What About Patient Accountability?

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The debate between payers and providers over the responsibility and accountability of healthcare costs certainly didn’t begin with the drafting and eventual passage of the ACA, nor will it end. Like the Hatfields and McCoys, a war of words (and figures) has been waged between these primary stakeholders in the healthcare industry for decades. There is a fundamental distrust and disagreement regarding who is responsible for the unsustainable growth in healthcare costs – and who should ultimately be responsible and held accountable for the standard “healthcare system” objectives of increasing efficiency, decreasing costs, and improving outcomes.

To bend the cost curve, many of the recent conversations and reform efforts have been focused on population health management, care coordination, compliance, and engagement. New technologies and regulations are emerging daily with a promise to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare. New business and care delivery models (and old ones with new names) are being developed and deployed, such as ACOs and Medical Homes. And, most of these new ideas and solutions are being described as “consumer-driven,” “patient-centric,” and “integrated,” yet most are failing to produce the results that politicians, employers, and consumers are aggressively demanding.

Meanwhile, the heavily scrutinized leaders of health insurance companies and hospital systems continue to blame each other for the meteoric rise in health care costs – and they should be – but not as healthcare executives but rather as healthcare consumers… and consumers of cigarettes, alcohol, hamburgers, and home entertainment.

To clarify this point, I recall my experience at the 2010 World Health Care Congress in Washington DC (April 12-14). It was the first major industry conference shortly after the ACA passed (March 23). A morning panel of shell-shocked CEOs from leading payers and providers engaged in a “healthy” yet intense discussion about conflicts of interest, cost-shifting, risk-sharing, accountability, insurance exchanges, consumerism, fee-for-service vs. value-based, supply/demand imbalances, the aging population, end-of-life, fraud and abuse, technology integration and interoperability, industry consolidation, regulations, EHRs and meaningful use, and the economy, among other timely topics.

As soon as the session ended, the industry leaders charged with creating solutions for our national healthcare crisis flooded out of the auditorium into the hallways of the convention center. I observed in dismay as many shuffled outside for a smoke break in finger-numbing temperatures while the masses consumed sugar-loaded pastries, donuts, coffee drinks, juices and soft drinks from well-catered tables. Did I mention that we had all been sitting in chairs all morning?

If we really want to get serious about “bending the cost curve,” then we need to address our society’s apathy regarding unhealthy behaviors and environments. There is overwhelming evidence that prevalent yet preventative consumer behavior, such as smoking, alcohol abuse, poor nutrition, and lack of physical activity, are imposing enormous costs on our society. Chronic conditions that are caused or worsened by unhealthy lifestyles, such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, and cancer, account for more than seventy-five percent of U.S. healthcare expenditures. To truly solve our healthcare crisis, patients and consumers of healthcare must assume more accountability.

Surely, that is one thing payers and providers should agree upon!

Together, these key stakeholders need to redesign our healthcare system with new solutions that will drive patient accountability and reward healthy behavior. Just as banks utilize credit ratings and the automobile insurance relies upon driving records to help manage their risks, the healthcare payers and providers need a standard means to help manage their risks. It’s quite simple in these other scenarios I referenced. If we are financially irresponsible, then it costs us more to borrow money. If we drive irresponsibly, then it costs us more to purchase car insurance.

There is overwhelming evidence that individuals with unhealthy habits pay only a fraction of the costs associated with their behaviors. Most of the expenses caused by their decisions and lifestyle are passed on to the rest of society in the form of higher insurance premiums, taxpayer-funded government expenditures for healthcare, and disability benefits.

Many payers, particularly self-insured employers, are already leading the charge to shift the risk and responsibility associated with healthcare directly to individuals. A recent survey by Hewitt Associates found that nearly half (47%) of employers either already use financial incentives or plan to use financial incentives during the next three to five years to penalize and/or reward the health-related behavior of their employees.

Section 2705 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a provision that holds significant potential. In 2014, employers may apply up to 30% of the total amount of employees’ health insurance premiums (50% at the discretion of the Secretary of Health and Human Services) to provide performance-based wellness incentives. This represents an attempt by the government to rein in healthcare costs associated with unhealthy behaviors. The clear objective of this ACA provision and the political rhetoric behind it is to improve health-related behavior and reduce the prevalence of chronic disease caused by unhealthy lifestyles.

These incentive programs have drawn criticism from those concerned that holding individuals responsible for their health, particularly through the use of penalties, violates individual liberties and discriminates against the unhealthy. And, as someone whose mother suffered from Multiple Sclerosis, a dreadful chronic disease without a known cause or cure, I can surely understand their argument but there must be a logical set of conditions under which a new incentive-based system can be developed and deployed in a responsible, ethical manner to contain healthcare costs and encourage healthy behavior. This issue was central in the historic Supreme Court hearings on the constitutionality of ACA’s mandate that just wrapped-up.

Read our blog next week for a proposed measurement system that will help drive patient accountability and promote healthy behavior.

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Scott Donahue