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Animal research has shown that the best way to get a rat to press a pellet-producing lever is to set the mechanism so that it doesn’t always release a pellet with each push. The unpredictability (or scarcity) of the reward causes the rat to seek it with more fervor. Casino owners are well aware of this phenomenon, gaming our brain’s natural wiring so that our occasional wins drive us to lose more than we would if our winning had a predictable pattern.
I believe that the same principle is at work in physician reimbursement. Although most patients don’t realize this, physicians aren’t always paid for the work they do, and they are paid wildly different rates depending on how they code an encounter or procedure. After several health insurance denials of payment for legitimate work, physicians look for ways to offset their losses. Those may include changing the coding of their procedures to enhance the rate of reimbursement, exaggerating the complexity of an encounter, or (less commonly) billing for things they didn’t do. Because of the perceived injustice in a system that randomly denies payment for legitimate work, the physician feels less morally concerned about her over billing and coding foibles.
And so a vicious cycle of reimbursement deprivation, followed by fraud and abuse, becomes the norm in the U.S. healthcare system. Payers say that physicians are greedy and unethical, and physicians say that payers deny reimbursement unfairly and pay rates that are too low to be sustainable. The government’s response is to hire a cadre of auditors to ferret out physician fraud while cutting reimbursement to physicians further. This is similar to reducing the rate of pellet release to the rats in the Skinner boxes, while randomly electrocuting them through the metal flooring. The result will be that rats will work harder to find work-arounds to get their pellets, including gathering together into larger groups to share pellets. This is occurring more and more commonly as solo practitioners are joining hospitals or large group practices to make ends meet.
But we need to realize a few things about the “Skinner box healthcare system:”
1. Rats are not evil because they press levers manically when there is a scarcity of pellets. Physicians are not evil when they look for ways to make up lost revenue. While fraud and abuse are always wrong, it is not surprising that they are flourishing in an environment of decreasing reimbursement and increasing health insurance payment denials. If we want to address fraud and abuse, we need to understand why it’s happening so that our “solutions” (i.e. hiring thousands more government auditors to investigate medical practices) don’t end up being as useless as shocking the rats.
2. Health insurance (whether public or private) is not evil for trying to rein in costs. Payers are in the unenviable position of having to say “no” to certain expenditures, especially if they are of marginal benefit. With rats pressing levers at faster and faster rates for smaller and smaller pellets, all manner of cost containment mechanisms are being applied. Unfortunately they are instituted randomly and in covert manners (such as coding tricks and bureaucratic red tape) which makes the rats all the more manic. Not to mention that expensive technology is advancing at a dizzying rate, and direct-to-consumer advertising drives demand for the latest and greatest robot procedure or biotech drug. Costs are skyrocketing for a number of good and bad reasons.
3. There is a way out of the Skinner box for those primary care physicians brave enough to venture out. Insurance-free practices instantly remove one’s dietary reliance on pellets, therefore eliminating the whole lever pressing game. I joined such a practice several years ago. As I have argued many times before, buying health insurance for primary care needs is like buying car insurance for your windshield wipers. It’s overkill. Paying cash for your primary care allows you to save money on monthly insurance premiums (high deductible plans cost much less per month) and frees up your physician to care for you anywhere, anytime. There is no need to go to the doctor’s office just so that they can justify billing your insurance. Pay them for their time instead (whether by phone, in-person, or at your home/place of business) and you’ll be amazed at the convenience and efficiency derived from cutting out the middle men!
Conclusion: The solution to primary care woes is to think outside the box. Patient demand is the only limiting factor in the growth of the direct-pay market. Patients need to realize that they are not limited to seeing “only the physicians on their health insurance list” – there is another world out there where doctors make house calls, solve your problems on the phone, and can take care of you via Skype anywhere in the world. Patients have the power to set physicians free from their crazy pellet-oriented existence by paying cash for their health basics while purchasing a less expensive health insurance plan to cover catastrophic events. Saving primary care physicians from dependency on the insurance model is the surest path to quality, affordable healthcare for the majority of Americans. Will you join the movement?
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In a recent post entitled, “The Joys Of Health Insurance Bureaucracy” I described how it took me (a physician) over three months to get one common prescription filled through my new health insurance plan. Of note, I have still been unable to enroll in the prescription refill mail order service that saves my insurer money and (ostensibly) enhances my convenience. The prescription benefits manager (PBM) has lost three of my physician’s prescriptions sent to them by fax, and as a next step have emailed me instructions to complete an online form so that they have permission to contact my physician directly (to confirm the year’s refills). Unfortunately, page one of the form requires you to fill in your drug name and match it to their database’s list before you can continue to page two. For reasons I can’t understand, my common drug is not in their database. Therefore, I am unable to comply with my insurer’s wish that I enroll in mail order prescription refills. This will further delay receipt of my medication – and probably increase my cost as I will be penalized for not opting into the “preferred” mail order refill process.
