PAYERS/HOSPITALS: The CalPERS and Sutter Saga Continues, by MATT QUINN

According to an article in the SF Chronicle, the epic battle over hospital charges between CalPERS and Sutter, the state’s largest purchaser of health care and the biggest hospital chain in Northern California, respectively, is a conflict that demonstrates the major power shift that has taken place between those who pay for health care and those who provide it.

While in the past large purchasers held much clout in negotiating rates, even the largest have been unable to control costs. Despite reducing the number of HMOs it offers from 14 in 1997 to three,CalPERS’ HMO premiums have still increased 57 percent during the past three years: “The pension fund’s wrath used to be directed at health insurers. Now it has turned toward doctors and hospitals -and most specifically Sutter Health.” It doesn’t help that Sutter (CalPERS claims) has rates 60-80% higher than comparable hospitals.

But even Sean Harrigan, the president of CalPERS’ 13-member board, CalPERS admits that – in the world after managed care – it has far less “hand” to negotiate successfully:

    “We really don’t have the kind of bargaining clout we once enjoyed…There’s been so much consolidation on the provider side, especially among hospitals, that they are in many cases an oligopoly…They believe they don’t have to seriously bargain over price.”

And hospital leaders, in retribution for the tactics that big payers used in the past, aren’t planning to slow the rising cost of care:

    “Any schoolyard bully knows if you push somebody hard enough, they’re going to go pump iron and come back and deck ’em.”

So where does this leave employers who provide health coverage for their employees? In my guess, paying double digit annual premium increases indefinitely… until the system breaks and/or until consumers revolt as a result of their employers shifting a greater and greater share of expenses (in exchange for less and less coverage) to them.

Quick PS from Matthew: In 1994 (!) Ellen Morrison at IFTF and I had a big argument about whether payers would win out in this struggle or whether providers would face them down. Ignoring my clearly reasononed logic Ellen wrote a report called The Consolidation of Providers in the Six Americas which essentially forecast that provder consolidation would at least equal the power of managed care and purchasers within 5-7 years. Of course she was right and we’re dealing with the failure of the last decade of purchaser “power”.

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