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Category: Economics

Can Hospitals Survive? Part II

In 1980, while working at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, I wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Health Care Market: Can Hospitals Survive?”. This article, and the book which followed, argued that hospitals faced a tripartite existential threat:

1)  ambulatory technologies that would enable physicians to compete successfully with hospitals at lower cost in their offices or freestanding settings, 2)  post-acute technologies that would enable presently hospitalized patients to be managed at home and 3) rapidly growing managed care plans that would “ration” inpatient care and bargain aggressively to pay less for the care actually provided.

I predicted a significant decline in inpatient care in the future, and urged hospitals to diversify aggressively into ambulatory and post acute services.   Many did so.  A smaller number, led by organizations like Henry Ford Health System of Detroit and Utah’s Intermountain Health Care, also sponsored health insurance plans and became what are called today “Integrated Delivery Networks” (IDN’s).

In the ensuing thirty years, US hospital inpatient census fell more than 30%, despite ninety million more Americans.   However, hospitals’ ambulatory services volume more than tripled, more than offsetting the inpatient losses; the hospital industry’s total revenues grew almost ten fold.

Ironically, this ambulatory care explosion is now the main reason why healthcare in the US costs so much more than in other countries.  We use far fewer days of inpatient care than any other country in the world.  But as the McKinsey Global Institute showed in 2008 ambulatory spending accounts for two thirds of the difference between what the US spends on healthcare and what other countries spend, far outstripping the contribution of higher drug prices or our multi-payer health financing system.

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Checking the ACA’s Vital Signs

Despite pervasive challenges associated with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including the botched launch of HealthCare.gov and the concurrent wave of plan cancellations, the administration remains optimistic about the ACA’s fate.

However, critics of the ACA have seized upon these recent mishaps, particularly President Obama’s pledge that “if you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan,” as evidence of the inevitable demise of the ACA.

In response to this political firestorm, the Obama administration decided to allow insurers to renew plans not complying with ACA regulations, subject to the approval of state health insurance commissioners.

Under the policy announced last November, plans failing to meet ACA standards could be renewed for one year starting as late as Oct. 1, 2014 (and hence could be continued until Oct. 1, 2015).

The extension announced last week allows individuals to keep such plans until Oct. 1, 2017.

Allowing people to keep plans out of compliance with the ACA could deprive the newly-created marketplaces, where lower- to middle-class families can receive subsidies from the government to purchase private individual coverage, of enrollees, particularly the young and healthy enrollees they need to make premiums affordable.

According to ACA critics, meager enrollment of the young and healthy in the marketplaces would lead to a death spiral, a self-reinforcing cycle of premium increases and enrollment declines that could spell doom for the system. Recent data released by the Department of Health and Human Services suggests that enrollment, particularly among young adults, has been lackluster, falling short of Obama administration targets.

Is a death spiral looming?  Our analysis suggests not.

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Misunderstanding Narrow Networks

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Obama advisor Ezekiel Emanuel attempts to ease the minds of millions of Americans who may be selecting narrow network plans in the exchanges.

In defending narrow networks, Emanuel cites the well-known example of Kaiser, which has for decades required enrollees to choose among only Kaiser-owned hospitals and Kaiser-employed physicians.

He goes on to propose some “safeguards” for plans in the exchanges such as mandating that insurers disclose the criteria used to establish their network of providers and requiring that insurers pay for second opinions from elite out-of-network providers.

Perhaps surprisingly given our previous commentary, we agree with the general thrust of Emanuel’s argument, which is that freedom of choice is overrated. And while we do not agree with many of his recommended safeguards, our quarrel today is not with his proposals for even more new rules and regulations.

Rather, our primary quarrel is with the vast majority of the individuals who chose to comment on, and often lash out at, Emanuel’s article. These comments are emblematic of the general misunderstanding of the role of narrow network plans in controlling the future growth of health care expenditures.

In a nutshell, this is the archetypal response against Emmanuel’s claim: “Evil insurers have given us narrow networks. The government must intervene in this bloodthirsty lust for profits. Give us freedom of choice! (And preferably with the government taking over the business of insurance altogether).”

Given previous comments on this site, we suspect that many readers of our blog might share similar sentiments. So we would like to take our readers on a stroll down memory lane to explain how insurers ended up creating networks, and why we are all better off for it.

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The ACO Hypothesis: What We’re Learning

Last month, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reported first-year results from the Medicare Shared Saving Accountable Care Organization Program (MSSP).

As noted in a previous post, shifting to an accountable care model is a long-term, multi-year transition that requires major overhauls to care delivery processes, technology systems, operations, and governance, as well as coordinating efforts with new partners and payers.

