8 questions to ask prior to a planned surgical procedure.

Prior to undergoing a planned procedure such as a knee replacement or gall bladder removal there are questions you can ask to help with calculating your out-of-pocket costs.

1. What is the exact name of the procedure?  Ask your doctor to clearly print the name of the procedure. Correct spelling is important and many surgery names sound similar.

2. What ICD-10 codes will be used? Your health plan pays healthcare providers based on these diagnosis codes, which the doctor’s office or hospital will provide to them. The coding system was recently updated from ICD-9 to ICD-10, which is much more detailed than ICD-9.

3. What is the CPT® code for this procedure? One or more five-digit CPT codes are the billing codes that are used by providers—usually for physician services—throughout the United States.

4. What tests will I need before the surgery? Blood tests, diagnostic imaging tests, such as a CT scan or ultrasound?  Ask for specifics about which blood tests will be ordered. Ask the doctor if you have a choice of facilities for getting these tests done. Check with your health plan before you have the test to find out where your out-of-pocket cost will be lowest.

5. Will other doctors be involved in my care and bill me for their services? A pathologist, a radiologist, and an anesthesiologist may be involved in your care. Even if your surgeon and the hospital are in your health plan’s network, other doctors involved in your hospital care may not be.

6. What kind of anesthesia will I receive? Many surgeries will involve care by an anesthesiologist and other doctors who may or may not be part of your health plan’s network.

7. After my surgery, will I go right home from the hospital? What medications and follow-up care will I need? After you are discharged from the hospital, you should be able to go directly home. After some operations, you may need care in a rehabilitation unit or skilled nursing facility for a while. Or you may need home health care. Your health plan can provide information about coverage and prices.

8. What else should I know about—such as potential complications—that might affect the cost of the procedure? For example a minimally invasive (laparoscopic) gall bladder surgery has to be changed to an “open” cholecystectomy, which may or may not be more expensive. You and your doctor should already have discussed this when you talked about the risks and benefits of the surgery. If not, be sure to ask questions about the open procedure before the day of surgery. Having a different procedure (or an additional procedure) is likely to change the cost. And if you need to stay overnight in the hospital for any reason, that is generally more expensive than an outpatient procedure.

Ultimately you may to call your insurance company (groan) or set up an online account on their web site (further groan). This may or may not give you an answer.  You could also wait for that Explanation of Benefits (EOB) statement in the mail – good luck with making sense of that document !

All of the above can entail a lot of time and effort on your part. The good news is that the whole process is a lot easier with new electronic tools that are now available. These tools do the math for you and calculate these costs. They also make your medical bills easier to read and decipher those confusing EOBs. Check to see if your employer offers these tools to their employees.

For more information on the tools offered by Obeo Health please watch the video on the home page.

The Risks of the 15-Minute Doctor’s Appointment

How would you react if you sent your sputtering car to the auto mechanic, and they stopped trying to diagnose the problem after 15 minutes? You would probably revolt if they told you that your time was up and gave back the keys.

Yet in medicine, it’s common for practices to schedule patient visits in 15-minute increments — often for established patients with less complex needs. Physicians face pressure to mind the clock while they examine you.

That’s not to say that your physician “clocks out” as soon as your 1 p.m. appointment hits 1:15, or that all appointments last that long. What it does mean is that patients and doctors may be deprived of the opportunity for more meaningful discussions about the underlying causes of their problems and plans to improve them. A woman in her 50s who presents with high blood pressure and obesity might need medicine. But a longer conversation about the stresses of being the primary caregiver to her father, who has Alzheimer’s, could help provide strategies to help her look after herself.

When you see a new patient every quarter hour, there is often scant time to get to these root causes, to make accurate diagnoses, and develop the best treatment plans. And there is the danger that you miss a major diagnosis altogether.

The 15-minute appointment arose not out of evidence that it improves patient outcomes but out of production pressures — both the need to meet patient demand and to see enough patients to stay profitable.

Unpopular among patients, these production pressures have few fans among physicians either. A Mayo Clinic report stated that 54 percent of physicians meet the criteria for burnout in 2014 — up nearly 10 percent from three years earlier. Running on a treadmill all day in 15-minute sprints likely contributes to this phenomenon. Onerous documentation requirements and other pressures don’t help, either.

