Reference-based pricing is gaining momentum — here’s why

Healthcare and pharmacy costs are constantly on the rise. In this article, Kern talks about reference-based pricing and explains why it’s gaining momentum.


In my 25 years in the insurance business I’ve seen many changes. But there’s always been one constant: Healthcare and pharmacy costs continue to accelerate and no regulatory action has been able to slow this runaway train. The problem is that we have focused on the wrong end of the spectrum. We don’t have a healthcare issue; we have a billing issue.

At the root of this national crisis is a lack of cost transparency, which is driven by people who are motivated to keep benefit plan sponsors and healthcare consumers in the dark. Part of the problem is that most cost-reduction strategies are developed by independent players in the healthcare food chain. This siloed approach fails to address the entire ecosystem, and that’s why we continue to lament that nothing seems to be working.

But that could change with reference-based pricing, a method that’s slowly gaining momentum.

Here’s how it works.

Reference-based pricing attacks the problem from all angles and targets billing — which is at the heart of the crisis.

Typically, a preferred provider organization network achieves a 50-60% discount on billable charges. However, after this 50-60% discount, the cost of care is still double or triple what Medicare pays for the same service. For example, the same cholesterol blood test can range from $10 to $400 at the same lab. The same hospitalization for chest pain can range anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000.

Reference-based pricing allows employers to pay for medical services based on a percentage of CMS reimbursements (i.e. Medicare + 30%), rather than a percentage discount of billable charges. This model ensures that the above-mentioned hospitalization cost an employer $3,000 rather than $25,000.

“Negotiating” like Medicare

Reference-based pricing is becoming increasingly popular as more organizations consider the move to correct cost transparency issues as they transition from fully-insured to self-funded insurance plans.

One well-known and considerable example is Montana’s state employee health plan. The state employee health plan administrator received a notice from legislators in 2014 urging the state to gain control of healthcare costs. Instead of beginning with hospitals’ prices and negotiating down, they turned to reference-based pricing based on Medicare. Instead of negotiating with hospitals, Medicare sets prices for every procedure, which has allowed it to control costs. Typically, Medicare increases its payments to hospitals by just 1-3% each year.

The state of Montana set a reference price that was a generous 243% of Medicare — which allowed hospitals to provide high-quality healthcare and profit, while providing price transparency and consistency across hospitals. So far, hospitals have agreed to pay the reference price.

Of course, there is still the risk that a healthcare provider working with the state of Montana health plan, or any other health plan using reference-based pricing, could “balance bill” the member. But a fair payment and plenty of employee education about what to do if that happens could help you curb costs.

If balance billing does occur, many solutions include a law and auditing firm to resolve the dispute. In one recent example, a patient was balance billed almost $230,000 for a back procedure after her health plan had paid just under $75,000. An auditing firm found that the total charges should have been around $70,000, and a jury agreed. The hospital was awarded an additional $766.

Reference-based pricing is a forward-thinking way to manage costs while providing high-quality benefits to your employees. It’s one way to improve cost transparency, which may eventually transform the way that we buy healthcare.

Kern, J. (18 July 2018) "Reference-based pricing is gaining momentum — here’s why" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/reference-based-pricing-health-insurance-gaining-momentum?utm_campaign=intraday-c-Jul%2018%202018&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&eid=1e52d1873f9d2e8d6bd477da3e7f49a3


Resisting Popular Healthcare Trends and Getting Creative

In this article, experts explore the idea that companies need to use the many tools at their disposal, as opposed to relying specifically on one popular trend.

A recent study found that substantial wellness incentives and high-deductible health plans are not the quick fix to improving health care costs they were originally thought to be.

Employers pinned their hopes on high-deductible health plans, but HDHPs only represent 30 percent of medical plans offered by employers, according to the “2018 Medical Trends and Observations Report” released in early March by DirectPath and research and advisory company Gartner.

“Increasingly, employers are realizing that true, long-term cost management will come from a combination of tools and that they need to enlist employees in the effort in a meaningful way,” said Kim Buckey, vice president of client services at employee engagement firm DirectPath.

Employers have explored different options starting with managed care plans and health maintenance organizations the past several decades, moving toward consumer directed health plans years later and considering wellness programs and private exchanges after that, according to Buckey. These solutions could provide short-term relief but not singlehandedly solve the problem, she said.

