Avoiding the health care run-around

The following originally appeared on The Upshot (copyright 2017, The New York Times Company).

You’ve all experienced it: There’s a problem with your health care bill, or you have difficulty getting coverage for the care you need. Your doctor or hospital tells you to talk to your insurer. Your insurer tells you to talk to your doctor or hospital. You’re stuck in an endless runaround.

A small patient advocacy industry has sprung up to help, but that help can cost several hundred dollars an hour. Is there a way to get the customer service we deserve?

Turns out, some kinds of health insurance plans provide better customer service than others. Among those that do are plans offered directly by hospitals or health systems, according to results from a recent study by me; Garret Johnson, now a medical student at Harvard; and Zoë Lyon, a research assistant at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Our conclusions are based on analysis of Medicare Advantage plans — private insurance alternatives to traditional Medicare. Medicare Advantage plans are offered by major insurers like UnitedHealthcare, Humana, Aetna, BlueCross BlueShield affiliates and others. But nearly one-quarter of the plans are issued by hospitals or health systems. These provider-offered plans are more likely found in dense, urban areas in the Northeast and the West.

The government collects data on health care quality from surveys and medical claims, then aggregates them into ratings of plans. These are publicly reported in units of stars: Five stars represents the highest quality, and one the lowest. Our study, published this month in the health policy journal Health Affairs, found that provider-offered plans have higher quality ratings.

Plans offered by insurers have average ratings of just over 3.5 stars for both nondrug and drug service. An average provider-offered plan has quality ratings that are about one-third of a star higher for both, after adjusting for factors that could confound the comparison, like socioeconomic status and the types and number of doctors where plans are offered.

Our study dug deeper to examine the kinds of quality enhancements available in provider-offered plans. Some aspects of quality are clinically focused. For instance, measures of preventive screening — like that for colorectal cancer — or management of chronic conditions assess the quality of care delivered by doctors and hospitals in a plan’s networks. Provider-offered plans perform somewhat better than insurer-offered plans in such areas.

Other aspects of quality pertain to customer service. In measures of complaints, responsiveness to customers and the enrollees’ overall experiences, provider-offered plans really shine. In each area of customer service we examined, provider-offered plans are rated one-half star higher than insurer-offered ones. (This is a big difference. For comparison, over half of plans are within one star of each other in overall quality.)

These results make some sense. When a customer has an issue — like a problem with a hospital bill — the easiest thing for a health plan to do is pass it off to the hospital. Likewise, the hospital’s easiest course of action is to blame the health plan. The patient, stuck in the middle, is not likely to rate his plan (or hospital) highly for customer service in this case.

However, when the plan and hospital are one and the same, neither can pass the buck to the other. Problems may be resolved faster; they may be less likely to develop in the first place. This could lead to the higher customer satisfaction reflected in the quality ratings.

If the higher ratings are enough to interest you in trying a provider-offered plan, how would you find one? Unfortunately, there’s no readily accessible source to inform consumers (or researchers) about this feature of plans. Sometimes the plan’s name gives away the relationship. The UPMC Health Plan practically has the health system that offers it right in the name — UPMC stands for University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In other cases, consumers can identify the relationship on plans’ or health systems’ websites. For example, the Vital Traditions plan website identifies as its parent company the largest nonprofit hospital system in Texas, Baylor Scott & White.

But in many cases, it’s not so easy to figure out. In fact, this is why there has been so little analysis of provider versus insurer plans. For our study, we had to scroll through hundreds of websites, news articles and documents to build a research data set on provider-offered plans from 2011 to 2015. Because of the work involved, there are very few studies on the subject. Another, published in Health Service Research by me, Roger Feldman of the University of Minnesota and Steven Pizer of Northeastern University, found a similar quality relationship when examining 2009 data.

That earlier study also found that provider-offered Medicare Advantage plans charge higher premiums. But a recent study of marketplace plans found that provider-offered ones are not necessarily the most expensive. For some, a higher premium may outweigh the benefits of greater quality, but for others it may not.

From our study, we can’t be certain that provider sponsorship of plans causes higher quality. It could be that higher-quality providers are the ones that choose to offer plans. Nevertheless, such tight integration between plans and providers is at least a signal of higher quality, even if it doesn’t cause it.

Recent trends suggest more health systems are offering plans in other health care markets for the working-age population, not just in Medicare Advantage. Not all markets may be hospitable to provider-offered plans, however. Some systems that did offer plans are pulling back. According to The Wall Street Journal, Catholic Health Initiatives, which runs over 100 hospitals across 18 states, is divesting itself of some of its health insurance plans. After struggles with profitability, Tenet Healthcare and several other health systems have said they will do the same.

Provider-offered plans may increase convenience for consumers. But the financial risk it confers on the organizations that offer them may be more than some can handle.


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