasn’t news, but it drove home how egregious the current system can be, why it so badly needs to be fixed, and how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) helps move us in the right direction.

The patient had health insurance through her husband’s job. But it was cancelled just after the hospital validated it, because the employer failed to pay the premium. The procedure was performed, and the patient was charged as “self-pay.”

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Facilitating Interoperability

October 18th, 2013

Cross-Posted 10/18/13 from The Health Affairs Blog

BK 711Health Affairs report on health information interoperability by staffers of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) provides a good enough summary of the situation. But it also is not news, and falls under the Bob Dylan Rule: You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. From the article: “In general, limited interoperability across vendors, low motivation to share information in a fee-for-service payment environment, and the high cost of interfaces remain substantial barriers to widespread health information sharing.”

Two difficult but solvable structural problems block our exchange of health care information. The first is the “transport protocol.” Most health care data transport approaches lack the strong privacy and security safeguards that other industries now consider essential. The same industry that is moving toward clinical applications of mobile health, genomics, and nanotechnology still primarily relies on cumbersome, expensive faxes to transmit clinical information between organizations.

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A Better Way To Manage Care and Cost

Brian Klepper

http://boards.medscape.com/forums?128@864.cQ5Savfkkqo@.2a59c1b3!comment=1 

Posted 10/10/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care & Cost Blog

When an employer sits down with his health care partners – broker, health plan, physician, hospital, drug and device firm, health IT firm – everyone but him wants health care to cost more, and each is typically in a position to make that happen.

Lynn Jennings, CEO, WeCare TLC 

ALP_H_BK_0010A new class of health care management organization is emerging that thrives by taking advantage of health care’s rampant and institutionalized waste. These firms mine the market dysfunction that has developed over decades, which will almost certainly yield enough fuel to drive a new way to manage care and cost.

The founders of these organizations have deep health care experience, and they understand the mechanisms of excess. More important, the ones I’ve met are mission-driven, with a deep sense of outrage that health care’s exploitation has become so pervasive and overt. So their businesses are purposeful.

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Why Employers Must Collaborate On Health Care

Brian Klepper

Published in the Columbus, GA Ledger-Enquirer on Sunday, 9/15/13

BK 711I recently was privileged to deliver a keynote at the Greater Columbus Chamber’s Healthcare Symposium. I get invited to meetings like this around the country because I lay out a deeply researched and frightening national problem that can only be remedied by business.

Health care is of course very important. But as has been documented over and over (to no avail), it is out of control, with costs that have become so excessive that they literally represent the greatest threat to our national economic security. At $2.8 trillion per year or about one dollar of every five of gross domestic product, health care has become our largest, wealthiest and most politically influential industry. In turn, this has allowed it to spin every piece of health care legislation to advantage.

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The RUC (Again): Is there a Light at the End of the Tunnel? A Conversation with Brian Klepper

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David Harlow

Posted August 13, 2013 on HealthBlawg

Tunnel of Light TJ Blackwell Flickr CC http://www.flickr.com/photos/tjblackwell/3362987463/

dharlow-headshot-0210-60kb-2Recently, there were a couple of breathless articles about the RUC (Relative Value Scale Update Committee) published in The Washington Post and The Washington Monthly, reporting as news the state of affairs that has prevailed for years in the realm of re-setting the relative values of physician services annually for purposes of the RBRVS — which is at the heart of the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (MPFS) and which affects physician reimbursement well beyond Medicare, since the RBRVS is used as a touchstone in determining payment levels under commercial payor agreements as well.

I thought this confluence of publications was a good excuse to call up Brian Klepper, who is an expert critic of the RUC, to discuss the latest stories and talk about the prospects for meaningful reform.

Have a listen to our conversation (about 30 minutes long):

Brian Klepper on RUC HealthBlawg Interview with David Harlow 07262013

Brian Klepper – RUC – HealthBlawg

A transcript is appended to this post.

As detailed in our conversation, the RUC is a committee of the American Medical Association, and it operates behind a veil of secrecy. When it issues its annual update recommendations, CMS generally accepts the recommendation, and promulgates the update as a rule: the annual MPFS rule. The RUC is dominated by specialists, so the system tends to overvalue procedures and to undervalue “cognitive” services, or primary care.

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DOTmed – An Interview with Brian Klepper

Loren Bonner , DOTmed News Online Editor

August 15, 2013

ALP_H_BK_0010DMN: After Steven Brill’s blockbuster article in Time Magazine came out a few months ago, it feels like everyone is interested to know the real scoop on hospital pricing and what’s driving up the cost of health care. I think you have some opinions on this. Can you share your thoughts?

BK: Egregious hospital unit pricing is certainly one driver, but the truth is that over the last several decades, every health care sector has devised ways to extract money from the rest of us that they’re not legitimately entitled to. I’ve written extensively about the Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee (or RUC), the secretive AMA committee that has jiggered the relative value scheme that Medicare, Medicaid and most commercial payment systems are based on, driving up cost. 

In my day job, I see health systems buying stakes in Pharmacy Benefit Management (PBM) firms, jacking up the generic pricing to their own members by 200% or more then telling their members that they’re managing their cost. Physicians are doing unnecessary procedures on patients, which not only costs a great deal but puts those patients at risk of physical harm. Primary care reimbursement has been driven down by Medicare and the commercial plans, which decreases visit time and increases the rate of specialty referrals and in turn produces much more costly care unnecessarily. Health plans push “choice” in networks, but having the right to go to a lousy doctor or hospital does nobody any favors, except by driving the cost up for less effective and efficient care. I could provide many, many more examples.

