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CEO of Boise-based St. Luke’s Health System reports progress in drive to end fee-for-service care

David C. Pate, M.D., a physician and lawyer who has been president and CEO of St. Luke’s Health System, based in Boise, Idaho, since 2009, spoke Dec. 14 as part of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce’s CEO Speaker Series. These remarks are edited for length and clarity from a transcript prepared by the chamber’s public-relations director, Caroline Merritt.

There’s a lot of discussion about healthcare, a lot of fear about what’s going to be happening with healthcare from a national level. I think there are answers — answers that healthcare providers are best prepared to implement, not Washington.

For the seven years that I’ve been here, we have been working at St. Luke’s, building the capabilities and competencies necessary to manage healthcare in a very different world than has existed.

Six months after I got here, the Affordable Care Act was enacted. We at St. Luke’s did not support the Affordable Care Act. Not because it doesn’t have a lot of really good features. It does. The discussion at the time was that if we add tens of millions of people to the newly insured in what was at the time, and still is, a broken healthcare delivery system, we’re going to end up saving money. We did not believe that. We have seen with the Affordable Care Act the continued growth and cost in healthcare. Something different has to happen.

Now the discussion is, “Let’s repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.” I think it’s going to miss the mark as well. In both cases, Republicans and Democrats are coming up with the right answers to the wrong question.

Get a service, pay a bill

Most experts in healthcare would agree that the single biggest problem is our reimbursement model. It’s what’s called fee-for-service. You go to the doctor, you get a bill. You get a lab test, you get a bill. You go to the hospital, you get a bill.

It leads to a fragmented healthcare-delivery system. Everything is being paid by this unit-of-service or episode-of-care. Regardless of whether it helped you or not. Regardless of whether it provided value. Regardless of whether there was a less costly alternative.

An ideal reimbursement system ought to align the incentives of the payment with what we say are the important objectives that we want. You go places and you’re always having to repeat the same things because nobody seems to have all the information. You get bills from all the different ones.

It’s estimated that, at minimum, 30 percent of all healthcare spending in the United States goes to low-value or no-value services. So we are spending money on things that don’t help people. With fee-for-service, we pay for a lot of duplication.

One of the consequences is that we have these consistently rising premiums, and they have outpaced the growth in incomes. In Idaho this is particularly serious, because premiums as a percentage of average income [are] about 17 percent, and even the federal government with the Affordable Care Act said affordable is less than 9.5 percent.

High-deductible health plans don’t help

What has been a response is, “Let’s create really high-deductible health plans that make the patients have skin in the game and make them a little bit resistant to buy these services unless they really need them.”

Most of us can remember the day when we thought a high deductible was a thousand dollars for an individual. These high-deductible plans now are in the neighborhood of up to $6,000 for an individual, $12,000 for a family. Nearly half of Idahoans don’t have enough liquid assets to be able to pay the deductible.

So insurance is increasingly become more like a catastrophic health plan, not something that you can really use. People do avoid getting care, but they avoid getting the care they need as well as the care that you’d like to discourage. This isn’t working.

Now imagine a new world that I’ll call pay-for-value. Imagine that I’m getting paid $500 a month for people to provide all of their healthcare, and that’s all I’m getting,

The majority of the population [accounts for] a very small amount of the healthcare spending – 4 percent. In fee-for-service, Saint Al’s {Boise-based St. Alphonsus Health System} and St. Luke’s would go broke. They just don’t use many services.

Today, in fee-for-service, what I want to know when I come to work is: Are all our hospital beds full? Are our emergency departments full? Are women lined up down the hallway to give birth? Because this is how we get paid.

When [a patient is] ready to be discharged, we’re going to wheel [her] out in a wheelchair to the front sidewalk, and her family members are going to pull up, and we’re going to put her in the car and close the door. We’re done. Now, if anything else happens to her, that’s fine, come on back. We’d be glad to have you, and we’ll do it again. Re-admissions aren’t really a problem for us under fee-for-service. It’s just an opportunity to make more money.

New financial incentives for better care

Think about pay-for-value. I’m getting $500 per month. Is there any hospitalization that you can have for under $500 that you can think of? No.

Now don’t misunderstand me. We’re still going to have hospitalizations, even under pay-for-value. But we’re looking at them differently: Could we have prevented this?

