Price controls

Craig GarthwaiteUltimately, spending less on health care is a relatively easy task: We either need to consume fewer services, or spend less on the services that we consume. But much like we teach our Kellogg students about maximizing profits, the devil is in the details.

It’s certainly tempting to ask the government to swoop in on a white stallion and solve the all our problems by fiat. For example, we could have the government simply exploit its monopsony power and set prices, but an artificially low price will lead to an inefficiently low quantity of services and future innovation (stay tuned, we will have more to say about this next week).

Similarly, we could explicitly ration quantities (as opposed to implicitly doing it through a large uninsured population). But how could we hope to determine the right level of care? Ultimately, if we ask the government to unilaterally fix this problem, instead of a white stallion we could behold a pale horse and all that it entails.

The good part, perhaps the best part, about the Affordable Care Act is that it attempts to address this problem using market forces. The question is whether we are ready for what these market forces will entail.

We will focus today on the role of market forces in the insurance market to control prices in the newly established ACA exchanges.

This month the Obama administration announced that it would allow insurers to use “reference pricing” for insurance programs in the exchanges. Under a reference pricing system, insurers set the maximum price they will pay for a specific set of services and if patients go to a facility that costs more than that amount they are required to pay the difference.

Continue reading “If We Want Lower Health Care Spending, We Are Going to Have to Pay for It”

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The recent Medicare report on variation in hospital “prices” is not exactly news. In fact, I wonder why anyone (including the NY Times and NPR) covered it, let alone make it a lead story.

As you probably know, Medicare reported that hospital charges for specific treatments, such as joint replacement surgery, greatly vary from one hospital to another. (This includes charges for all services during the hospitalization, including room charges, drugs, tests, therapy visits, etc.) Everyone in the healthcare business knows that charges do not equal the actual prices paid to hospitals, no more than automobile sticker prices equal the prices that car buyers actually pay. Except that for the past thirty years, the gap for hospitals greatly exceeds (in percentage terms) the gap for cars. This is not just a nonstory, it is an old nonstory.

So reporters tried to give it a new spin. One angle concerns the uninsured, who may have to pay full charges. I will write about this in a future blog. Another angle is that by publishing these charges, Medicare will encourage patients to shop around. That is the subject of this blog.

I suppose it is okay to tell patients that the amount they might have to pay out of their own pockets may vary from one hospital to the next. But the published charge data is useless for computing out of pocket payments; in fact, it may be worse than useless. As even the NY Times noted, insured patients make copayments based on prices that their insurers negotiate with hospitals. These prices are essentially uncorrelated with charges. So a patient who visits a hospital with low charges may well make higher out-of-pocket payments than a patient who visits a high charge hospital. It is a crap shoot.

Continue reading “The Rest of the Story About Hospital Pricing”

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If consumers could review and shop for health care coverage as easily as they do television sets, costs would decline and we wouldn’t have as large a health care crisis. At least that’s what some folks would lead us to believe. But the picture isn’t that clear.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal reports how companies are using private health insurance exchanges to lower costs and give employees more flexibility. The exchanges are similar in nature to those mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare)—the difference being a private company is overseeing the exchange and not the federal government or states. Employees are able to log on to a site, review coverage plans with different benefits and a range of deductibles, and choose what works best for their budget.

A consultant running one such exchange was enthusiastic about its progress thus far. “When people are spending their own money, they tend to be more consumeristic,” Ken Sperling, national health exchange strategy leader for Aon Hewitt, a unit of AON Plc, told the Journal. (Aon itself, as well as Sears Holdings Inc. and Darden Restaurants are using a new Aon run exchange.) Benefits consultants Mercer (part of Marsh & McLennan Cos.) and Buck (part of Xerox) are rolling out similar private exchanges.

There’s no doubt that consumers are more astute, on average, regarding price for benefit when directly paying for goods and services.

Continue reading “The Smarter Healthcare Consumer Myth”

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A recent article in Time magazine by Steven Brill, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” is a brilliantly written expose of the excesses and outrages of health care pricing. In reaction to the story, some have suggested the price controls are the appropriate (or the only) way to rectify the situation. A recent story in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, “Steven Brill’s 26,000-word health-care story, in one sentence,” suggests that US health care costs and cost growth are so high because we do not use rate setting, i.e., price controls.

In fact, I think it’s not easy to establish whether that is indeed the case. We don’t get to use randomized controlled trials for health policies or systems, so it’s difficult to figure out how effective a policy like rate setting is. Let me start with some simple examinations of patterns in data to see if something jumps out that strongly supports (or contradicts) the assertion that price controls reduce health care costs.

Continue reading “Are Price Controls the Answer?”

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Paul levy

If there is anything about economics that has been proven over and over, it is that price controls do not work. The unintended consequences are usually worse than the problem that led to the solution in the first place.

Massachusetts legislators, feeling the frustration of higher insurance premiums, are now considering a bill to limit doctor and hospital reimbursement payments to 110% of Medicare rates, or perhaps some other percentage of Medicare rates. The problem with this is that Medicare rates are not fully compensatory to doctors and hospitals and have contributed to the increase in private insurance company rates. This was one of the conclusions reached by the Attorney General in her extensive investigation of these matters. Continue reading “Price Controls Do Not Work”

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