Chapter 1: Game On 1 GAME ON
In 2019, Donna Ferguson was a poster child for America’s out-of-control health care prices and the game-changing ways now emerging to find better and cheaper care. Her meme status stemmed from
a story that explained how Ferguson’s employer—privately held
Ashley Furniture Industries in Wisconsin—had paid for her to fly to Cancun from her home in Mississippi and then put her up in a nearby Sheraton hotel. It flew in a surgeon trained at the Mayo Clinic, and paid him to give her a knee replacement that was free to her.
The quality of the surgery and her care were first-rate. The costs for the procedure at a nice hospital were so much cheaper than in the United States that Ashley, which self-insures its health care coverage, came out ahead—so far ahead that the company cut her a $5,000 check to reward her for her troubles!
In 2020, by sobering contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic took us back decades. There were shortages of critical-care equipment, hospital beds, and caregivers, plus tragic weaknesses in nursing homes. But we also saw what we had been missing in health care.
Dedicated and compassionate healers put their lives on the line. Hospitals, doctors’ offices, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, and health care regulators relaxed or waived access and pricing rules so people could get protection and care. Health care heroes were everywhere. This was a health care system we could support.
Beyond the compassionate heroics, what was wrong with U.S. health care in 2019 is not only still wrong today but likely even worse. We have too few caregivers, rising affordability challenges, and a profit-driven system at odds with human needs. However, the pandemic also accelerated positive forces surrounding Ferguson’s treatment. They can make health care work for us, not the other way around. Get What’s Yours for Health Care
will explain what you can do right now to benefit from these changes. They are elements of a consumer-focused shift in care that is happening now and not waiting for government health reforms.
Self-insured employers like Ashley Furniture are beyond tired of paying out the nose for rising health costs. The tab for employer health insurance is about $700 billion a year and rising at double the rate of general inflation. This does not include the $375 billion in annual premiums and other out-of-pocket health care costs that we as employees pay.
Singly and in growing groups of like-minded organizations, employers are bypassing traditional health pathways. They are contracting directly with hospitals, doctors, and other providers of high-quality care at advantageous prices. These early adapters are proving how to save money—for themselves and their employees—while providing new incentives and decision-making tools that support healthier work forces.
Employer efforts to break the cycle of unsustainable health cost increases are hardly new, of course, so what’s changed? The short answer is digitized information and “big data.” It has taken hold of health care, just as it has other aspects of our lives.
The ability to capture and analyze massive amounts of health care information has guided existing companies and thousands of venture-backed start-ups to find ways to cut health waste and costs while improving the quality of care.
Within the medical community, this information has created pathways to evidence-based care. What works and what doesn’t? Where are doctors, hospitals, and other medical experts likely to make mistakes in their diagnoses and treatment recommendations? What does health care quality look like, which providers do it the best, and how can you find them?
The organizations and people who pay for health care—that means us!—are learning what care costs and not just what providers charge. Health insurers gather this information as part of their work to process and pay claims. They keep it to themselves, for privacy reasons and because the knowledge generated by their claims information is a competitive asset.
With self-insured plans, the insurers don’t always call the shots. They work for employers under administrative service contracts. These employers thus have the opportunity to know the prices their health plans have agreed to pay doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers. Thanks to the enormously detailed coding systems for medical billing that are now standardized, they can get detailed apples-to-apples comparisons of health payments where their employees receive care.
Even without government involvement, health care is already being reformed. Compelling signs that major changes are near a tipping point were provided last spring when hospitals were flooded with COVID-19 victims and closed to routine care, as were doctors’ offices.
Virtual health care, also known as telemedicine or telehealth, boomed.
A study from management consultants at McKinsey & Company estimated that telehealth services soared in March 2020 from 0.2 percent to 7.5 percent of private health insurance claims. Total spending on telehealth, it projected, could rise to $250 billion a year, or nearly 100 times what had been forecast before the pandemic closed down much of the country.
Health providers “have rapidly scaled offerings and are seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did before,” the report said. Ten years of projected growth occurred in sixty days.
Healthcare Bluebook, based in Nashville, Tennessee, was formed in 2008 because cofounders Jeff Rice and Bill Kampine believed they could unlock the secrets of health care pricing, find employers and others willing to pay them for their efforts, and, in the process, create tools to help employees and consumers understand the true cost of health care and how to find care that was less expensive and higher in quality.
They explained their business to me last year in a company conference room. Rice used a black marker to draw a simple word graphic on a well-worn whiteboard. It had only four entries—two across the top and two on the bottom: The top entries were “Patients” and “Employers”; the bottom entries were “Hospitals” and “Insurers.” Patients and employers are health care’s payers; hospitals, other health providers, and insurers receive our money.
