Beware of Medical Hyper-Inflation!
Historically, medical inflation rates nationwide have been fairly consistent. However, data is now showing that medical inflation is not a “one size fits all” phenomenon, with hyperinflation spikes occurring in some locations…but not others.
This geographical conundrum means hyperinflation can occur as narrowly as two hospitals having dramatically different charges on the same street in Anytown, USA. So, uncovering these anomalies is akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
“In recent years, workers’ compensation saw claim frequency decline, while severity rates went up. This basically means that increased job safety has offset increased medical costs,” explained Jason Beans, CEO of Rising Medical Solutions, a national medical cost management firm. “So, whenever a client’s average cost-per-claim went up, it was almost always caused by catastrophic, outlier-type claims.”
But beginning in 2013 and extending into 2014, Beans said, things changed. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my 20-plus years in this industry.”
“Our analytics made it very clear that small pockets around the country are experiencing what could only be described as medical cost hyperinflation. The big spikes in some clients’ claim costs were driven by a broader rise in medical costs, rather than catastrophic claims or severity issues.”
– Jason Beans, CEO, Rising Medical Solutions
Data dive uncovers surprising findings
On a national level, most experts describe medical costs increasing at a moderate annual rate. But, as often is the case, sometimes a macro perspective glosses over a very different situation at a more micro level.
“Our analytics made it very clear that small pockets around the country are experiencing what could only be described as medical cost hyperinflation,” explained Beans. “The big spikes in some clients’ claim costs were driven by a broader rise in medical costs, rather than catastrophic claims or severity issues.”
This conclusion is supported by several key data patterns:
- Geographic dependency: While many payers operate at the national level, only relatively small, geographically clustered claims showed steep cost increases.
- Median cost per claim: The median cost per claim, not just the average, increased greatly within these geographic clusters.
- Hospital associated care: Some clusters saw a large increase in the rates and/or the number of services provided by hospital systems, including their broad array of affiliate locations.
- Provider rates: Other clusters saw the same hospital/non-hospital based treatment ratios as prior years, but there was a material rate increase for all provider types across the board.
- Utilization increases: Some clusters also experienced a larger number of services being performed per claim.
One of the most severe examples of hyperinflation came from a large Florida metropolitan area which experienced a combined 47 percent workers’ compensation healthcare inflation rate. Not only was there a dramatic increase in the charge per hospital bill, but utilization was also way up and there was a shift to more services being performed in a costlier hospital system setting.
“The growth of costs in this Florida market stood in stark contrast to neighboring areas where most of our clients’ claim costs were coming down or at least had flat-lined,” Beans said.
An Arizona metropolitan area, on the other hand, experienced a different root cause for their hyperinflation. Regardless of provider type, rates have significantly increased over the past year. For example, one hospital system showed dramatic increases in both charge master rates and utilization. “Even with aggressive discounting, the projected customer impact in 2014 will be an increase of $773,850 from this provider alone,” said Beans.
ACA: Unintended consequences?
So what is going on? According to Beans, a potential driver of these cost spikes could be unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
First, the ACA may be a contributing factor in recent provider consolidation. While healthcare industry consolidation is not new, the ACA can prompt increased merger and acquisition efforts as hospitals seek to improve financials and healthcare delivery by forming Accountable Care Organizations (ACO). ACOs, the theory goes, can take better advantage of value-based fee arrangements in existing and new markets.
“As hospital systems grow by acquisition, more patients are being brought under hospital pricing structures – which are significantly more expensive than similar services at smaller facilities such as independent ambulatory surgery centers and doctors’ offices,” Beans said.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that post-consolidation healthcare systems have become more efficient, only more expensive. For example, a recent PwC study reported that hospital IT infrastructure consolidation alone is projected to add 2 percent to hospital costs in 2015.
