Archive for category Response to SIA Poll

Insurance CEO Paid $66,000,000 — for what?

hatinringThe author of this blog is willing to be the CEO of United Healthcare for a mere $60,000,000 / year.  That would save the insurance company 6 million dollars a year — a real bargain.   So why does United Healthcare need a new CEO?

The Wall Street Journal reported today that United Healthcare (the nations largest healthcare insurer) can’t seem to make enough money with clients who get insurance on the government exchanges.  They feel other insurance companies should have those pesky patients, who cost more for a couple of years, because they did not have insurance before.

United Healthcare (NYSE:UNH) has been having a lackluster financial situation for the past few months, like almost all other stocks — perhaps a little worse.  Reports show the health insurer will lower its earnings-per-share outlook to $6 per share, down from its earlier forecast of $6.25 to $6.35 per share.

Could it be that the 25 cent drop in earnings is due to business on the exchanges? — surely it’s not the fault of the CEO?   But, why take a chance, get a new CEO.  The company could get a new CEO for half the price and even might be able to snag someone with a PhD in economics to help figure out what to do.   Duh — lower the operating costs!

Presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson*, says insurance companies should be low-cost non-profit operations simply to process claims.  It makes a lot of sense.  Why is so much profit being extracted from the US healthcare system by insurance companies?  It does not need to be that way.  The companies keep about 20% to 25% of premiums for CEO salary, expenses and profits.  In France, insurance companies are limited to 6%.  Yes, it can be done.

 


 

* This is not a political endorsement, just an observation.

 

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The Emergency Room — high cost of care

ER signPeople go the the ER but often do not get admitted to the hospital.  Why does this happen?  Do they think the problem is an emergency or do they just not have access to other health care?  The CDC presented the following data from 2011:
ER_1 ER_2 ER_3

(note respondents could answer yes to multiple items)

The bottom line:  people who go to the ER but do not get admitted do so because they think the problem is serious, but 80% also say they lack access to other providers.

Social factors often force the ER visit:

  • No primary care provider has been established
  • Primary care does not have enough walk-in capacity
  • In rural communities once the few primary care offices close there is no other alternative
  • Work hours force evening or night care for family members
  • ER is closer than other options
  • ER is more willing to see someone without insurance
  • Patients seek continuity of care once they have been seen at the ER — they return.

A not uncommon scenario is when a single parent picks up a child from day care only to find they are sick but doctor’s offices are closed.  And, the parent is expected back at work early in the morning.

Possible solutions:

  • Encourage urgent care or “community ER” clinics.  In many larger cities doctors or hospitals have opened urgent care clinics — they are not intended to provide continuity of care but just service when needed.  In the UK such clinics are often staffed by nurse practitioners.
  • Assign one provider in a primary care office to walk-in duty — thus increasing the capacity for unscheduled visits and allowing the other providers uninterrupted time to see scheduled patients.
  • Locate some primary care clinics with extended hours next to the ER.  The patients can see a primary care provider at a lower cost — but if the problem really is critical the ER is next door.
  • Use the phone more.  Also, use Skype since it is encrypted and should meet HIPPA guidelines.  Cost would be lower for everyone if health care providers made better use of technology.  Accountable care organizations (with less fee for service incentive) should find the lower cost aspect very attractive.
  • Provide more mobile care.  Some enterprising ambulance services provide service on location and don’t actually transport the patient to the ER.  Unfortunately, the overhead cost is rather high — but the same can be said for the ER in general.  It’s like the guy who comes to your driveway to replace a car windshield.  Instead, you might get a laceration sutured in your kitchen!  Or your child with a sore throat could be checked with a strep-screen.

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Warning: Price could cause ulcers — CMS drug data

purplepillThe purple pill tops the list of the most expensive drugs for government health programs in 2013.  No, your first reaction to blame the government is wrong — the drug is prescribed by health care providers — and, the government is prevented by law from negotiating drug prices.  Why is this a problem? –there was a perfectly fine OTC generic substitute available in 2013 at only 6% of the cost.

