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.

Using Strong Carrots and Sticks To Drive Health Care That Works

Brian Klepper

Posted 5/09/13 on Medscape Connect’s Care & Cost Blog

ALP_H_BK_0010On a recent call with a large manufacturer, my company’s team expected to describe how we develop primary care medical homes that become platforms for managing comprehensive health care clinical and financial risk. But the team on the other end of the phone beat us to it. Their remarks – that health care cost is a multi-headed monster that requires a broad array of simultaneously executed approaches – were a breath of fresh air.

They wanted to avoid approaches that don’t work or are designed to accrue to a vendor’s disproportionate financial advantage, and focus instead on mechanisms that measurably improve health and reduce cost. Their conventional current clinic vendor wasn’t onboard, philosophically or in terms of capabilities, and so wasn’t getting results. They were looking for a replacement vendor that could help them drive more appropriate care, with clear rules for patients and providers.

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How Physician Practices Can Prepare for a Health Care Marketplace

Brian Klepper

Posted 4/21/13 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog

BK 711What is the path forward for physicians who want to remain in private practice, outside the constraints of health system employment? How will the environment change and what new demands will that place on practices and physicians? What follows are the observations of one industry-watcher who has worked on all sides of health care, but who now spends most his time focused on the interests of those who pay for it. No crystal ball, but several trends are clear.

There are now concrete signs that health care’s purchasers are exhausted and seeking new solutions, that a competitive marketplace is emerging and getting increasing traction. As they abandon ineffective approaches, the paradigm that has dominated the industry for the past 50 years will be upended. The financial pressure felt by buyers will transfer to the supply side health industry that has come to take ever more money for granted.

For decades, fee-for-service payment, inclusive health plan networks, and a lack of quality, safety and cost transparency have been enforced by health industry influence over policy, effectively neutralizing the power of market forces.

Without market pressure, physicians have felt little need to understand their own performance relative to that of their peers. The variation of physician practice patterns within specialties has been high, with some physicians’ “optimizing their revenue opportunities” by veering wildly away from evidence-based practice. Even so, until recently in this dysfunctional environment, it has been nearly impossible to identify high and low performers.

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Seriously Testing The ACO Waters

Brian Klepper

Published April 2013 in Accountable Care News

BK 711If necessity is the mother of invention, then tentativeness and ambiguity are the parents of procrastination. In health care, fee-for-service remains the dominant paradigm, so the ACO movement, lacking almost any semblance of true financial risk, is far more bark than bite. What’s the point of health systems going to all the trouble – and there’s no question it will be an overwhelmingly complicated overhaul – required to move from volume to value if it isn’t a pressing concern? Or, as several health system CFOs have expressed it, “Why should we change what we do and take less money until we have to.” There is no immediate imperative.

But there are some strategic imperatives. Overall health care cost has continued to explode. Kaiser Family Foundation data show that, for more than a decade, health plan premiums have risen 4.5 times as fast as general inflation and more than 3.5 times workers earnings. A recent RAND calculation showed that $4 of every $5 of household income growth is now absorbed by health care. It doesn’t seem likely that much more revenue can be squeezed from group and individual purchasers. (Though many of us have been saying that for decades.)

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Why Only Business Can Save America From Health Care

Brian Klepper

Posted 3/24/13 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog

BK 711For a large and growing number of us with meager or no coverage, health care is the ultimate “gotcha.” Events conspire, we receive care and then are on the hook for a car- or house-sized bill. There are few alternatives except going without or going broke.

Steven Brill’s recent Time cover story clearly detailed the predatory health care pricing that has been ruinous for many rank-and-file Americans. In Brill’s report, a key mechanism, the hospital chargemaster, with pricing “devoid of any calculation related to cost,” facilitated US health care’s rise to become the nation’s largest and wealthiest industry. His recommendations, like Medicare for all with price controls, seem sensible and compelling.

But efforts to implement Brill’s ideas, on their own, would likely fail, just as many others have, because he does not fully acknowledge the deeper roots of health care’s power. He does not adequately follow the money, question how the industry came to operate a core social function in such a self-interested fashion or pursue why it has been so difficult to dislodge its abuses. For that, we need to turn our attention to a far more intractable and frightening problem: lobbying and the capture of regulation that dictates how American health care works.

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The RUC, Health Care Finance’s Star Chamber, Remains Untouchable

Brian Klepper

Posted 2/1/13 on The Health Affairs Blog

BK PhotoOn January 7, a federal appeals court rejected six Georgia primary care physicians’ (PCPs) challenge to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) 20-year, sole-source relationship with the secretive, specialist-dominated federal advisory committee that determines the relative value of medical services. The American Medical Association’s (AMA) Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC) is, in the court’s view, not subject to the public interest rules that govern other federal advisory groups. Like the district court ruling before it, the decision dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims out of hand and on procedural grounds, with almost no discussion of content or merit.