Once upon a time, he explained, employer-funded health insurance paid patients for their health costs, and the patients then paid their health care providers. Over time, the connecting lines between patients and providers and those between patients and insurers began to blur and eventually vanished. Providers and insurers today bypass us. They negotiate in secret with one another over what providers will be paid for care, and then insurers send the agreed-upon amounts directly to providers.
In theory, insurers work for employers and others who pay their premiums. In practice, this has not been the case. “Once insurer payments began going directly to providers, consumers lost control,” Rice said. He then drew a new line on his whiteboard—a thick horizontal line separating patients and employers from providers and insurers. “All the money flows from the north to the south” of this line, he explained, and all the information about provider prices and final negotiated health costs stays on the south side of the line.
People pay close attention to their out-of-pocket costs and surveys chart rising health care affordability problems. Out-of-pocket costs, while certainly important, tell only part of the money story. They vastly understate the full costs of U.S. health care, which, as you’ll soon see, have largely been hidden from us.
We spent an astronomical $3.6 trillion on health care in 2018, including nearly $3.1 trillion for personal care (the rest went for research and other indirect spending). We will pat ourselves on the back if this total grows by only $100 billion from one year to the next. Health care in this country costs roughly twice as much per person as it does in other developed countries. Imagine for a moment what we could do with an extra $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion every
year! Education. Infrastructure. Clean energy. Add your spending wish here.
Here’s a summary of personal care spending, including major payment sources:
2018 NATIONAL HEALTH SPENDING ($ BILLIONS)
Out of Pocket
Private Health Ins.
Personal Health Care
Physician and Clinical Services
Other Professional Services
Other Health, Residential, and Personal Care
Home Health Care
Retail Outlet Sales
Durable Medical Equipment
Other Non-Durable Medical
Source: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
We spend a much smaller percentage of that $3.6 trillion on actual care than in other places, and more dollars on health care coding, billing, administration, and other profit-related work. There is a shortage of doctors in the United States, but this would be a smaller problem if they could spend less time on nonmedical work, as do their peers in other nations.
Do we at least get the best health care in the world for all that money? The answer is a resounding “No.” Here are some metrics from the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which includes the United States and thirty-five other developed countries, mostly in Europe. In 2018, U.S. health spending totaled 16.9 percent of our economy, nearly double the OECD average of 8.8 percent. In 2017, the infant mortality rate in the United States ranked 31st among OECD members; we ranked 28th in life expectancy.
No other health system is so dominated by for-profit health care providers as is the United States’. They have powerful incentives to charge high and ever-rising prices and the ability to suck profits from the system. Public outrage has failed so far to produce change.
The reason is not a mystery. Reforms threaten health care businesses. They have developed extensive lobbying and public-influence operations to protect themselves. Do not expect them to voluntarily reduce their prices and profits. Instead, expect them to erect time-delaying barriers.
If the national narrative on health care is so resistant to change and government is not able to act, what are we—consumers and patients—supposed to do? Do we even have it in us to take the fight to health care companies and help create a system that works better? Doing so will be unbelievably difficult because the U.S. health care system is stacked against us.
Study after study points to disappointing results when consumers are given the information and tools to make significant decisions about how they access care, choose providers, and pay them. But health care’s current reality, my research found, differs from the rearview mirror view that supported these earlier findings. Using the tools of Healthcare Bluebook and others, companies and consumers can help lower costs—for themselves and other health consumers.
Right now, this effort is being led by those businesses that already are armed with this information and are using it to aggressively shop for health care. They are providing these same tools to their employees and, eventually, this health data will weaponize all consumers to help them get better health outcomes.
The people on the south side of Jeff Rice’s Healthcare Bluebook line have worked hard so that you don’t think or worry much about the nearly $2.6 trillion in personal care costs that don’t come directly out of your pocket. Insurance companies have decided to hide these expenses as part of a codependent relationship with health providers that permits both to feed their money addictions. Look at the chart below and you’ll see what a good job they’ve done.
The incredible shrinking act of out-of-pocket health expenses hardly means we’re paying less for care. Just the opposite! Get What’s Yours
can help you even the playing field. Lots of the money health providers collect—easily more than $1 trillion
a year—rightfully belongs in your pockets, not theirs.
Countless people are proving that consumers can beat the system, that superior care at reasonable prices is possible, and that we don’t have to accept the status quo. They are a different breed of health care hero than the caregivers who manned the front lines during the heights of the pandemic. But they are heroes nonetheless.
