Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Government-Run Health Insurance" Run by Corporations? - Two Medicaid Examples

In the US, there seems to have been a constant argument between right- and left-wingers over "government-run" health insurance.  The right tends to disparage all aspects of "government-run" health care, and in the case of insurance, uses the alleged faults of the two big US government health insurance programs as examples.  (Medicare is a federal government health insurance program for the elderly and disabled. Medicaid is federal-state program for the poor.) 

For example, per the Associated Press via BusinessWeek, from a currently prominent Republican hopeful for President, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty,
The former Minnesota governor was the latest politician to participate in the Health Policy Grand Rounds program that Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has organized for its staff during the past two presidential campaign cycles. Using Medicare and Medicaid as examples, he criticized the notion that government-run health care will produce efficiency and said the answer lies in empowering consumers.

Republican Congressman Darrell Issa (California) wrote in 2010:
an expansion of the federal bureaucracy at that rate will greatly increase the incidence of waste, fraud and abuse in health care. Already Medicare, which accounts for 14% of all federal spending, is rife with waste, fraud and abuse. Even Attorney General Eric Holder has said, 'By all accounts, every year we lose tens of billions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid funds to fraud.'

A recent analysis by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that federal subsidy programs cost taxpayers about $100 billion every year in improper payments, with Medicare and Medicaid accounting for more than half of that.

The left may advocate for government-run, "single-payer" insurance programs, perhaps using the alleged benefits of Medicare and Medicaid as examples.

Scholarly articles about health care policy may refer to Medicaid as a government "single-payer" system.  (For example, see: Robinson JC. The commercial health insurance industry in an era of eroding employer coverage. Health Aff 2006; 25:1475-1486. Link here.)

In any case, I suspect most of us think of Medicaid as an example of "government-run" health care insurance, regardless of whether we believe that is a good or a bad thing.

Yet the reality may be more complex. Two recent stories, one a follow-up on an old Health Care Renewal post, provide some dots to connect.

Connecticut HUSKY Medicaid Program

In 2007, we posted about how the state of Connecticut was going to end participation in the HUSKY state Medicaid program for poor children by four insurance companies/ managed care organizations.  They apparently refused to provide information about payments to physicians and denial of payments for prescription drugs to the state.  The two largest organizations involved were Anthem Health Plans (a subsidiary of WellPoint), and Health Net.  At the time, we noted that this case provided an example of the lack of transparency exhibited by major health organizations.

Late last year, the Connecticut Mirror documented more criticism of the HUSKY program based on a report that showed that participating companies were making big profits from it (but perhaps not from other state Medicaid programs): 
The three managed care companies in the state's HUSKY insurance program for low-income children and families recorded profits of $18.8 million last year, according to figures released by the state Department of Social Services.

In one part of HUSKY, the insurers made margins of at least 20 percent and spent less than 72 percent of their revenues on medical care.

The figures released this month drew criticism from members of the Medicaid Care Management Oversight Council, who are in the midst of considering moving HUSKY out of managed care.

In more detail, the relevant numbers were:
AmeriChoice, part of UnitedHealthcare, spent 62 percent of its revenue on medical care and posted a 22.9 percent profit margin in the HUSKY B program.

By contrast, the federal health reform law sets minimum medical care ratios for insurers of 80 percent or 85 percent, depending on the type of plan. The provision does not apply to Medicaid plans, but was cited as a benchmark in the council's discussion.

None of the insurers met those benchmarks in HUSKY B, which covers children whose family income does not qualify for Medicaid. Last year, it covered between 13,000 and 16,000 children, many whose families earned below 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

Aetna spent 70.5 percent on medical care and made a 20 percent margin, while Community Health Network of Connecticut, a non-profit with far more enrollees than the other insurers, spent 71.8 percent of its revenues on medical care and made a 20.6 percent margin.

Margins were lower, and medical care ratios higher, in HUSKY A, a Medicaid program that enrolled as many as 358,088 children and adults in 2009.

Community Health Network reported a 95.1 percent medical care ratio and a -0.3 percent margin. AmeriChoice spent 86.3 percent of its revenue on medical care and achieved a 3.5 percent margin, while Aetna had an 83.9 percent medical care ratio and 6.5 percent margin.

Overall, the medical care ratio was 90.7 percent for both HUSKY programs and all three insurers. The overall margin was 2.3 percent.

The insurers involved defended themselves by noting to participate in HUSKY they also had to participate in another program, Charter Oak Health Plan, "on which they lose money."

Last month, it looked to be the end of managed care in these Medicaid programs, again as reported by the Connecticut Mirror:
The Malloy administration announced plans Tuesday to move the HUSKY and Charter Oak health programs out of managed care and increase care coordination in the state's other Medicaid programs, an effort officials said would save money while giving the state more control over health programs that serve more than 500,000 people.

