February 24, 2022

Employers Are Driving Innovations in Primary Care

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Large employers are working with existing direct contracting partners and new vendors to enhance primary care, which includes integration of behavioral health care.
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Employers know that primary care is essential for a healthy workforce and employees’ access to a high-value health care system. Evidence shows that improved primary care translates into healthier, happier patients and lower overall health care costs:

  • U.S. adults who regularly see a primary care physician have 33% lower health care costs and 19% lower odds of dying prematurely than those who see only a specialist.
  • The U.S. could save $67 billion each year if everyone used a primary care provider as their principal source of care.
  • Every $1 increase in primary care spending produces $13 in savings.

Large employers are increasingly working with existing direct contracting partners and new vendors to enhance primary care, which includes the integration of behavioral health care among other things.

Four approaches reflect the ways large employers are currently working to improve primary care for their employees:

1. Developing a common set of advanced primary care standards to enable employers to speak with one voice. The development of the advanced primary care model is as much about streamlining the practice of primary care as it is about improving outcomes, enhancing the patient experience and reducing costs. Simple and consistent definitions of optimized primary care across all payer contracts would reduce, if not eliminate, the bewildering array of sometimes-conflicting value-based requirements contained in multiple payer contracts. That fact could mitigate clinician burnout by easing the administrative burden while allowing more time for the actual provision of care.

It is, therefore, essential that employers send a common signal to the market. For that reason, PBGH worked last year with members through an employer-led initiative to create a Common Purchasing Agreement. This enables employers to communicate their priorities and engage payers and providers to make changes to care delivery and payment that meet their priorities.

2. Integrating behavioral health into primary care. Behavioral health integration is an integral part of advanced primary care and a key feature of the Common Purchasing Agreement mentioned above. Nearly seven in 10 patients in need of behavioral health treatment seek care via primary care practices. Evidence shows that integrating behavioral health services into primary care can enhance mental health care access and coordination, improve outcomes and reduce costs. Behavioral health integration, a feature of advanced primary care, allows patients to access mental health care screening, services and treatments through their primary care provider, just like any other specialty care. Employers are highly focused on these efforts, which address an issue that has reached crisis level in this country.

3. Requiring members to choose a primary care provider. Patients benefit from an ongoing primary care relationship with improved care access, greater care continuity and better health outcomes. This in turn reduces employee absenteeism, enhances productivity and lowers overall health care spending for employers. That’s why some employers are taking additional steps to ensure their members are connected to a primary care practice. Methods to do so include mandating that members select a primary care physician and/or team, using benefit design incentives to support the use of primary care over specialty care (when appropriate) and increase education about the importance of having a primary care provider.

4. Helping employees identify and use only the highest quality primary care providers. Using quality measures, such as the PBGH advanced primary care measure set, purchasers and health plans can identify high-performing provider practices. Once those practices have been identified, employers can drive plan members to providers able to demonstrate that they provide high-value care, or the providers identified can be rewarded for their superior performance.

Employers understand better than anyone that the quality of health care their employees can access has a profound impact on their work, lives and productivity. The last few years working through the unprecedented challenges brought about by the pandemic have only reinforced the importance of continuing to strive to reduce disparities in health care and increase access to high-quality and more affordable services.

The same principles of aligning payment incentives and employer voices in primary care provides a model for other care verticals, including maternity care, oncology and musculoskeletal disorders, to name a few. Employers will increasingly work with organizations able to help design and implement the standards necessary to ensure they’re buying the best health care services available for the millions of employees, consumers and families throughout the nation who rely on their employers for health benefits.

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