Another potential ACA consequence is group health insurers may have less incentive to keep medical costs down. An ACA provision requires that 85% of premium in the large group market must be spent on medical care and provider incentive programs, leaving 15% of premium to be allocated towards administration, sales and subsequent profits. “Fifteen percent of $5000 in medical charges is a lot less than 15% of $10,000,” said Beans. “This really limits a group health carrier’s incentive to lower medical costs.”
How do increased group health rates relate to workers’ comp? In some markets, a group health carrier may use its group health rates for their work comp network so any rate increase impacts both business types.
In the end, medical inflation is inconsistent at best, with varying levels driven by differing factors in different locations – a true “needle in the haystack” challenge.
What to do?
Managing these emerging cost threats, whether you have the capabilities internally or utilize a partner, means having the tools to pinpoint hyperinflation and make adjustments. Beans said potential solutions for payers include:
- Using data analytics: Data availability is at an all-time high. Utilizing analytical tools to spot problem areas is critical for executing cost saving strategies quickly.
- Moving services out of hospital systems: Programs that direct care away from the hospital setting can substantially reduce costs. For example, Rising’s surgical care program utilizes ambulatory service centers to provide predictable, bundled case rates to payers.
- Negotiating with providers: Working directly with providers to negotiate bill reductions and prompt payment arrangements is effective in some markets.
- Underwriting with a micro-focus: For carriers, it is vital that underwriters identify where these pockets of hyperinflation are so they can adjust rates to keep pace with inflation.
“This trend needs to be closely watched,” Beans said. “In the meantime, we will continue to use data to help payers of medical services be smarter shoppers.”
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Rising Medical Solutions. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.
Benefiting the Bottom Line
Employee benefits consultants and property/casualty brokers could see substantial gains as they move to take advantage of private exchanges for health care and other employee benefits.
Jim Blaney, chief executive officer, Willis human capital practice, said that offering clients private exchanges provides consultants and brokers with “a huge opportunity. … However, it’s all about gaining market share and converting new revenues.”
Roughly 30 million workers are expected to enroll in health care plans via private exchanges by 2017, “but costs and inertia could slow the adoption rate,” according Morgan Stanley research analysts.
“We think there are substantial market share opportunities for P&C brokers but large economic benefits will take years to materialize as they have to invest heavily to gain share,” the analysts wrote in a March 13 report, Private Exchanges: Friend or Foe.
For example, Aon Hewitt — which was “one of the first movers and the most vocal in private exchange efforts” — has invested roughly $100 million in its initiatives “which have not yet broken even,” according to the analysts. The firm has enrolled more than 600,000 members on its multicarrier, fully insured active employees exchange.
Aon executives were not available for an interview.
At Morgan Stanley’s Private Exchange Conference earlier this year, Aon said that it can overcome the cost gap and deliver up to 2 percent total savings for self-insured clients converting to Aon exchange.
A report by Moody’s offered a more positive viewpoint, concluding that the creation of private health exchanges “are credit positive for leading benefit consultants and brokers.”
“We believe the most successful exchanges will be those that minimize growth (or generate savings) in overall health care costs, rather than simply shifting costs from employers to employees,” according to a March 3 report.
Keys to success, it said, include building strong insurance carrier networks, guiding employees to select appropriate insurance coverage, promoting employee wellness, streamlining plan administration and ensuring compliance with regulations.
Blaney, at Willis, said that discussing its insurance exchange with clients and prospects is “a way to open doors,” as most employers are interested to learn more about both private and public exchange models.
“This gives us an opportunity to meet with potential new clients, build rapport and provide thought leadership and consulting. We are seeing an increase in new clients independent of whether they choose to use the private exchange,” he said.
Last year, Willis partnered with Liazon to offer clients The Willis Advantage, a private label of that company’s platform. Liazon, which was bought last year by Towers Watson, operates a multicarrier exchange with both self-insured and fully insured products.
“The Willis Advantage,” Blaney said, “is designed to be a consultative approach to help mid-market and upper mid-market clients consider the opportunity of advancing consumerism and possibly, a defined-contribution approach.
“We think our differentiation lies in our integrated health management capability aimed at addressing medical utilization trends,” he said.
