A new model for effective company-sponsored primary care programs

Part of a series.

Patients need doctors that take time to listen which means a limited number of patients under care. Employers need programs that reduce costs and ideally improve the health of their staff. These apparently disparate needs can come together in a new model for effective company-sponsored primary care programs.

Those of you who have followed this series know that I am an advocate for PCPs finding ways to have a smaller patient panel so that each patient can receive more time for comprehensive primary care. When properly designed, company-sponsored primary care clinics can do just that.

Some employers are turning to outside firms such as QuadMed to initiate care models that can serve both smaller patient panels yet reduce their total costs toward health care. Although there are many such firms (or local practices) that will take on the role, real success hinges on a program that is well organized and allocates adequate time for the PCP to give truly comprehensive primary care. It also means that the employer has accepted the concept that it is no longer just trying to hold the line on health care costs but is actually looking at employee health as a strategic business imperative.

Successful programs tend to include not only PCPs, NPs, nurses and other providers but, if the employee base is large enough, a pharmacy, laboratory, and radiology suite. Other key resources are health coaches and nutritionists to maintain wellness and reduce risk factors. The typical employer in these arrangements is generally self-insured, has a large enough employee base to justify the clinic resources and is committed to employee health and wellness while wanting to reduce its total costs of health care.

A full-service primary care clinic is funded by the company at or very near to the employer’s site of business. Services include routine episodic care but also extensive preventive care, intense management of those with chronic illnesses and care coordination when a patient does need to visit a specialist and sufficient time with the provider that trust can develop; in other words, this is comprehensive primary care not just limited function urgent care centers.

Employees are informed that they are welcome but not required to utilize the clinic and do so at no cost or perhaps a modest fee per visit. Some but not all employers make the clinics available to family members. Each participating individual is assigned a primary care physician (PCP) or in some cases a nurse practitioner or physician assistant. The PCP/NP/PA is paid by salary by the vendor company, not fee-for-service. In the programs that truly develop comprehensive primary care, the PCP/NP/PA has a limited number of patients in his or her panel, does a full initial evaluation usually lasting 60 minutes or more and then sees the individual thereafter as often as necessary for as long as necessary.

The expectation is that the patient and PCP/NP/PA will develop a long-term trusting relationship just as they would in a private office setting. Individuals can schedule appointments often on the same or next day, and there may be extensive use of mobile technologies, an electronic medical record, telemedicine and other advanced techniques. For those individuals with a chronic illness, the clinic nurses often work with the PCP to coordinate care and (often and hopefully always) the PCP communicates directly with any specialist before referring and after the visit.

The clinic manages wellness and preventive programs with health coaching and lifestyle behavior management. This might include, but is not limited to, nutrition counseling, fitness counseling, stress management and smoking cessation. It depends on the provider company selected to develop and manage the clinic, but if the employer already has an effective wellness program ongoing with another provider, the primary care company may agree to partner with that wellness provider to create seamless programs. It can thus be an employee wellness program and a comprehensive primary care program rolled into one. It may even be population health to the extent that the PCP and the team proactively interact with each participant to address risk factor and incipient chronic illnesses rather than waiting for an employee/patient to call or visit with a problem. To repeat, a very key ingredient is assigning no more than a reasonable number of employees and family members to each PCP/NP/PA. What is “reasonable”? It depends; on average age, whether many individuals have chronic illnesses, etc.

Some provider companies such as WeCare TLC call their model “medical risk management,” a term generally thought of in medicine as programs and policies to reduce the potential for malpractice claims. Here however it has a completely different meaning. It is called medical risk management because the driving principle is identification and management of ongoing medical problems while at the same time addressing potential health risks for the future. It is really an employer-sponsored (although not directly involved) companywide approach to population health management. It is taken from the concept of enterprise risk management that seeks to identify and mitigate corporate risk as a strategic advantage. It is management of risk not just from a downside perspective but from an upside or positive perspective as well. The employer, therefore, needs to be thinking about health risk management as a strategic perspective, not just as a tactical effort. In other words, a healthy workforce is available to be productive, and a healthy workforce creates a very substantial savings in medical costs for both the company and the employee.

Note that it is not just “episodic” visits but rather comprehensive primary care in a medical home type model with proactive population health concepts.

The provider company and the employer usually agree up front to a set of performance measures such as utilization/penetration of the clinic (are employees actually using it), patient satisfaction (do they like what they get), quality outcomes (standard measures used nationally such as blood pressure control, diabetic control, immunizations up to date, etc.) and of course functioning within budget and a return on the employer’s investment at a pre-agreed level. Companies that engage in these clinics, provided that the services are actually comprehensive in nature as described, tend to find that their return on investment very good.

Since in these models of comprehensive primary care where the employer fully pays for the primary care services, there can be a significant savings for the employee (patient) and family members.  Importantly, the employer pays the bills, perhaps offers incentives for participating but is otherwise kept at a distance. The PCP and other staff members work for the provider company, not for the employer, and cannot be expected to share patient information. The employee gets quality health care with a strong emphasis on maintaining wellness, active prevention and on chronic illness early detection, management, and care coordination. The result is a healthier workforce leading to greater productivity, greater workforce satisfaction, reduced or no employee costs for primary care and reduced or at least limited health insurance cost increases for both employers and employees.  Definitely a triple win.

But there are potential downsides to consider. Some KevinMD readers will certainly comment that it is best to keep the employer completely out of health care. Another downside would be if the employer wanted to be intrusive and learn medical information about individuals. A third would be the loss of a trusted PCP when a person leaves the company for other employment. So in the end, each person offered the option needs to make an informed decision.

Note: I have interviewed principals at both QuadMed and WeCare but have no financial or arrangements with either. They are used as examples only; their use does not represent an endorsement.

Crisis-2 jpegStephen C. Schimpff is a quasi-retired internist, professor of medicine and public policy, former CEO, University of Maryland Medical Center, and senior advisor, Sage Growth Partners.  He is the author of Fixing the Primary Care Crisis: Reclaiming the Patient-Doctor Relationship and Returning Healthcare Decisions to You and Your Doctor.

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