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The Big Story: Seesawing Perceptions on the Payer-Provider Playground

This week Modern Healthcare cast providers as potential bullies, taking advantage of COVID-19 to pressure payers for higher rates and bigger margins. This followed on the heels of a tough review of hospital consolidation in The New York Times while America’s Health Insurance Plans rebranded themselves to just “AHIP” as they become providers, too. We’re noticing a thread here.

Our Take

2020 was a banner year for insurance companies, even with a costly Q4. So payers celebrated by rebranding. As the Good Guys. As the ones “guiding greater health.”

This week saw America’s Health Insurance Plans convert to the simple “AHIP.” Very hip to ditch an apparently unpopular word from the moniker. We note, as Modern Healthcare did, what the Edelman Trust Index says about the trust consumers have for “insurance” companies today.

With their reframe, AHIP smartly took a page right out of the provider playbook by using mission-oriented, self-descriptive language such as “champions of care,” and “advancing mental and physical health.”

This blurring of lines might work. Still, wasn’t it jarring to see the news sitting atop the flagship trade publication for, ahem, providers? A sign of the times…and of an opportunity not to be missed.

Each of our picks for The Big Story painted healthcare providers, in part, as bad guys using their size, clout, public goodwill and financial resources to wield power over smaller hospitals and/or insurance companies to boost profits and plump their margins.

This ink is the latest in an accumulating narrative that pins blame for healthcare’s myriad problems – cost, price, pick your poison – on providers. And then elevates payers as the patient-focused advocates for a healthy society.

But that’s not the whole story, of course.

To be clear: Hospitals and health systems are not blameless victims. There are plenty of head-scratching examples of bad practices by providers and, frankly, providers don’t always do the best job of telling their side of the story even when they do the right thing (ahem again).

But there’s another side of the story to tell. One that explores how major insurance companies are raising premiums while pushing for steady or even lower reimbursement to providers. And one pointing out that provider rates are increasing with single-digit speed, while premiums jump by double digits.

It’s an awkward, sometimes contentious moment for providers. We’re not looking to flip the script, but a conversation that will truly make healthcare better needs more balance. An all-around honest and self-reflective look at our healthcare system and how it’s paid for is needed. Because we can’t improve the system without fully diagnosing the problems – all of them.

It’s a big challenge for those covering our overheated industry.

It’s an opportunity and an obligation for providers, too.

So what’s our advice for providers who find their organizations in the middle of these stories? Or who are having to duke out tense negotiations with payers both behind closed doors and in the court of public opinion? Approach it this way:

Steel yourself. Be aware. The tactics and lines of argument used in mainstream media for national stories will make their way into your next local negotiation. One side of this equation (sad that we’re even positioning our healthcare system as having “sides”) has been building a clear narrative and telegraphing that they’ll use it. No provider should be caught off guard. Tune into news like the stories above for the playbook’s X’s and O’s.

Be honest. Engage in some serious self-reflection on how you’re providing care, supporting your teams and doing what you can to fulfill your mission. Don’t let the perception of unfair coverage distract from any real issues that may need to be addressed.

Keep going. If the insurance industry is jockeying for position as the patient advocate, that means it’s a provider’s space to lose. Let payers roll out their new branding. Hospitals and clinics and medical practices are where people go for care, not insurance offices. Nurses and doctors and techs and LPNs touch patients, not actuaries. That’s the story you need to tell.

Get Engaged. It’s a long story. The insurance industry won’t remake their image overnight and providers won’t balance the conversation overnight either. But providers must begin by speaking with a collective voice about their value and engaging in a real, ongoing conversation about the balance our industry must achieve to serve.

Questions about your managed care strategy? We can help.