Rheum for Action

Insurer’s foray into AI-based ‘shared savings’ program creates ethical problems


Editor’s note: As of this writing, the following proposed health insurance policy from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina is still active. The Coalition of State Rheumatology Organizations and other rheumatology advocacy groups are in ongoing discussions with the health insurer and hope to have major changes to this policy implemented.

While AI has been in our world for years, it is expanding by the minute, perhaps by the nanosecond, within the health care sector. The $6.7 billion dollar health care AI market in 2020 is expected to climb to more than $120 billion by 2028. There are many questions regarding the application of AI in our world. Is it a mere instructional algorithm that computes things in a much faster way, or does it create a new story based on the information it has access to? Does it engender excitement or fear ... or both? Remember HAL? As we have seen throughout history with new inventions and technologies, there are risks and rewards. Even the best can have harmful unintended consequences. AI is no different, particularly when it comes to health care. In this case, AI can get a bad name if it is utilized along with biased data input and bad policy.

Dr. Madelaine A. Feldman, a rheumatologist in private practice with The Rheumatology Group in New Orleans.

Dr. Madelaine A. Feldman

Shared savings

Here is where “shared savings” comes into play. A shared savings program starts with a baseline cost analysis of a particular care plan and then tracks costs (performance) going forward after certain changes to the original care plan are instituted. If savings are accrued when compared with baseline spending, those savings are shared with the providers of the care. Depending on how the shared savings program is implemented, the optics can be very bad if it appears as though physicians are being paid to reduce care.

‘The volunteer opportunity’

Recently, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, in partnership with Outcomes Matter Innovations, a data analysis company that uses AI/machine-learning technology, offered rheumatologists a new voluntary shared savings, value-based care (VBC) “opportunity.” Rheumatologists would be able to “utilize a web-based machine-learning technology platform that suggests evidence-based care pathways” in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis (PsA). The VBC/shared savings model uses the AI platform to propose two different pathways. One model would delay the start of biologics or Janus kinase inhibitors (JAKi), and the second model would taper and/or stop biologics or JAKi altogether.

Delaying the start of biologics/JAKi would be achieved through “methotrexate optimization” and/or the use of triple therapy with methotrexate, sulfasalazine, and hydroxychloroquine. The other model would recommend tapering biologic/JAKi dosing in patients in remission or low disease activity and might even suggest a “medication holiday.”

The intention of this 3-year VBC/shared savings program is to reduce costs and create savings by reducing the use of biologics or JAKi. A tangential question might be, “Reduce costs and create savings for whom?” Apparently, the patients will not reap any of the cost savings, as this is proposed to be a shared savings program with the savings going to the physicians and the insurance company. Perhaps the idea is that patients will benefit by reducing unneeded expensive medications.


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