The California HealthCare Foundation has published an issue brief on pre-paid primary care plans, known as direct primary care. Direct primary care (DPC) unbundles physician office visits and some other limited services from health insurance coverage and is directly paid out of pocket by consumers, leaving insurance to cover hospitalizations and catastrophic care events. It has the potential to lower premiums since it eliminates the administrative burden on both payers and providers to process routine care reimbursements as well as potentially avoiding higher cost care by allowing primary care providers to offer more intensive preventative care and lifestyle coaching to ward off preventable, chronic conditions.
The issue brief notes some DPC providers have pegged overall health care cost savings in the 20 to 30 percent range. Cost reductions of that size can go a long way toward achieving the triple aim of better care at lower cost and with better outcomes and warrant independent research to more fully investigate the potential savings. The research should also examine how DPC might favorably affect the business model of primary care medical practice and its potential to attract more physicians to the field at the same time the number of people with insurance coverage – and the concurrent need for primary care practitioners – is expected to increase starting in 2014 under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The Star Trek television series Voyager set in the 23rd Century features a holographic physician character programmed with a vast repository of medical data to aid in rapid and effective diagnosis and treatment.
Meanwhile, back in the present time in the early 21st, this item reports on research indicating that the application of algorithm-based artificial intelligence produced treatment plans that increased positive care outcomes — one of the key elements of the coveted “triple aim.”
Witnesses at a recent California legislative committee hearing bemoaned what is well known among health care policy wonks: poor access to primary care and its relationship to complex, chronic conditions that drive the 80-20 rule on health care spending: that 20 percent of patients account for 80 percent of the health care spend.
An excerpt from the California HealthCare Foundation’s California Healthline report on the hearing:
“We need to look at better management of chronic conditions,” said Assembly member Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), chair of the Committee on Health. “It’s one of the greatest cost factors in our health care system.”
How much cost?
The numbers are “astounding,” according to Sophia Chang, director of the Better Chronic Disease Care Program at the California HealthCare Foundation and one of the panelists at yesterday’s hearing. CHCF publishes California Healthline.
“We’re dealing with an epidemic,” Chang said. “Growing numbers, growing costs.”
The article goes on to quote testimony by Kevin Grumbach, chair of family and community medicine at UC-San Francisco:
“All this talk about chronic care and the patient-centered medical home is fundamentally about the primary care foundation of a well-functioning health care [system],” Grumbach said. “Systems that are built on a solid foundation of primary care are much better able to deliver the triple aim of better care, better outcomes and lower cost, and in an equitable way.”
Unfortunately, he said, California’s primary care system “is completely topsy turvy,” he said.
A little noticed provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act could contain the means of restoring the primacy of primary care and putting health insurance into the more logical and sensible role of covering large, unexpected medical costs. It allows state health benefit exchanges to offer qualified health plans (QHPs) that are bundled with primary care directly paid by the insured, not the QHP. These “Direct Primary Care Medical Home Plan” QHPs would logically be those offering lower actuarial value (such as the “bronze” and “silver” metal tier plans that cover 60 and 70 percent, respectively, of expected claims costs).
Such a product could offer real benefits for both individuals and small businesses purchasing coverage in the exchanges starting this fall as well as for health plan issuers. The former would benefit from lower premiums since they would be purchasing a lower cost plan. Health plans would benefit because insureds that pay for their own primary care – likely through pre-paid primary care contracts with primary care doctors and clinics – would have access to primary care and lifestyle coaching to ward off the development or progression of chronic conditions. And primary care providers would also benefit by pre-paid direct primary care plans since they would provide a degree of predictability to their business models and potentially attract the large number of new primary care physicians that will be needed by the many newly insured under the ACA. That sounds like a promising means to achieve Grumbach’s triple aim.
Plan issuers, however, might initially resist offering such Section 1301(a)(3) plans since they would require them to retool their plans to be more like the “major medical” plans that predominated in the United States until all inclusive managed care plan models covering primary care proliferated beginning in the 1970s. But amid relentlessly rising medical costs that threaten their current business models and the opportunity presented by the new exchange marketplaces to devise new plans, now may be the right time for them to adopt DPC-based plans. Such plans might be marketed as “DPC (Direct Primary Care) compatible” just as high deductible plans are termed “HSA compatible.”
To spur their adoption, the Internal Revenue Code should be amended to allow individuals to take an income tax deduction for pre-paid direct primary care, just as they now can for contributions to health savings accounts.