The logic behind HDHPs was that if employees had skin in the game, they’d be more conscientious about looking for lower-cost options in medical care and become smarter health care consumers, Buckey said. But what this idea did not address the larger issue: employees’ lack of health literacy and little understanding of health insurance comprehension.

“Employees historically just hadn’t had the knowledge or the tools to truly become educated consumers,” she said.

The report, based on an analysis of 900 employee benefit health plans, also found that fewer companies are offering wellness incentives. Some 31 percent of employers offer them today, according to the 2018 report. This number is considerably lower than the 2017 report, which found that 58 percent of employers offered incentives, and the 2016 report, which found that 50 percent did.

“That was surprising because using incentives to drive employee behavior was a big component of most companies’ strategies across the past couple years,” said Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at Gartner. “What companies are finding in a lot of cases is that the incentives were most likely used by healthiest people whose health care costs were already quite low.”

For many companies, incentives have been cutting health care costs for employees who were already spending less rather than making prices more reasonable for people with higher expenses, he said.

This is not the ideal result since the idea behind incentives was, for example, to convince unhealthy people to get an annual physical. This would supposedly help them find health problems before they became serious and more expensive to treat.

“The idea that incentives as currently structured at most companies are becoming of less interest because they’re not as effective as we thought,” Kropp said.

The decline in incentive use may also have to do with concerns about the future legality of these plans, according to the report. A federal judge ruled in December 2017 that the EEOC’s incentive rules — which deem a wellness program voluntary if the incentive or penalty was no more than 30 percent of the cost of the health plan — will only continue until the end of 2018.

Other reports have found different data on wellness incentives. Jessica Grossmeier, vice president of research for the think tank Health Enhancement Research Organization, shared that a Mercer report in 2016 found that two-thirds of employers were using incentives to encourage employee to participate in wellness programs and that 29 percent provided incentives for achieving, maintaining or showing progress toward specific health status targets.

Whether employers will maintain their commitment to using financial wellness incentives will depend on the individual employer and what happens with the EEOC incentive rule. For the time being, employers can take the conservative approach and offer no incentives, take the middle-ground approach and offer modest incentives, or take the aggressive approach and offer up to 30 percent incentives as usual, according to law firm K&L Gates.

Privacy is another concern with wellness programs, Buckey said. Despite generous incentives, some employees may hesitate to participate in these programs because of privacy concerns. Some wellness programs provide employers with aggregate data about the current health status and health risks of their employee population. “With financial and health data breaches increasingly in the news, I think we will see a leveling off or even a lack of interest in participating in programs whether data — even in aggregate — is collected about an employee’s health,” Buckey said.

While strategies such as relying on wellness programs to lower health care costs or using HDHPs to make employees smarter health care consumers have not become the ultimate fix, there are some ways employers can get more creative with their strategy, according to Buckey. She suggested several ways for employers to take a multi-pronged approach to health care cost management.

Employers can offer transparency services, which allow employees to compare pricing for the same service near their home, when they are planning an elective high-cost service like diagnostic tests or surgeries. Employers can also provide better enrollment support in open enrollment so that employees choose the right plan and more carefully manage pharmacy costs by adding measures like mandatary generics or step therapy.

Buckey also mentioned that some of her company’s clients provide patient-advocacy services.

“[It] helps employees identify billing errors and resolve disputes with providers and insurance companies,” she said. “This frees up the employees to focus on their work, rather than financial and medical concerns.”

It’s important for companies to get creative with their health care benefits more than ever before, Kropp said. In the past, employees knew that the health insurance they received at one company was comparable to what they’d receive at many other companies. What the insurance was exactly didn’t matter because most employees felt the plans were more or less the same, he said.

Now companies are starting to realize that better health care plans are a significant differentiator for attracting talent in a competitive labor market, he added. As information for employees and candidates became more transparent and accessible, it became easier as a candidate to understand what health plan offerings looked like at other companies.

“It is a relatively new phenomenon of companies becoming much more vocal about their benefits offerings as a way to compete in a tight labor market,” Kropp said.

This article is from Workforce written by Andie Burjek on April 10, 2018.