The exchange includes built-in features such as incentive-based wellness options, health coaching, and disease-management programs, to help employees and employers drive down health care costs and increase productivity.
Over the past two quarters, interest in the private exchange has “spiked,” with 600 employers — both existing clients and prospects — considering adoption, he said. Two clients are currently on the platform, and another five are “in the queue.”
“The adoption rates for the mid-market seems to be evolving slower than adoption rates for the larger market, but in the next five years, I believe we are going to see a sizable migration toward defined-contribution funding approaches as employers seek to cap benefits costs and push more responsibility and accountability to employees,” Blaney said.
Mercer, the subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan Cos. launched its Mercer Marketplace in 2013. It currently works with 67 employers to provide medical and other benefits to 282,000 employees, retirees and family members.
The company recently expanded its service to offer access to individual medical plans via GetInsured, a California-based company whose technology platform powers state government exchanges.
Liazon, whose platform is used by more than 400 brokers — including Arthur J. Gallagher, Lockton and Brown & Brown — said larger brokers private label its platform, and can build in their own value-added support features, such as back-office capabilities, call centers, and employee assistance programs, said Managing Director Ashok Subramanian.
“This really enables brokers to leverage proven technology to wrap around their strategies, with a speed to market,” Subramanian said.
Smaller brokers use Liazon’s independent channel, Bright Choices, to save on costs, he said. Overall, Liazon has seen “an enormous uptick in usage over the past year, up 300 percent in 2013, from 2012.
“There is tremendous tailwind in the market for solutions like this among employers,” he said. “This happens to coincide with the opening of the public exchanges, but it’s not really related to that.”
Employers can also take advantage of private exchanges for retirees and older workers, such as Towers Watson’s OneExchange for Medicare-eligible individuals, said Bryce Williams, the consultancy’s managing director, Exchange Solutions.
“The Medicare market is so technical and highly regulated, that it’s less costly for them just to refer retirees to our exchange,” Williams said.
Currently, adoption rates are less than 5 percent, but Williams expects that in five to 10 years, adoption rates will rise to 50 percent, for employers who give their employees access to health care.
The Next Wave of Workers’ Comp Medical Cost Savings
Managing medical costs for workers’ compensation claims is like pushing on a balloon. As you effectively manage expenses in one area, there are bound to be bulges in another.
Over the last decade, great strides have been made in managing many aspects of workers’ compensation medical costs. Case management, bill review and pharmacy benefits management are just a few categories that produce significant returns.
And yet, according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), medical costs remain the largest percentage of workers’ comp expenses. Worse still, medical costs continue to be the fastest growing expense category.
Many medical services are closely managed through provider negotiations, bill review, utilization review, pharmacy benefits management, to name a few. But a large opportunity for medical cost containment remains largely untouched and therefore represents a significant opportunity for cost savings.
Ancillary medical services is a term used to describe specialty or supplemental health care services such as medical supplies, home health care, durable medical equipment, transportation and physical therapy, etc.
According to Clifford James, Vice President of Strategic Development at Healthesystems in Tampa, Fla., modernizing the process for managing ancillary medical services presents compelling opportunities for cost savings and improved patient care.
Source: 2014 Healthesystems Ancillary Medical Services Survey
“The challenge of managing these types of medical products and services is a cumbersome and extremely disconnected process,” James said. “As a result, it represents a missing link in an overall medical cost management strategy, which means it is costing payers money and patients the most optimal care.”
James singled out three key hurdles:
Lack of transparency
As the adage goes, you can only manage what you can measure.
Yet when it comes to the broad range of products and services that comprise ancillary benefits, comprehensive data and benchmarking metrics by which to gauge success are hard to come by.
The problem begins with an antiquated approach to coding medical services that was developed in the 1970s. The coding system falls short in today’s modern health care environment due to its lack of product and service level detail such as consistent units of measure, quantity and descriptors.