Some patient problems could be solved in 5, 10 or 15 minutes, but others cannot. What if health care trusted its physicians enough to take the time they need with patients and no more — and then monitored and paid for results? Could we realize better care while reducing costs, because patients are getting the right diagnosis sooner, and not coming back after their problem has been missed and their condition has worsened?

It’s not clear whether alternative payment models will achieve this. Concierge practices, in which patients pay a hefty annual fee in exchange for greater access to their physicians, may work well for those who can afford it. While this model is beyond the financial reach of many, a related model called direct primary care — or “concierge care for the masses” — is more accessible. Patients pay a monthly fee of anywhere from $25 to $85 to cover their primary care services, according to a Health Affairs report in December, and are encouraged to have insurance to cover more serious health issues. Patients and physicians might have 45 minutes to spend in an appointment. Because direct primary care usually does not bill insurance, it results in less checking boxes and more conversation.

A criticism of these models is that they may exacerbate the larger physician shortage, because physicians are responsible for significantly fewer patients than in a typical practice. Yet we need to evaluate their impact and see if their lessons might help us reclaim the patient-physician encounter.

This post first appeared in The Wall Street Journal’s blog, The Experts.

Did you pick the right health insurance plan?

Selecting a health insurance plan can cause considerable angst for a consumer and his/her family. Insurance plans are complex and there is a wide variety available on the market. Let’s try to simplify the decision making process. There are basically four areas that the consumer needs to assess for each plan offering;

1. The deductible.

2. The co-payment.

3. The co-insurance.

4. Out-of-pocket spending limits.

The complexity of plan choice arises in part from wide variation among plans across these four features that determine how health costs are shared between the insurer and consumer. And so consumers are faced with a dizzying number of permutations when trying to balance these four areas.

Lack of health literacy also plays a part in the process. A study done in 2013 found that only 14% of consumers could answer four simple multiple choice questions regarding the definition of these four cost sharing features. Also when presented with a simplified plan, most respondents were unable to accurately estimate the cost of their medical services. To confuse things further employees need to know if the plan covers their medications (formulary status) and whether their physicians are in or out of network.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) organized plans were segregated into four ‘metal’ tiers – platinum, gold, silver and bronze. One investigation of hypothetical plan choices with plan menus designed to mimic those of the exchanges found that metal labels, rather than facilitating better decisions, worsened choices compared with generic labels (eg, plan A, plan B, plan C). This study also found that alternative plan labels that encouraged consumers to forecast how much care they anticipated needing did have a modestly beneficial effect, suggesting that participants may have misinterpreted metal labels as signals of quality, or the breadth of services covered, rather than the degree of cost sharing.

To make a financially efficient choice, employees, most of whom lack extensive prior experience with insurance, have to carefully consider the complicated relationship between plan cost, cost sharing, and their expected health risk. So what can be done to help employees navigate through these complex scenarios? I would like to suggest some possible solutions;

1. Provide decision aids. These may be scenario based examples or so called “people like me” illustrations.

2. The utilization of consumer historical data (claims, pharmacy etc) to help predict future costs should be encouraged. Prescriptive analytics tools can now help perform this task.

3. A more aggressive approach may be the use of plan “defaults” or restricted menus tailored to each consumer.

4. A more long term solution would be to simplify health insurance – period. Insurance products free of the complex features that consumers are least able to understand, such as deductibles and co-insurance,would more likely help consumers make informed decisions regarding plan choice and utilization.

Offering multiple plans seems like a good idea – the typical ACA enrollee is offered an average of 47 plans. One would hope that this large number of choices would help the consumer find an appropriate plan and may stimulate competition among insurers, leading to improvements in plan price and quality. However, these benefits are unlikely to emerge if consumers are not given the right tools and education.

To sign up for a free demo of the tools on offer at Obeo Health please click here.

Addressing quality in healthcare

For more than a year, top officials from Medicare, the nation’s largest health plans, medical societies and major employer and consumer groups hammered away at a dreadful task: Get everyone to agree to use identical quality measures for the treatment of heart disease, cancer and other common conditions. Here is a summary of the work from the Collaborative….click here