Coping with Cancellations
Airlines typically can offset revenue losses for cancellations due to bad weather either by saving on fuel and salary costs or rerouting passengers on other flights, but this year’s revenue losses from the worst winter storm season in years might be too much for traditional measures.
At least one broker said the time may be right for airlines to consider crafting custom insurance programs to account for such devastating seasons.
For a good part of the country, including many parts of the Southeast, snow and ice storms have wreaked havoc on flight cancellations, with a mid-February storm being the worst of all. On Feb. 13, a snowstorm from Virginia to Maine caused airlines to scrub 7,561 U.S. flights, more than the 7,400 cancelled flights due to Hurricane Sandy, according to MasFlight, industry data tracker based in Bethesda, Md.
Roughly 100,000 flights have been canceled since Dec. 1, MasFlight said.
Just United, alone, the world’s second-largest airline, reported that it had cancelled 22,500 flights in January and February, 2014, according to Bloomberg. The airline’s completed regional flights was 87.1 percent, which was “an extraordinarily low level,” and almost 9 percentage points below its mainline operations, it reported.
And another potentially heavy snowfall was forecast for last weekend, from California to New England.
The sheer amount of cancellations this winter are likely straining airlines’ bottom lines, said Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for major U.S. airline companies.
“The airline industry’s fixed costs are high, therefore the majority of operating costs will still be incurred by airlines, even for canceled flights,” Connell wrote in an email. “If a flight is canceled due to weather, the only significant cost that the airline avoids is fuel; otherwise, it must still pay ownership costs for aircraft and ground equipment, maintenance costs and overhead and most crew costs. Extended storms and other sources of irregular operations are clear reminders of the industry’s operational and financial vulnerability to factors outside its control.”
Bob Mann, an independent airline analyst and consultant who is principal of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y., said that two-thirds of costs — fuel and labor — are short-term variable costs, but that fixed charges are “unfortunately incurred.” Airlines just typically absorb those costs.
“I am not aware of any airline that has considered taking out business interruption insurance for weather-related disruptions; it is simply a part of the business,” Mann said.
Chuck Cederroth, managing director at Aon Risk Solutions’ aviation practice, said carriers would probably not want to insure airlines against cancellations because airlines have control over whether a flight will be canceled, particularly if they don’t want to risk being fined up to $27,500 for each passenger by the Federal Aviation Administration when passengers are stuck on a tarmac for hours.
“How could an insurance product work when the insured is the one who controls the trigger?” Cederroth asked. “I think it would be a product that insurance companies would probably have a hard time providing.”
But Brad Meinhardt, U.S. aviation practice leader, for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., said now may be the best time for airlines — and insurance carriers — to think about crafting a specialized insurance program to cover fluke years like this one.
“I would be stunned if this subject hasn’t made its way up into the C-suites of major and mid-sized airlines,” Meinhardt said. “When these events happen, people tend to look over their shoulder and ask if there is a solution for such events.”
Airlines often hedge losses from unknown variables such as varying fuel costs or interest rate fluctuations using derivatives, but those tools may not be enough for severe winters such as this year’s, he said. While products like business interruption insurance may not be used for airlines, they could look at weather-related insurance products that have very specific triggers.
For example, airlines could designate a period of time for such a “tough winter policy,” say from the period of November to March, in which they can manage cancellations due to 10 days of heavy snowfall, Meinhardt said. That amount could be designated their retention in such a policy, and anything in excess of the designated snowfall days could be a defined benefit that a carrier could pay if the policy is triggered. Possibly, the trigger would be inches of snowfall. “Custom solutions are the idea,” he said.
“Airlines are not likely buying any of these types of products now, but I think there’s probably some thinking along those lines right now as many might have to take losses as write-downs on their quarterly earnings and hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “There probably needs to be one airline making a trailblazing action on an insurance or derivative product — something that gets people talking about how to hedge against those losses in the future.”
Is Stand-Alone Drone Coverage Necessary?
You see an increasing amount of comment on the very topical subject of drone cover. Some skeptics might argue that there is an element of self-interest at play here on the part of those initiating or promoting the discussion on this subject.
However, let’s just assume that this is all driven by the very best of intentions with one purpose in mind, the common good, indeed a lofty ideal!
My real issue with this development is the concept of what I call the proliferation of insurance products. The example of the commentary around the so-called drone insurance cover, is a case in point.
If the pursuit of separate policies for everything new continues, the insurance industry runs the risk of been seen as simply the provider of narrowly defined risk capital commodities.
Why do we need to go through the time consuming and expensive process of developing this supposedly fit-for-purpose insurance product, when there can be equally effective options available at a far cheaper development cost?
If something falls from the sky and someone suffers a “loss” in the form of bodily injury and/or property damage, there are existing remedies available which invariably revolve around conventional insurance products.
