Direct primary care is much less pricey. Patients pay $100 a month or less directly to the physician for comprehensive primary care, including basic medication, lab tests and follow-up visits in person, over email and by phone. The idea is that doctors can focus on treating patients, since they no longer have to wade through heaps of insurance paperwork. They spend less on overhead, driving costs down. And physicians say they can give care that’s more personal and convenient than in traditional practices.It’s legal under the Affordable Care Act, which identifies direct primary care as an acceptable option. But since it doesn’t cover specialists or emergencies, consumers still need a high-deductible health plan. Still, the combined cost of the monthly fee and that plan is often still cheaper than traditional insurance.
This is an interesting trend that could at least in theory coincide with the shift back to the “major medical” model common in the 1950s and 1960s where people paid out of pocket for primary care, using health insurance for high cost, major medical care events.
But whether pre-paid primary care bundled with a high deductible plan ends up costing less than, say, a gold or platinum rated Obamacare individual plan designed for the frequent user of primary care (such as families with young children) looking to minimize out of pocket costs is an open question. Unless perhaps monthly cost of pre-paid medical care falls to $40 as discussed in this analysis, which sees that as unlikely to pencil out for direct primary care practices. And as a practical matter as suggested in the analysis, not many people visit primary care docs frequently enough to make the arrangement worthwhile.
Where direct primary care makes better sense financially and where it has gained traction is among employers who offer it as part of their health benefit package. These employer groups can bring more belly buttons to the table in negotiating rates with direct primary care providers. Even larger economies of scale can be had with Medicaid managed care plans, where direct primary care practices offer Medicaid beneficiaries who typically bounce among various providers and emergency rooms much needed medical homes. From the NPR article:
In Seattle, a company called Qliance, which operates a network of primary care doctors, has been testing how to blend direct primary care with the state’s Medicaid program. They started taking Medicaid patients in 2014. So far, about 15,000 have signed up. They get a Qliance doctor and the unlimited visits and virtual access that are hallmarks of the model.
“Medicaid patients are made to feel like they’re a burden on the system,” said Dr. Erika Bliss, Qliance’s CEO. “For them, it was a breath of fresh air to be able to get such personalized care – to be able to talk to doctors over phone and email.”
The article goes on to report that Qliance contracts with Medicaid managed care provider Centene. Other states including North Carolina, Idaho and Texas are keeping an eye on the Washington arrangement and considering similar programs, according to the article.
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