WHAT???  Prescribers wrote prescriptions for a drug that could have been substituted by an equivalent drug and saved 94%.  OK, at the margins of the argument, at the fringes of reality, at the level it makes no clinical difference, big pharma says it might not be a perfect substitute.  A good example where the “perfect”  is the enemy of the very good.

But, how could prescribers and patients have the wool pulled over their eyes? — fantastic marketing.  And, by the way, if you take this drug, send me your name, address, social security number, and bank account number,  I have a nice bridge to sell you.brooklinbridge

The magnitude of the problem became crystal clear when CMS published prescription data.  The following data is widely reported from CMS as the spending on drugs through Medicare’s Part D prescription-drug program in 2013:

Rank Brand Name Generic Name Number of Claims Cost in Billions
1 NEXIUM ESOMEPRAZOLE 8,192,362 $2.53
28 OMEPRAZOLE OMEPRAZOLE 32,250,368 $0.64

Omeprazole is a very good substitute for Nexium for heartburn and reflux.  Despite the cloud of industry generated studies many pharmacists say the two drugs have equal effects.  As the table above shows omeprazole was prescribed 4 times as often as Nexium but the providers who chose Nexium created a vastly larger and unnecessary cost.  Why Nexium is even be on the Medicare Part-D formulary is a mystery.  Who pays the bill? — taxpayers, of course, and the patients who paid a co-pay higher than the full cost of an equivalent.

In 2015 Nexium became an over the counter drug (OTC) and just as you might suspect it now costs about the same as OTC omeprazole — about $32 for 56 pills (at Costco) rather than $300.

Where is the oversight?  Where is the cost control?  Why is US healthcare so expensive?  Need more examples? Just look at the other medications on the list.

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Urinary Retention — 1 in 10 men over 70

urologybillboardOne ER visit is a red flag — more ER visits for the same problem become an example of  poor quality health care.

Urinary difficulty is something older men don’t like to talk about.  But, 1 in 10 men over the age of 70 will end up in the emergency room with urinary retention — an uncomfortable situation where they can not pass urine.  Urologists are aware of this frequent problem — see the billboard story.  It is a serious problem;  in third world countries it may be fatal.

The usual cause is enlargement of the prostate preceded by symptoms of slow and frequent urination.   Sometimes there are few symptoms until a painful inability to pass urine forces a rush to the emergency room.

The usual medical approach is to insert a tube (a catheter) into the bladder to relieve the pressure, start a medication to help urination, and 3 days later to remove the catheter.  50% of men can then pass urine adequately (for a while).  The quality issue is that 50% have a recurrence within a week — so is another ER visit the answer?

A friend of this blogger landed in the ER a total of 4 times with urinary retention.  Why is the ER the center of after-hours treatment for this problem — once identified as an issue why is the health care system making it a recurring emergency?

The solution is Urologists need to own the problem and provide adequate patient care 24 hours a day once a catheter is removed.  Yes, own the problem, not turn off the phone and let the ER solve it.  Does that mean the urologist must be at the clinic 24 hours a day?  No, but there must be an arrangement for immediate care — no waiting in the ER, no ER charges, no secondary consultations.  An arrangement with a 24 hour urgent care center may be enough but some back-up plan and patient education are essential.

The majority of men with urinary retention end up having a surgery to ream-out the prostate (TURP).  According to healthcare-salaries.com a suburban US urologist makes $500k to $1M each year.  This is another example of the decoupling of cost and quality caused by involving multiple providers with no common financial risk.

A proactive patient who has a catheter removed should ask the urologist “what is the plan if this does not work?”  and “is there some alternative to the ER since you have already evaluated me?”.  At least find out how to get in touch with the on-call urologist!