Why should all of this not be available when the “something” just happens to be a drone? What makes this event so particularly special that the liability arising from it cannot be covered under existing insurance products, even if minor adaption of those solutions is required?
The real point here is to try to not make our current market risk-transfer mechanisms even more complex than they already are. The better practice might be to investigate, indeed stress-test current solutions wherever possible to see if they can be utilized as new risks arise, or existing ones evolve.
There are exceptions to this, those obvious examples when that new risk is so unique that conventional solutions will just not provide the comprehensive cover required, cyber risk being a case in point.
The real point here is to try to not make our current market risk-transfer mechanisms even more complex than they already are.
If the pursuit of separate policies for everything new continues, the insurance industry runs the risk of been seen as simply the provider of narrowly defined risk capital commodities.
We should, as an industry, take a good hard look at new risks and see whether the current insurance market solutions can (even with adaption) work. Let’s not pre-empt that process by hastily imposing exclusions on an existing product which only serve to increase the impetus to buy the new product.
Good risk management leadership in 2015 adds value to the organization it serves when its response to questions raised about risks associated with new ventures or opportunities is, “Why not?” as opposed to the traditional “NO.”
Surely carriers (in fact all participants in the insurance industry) should also adopt similar thinking. Why can’t the existing solutions be made to work?
This insight covered the prospect of drone insurance now coming our way. What next? Policies for risks arising from nano-technology, solar flares or even artificial intelligence?
The Tools of the Trade
Integrating medical management with pharmacy benefit management is the Holy Grail in workers’ compensation. But getting it right involves diligence, good team communication and robust controls over the costs of monitoring technology.
Risk managers in workers’ compensation can feel good about the fact that opioid use is declining slightly. But experts who gathered for a pharmacy risk management roundtable in Philadelphia in June pointed to a number of reasons why workers’ compensation professionals have more than enough work cut out for them going forward.
For one, although opioid use is declining, its abuse and overuse in legacy workers’ compensation claims is still very much a problem. An epidemic rages nationally, with prescription drug overdose deaths outpacing those from the abuse of heroin and cocaine combined.
In addition, increased use of compound medications and unregulated physician dispensing are resulting in price gouging and poor medical outcomes.
Although individual states are attempting to address the problem of physician dispensing of prescriptions in workers’ comp, there is no national prohibition against it: That despite substantial evidence that the practice can result in ruinous workers’ compensation medical bills and poor patient outcomes.
“The issue is that there isn’t enough formal evidence to indicate improved outcomes from the use of compounds or physician dispensed drugs, and there are also legitimate concerns with patient safety,” said roundtable participant Jim Andrews, executive vice president, pharmacy, for Duluth, Ga.-based pharmacy benefit manager Healthcare Solutions.
Andrews’ concerns were echoed by another roundtable participant, Dr. Jennifer Dragoun, Philadelphia-based vice president and chief medical officer with AmeriHealth Casualty.
“When we’re seeing worsening outcomes and increasing costs, that’s the worst possible combination of events,” Dr. Dragoun said.
Whereas two years ago, topical creams and other compounds with two to three medications in them were causing concern, now we’re seeing compounds with seven or more medicines in them.
How those medicines are interacting with one another, and in the case of a compound cream, how quickly they’re being absorbed by the patient, are unknowns that are creating undue health risks.
“These medicines haven’t been tested for that route of administration,” Dragoun said.
In other words, the compounds have not been reviewed or approved by the FDA.
Carol Valentic, vice president of cost containment and medical management with third-party administrator Broadspire, said her company’s approach to that issue is to send a letter to providers, through the company’s pharmacy benefit administrator, alerting them to the fact that compounds are not FDA-approved and could be dangerous.
Other roundtable participants said they employ utilization review of every prescribed compound medication. They’re finding that the inflation of the average wholesale price for prescriptions that pharmacy benefit managers are battling in the case of single medications is happening with compounds as well, to the surprise of probably no one.
“The cost of compounds is doubling every year,” Healthcare Solutions’ Andrews said.
Kim Clark, vice president of utilization management with Patriot Care Management Inc., a division of Patriot National, Inc., said Patriot has their own software, DecisionUR, and opioids as well as compound prescriptions can be directed from the PBM to Utilization Review.
In the area of new worries in workers’ compensation, and there are plenty of them, Dragoun also pointed to the introduction of extremely high cost, albeit extremely effective specialty medications, such as those being used to treat Hepatitis C. Treatments in this area can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Domestic drug manufacturers, pressed to pursue profits as their product lines mature and their margins level off, are jockeying for dominance in this area.
“This seems to be a route that a lot of drug makers are going after. Very narrow markets but with extremely high cost medications,” said Deborah Gleason, clinical resources manager, medical programs, with ESIS, the Philadelphia-based third-party administrator that is part of ACE Group.
