Podcast with Ceci Connolly, President and CEO, Alliance of Community Health Plans
In this episode, Ceci Connolly, President and CEO of Alliance of Community Health Plans discusses the findings of their recent survey on how COVID-19 has shifted consumer behavior towards healthcare and tripled the use of telehealth and other virtual care technologies.
Ceci shows concern about the existing health inequities and hopes that we close the fundamental gap of the digital divide affecting certain sections of the society. She believes that in a post-COVID-19 era, healthcare payers and providers will focus more on virtual care for better patient experience. Ceci further hopes to see virtual care at the core of value-based model in the future.
ACHP is a non-profit organization that brings together innovative health plans and provider groups delivering affordable, community-based, high-quality coverage and care.
PP: Welcome back to my podcast and it is my great privilege and honor to introduce my special guest today, Ceci Connolly, President and CEO of the Alliance of Community Health Plans. Ceci, welcome to the show. Would you tell us about the ACHP and your work?
CC: The Alliance of Community Health Plans is a group small but selective group of health plans that are nonprofit, community-based, and aligns with providers. They’re either part of an integrated system or they have these very close partnerships in their communities with physicians and hospitals. We believe that the model of the health plans and the providers being really aligned around the patient and the community makes for a very successful approach in healthcare today. Our work really grows out of that belief and that view that a business model of payer-provider partnership is best for patients and communities. We see better health outcomes, often at a lower cost. Here in Washington, D.C., where we are based, we advocate for that at the federal level, in Congress and in the administration. We also do a lot of work with our clinical innovation department around best practices, shared learning, and research. And we also have a market competitiveness team that looks at that model and really tries to document the great success stories, does a lot of benchmarking, comparative analysis, et cetera. So that is a bit about ACHP and our wonderful members.
PP: What is the size of the members and how many such health plans are there in the country that are closely affiliated with the community health systems?
CC: We have 25 member companies. They range in size from a couple that have enrollment of 100000 covered lives all the way up to Kaiser Permanente with the 11 or 12 million covered lives. We and our members are present in 35 states plus the District of Columbia, representing now about 22 million covered lives.
PP: Your organization recently published an interesting survey on how COVID-19 has shifted consumer attitudes towards healthcare. Would you care to discuss one or two findings? Was there anything that surprised you?
CC: This was a national survey of adults 18 and over across the entire country, a good demographic mix, if you will, to really represent the nation. And we were most interested in the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic has altered patients’ views about going to a doctor’s office or hospital, how they are interested in receiving healthcare services now and in the future. And in many respects, the data validated what we have been hearing anecdotally, but it’s always so powerful to get the data. A very sizable 72 percent of the respondents said that the pandemic had dramatically changed their use of healthcare services over the past few months. What we saw consistently was that through the early months of the crisis and for at least the next three to six months, high levels of anxiety about going to a doctor’s office, a hospital, an urgent care clinic, any of those in-person sites for elective procedures, diagnostic procedures, tests, et cetera. We heard from those individuals who said they had chronic conditions and senior citizens in our survey had even higher levels of reluctance to return to in-person facilities for probably at least the next six months. As you can imagine, that has very important implications for the health sector and potentially large implications for individual’s health. The good news flip side of that is that we saw a remarkable tripling of use of telehealth or virtual care in that time period. And even more impressive was that the satisfaction rate, customer satisfaction with telehealth was just terrific. Of those that had a telehealth experience, whether it was phone or internet in that short time period. Eighty-nine percent said they were satisfied or highly satisfied with the experience. And the individuals in the survey that reported using a smartphone app to manage an existing medical condition might think in terms of diabetes, sleep problems, heart conditions, 97 percent of those individuals describe that as valuable or very valuable.
PP: This is really very interesting data. My firm does a lot of advisory work in this space. So we work with a lot of health systems and help them with their digital health and digital transformation roadmaps. And obviously over the last three months in the wake of the pandemic, telehealth and virtual care models have become front and center in their overall business strategies. The numbers that came out of your survey are just validation for what we’re seeing on the ground. Interestingly, I also saw another survey that was published recently. I think it was by FAIR Health were the increase in total health claims is on the order of 4000 percent over the last one year. And, there are regional differences and some regions are higher and the others are not as high. But you mentioned anxiety. Some of the claims also reflect the fact that there’s a lot of anxiety among patients and were unable to take care of themselves using conventional access to healthcare. So, we are clearly in the middle of a very interesting transition is what it looks like. And I hear that 80 to 90 percent of outpatient care could potentially shift to some kind of a virtual care model. Some of your survey results seem to be indicating that we are headed in the direction. So what are your views on this shift specifically as it relates to access to care for the population served by your member health plans?
