Tuesday, November 2, 2010

qotd: Value-based insurance design

Health Affairs
November 2010

Applying Value-Based Insurance Design To High-Cost Health Services
By James C. Robinson

Value-based insurance design programs have focused on reducing consumer cost sharing in health insurance for preventive tests and medications for chronic diseases. But for value-based design principles to have a stronger clinical and economic impact, they should be extended to expensive services and to those for which the evidence is limited or controversial. This paper proposes applying value-based insurance design principles to self-administered and office-administered specialty drugs, implantable medical devices, advanced imaging modalities, and major surgical procedures.


Applying Value-Based Insurance Design To Low-Value Health Services
By A. Mark Fendrick, Dean G. Smith and Michael E. Chernew

Value-based insurance design improves health care quality and efficiency by reducing cost sharing for services that have strong evidence of clinical benefit. The same goals can also be accomplished by increasing cost sharing for low-value services, which would ensure more effective care and achieve net cost savings. However, there are challenges in defining what is meant by "low-value services" and implementing programs to restrict such services' use. This paper argues that investments in processes to define low-value care, comparative effectiveness research to identify services that produce harm or marginal clinical benefit, and information technology to implement findings can facilitate applying value-based insurance design to the low-value realm.


Assessing The Evidence For Value-Based Insurance Design
By Niteesh K. Choudhry1, Meredith B. Rosenthal and Arnold Milstein

High copayments for medical services can cause patients to underuse essential therapies. Value-based health insurance design attempts to address this problem by explicitly linking cost sharing and value. Copayments are set at low levels for high-value services. The Mercer National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans demonstrates that value-based insurance design use is increasing and that 81 percent of large employers plan to offer it in the near future. Despite this increase, few studies have adequately evaluated its ability to improve quality and reduce health spending. Maximizing the benefits of value-based insurance design will require mechanisms to target appropriate copayment reductions, offset short-run cost outlays, and expand its use to other health services.

Impact Of Health Care Fragmentation 

Payers have the greatest incentive to adopt plans using value-based insurance design when they stand to benefit from reductions in spending on medical care that is averted from the use of highly effective therapies. However, the fragmented nature of the US health care system may reduce the likelihood of this scenario. Payers often carve out certain types of benefits, most notably for prescription drugs. Similarly, pharmacy benefit managers often have little incentive to reduce cost sharing for fully insured people unless such terms are specifically negotiated. In addition, patients frequently switch insurers, such as when they change jobs. Thus, with the exception of very high-risk conditions where improved quality may be achieved quickly, payers face the possibility that they will bear the cost of therapy while other payers reap the savings from averted clinical events.

The implications of insurance "churn" — the switching and dropping out of plans as employment changes — are less relevant in systems with a single payer that provides comprehensive coverage over a longer period of time.

Comment:  Value-based insurance design generally refers to the drafting of insurance benefits in a way that would improve health care value. Under this concept, financial disincentives such as deductibles, copayments and coinsurance should be reduced or eliminated for health care that has been proven to be beneficial, whereas these cost-sharing measures should be increased for "expensive services and those for which the evidence is limited or controversial." Is this a good idea?

There is already considerable evidence that reducing cost sharing for proven drugs and for preventive services is of benefit for the health of the individual. Patients taking effective maintenance medications are more likely to fill their prescriptions, and patients are more likely to access preventive screening services. However, the evidence that this saves money is quite spotty and weak. Nevertheless, eliminating barriers to beneficial care is desirable, and our health care policies should be designed to encourage such improved access.

What about increasing financial barriers to expensive care, such as specialty drugs, implantable medical devices, advanced imaging modalities, and major surgical procedures? If these expensive services are beneficial, then higher cost sharing explicitly creates rationing based on the ability to pay. Those who can afford the high out-of-pocket expenses receive the care, and those who can't afford the cost sharing don't. Those of us who are passionate advocates of health care justice would find this to be totally unacceptable. We would support more equitable policies to address the cost issues.

What about increasing financial barriers to expensive care for which the evidence of benefit is marginal or controversial? Do we want to have a system in which the wealthy can spend whatever they want for try-it-and-see health care, while those of more modest income are not allowed that option? First of all, there is a lot of high-cost care that falls into this marginal category, much of which should probably be made accessible to everyone. So financial barriers would still be inappropriate from a policy perspective.

But what about the care that crosses the threshold of clearly being too expensive while likely of no value or perhaps even detrimental? Should that care still be available, if only for the wealthy? Should we even care? The problem is that the health care delivery infrastructure is a limited resource; it is expensive; and we all pay for it. Diverting our health care resources, at the whim of the wealthy and those who would profit from them, places stresses on our capacity that can have undesirable consequences such as unnecessarily expanding queues. 

Value-based insurance design is a bad idea for three reasons: 1) we should not have financial barriers to beneficial health care services; 2) we should not use financial barriers that establish two-tiered or multi-tiered systems which favor the wealthy while neglecting our workforce; and 3) we shouldn't continue with the creation of administratively burdensome policies made necessary merely because our Congressional leaders value our private insurers more than they value patients.

One statement pulled out of this special issue of Health Affairs carries a very pregnant message that the authors likely didn't intend:

"The implications of insurance 'churn' — the switching and dropping out of plans as employment changes — are less relevant in systems with a single payer that provides comprehensive coverage over a longer period of time."

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