How Third-Party Payers Crush Entrepreneurs
By John C. Goodman • Monday August 13, 2012 3:51 PM PDT • 2 Comments
In complex systems, there are always unmet needs and problems to be solved. The more dysfunctional the system, the more numerous are the unmet needs and the more severe are the problems. In other sectors, needs to be met and problems to be solved are the fertile ground from which entrepreneurs emerge. Where is healthcare’s equivalent of a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs?
The answer: There are literally thousands of entrepreneurs in healthcare. I meet them every day. In fact, I believe I can safely say that there is no serious problem in the business of health that is not already being substantially solved in some way by an entrepreneur somewhere in the system. Unfortunately, these efforts tend to be scattered and limited. Most of the time they run into three major barriers: insurance companies, employers, and government.
As discussed in Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis, these are the three entities that pay most of the healthcare bills. They are the third-party payers. (The first two parties are the doctor and the patient.) With respect to healthcare, they tend to be bureaucratic, wedded to tradition, and resistant to change. They are, in a word, the entrepreneur’s nemesis.
Take the subject of hospital costs. It is well known that the cost of procedures varies radically from hospital to hospital, as does the quality of care. So why not take advantage of this fact? A version of what some call value-based health insurance could cut the typical health plan’s hospital costs in half. How does it work? The insurer pays the cost of care at a low-cost, high-quality facility (which may require the patient to travel) and only that amount. Patients are free to go to another facility but must pay the full extra cost of their choice.
Now, I wasn’t the first person to think of this. In fact, an Austin, Texas-based company, Employer Direct Healthcare, is offering employers a variation on that idea at this very moment. They negotiate rates with select hospitals that are from one-third to one-half lower than what other health insurers are paying. Most insurers are at the opposite end of the smart-buying spectrum, however. Blue Cross of Texas, for example, not only does not steer patients to one hospital rather than another, there is not a single hospital in Dallas that is not in its network.
Part of the reason why the insurers are so resistant to cost-reducing innovations is that many of their employer clients are also resistant. The typical client of Employer Direct Healthcare, for example, waives the deductible and co- payment for patients who choose the low-cost, high-quality facilities, but that is the full extent of the financial incentive. A step in the right direction perhaps, but a timid one. An aggressive strategy would be to let the employee pay the full extra cost of their choices.
Of the three third-party payer institutions, government is by far the worst at resisting entrepreneurship—even when the government itself is implementing radical change. As part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), for example, states are to establish health insurance exchanges, allowing individuals to electronically select their health insurance from among competing plans. The federal government is offering millions of dollars to set up these exchanges. In some states, officials are arguing about how to spend the money, and in other states, they are actually refusing the money on the grounds that it amounts to acceptance of a health reform they do not like.
But why does any state need to spend millions to set up an exchange? Did you know that eHealth already has an electronic exchange, and more than 1 million people have health insurance purchased online through its system? The Obama administration is asking fifty state governments to spend a great deal of money to invent something that a private company has already discovered—and is ready to implement for the government for pennies on the dollar.
The administration is also spending millions of dollars trying to encourage electronic medical records. But did you know that eHealth already offers many of its customers an electronic medical record (including a record of doctor visits, prescriptions taken, etc.), based on insurance payment records?