Diamandis, who also founded Singularity University, a global learning and innovation community that uses exponential technologies to tackle worldwide challenges, according to its website, said, “We’re going to see Apple and Amazon and Google and all the data-driven companies that are in our homes right now become our healthcare providers.”
If this prediction becomes reality, it will bring significant changes in the traditional ways that consumers and patients have selected providers and access healthcare services. In turn, this will require all clinical laboratories and pathology groups to develop business strategies in response to these developments.
Amazon Arrives in Healthcare Markets
Several widely-publicized business initiatives by Amazon, Google, and Apple substantiate these predictions. According to an Amazon blog, healthcare insurers, providers, and pharmacy benefit managers are already operating HIPAA-eligible Amazon Alexa for:
Alexa also enables HIPAA-compliant blood glucose updates as part of the Livongo for Diabetes program. “Our members now have the ability to hear their last blood glucose check by simply asking Alexa,” said Jennifer Schneider, MD, President of Livongo, a digital health company, in a news release.
And Cigna’s “Answers By Cigna” Alexa “skill” gives members who install the option responses to 150 commonly asked health insurance questions, explained a Cigna news release.
The Apple Watch health app also enables people to access medical laboratory test results and vaccination records, and “sync up” information with some hospitals, Business Insider explained.
Virtual Care, a Payer Priority: Survey
Should healthcare providers feel threatened by the tech giants? Not necessarily. However, employers and payers surveyed by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), an employer advocacy organization, said they want to see more virtual care solutions, a news release stated.
“One of the challenges employers face in managing their healthcare costs is that healthcare is delivered locally, and change is not scalable. It’s a market-by-market effort,” said Brian Marcotte, President and CEO of the NBGH, in the news release. “Employers are turning to market-specific solutions to drive meaningful changes in the healthcare delivery system.
“Virtual care solutions bring healthcare to the consumer
rather than the consumer to healthcare,” Marcotte continue. “They continue to
gain momentum as employers seek different ways to deliver cost effective,
quality healthcare while improving access and the consumer experience.”
“If you use Google in the United States to check symptoms,
you’ll get five-million to 11-million hits,” Schwab told The Dark Report.
“Clearly, there’s plenty of talk about symptom checkers, and if you go online
now, you’ll find 350 different electronic applications that will give you
medical advice—meaning you’ll get a diagnosis over the internet. These
applications are winding their way somewhere through the regulatory process.
“The FDA just released a report saying it plans to regulate
internet doctors, not telehealth doctors and not virtual doctors,” he
continued. “Instead, they’re going to regulate machines. This news is
significant because, today, within an hour of receiving emergency care, 45% of
Americans have googled their condition, so the cat is out of the bag as it
pertains to us going online for our medical care.”
Be Proactive, Not Reactive, Health Leaders Say
Healthcare leaders need to work on improving access to primary care, instead of becoming defensive or reactive to tech companies, several healthcare CEOs told Becker’s Hospital Review.
Clinical laboratory leaders are advised to keep an eye on
these virtual healthcare trends and be open to assisting doctors engaged in
telehealth services and online diagnostic activities.
While clinical laboratories may not be directly affected by copay accumulators, anything that affects patients’ ability to pay for healthcare will likely impact lab revenues as well
Here’s a new term and strategy that some big employers are
deploying in an attempt to control the choice of health benefits provided to
their employees. The term is “copay accumulator” and it is intended to offset
efforts by pharmaceutical companies to minimize what consumers must pay
out-of-pocket for expensive prescription drugs.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists will have a front row seat to watch this next round in the struggle between industry giants for control over how patients pay for drugs and treatment regimes.
Pharmaceutical companies on one side and health insurers and employers on the other side have played brinksmanship over medication copays for years. Now at the center of this struggle are copay accumulators, a relatively new feature of plans from insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) on behalf of the large employers they serve.
More than 41-million Americans use copay accumulators, and about nine million use similar though limited copay maximizer programs, Zitter Health Insights, a New Jersey-based pharma and managed care consultancy firm, told Reuters.
