The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow this week to nascent efforts to track the quality and cost of health care, ruling that a 1974 law precludes states from requiring that every health care claim involving their residents be submitted to a massive database.
The arguments were arcane, but the effect is clear: We’re a long way off from having a true picture of the country’s health care spending, especially differences in the way hospitals treat patients and doctors practice medicine.
It also means that, for the time being at least, we’ll remain heavily reliant on data being released by Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, to study variations in health care. ProPublica has used Medicare data to study differences in medication prescribing, surgeons’ complication rates and use of services by doctors, but it’s still not clear that Medicare is representative of all health care in the country.
The court’s decision involves a case from Vermont, one of 18 states that created so-called all-payer claims databases. Vermont’s law called for health insurers, health providers, medical facilities and government agencies to report data on health care costs, prices, quality and use of services to the state. That included employers who pay the costs of their workers’ treatments themselves, and not through an insurance contract. (Self insurance is common for large companies.)
But Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. objected, saying the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, or ERISA, prevents states from imposing such a requirement on self-funded plans. The idea is that companies that have operations across the country shouldn’t be subjected to 50 different state laws, but instead should only have to abide by rules from one agency, namely the U.S. Department of Labor.