Are We Asking the Wrong Questions About Disease Management and Medicare?

April 8, 2008

A recent study suggests that Medicare’s Disease Management (DM) experiment has failed to cut medical costs. DM advocates argue that Medicare’s methodology was flawed. So what’s the answer? A New York Times article asks: Does Medicare DM cut costs, or should it be stopped?

That may be the wrong question.

As far the first part of the question is concerned, it wouldn’t be surprising if the answer turned out to be “no.” Revenues for disease management companies grew from $78 million in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2005, according to the Disease Management Consortium, largely on the belief that DM programs cut medical costs and were therefore a good investment for private payers. Yet to date, no study has demonstrated conclusive medical cost savings from DM.

That doesn’t, however, mean that DM is a bad idea – especially for Medicare. 160,000 Medicare beneficiaries have been served by the Medical Health Support program, which provided chronic disease patients with periodic calls from nurses. The nurses give patients medical information, encourage them to seek treatment, remind them about their medical needs, and provide other forms of support.

The DM companies had financial incentives: Either achieve a 5% reduction in medical costs for their enrollees, net of service costs, or return their fees. When it became clear last year they weren’t going to make that goal, Medicare relaxed their requirements. Now, only a net savings is required in order for the vendors to keep their fees. It’s not clear if they’ll reach that goal, either. (The CMS pdf fact sheet politely describes the cost impact of these programs so far as “nominal.”)

It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions about this experiment, especially since the data are not yet publicly available. But here are some thoughts to consider:

  • Cost savings may not be the appropriate goal for DM with a population of this kind. Convenience (especially for those with limited mobility or money) and health improvement outcomes are also worthwhile objectives. The program should be evaluated for these indicators, and not for cost alone.
  • While the entire program may not be cost-effective, elements of it might be. Medicare should continue the experiment under modified conditions.
  • There may be opportunities to reduce program costs and improve efficiencies while delivering similar results.

Senators from the home states of the companies involved, including John Kerry and Lamar Alexander, think the experiment should be continued. The Times implies they’re just providing a constituent service to home state employers, but they may in fact be right. There is more to be learned about the role of DM in Medicare, and in the overall health system.

Overall, the DM industry is likely to experience a shakeout in the next year or two – for both private and public payers. Assumptions about its cost-effectiveness are likely to be overturned. The most likely end result? A re-engineered DM concept, which differs from today’s both in design and in outcome measurements. Medicare can play a vital role in DM research, discovering which elements work, which need to be added, and which can be discarded.


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