Now, big employers are getting in on the game. Walmart
(NYSE:WMT) and Home Depot (NYSE:HD) are among a growing number of companies using
copay accumulators and copay maximizers to keep their healthcare costs down and
encourage employees to seek lower-cost alternatives to expensive brand
prescriptions (generic drugs).
About 25% of employers currently use such programs, and 50% of employers are anticipated to be doing so in just two more years, the National Business Group on Health told Reuters.
What Are Copay
Accumulators and How Do They Work?
In response to popular drug company discount cards,
insurance companies developed the “copay accumulator.” Here’s how it works.
Typically, patients’ insurance plan deductibles can be thousands
of dollars. Thus, even after plan discounts, patients often pay hundreds, even
thousands of dollars each month for prescribed medications. Insurance companies
see a beneficial side to this, stating the cost encourages patients to be aware
of their medications and motivates them to try lower-cost non-branded
alternatives (generic drugs), all of which saves insurance plans money.
However, many patients with high-deductibles balk at paying
the high cost. They opt to not fill prescriptions, which costs pharmaceutical
To encourage patients to fill prescriptions, drug companies
provide discount cards to help defray the cost of the drugs. The difference
between the discounted payment and the full price of the drug is paid by the
pharmaceutical company. But these discount cards interfere with insurance
companies’ ability to effectively track their enrollees’ drug usage, which
impacts the payers’ bottom lines.
When a patient uses a drug discount card at the point-of-sale, the sale is noted by the patient’s health insurer and the insurer’s copay accumulator program kicks in. It caps the total accumulated discount an enrollee can take for that medication and prevents any patient payments to apply toward the plan’s deductible. Once the drug company’s discount card threshold is reached, the patient bears the full cost of the drug, a ZS Associates Active Ingredient blog post explained.
Critics of copay accumulators point out that patients could
end up paying full price for extremely expensive prescriptions they previously
accessed with discount cards, while simultaneously making no progress toward
fulfilling their insurance deductibles. Or, they will simply stop taking their
“A medication which previously cost $7 may suddenly cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars because the maximum amount of copay assistance from the [drug] manufacturer was reached,” noted Ken Majkowski, Pharm.D, Chief Pharmacy Officer at FamilyWize (a company that offers its own prescription savings programs), in a blog post. “Since the health plan will no longer allow the copay amounts to contribute to the patient’s deductible, the cost of the medication remains very high.”
Major Employers Implement
Their Own Copay Accumulator Programs
Enter the next goliath into the fray—the large employer. Executives
at Walmart and Home Depot say discount drug coupons drive up healthcare costs
and give their employees and their family members no incentive to explore lower
cost alternatives, Reuters reported.
Walmart’s pharmacy benefits are managed by Express Scripts, a prescription benefit plan provider that fills millions of prescriptions annually, according to the company’s website. Meanwhile, Home Depot’s pharmacy benefits are operated by CVSHealth, which focuses on therapies for cystic fibrosis, hepatitis C, cancer, HIV, psoriasis, pulmonary arterial hypertension, and hyperlipidemia, Reuters noted.
“The bigger question is why do we need copay coupons at all? It’s very important to recognize the problem starts with the [drug] price. This is the real underlying problem,” Cathryn Donaldson, Director of Communications, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), told the Los Angeles Times.
In their blog post, ZS Associates advised drug companies to
“push-back” on the copay accumulators. The Evanston, Ill.-based consultancy
firm recommends pharma executives change the way they run the discount cards—such
as paying rebates directly to patients instead of working through pharmacies.
Medical laboratory leaders need to be aware of programs,
such as copay accumulators, and the associated issues that affect patients’
ability to pay for their healthcare. Because large numbers of patients struggle
to pay these high deductibles, it means clinical laboratories will be competing
more frequently with hospitals, physicians, imaging providers, and others to
get patients to pay their lab test bills.
