An abbreviated version of this post appeared in the Huffington Post on 9 February 2017. This version includes the Health Populi Hot Points after the original essay, discussing the consumer’s context of retail experience in healthcare and implications for the industry under Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price — a proponent of consumer-directed healthcare and, especially, health savings accounts. We’ll be brainstorming the implications of the 2016 CAQH Index during a Tweetchat on Thursday, February 16, at 2 pm ET, using the hashtag #CAQHchat.

America ranks dead-last in healthcare efficiency compared with our peer countries, the Commonwealth Fund concluded in its study on how the U.S. healthcare system performs internationally.

Waste and inefficiency add costs to U.S. healthcare system. And health care costs rank highest on a new list of consumersworries found by the Monmouth Poll this week, well above jobs, housing, terrorism or immigration.

In the current American health reform debate, inefficiency and waste don’t get raised as top concerns. Consider that the U.S. spent $3.2 trillion on healthcare in 2015. As much as $300 billion of that money is wasted, and a big piece of that inefficiency is due to paper processes with which last century’s TV doctors Kildare, Welby, and perhaps even Hawkeye Pierce would have been familiar.

But this is the 21st century, and today is February 9, 2017. Here is my personal story of health care paper and wasted costs to illustrate that this issue belongs to every U.S. health citizen.

On October 19, 2016, I went to the pharmacy in a suburban Philadelphia grocery store to get a flu shot. Before heading to the store, I checked with my health plan’s list of approved providers for immunizations, and that particular location was included.

I checked in with the pharmacy tech, who asked for my insurance card. When he clicked into the system for authorization, my coverage wasn’t available. The tech asked for assistance from the pharmacist, who double-checked the tech’s workflow and, sure enough, my health plan information wasn’t current in the computer system even though our premium for coverage had been paid.

After fifteen minutes of the staff’s various computer clicks, I phoned my health plan’s third party administrator to inquire. In ten minutes on the phone, I was counseled to “simply” pay for the flu shot and submit for reimbursement, which would be paid in full given that this was a covered preventive service in our health plan.

I got the shot, and handed a credit card to the tech who charged me $28.99 for the service.

Since that day, I have received six emails from the third party administrator concerning my reimbursement. She informed me that I would receive three (paper) checks to cover the $28.99.

I subsequently received two Explanations of Benefit forms from my health plan on October 31, 2016 and January 9, 2017. The first detailed the billed amount of $28.99, an allowed amount of $13.88, a coinsurance of $6.94, a “not covered” amount of $15.11, “what my plan paid” of $6.94, and “what I owed” amounting to $22.05. The second EOB indicated that of the $28.99 total flu shot cost, the plan paid $8.06.

So far, I have received a check for $6.94 (the “what my plan paid” amount) dated October 31, 2016, and a check for $8.06, dated January 9, 2017. I have been told, in one of the third party admin’s emails, that I should be receiving a third check in the amount of $13.99 from the grocery store pharmacy, but that check hasn’t yet arrived.

It’s now 121 days since I got my flu shot. I’ve calculated the real cost of that shot, and specifically the paper and workflows associated with the transaction and its aftermath: it’s at least $100. That accounts for the pharmacy workers’ time, the third part admin’s emails and follow-ups, and the insurance company’s EOBs and paper check cutting.

This direct cost calculation doesn’t include the patient’s (my) time-cost and aggravation that can lead to lower satisfaction and, potentially, plan and provider “flight.”

I am the shoemaker’s child with no shoes in this story. For nine years, I have been a member of the Advisory Council to the CAQH Index, which has been measuring the adoption of electronic, real-time transactions, away from paper-based processes, by health plans and healthcare providers.

The 2016 Index found continued migration to electronic transactions among health plans and providers, especially for submitting claims, verifying eligibility for the patient-member, inquiring into claim status, and paying for claims. Nevertheless, the use of manual transactions is not declining as rapidly as we would like, with phone calls still consuming significant time and money. This is happening, even though health plans are offering web portals and interactive voice response systems to replace manual processes.

“Our research for the Index shows that while progress has been steady, there are opportunities to encourage greater industry use of electronic transactions by reducing adoption barriers and sharing best practices,” observed Robin Thomashauer, Executive Director, CAQH. “Realizing the full potential of these transactions will require an ongoing commitment by all healthcare stakeholders, including health plans, providers, vendors and government.”

Each manual transaction costs health plans and health care providers about $3 more than the electronic transaction that could replace them. Since there were over 3 billion manual transactions between health plans and providers in 2015, moving to digital transactions represents a potential $9 billion savings for the U.S. healthcare system and its payors – which include consumers as we take on greater up-front financial risk in high-deductible health plans and health savings accounts.

My $100 flu shot was but one single transaction in the U.S. healthcare ecosystem that represents a much larger scenario of waste in American healthcare. That waste costs, in terms of money, time, and ultimately, the nation’s public and financial health.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Amazon Prime subscriptions hit 41 million members in the U.S. by late 2016. Amazon and other digital services have changed consumers’ expectations for service: convenience, streamlined workflows, and value, among other aspects of retail living.

The 2016 Temkin Experience Ratings, summarized in the graphic here, detail consumers’ experiences from excellent (supermarkets, fast food, and retail) to poor. Note that heath plans rank at the bottom of the list (along with TV and internet service providers).

Consumers are seeking Amazon-style experiences from health care, as much as people expect high service levels from other retail touchpoints in their lives.

I use the word “retail” here quite purposefully: the consumer enrolling in a health plan must shop for a plan, study among options and details across plans. Once a member in a plan, the patient-as-consumer must identify a primary care provider, select a retail pharmacy, and shop for other services as required based on their personal health journeys.

As Dr. Tom Price takes on the leadership of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we should be mindful of his keen interest in health savings accounts and other consumer-driven health financing regimes. The U.S. healthcare world is headed toward consumer-driven healthcare as the new normal. Health plans, pharma, physicians and hospitals: pay attention.

 

 

 

2 Comments on My $100 Flu Shot: How Much Paper Waste Costs U.S. Healthcare

s cowdell said : Guest Report 3 months ago

Thank goodness I live in Britain at least people who can't afford treatment can get treated if there ill

Paul Nelson said : Guest Report 3 months ago

A Very large population health study was reported in JAMA 2016 regarding longevity by census tract nationally and its connection with income. It confirmed that longevity is connected to a persons level of poverty, but not always. There were many communities where there was no connection between poverty and longevity. The only factor that connected this observation was the level of college educated citizens within these communities. Of the possible factors sited, the report and 1 of three associated commentaries used the words 'social capital.' The study covered 14 years and ALL citizens. Just remember that healthcare, as we understand it, really didn't begin to evolve until @1870 with the advent of anesthesia for surgery. Until then, healthcare was a reflection solely of a person's extended family and its community's 'common good.' What we are up against is the level of a community's 'social capital' and its ability to energize the 'common good' of their community. In effect, the healthcare industry has inadvertently subverted the importance of family connections for the survival of each person. There are obviously many other factors, such as lead poisoning, poverty, various addictions of life, degenerative health problems, etc. My opinion is that the ultimate solution to the cost and quality of our nation's healthcare will not be solved without a community by community, locally driven process that connects the availability and accessibility of Primary Healthcare with the community's level of 'social capital.'

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