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Healthcare Heroes of 2021

Yes, I know.  You read TheySaidWhat for the same reason you rubberneck. You simply can’t look away.  You were hoping this week we would be publishing the annual Deplorables Awards. They are coming next week, when we will reveal which very stable genius is Vendor Zero in the wellness industry’s epidemic of cluelessness.

Today we are doing the opposite: giving credit to the people and corporations (they are people too, you know) who stood out in 2021 for advancing the causes of cost-effectiveness, quality, innovation, and health equity.

These are in alphabetical order and if you think I left someone out send me a linkedin note and I will add them if I agree they are worthy.

I would like to separately recognize my uncle, Dr. J. Michael Lane, who passed away fairly recently. He did more than anyone else to wipe out smallpox. First, he wrote the paper which provided the economic justification for investing in the eradication of smallpox, in lieu of vaccinating everyone in sight.

He observed that the vanishingly low smallpox incidence rate outside Africa was maintained by millions of vaccinations that created thousands of complications. And that the cost of going to Africa to eradicate the disease from its last strongholds was far less than the cost of said vaccines and complications. He then procured the budget from CDC and WHO, and led the team which went to Africa to teach the locals how to inoculate up to 10,000 people a day. The logistics of convincing local and tribal leaders, some of whom were Russian allies carrying AK-47s, to stick their friends and families with needles, were challenging, to put it mildly. 

It turns out he didn’t win a Nobel Prize in Medicine because prizewinners are required to invent or discover something. Whereas all he did was wipe out the biggest viral scourge in the history of mankind, albeit using a technology that had been around for centuries.


And now, the winners…

Marshall Allen’s Never Pay the First Bill almost hit the New York Times bestseller list. it is the first how-to book empowering patients/consumers to pay a fair price for services rendered. You shouldn’t need a book for that. I mean, no one has written a book to teach people how not to get snookered by, for example, laundromats. And yet we do. And yet he did.

His expose of broker compensation helped lead to the Comprehensive Appropriations Act, which requires full disclosure of all streams of payment between vendors/carrier/PBMs and middlepeople. This could change the industry, favoring honest vendors like Quizzify that don’t make under-the-table payments.

Jerry Ashton’s nonprofit, RIP Medical Debt, has paid off a total of $5 Billion of old medical debt, and as part of that, restored credit to the debtors, most of whom were otherwise essentially barred from procuring credit on favorable terms (if they can get credit at all), not to mentioned totally stressed. There is still tons more to go. Mind-blowing numbers of insured Americans carry mind-blowing amounts of medical debt. They accumulate this debt even as they’ve paid down their credit card debt in record amounts.

Dr. Bill Bestermann has developed an enormous national following among PCPs and cardiometablic clinicians by studiously mastering and integrating the genomic and metabolic evidence behind Optimal Medical Therapy and a unified theory of chronic disease. The health outcomes he achieved working with BCBS Louisiana, Ochsner, andea other groups are consistently far beyond conventional care, and he has been open and mission driven about sharing his model for the betterment of all humankind.

Katherine Baicker and Zirui Song, for publishing the definitive cluster randomization study on wellness, which naturally showed no impact at all. Special kudos for allowing themselves to be guided by the evidence. Yes, you shouldn’t get an award for that, but in this industry you do. Likewise, we reversed our opinion on these two. As Prof. Baicker demonstrated with her study on Oregon Medicaid’s natural experiment using a lottery control, she is the #1 researcher in this field. (The 2010 Health Affairs thing was well-intentioned, but wrong. I would add that I can’t talk — I didn’t figure out these vendors were scamming people until 2013. If you look hard at my 2012 textbook on outcomes measurement in disease management and patient-centered medical homes, you will see a brief but positive mention of wellness.) 

Leah Binder dramatically expanded the Leapfrog Group’s scope, forging ahead with ethical billing ratings (inspired in part by Marty Makary and one other guy…hmmm…wonder who that was?). Combined with Dr. Makary’s efforts, shining a light on these practices has without question had an impact on billing practices. 

Dr. Eric Bricker consistently produces the best short video exposes of anyone in the industry and nothing seems to escape his smackdowns. I learned from him, for example, why hospitals charge so much more for emergency care than for electives. I had always just assumed it was because you don’t really have a choice in an emergency. That would explain out-of-network price-gouging (which is ending a couple weeks after you read this), but Dr. Bricker explained the specific reason in-network rates are so high, summarized here.


Dave Chase, and other next-generation benefits advisors, showed it really is possible to reduce the overall cost of healthcare while increasing benefits. Maybe you could attribute the first few cases to good luck but after hundreds of similar outcomes, you have to think Health Rosetta’s special sauce works.

Christin Deacon became the highest-visibility benefits manager in the country, running the 4th largest health benefit in the country. The state of New Jersey had the good sense to combine all public-sector employees into one group, to increase purchasing power. Overcoming many hurdles from politicians and others, she made major changes that saved billions, to be shared with employees and taxpayers. Hear Chris tell her story in our January 6th webinar Presenting Chris Deacon…Unplugged.

Bryce Heinbaugh, who has been working tirelessly and successfully to make Direct Primary Care available for participants in the plans that he serves in rural areas of Ohio and West Virginia.  He has put in a couple of years of effort to find and recruit  DPC practices in underserved areas, and then drove a couple of thousand miles in a week to tell the participants about this great feature of their health plans.  And yet you’ve never heard of him. That’s what we’re here for. 