As a result, a meaningful percentage of ancillary benefits spending is coded as “miscellaneous,” which means a payer has little to no visibility into what product or service is being delivered — and no way to determine if the correct price is being applied or if the item is even necessary or appropriate.
Source: 2014 Healthesystems Ancillary Medical Services Survey
“It’s a big challenge. Especially when you consider that for many payers, it’s difficult to determine exactly what they are spending, or identify what the major cost drivers are when it comes to ancillary services,” James said. And when frequently over 20 percent of these types of services are billed as miscellaneous, payers have zero visibility to effectively manage these costs.
Measurement and monitoring
Often, performance that is monitored is given the most attention. Therefore, ancillary programs that are closely monitored and measured against objective benchmarks should be the most successful.
However, benchmarks are hard to determine because multiple vendors are frequently involved using disparate data and processes. There isn’t a consistent focus on continuous quality improvement, because each vendor operates off of their own success criteria.
“Leveraging objective competitive comparisons breeds success in any industry. Yet for ancillary services there is very limited data to clearly measure performance across all vendors,” James said. “And for payers, this is a major area of opportunity to promote service and cost containment excellence.”
Source: 2014 Healthesystems Ancillary Medical Services Survey
If you ask claims executives about their strategies for improving the claims management process, a likely response may be “workload optimization.” The goal for some is to enable claims professionals to handle a maximum case load by minimizing administrative duties so they can leverage their expertise to better manage the outcome of each case.
But the path towards “workload optimization” has many hurdles, especially when you consider what needs to be coordinated and the manual way it frequently is done.
Ancillary benefits are a prime example. For a single case, a claims professional might need to coordinate durable medical equipment, secure translation services, arrange for transportation and confirm the best physical therapy plan. Unfortunately they often don’t have the needed time, or the pertinent information, in order to make quick, yet informed, decisions about the ancillary needs of their claimants.
In addition there is the complexity of managing multiple vendor relationships, juggling various contacts, and accessing multiple platforms and/or making endless phone calls.
“We’ve been called the ‘industry integrator’ by some people, and that’s accurate. We are delivering a proven platform connecting payers with providers and vendors on the ancillary medical benefit front. It’s never been done before.”
– Clifford James, Vice President of Strategic Development, Healthesystems
Modernizing the process
To the benefit of both payers and vendors, Healthesystems offers Ancillary Benefits Management (ABM).
The breakthrough ABM solution consists of three foundational components — a technological platform, proprietary medical coding system and a comprehensive benefits management methodology.
The technological platform integrates payers and vendors with a standardized architecture and processes. Business rules and edits can be easily managed and applied across all contracted vendors. All processes – from referral to billing and payment – are managed on a single platform, empowering the payer with a centralized tool for managing the quality of all ancillary providers.
But when it comes to ancillary products, the critical and unique challenge Healthesystems had to solve is the antiquated coding system. This was completed by developing a highly granular, product-specific coding system including detailed descriptions and units of measure for all products and services. This coding provides payers with the clearest understanding of all products and services delivered including pricing and all the necessary utilization metrics.
“We bring the highest level of transparency and visibility into all ancillary products and services,” James said, adding that the ABM platform uses an extensive preferred product coding system 15 times more detailed than any other existing system or program.
This combination of sophisticated technology, proprietary coding system and benefit management methodology revolutionizes the ancillary category. Some of the benefits include:
- Crystal-clear transparency
- A more detailed and comprehensive view into ancillary products and services
- An automated process that eliminates billing discrepancies or resubmittals
- Integrated and consistent processes
- Strategic program management
Taken together, the system leapfrogs over the existing hurdles while creating entirely new opportunities. It’s a win for vendors and payers, and ultimately for patients, who receive the optimal product or service.
“We’ve been called the ‘industry integrator’ by some people, and that’s accurate,” James said. “We are delivering a proven platform connecting payers with providers and vendors on the ancillary medical benefit front. It’s never been done before.”
To learn more about the Healthesystems Ancillary Benefits Management solution visit: http://www.healthesystems.com/solutions-services/ancillary-benefits