As CEO and Executive Director of The Permanente Medical Group at Kaiser Permanente, I have been following with interest the exchange between Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Brill, prompted by Gladwell’s critique of Brill’s book (America’s Bitter Pill). Gladwell accurately points out that the solution to the problems of the American health care system that Brill puts forth in the book are very close to the structure of Kaiser Permanente. We provide world class hospital and ambulatory care to millions of Americans through our dedicated, physician-led Permanente medical groups, and pay for it through the not-for-profit Kaiser Foundation Health Plan.
Brill dismisses Gladwell’s criticism explaining that “Kaiser Permanente is not the same because it doesn’t have a monopoly, or oligopoly power, in any of its communities. It’s not a teaching hospital. It doesn’t have the network of high-quality doctors, or isn’t perceived to, like New York Presbyterian has in New York or the Cleveland Clinic has in Cleveland.”Continue reading…
Mitt Romney’s/Paul Ryan’s premium support/voucher plan was heavily derided during the dark days of Campaign 2012, but the devil was always more in the details than the theory. While the re-election of President Obama left premium support dead on the Medicare level, health insurers are increasingly turning to the ideas that drove it – choice, competition, and the power of a (carefully regulated) market – to address high costs on the procedural level. Call it the micro-voucherization of health insurance.
This is known by wonks as reference pricing, and its recent results in California are promising: the costs of hip and knee replacements fell by 19%, with no attendant decrease in quality. Using reference pricing is an assault on the status quo that holds the promise of “bending the curve” in a meaningful way, but it faces technical and political concerns that may consign it to the graveyard of promising-but-unfulfilled ideas.
Broadly-speaking, reference pricing is the act of offering a set amount of money for the purchase of a good, where the reference is an amount that can reasonably said to offer meaningful coverage for that good. Sometimes, reference pricing is focused on a given procedure – what I’ll refer to as “inputs-oriented reference pricing”; other times, a given outcome, or “outputs-based reference pricing.”
That’s pretty vague, so let’s use the colonoscopy procedure (which has recently received a lot of attention thanks to an informative New York Timesarticle) to help color this in. The inputs-oriented approach would see the payer asking: given the choice to have a colonoscopy – a procedure which varies wildly in cost without varying wildly in quality – what’s a reasonable price to pay? It would decide this based on some combination of price, quality, and geography, and would inform consumers of its spending cap.
Say it finds that most of its insured population can reasonably access a high-quality colonoscopy for $10,000; if a consumer choose provider that charges $15,000, he or she would pay the $5,000 difference out of pocket. Choice is preserved, but at a cost. The simple chart above shows how this may work.
But, if you read the colonoscopy article, you may be asking a separate question: why pay for a colonoscopy at all?
Recent interest in variability of cost for medical procedures is justified and long overdue. In an article in the New York Times on June 2, 2013, “The $2.7 Trillion Medical Bill,” Elizabeth Rosenthal writes from the point of view of a patient who has received a bill for colonoscopy. She then researches costs of the procedure in a number of markets in the U.S., finding a range of pricing from an average of $1,185 to a high of $8,577. There is an implication within this article that “doctors” are charging these prices. The truth is that physicians are often pawns in much larger negotiations among other entities.
While charges for procedures performed in an office setting or practice-owned ambulatory surgical center (ASC) are largely under the control of physicians, many of the highest prices come from hospital owned facilities — an area that is not at all controlled by physicians.
I called the lead negotiator for payor contracts at my institution and asked him about price variability for colonoscopy. It was clear from my conversation that the current arguments about colonoscopy price variation miss some key components. We need to better explore the true drivers of price variation.Continue reading…
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.
“Just from reading a week’s worth of news, it’s obvious that we don’t really know whether healthcare IT is better or worse off than before [Meaningful Use incentives],” popular blogger and health IT observer Mr. HIStalk wrote earlier this year.
So, perhaps RAND was hypnotized by Cerner funding when they created their rosy prognosis (hearken back, if you will, to 2005 and the projected $81 billion in annual healthcare savings). Maybe they were just plain wrong and the most recent RAND report stands as a tacit mea culpa.
Either way, we’re left with hypotheses that, while not incontrovertible, are gaining traction:
Health IT benefits will manifest gradually over an extended timeframe.
Those benefits will not quickly morph into reduced costs, if they ever do.
Because of 1 and 2, investing in a hugely expensive electronic health record system is potentially risky.
How risky? Without question, massive health IT expense and the predominant proprietary IT model are threats to a hospital or health system’s financial viability, to its solvency.
For a large and growing number of us with meager or no coverage, health care is the ultimate “gotcha.” Events conspire, we receive care and then are on the hook for a car- or house-sized bill. There are few alternatives except going without or going broke.
Steven Brill’s recent Time cover story clearly detailed the predatory health care pricing that has been ruinous for many rank-and-file Americans. In Brill’s report, a key mechanism, the hospital chargemaster, with pricing “devoid of any calculation related to cost,” facilitated US health care’s rise to become the nation’s largest and wealthiest industry. His recommendations, like Medicare for all with price controls, seem sensible and compelling.But efforts to implement Brill’s ideas, on their own, would likely fail, just as many others have, because he does not fully acknowledge the deeper roots of health care’s power.
There’s been a lot of discussion of transparency in health care recently, e.g., a USA Today op-ed and a counterpoint by Paul Ginsburg. The appeal of transparency is obvious. As movingly documented by Steven Brill in Time, prices are high and often differ quite substantially, even across close by providers. However, we don’t know the prices for the health care that we consume, and it’s extremely difficult to find out what these things cost (e.g., this recent study in JAMA).
While the appeal of transparency is obvious, it’s important to realize that buying health care is not like buying milk at the grocery store. A key factor is health insurance. Health insurance is very important — people need to be insured against the catastrophic expenses that can occur with serious illness. Thus people with high health care expenses won’t be exposed to most of those expenses (and shouldn’t) and therefore will have no reason to respond to information about health care prices.
The big news at HIMSS13 was the unveiling of CommonWell (Cerner, McKesson, Allscripts, athenahealth, Greenway and RelayHealth) to “get the ball rolling” on data exchange across disparate technologies. The shame is that another program with opaque governance by the largest incumbents in health IT is being passed off as progress. The missed opportunity is to answer the call for patient engagement and the frustrations of physicians with EHRs and reverse the institutional control over the physician-patient relationship. Physicians take an oath to put their patient’s interest above all others while in reality we are manipulated to participate in massive amounts of unwarranted care.
There’s a link between healthcare costs and health IT. The past months have seen frustration with this manipulation by industry hit the public media like never before. Early this year, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology Farzad Mostashari, MD, called for “moral and right” action on the part of some EHR vendors, particularly when it comes to data lock-in and pricing transparency. On February 19, a front page article in the New York Times exposed the tactics of some of the founding members of CommonWell in grabbing much of the $19 Billion of health IT incentives while consolidating the industry and locking out startups and innovators. That same week, Time magazine’s cover story is a special report on health care costs and analyzes how the US wastes $750 Billion a year and what that means to patients. To round things out, the March issue of Health Affairs, published a survey showing that “the average physician would lose $43,743 over five years” as a result of EHR adoption while the financial benefits go to the vendors and the larger institutions.