Now, all of this is infuriating enough on its own, but the larger concern that I have is this: How many patients are not “compliant” with their medication regimen because of problems/delays with their health insurer or PBM? Physicians are being held accountable for their patients’ medication compliance rates, even receiving lower compensation for patients who don’t reach certain goals. This is called “pay-for-performance” and it’s meant to incentivize physicians to be more aggressive with patient follow up so that people stay healthier. But all the follow up in the world isn’t going to get patient X to take their medicine each day if their health insurer or PBM makes it impossible for them to get it in the first place. And shouldn’t there be consequences for such excessive red tape? Who is holding the insurers and PBMs accountable for their inefficiencies that prevent patients from getting their medicines in a timely manner?
Pay-for-performance assumes that physicians are the only healthcare influencers in the patient compliance cycle. I’ve learned that we only play a part in helping people stay on the best path for their health. Other key players can derail our best intentions, and it’s high time that we look at the poor performance of health insurers and PBMs as they often block (with intentional bureaucracy) our patients from getting the medicine they need. While insurers save money by having patients struggle to get their prescriptions filled, doctors are payed less when patients don’t take their medicines.
Not a great time to be a doctor or a patient… or both.
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If you live in a small town or rural area of the United States, you may have noticed that family doctors are becoming an endangered species. Private and public health insurance reimbursement rates are so low that survival as a solo practitioner (without the economies of scale of a large group practice or hospital system) is next to impossible. Some primary care physicians are staying afloat by refusing to accept insurance – this allows them the freedom to practice medicine that is in the patient’s best interest, rather than tied to reimbursement requirements.
I joined such a practice a few years ago. We make house calls, answer our own phones, solve at least a third of our patients’ problems via phone (we don’t have to make our patients come into the office so that we can bill their insurer for the work we do), and have low overhead because we don’t need to hire a coding and billing team to get our invoices paid. Our patients love the convenience of same day office visits, electronic prescription refills, and us coming to their house or place of business as needed.
Using health insurance to pay for primary care is like buying car insurance for your windshield wipers. The bureaucracy involved raises costs to a ridiculously unreasonable level. I wish that more Americans would decide to pay cash for primary care and buy a high deductible health plan to cover catastrophic events. But until they do, economic pressures will force primary care physicians into hospital systems and large group practices. My friend and fellow blogger Dr. Doug Farrago likens this process to being “assimilated by the Borg.”
Doug offered a challenge to his readers – to customize the definition of Star Trek’s Borg species to today’s healthcare players. I gave it my best shot. Do you have a better version?
Who are the Borg:
The Borg are a collection of alien species that have turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones of the collective or the hive. A pseudo-race, dwelling in the Star Trek universe, the Borg take other species by force into the collective and connect them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation and entails violence, abductions, and injections of cybernetic implants. The Borg’s ultimate goal is “achieving perfection”.
My attempt to customize the definition:
Hospitalists are a collection of primary care physicians that have turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones of the collective or hive. Hive collective administrators (HCAs), in association with partnered alien species drawn from the insurance industry and government, take other primary care physicians by economic force and connect them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation and entails crippling reimbursement cuts, massive increases in documentation requirements, oppressive professional liability insurance rates, punitive bureaucratic legislation, and threat of imprisonment for failure to adhere to laws that HCA- partnered species interpret however they wish. The HCAs’ ultimate goal is “achieving perfect dependency” first for the drones, then for their patients, so that HCAs and their alien partners will become all powerful – dictating how neighboring species live, breathe, and conduct their affairs. Resistance is futile.
To learn more about my insurance-free medical practice, please click here. We can unplug you from the Borg ship!
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It is estimated that 44% of Americans will be obese by the year 2030. The AMA warns that increasing obesity rates will lead “to millions of additional cases of type 2 diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease, as well as arthritis and hypertension. Billions of dollars will be wasted through lost economic productivity and skyrocketing medical costs.”
And yet, a funny thing is happening in consumer land – efforts to normalize obesity are gaining momentum via social media platforms. Take the “beauty comes in all sizes” ad for example. This was shared with me by an old grade school friend on Facebook. And while I can appreciate the sentiment that women of various genetic predispositions are beautiful, I stopped short at the idea that obesity itself was attractive. There is a growing movement among obese men and women to promote acceptance of their size, and if they win this argument they could substantially undermine efforts to help Americans become healthy and avoid disease. I know this sounds harsh, but to me, promoting beauty of all sizes – when that includes obesity- is tantamount to promoting a “smoking is cool” campaign.
Smoking rates in the United States have dropped from 42.4% in 1965 to 19% in 2010. Although one-in-five people still smoke, we have successfully reduced the smoking burden by more than half. The reasons for this reduction are complex, but they include public awareness campaigns regarding the harmfulness of cigarette smoking, increasing taxes on cigarettes, and public policy regarding where and when people can smoke in public.
The same exact approach can’t work for obesity because while people can simply quit smoking, we can’t quit eating. And what we eat is less important than how much we eat. I personally do not favor “fat taxes” on specific food items because almost any food could cause weight gain if consumed in large enough quantities. I also don’t favor singling out obese people for portion reduction at restaurants (this has actually been proposed), or other policies that are similar to what we’ve done with smoking in public spaces. Promoting prejudice against the obese is not constructive.
