Walmart announced this past year that they were modifying their Centers of Excellence (COE) program and requiring employees to travel to one of their eight approved COEs for Spine Surgery. That raised a lot of eyebrows and interest among other self-insured employers, benefits consultants and of course the healthcare system itself. Walmart did this after finding that perhaps 40 percent of those referred to a COE after having a recommendation for surgery by their local physicians, were not recommended for surgery by the COE.
There are 650,000 to 700,000 spine surgeries performed per year, with around 280,000 to 300,000 being done in an outpatient setting and (https://www.beckersasc.com/outpatient-spine/10-things-to-know-about-spine-surgery-in-ascs.html) spine surgery is the most highly reimbursed subspecialty within orthopedics. (https://www.beckersspine.com/lists-and-statistics/item/739-11-statistics-and-facts-about-orthopedics-and-orthopedic-practices).
Amazingly, 90% of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart and they employ about 1.5 million people in the United States (https://corporate.walmart.com/newsroom/company-facts). Think about that! I would assume that somewhere close to 90% of the spine surgeons also live within 10 miles of those Walmart’s’, many of whom Walmart has deemed were potentially doing unnecessary surgeries on 40% of the employees they referred to the COEs with spine issues. BTW the hospitals I’m sure were doing well by these referrals too.Becker’s said they did this to save money (https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/walmart-will-require-workers-to-travel-for-surgery-in-effort-to-cut-healthcare-costs.html), not mentioning that 40% of the cases were reviewed by the COE and determined to not need the surgery that had been recommended by the local doctor, sure that saved money, but what about quality of life for the patients, and quality in general . Should they just go ahead and let those surgeries be done?
Here are some other outcomes as reported by Beckers Spine Review
1. About 2,300 employees — around half of the Walmart employees who underwent spine surgery or evaluation without surgery from 2015 to 2018 — utilized a center of excellence. During that time, 46 percent of patients underwent surgery and 54 percent received other forms of treatment.
2. The employees who underwent care at center of excellence sites reported shorter hospital stays; the COE employees stayed in the hospital for 2.5 days, compared to 2.9 days for the non-COE employees. Then, 0.6 percent of the COE patients were discharged to skilled nursing facilities, far lower than 4.9 percent of the non-COE patients.
3. Over the past three years, the readmission rate per 1,000 patients in the program was three for COE patients, compared to 65 for non-COE patients.
4. On average, patients who received care at a center of excellence returned to work after 10.6 weeks, which was 2.6 weeks sooner than the non-COE patients.
5. Cost for care was 8 percent higher at the center of excellence — $32,177 on average — compared to $29,770 at the non-COE, but the lower readmission rates, earlier discharge and lower skilled nursing facility use was a “payoff” of the COE model.
So now getting back to something I have seen little attention paid to, what does that say about the state of spine surgery around the United States? Its not as if Walmart has a little footprint around the country.