Tuesday, September 27, 2016

qotd: Employee health deteriorated under award-winning wellness program

September 27, 2016
Top wellness award goes to workplace where many health measures got worse
By Sharon Begley

When Idaho's Boise School District receives the workplace wellness industry's highest award Wednesday at a celebration in Atlanta, it is expected to be applauded for helping its 3,000-plus employees and their families improve their health and reduce their risk of illness.

It is "an exemplary program," said Dr. James Fries, an emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford University and member of The Health Project, an industry-sponsored group that makes the annual award. Program participants, he said in an announcement this month, "showed improvements in health behavior," helping Boise save money on medical costs.

Data collected by the company that sold Boise the wellness program and trumpeted the "Koop Award," however, cast doubt on that claim. More key measures of health deteriorated than improved. Self-reported quality of health got worse. And health care costs jumped around in a way that suggests any changes were due at least in part to random fluctuations and possibly employee turnover, not any benefits of the wellness program.

This would not be the first time the Koop Award, named for the late US Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, stirred controversy. Employees in the wellness program that won in 2015, for instance, collectively achieved a lower reduction in smoking than the national average. More gained weight than lost, more raised their total cholesterol level than lowered it, and more had higher blood glucose levels after participating in the wellness program than before.

Such cases reinforce a growing recognition among experts that wellness programs — which constitute an $8 billion a year industry — "don't lead to any visible results," Stanford's Emma Seppala recently wrote in Harvard Business Review. "At best, these initiatives are nothing more than lip service or PR. But at worst, they actually cause more stress."


Comment by Don McCanne

We still hear that employers are adopting wellness programs in order to reduce the future costs of their health benefit programs by making their employees healthier. There could be no better evidence that these programs do not work than the fact that the top award for a workplace wellness program went to an employer whose employees' health deteriorated.

If employers really want to do something about controlling health care costs, they should get on the single payer bandwagon. Not only would that eliminate the hassle and expense of administering their health benefit programs, all of their employees would have health care automatically, and future increases in health care costs would be reduced to sustainable levels.

Any employers reading this who are not yet convinced about single payer would benefit by watching a movie developed by and for the business community, "FIX IT - Healthcare at The Tipping Point":

Monday, September 26, 2016

qotd: What should the candidates tell us about controlling costs?

Modern Healthcare
September 24, 2016
Editorial: Thank you for that question, Lester
By Merrill Goozner

(Question for candidates, proposed by the New York Times): "Health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs are rising rapidly. What would you do to control them?"

If I were advising a candidate on how to respond to that question, here's what I'd recommend he or she say:


"Thank you for that question, Lester. I understand why many Americans think their insurance premiums are rising rapidly. There's been a lot of attention paid to next year's increases for the individual policies sold on the Obamacare insurance exchanges, which will rise about 9% on average, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation survey."

"Employers are forcing individuals to pick up more of the cost of their plans."

"The employer portion of your health insurance is going up just 4% next year on average. That means the family share has to go up more than 5.5% to make up the difference."

"Employers are doing that by putting more of us in high-deductible plans. They're asking more of us to pay higher co-pays and deductibles. They are raising our portion of the premiums."

"So what can we do about it? First, we have to recognize this is a big experiment that has been endorsed by economists associated with both political parties. They say by forcing patients and consumers to have more skin in the game, they will become wiser healthcare shoppers."

"I say, to make that work, we have to have total transparency — in healthcare prices, in insurance prices, in which doctors and hospitals are in health plan networks, in quality ratings, and with good, easy-to-understand information about what constitutes the most effective and cost-effective care. I pledge to work night and day to give consumers the information they need to make smarter choices in the healthcare marketplace."

"And if some people simply can't afford to put money into the health savings accounts accompanying these plans, let's remove some of the tax subsidies given high-income people for their health insurance so we can finance a generous federal match for what lower-income people contribute."

"Let me now turn to what can we do about those rising individual rates for plans sold on the exchanges. The bottom line is we need more people to sign up. The No. 1 reason why rates are rising is that not enough healthy uninsured people signed up for coverage."

"We need everyone who is uninsured to jump into the individual insurance pool."


Comment by Don McCanne

Merrill Goozner certainly understands the political realities about health policy. To a question on health costs that could be part of tonight's presidential debate, he suggests an answer for the candidates that aligns with the current financing system under the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, because of the restrictions he apparently placed on himself, it's a terribly deficient answer.

For the problem of high-deductibles he suggests making patients better shoppers through greater transparency in prices, in network composition and in quality ratings. But that would have almost no impact on making the deductibles and other cost sharing more affordable.

He accepts the dubious concept that health savings accounts should accompany these high-deductible plans, and further suggests that the accounts for lower-income individuals be subsidized. Health savings accounts are strictly an administrative tool that increases the complexity and waste in health care financing. When the accounts are depleted, beneficial health care services are forgone - not a desirable outcome. If you are going to have first dollar coverage built into the HSAs, why not instead save administrative hassles and expenses by building first dollar coverage into the insurance program itself?

For the high premiums of the exchange plans, he suggests enrolling more of the healthy to dilute the risk pool. But the low-lying fruit has been picked. The policy community is beside itself in trying to figure out how to bring more into the exchange plans, while having only negligible success in doing so.

Goozner is certainly highly respected by me and others, but we wish that he and others like him would move beyond feeble patchwork solutions and support a program that would make health care accessible and permanently affordable for all. Of course that would be a single payer national health program - an improved Medicare for all. Goozner understands that we won't hear that from either candidate tonight, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be asking for that response.

Friday, September 23, 2016

qotd: Valeant’s 9.9% price increase doesn’t fool anyone

September 22, 2016
Valeant avoids double-digit price hikes with 9.9 percent increases
By Ed Silverman

In response to intensifying criticism over drug prices, Allergan chief executive Brent Saunders promised not to raise prices by more than single-digit percentage points. So far, no other head of a large drug maker has spoken publicly about this notion or agreed to do the same thing.

Yet some companies may adopt this approach quietly — and push the envelope in the process.

How so? One way is to raise prices on drugs by 9.9 percent. And this is what Valeant Pharmaceuticals did last week.

The drug maker, which has been widely vilified for buying older medicines and then jacking up the prices to sky-high levels, increased list prices for three eye medicines by exactly 9.9 percent, according to Wells Fargo analyst David Maris.

The "9.9 percent increase versus an even 10 percent seems very odd and may be an attempt to stay under the radar of managed care plans and states looking out for double-digit price increases," Maris wrote in an investor note.

The 10 percent threshold has taken on more than symbolic weight, though.

A bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers last week introduced a bill that would require drug makers to justify their pricing and provide a breakdown of their costs before raising prices on certain products by more than 10 percent. The legislation largely mimics bills that have been introduced in more than a dozen states, although only Vermont has passed such a law.


Comment by Don McCanne

For a pharmaceutical firm infamous for abusive pricing of their products, a 9.9% increase is an obvious attempt to keep under the radar by avoiding a double digit increase, but nobody is fooled by this. Valeant could have had a 9.8% increase, but, no, it had to be 9.9%.

In spite of the extensive adverse publicity, the industry continues to gouge. It's time for our government to represent us by introducing publicly-administered pricing - paying legitimate costs plus fair profits. The industry will not walk if we are giving them a fair deal.