CC: I am happy to report that several our members were really in the vanguard of this movement. If you think about UPMC and Pittsburgh or Select Health, which is part of intermountain in Utah or of course, Kaiser Permanente, they have been very early adopters of the technology options and really helped spark ACHP to lobby successfully over a year ago for inclusion of telehealth in Medicare Advantage. And so, we are so pleased to see much of the rest of the world now seeing what we have long seen in terms of the convenience, the lower cost that is available. And I think that the COVID-19 crisis really drew sharp relief as we saw people that otherwise could not get access to medical services, finally could have it with a click of a button on a device. That said, we have also seen that inequities in our society play out in this area as well as so many others today. So, the number of individuals that do not have broadband, that do not have smart devices. Right now, CMS has put in place waivers for audio only services. But there are concerns about whether or not that will hold, especially if it would be factored into what’s known as risk adjustment calculations in the future. So, there are some unknown questions there. We certainly hope that Congress will finally move forward with broadband legislation is one step in terms of closing the digital divide. But there are other things that need to occur, certainly. We are worried that some providers will hurry back to the in-person visits, in part because they have bricks and mortar businesses that rely on the fee for service payments, not just of the visit, but often a lot of additional tests and checks and things that can be run in person, whether critically necessary and appropriate or not. So as much as we see public attitudes moving very quickly and being very pleased with these alternatives, we are not certain yet about the providers. And we know from our own health plans that they really needed to approach this as a partnership with clinicians every step of the way in terms of what areas of care are best suited to virtual versus the ones that are better in person. One of it shouldn’t be a surprise, but many seem surprised that behavioral health or mental health care is specially affective done virtually. These are populations that maybe are not as comfortable out in society at any time, let alone when there is the threat of a corona virus infection. They may have transportation issues or other chronic conditions that make in-person visits challenging. And many of our health plans report that patients sticking to scheduled appointments virtually is higher than the rates that they were seeing pre pandemic in person.
PP: You mentioned the policy environment as a business for telehealth. But there are other aspects of costs that are stranded that come into play when things go back to normal from the patient or the consumer standpoint. There’s also the question of you mentioned it as a digital divide, and especially if we’re underserved populations with broadband connectivity issues and so on. That is the affordability aspect, the transparency to the costs of care or costs of other enablers for cares such as devices. Where do you see all that today and how do you really support your member populations in sort of wading through this thicket of these new tools, technologies, modalities and get the care that they need, but also not find themselves at the receiving end of unexpected costs?
CC: We always try to start with evidence and the wisdom of clinicians when it comes to appropriateness of care. What care being delivered, when, how, where, etc., clinicians talking to their patients. So that is always the starting point for these conversations. As far as the Alliance of Community Health Plans is concerned, we very quickly want to layer on the value discussion. There’s been talk and effort in this country for an awfully long time about moving from our volume based fee-for-service system to a value-based system that rewards outcomes as opposed to just number of procedures, and I would certainly put virtual care into the value-based model approach. And again, clinicians and patients are going to guide much of this. But if a clinician has a diabetic patient, they should be able to think through how much of that can be remote monitoring, emailing, the occasional video check-in. And then when does the patient really need to come in for certain lab work or tests or procedures? So that’s just one tiny little example. But it’s probably going to be a mix. And ideally, you want that clinical team, not just an M.D., but an entire team, to be paid a certain amount of money to care for that diabetic. And they work out sort of the best formula in a value-based arrangement. We have seen that so many of the delivery systems, physician group practices, hospitals, et cetera, that we’re so heavily reliant on volume-driven revenue and fee-for-service that they encountered very severe cash shortages very quickly in the crisis. If you were to talk to clinical teams, physician groups that were in more of the value-based arrangements, they continued to receive those steady payments throughout the crisis. And it meant that they were able to focus on patient care during a crisis as opposed to their revenue stream.
PP: What about price transparency? Do you have any specific thoughts on that, especially as it relates to all the new modalities of care in a predominantly virtual care environment, digital health tools and devices and the like?
CC: We are bullish on price transparency and we have several members that have been far out in front with consumer tools for very personalized price and quality information. I’m thinking about priority health in Michigan and health partners in Minnesota, Presbyterian in New Mexico and many others where a consumer is not only looking up a potential price of a service, but it’s there out of pocket cost and it factors in their own deductible where they are in that deductible. It tells them different locations where they could go and get the service so they can think about travel time and convenience, where if there is a virtual option and many of these tools also marry in quality data so that they can shop for value. And in fact, we are seeing that happening in all the plans that I mentioned. And its terrific news because the patients want to go to those higher value sites and offerings and options, and both the plan and the individual member end up saving dollars. So when you then come over to a policy discussion, what we have put forward for the policy community is a framework for transparency tools that would be along these lines of geared toward the individual consumer where they are with respect to their own coverage options. Where they are located, giving that quality data, et cetera. So, we have put out a framework for certifying an independent certification of those tools. What we are doing over the next several months is inviting many other stakeholders to help us refine this and move it forward in the hopes that we could really offer an innovative, flexible, independent certification as a way to help consumers make their own choices.
