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Pin the Tail on the Donkey & Other Blindfolded Games of Placement

By: Ron E. Peck, Esq.

Our industry (that being the self funded health benefits industry) is primarily a web-work of relationships.  Unlike a large, traditional health insurance carrier, where all functions are located under one roof, in our industry key pieces of the greater whole are comprised of various independent entities.

The funding comes from a sponsor – usually an employer.  Sometimes, these employer “groups” gather to form a captive, MEWA, association health plan, or other collective funding mechanism.  Next, they select someone to process claims and perform other administrative tasks.  Usually this is a carrier providing administrative services only (ASO) or a third party administrator (TPA).  Next, these plans – more often than not – require some sort of financial insurance to protect them from catastrophic claims, securing for themselves a specific type of reinsurance customized to fit this role, a.k.a. stop-loss.  Add to this list of entities a broker/advisor, who helps the sponsor “check all the boxes,” as well as ensure a complete and successful implementation (as well as plan management), vendors (who offer any number of cost containment services and other plan necessities), networks with providers (from direct contracts to PPOs), and a pharmacy benefit manager (PBM).  I’m sure I’ve missed a few other players, but – hopefully – you start to see how a so called “plan” is not a single being, but rather, a collection of beings coordinating with each other.  If one player drops the ball, the whole thing unravels.

I recently posted on LinkedIn a hypothetical, wherein a CEO loves the idea of medical tourism, railroads it through and has it added to their self-funded health plan; their broker and TPA pick a medical tourism vendor, and a few weeks later, a plan member is in Costa Rica for a costly procedure.  The total cost of the procedure hits (and exceeds) the benefit plan's stop loss insurance specific deductible.  Despite that, the total cost is still way less than if the procedure had taken place domestically (even after applying the plan's network discount).  Yet, stop loss denies the claim for reimbursement, citing the fact that the plan document excludes coverage for treatment received outside the United States.  Now the plan (through its TPA) has paid the vendor's fees, paid for claims that are technically excluded by the plan document, and is without stop-loss reimbursement.

The responses have been many, various, and generally spot-on (as well as – in some cases – entertaining).  Yet, it exposes a few issues and “gaps” in the web-work I described above.  The employer, TPA, and broker are excited to adopt a program that will save them money.  By extension, the stop loss carrier will save money.  In my example, the stop loss carrier did indeed save money, compared to what it would have cost (and they would have paid) domestically.  Yet, because the plan document wasn’t updated and the carrier wasn’t informed, the stop loss carrier isn’t “required” to reimburse.  Today, few carriers will reimburse when not required to do so.  There are some that, in recognition of the plan’s efforts to contain costs, would cover the loss – but most would not.

This is just one example of the issues we’re seeing today due to the “web-work” nature of our industry.  Like organs in a human body, all the pieces need to communicate and coordinate.  

It has also come to our attention that there is a growing trend whereby brokers and plan sponsors seek to use their own stop-loss rather than a “preferred” carrier selected by the TPA.  TPA’s, in turn, are worried that if the plan utilizes a carrier the TPA has not vetted, and something goes wrong, that TPA may be blamed for a conflict they had no hand in creating.  Rather than push back against this trend, however, and thusly lose business opportunities, we believe – AGAIN – the key to success is communication and preemptive coordination.  Explain the concerns, put them in writing, and have the party placing the insurance agree not to hold the TPA at fault for issues they had no hand in creating.  This will then allow a trend – that frankly can be quite good for the industry (that is, allowing plan sponsors to customize their plan to meet their needs, including who provides the stop-loss) – to thrive without threatening the TPA.

These are only two examples, but hopefully it’s now clearer to you why we must discuss these issues ahead of time, ensure all written documents align, and we coordinate before an issue arises.