Across much of the U.S., a person who’s poor, overweight and a candidate for obesity-related diseases might not visit a doctor until they’ve already contracted diabetes — that is, if they can even find a physician who will accept Medicaid, the federal health insurance program aimed at the neediest Americans.
But in Connecticut, they’re doing things differently. There, state employees actually reach out to those at the greatest risk before they’ve exhibited any noticeable symptoms, then work diligently to connect them with the right care. Doctors are paid a bonus for getting a patient to see the appropriate specialists, and out-of-the-box arrangements are made when other solutions prove necessary; a low-income senior facing eviction, for example, might be given a “prescription” of a rental voucher so that she can remain in her own neighborhood.
In treating poverty as an ailment in and of itself, Connecticut has adopted a proactive approach to improving the health of its poorest residents — and it’s saving money in the process. After switching to a rarely used Medicaid payment model, known as fee-for-service (FFS), the state faced a daunting challenge: Keep those unable to pay out of the emergency room, or see its budget eaten up by soaring medical costs.
Here’s how it works: Using the extensive data collected from all Medicaid patients, the state’s predictive modeling identifies those most in danger of expensive, chronic ailments like diabetes. Then, says Dr. Robert Zavoski, a former pediatrician who now serves as the state’s medical director, “We make sure they’re getting preventive care so that, 10 years from now, we’re not paying for dialysis for renal dysfunction and amputations for limbs that would have been better left where they were.”
After Connecticut dropped three private companies who administered its Medicaid program and decided to run the massive entitlement on its own, other states practically took bets on when the system would implode.
“They patted us on the head and said, ‘Good luck with that,’” Kate McEvoy, who oversees all of Connecticut’s public health services, recalls of the 2010 decision.
In booting private insurance companies off the job (in Hartford, a city that’s known as the insurance capital of the world, no less), Connecticut was bucking a trend. Thirty-nine other states, representing nearly three-quarters of the nation’s enrollees, have hired managed-care organizations, or MCOs, to oversee Medicaid, with even more governors pondering following suit. Of the rest, only Alaska and Wyoming have a system like Connecticut’s.
Without relying on MCOs to set standards and manage the process, Connecticut’s been on the hook for whatever care its Medicaid population requires, which can include check-ups, specialist visits and hospital drop-ins. The looming receipts have created an incentive for Connecticut to keep its poor healthy.
The tactic has already paid off in the short term and promises to deliver even bigger dividends in the future.
According to a recent analysis of federal payment data published in the journal Health Affairs, Connecticut led the nation in reducing Medicaid costs. The state’s per-patient spending on Medicaid dropped by an average of 5.7 percent each year between 2010 and 2014. One explanation is simple. “We got rid of [the MCOs’] profit and overhead,” says Ellen Andrews, the head of Connecticut Health Policy Project, a nonpartisan analyst. But officials also believe, financially and morally, they’ll do better by paying upfront.
“The old adage went, ‘If you can predict something, you can prevent it.’ And yet as a practitioner, when we look at the population of inner-city children, a lot of stuff was happening that you could predict but nobody was preventing anything,” Zavoski says. “Standing in the capital city in the richest state in the richest country in the world, that’s not acceptable.”
Under Connecticut’s FFS system, primary care doctors are given bonuses for coordinating their Medicaid patients’ care. “They don’t just say, ‘You have a heart problem.’ They’ll make an appointment with a cardiologist and follow-up,” Andrews says.
Paying out doctor bonuses won’t break the bank, but other preventive measures do involve five-figure decisions. Previously, under managed care, insurers denied coverage of top-dollar treatments — exclusions the state has now reversed. For example, Connecticut will pay $94,500 for a prescription that cures Hepatitis C, with the confidence that it will lower costs in the long run. Zavoski reasons that a one-time course of drugs, paired with education about reinfection, might be cheaper than a lifetime supply of the older pills, which put the patient at risk of severe liver and kidney damage.
Of course, the resources might not always be there. As Connecticut’s legislature faces a massive budget deficit that could slash health programs and congressional Republicans attempt to dismantle Obamacare’s expansion, Medicaid is under constant assault. But if the Nutmeg State has one lesson for the rest of the country, it’s that deferring treatment will cost us later — in dollars and in lives.
Homepage photo courtesy of Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

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