PP: The certification presumably will really help consumers kind of navigating their way through all the multiple options that have been offered to them. I want to go back to the point that you made about the digital divide and these are the underserved sections of our population. One topic that keeps coming up in these conversations is social determinants of health. Is your association doing any work in this regard? Could you share any highlights, any of the research that you’ve done or any of the successes that you’ve had in using social determinants of health to better serve your member populations.
CC: It all ties to what our own member companies are doing in their communities. And that is where we learn and identify best practices that we can then share much more broadly. ACHP members have long understood the connection between unmet social needs and disparity in health outcomes. The evidence is very clear. A couple of the areas that our members have really got an out in front. One is around food insecurity and a number had programs dubbed food pharmacy or food as medicine, because the data is overwhelming in terms of your health and nutrition. And it is actually one of the areas in the social needs space where you can have a significant impact in a very short period of time. And I think now with unemployment of 40 million or, so Americans and we are seeing the tragic long lines at the various food pantries that this is so important. So UCare are a member in Wisconsin, which has a significant Somali population and has long also had very culturally appropriate meals, or Geisinger in central Pennsylvania, which not only has the food offering and get your healthy food. But they pair that with things such as cooking classes for individuals to make certain that it’s fun and enjoyable and they know what to do with these vegetables and things that they might be getting. Several of our members are also partnering in their communities around the homeless population. UPMC is a real leader in that and being able to partner with other social service agencies where UPMC comes in and helps to coordinate and manage care for those individuals. So that is another good example. Just since the pandemic specific source out in the Pacific Northwest has turned its entire 20-20 grant-making program to funding healthcare services for the vulnerable populations most impacted by COVID-19, which of course we see across the United States communities of color in particular, that have really in the victims of this awful pandemic. So those are a few of the different very successful approaches that we see in one of our members. And then often we can help to carry it across to others, share it with the policy community, etc.
PP: I am much familiar with the Geisinger example that you talked about, the fresh food pharmacy initiative and how just making fresh food available for populations that are at risk is the ones that have multiple comorbidities and so on. And the evidence is clearly documented. One of my earlier guests on this podcast was the CEO of the Corporate Center of Clinical Relation in Dallas has done something similar with regards to prenatal care and young mothers. Nutrition fresh food has been clearly demonstrated as a factor in improving the health of those populations. What are your members doing today in terms of planning for a post-pandemic era? What kind of long-term shifts are they planning for, especially as it relates to digital health and social care models?
CC: Well, I can tell you they are very committed to the virtual care option for patients, and they are now working to ensure that the areas are good, safe and secure and private guardrails included in all of those communications and that it’s going to sync up nicely with a person’s electronic medical records, that everything is kind of tied together in a coherent fashion for the patient and the clinical team and other technology investments that they may need to expand those services. Working an awful lot with the provider community, especially perhaps some of the specialty areas that might not have had much exposure or experience prior to the outbreak and are really quite hungry for the education and the training and the best practices to continue that. We’re working on the policy level to think through those issues, around reimbursement over the long term and the regulatory environment, hopefully in a value-based setting. We do not believe that it advances health in this country or affordability. If at the end of this crisis we simply have a whole bunch more fee-for-service codes, that will not get us for word in our health care progression. So, we’re very focused on that. Some of the other things are companies are thinking about is their own workforce and more flexibility for their workforces. Of course, they are giving a lot of thought during what will clearly be an economic slowdown, if not recession, for an extended period of time. Growth in Medicaid, growth in the individual market, as well as some number of uninsured. Our plans are focused a great deal on being able to serve those individuals who find themselves in a different coverage situation than maybe they were just a couple of months ago.
PP: Ceci it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much for joining us. I look forward to following all the great work that the ACHP is doing.
Disclaimer: This Q&A has been derived from the podcast transcript and has been edited for readability and clarity.
About our guest
Ceci Connolly is President and CEO of the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP), the trade association for nonprofit, community health plans. A prominent voice in healthcare for more than a decade, Connolly has served as a national correspondent for the Washington Post and a leader at international consulting firms, including PwC and McKinsey.
She is coauthor of LANDMARK: The Inside Story of America’s Health Law and What it Means for Us All and has been published in numerous publications, including the New England Journal of Medicine. Connolly was included on Business Insider’s inaugural list of “DC Health Care Power Players” and was also the first non-physician to receive the prestigious Mayo Clinic Plummer Society award for promoting deeper understanding of science and medicine.
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