Site of Care Management

Nurse Practitioners, Urgent Care Take Center Stage as Patient Trends Shift

Fewer people with employment-based health plans visited primary care practices, while more have turned to telemedicine and urgent care clinics since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report published by the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Using claims data from 2013 to 2021, researchers found that primary care office visits at a family/general practice, internal medicine practice or with a medical doctor dropped during that time. The share of visits with a nurse practitioner, however, increased significantly, from 4% in 2013 to 16% in 2021.


Decline in Primary Care Use Presents Challenge for Payers

A new report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) confirms that primary care for commercially insured patients is in the midst of a significant transformation. In a study of claims data from 2013 to 2021, EBRI found that fewer patients have a primary care practitioner (PCP), more non-physician practitioners deliver primary care than ever, and sites of care are changing. And the author of the report says he believes the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift.

EBRI’s findings are a mixed bag for payers. On the one hand, the report confirms that the size of the workforce able to deliver primary care is likely growing, and more patients may have better access to a variety of primary care options: 95-97% of all primary care visits were in an office setting prior to 2020, but that share declined to 86% in 2020. Seven to eight percent of primary care visits went to telemedicine that year and 3-4% went to urgent care clinics. However, the report also found that primary care costs have not gone down despite broader access.


Senate Could Make Medicare Telehealth Rules Permanent

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee seems poised to take up legislation that would make permanent the significant, pandemic-era reforms to Medicare telehealth rules, including rules governing site of care origination and audio-only telehealth encounters, which are otherwise set to expire at the end of next year. Medicare Advantage plan and provider trade groups back the legislation and have pushed for telehealth reforms to be permanent when they were up for renewal in previous legislative cycles.

Emergency reforms to Medicare reimbursement rules were a key reason that the telehealth industry boomed in recent years. Telehealth was the only option for many types of outpatient care during the early parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and patients, plans and providers became accustomed to using telehealth modalities for a wide variety of low-acuity encounters. Those encounters wouldn’t have been reimbursable if it weren’t for temporary, emergency reforms of Medicare telehealth billing rules passed as parts of COVID relief bills and executive orders by Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden.


Analysis of Humana Commercial Prices Shows Wide Variations Across U.S.

An analysis of Humana Inc. commercial insurance data from markets across the U.S. shows a wide variation of prices across regions for seven common procedures, according to a research letter published on Oct. 27 in JAMA Health Forum. Benjamin L. Chartock, Ph.D., the study’s lead author, tells AIS Health, a division of MMIT, this is the first peer-reviewed paper that examined data shared by insurers via the final Transparency in Coverage (TIC) rule that HHS and the Depts. of Labor and Treasury released in October 2020.

The TIC regulation went into effect starting in July 2022, with more requirements phasing in this year and next year. Chartock admits that, while insurers as of January 2023 are required to provide on their website a list of prices for 500 shoppable items, services and prescription drugs as well as a price comparison tool to allow people to compare cost-sharing and provider information, “it’s extremely complicated in terms of processing [for consumers], and on its own, it is not very useful data.”


Q&A: How UnitedHealth Got Top Scores in Telehealth Satisfaction

J.D. Power & Co., in the latest edition of its annual survey of consumer satisfaction with telehealth brands, gave UnitedHealthcare, the managed care arm of UnitedHealth Group, the highest marks of any insurer. The company beat out second place Kaiser Permanente and third place Humana Inc. for the top spot.

Insurers have invested heavily in telehealth since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting in 2020, due to pandemic lockdown orders, telehealth became a key care modality in a way that it never had been before. UnitedHealthcare, according to a press release touting the J.D. Power results, offers telehealth products such as 24-hour virtual urgent care without cost sharing and virtual primary care. The health care giant in June made 24-hour virtual care available to 5 million of its fully insured members without cost sharing.


With Humana Pact, Interwell Health Aims to Defragment Kidney Care for More Patients

Since the 21st Century Cures Act loosened enrollment rules in 2021, enabling more patients with a previous diagnosis of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) to enroll in Medicare Advantage, MA insurers have been striking innovative partnerships with kidney care management companies to better manage care and control costs for kidney disease patients. Most recently, Humana Inc. — one of the leading MA insurers serving ESRD enrollees — unveiled a new value-based care pact with Interwell Health that will cater to most Humana MA HMO and PPO members in 13 states living with chronic kidney disease (CKD), as well as members across the country living with ESRD.

According to Brandon Spicer, director of kidney care at Humana, the insurer offers a variety of programs for members living with CKD and ESRD, and its program care managers “work closely with providers to give patients individual support and guidance while educating them about their disease, supporting their physician’s care plan and assisting with coordination of care.”


Hospital Settings Drive Up Spending on Biologics, Biosimilars

A new study from the Employee Benefit Research Institute highlights the high — and growing — markups that hospital outpatient departments assign to biologic drugs, while also examining the variation in how HOPDs and physician offices (POs) treat innovator biologics compared to their biosimilars.

The study analyzed medical and pharmacy claims data from Merative MarketScan Commercial Database — which covers nearly 25 million people with private health insurance — from 2013 to 2020, and it focused on seven innovator biologics and their biosimilars that had been launched as of 2020.


House Advances Site of Care Identification, Third-Party Fee Disclosure Bills

As part of a recently introduced health care package, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce on July 12 unanimously advanced a bill that would require hospital groups to create individual identifiers for outpatient departments — a major step toward so-called “site neutrality,” a long-held goal of plan sponsors and carriers. The other bills, meanwhile, are mainly focused on PBMs, which have become the hottest health care topic — and for some members, the most notable health care villains — in the current session of Congress.

The overwhelming support from members of both parties for each of the bills bodes well for their eventual passage. So does their alignment with bills currently under consideration in the Senate, according to one D.C. insider.


Biden Administration Targets Surprise Billing ‘Loophole,’ but Regs May Not Fix Problem

The Biden administration released new regulatory guidance meant to block a loophole in the No Surprises Act (NSA) that payers and providers had exploited to send large bills to some patients. However, an attorney tells AIS Health, a division of MMIT, that providers and payers will find ways to work around NSA provisions.

The No Surprises Act, a 2021 law, banned balance or “surprise” billing in most cases. Balance billing occurs when an out-of-network provider will not accept the payment rate offered by a patient’s insurance plan. The law also set up the Independent Dispute Resolution (IDR) arbitration process, which is meant to resolve bills that insurers and providers are unable to agree on themselves. During IDR, providers submit unresolved bills to an HHS-approved arbitrator, who then selects an amount submitted by either the payer or the provider using criteria laid out by HHS. The plan is then required to pay that amount to the provider.


By Making More Telehealth Free, UnitedHealth Hopes to Curb Unneeded ER Visits

UnitedHealthcare will remove out-of-pocket costs and deductibles for remote urgent-care visits, effectively making them free for 5 million members in fully insured employer plans.

The goal is to remove financial barriers that prevent members from getting necessary acute care while deterring them from costlier settings like the emergency room, Donna O’Shea, M.D., chief medical officer of population health for UnitedHealthcare, tells AIS Health, a division of MMIT.

UnitedHealthcare’s effort to steer patients away from the ER is not new — but its $0 copay telehealth visits represent more of a consumer-friendly strategy than it has previously employed. In 2021, the insurer walked back a proposed policy that generated considerable outrage: It would have led to denials of some ER claims that were deemed non-emergencies after the fact.