Thus ends the latest attempt to dislodge what is perhaps the most blatantly corrosive mechanism of US health care finance, a star-chamber of powerful interests that, complicit with federal regulators, spins Medicare reimbursement to the industry’s advantage and facilitates payment levels that are followed by much of health care’s commercial sector. Most important, this new legal opinion affirms that the health industry’s grip on US health care policy and practice is all but unshakable and unaccountable, and it appears to have co-opted the reach of law.

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Them, Not Us

Brian Klepper

Posted 1/7/13 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog

“How many businesses do you know that want to cut their revenue in half? That’s why the healthcare system won’t change the healthcare system.”

Rick Scott, Governor of Florida
Former CEO, Hospital Corporation of America
Quoted by Vinod Khosla at the Rock Health Innovation Summit in August (video here)

BK 711ahip-logoThe Washington Post recently reported that health plan lobbyists, charts at the ready, are working to convince legislators that unreasonable health care costs are everyone else’s fault. Karen Ignagni, the Executive Director of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) declared: “If you’re going to have a debate and discussion about what’s driving health care costs, you have to get under the hood.”

Her first argument is that many practices of doctors, hospitals, drug, device and health information technology firms make health care cost more than it needs to be. This is well-documented and true. But her second, that health plans are different than the rest of the industry, and that they do not negatively influence care or cost, is pure marketing.

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An Archipelago of Health Information Islands

Brian Klepper

Posted 12/27/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog

My wife Elaine was hospitalized for 6 days recently with an array of ailments related to her advancing cancer, so diagnosing and addressing her problems required a multidisciplinary approach. In addition to the nursing and support staffs, she was tended by an emergency physician, two hospitalists, three gastroenterologists, a pulmonologist, an infectious disease physician and an interventional radiologist. With the exception of one specialist who had performed a procedure on her two weeks earlier, this episode was the first time any had met Elaine.

Each clinician was familiar with her status before visiting her, because the health system has an enterprise-wide electronic health record (EHR) that aggregates information into each patient’s chart. The hospitalists coordinated the care process and also touched base with Elaine’s primary care physician and her oncologist.

In other words, the system worked exactly like we hoped it would but often doesn’t. Especially in complex cases like this, the likelihood of a positive result is enhanced if the team members have access to the same complete information, and if someone – in this case the hospitalists – quarterbacks the activity.

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Irresistible Forces

Brian Klepper

Posted 10/28/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care & Cost Blog

At our first meeting years ago, Tom Emerick, Walmart’s then VP of Global Benefits, told me,

“No industry can grow indefinitely at a multiple of general inflation. It will eventually become so expensive that purchasers will simply abandon it.”

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Strengthening Primary Care With a New Professional Congress

Brian Klepper

Posted 10/01/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care & Cost Blog

Three months ago a post on this blog argued that America’s primary care associations, societies and membership groups have splintered into narrowly-focused specialties. Individually and together, they have proved unable to resist decades of assault on primary care by other health care interests. The article concluded that primary care needs a new, more inclusive organization focused on accumulating and leveraging the power required to influence policy in favor of primary care.

The intention was to strengthen rather than displace the 6 different societies – The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the American College of Physicians (ACP), the Society for General Internal Medicine (SGIM), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) – that currently divide primary care’s physician membership and dilute its influence. Instead, a new organization would convene and galvanize primary care physicians in ways that enhance their power. It would also reach out and embrace other primary care groups – e.g., mid-level clinicians and primary care practice organizations – adding heft and resources, and reflecting the fact that primary care is increasingly a team-based endeavor.

We have come to believe that a single organization cannot be serviceable. Feedback on the article suggested that several entities were necessary to achieve a workable design.

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The Most Important Health Care Group You’ve Never Heard Of

Brian Klepper and Paul Fischer

Posted 8/06/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care and Cost Blog

Excessive health care spending is overwhelming America’s economy, but the subtler truth is that this excess has been largely facilitated by subjugating primary care. A wealth of evidence shows that empowered primary care results in better outcomes at lower cost. Other developed nations have heeded this truth. But US payment policy has undervalued primary care while favoring specialists. The result has been spotty health quality, with costs that are double those in other industrialized countries. How did this happen, and what can we do about it.

American primary care physicians make about half what the average specialist takes home, so only the most idealistic medical students now choose primary care. Over a 30 year career, the average specialist will earn about $3.5 million more. Orthopedic surgeons will make $10 million more. Despite this pay difference, the volume, complexity and risk of primary care work has increased over time. Primary care office visits have, on average, shrunk from 20 minutes to 10 or less, and the next patient could have any disease, presenting in any way.

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Will Anyone Listen When Former CMS Chiefs Call For More Objective Physician Payment?

