We’ve been talking about how sleep apnea raises health costs, and we’ve talked about how it can save insurance companies a lot of money by preventing the need for heart attack and stroke care. But these are all theoretical arguments. In a real-world situation, how much are costs actually reduced?
The answer is quite a lot. According to a study that looked at a sleep apnea treatment education program a large company could save millions. In fact, it showed that the Union Pacific Railroad Employees Health Systems (UPREHS) saved $4.9 million just by mailing a few postcards to individuals about relevant treatment options.
The Problem of Treatment
It can be hard to encourage people to get treatment for sleep apnea, despite the dangers of the condition. For example, about 10% of the 22,000 members of the UPREHS had been diagnosed with sleep apnea. However, out of the more than 2300 diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2005, only about a quarter were actually getting treatment for their sleep apnea. Untreated sleep apnea leads, as we’ve said, to heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, weight gain, and more (which is not to mention loss of productivity and the potential for on-the-job accidents).
The UPREHS tried to overcome the problem with a simple solution: mailing a series of postcards to people diagnosed with sleep apnea but not receiving treatment.
Response to the Campaign
The response was dramatic. The number of sleep apnea sufferers who enrolled in treatment jumped from 23% to 30% in the first year. From 30% to 40% in the second year, and then up to 54% in the third year.
To determine just how much this saved the health plan, they looked at actual medical expenses for people diagnosed with sleep apnea and receiving treatment versus those not receiving treatment. They determined that getting treatment for sleep apnea reduced healthcare costs by $200 per person per month. They then added up all the months of additional treatment because of the education campaign to come up with a total effective savings of $4.9 million.
A Missed Opportunity
This was a great win for the UPREHS, but it could have been even better. Although enrollment jumped to 54%, that means that there’s still 46% of people not receiving treatment, which is, by my rough calculation, about another $2.7 million a year in additional healthcare costs.
How might they have improved enrollment even further? The only treatment option offered by the UPREHS at the time of the study was CPAP, which involves a cumbersome pump and air mask system that not all people can adapt to. By offering oral appliance therapy as an option, the system might have been able to further increase enrollment.
How Much Can Your Business Save?
Now, it’s likely that your business doesn’t have 22,000 employees and an independent health plan, but that doesn’t mean it can’t save money with a sleep apnea education campaign. Talk to your insurance company about the role of sleep apnea in your company’s insurance costs and see if working together on an education, screening, or treatment campaign might be able to lower your insurance rates.
To learn more about the best treatment options for sleep apnea, please contact Dr. Donna Blair in Fresno today for an appointment.