This article also noted:
In the current system, the state pays three managed care companies set fees for each HUSKY and Charter Oak member every month, and the companies use the money to pay medical claims. Critics say it gives the managed care companies an incentive to deny care since they get to keep the money not spent on medical costs.

So let us deal directly with the cognitive dissonance generated by these articles. In the ongoing US health reform debate, Medicaid is usually discussed as a "government-run" health care (insurance) program. Yet these news articles from Connecticut suggest at least in that state, part of Medicaid was out-sourced to mostly large, national, for-profit health insurance companies/ managed care organizations. Furthermore, as noted just above, these corporations seemed to be mainly calling the shots in how their part of Medicaid was run. So is this "government-run" health care (insurance)?

But wait, there is more....

Minnesota Medicaid Controversy

Last month, the Politics in Minnesota web-site ran a report on an unlikely reformer:
Dave Feinwachs is no stranger to the Capitol.

For three decades he was the general counsel to the Minnesota Hospital Association. In that capacity, he negotiated with state agencies and testified regularly before legislative committees on health care issues.

But early last year, Feinwachs said, he was ordered by his superiors at the hospital association not to provide any further testimony at the Capitol. The reason for the muzzle: his vocal insistence that health maintenance organizations (HMOs) should contribute money to help salvage the state’s General Assistance Medical Care program for indigent adults.

Feinwachs says he abided by the prohibition on testimony before legislative committees, but apparently it was not enough to keep him in the good graces of his employer. In November he was fired as the group’s principal attorney. Feinwachs will not discuss the reason for his termination, citing potential litigation. But it almost certainly had something to do with his ongoing zealous campaign to force greater transparency and accountability on the state’s HMOs - primarily Blue Cross & Blue Shield, HealthPartners, Medica and UCare - which receive roughly $3 billion annually to run health plans for many of the state’s poorest residents.

So here we go again. This article suggested that Minnesota had out-sourced a very large part of its Medicaid program.

Furthermore, it also appears that the state government knows little about what happens to the money it hands over:
In the next two years, Minnesota is slated to funnel about $6 billion to the state’s HMOs to provide health care for 550,000 of the state’s poorest residents. To put that figure in perspective, it is nearly 20 percent of the state’s expected 2012-13 general fund revenues - and nearly identical to the state’s projected $6.2 billion deficit. In coming up with a solution to Minnesota’s financial crisis, Feinwachs and others believe, legislators must at least have a clear accounting of this massive pot of health care dollars.

HMOs, meanwhile, are not exactly yearning for scrutiny, especially as they launch a pitch to administer even more of the state’s health care spending.

In addition, there is reason to believe that Minnesota may be paying a significant amount for administration:
Feinwachs believes that the administrative overhead collected by HMOs could be in the neighborhood of 16 percent. He concedes, however, that this is no more than a 'guesstimate' pieced together from the limited information that is publicly available.

Then, there is reason to suspect that the private (and nominally not-for-profit) HMOs that Minnesota pays to run Medicaid have resisted accounting for how the money they got was spent:
Past attempts to bolster accountability and transparency for HMOs have largely run into a brick wall. For instance, when legislators considered requiring the health plans to chip in on a plan to restore the General Assistance Medical Care program last year, they were told by officials from the Department of Human Services that such a move would be illegal. Efforts to provide more financial disclosure have been rebuffed by the argument that such information is proprietary and not subject to the state’s data practices rules. The complexity of Minnesota’s patchwork of publicly funded health care plans, which very few individuals clearly understand, has also helped forestall changes.

'We can’t let the complexity of data and information beat us down, and I think that’s what happened in the years past,' Hosch said. 'The systems almost seem like they’re deliberately complex in order to confuse us.'

Apparently in these parlous financial times, Mr Feinwachs got some attention. Last week, the state Governor announced his willingness to dig into the results of the state's out-sourcing of Medicaid, per the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
It's high time that Minnesota started treating its nonprofit health plans for what they are -- some of state government's largest vendors.

Reforms announced this week by Gov. Mark Dayton's office are a promising first step toward scrutinizing health plan contracts for savings and finding new ways to rein in Minnesota's soaring medical costs.

Managing care for more than 500,000 low-income, disabled and elderly Minnesotans enrolled in state public health programs is a $3.1 billion-a-year business for health plans in Minnesota, with the state and federal government jointly footing the bill.

Over the past decade, the state's portion of this outsourced care has increased from 5 percent to 11 percent of the state budget, according to Dayton's office.

