The show on direct contracting with Doug Hetherington (EP367) and also the one with Katy Talento (EP350), both of these experts have said that if an employer direct contracts with a provider organization, in general, the employer gets about 20% savings over the status quo. This makes sense—just cut out the middleman with an MLR (medical loss ratio) of plus or minus about 15% and you’re at three-quarters of the way there.
You might be thinking, “Well, maybe not so fast here, because then wouldn’t FFS (fee-for-service) rates go up? Is it not Slide 1 on most carriers’ sales decks how great they are at leveraging their vast buying power to negotiate discounts with hospitals?” Hmmm … if you think this, you’re about to be shook.
Turns out, carriers are not so good at negotiating rates with hospitals. For more on this topic, follow Leon Wisniewski on LinkedIn. Or check out an article entitled “Hospital prices vary widely, often higher with insurance than cash, The New York Times finds.”
The big concerns for employers looking to direct contract, I think, are going to be threefold. And right now, I’m just speaking in general. This has nothing to do with the conversation that follows. But I think the three big concerns are this:
Let’s say the employer gets actual fee-for-service rates that are 20% less than average carrier negotiated rates. So, great … but will utilization go up if the wolf is watching the henhouse, so to speak? Especially if PCPs are owned by the hospital system and incented, as many are, to drive downstream utilization. It’s been estimated that PCPs can drive $1,000,000+ of revenue when they refer in network to profitable service lines. What happens when this is unfettered, meaning no third party to do prior auth stuff for utilization management, for example? Some employers, for sure, could and certainly do hire a third party to do utilization management; but sometimes one of the contractual requirements of a health system direct contract is an easing of, let’s just say, at least the most aggressive PA (prior auth) requirements. So now, all of a sudden, are more plan members getting more services that, even at a 20% discount, add up to a greater total spend?
A counterpoint: I’ve heard more than one person who would know say that most PA programs don’t actually do a whole lot except defer spend at best. Here’s a quote from Scott Haas. He said, “The only value I have observed of the prior authorization process is the accumulation of data that is required of the stop-loss industry to establish known risk for them to laser risk. Cost shifting at its best. Other than that, I have rarely observed value to the patient, provider, or the plan sponsor.”
One thing I am noticing is that those providers offering direct contracts are aware of this whole line of questioning and fear of the health system driving overutilization because incentives and might be doing things (the health system looking to direct contract) to mitigate those fears. Some are discussed later in this podcast.
So, I don’t know about whether plan sponsor spend would net-net go up if you get rid of PAs and profit-driven utilization management or go up enough to offset all of the admin costs and care gaps that crappy prior auths or prior auth processes slam patients and providers with.
Big concern for employers (besides even if the price goes down will utilization go up—and then what’s the net effect of that?): Will the provider’s PPO (preferred provider organization) network be too narrow if I go with a direct contract with a health system, either legally running afoul of network adequacy rules or run afoul of employees just getting pissed off because their doctors are no longer in network? I guess there’s a bunch of ways you can do things if you are a plan sponsor that might mitigate this, but I could still see it certainly being a concern.
By aligning the plan sponsor with the provider, includi