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Posted in Analytics, Brian Klepper, Conflicts of Interest, Health Care Cost, Imaging, Innovation, Market Dynamics, Medical Management, Physicians, Policy/Law/Regulation, Quality, Reform | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The RUC Is Bad Medicine: It Has To Go

Brian Klepper

Posted 8/12/13 on Medscape Business of Medicine

BK 711“One of the biggest mistakes we made … is that we took the RUC … back in 1992 and gave it to the AMA. … It’s incredibly political, and it’s just human nature…the specialists that spend more money and have more time have a bigger impact.”

This was Tom Scully, former Bush II Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), previously the Health Care Finance Administration (HCFA). He was a panelist in a May 10, 2012 Senate Finance Committee RoundTable discussion by former HCFA/CMS Administrators and has become one of the RUC’s most outspoken critics. He was explaining how the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), a group that asked if it could help the government by overseeing a valuation process for medical services, came to dominate and distort the pricing used in Medicare, Medicaid and commercial health plans.

Mr. Scully echoed this sentiment recently.

“The idea that $100 billion in federal spending is based on fixed prices that go through an industry trade association in a process that is not open to the public is pretty wild. … Having the AMA run the process of fixing prices for Medicare was crazy from the beginning.”

Gail Wilensky, HCFA Administrator under Bush I, was wistful. “It happened innocently enough.”

It is remarkable and compelling to hear these federal health program ex-stewards express regret about a fiasco they had a hand in. Their “mea culpas” are almost palpable. Mr. Scully, in a recent Washington Post video interview, gave a quick aside, “It’s partially my fault.”

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How TPAs Can Win

Brian Klepper

Published August 1, 2013 in the Self-Insurer

BK 711One of health care’s deeper mysteries is why third party administration (TPA) firms remain minor health plan players and, to a large degree, have been all but uncompetitive with the major health plans. Yes, the big plans have paid brokers more handsomely and have offered broader services, simplifying purchasing. But they have also offered mediocre-to-poor products at increasingly exorbitant cost. Why have TPAs as a group not distinguished themselves with better performance?

Most TPAs emerged as employer advocates, promising to protect their clients from the financially conflicted practices embraced by the major plans. But over time, many have become, as the term implies, administrators rather than managers, processing transactions without much focus on changing the ways that care and cost are delivered. Certainly in recent years, the majority have not attacked the egregious excesses that have made American health care so costly. Or to say it more simply, even though it has been in their clients’ interests, most have not done the hard work required to make health care cost less with better health outcomes, and so gain a quality and price advantage over their competitors. After all, there’s a good living to be had just putting together the coverage machinery processing claims.

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Why Congress Should Pass The Accuracy In Medicare Physician Payment Act

Brian Klepper and Paul Fischer

Posted 8/09/13 on The Health Affairs Blog

ALP_H_BK_0010Paul FischerWith the recent release of two mainstream exposes, one in the Washington Post and another in the Washington Monthly, the American Medical Association’s (AMA) medical procedure valuation franchise, the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), has been exposed to the light of public scrutiny. “Special Deal,” Haley Sweetland Edwards’ piece in the Monthly, provides by far the more detailed and lucid explanation of the mechanics of the RUC’s arrangement with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). (It is also wittier. “The RUC, like that third Margarita, seemed like a good idea at the time.”)

For its part, the Post contributed valuable new information by calculating the difference between the time Medicare currently credits a physician for certain procedures and actual time spent. Many readers undoubtedly were shocked to learn that, while the RUC’s time valuations are often way off, in some cases physicians are paid for more than 24 hours of procedures in a single day. It is nice work if somebody else is paying for it.

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Hurtling Down the Road to Ruin

Brian Klepper and David C. Kibbe

Posted 6/21/13 on Medscape Internal Medicine

BK 711dckibbeA recent New York Times article that focused on colonoscopies highlighted the questionable science, predatory unit pricing, and overutilization that characterize this procedure and much of US healthcare. Patients get routine screenings that, in other industrialized countries, cost one half to one thirtieth of what they do here, then are gobsmacked by bills equivalent to the cost of a good used car. Reporters and healthcare writers have covered this topic in all its intricacies thousands of times.

But Elizabeth Rosenthal, the Times reporter, zeroed in on the root of the crisis, which is how healthcare interests have shaped market and policy forces to their own ends. “The high price paid for colonoscopies mostly results not from top-notch patient care, according to interviews with health care experts and economists, but from business plans seeking to maximize revenue; haggling between hospitals and insurers that have no relation to the actual costs of performing the procedure; and lobbying, marketing and turf battles among specialists that increase patient fees.”

One result is that healthcare’s cost drivers are a multiheaded monster, frustrating simplistic solutions. Many physicians own a financial stake in the care they deliver, rather than being paid to manage the care process well. Pricing is typically unrelated to cost or quality, varies wildly among providers, and often comprises dozens of components that are impossible to understand beforehand. Insurance companies may make a percentage of total cost and so are incentivized to allow healthcare to cost more. Every level of the system is rigged.

Posted in Benefits, Brian Klepper, Conflicts of Interest, Health Care Cost, Market Dynamics, Medical Management, Policy/Law/Regulation, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments