Far more attention has been devoted to the ways in which
industry consolidation has driven up health costs than to proposals on how to
remedy the situation. But the introduction of Medicare for All and Medicare for
More bills—however dim their short-term prospects are—has changed the terms of
the debate. It is time to think about how we can eliminate the market power of health
systems without causing harmful dislocations in health care and the economy.
Before we get to that, here are the main facts about
consolidation: As a handful of health insurers have become dominant in many
markets, health systems have done likewise in order to maintain or improve
their negotiating positions. That has proved to be an effective strategy in
many cases. Even dominant health plans cannot do without the largest hospital
systems in their areas, especially when they employ many of the local
According to a Kaufman Hall report, 90 hospital and health system deals were publicly announced in 2018. This was a decline from the 115 deals unveiled in 2017, but the average size in the revenue of sellers hit a high of $409 million.
The biggest provider mergers are staggering in scale. In February 2019, for example, Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health formed a new organization called CommonSpirit Health, which has 142 hospitals, 150,000 employees and nearly $30 billion in revenues. The union of Chicago-based Advocate Health Care and Wisconsin’s Aurora Health Care in April 2018 created a giant with 27 hospitals and $11 billion in revenues. A month later, Atrium Health (formerly Carolinas Healthcare System) joined with Wake Forest Baptist Health to form a system with 49 hospitals and combined revenues of $7.5 billion.
Within the ever-widening array of Democratic contenders for the Presidency, the “Medicare-for-all” debate continues to simmer. It was only six weeks ago that Kamala Harris’s vocal support drew fire from not one, but two billionaire political rivals. Michael Bloomberg, looking for support in New Hampshire declared, “I think we could never afford that. We are talking about trillions of dollars… [that] would bankrupt us for a long time.” Fellow billionaire candidate Howard Schultz added, “That’s not correct. That’s not American.”
Remarkably, neither man made the connection between large-scale health reform’s potential savings (pegged to save 15% of our $4 trillion annual spend according to health economists) and the thoughtful application of these newly captured resources to all U.S. citizens without discrimination. Bloomberg’s own 2017 Health System Efficiency Ratings listed the U.S. 50th out of 55, trailed only by Jordan, Columbia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Russia. Yet he seemed unable to connect addressing waste with future affordability.
Schultz was similarly short sighted. While acknowledging that the
manmade opioid epidemic, mental health crises, and income inequality are
“systemic problems” and at levels “the likes of which we have not had in a long
time”, he failed to connect the cause (a remarkable dysfunctional and
inequitable health care system) with these effects.
As I outline in “Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex” (Grove Atlantic/ June 4, 2019), today’s greatest risk to continued progress and movement toward universal coverage and rational health planning is sloppy nomenclature. To avoid talking past each other, we need to define the terms of this debate while agreeing on common end points.
Jeanette Brown had lost twenty pounds, and she was worried.
“I’m not trying,” she told me at her regular diabetes visit as I pored over her lab results. What I saw sent a chill down my spine:
A normal weight, diet controlled diabetic for many years, her glycosylated hemoglobin had jumped from 6.9 to 9.3 in three months while losing that much weight.
That is exactly what happened to my mother some years ago, before she was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that took her life in less than two years.
Jeanette had a normal physical exam and all her bloodwork except for the sugar numbers was fine. Her review of systems was quite unremarkable as well, maybe a little fatigue.
“When people lose this much weight without trying, we usually do tests to rule out cancer, even if there’s no specific symptom to suggest that,” I explained. “In your case, being a former smoker, we need to check your lungs with a CT scan, and because of your Hepatitis C, even though your liver ultrasounds have been normal, we need a CT of your abdomen.”
The official 2017 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are out, and there are some good news: The annual growth rate of health care spending is slowing down, and is the lowest since 2013 at 3.9%—it was 4.3% for 2016 and 5.8% for 2015. The bad news is that our health care cost increases are still well above inflation, and that we spent $3.5 trillion in this area, or 17.9% of GDP. Americans spent $10,739 on health care in 2017, more than twice as much as of our direct economic competitors: This per capita health care spending was $4,700 in Japan; $5,700 in Germany; $4,900 in France; $4,200 in the U.K.; $4,800 in Canada; and an average of $5,300 for a dozen such wealthy countries, according to the Peterson -Kaiser health system tracker from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and OECD data. Spending almost a fifth of our GDP on health care, compared to 9-11% for other large developed economies (and much less in China), is like having a chain tied to our ankles when it comes to our economic competitiveness.
Could 2019 be the year when our health care spending actually decreases, or at least grows at a slower pace than inflation? Or will we see instead an uptick in costs for health care consumers?
To answer these questions, we need to look in more detail at the largest areas of health care spending in America, and at the recent but also longer term spending trends in these areas. Using the annual statistics from the DHHS, we can compare the growth in spending in half a dozen critical health care categories with the growth in total spending, and this for the last three years as well as the last decade. Over the last decade, since 2007, these costs grew 52% in aggregate (from $2.3T to $3.5T) and 41% per capita (from $7,630 to $10,740).
The message comes in over the office slack line at 1:05 pm. There are four patients in rooms, one new, 3 patients in the waiting room. Really, not an ideal time to deal with this particular message.
“Kathy the home care nurse for Mrs. C called and said her weight yesterday was 185, today it is 194, she has +4 pitting edema, heart rate 120, BP 140/70 standing, 120/64 sitting”
I know Mrs. C well. She has severe COPD from smoking for 45 of the last 55 years. Every breath looks like an effort because it is. The worst part of it all is that Mrs. C just returned home from the hospital just days ago.
A Trump administration regulation issued just hours before the partial federal shutdown offers quiet hope for civility in government.
What happened, on its face, was simple: an update of the rules governing a particular Medicare program. In today’s dyspeptic political climate, however, what didn’t happen along the way was truly remarkable – and may even offer some lessons for surviving the roller-coaster year ahead.
A regulatory process directly connected to Obamacare and billions in federal spending played out with ideological rhetoric completely absent. And while there were fervid objections to the draft rule from those affected, the final version reflected something that used to be commonplace: compromise.
Think of it as Survivor being replaced by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Or, perhaps, a small opening in the wall of partisan conflict.
More on that in a moment. First, let’s briefly examine the specifics.
On the morning of December 21, I opened my copy of the New York Times to find an op-ed that said almost exactly what I had said in a two-part article The Health Care Blog posted two weeks earlier. The op-ed criticized the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), one of dozens of “value-based payment” programs imposed on the Medicare fee-for-service program by the Affordable Care Act. The HRRP punishes hospitals if their rate of readmissions within 30 days following discharge exceeds the national average. The subtitle of the op-ed was, “A well-intentioned program created by the Affordable Care Act may have led to patient deaths.”
The first half of the op-ed made three points: (1) The HRRP appears to have reduced readmissions by raising the rate of observation stays and visits to emergency rooms; (2) the penalties imposed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for “excessive readmissions” have fallen disproportionately on “safety net hospitals with limited resources”; and (3) “there is growing evidence that … death rates may be rising.”
That’s exactly what I said in articles published here on December 6 and December 7. In Part I, I described the cavalier manner in which the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) endorsed the HRRP in its June 2007 report to Congress. In Part II, I criticized the methodology MedPAC used to defend the HRRP in its June 2018 report to Congress, and I compared that report to an excellent study of the HRRP published in JAMA Cardiology by Ankur Gupta et al. which suggested the HRRP is raising mortality rates. In its June 2018 report, MedPAC had claimed the HRRP has reduced the rate at which patients targeted by the HRRP were readmitted within 30 days after discharge without increasing mortality. Gupta et al., on the other hand, found that for one group of targeted patients – those with congestive heart failure (CHF) – mortality went up as 30-day readmissions went down.
Fueled by Americans’ urgent need for better chronic disease care and insurers’ march from fee-for-service to value-based payments, innovation in population health management is accelerating across the health care industry. But it’s hardly new, and CareMore Health, a recent acquisition of publicly-traded insurer Anthem, has been on the vanguard of the trend for over twenty years.
CareMore Health provides coordinated, interdisciplinary care to high-need patients referred by primary care physicians in nine states and Washington, D.C. The care encompasses individualized prevention and chronic disease management services and coaching, provided on an outpatient basis at CareMore’s Care Clinics. It also includes oversight of episodic acute care, via CareMore “extensivists” and case managers who ensure effective coordination across providers and care sites before, during and after patient hospitalizations.
The majority of CareMore patients are covered by Medicare Advantage or Medicaid, and company-reported results, as well as a Commonwealth Fund analysis, indicate that the patient-centered, relationship-based model leads to fewer emergency room visits, specialist visits and hospitalizations for segments of the covered population. They also suggest that it leads to cost efficiencies relative to comparable plans in its markets of operation.
Leaders in hospitals and health systems as well as post-acute care providers such as skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) and Home Health Care (HHC) agencies operate in a complex environment. Currently, the health care reimbursement environment is largely dominated by fee-for-service models. However, acute and post-acute leaders must increasingly position their organizations to prepare for, and participate in, evolving value-based care programs—without losing sight of the current fee-for-service reimbursement structure.
With that said, the call to action for acute and post-acute providers working at both ends of the reimbursement spectrum is real. The time is now to innovate, test and adopt new post-acute care models to support each patient’s transition from hospital to post-acute settings, and eventually home to enable a better care experience for patients and their care teams.
This is especially relevant for Skilled Nursing Facilities (SNFs) and chains that meet the current Medicare requirements for Part A coverage. Increasingly, the SNF industry is under pressure from the Medicare program to improve coordination and outcomes. Medicare’s hospital readmission policy and value-based purchasing program (VBP), bundled payments, and ACOs encourage SNFs, and other post-acute settings, to avoid readmissions. In addition, earlier this year, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized a new patient-driven payment model (PDPM) for SNFs, which will go into effect on October 1, 2019. The overhaul of the entire system will require significant staff focus and operational changes.
The Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), one of numerous pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes authorized by the Affordable Care Act, was sprung on the Medicare fee-for-service population on October 1, 2012 without being pre-tested and with no other evidence indicating what it is hospitals are supposed to do to reduce readmissions. Research on the impact of the HRRP conducted since 2012 is limited even at this late date , but the research suggests the HRRP has harmed patients, especially those with congestive heart failure (CHF) (CHF, heart attack, and pneumonia were the first three conditions covered by the HRRP). The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) disagrees. MedPAC would have us believe the HRRP has done what MedPAC hoped it would do when they recommended it in their June 2007 report to Congress (see discussion of that report in Part I of this two-part series). In Chapter 1 of their June 2018 report to Congress, MedPAC claimed the HRRP has reduced 30-day readmissions of targeted patients without raising the mortality rate.
MedPAC is almost certainly wrong about that. What is indisputable is that MedPAC’s defense of the HRRP in that report was inexcusably sloppy and, therefore, not credible. To illustrate what is wrong with the MedPAC study, I will compare it with an excellent study published by Ankur Gupta et al. in JAMA Cardiology in November 2017. Like MedPAC, Gupta et al. reported that 30-day CHF readmission rates dropped after the HRRP went into effect. Unlike MedPAC, Gupta et al. reported an increase in mortality rates among CHF patients. 
We will see that the study by Gupta et al. is more credible than MedPAC’s for several reasons, the most important of which are: (1) Gupta et al. separated in-patient from post-discharge mortality, while MedPAC collapsed those two measures into one, thus disguising any increase in mortality during the 30 days after discharge; (2) Gupta et al.’s method of controlling for differences in patient health was superior to MedPAC’s because they used medical records data plus claims data, while MedPAC used only claims data.
I will discuss as well research demonstrating that readmission rates have not fallen when the increase in observation stays and readmissions following observations stays are taken into account, and that some hospitals are more willing to substitute observation stays for admissions than others and thereby escape the HRRP penalties.
All this research taken together indicates the HRRP has given CHF patients the worst of all worlds: No reduction in readmissions but an increase in mortality, and possibly higher out-of-pocket costs for those who should have been admitted but were assigned to observation status instead.