Though patients get a big discount when paying for drugs, copay accumulators prohibit discounts from applying to plan deductibles, extending time it takes for enrollees to reach full plan coverage
There’s a new insurance/payer industry tactic in town and Dark Daily thinks clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups should know about it. It’s called a “copay accumulator” and it was designed by payers in response to pharmaceutical company copay assistance cards and discount coupons.
How do Copay Accumulators Work?
Many consumers use manufacturer copay assistance programs, copay cards, and coupons to afford expensive brand-name medications. As payers attempt to make consumers pay a higher portion of drug costs, pharmaceutical companies have responded by offering financial aid to patients in the form of copay assistance cards and coupons. These discounts insulate patients from having to pay the full deductible required by their health insurance plans for medicines prescribed by their doctors.
However, payers say these deductibles were designed to motivate patients to monitor the price of prescribed drugs and discourage the overutilization of costly medicines. A primary goal of price transparency and precision medicine.
The upside to payers is, with a copay accumulator in place, the amount of those manufacturer discounts does not count toward the patient’s insurance deductible. And the longer it takes for patients to reach their deductibles, the longer the insurer gets to collect copays, which adds to the controversy of copay accumulators.
Also, prohibiting drug manufacturer discounts from counting toward a patient’s insurance deductible prolongs the time patients have to wait before full coverage begins. Thus, more upfront costs are shifted to consumers.
Others, however, claim manufacturer discounts are simply marketing schemes used by pharmaceutical companies to keep drug costs high.
“The true issue remains that drug pricing continues to skyrocket, with no clear explanation on how those prices are set,” Cathryn Donaldson, Director of Communications, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), told the LA Times. “Copay coupon programs hide the true impact of rising prescription drug costs.” (Photo copyright: AHIP.)
Patients Stuck in the Middle
Physicians and patient advisory groups worry that shifting more drug costs to patients may affect therapy adherence and cause confusion for consumers.
“But the Achilles heel for the pharmacy benefits manager is that you’re hurting the patient, who is stuck in the middle,” continued Vogenberg. “Patients may end up not taking or getting a drug, which is not good for anyone. And it’s not really affecting pricing because patients are still hurting. Unfortunately, it makes the third-party payer look like a crook.”
Managed Care notes that, according to a recent survey of 170 employers conducted by the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), 29% of employers plan on using copay accumulators in 2019. That’s up from the 17% of employers who are currently using them.
“They are not universal yet,” Steve Wojcik, Vice President of Public Policy at the NBGH, told Managed Care. “But they will probably continue to be one tool that employers use to keep costs down.”
Drug Costs Down, Cost to Patients Up
The struggles between payers and big pharma could be heating up. Studies show utilization of copay accumulators may be negatively impacting drug company revenue. Research conducted by Sector and Sovereign (SSR) found that retail drug prices in the United States fell 5.6% during the first quarter of this year. During the same period last year, prices fell just 1.7%. SSR’s report states that most of the decline in prices is due to copay accumulators.
“Unless manufacturers adapt their copay support programs fairly drastically, net price declines may worsen in 2019,” SSR analyst Richard Evans told Reuters.
Clinical laboratories might not directly feel the effects of copay accumulators. Nevertheless, anything that impacts patients’ ability to pay, especially those on high-deductible health plans, should be on the radar of smart lab managers and stakeholders.
Increased use of telemedicine may create opportunities for clinical laboratories to deliver increased value to both physicians and nurses
Recent data shows widespread employer adoption of telehealth services may soon become a reality. However, studies also show virtual provider visits and other telemedicine technologies are unlikely to diminish the role of clinical laboratories in providing the data required for diagnosis and treatment decisions. Instead, laboratories and anatomic pathology groups will likely see changes in how samples are collected from patients using telemedicine and how medical laboratory test results are reported, as access to telemedicine grows.