Participants in the MSSP program are also taking much more responsibility and risk when it comes to the effectiveness and quality of care delivered.

Given these complexities, it is no surprise that MSSP’s first year results (released January 30, 2014) were mixed. The good news? Of the 114 ACOs in the program, 54 of the ACOs saved money and 29 saved enough money to receive bonus payments.

The 54 ACOs that saved money produced shared net savings of $126 million, while Medicare will see $128 million in total trust fund savings.

At the time, CMS did not provide additional information about the ACOs with savings versus those without.

While a more complete understanding of their characteristics and actions will be necessary to understand what drives ACO success, the recent disclosure of the 29 ACOs that received bonus payments allows us to offer some preliminary interpretations.

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Actually, High-Tech Imaging Can Be High-Value Medicine

Lub-SHHRRR. Lub-SHHRRR. Lub-SHHRRR.

“Can you hear it?” she asked with a smile. The thin, pleasant lady seemed as struck by her murmur as I was. She was calm, perhaps amused by the clumsy second-year medical student listening to her heart.

“Yes, yes I can,” I replied, barely concealing my excitement. We had just learned about the heart sounds in class. This was my first time hearing anything abnormal on a patient, though it was impossible to miss—her heart was practically shouting at me.

Her mitral valve prolapse—a fairly common, benign condition—had progressed into acute mitral regurgitation. She came to the hospital short of breath because her faulty valve was letting blood back up into her lungs.

Though it was certainly frightening, surgery to fix the valve could wait a few weeks. But before doing anything, the surgical team wanted a picture of the blood vessels in her heart.

If the picture showed a blockage, the surgeons would have to perform two procedures: one to fix the blockage, and another to fix her valve. If her vessels were healthy, though, the surgeons could use a simpler approach focused just on her valve.

So she came to the interventional cardiologist who was teaching me for the day. Coronary angiograms are the interventionalists’ bread-and-butter procedure, done routinely to look for blockages and to guide stent placement. They involve snaking a catheter from the groin or arm through major blood vessels and up to the heart.

Under fluoroscopy (like a video X-ray), the cardiologists shoot contrast medium into the arteries, revealing the anatomy in exquisite detail.

The images are recorded electronically and accompanied by the cardiologist’s interpretation for anyone else who opens her medical record.

Though routine, these catheterizations aren’t trivial. Whenever you enter a blood vessel, you introduce the risk of bleeding and infection. Fluoroscopy is radiation, and contrast medium can damage the kidneys. And let’s not forget cost—reimbursing the interventional cardiologist, a radiology technician, and nursing staff costs Medicare almost $3,000 per case.

So I asked the cardiologist if such an invasive approach was really necessary.

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Bigger Hospitals Mean Bigger Hospitals with Higher Prices. Not Better Care.

Hospitals are busily merging with other hospitals and buying up groups of doctors. They claim that size brings efficiency and the opportunity to deliver more “value-based” care — and fewer unnecessary services.

They argue that they have to get bigger to cut waste. What’s the evidence that bigger hospitals offer better value? Not a lot.

If you think of value as some combination of needed services delivered for the right price, large hospitals are no better than small hospitals on both counts.

The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care and other sources have shown time and again that some of the biggest and best-known U.S. hospitals are no less guilty of subjecting patients to useless tests and marginal treatments.

Larger hospitals are also very good at raising prices. In 2010, an analysis for the Massachusetts attorney general found no correlation between price and quality of care.

study published recently in Health Affairs offered similar results for the rest of the country: On average, higher-priced hospitals are bigger, but offer no better quality of care.

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Prices Drop When Health Consumers Shop Around For Healthcare

Here’s a point most of us can agree on. Tackling ballooning health care costs requires more than insurance reform because the charge and cost structure for health services in the U.S. is inconsistent and irrational. The same quality CT scan that costs $500 at one outpatient facility costs $2,000 at a nearby teaching hospital.

Obamacare’s typical high-deductible insurance plans encourage many cost-conscious consumers to shop around for low-ticket items below their deductible — and that is good. However, the bulk of health care spending is attributable to patients who rapidly blow through their deductible, after which they have no incentive to shop for value. Those 5 percent of people — who spend a whopping 50 percent of the nation’s health care dollars — have little incentive to consider price. With the cost of multiple medications, frequent doctors visits, use of specialists and one or more hospitalizations a year, these 5 percent will exceed even the highest deductible in the first few months of each year.

So what might be the single most powerful tool to slow the seemingly intractable yet unsustainable increases in health spending affecting practically every family in America? “Referenced-based” pricing for health services encourages patients — most significantly, those with the highest costs — to act as smart consumers by seeking the most cost-effective care, even after they have exceeded their deductible.

