The Seismic Shift in U.S. Healthcare: Challenges and Solutions

Ben H.

Hatched by Ben H.

Oct 26, 2023

4 min read


The Seismic Shift in U.S. Healthcare: Challenges and Solutions

In the ever-evolving landscape of U.S. healthcare, providers are facing significant hurdles while payors reap the benefits of what is known as the "flywheel effect." The days of full-risk commercial insurance, where payor profitability covered increases rather than burdening employers and consumers, are long gone. Today, providers find themselves at the mercy of a system that is designed to leverage scaled assets for maximum margins. A prime example of this shift is UnitedHealth Group, a company that has mastered the art of balancing health care services with medical spend/medical loss ratios.

UnitedHealth Group's Optum division, which encompasses various health care services, and UnitedHealth Networks, responsible for medical spend and ratios, work in tandem under one umbrella. This setup allows UnitedHealth Networks to pay its own physicians, care delivery sites, and other providers above market rates while squeezing out lower rates for independent providers. This strategy not only incentivizes independent providers to sell their practices to Optum but also enables UnitedHealth to maintain profitability while staying within federal MLR caps. From a business perspective, this is considered a "good problem," but it creates a challenging and worsening situation for hospitals and other providers.

The success of UnitedHealth Group is fueled by a flywheel effect, as seen in its second-quarter profits. While enrollment in employer-sponsored and individual businesses grew modestly, enrollment in government-supported programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare Advantage plans, experienced significant growth. Additionally, Optum's revenues saw a staggering 25% increase. This growth allowed UnitedHealth to avoid a substantial hike in its overall medical loss ratio, which measures the percentage of revenue that goes towards claims.

These developments highlight the complex challenges faced by health systems, physician groups, and other providers. The tension between providers and payors' business models has reached unprecedented levels. To navigate this landscape successfully, it is crucial to understand the strategic and operational moves of payors and prepare for what lies ahead. While every contract negotiation does not have to turn into a problem, it is essential to stay informed and be proactive in key areas before payor strategies become widespread.

One significant issue that arises when attempting to appeal insurance denials is the lack of a standardized process. Different types of insurance have varying appeal procedures, and there is no simple standard enforced by lawmakers or regulators. Patients must first determine their exact insurance type, which can be confusing. For example, while UnitedHealthcare may be the name on an insurance card, the actual insurer could be the employer. Self-funded plans, where the employer covers medical costs but may have an insurance company administer claims, account for a significant portion of coverage provided by employers.

Government insurance adds another layer of complexity. Medicare beneficiaries with supplemental plans and Part D coverage for drugs encounter a different appeals process than those with Medicare Advantage plans. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services acknowledges the need to simplify and streamline the appeals process, but the current system remains convoluted. Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Programs further complicate matters, covering millions of enrollees.

The appeals process for those covered by both Medicare and Medicaid is particularly baffling. Different paths must be taken depending on the type of claim. This lack of uniformity in appeals processes raises questions about why the industry has made appealing denials so complex. While trade organizations like AHIP stress the importance of collaboration between doctors and insurers to deliver evidence-based care, the appeals process remains arduous. There are multiple levels of appeal available, including reviews by independent entities, but the proper handling of appeals by insurance plans is not always guaranteed.

To navigate the complex appeals process and address the challenges posed by the seismic shift in healthcare, here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Stay informed: Keep up to date with the strategic moves and operational tactics of payors. Understanding their motives and methods will help you anticipate and respond effectively to changes in the industry.
  • 2. Build strong relationships: Collaborating with other providers and forming alliances can help protect against being squeezed out by larger organizations. By working together, independent providers can negotiate better rates and strengthen their position in the market.
  • 3. Advocate for change: Report and complain to relevant government regulators when unfair denials occur. Engaging with regulators and advocating for a simpler and more transparent appeals process is crucial in driving systemic change.

In conclusion, the seismic shift in U.S. healthcare presents significant challenges for providers, but there are actionable steps that can be taken to navigate the changing landscape. By understanding the tactics of payors, building strong relationships, and advocating for change, providers can position themselves to thrive in this evolving industry. While the road ahead may be challenging, with proactive measures and a willingness to adapt, providers can overcome the obstacles and continue to provide quality care to their patients.

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