Tools of the Trade
Given how substantially the use of prescriptions can balloon the cost of a workers’ compensation claim and undermine outcomes, a number of tools are in the market that can help risk managers rein in costs.
One is urine drug monitoring, which can catch cases of drug diversion, or instances where an injured worker is ingesting unprescribed substances. But the use of that test can create its own problems, namely overutilization.
Gleason, with ESIS, Inc., and others use urine drug monitoring. But when the test is overused, say by being conducted every month instead of quarterly as is recommended, the members of the Philadelphia roundtable said its costs can outrun its usefulness.
Test results are frequently inconsistent, signaling that the injured workers aren’t taking the prescribed medication or are taking something they shouldn’t be. Drug testing shouldn’t be used in isolation but rather as a component of integrated medical management.
“What’s emerging today, and in some companies more prevalently, is the integration of managed care with pharmacy benefit management,” roundtable participant Valentic said.
“When we’re seeing worsening outcomes and increasing costs, that’s the worst possible combination of events.”
— Dr. Jennifer Dragoun, Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, AmeriHealth Casualty
In other words, it’s not enough to flag a script or pick up a urine drug monitoring test result. There needs to be a plan or a system in place that says what action should be taken with the patient once that information has been received.
Identifying a potential problem early and taking action on it is key, said ESIS’ Gleason. She added that the patient’s psychological state, including how they react to and perceive pain, is something that more risk practitioners should consider.
Obstacles to assessing someone’s psychological or psychosocial state, according to roundtable members, include a lack of awareness or acceptance of its possible advantages on the part of patients and physicians. After all, we’re talking about an assessment, a list of questions, that should take no more than 15 minutes to carry out.
If a treating physician or case manager doesn‘t conduct a psychological test but is still concerned about the potential for pain medication abuse, there is one key question they can ask an injured worker, according to AmeriHealth Casualty’s Dragoun.
“There is one question that predicts far more than any other attribute of a patient whether they are likely to abuse narcotics, and that is if they have a personal or family history of substance abuse,” Dragoun said.
“You know they may ask that about the patient, but I don’t know how many ask it about the family,” Patriot Care Management’s Kim Clark said.
Pharmacogenetic testing, that is testing an individual for how they might react to certain drugs or combinations of drugs, and not — let’s be clear about this — whether they are predisposed to addiction, is also entering the market.
But as is the case with urine drug monitoring, the use of pharmacogenetic testing is no cure-all and the cost of it needs to be carefully managed.
Some vendors are pitching that it be applied to every case in a payer’s portfolio. The roundtable participants in Philadelphia agreed that it should be used with far more discretion than that.
Regulating the Regulators
It’s a given in the insurance business and in workers’ compensation that regulators in all 50 states call the shots. There are few national laws that regulate the hazards faced by workers’ compensation risk managers and injured workers.
Having said that, is it really such a pipe dream to think that the federal government could step in and provide leadership in an area that is so prone to confusion, risk and self-serving behavior on the part of some vendors and medical practitioners?
If the Philadelphia roundtable as a group could point to one place where federal regulators could do some good it would be in the area of physician dispensing. Many states have enacted legislation to curb the practice, as there is no data to prove better outcomes, and regulation by the federal government would be of benefit, the Philadelphia roundtable concluded.
Another area would be to require FDA oversight for compounds.
“The minute you need to have FDA approval of a compound, that’s going to stop it,” Broadspire’s Valentic said.
It’s a notion worth considering. After all, lives are at stake here.
Given the lack of oversight from the federal government, the roundtable participants pointed to measures in a number of states that are worth emulating. The Texas closed formulary, which limits the range of medications that can be prescribed, is one example.
The requirement in the State of New York that a prescribing physician check a state registry — what’s known as a prescription drug monitoring program — to check whether a patient is already taking or has a prescription for a controlled substance, is another good example of a state government stepping in to ensure the safety of its residents.
“The minute you need to have FDA approval of a compound, that’s going to stop it.”
— Carol Valentic, Vice President of Cost Containment, Medical Management, Broadspire
Pennsylvania also earned praise from the roundtable for recently passing a measure limiting the amount of medication that a physician can dispense to an initial supply.
With different regulations in every state and with the average wholesale cost of prescriptions constantly on the rise, pharmacy benefit management is an art requiring constant vigilance.
“It’s not an original thought, but if you stop and think about all the things that are happening in society with the addictions and the costs, the cost of doing nothing is greater than the cost of doing something.
I think that’s why everybody is doing something,” Healthcare Solutions’ Andrews said.
For more information about Healthcare Solutions, please visit www.healthcaresolutions.com.
Opinions of the roundtable participants are the opinions of each individual contributor and are not necessarily reflective of their respective companies.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Healthcare Solutions. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.