Sunday, April 29, 2012

Insurers' diversification creating monopoly power and conflict of interest - quoted in the Washington Post

I am quoted in a Washington Post article today on potential conflicts of interest when medical payers/insurers acquire the firms that hospitals and doctors use to challenge medical payment denials:

 "Health insurers’ push to diversify raises ethical concerns"

Washington Post
Jay Hancock, Sunday, April 29

Like hospitals and doctors everywhere, Banner Health fights a daily battle to get paid by insurance companies and government agencies for the care it delivers.  So the hospital system hired a company called Executive Health Resources to fight back against the likes of Medicare and UnitedHealthcare when they deny claims or pay bills for less than what Banner thinks it is owed.

Fair enough.

But Banner executives began to worry about EHR’s independence when the firm was acquired in 2010 by UnitedHealth Group, UnitedHealthcare’s parent.

Issues can get a bit sticky under such an arrangement.

I put it this way:

Critics call United’s ownership of EHR a troubling conflict of interest that could give it confidential information about rivals as well as patients and limit EHR’s power to demand payment from its much larger corporate sister. “How is that ownership going to affect the mission of a company whose business is to extract more money from payers?” said Scot Silverstein, a physician and specialist in medical software and patient records at Drexel University. “Imagine going to a plaintiff’s lawyer to take your malpractice case and not knowing that plaintiff’s lawyer actually works for the hospital that you’re suing.”

When payers acquire those who would challenge their payment denials, I worry about the consolidation of power being too great for the public good.

As we learn, the relationship is somewhat stealthy:

... There is no mention of EHR’s ownership in the “Corporate Overview” section of its Web site or elsewhere on the site. Nor did the American Hospital Association identify EHR as a United subsidiary in September when it renewed its exclusive endorsement of EHR’s denial-fighting services. EHR pays the hospital association a fee for the endorsement. The group declined to disclose the amount. 

The plot thickens:

Claims consultants such as EHR typically gain access to millions of patient records and confidential contracts between hospitals and insurers, industry officials say. If UnitedHealthcare, United’s insurance wing, gained access to that data, it would obtain “a huge business advantage” over insurance rivals as well as the hospitals, Kofman said.

In today's healthcare business environment, "if" seems to me to be optimistic.

Hancock goes further in the article:

As insurers eager to add revenue streams convert themselves into diversified health-services companies, they often buy traditional business adversaries, including physician groups and hospital consultants such as EHR. They’re also buying technology companies and research firms that serve medical-care providers, raising questions not only about independence but about the privacy of patient information.

A Georgetown professor, formerly a state insurance superintendent, gets to the heart of the matter, using United as but one example:

“I am not convinced that, even with proper disclosure, that an entity owned by United could aggressively advocate against United’s interests,” said Mila Kofman, a Georgetown professor who was Maine’s insurance superintendent.

This factoid is eye-opening:

Appealing claims denials has become a huge, high-tech business, reflected in the more than $1 billion that United reportedly paid for EHR [Executive Health Resources].

You might think there were better things to do with $1 billion besides administrative bloat - such as taking care of patients.

We probably need new laws to catch up with the flurry of M&A's going on in healthcare between payers, the healthcare delivery sector, and the "referees" that mediate between them when disputes arise.

Read the entire article at the WaPo link above.  The examples get even more convoluted.

-- SS


Roy Poses notes:

This appears to be a newly recognized type of conflict of interest that contributes to the concentration of power in the US commercialized health care system.  While many people tout how our health care system is "competitive" and a "free market," it is ever more dominated by a decreasing number of enlarging organizations.  True health care reform would break up health care oligopolies.

-- SS


Anonymous said...

Conflicts? No one cares anymore, exactly.

They have become the standard of corporate America. Law firms may still abide by these ethical issues.

Anonymous said...

Pretty damn creepy.

InformaticsMD said...

Anonymous April 29, 2012 6:32:00 PM EDT writes:

Conflicts? No one cares anymore, exactly

In this case, it appears the hospitals have significant skin in the game, same as the docs...

Is this an example of "politics makes strange bedfellows?"

-- SS