So that leaves us with public perception/education and peer pressure as our primary national strategy for reducing obesity rates. (Of course smaller initiatives can help: employers can incentivize weight loss and wellness, policy makers can encourage new housing developments that promote active lifestyles, and local groups and non-profits can promote fitness initiatives and healthy eating behaviors.)
My concern is that if too many people decide that normalizing obesity is better than fighting it, America will lose this battle. Obesity-related disease is already costing us about twice as much as smoking-related illnesses. And both smoking and obesity are nearly 100% avoidable.
Obesity is not beautiful, and we must redouble our efforts to win the hearts and minds of the public on this subject without resorting to the other extreme (idolizing anorexia). Good health lies somewhere in the middle – and keeping our middles within a reasonable range is the most important health goal we have.
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From a health perspective, I am grateful to be doing well. I have only one active medical condition that is fully treated by one prescription medicine. I have been taking this medicine since I was 18 years old. I recently bought myself a personal health insurance plan (my first that was not tied to employment) and simply wanted to resume regular purchase and use of my medicine.
I was pleased to note that purchasing my medicine through the new insurance plan would save me a little bit of money (about $25/month). So I presented my card at the local pharmacy and was told that my medicine was not covered under my plan without pre-authorization from my doctor. I called my pharmacy benefits hotline and had them send a pre-auth form to my doctor. Then I asked him to fill out the form and fax it back. That was over three months ago.
When I called to inquire about the pre-auth forms, the benefits folks told me that they had no record of the fax. So I asked my doctor to send another fax form and I waited another week. When I called the benefits people, they again said that they had no record of the pre-auth documentation. They also said that I could not be transferred to the pre-auth team to figure out why it was missing (wrong fax number perhaps?) because they only speak to providers.
So out of curiosity I asked what the usual process was for obtaining a prescription medication once it has been authorized. The benefits staff didn’t know. I asked who would know and they said that only the “experts” in the pre-auth department know how medications are obtained by the member after being approved. I wondered how I’d ever figure this out if I wasn’t allowed to speak to them and I was told that I might be able to get an answer if I asked a customer care representative to request information on my behalf from the pre-auth experts. But… the pre-auth team was not in the office at the moment and I’d need to call back on Monday. (Parenthetically, the team is physically located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, though I’m a member in Charleston, South Carolina.)
I asked the benefits team if they generally mail members their meds (I had heard this was the case) or if I could pick them up at my local pharmacy (my preference). They said they didn’t know, but I could call customer care on Monday.
So far, my experience with my new plan – to save $25 dollars/month on one prescription – has cost me 3 months and 1 week of waiting time, two form completion episodes with my doctor, discussions with several pharmacy benefits reps in a state far away from where I live, denial of communication with the only people who know what’s potentially holding up my prescription approval, and about a half hour of completely unhelpful discussion of basic prescription drug purchasing processes that staff at the drug benefits company themselves don’t understand.
And I’m healthy, I’m a healthcare provider who knows how to navigate the system, and I only need one prescription. What do sick people do? (I know, it’s awful out there.)
Life was much simpler when I paid for my medication out-of-pocket without an insurance middle man. I have often wondered if health insurance bureaucracy is purposefully designed to wear patients down to the point where they’ll just pay for things themselves rather than experience the pain associated with getting an insurance company to cover their portion of the cost. (The only other explanation is that health insurance company ineptitude comes from being administrative behemoths with too many moving parts and processes). It’s probably a mix of the two. Or maybe the latter supports the former so there’s no real incentive to pursue true efficiency.
But one thing I did notice – the insurance company was incredibly efficient at figuring out how to direct debit my premiums within 24 hours of signing up for the plan, and have increased my premium once already – by about $25 a month.
You can’t win, my friends.
If you’re healthy, get yourself a high deductible plan, pay as little in premiums as possible, and sock away some money in case of a catastrophic event. Pay cash for your primary care, and do whatever you can to stay healthy and out of the hospital. That’s my plan and I’m sticking to it.
Update: My medicine was finally approved/authorized, but I was informed that my doctor would need to send a new Rx form to them before I could receive my prescription. The Rx needed to be on their company’s form, so they had to fax him the request first. I asked how I would pay for the prescription and where I could pick it up and was informed that I’d save about 15% if I agreed to have the medicine mailed to my home (but delivery would take 2 extra weeks).
So I agreed to have it mailed to my home and offered to give them my credit card. They said I should call back with it once my doctor’s Rx had been received. I asked them how I would know when that had occurred. They said that they couldn’t call me to tell me when the Rx had arrived because I had selected “text messaging” as my preferred method of contact, and they don’t inform members of Rx form receipt via text messaging. So I agreed to switch my preference to calls (instead of text), and now I’ll probably get automated prescription refill information in the form of incoming calls on my personal work phone from now till I die. That’s if they don’t sell my phone number to telemarketers in the mean time.
And how annoying is it for my doctor to have sent out two faxes and one new Rx form for ONE prescription (not to mention reading the email explanations from me regarding correct pharmacy benefits plan form usage)? He was uncompensated for his time in this matter…