The state also has more than 249,000 people -- typically the sickest of the sick -- in a fee-for-service public program. That spending is also ripe for a cost-savings review.

On Wednesday, Dayton announced plans to do what good business leaders do in difficult financial circumstances. His administration is going to start driving harder bargains with health plans.

Key parts of the plan include making the contracting system more competitive, making financial information more transparent, and doing deeper auditing of plans' books to analyze administrative and medical expenses.

So again in Minnesota, it appeared that the state had out-sourced a large proportion of its Medicaid program, covering apparently two-thirds of the state's Medicaid patients. It appears that knowledge of the out-sourcing of most of Medicaid was relatively anechoic, and that even the state's former Governor Pawlenty was unaware of it (see his comments in introduction to this post). Despite the amounts of money and the numbers of people involved, up to now the state government had apparently very little information about how billions of dollars were being spent by private, albeit nominally non-profit health insurance companies/ managed care organizations.


Two cases from two states suggest that some proportion of Medicaid, perhaps a very large proportion, has been out-sourced to private corporations, both nominally non-profit and for-profit.

In fact, a Washington Post article last year suggested that 70% of Medicaid patients are in managed care plans, most of which are likely out-sourced, not run by state Medicaid agencies.

Our two cases above further suggest that government officials may know little about how the money given to these corporations was spent, and how the corporations managed the supposedly "government-run" health insurance.

So much for the notion that the US Medicaid program is "government-run" health insurance.  Whether one believes that government bureaucrats are good or bad at running health care, it seems that most Medicaid patients' care is managed by corporate, not government bureaucrats.

The likelihood that a substantial proportion of Medicaid patients actually get their health care coverage from corporations, be that non-profit or for-profit, raises some important questions.
- What proportion of the government funds provided these corporations goes to health care versus administration, overhead, etc?
-  What then is the proportion of all Medicaid money spent on health care versus administration, overhead, etc at the federal, state, and corporate levels?
-  What proportion of the revenue of major health insurers/ managed care organizations actually comes from tax-payers via Medicaid?
-  To what extent do health insurers/ managed care organizations influence clinical care through their role implementing Medicaid?
-  How transparent are their finances and their implementation of Medicaid?
-  How well are they supervised and regulated by national and state government?

Meanwhile, it appears that there is far more overlap between government and corporate health insurance and managed care than most of us realized.  That suggests the usual debate between the foes and proponents of "government-run" health care (insurance) was vastly too simplistic.  Maybe some of those involved in the debate should have known that.   

Meanwhile, the concerns I discussed in 2002 that "health care has become dominated by large, bureaucratic organizations" appear increasingly well-founded.  This domination seems to be increasingly facilitated by collaboration - or should that be collusion? - among government and private bureaucracies.  The danger, as we have repeatedly discussed, is that the leaders of these bureaucracies may feel increasing loyalty to the managers' and executives' guild, and decreasing pressure not to fulfill their own and their cronies' self-interest.  We need at least to have some frank discussions about the increasing corporatism of health care and all of society, and what to do about it. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the very interesting information. In the past few years I have had some exposure to the way things work in the government. What I observed was a multi-billion $ funded group responsible for an important task that. The group really consisted of "contracting officers", Project officers and experts.

The 'officers,' mainly lawyers, they did no actual work other than to hand out any real work to for-profit firms and not for profit 'NGOs' and the like.

Their subject matter "experts" were mainly consultants who worked for the various companies with whom they contracted the work.

Even the folks who answered the phone were contractors supplied by a staffing firm.

This is common I think in government, not just in Medicare/Medicaid and not just in certain states, but all over every level.

Frankly I think a nice government run hospital system would be a reaosnable answer to our national healthcare problems.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Anonymous -
Verrry interesting.

It certainly sounds like the arrangement was meant more to diffuse responsibility and accountability than to better accomplish the project.

Anonymous said...

Well it certainly turns out that way, no one to blame within the government even though the job fails to get done.

The formal reasoning (politically correct) is that these external companies have the expertise the government lacks and can do it faster better and cheaper than the government.

The rational and the results are no different than what you see in the insurance outsourcing done in the two states you identified.

Just today, a similar story sprang up problems in Idaho's claims processing subcontractor. See the AP story at http://www.idahopress.com/news/article_9d04cba8-5a94-11e0-9141-001cc4c03286.html

So not only do we contract out the management of the patients, we also contract out the computers that process their claims. This is, of course on top of contracting out the actual providing of the healthcare to hospitals and doctors. Of course we also fund the government group of contracting officers who allocate the money and keep track of the progress.

Seems like a better, cheaper and smarter idea might be to simply have some state hospitals.

insurance northern ireland said...

It does really looks that way. Some government run company are also co-own by big corporations.