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High Medical Cost in Winter Havens — unnecessary testing

mctestswithlegend

Snowbirds:  watch out for high medical costs in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.  According to Elisabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times 2/1/15 “Patients Find Winter Havens Push Costs Up”.  She points out providers in Florida are the worst offenders — the same place notorious for Medicare fraud!

Ms. Rosenthal highlights one patient from New York wintering in Florida who had a checkup for his pacemaker but did not have any new symptoms.  Many in-office tests were ordered by the substitute cardiologist — tests the patient’s regular cardiologist said were unnecessary.

To be very blunt:  cardiologists, and other providers, who order in-office tests make a lot of money from those tests.  Many studies show providers who profit from tests do more tests than providers who don’t profit from tests.  A medical license is not a license to take advantage of patients or Medicare — profit motivation seems to blind some providers to this distinction.

The lure of profit is made greater by a patient not having any new symptoms, not having any record of previous tests, and not having plans for follow-up visits.  It is like the patient has a sticker pinned on their back:  “TEST ME”.   The choice for the cardiologist is simple: either pay the nurse to spend time getting out-of-town records OR make money by repeating tests.  Make money, right!

Suggestions:

  • If you are on vacation and have a sudden health problem your best bet is an urgent care center.  They can send you to a specialist, if needed.
  • If you have health problems and will be spending several weeks or months away from home:
    • Talk to you primary care provider:  they may want you to call in and give a report on the phone (diabetes is a good example).  If so, no office visit may be needed while away.
    • Get enough medication to last the trip.  Or, get prescriptions with refills at WalMart or Target and have the prescription transferred to a store near your winter location.
  • Identify a doctor to see in your vacation area before you leave.  Ask friends or other people who winter in the area for a recommendation.  Call the distant provider office and get a FAX number so records can be sent.
  • If your primary care provider thinks you need a health care visit while you are away then make an appointment and have your records sent before you leave home — also take a paper copy!
  • If tests or surgery are recommended then call your regular doctor’s office to see if they agree.
  • Give any provider you see your regular provider’s name, address, phone number and FAX number (a business card is good).  Request that results of visits, tests or hospitalizations be faxed or sent to them — and make sure it happens.  Fill out a release of information form while you are at the office or other facility.

Bon Voyage!

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Chronic Care Management — a patient guide

pnonenurseDoctors have long complained they don’t get paid to solve problems over the phone.  Now primary care providers (not specialists) can charge $40 per month for something called “Chronic Care Management.” (CCM)

If you have several long term and serious conditions like diabetes, congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease then Medicare will pay $32 per month and you or your supplemental insurance will pay the rest for this service.  Many supplemental insurance plans have deductibles and co-payments — so many, if not most patients will be paying an extra $8 per month.

Who actually does all the work?  The office nurse.  The doctor supervises the decision making.

You will have to sign a consent for CCM in order for the doctor to bill you each month, so it is important to know what to expect.  Some doctor’s offices will make the service helpful but in other offices you may never know where the money is going.

If you can’t tell you are getting CCM then simply stop the service — revoke the consent with a letter “Dear Doctor, effective at the end of this month please stop “Chronic Care Management”.  I will continue visits as usual.”

In general, CCM is a good thing.  Here are some of the problems it solves:  Without CCM many doctors just don’t take the time to coordinate services except as part of an office visit — if you go to the emergency room the primary care provider would not act on recommendations until you actually go for an office visit.  If your visiting nurse suggests some course of action then you go for an office visit.  If you want to see a specialist you first go for an office visit.  If you get discharged from the hospital and need physical therapy you go for an office visit before it will be ordered.  With CCM the doctor gets $40 per month to coordinate care without always going for a face-to-face visit.

The minimum requirement for the provider is to spend at least 20 minutes per month working on your case without seeing you in person.  Here is a list of things providers of CCM are required to do (at no extra charge) and thus things you should expect:

  1. Transitional care management:  meaning admission or discharge from some medical service or facility (like giving orders for physical therapy after hospital discharge or providing full medical records to a rehab facility)
  2. Supervision of home healthcare.  The provider gives orders for home care with lists of medications, duration of treatment and goals of treatment.
  3. Hospice care supervision.
  4. Provide a limited number of end-stage renal disease services.

