Sunday, June 28, 2009

One Approach To Improving Care Coordination While Assisting PCPs

Good care coordination will improve the quality of care for the individual patient and yet will reduce costs by eliminating excess visits, tests, procedures and, by improving care quality, it will reduce the need for hospitalizations. With primary care physicians [PCPs] not able to take the time necessary, it is clear that something needs to be done to get care coordination for those with complex, chronic illness.

Here is what one insurer, CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield [CF] of Maryland, DC and portions of Virginia is planning. CF knows that about 65% of their medical expenditures go towards the care of just 5% of patients and 80% go for about 15%. These are patients with catastrophic problems in the 5% and complex chronic illnesses for the remainder. CareFirst also knows that primary care physicians receive about 5% of total healthcare expenditures yet they are in a position to impact the other 95%. So the agenda is to create incentives for them to do so in a way to reduce that total while improving the care of the patient. It would work like this [somewhat oversimplified to account for space limitations here.]

PCPs would form into groups of 5 to 10 and enter into an agreement with CareFirst. In return CareFirst would increase their reimbursement by 15% for each visit. There will be another 5% increment in return for using an electronic system provided by CareFirst that will assist with billing. This system will check their submissions, do edits and corrections and then submit the claim to CareFirst [or any insurer], all automatically and electronically. I am told it is easy to use and will greatly improve the doctor’s office productivity thus creating savings. No longer will there be claims denials over billing errors or the need to repeatedly resubmit until the claim is remediated – it will be correct the first time. In addition, Carefirst will agree to pay the physician within one business day, dramatically reducing the need for working capital.

CareFirst will do an analysis of the PCP group’s patients using claims data from the prior year. CF will be able to “flag” the 15% or so of patients that need care coordination.
The PCP’s obligation in this new system is to give the patient whatever added time is needed per visit and to create a good care plan and post it in an electronic medical record. This will serve as automatic preauthorization, no further calls to CF will be needed for tests, procedures, etc. – another major time saver for the PCP and his or her office staff. When the patient needs to see a specialist, the PCP will refer the patient but also call the specialist and clarify expectations and review the results of the referral when done. Finally, CareFirst will make available a “care coordinator” [a nurse] to call the patient as often as necessary to check on medication use, medication side effects, weight gain or whatever that the PCP has built into the care plan. If the care coordinator cannot resolve an issue or sees a developing problem, she will report in to the PCP.

The expectation is that this approach of incentives for giving the patient the care coordination needed will enhance quality yet reduce the overall expenditures for that patient’s care.

To further add to the incentives, CareFirst will do an actuarial analysis of the expected claims for the coming year for the PCP group’s patients. If, at the end of the year, the patients have had fewer claims, CF will give back a portion through yet higher reimbursements. With this added incentive, it is anticipated that the PCP will be sure to carefully coordinate care so that there are no excess specialist visits, no unneeded tests or procedures and, with better care overall, less hospitalizations. The end results, hopefully, will be higher quality care, lower total expenditures for that care, enhanced income for the PCPs and a more satisfying practice. It could be a win for everyone. Of course, the devil is in the details but it seems to be a worthy plan, one that might just have a real impact. It appeals to me because it begins with an attempt to improve quality and improve the PCPs situation as a means of reducing costs – rather than the other way around.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Improving Access to Primary Care and Coordination of Complex Chronic Illness

Primary care physicians find that their income is flat or declining despite rises in practice costs such as office expenses and malpractice insurance. They generally are in small groups so they have little or no negotiating power with the insurers. And antitrust requirements prevent them from banding together for negotiating purposes. The insurers see their costs rising so they look for ways to keep expenses down, including payments to PCPs.
In order to maintain income levels, they resort to many techniques. One, of course, is to see more patients per day but each for less and less time. This means they spend all too little time taking a through history or physical and instead send the patient off for expensive tests and X-rays or to specialists for referral. If a patient cannot get through to their PCP and instead goes to the ER for an urgent problem, the patient will probably spend hours there and the costs will be much more. The ER physician does not know the patient, does not have access to the old record and as a result feels obliged to obtain multiple tests and images to make the proper diagnosis. This is “nuts” – the person’s PCP might have been able to solve the problem quickly, with fewer or no tests. Better, quicker care for the patient and less expense for the insurer.
PCPs also try to increase income by arranging for tests to be done at their office like stress tests. A technician arrives with the equipment and does the test for which the PCP gets a fee. Are more tests done than truly necessary? Should these tests be done only in consultation with a cardiologist and under their supervision?
Something needs to be done to alleviate these problems. Somehow the PCP needs to have an incentive not to have too many patients and to spend the time needed with each patient. This means a higher per visit reimbursement. But it needs to come with incentives. PCPs receive about 5% of the medical care dollar but can and could greatly affect the other 95%. So there need to be techniques tried to allow and encourage the PCP to give good preventive care, counsel about important issues, meet their patients at the ER, use email and the phone more [neither are currently reimbursed] and coordinate care when the patients needs to be seen by a specialist or have a test or procedure. Coordination of care is especially important for the 5-15% of patients who have complex chronic illnesses and hence need a team of providers to give care. The “team” needs to actually function as a team and it will do so only if someone is orchestrating its work. Primary care physicians need to change from the long held practice of being interveners to being orchestrators, especially for their patients with chronic diseases. This will be a culture change but it will also require monetary incentives – it will not occur otherwise.

Praise for Dr Schimpff

The craft of science writing requires skills that are arguably the most underestimated and misunderstood in the media world. Dumbing down all too often gets mistaken for clarity. Showmanship frequently masks a poor presentation of scientific issues. Factoids are paraded in lieu of ideas. Answers are marketed at the expense of searching questions. By contrast, Steve Schimpff provides a fine combination of enlightenment and reading satisfaction. As a medical scientist he brings his readers encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. As a teacher and as a medical ambassador to other disciplines he's learned how to explain medical breakthroughs without unnecessary jargon. As an advisor to policymakers he's acquired the knack of cutting directly to the practical effects, showing how advances in medical science affect the big lifestyle and economic questions that concern us all. But Schimpff's greatest strength as a writer is that he's a physician through and through, caring above all for the person. His engaging conversational style, insights and fascinating treasury of cutting-edge information leave both lay readers and medical professionals turning his pages. In his hands the impact of new medical technologies and discoveries becomes an engrossing story about what lies ahead for us in the 21st century: as healthy people, as patients of all ages, as children, as parents, as taxpayers, as both consumers and providers of health services. There can be few greater stories than the adventure of what awaits our minds, bodies, budgets, lifespans and societies as new technologies change our world. Schimpff tells it with passion, vision, sweep, intelligence and an urgency that none of us can ignore.

-- N.J. Slabbert, science writer, co-author of Innovation, The Key to Prosperity: Technology & America's Role in the 21st Century Global Economy (with Aris Melissaratos, director of technology enterprise at the John Hopkins University).