Monday, March 21, 2011

The Good of the Many, The Needs of the Few

Over the years, we've posted numerous entries to our "Stupid Carrier Tricks" series. The common theme is that insurance companies, like any other corporation, have no "ethics." And yet, carriers are made up of people, and people do (or don't).

The other day, I attended a CE (Continuing Education) class on Ethics. My fellow participants couldn't understand why I was giggling about an "Ethics" course given - for free! - to agents who'd received a "goody bag" full of tschochkes (chip clips, staplers, etc). Often there's an obvious "line in the sand" across which we dare not step.

Sometimes, though, it's not so simple.

I recently received an email from the Immune Deficiency Foundation (IDF) about Highmark Blue Cross' newest policy regarding those with immune system disorders. This is serious stuff: folks who suffer from these conditions lack the ability to fight off even simple infections. The cost to treat it can be enormous; as regular readers know, prescription costs are a major driver of insurance rates.

And yet.

The people who have these conditions face potentially life-threatening results if their meds are changed or excluded.

Highmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield recently changed the way they cover medications for this fairly exclusive group. And thus begins our saga. After receiving the IDF email, I replied that I was, in fact, interested in learning more. But I also know, from previous experience, that there are usually (at least) two sides to these kinds of stories, and so I reached out to Highmark, as well.

After speaking with the Highmark rep, and reading his follow-up email, I connected with Larry La Motte, the IDF's Director of Public Policy. Larry very graciously gave me about an hour of his time, and I came away from the experience with quite mixed feelings. What struck me deeply is that, from my perspective, both sides are "right." That is, there's no obvious "bad guy" here. The good news, such as it is, is that the folks from IDF (and other such groups) have obviously swayed the debate: it appears that Highmark's initial position has softened.

So what's the story?

According to Highmark's Aaron Billger, there are about 350 Highmark insureds potentially affected by this policy. To put that into perspective, the carrier insures over 4 million people. By any objective measure, 350 out of 4.something million is less than a rounding error. Of course, the lives of these 350 people are no less (and no more) important than the other 4.something million, but the cost of their meds affect every single one of them. What to do?

Well, one way to handle this would be to exclude all such treatments. That seems draconian (although not something I'd put past "Sir" Donald Berwick), but continuing to pay for all manner of treatment isn't fiscally sound, either. What Highmark plans to do is to change the way it covers these treatments, both for those currently covered and those who come on board beginning next month.

The aforementioned IDF is, understandably, displeased with what they see as a potential death sentence for those insureds affected by the new plan design. Briefly, it is their belief that the status quo ante was sufficient and justifiable, and they'd prefer that no such changes be implemented. The carrier demurs, and thus the impasse.

According to the IDF's email, there were 4 major sticking points:

"IDF has asked that any Highmark policy should:

• Not determine the specific IgG therapy a patient must use

• Ensure that patients already stabilized on an IgG therapy not be switched to another therapy without medical cause

• Allow physicians an opportunity to prescribe an alternative if they determine it is in the best interest of the patient

• Better inform patients and physicians about its policy plans and gain direct feedback on their recommendations

It seems to me that the first one is unreasonable: if the carrier is expected to pay for something, then it seems to me that they get to make that call (within reason). The second and third, however, do seem reasonable (the fourth is bluster).

What's heartening is that, in the Mr Billger's email, "a large majority [of the affected insureds] are already on our preferred IG product. They will not be directly impacted by this policy." He also reported that the new policy will now "provide continued coverage for members currently using non-preferred IG products, when clinically appropriate, with no disruption." And finally, the new "policy will cover a non-preferred IG product for someone new to therapy when the prescribing physician documents ... why the preferred product is not suitable."

Seems to me that this has been resolved in a manner that's fair to all involved, and causes the least disruption and potential danger to the affected members. Still, it offers a valuable lesson in how carriers can work with special interest/needs groups to find common cause and solutions.

Kudos to Highmark and the Immune Deficiency Foundation (as well as the other groups involved) for defusing a potentially volatile situation and working towards a resolution that's in everyone's best interest.
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