Under pay-for-value, complications are very expensive, and now they’re our expense, because we’re just getting that $500. And we’re looking at two things. How can we give the right care 100 percent of the time? And how can we get to zero complications?

If you have a knee or a hip replacement, one of the dangers is that the prosthesis, the artificial part of it, can get infected. We figured that if someone got an infection from their knee or hip surgery, it added about $120,000 to the cost. That’s a lot of $500 premiums to pay for that complication. So what we’ve been doing is trying to figuring out how do we get to zero complications.

With hip and knee infections — I’m going to oversimplify — there are two ways you can get infected. One is: There can be bacteria on the skin that we don’t get off, so in the operation we put the bacteria in it. But today, the bigger problem is there’s particulate material in the air. We’ve got your wound open. That particulate matter can settle in your wound.

So we partnered with Micron and Boise State University to come into our operating rooms and to study about these particulate counts. Who knew there were such things as air engineers, but there are, and Boise State has one. And what we found is that every time the OR door opened, it stirred up the particulate count in the room. Just by us making sure everything is needed is in the room, and putting in new procedures about minimizing traffic through the OR, we have cut what was already a very good infection rate in half. These are the kind of things that you have got to do in this new world.

A very small percentage of the population accounts for a lot of the healthcare spending. [A man] has diabetes and heart failure and chronic kidney disease, and he’s a couch potato and he’s not very active. He is just a mess. People in [his] category, on average, are going to have six to eight doctors. In fee-for-service, they’re not talking to each other.

‘We’re driving this forward’

In pay-for-value, that’s where we can reduce costs and make healthcare more affordable. Instead of concentrating all of my health systems’ resources on all of them, I’m going to focus my resources on this group, because there is so much we can do just by paying those doctors differently. They’re not just getting paid for the office visit. They are now paid to actually coordinate his care. You use other resources like care managers to help coordinate that care.

Starting Jan. 1,  25 percent of our revenue will be in this new model. We expect that sometime in 2018, it actually may be 50 percent. So we’re driving this transformation forward.

Now, the Boise/Meridian hospitals are five-star hospitals designated by CMS [the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services], the only one like that in the state of Idaho — in fact, in the surrounding six states. And our health system has been named, and that’s all of the hospitals, a top 15 health system for three years in a row. We’re showing that this can be done. We’re doing it.

The other piece is: Drive it at the lowest possible cost. That’s what we’ve got to deliver on.

We’re not counting on Washington to figure out how to fix healthcare.

Q: You’re talking about the transformation, but I’m wondering how that’s going to happen. You partner with SelectHealth, right? To deliver this model? Are you going to be able to work with the other insurance companies to make this happen? Or maybe it’s something bigger, like CMS changing from fee-for-service to pay-for-value. How are you going to get from 50 to 100 percent?

A: This is a great question, because the only way we can do it is if the payment system is transformed as well. It’s not going to work for us to transform the clinical model if the business model doesn’t change with it.

We have a great partnership with SelectHealth. That is certainly accelerating our efforts. One reason we went to SelectHealth was there wasn’t a lot of appetite for this in the market with the insurers at the time many years ago. Now other payers are getting aligned with this same concept.

In defense of my insurance-company colleagues, let me tell you, it’s really hard to change your business model. What we’ve gone through with our board to convince them that we should do this, and for them to understand you’re going to take 25 percent of our revenue and put it at financial risk? It’s a big step. And it’s hard for any business to transform their business when they’re doing well.

I think there’s going to be a competitive advantage to who can figure this out first. What I can do is: With the insurance companies that want to partner with us, we can now get by on a lower premium. So you can actually lower your premium, and we know that is what will shift market share.

As far as the federal government:

The current administration is all in favor of this, and they would applaud what we are doing.

I am concerned with the new pick for secretary of HHS [President-elect  Trump has chosen Rep. Tom Price,  M.D., a Georgia Republican congressman] because I’m not convinced based on what I’ve read about him that he believes in this. He’s a physician that came from the fee-for-service world and did well in that world.

I think the question is: How difficult is the new administration going to make it for us to do this? But I hope not.

This story appears in the December 21, 2016-January 17, 2017, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine.  To get to the magazine, hit this link.



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