I have found a lot of these people in my research. Many of them, like Rice, work for or even founded “disrupters”—companies trying to upend the system, often with a goal of making lots of money in the process. These entrepreneurs often are motivated by compelling personal health stories.
These heroes also may be found in patient advocate offices. They are the passionate voices heard in social media discussion and support groups. They work in thousands of patient-centric health agencies, nonprofits, and, yes, hospitals, clinics, medical offices, and yes once more, even for what are widely considered the “bad guys” of U.S. health care—insurance, drug, and medical equipment companies.
These heroes shop for the best deal and pore over health quality ratings. They appeal rejections of their insurance claims. They fight the government about which treatments and drugs are approved and the rules for how insurers help pay for them. They don’t accept defeat or walk away—they speak up; they kick and scratch; they sue!
Their stories illustrate an evolving movement involving thousands of organizations and millions of engaged patients and consumers. View them not as the end of the transformation story. There will be more heroes and disrupters appearing each day.
As noted, these heroes are mastering data-fueled tools. Once these informational genies have been released, old ways of doing business will change forever.
I’m not suggesting that these tools are enough. Health reform is needed. The point here is that you can use these tools right now to achieve better health outcomes, easier access to care, and lower health care bills. If you do, you will be better off. You will be paying it forward for other health consumers. They will benefit from the changes you spearhead whether they know it or not.
Should we have to do these things to get the care we need? Of course not. Get What’s Yours for Health Care
is based on the system we’ve got, however, not on the one we’d like. To have the greatest impact, you need to look beyond your self-interest, beyond your own out-of-pocket costs, to the much larger pot of total costs that health providers collect for their services. Failing to do so will help perpetuate a business model that has been harmful to our health for many decades.
Mike Baker’s day job has included overseeing the quality of consumer experiences provided to something like 50 million people who are customers of UnitedHealthcare, the largest private health insurer on the planet. Now, you might say, the bar must be set low for his work. We’re talking about health insurance, right? Yet of all the people whose views and research are included in Get What’s Yours,
no one stood out as more of a consumer advocate than Baker, ostensibly the fox guarding the henhouse. When he talks about what consumers need from health care—comments I’ve included in upcoming chapters—Baker is so ardently pro-patient that he sounds like an industry critic. Could this just be an act for my benefit? I don’t think so.
What I do think, and what this book is about, is that there are lots of people like Baker in businesses and nonprofits across the country who think people deserve a better deal. Given the daily outrages about the price, quality, and access to care, it is safe to say that these people are not typical. They are outliers in pursuing better outcomes for consumers, and point to better ways of providing and paying for care.
If their ideas and solutions were widely known and used, the fervor for health reform would subside. I am not holding my breath waiting for this to happen. And you don’t have to wait, either. These better ways of providing and paying for care are available now, and I will get to them in short order.
Before moving on, I’d like to address another reality of health care. Everyone
has a health care story, and their view of care—their
reality—is largely determined by their own experiences. Like the proverbial elephant and the blind man, the part of health care a person touches tends to define all of health care for that individual.
This is as true for doctors and health care experts as it is for us. I have lost count of all the doctors who have expressed “shock and outrage” at injustices inflicted on their loved ones or their patients in the aftermath of disastrous encounters with health care. If even a doctor can come up so short, these stories conclude, what hope is there for the rest of us? The flaw here is the assumption that doctors know how health care insurance, price-setting, hospital billing, and access to care work. For the most part, they do not.
I have tracked anecdotal health care experiences on social media, supported by detailed surveys and studies of millions of American health care consumers. Extrapolating anyone’s personal experiences with health care to support broader conclusions is potentially a mistake. Despite this realization and my best efforts, I am likely guilty of making this mistake myself in the following pages. I beg your apology for doing so.
Clearly, the system is broken for many people some of the time. It is not broken for most people most of the time. Where health care tends to break down is at the extremes—serious illnesses, horrendous expenses and bills, seemingly heartless companies that deny and ration care, stories that break our hearts about miracle cures that are tantalizingly out of reach.
Health care costs represent a growing affordability crisis. Families often spend a quarter or more of their incomes on health care. Projections say things will get worse. (A look at health spending for individuals and families is in Appendix 1.)
All of this points back to the 330 million Americans who do not have the luxury of waiting for health reform and must cope with health care as it now exists. Six out of seven Americans need some form of health care each year, according to the government’s
recent health census.
The number of times we seek care during the year is staggering: a billion visits to doctor’s offices, 145 million emergency room visits, and 35 million hospital admissions. Whether you need care now or not, these numbers suggest you will. Fortunately, there are health care heroes who can help you right now. They have found better answers and pathways to provide you access to quality health care at an affordable price. This book is for you and is dedicated to them.