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VOL. 133 | NO. 76 | Monday, April 16, 2018

Local Experts: Health Care So Far Immune to Simplification and Lower Costs

By Andy Meek

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That Walmart may be close to acquiring the health insurer Humana is one signal that we’re in not just a period of change for the health care industry, but a fundamental reshaping of the landscape and a shifting of the players involved.

There are other such signals almost anywhere you look. If you separate out the delivery of care from the way it’s paid for, what you’re confronted with is a complex patchwork that’s more or less immune to simplification and resistant – at least, so far – to any major reversal of constant price increases.

That resistance also seems to be bipartisan in nature. Legislative efforts along these lines during the presidential administrations of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump have not changed the calculus too much, at least in terms of complexity and rising costs.

Those were some of the takeaways from a discussion with a panel of local experts and thought leaders at The Daily News’ Status of Health Care Seminar, the latest installment in the newspaper’s 2018 seminar series.

Tim Finnell, managing partner of Group Benefits LLC, said his company sees many people simply take their coverage more or less for granted, partly because it’s so complicated to understand, until they absolutely need it.

“We conduct enrollment meetings for people all the time,” he said. “Until it’s time to access that care, it’s yeah, yeah, yeah.”

That doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. Partly because the payment side of health care has so many stakeholders involved, with their own set of rules depending on who it is – doctors, insurers and so on.

Michael Ugwueke, president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, said his organization is deep into a protracted reimagining of the hospital experience and the investment of significant capital into shaking up the Methodist footprint in Memphis.

For example, Methodist is in the middle of a $280 million campus expansion and modernization project at its flagship Methodist University Hospital that’s set to be finished next year. Highlights include a new 440,000-square-foot tower that creates room to upgrade services within the hospital.

Outpatient care will be consolidated in the new tower, which also will feature large, private rooms and will enhance efficiency for doctors and nurses.

“You know you need a facility to take care of patients in a modern, 21st-century way,” Ugwueke said, explaining the hospital’s thinking. “Hospitals will always be around. What they will become is the question.”

It’s a question with a constantly shifting answer. Thanks in part, he continues, to realities like the increasingly aging population, which is “a little more complicated to deal with.” Also because of things like people showing up to emergency rooms, often with no insurance, and using that as a replacement of sorts for primary care.

“All of us are paying for those people’s care – an indirect taxation if you will,” Ugwueke said. “Unless we get to a point where people don’t have to seek care in emergency rooms, we’re going to have continued increases in health care costs. People who have primary care physicians are also just going to have better outcomes.”

And whether rising directly or indirectly to supplement those without insurance coverage, health care “is a huge expense” for business owners, particularly new ones, Katy Laster told The Daily News.

Laster, an attorney and shareholder with Evans Petree PC, was the third panelist on the seminar who talked mostly about what she hears from her clients, and dealing with rising costs is one of their biggest concerns across the board.

The Status of Health Care Seminar was moderated by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News.

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