The provider must have 5 capabilities and use those capabilities as needed:

  1. Keep your records in a computer
  2. Create a care-plan — an outline of goals and actions the provider will follow to meet those goals.  Like “keep blood sugars in control — by weekly phone contact”. The provider should give you a copy of the plan — it should be specific to you and not a standard form applicable to anyone.
  3. Provide phone access to talk to a someone associated with the office 24 hours per day (they should be able to look at your computer record).  Provide office visits as needed (presumably same day for urgent problems and within a week for non-urgent problems)
  4. Facilitate transitions in care.  Like provide prescriptions and orders for therapy after discharge from a hospital or providing medical information to specialists for each visit.  Or, keeping orders for home oxygen up to date.  Or, immediately sending outpatient medical records to the hospital where you are admitted.
  5. Coordinate care.  This does not mean providing all care, it is not a wall around you.  If you need to see a specialist the provider makes sure all your medical data is transmitted to that specialist and makes appointments for you.  And, follows the instructions of the specialist (as medically reasonable).  Engages therapy such as home visits by nurses, physical therapy, occupational therapy or social service.  And, makes efforts to meet the care needs outlined by those therapy services (as medically reasonable).

CCM does not eliminate office visits but it makes sure loose ends are dealt with and it obligates the provider charging CCM fees to provide access to someone that can look at your chart 24 hours per day.  It also means the ER can call the primary care provider office and get up-to-date medical information about you in an urgent situation.

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Disclaimer:  the rules and fees for this program are in a state of flux.  What is true today may not be accurate tomorrow.  So, discuss the meaning of CCM with your primary care provider.  Give them a copy of this article as a place to start a discussion.  Here are some additional helpful links:

CMS – Medicare.gov

PBS Newshour

 Pershing Yoakley & Associates

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Fee for Counseling Service — another CPT code

cptwowWow, you could have had a CPT code and $60.  While fee-for-service is widely excoriated for excessive cost what is CMS doing?  They want primary care providers or someone to have another fee-for-service.  The fee is for “counseling” about lung cancer CT screening and “counseling” about weight loss.  Both things that are currently part of an office visit with no additional CPT code — just good patient care.

Both topics could easily be covered on YouTube in several languages but NO — lets do this the old fashioned way and spend a zillion dollars for each provider to reinvent the discussion each time.   CMS:  don’t be so lazy — make the patient education video and tell primary care providers the URL!  And, update the video every 6 months.

The bottom line:

  • Lung Cancer CT Screening:
    • Don’t do it if the patient can’t have surgery
    • Don’t do it until the patient has 30 pk yrs accumulated (number of packs per day times number of years)
    • Don’t do it if the patient is less than 55 or over 80 years old.
    • Don’t do it if the patient quit smoking more than 15 years ago.
  • Weight-loss counseling:
    • Say in a loud voice “you weigh too much” then say “eat less”.  (that was not so hard!)
    • Doctors have been doing this for decades without sustained  results.
    • There are 20,000 books about diets to loose weight without sustained results.
    • This is not going to work — at least be honest.

Follow the money:  

Counseling fees for CT scans is an incentive to do the CT scans.   The primary care provider makes money, the x-ray office makes money and the radiologist makes money.  A better idea is to have the radiology office pay the primary care provider for the counseling out of CT revenue so this is a no-sum-gain.  Better yet — make it a provided service under an ACO plan!

Counseling fees for intensive weight-loss is an incentive for lots of repeat visits or a referral.  The Primary care provider makes money (and changes from a primary care provider to a specialty provider).  The incentive reduces the pool of available visits for primary care with little if any benefit to the vast majority of obese people.  A better idea is not to add another CPT code.  If the patient needs more time — make another appointment!

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