Monday, March 22, 2010

Effort to Make Health Insurance Reimbursement Fairer Lead by Director of Insurance Company Accused of Unfair Practices

We previously discussed a legal settlement of charges that UnitedHealth's Ingenix subsidiary manipulated its database of payments to physicians so as to reduce its and other insurers' payments to "out-of-network" physicians. 

One aspect of the settlement was a new initiative to better determine such payments.  Now that effort has been caught up in the web of conflicts of interests that has ensnared health care.  As reported by the Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard,
[New York state Attorney General Andrew] Cuomo obtained $100 million in settlements from 13 insurers, including Excellus, that used the defective reimbursement data supplied by Ingenix, a subsidiary of United Health, the nation’s second biggest insurer. Cuomo’s investigation showed insurers such as Excellus used that data to shortchange New York consumers by as much as 28 percent.

Also, the settlement included
money ... to create FAIR Health Inc., a New York City-based nonprofit that is supposed to come up with a new, fair reimbursement system that will be used by insurers nationwide. FAIR Health has contracted with SU [Syracuse University] to help create that database.

The effort was lead by SU Professor Deborah Freund, "a distinguished professor of public administration and economics. She also is an adjunct professor of orthopedics and pediatrics at Upstate Medical University."

Freund also happens to be listed on the health insurance company’s payroll.

Excellus paid Freund $61,378 last year for serving on its board of directors, according to a financial report Excellus filed with the state last week.

After The Post-Standard spent several days investigating her ties to the insurance company, Freund quit the Excellus board Friday afternoon.

The Post-Standard noted,
But some consumer advocates said it was odd that a paid director of Excellus, one of the companies targeted in Cuomo’s investigation, was playing such an important role.

[Art] Levin, of the Center for Medical Consumers, said it was ironic that one of the people helping to fix a payment system riddled with industry conflicts of interest may have had a conflict of her own.

'This makes no sense whatsoever given that Excellus is part of the settlement,' Levin said.

Chuck Bell, programs director of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports and an outspoken supporter of the payment reform project, was unaware of Freund’s ties to Excellus.

'I think it’s a concern because consumers do want this to be an entity that is independent of the insurance industry,' Bell said.

Among Freund's defenders was
Dr. Nancy Nielsen, immediate past president of the American Medical Association and a board member of FAIR Health, [who] said the AMA looked closely at Freund’s qualifications and her Excellus affiliation. She said the doctors’ group concluded her expertise is important to the project and was comfortable that there were enough safeguards in place to avoid any conflicts. Nielsen said FAIR Health would have independent experts not tied to the insurance industry review any recommendations from Freund’s research team.

But to add another level of irony, and perhaps conflict of interest, the Minneapolis - St Paul Business Journal just announced
The American Medical Association will use an electronic health records system from Ingenix, the company said Monday.

The Eden Prairie health care information technology said its Web-based CareTracker software will run on an AMA platform currently in beta testing with the Michigan State Medical Society and will launch nationwide later this year.

The platform is touted as a way to improve patient care, clinical efficiency and make administration simpler. CareTracker is the first such system that the AMA will provide to physicians online.

'Ingenix and the AMA will help doctors adopt health IT systems that reduce time spent on administrative tasks and enable them to devote more of their time to patient care,' said Bill Miller, Ingenix executive vice president of health care delivery systems, in a news release. 'Ingenix CareTracker integrates patient medical records and e-prescribing tools into the physician’s workflow. By selecting CareTracker for its platform, the AMA is helping physicians make smarter, more practical decisions about technologies to support their practice.'

Although we often discuss conflicts of interests involving physicians or health care academics who moonlight for drug and device companies, and the effects of these relationships on clinical research and medical education, it seems like the pervasive web of conflicts of interest in health care has entangled just about every kind of health care organization, health care decision-maker, and health care opinion leader.

Thus, we need to be extremely skeptical of just about everyone and every organization claiming to provide health care related goods and services, or whose goal is to improve any aspect of health care. The danger is that such skepticism will lead to cynicism and distrust.

At the least, comprehensive, detailed disclosure of all even indirectly relevant financial and other relationships by all health care decision-makers and opinion leaders at any level, whether they be individuals or organizations, would make it somewhat easier to assess their decisions and opinions.

1 comment:

MedInformaticsMD said...

"Ingenix and the AMA will help doctors adopt health IT systems that reduce time spent on administrative tasks and enable them to devote more of their time to patient care"

This combination is improbable if not impossible under the paradigms and leadership of today's health IT industry and governmental interference.

Even more ironic, the AMA recently found itself opposing government officials' views on HIT, as in my HC Renewal post "AMA And Almost 100 Physician Societies Sound Off To CMS On Health IT."

-- SS