Insurers shoving “advanced illness counselors” on us

Operator? Business, Insurer Take On End-of-Life Issues By Phone

By Elana Gordon, WHYY
Kaiser Health News, August 27, 2014

Kate Schleicher, 27,  is a licensed clinical social worker, who knows almost as little about you as you do about her. Except she knows your phone number, your insurance provider and that you are pretty sick.

Schleicher is one of 50 social workers at a company called Vital Decisions. After sending a letter (people rarely respond) counselors essentially cold-call to offer what they describe as “nondirected” end-of-life counseling.

The hope of this program, she says, is to build a relationship over the phone, so (the patient) might be comfortable discussing his situation and his goals. Then he’ll be empowered to communicate those things with others, including his family and his doctors. He could also choose to allow the counselor to talk to his doctors or family directly. It’s paid for by insurers and federal privacy rules permit this for business purposes.

And when these conversations do happen, there’s can be another byproduct: reduced costs. Research is finding that when patients fully understand aggressive care, many choose less of it.

But some people are wary of the company’s approach. Dr. Lauris Kaldjian, professor of bioethics at the University of Iowa, has concerns about the social worker, patient and family never actually meeting. “Because if you don’t have enough knowledge about what’s actually going on with the patient, it would actually be irresponsible to pretend to have discussion that depends upon such knowledge.”


Vital Decisions

Vital Decisions is an innovative organization that assists patients and families dealing with advanced illness. We help patients clarify their values and preferences and then communicate with their family and care team to actualize those preferences. Our clients include several leading national, regional, and local health care plans which offer our service free of charge to appropriate individuals within their member populations.

We are a privately held company located in the Metropark business complex in Edison, NJ. The Company is profitable, and cash flow-positive, and is a leader in the growing field of advanced illness counseling.

The Company is a portfolio company of MTS Health Investors, the New York-based healthcare private equity firm. Health Information Privacy: “Business Associates”:



By Don McCanne, MD

When you are faced with advanced illness, perhaps nearing the end of life, where would you want to turn for medical advice on how to get through this difficult time? Your personal physician and health care team? Private health insurers, always looking for more administrative innovations to sell us, are now using high pressure tactics to force “advanced illness counselors” into the management of your care.

Who are these counselors? In the example given, they are employees of Vital Decisions, a private, for-profit corporation that sells its services to private insurance companies. They use your confidential medical diagnoses that have been provided to them by the private insurers to market to you an advisory service on negotiating the health care system. After an introductory letter that is routinely ignored, the counselors cold-call to try to convince you to accept their end-of-life counseling. Of course, this is “at no cost to you” since your insurer pays for this service. The services are provided over the phone from offices in New Jersey - a definition of personal care that only the insurers can understand. The clients of Vital Decisions are the private insurers, not the patients, nor the physicians, nor any other members of the health care team.

With today’s emphasis on privacy, how could unrelated business entities gain enough information about you to make a contact? In another concession to the private insurers, HHS allows them to share this confidential information with “business associates” - basically any business entity that might interact with the insurer as the insurer carries out its business functions. It is the private insurers that sic on you these end-of-life-care marketeers just at a time that you do not want any more extrinsic intrusions since you are suffering enough already.

Although the insurers say that they are paying for these services, they are actually paid by plan enrollees in the form of higher premiums. What is worse, these services are classified as health care related services and can be included in the insurers’ medical loss ratios. They do not apply to the 15% or 20% limit on administrative costs. In fact, since they are counted as medical losses, it allows the insurers even more leeway in adding on yet more administrative services. Since the percentages are fixed, more medical losses allow more administrative services - the primary product that the private insurers are selling us.

As a portfolio company of MTS Health Investors, the New York-based healthcare private equity firm, Vital Decisions is taking very good care of Wall Street, while intruding in our most difficult time of life and then walking away with our health care dollars.

Regular readers know what a single payer national health program would do with these parasites. They’d be out the door, right now.