Amazon is considering opening its own primary health care clinics for employees at its Seattle headquarters, CNBC reported on Thursday, becoming the latest in a series of major US companies pursuing innovative approaches to health care outside the traditional group insurance model. Two people familiar with the confidential discussions told CNBC that the company was planning to start with a pilot clinic for a select group of employees later this year, then expand the program in 2019:
Amazon was previously looking to outsource its clinics and brought vendors in to pitch their services. After numerous rounds of discussions, Amazon ultimately decided to develop clinics internally, one of the people said. Providers including Crossover Health and One Medical offer on-site or nearby services for other companies, including those in the technology sector. …
Amazon started its effort by hiring primary care experts, beginning last year with Christine Henningsgaard, who was previously vice president of operations at One Medical. In January, the company brought in Martin Levine from Iora Health, a primary care group with clinics in Seattle.
If Amazon moves ahead with this plan, it will be pursuing a similar path to Apple, which announced earlier this year that it was establishing a network of health clinics for its employees in and around its headquarters in Cupertino, California. To staff this initiative, Apple has since hired a number of employees away from the provider that operates some of its on-site clinics in other locations, along with a variety of wellness professionals and “care navigators” to help guide patients in choosing the appropriate care for their health needs.
General Motors has made a deal with Henry Ford Health System, a Detroit-based hospital system, to provide a new health care plan to its salaried employees and their dependents in southeast Michigan, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday. The optional ConnectedCare plan, which will be available to some 24,000 GM employees and their dependents starting next year, replaces traditional group health insurance with a direct-contract system wherein Henry Ford will manage nearly all of the participating employees’ health care needs.
The company’s existing health insurance options will remain available, but the ConnectedCare plan is expected to save them anywhere from $300 to $900 a year compared with the current cheapest option. According to a press release from the Henry Ford system, the plan will give GM employees access to more than 3,000 health care providers offering “a comprehensive range of health care services including primary care, more than 40 specialties, behavioral health services, hospitalization and emergency care as needed, as well as pharmacy and other services.”
Under the five-year contract, the hospital system agreed to specific goals for quality, cost and customer service. For instance, plan participants are promised same-day or next-day appointments with primary care physicians and appointments with specialists within 10 business days. They will also have access to a range of digital health tools, wellness services, and assistance in managing their care and choosing the right health care options, Henry Ford said in its statement.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, GM’s insurance provider in that state, will continue to manage claims-processing and other functions, while again continuing to provide the PPO plans GM already offers its employees. ConnectedCare will not apply to GM’s large unionized workforce in Michigan, whose health benefits are negotiated under a labor agreement.
Financial wellbeing programs that help employees better manage their finances, pay down debt, and plan for retirement have become commonplace among private US employers. Employees want this kind of help and employers are increasingly eager to offer it. Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s 2018 Workplace Benefits Report, however, finds that only one third of employees are actually participating in these programs, even though many more are struggling with financial fitness, Nick Otto reports at Employee Benefit News. One potential explanation for this low level of engagement is that the financial wellness benefits employers are offering are misaligned with employees’ own priorities:
Employers tend to focus on actions to manage immediate financial needs, such as budgeting and handling expenses, according to the study. Meanwhile, employees mostly prioritize long-term financial goals, such as tactics that help them save and invest for the future. The report finds workers are looking to their employers to help manage their financial lives, shining a light on what employees seek in an employer-sponsored financial wellness program.
Employees feel the best approach to improve financial wellness is getting a personal financial assessment, supported by specific actions to take. Additionally, employees would also like help measuring their progress, through tracking and measuring of accomplishments.
Another notable finding from the report is that few employees recognize the role of health care costs in their financial planning: 7 percent identified health care as a key component of financial wellness, even though more than half said they had skipped or postponed a medical need to save money. The connection between health care costs and financial wellbeing is particularly salient in the US; for instance, many experts have promoted the use of health savings accounts as long-term savings and investment vehicles, comparable to 401(k) plans for retirement.
The latest data from the Labor Department shows that the percentage of private sector employees in the US offered health insurance through their employer rose from 67 percent in 2017 to 69 percent this year, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month. This figure had dwindled from 71 percent in 2010, when the department began conducting this survey, and this latest uptick represents the first year-over-year increase since 2012.
The Labor Department report showed that 86 percent of full-time private sector employees were offered health benefits, along with 21 percent of part-timers. Union members were significantly more likely to be offered these benefits (94 percent) than non-union employees (66 percent). Of those private sector employees offered medical benefits, 72 percent chose to take advantage of them.
Smaller employers, who are not required to offer health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, had driven most of the decline over the past eight years: Among organizations with fewer than 50 people, 51 percent offered health insurance to their employees in 2018 compared to 55 percent in 2010. Large businesses, with over 500 workers, have been more consistent in offering these benefits, with the percentage of large employers providing health insurance hovering near 90 percent since 2010.