Brian Klepper

Posted 7/7/12 on Medscape Connect’s Care & Cost

On May 10th, the US Senate Finance Committee, co-chaired by Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), convened a remarkable panel of four former Administrators of the Health Care Finance Administration (HCFA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS): Gail Wilensky, Bruce Vladeck, Thomas Scully and Mark McClellen. (See the video here.) Against a backdrop of intensifying budgetary pressures, the roundtable was to provide perspectives on Medicare physician payment, including several controversial issues: the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula, the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS), and the RVS Update Committee (RUC).

Ironically, the day before, a Maryland Federal District judge dismissed a suit brought against HHS and CMS by six Augusta, GA primary care doctors over CMS’ longstanding relationship with the RUC, based on a procedural technicality and without weighing the substance of the complaint. The physicians challenged CMS’ refusal to require the RUC to adhere to the public interest rules of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) that typically apply to federal advisory bodies. The suit described the harm that has accrued to primary care physicians, patients and purchasers as a result of the RUC’s highly politicized process. To a large extent, the plaintiffs’ concerns closely reflected those of the former CMS Chiefs.

This was a deeply experienced and dedicated group, all with long government-involved careers. Surprisingly, independent of their divergent political perspectives, there was broad agreement on the direction that physician payment should go. All believe we need to move away from fee-for-service (FFS) reimbursement and toward alternative reimbursement paradigms, like capitation or bundled payments. All agreed that FFS would likely remain present in various forms for many years. There was a general sense that the RBRVS system was built on a series of errors, and that CMS’ relationship with the RUC started off, to use Dr. Wilensky’s term, “innocently enough,” but has become increasingly problematic over time.

Here is Dr. Wilensky’s description of how the CMS-RUC relationship came about.

It [the RUC’s formation and relationship with HCFA] happened innocently enough. Once you had the Relative Value Scale in place you needed to have a way to update relative values and to allow for a change. The AMA, as best we can tell…- sometime after I left to go to the White House, after he -[Bruce Vladeck] was sworn in, there was a lot going on, it was relatively new, in its first year – the AMA approached the Agency about whether it would allow it or like to have the AMA be the convener that would include all physician groups and make some recommendations which initially were very minor adjustments that hardly affected the RBRVS at all. The Agency accepted the offer.

Tom Scully, CMS’ Administrator under George W. Bush, took responsibility for helping facilitate the AMA’s involvement and was perhaps the most passionate that it had been an error.

One of the biggest mistakes we made … is that we took the RUC…back in 1992 and gave it to the AMA. …It’s very, very politicized. I think that was a big mistake…When you go back to restructuring this, you should try to make it less political and more independent.

I’ve watched the RUC for years. It’s incredibly political, and it’s just human nature…the specialists that spend more money and have more time have a bigger impact…So it’s really, it’s all about political representation, and the AMA does a good job, given what they are, but they’re a political body of specialty groups, and they’re just not, in my opinion, objective enough. So when you look at the history of it, CMS is starting to push back more, which is a good thing, I think it would be much better to have an arms-length transaction where the physician groups have a little more of an objective approach to it. And, look, that is the infrastructure of $80 billion of spending. It’s not a small matter. It’s huge.

But perhaps the most striking statement was made by Bruce Vladeck, HCFA Administrator during the Clinton Administration. In speaking about the problems generated by RBRVS (and by inference, the broader issues of SGR and the RUC as well) in the face of severe economic stresses, he called for the leadership and will required to simply do the necessary course correction.

I’m hopeful that some combination of the need to address overall deficit reduction strategies more generally and a different kind of political climate in the relatively near future will create the opportunity for people to say, “We made a mistake in 1997. We created a formula that produces irrational and counterintuitive results, and we’re just going to abolish it and start all over again in terms of some kind of cap on Part B payments. It’s the only way we’re going to get out of this morass.”

In a policy environment less susceptible to influence and more responsive to real world problems, the gravity of consensus on display at this roundtable would justify a call to action. As it was, it validated what many know: that we are rushing headlong down a catastrophic path, steered by forces other than reason and responsibility. The best we can hope for is that someone with authority and courage is listening.

The ACP’s Cognitive Dissonance

Brian Klepper

Relative to their specialist colleagues, primary care physicians have been generally passive about the politics that shape their professional lives, and they have been big losers. It is important for them to consider whether their societies are genuinely acting in their interests. I believe the evidence overwhelmingly reflects poor judgment by the societies that has diminished primary care’s prospects and, more importantly, caused significant harm to patients and purchasers.

Over at the ACP Advocate Blog on Wednesday, ACP Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs and Public Policy Bob Doherty took me to task for asserting that the American Academy of Family Physicians is the only “pure” primary care society. He’s right, of course, in the sense that the American College of Physicians (ACP), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) have done yeoman’s work in the past few years in promoting the value of primary care. He’s also right, and I stand corrected, on my statement that AAFP is the largest society. The information on Wikipedia shows that ACP has 130,000 members while AAFP has less at around 100,000.

As though any of this matters.

Source: Medscape Physician Lifestyle Report 2012, http://www.medscape.com/sites/public/lifestyle/2012

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