Here’s how it works. Insurance companies or employers set a limit they are willing to pay for a specified service of excellent quality — say, $1,000 for a CT scan — and communicate that reference price clearly to consumers. If patients choose a location where the charge is below the maximum set reimbursement rate, they pay nothing. If they choose a provider where the charge is higher, they pay the difference.

As patient-consumers shop around for the best price and quality services, competition in the market pushes prices down and value up.

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The ACA: When Insurance Isn’t Insurance

We will be blunt. Hidden under the cloak of expanding health insurance, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has fostered a massive subsidization of healthcare goods and services.

These subsidies often have little or anything to do with what economists would consider the “insurance” part of health insurance – providing protection against financial catastrophe.

Perhaps more troubling, if the past is prologue these subsidies will continue to grow, transferring huge amounts of money to politically favored groups and doing very little to decrease aggregate health spending – a presumed goal of health reform.

In order to understand these claims, it is necessary to take a step back and explain why insurance (of any form) is a good thing in the first place. Simply stated, insurance provides individuals with protection against unpredictable financial hardships not of their own making.

Most of us don’t like risk, and therefore we are willing to pay other people to avoid uncertain outcomes. Therefore the benefits of insurance are to protect us from uncertain events.

The key here is the uncertainty. If something is not going to cause financial distress, or the expense is relatively predictable, then, by definition, the service is not insurable. A health plan could cover the service, but that is a subsidy, i.e. other people in the insurance pool or an outside actor such as the government are simply paying for your service. It is not insurance.

Sadly, most of the discussion around what constitutes “real” health insurance under the ACA bears only a passing resemblance to the protection against financial risk that is the hallmark of insurance. For example, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said: “Some of these folks have very high catastrophic plans that don’t pay for anything unless you get hit by a bus … They’re really mortgage protection, not health insurance.”

What does Secretary Sebelius think insurance is? We don’t expect auto insurance to pay for our gasoline.

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How Health Plan Risk Adjustment Models May Change Under the ACA

Risk adjustment is a key mechanism to ensuring appropriate payments for Medicare Advantage plans, Medicare Part D drug plans, and Medicaid health plans.  Since health plans vary in their mix of healthy and sick enrollees, risk adjustment modifies premium payments to better reflect the projected costs of members served and compensate plans that enroll high-cost patients.

Historically, risk adjustment was only used in Medicaid and Medicare – in effect, redistributing some revenue from health or drug plans with a relatively healthier mix of members to those plans with a more costly enrollment profile.  However, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) extends risk adjustment to the individual and small group health insurance markets starting in 2014.

A new brief from The Synthesis Project tackles the issue and makes several interesting recommendations for how to improve risk adjustment methods for the post-ACA market. Without accurate risk adjustment, health plans have a strong financial incentive to seek out only the healthiest enrollees, especially under ACA-mandated adjusted community rating.  Under adjusted community rating, health plans may not vary premiums based on health status or sex and are limited in how much they may vary premiums based on age.  Under ACA, the healthy, the young, and men subsidize the health costs of the unhealthy, the older, and women.

Risk adjustment is therefore a necessary factor in stabilizing the dramatically new post-ACA health insurance marketplace, particularly the new Health Insurance Exchanges.  Even then, the ACA is a giant game of musical chairs.  The market under ACA will be chaotic and challenging, with a mix of winners and losers once the music stops and the dust settles, which will take at least three to five years.

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Is Obamacare Responsible For the Recent Slowdown in Health Care Costs?

That is what we have been told the Obama administration will claim today as they begin the job of reselling Obamacare.

Is Obamacare even partly responsible for the slowdown in health care costs?

That is silly.

First, Obamacare is not a health care reform law; it is a health insurance reform law. No one on either side of the debate has ever argued anything different.

Does the law have some limited cost containment features in it?

Yes. But these are either pilot projects or are years from being fully implemented.

I have heard the argument that the Medicare cuts that were made to help pay for the program are examples of cost containment efforts that are having a short-term impact on controlling costs. The Democrats need to be careful with this one. I recall their countering Republican “Mediscare” claims by saying the Medicare cuts were not significant.

In a letter last year accompanying the Medicare Trustee’s report, the Medicare actuary said, “The [Obamacare Medicare cuts] will affect Medicare price levels more gradually, but a strong likelihood exists that, without very substantial transformational changes in health care practices, payment rates would become inadequate in the long range.”

Translated: The Obama Medicare provider cuts are not having a big impact in the short-run but will be unsustainable over the longer-term.

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