UnitedHealth’s Premium Physician Designation Program is not about quality

UnitedHealth Premium® Designation Program

The UnitedHealth Premium® physician designation program uses evidence-based, medical society, and national industry standards to recognize physicians for providing quality and cost efficient care.

The following designation results are displayed publicly in UnitedHealthcare's physician directories (e.g., to support informed decision-making by members when making health care choices and by physicians when making referrals.

Designation information is as follows:

  • Quality & Cost Efficiency
  • Cost Efficiency & Not Enough Data to Assess Quality
  • Quality & Not Enough Data to Assess Cost Efficiency
  • Quality & Did Not Meet Cost Efficiency
  • Not Enough Data to Assess Quality & Did Not Meet Cost Efficiency
  • Not Enough Data to Assess
  • Not Evaluated
  • Did Not Meet Quality & Cost Efficiency

Innovative Benefit Plan Designs

In addition, employers may offer health benefit programs (e.g., reduced cost-sharing or tiered benefit programs) that provide benefit incentives for members to use UnitedHealth Premium Tier 1 physicians.

Members in health plans that offer tiered benefits may pay lower co-pays and co-insurance amounts for services provided by UnitedHealth Premium Tier 1 physicians.

UnitedHealth Premium Tier 1 physicians have received one of the following Premium designations:

  • Quality & Cost Efficiency
  • Cost Efficiency & Not Enough Data to Assess Quality


UnitedHealth Premium® Physician Designation Program

Summary Methodology

The UnitedHealth Premium physician designation program uses clinical information from health care claims and other sources to assist physicians in their continuous practice improvement and to help consumers make more informed and personally appropriate choices for their medical care.

Evaluation for quality compares a physician’s observed practice to the UnitedHealthcare national rate among other physicians who are responsible for the same interventions. Cost efficiency is assessed by comparing the case-mix adjusted cost of care attributed to the physician to a benchmark and applying a statistical test to determine if the difference is statistically significant.

Quality is the fundamental measurement, demonstrating our commitment to evidence-based practice. The quality designation is separate from the cost efficiency designation. Although the quality and cost efficiency evaluations are performed separately, the results are used together to determine the physician’s designation.

Physicians who meet both the quality and cost efficiency designation criteria will receive the quality and cost efficiency designation. Physicians who meet the quality designation criteria will receive the quality designation regardless of their cost efficiency evaluation. Physicians who meet the cost efficiency designation criteria will receive the cost efficiency designation if they do not have enough data to assess quality.

Quality Assessment

A physician’s quality individual outcome is determined by comparing the number of times his/her patients received recommended care with a benchmark number based on the UnitedHealthcare national rate of the same recommended care for each quality measure.

Cost Efficiency Assessment

Episode cost measurement compares a physician’s observed costs for episodes of care to a peer group’s costs for similar episodes of care, with adjustments for the patient’s severity of illness and the physician's case mix.

For both episode cost and population cost measurement, the physician’s costs within each set are evaluated against their peer group’s costs by ordering the costs from lowest to highest cost. The costs are converted into percentiles to allow comparison across different types of cases or patients.

Physicians’ costs must be statistically significantly lower than the peer group’s physicians at the 75th percentile performance for all physicians (measured in the same specialty for the same types of episodes in the same geographic area) in order to meet the episode cost measurement criteria.

UnitedHealthcare informs members that designations are intended only as a guide when choosing a physician and should not be the sole factor in selecting a physician. As with all programs that evaluate performance based on analysis of a sample, there is a risk of error.



By Don McCanne, MD

The perennial promise of private health insurers is that their insurance products would bring us higher quality care at lower cost, even though there is a paucity of evidence to support such claims. UnitedHealth now claims to be serious about delivering on that promise with their new Premium Physician Designation Program. They say that “quality is the fundamental measurement.” But let’s sort through their program description to see what the truth really is.

You can consult the websites at the links above for the detailed descriptions of how determinations of quality and cost efficiency are made. Although they state that quality is the fundamental measurement, they combine that with cost efficiency measurements and then use this information to classify each physician in one of the eight categories listed above. There are really only two designations that physicians can receive: quality and cost efficiency. If the physician receives either one or both of these designations, then these honors are displayed publicly in UnitedHealth’s physician directories.

Those designations might be nice, but what the patient really wants to know is if their physician is a Tier 1 physician. In plans that offer tiered benefits - very commonplace today - plan beneficiaries pay lower co-pays and co-insurance when they use Premium Tier 1 physicians. So what determines whether on not a physician is in Tier 1?

Of the eight categories listed, only the first two will qualify the physician as Tier 1. Either the physician must receive the designations of “Quality & Cost Efficiency” or “Cost Efficiency & Not Enough Data to Assess Quality.” Although quality is the “fundamental measurement” and is determined before cost efficiency, it is important to note that the third category - “Quality & Not Enough Data to Assess Cost Efficiency” - will not qualify a physician for Tier 1. The only way to become a Tier 1 physician is to be cost efficient; quality does not count.

It is also important to understand that even if all or almost all physicians are actually cost efficient, they are compared to their peers. “Physicians’ costs must be statistically significantly lower than the peer group’s physicians at the 75th percentile performance for all physicians.” It is impossible, no matter how efficient they are, for all physicians to gain Tier 1 status.

Further, the health care market in the United States is by far the most expensive of all nations, not only because of our prices but also due to our inefficiencies, especially our profound administrative waste. Favoring prices at the lower end of a highly inflated health care market falls far short of what we need to do to improve efficiency in our health care purchasing.

Thus UnitedHealth, for Tier 1, is selecting the cheapest physicians in an overpriced and inefficient market, regardless of the quality of their care. “Higher quality at lower cost” is a fraudulent marketing slogan of the private insurance industry. We need to throw these con artists out and replace them with our own efficient, quality-driven single payer national health program. The sooner the better.