Brian Klepper devotes an absurd amount of time to curating a googlegroup in which like-minded (well, in the broadest sense of the word) disruptors can find common ground, share ideas and make connections. It is important for those of us on the “bleeding edge” to realize we are not alone in the universe, so this Healthcare Hackers Group performs an invaluable function. Curating it is way harder than it looks. Or as I sometimes say, it takes a lot of effort to make something look easy.

The advisors on the Hackers Group – Alera, Connect Health Collaboration, EPoweredBenefits, Higgenbotham, Mitigate Partners, Provinsure, and more – are all “next generation” advisors who have achieved excellent results and who welcome next month’s Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) instead of dreading its bright lights behind shined on their business practices. Indeed, asking two questions of your advisor or vendor will determine their ethics:

  1. What do you think of the CAA?
  2. What do you think of Al Lewis?

Dr. Marty Makary’s The Price We Pay also hit the bestseller list (in paperback). His quest to reduce or eliminate the number of lawsuits filed by hospitals against patients who unwittingly sign financial consents has shown clear results, as the number of such suits has plummeted. Only a small minority of hospitals were doing this, but they compensated for those small numbers with lots of lawsuits. (And some are still at it, of course.) Dr. Makary was also the inspiration for the “Prevent Consent,” which Quizzify literally guarantees will keep ER bills in the 3 figures, in the continental US.

Rosen Hotels is arguably the best employer health benefit in the country, per dollar spent. They get plenty of plaudits already, but we can pile on.

Gillian Pieper, Ashley Johnson, Amy Gilbert and colleagues at VEHI PATH have achieved a relationship with their constituents, the 19,000 Vermont teachers, that would be the envy of any organization anywhere. Quizzify is very engaging in most places, and yet somehow they are twice as engaging as the Quizzify average. It isn’t just Quizzify. Their combination of mutual trust, “champions” in every building, and an easily accessible and interesting set of offerings doesn’t just result in mind-blowing engagement levels, but does so with among the most modest incentives we’ve ever seen.

We should also give shout-outs to some of the leading Business Coalitions. It’s a tough thing to do because you have to rely on funding (at least partially) from exactly the organizations you are trying to negotiate with. But Jessica Brooks of PBGH, Chris Skisak of HBGH, and Bob Smith of CBGH deserve a special shout-out. (This is not to say some others don’t, but these three are willing to take bullets.)


The Vendors of 2021

Among vendors, we’d like to draw special attention to three which solve specific problems. This is no knock against some other vendors, but it’s very unusual for a vendor to make a bright-line change. Usually, with more or less success, the idea of vendors is to change employee behavior.

Quizzify also changes behavior, by teaching employees how to recognize and avoid useless and potentially harmful tests and procedures. Quizzify also tries to change eating behavior. For example, you probably think cranberries are a “superfruit,” if for no other reason than the package tells us so. 

Yet they are completely devoid of vitamins. That’s not even the bad part. The bad part is that in the form we usually eat them, “Craisins,” are literally 50% sugar, a proportion that could make Captain Horatio Crunch himself blush. You have to do the math on the label below, which needless to say Ocean Spray is not exactly forthcoming about. 1/4 Cup is 2 ounces. There are 29 grams in an ounce. Ergo…

See?  We just changed your eating behavior.

But the reason Quizzify is on the list of bright-line change is the Prevent Consent. As noted above, this was largely inspired by Dr. Makary. We simply took the next step from “Don’t sign their consent,” to “Sign your own instead.” So far this Consent has been accepted everywhere (treatment in the ER without affirmative objection constitutes acceptance–Contract Law 101), though occasionally the hospital seems to “forget” that they agreed to it and tries to send a conventional bill. Quizzify will take care of that.

It is now available in a mobile app, Quizzify2Go, which includes a “cheat sheet” to remind employees of their rights in the ER, and a support hotline if the ER intake person is being recalcitrant. It also has a full list of questions to ask during doctor visits for 100+ different topics.


The next is Sera Prognostics. They market a test called PreTRM, which dramatically increases an obstetrician’s ability to predict prematurity. If followed by an intensive prenatal health program, accurate prediction can substantially reduce, and has substantially reduced, the number of NICU days in a population. I’m not undertanding why employers who spend large sums to help employees get pregnant seem less interested in saving large sums by helping employees stay pregnant. But maybe that’s just me.

Employers who compare their NICU days/1000 to their primary-coded diabetes days per 1000 will see that with all the fuss about diabetes, reducing NICU days is a vastly more economically worthwhile activity. This is a list of the top 25 inpatient total spends by employers. Do you see a trend? The plurality are birth events. Diabetes doesn’t show up at all.

Not to mention that, unlike diabetes, your employees will love you for it and you won’t get reviews like Livongo’s.


Next is the Validation Institute, which really came into its own this year. Employers have finally figured out that vendors don’t retain actuaries to determine whether money was saved. They retain actuaries to “prove” that money was saved. Here is their master list of vendor sleight-of-hand techniques. 

In 2021, the Validation Institute (VI) drew a bright line between its own validations and actuarial number salad with its Credibility Guarantee. If you, as a customer of a validated entity, can show VI overstated a vendor claim, the VI will send you a multiple of the fee that the vendor paid to be validated.


And, finally, it is important to recognize that the wellness industry has some fine, upstanding citizens. As far as we know, this is the all-inclusive list but we are happy to add others if indeed they qualify. US Preventive Medicine leads the list because, uniquely in wellness, it has achieved validation by the Validation Institute for making a clear reduction in risk factors.  Aduro, Limeade, Sonic Boom, Wellable, and Wellright also make the cut.

 


Please put comments on Linkedin instead of here. I don’t moderate these posts for comments.

 

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