Giving Patients a Piece of the Action: Appealing Proposals from Richard Frank and Christopher Robertson

Filed in Health Law, Recommended Reading by on February 10, 2013 0 Comments

Kate Greenwood_high res 2011 compIn a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, Richard Frank discussed recent efforts on the part of federal and state governments to enroll so-called “dual eligibles,” that is, individuals who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid, into health plans that use “a strong care-management system under a unified budget.”  Many believe that such plans have the potential to both save the government money and provide better coordinated, higher quality health care.  (I discussed the need to better coordinate care for dually-eligible people here.)  Individual beneficiaries are not necessarily convinced, however.  Frank reports that it has been “very difficult to lure” them into “state-designed care coordination entities.”  Beneficiaries may be hesitant to leave their fee-for-service doctors and other providers; they may also be afraid of the incentive to restrict services that a capitated global payment creates.

To get beneficiaries to make the switch from fee-for-service to coordinated care, states are taking a page from Nudge and making enrollment in a coordinated care plan automatic.  The burden is then placed on the beneficiary to opt out if he or she so chooses.  The use of “passive enrollment” will no doubt “work” to increase the rolls of coordinated care plans, but Frank wants states to aim higher, to strive to “promote self-determination for vulnerable populations and offer them a reason to engage with a new care delivery system with coordinated-care arrangements[.]”

As Frank explains, “[c]oordinated care for dually eligible people is built on a financial structure known as shared savings, in which three of the parties involved –- the federal government and state governments and the [coordinated care plan] –- share any financial gains from coordinating care.”  Frank proposes that beneficiaries, too, be given a share of the expected savings– a share that they would be permitted to use to pay for “supplemental services and supports such as transportation, home modifications, and personal assistance with activities of daily living.”  The prospect of (limited) control over a share of the expected savings would serve as an incentive to beneficiaries to engage in care coordination, while also “promot[ing] self-determination and the exercise of real options.”

Frank’s very appealing idea brought to mind the proposal Christopher Robertson makes in The Split Benefit: The Painless Way to put Skin Back in the Healthcare Game, which is forthcoming in the Cornell Law Review.  While Frank would give beneficiaries an incentive to opt in to coordinated care, Robertson would give them an incentive to opt out of inefficient, high-cost care.  Specifically, Robertson proposes that when a physician “prescribes a high-cost treatment that the insurer reasonably believes is inefficient[,]” the insurer would “[p]ay a small but substantial part of the insurance benefit”—-what he terms the “split benefit”—-in cash directly to the patient beneficiary.  Then, “[i]f the patient chooses to proceed with the treatment, the patient takes the cash payment to the provider (along with any required cost share obligation), and the insurer matches it with the balance of the insurance benefit[.]”  Patients who choose not to proceed with treatment, however, could spend the cash differently, on a “treatment that is not covered by the insurer (whether it is acupuncture, an alternative diet regimen, a concierge doctor, or visiting nursing services), paying money to a member of the family to stay home and provide care to the dying patient, or purchasing disability insurance to help cope with the symptoms of the illness.”  They could even use the money to pay for non-health-related expenses.  As Robertson explains, the split benefit would save insurers (and, down the line, purchasers of insurance) money by giving beneficiaries a financial incentive to turn down high-cost, low-value treatments.  In Robertson’s words, the patient autonomy movement has been “cramped” by the fact that patients have been offered only “a walled garden of medical choices.”  His split benefit, by contrast, “embraces a value-pluralism, respecting the patient’s weighing of medical and non-medical values.”

I highly recommend both Frank’s and Robertson’s pieces to anyone who—-like me—-is interested in ways to give patients a piece of the action when it comes to the multiplicity of current efforts to coordinate and rationalize their care.

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