A recent National Business Group on Health (NBGH) survey indicates that in 2018 “virtually all [large] employers (96%) will make telehealth services available in states where it is allowed.” The survey was conducted between May and June 2017, with 148 large employers participating.
In an article she penned for MedCityNews, Smalley calls provider-to-provider telemedicine the “most evolved to-date” segment of the telehealth trend. She highlights ICU stroke care with remote consults and monitoring as an example of its “success,” and notes a large potential for growth in remote patient monitoring (RPM). Smalley cites a Berg Insight report that estimates 50-million patients will use remote monitored devices by 2021. However, Smalley also notes consumer acceptance of patient-to-provider telemedicine has fallen short of industry expectations.
While virtual office visits—where patients have access to physicians via telephone or videoconferencing—grab headlines, Smalley argues that “several factors” are hindering adoption.
“Reimbursement is not yet universal,” she notes. “But consumers are growing used to paying more out-of-pocket with high-deductible plans. Physicians have long resisted change in how they practice, and many remain lukewarm at best about telemedicine. It’s no coincidence that many of the innovations and pioneering models have come from outside of healthcare delivery … The barriers that loom the largest may likely be consumer awareness and trial.”
The Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP) reports that 35 states have laws governing private payer reimbursement of telehealth, a number that has not changed since 2016. According to a CCHP press release, some state laws require reimbursement be equal to in-person visits, though not all laws mandate reimbursement.
Adopting Existing Retail Models to Promote Telemedicine to Patients
Smalley contends “smart marketing” will be needed to get consumers to leverage the telemedicine options that are becoming available to them. She says simply offering video or telephone visits is not enough. She encourages integrated delivery systems to take a page out of retailers’ playbooks.
“Look at how retailers, like Walmart, integrate online shopping and the store experience by offering side-by-side options supporting product delivery and in-store pickup. Telemedicine options ultimately need to be offered in a way that feels integrated and seamless to the health consumer,” she suggested, in her MedCityNews article. One example, she notes, would be providing an easy-to-navigate link to a virtual visit on a healthcare network’s urgent care webpage.
Healthcare Spending Could Increase Due to Telehealth
While health plans have zeroed in on telehealth as a way to drive down healthcare costs, a 2017 RAND Corp. study published in Health Affairs found virtual visits to physicians might not decrease spending, though access to care is improved.
“Instead of saving money by substitution [replacing more expensive visits to physician offices or EDs], direct-to-consumer telehealth may increase spending by new utilization [increasing the total number of patient visits],” a MedCityNews article suggests.
“Given that direct-to-consumer telehealth is even more convenient than traveling to retail clinics, it may not be surprising that an even greater share of telehealth services represents new medical use,” noted Lori Uscher-Pines, PhD, a RAND Policy Researcher. “There may be a dose response with respect to convenience and use: the more convenient the location, the lower the threshold for seeking care and the greater the use of medical services.”
Telehealth in Clinical Laboratories
Will telehealth services offered by hospital networks and healthcare providers impact clinical laboratories? While a physical visit is still required for drawing blood, collecting urine, or performing pathology testing, interpretive digital pathology, such as Whole Slide Imaging (AKA, Virtual Slide), does enable pathologists to provided distance interpretation services of blood tests to remote and/or resource deficient areas of the world, as Dark Daily reported in past e-briefings. This could become a substantial revenue stream in the future if telepathology’s global popularity continues to rise.
80% of US employers are using financial incentives in wellness programs, and Penn Medicine research suggests better incentive design is needed to get people to exercise
In recent years, there’s been plenty of headlines about wellness programs offered by employers and health insurers. Data show that such programs are cost-effective. But, until now, there were few studies about employees’ attitudes toward wellness programs. Because some of these wellness programs incorporate clinical laboratory testing, medical labs have a stake in their future.
The fact is that companies want healthier employees and they’re willing to pay for it. Experts say about 80% of US employers use financial incentives in worker wellness programs. And for each dollar a company spends on a wellness program, it saves about $3 in medical costs, according to an article the journal Health Affairs. (more…)