The ACA mandates that organizations with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees offer at least a minimum standard of health benefits to employees working 30 or more hours a week, or pay a penalty of $2,000 per employee. Most large businesses already offered medical benefits before the ACA took effect and continued to do so, but some mid-sized employers have chosen to pay the penalty instead, as the cost of covering their employees would be greater, Paul Fronstin, director of the Health Research and Education Program at the Employee Benefit Research Institute, told the Journal.
Atul Gawande/Wikimedia Commons
The joint venture launched earlier this year by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to explore new ways of lowering health care costs for their employees now has a dedicated leader. Dr. Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon, medical researcher, and author of several highly regarded books on medicine who has also been a staff writer at the New Yorker for 20 years, will serve as CEO of the as-yet-unnamed organization, Fortune reported on Wednesday:
Gawande may come as an unexpected choice to lead this new health care company, whose aim is to decrease health care costs and improve outcomes for the approximately one million employees in the triumvirate’s workforce. He practices general and endocrine surgery at the renowned Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and is a researcher and professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. …
Following the Amazon-JPM-Berkshire announcement, Gawande stated that he would continue his positions at Brigham and Women’s and Harvard and will keep writing for the New Yorker even as he takes the reins of the health venture on July 9. He will, however, step away from his role as executive director of Ariadne Labs—a company he founded that focuses on health care delivery with a global health-focused bent—to become its chairman.
Few other details are publicly known about the partnership, which was announced in January, sending ripples through the stock market as pharmacy benefit managers, health insurance companies, and biotechnology firms wondered what it would mean for them. The organization Gawande has been hired to lead is an independent nonprofit based in Boston, which is expected to focus on technological solutions, data sharing, and its participants’ bargaining power as large buyers in the health care marketplace. The organization may eventually partner with other companies along with Amazon, Berkshire, and JPMorgan.
The US Department of Labor has finalized a new regulation that will enable more small businesses and self-employed Americans to buy health insurance through association health plans (AHPs), which proponents say will help lower health insurance costs for smaller employers, but which critics say undercuts the essential coverage requirements created by the Affordable Care Act. The core impact of the nearly 200-page rule is to broaden the definition of the term “employer” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), establishing new criteria under which employers can join together in an association that would still be regarded as a single “employer” for ERISA purposes. SHRM’s Stephen Miller discusses what that means for how small businesses buy group health insurance:
The broader interpretation of ERISA will let employers anywhere in the country that can pass a “commonality of interest” test join together to offer health care coverage to their employees. An association could show a commonality of interest among its members on the basis of geography or industry, if the members are either:
- In the same trade, industry or profession throughout the United States.
- In the same principal place of business within the same state or a common metropolitan area, even if the metro area extends across state lines.
Sole proprietors will be able to join small business health plans to provide coverage for themselves as well as their spouses and children.
Previously existing AHPs, which were allowed under a more limited set of restrictions, will not be affected, unless they choose to expand in ways allowed by the new rule. The rule change, which President Donald Trump ordered the department to study last year, effectively exempts AHPs from ACA regulations that apply only to individual and small group plans by allowing them to operate in the more lightly regulated large group market. These regulations include the core package of health care services known as essential health benefits, which all plans in the individual and small group market are required to include but larger plans are not.
Eric Broder Van Dyke/Shutterstock.com
Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase made headlines—and sent health insurance stocks into a tailspin—when they announced in January that they had partnered to form an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to finding ways of providing health care to their employees at a lower cost. However, Kathryn Mayer at Employee Benefit News flags a new report from venture capital firm Venrock in which healthcare experts say that this partnership is unlikely to have as immediate or dramatic an impact as its founders might expect:
Of the 300 healthcare professionals, employers, investors and academics surveyed by Venrock, 73% said that the Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan effort was going to take a lot longer than expected and endure many obstacles. Meanwhile, 25% said the companies “have no idea what they’re getting into.” There are a number of reasons for the industry’s skepticism, say Venrock partners Bryan Roberts and Bob Kocher.
“[One is that] many new entrants have sought to dramatically improve healthcare for many years and nearly all have failed to produce any material impact. Remember Google Health and HealthVault?,” Roberts says. “While these are all large, successful companies, they do not have any real market power in healthcare, where all leverage is locally driven.” Meanwhile, Kocher notes, the companies haven’t yet formed a leadership team.
January’s announcement reflected the pressure many US employers of all sizes are feeling as rising health care costs force many of them to shift more of these expenses onto their employees. Businesses are bracing for a further spike in costs next year, as Congress has declined to take action to stabilize the individual health insurance marketplace established by the Affordable Care Act, potentially paving the way for premium hikes of as much as 30 percent. Higher expected costs for insurers mean higher prices for group insurance customers (mainly employers) as well as individuals.