Last week, I noted the significant differences between Paul Ryan’s proposals, from his 2012 budget to Ryan-Wyden to his 2013 budget. I also noted that while it would be tempting to campaign against the 2012 budget, which massively shifted costs onto seniors, his later proposals did that to a far lesser extent.
Or did they?
Governor Romney has endorsed Paul Ryan’s latest plan, which is specific in that it will reduce future Medicare spending by unleashing the power of the free market through competitive bidding. But what if that doesn’t happen? Well, just like the ACA, his law backstops the growth of Medicare spending at GDP + 0.5%.
The ACA is explicit about what will happens if growth goes above that amount. The IPAB will make recommendations on how to cut it. Congress will have to override those recommendations to stop them, and have their own ideas that save just as much. It’s likely those recommendations would involve reducing provider payments. But it’s the hope of those who support the ACA that other provider-based changes, like ACO’s and the excise tax, will keep the IPAB from having to act.
Someone once showed me an analysis that demonstrated that the sum of workers’ salaries and benefits has stayed remarkably constant in real terms over the last two decades. This means that companies have compensated for the increasing cost of health insurance over time by holding back on wage increases.
You can understand this. After all, if companies are not able to increase the price of goods and services they sell to the public, they need to hold factor costs relatively constant. So if it was costing them more and more to provide health insurance to their workers, an offsetting amount would have to be removed from possible wage increases.
This dynamic is still in place, but it is showing up in a different way, by shifting costs to workers in the form of higher deductible health insurance policies. Deductibles are different from co-pays, where you plunk down $15 or $20 for each appointment or prescription. With deductibles, you pay the first costs incurred as you and your family make use of the health care system, the entire cost of the office visit or of the prescription, until a preset amount is reached. After that level is reached, you still pay the co-pays. A recent story in the Washington Post documented this trend.
Currently, this kind of high-deductible policy is often combined with health saving accounts that are funded by the employer. These accounts let patients buy medical services and drugs with pretax dollars. So, although your insurance plan might require you to pay more of a deductible out of your own money, you could still use the HSA to cover those out-of-pocket expenses.
Why “half the cost?” How? Most important, what does it mean for hospitals and health systems? Here’s the argument, and some of the implications.
In 1980, health care in the United States took no more of a bite out of the economy than it did in any other developed country. Then we instituted cost controls. By 2000, U.S. health care cost twice as much as everyone else’s. By 2020 or 2025, we may be back to costing the same as any other country — half the current cost in GDP.
Historical charts of the comparative cost of health care in different countries show a startling and obvious pattern. The trend lines of the leading economies form a fairly tight pack, drifting slowly upward from around 5 percent of GDP in 1960 to 8 percent to 10 percent in recent years — except for one. Around 1980, the U.S. trend line sharply breaks from the pack, and quickly establishes itself at half again as much as most other leading economies, then twice as much.
This happened over the very period that Medicare, followed by private health plans, instituted increasingly stringent and widespread unit cost controls.
I draw two conclusions from this: The notion that U.S. health care must cost twice as much as everyone else’s is not exactly the law of gravity. And there is no evidence that unit cost controls actually control system costs. In fact, through a series of complex feedback mechanisms, it may well be that controlling unit costs pushes up system costs, as members of the system find ways to increase their prices and the numbers and acuity of their utilization patterns despite the caps on reimbursements for individual items.
This blog continues my exploration of the great mysteries of health economics.
Northwestern University is one of Blue Cross of Illinois’ largest customers. Suppose that premiums for all BC plans are expected to increase by 10 percent, but NU is able to force Blue Cross to accept a 5 percent increase. Would you expect Blue Cross stick McDonalds with a 15 percent increase in order to cover the shortfall from NU?
I wouldn’t, for two reasons. First, McDonalds would probably threaten to take its insurance business elsewhere. Second, the scenario I have described is inconsistent with profit maximization by Blue Cross. After all, BC’s ability to stick McDonalds with a 15 percent increase surely does not depend on the price paid by NU. Any negotiator whose willingness to stick it to McDonalds is conditional on the price charged to NU is leaving money on the table and probably would have been fired a long time ago.
We might never expect BC to raise prices to some customers to make up for shortfalls from others, so why do we believe that hospitals do this all the time? It is impossible to discuss Medicare and Medicaid payments without someone invoking the mantra of cost-shifting. The theory of cost-shifting is deeply ingrained in the minds of healthcare decision makers and the policy implications of the theory are profound. Consider that if hospitals cost shift, then the burden of Medicaid cutbacks falls on privately insured patients, not on Medicaid patients and the hospitals that serve them. This calls into question whether the cutbacks will result in any savings for taxpayers and cause any harm to Medicaid beneficiaries. It also makes you wonder why hospitals that serve low income communities struggle to survive. Couldn’t they just cost-shift their way out of financial difficulty? A cost-shifting zealot would conclude that the managers of these hospitals are incompetent.Continue reading…
Almost half of health plans in the US have deductibles of at least $1,000 according to a new study. It’s called “cost shifting” and it’s a big part of the future of American health care.
There are two major reasons why employers are doing this.
First, higher deductible plans are cheaper, since there is less risk to insure. Think of your car insurance – why would you make a claim for a ding on your door when it’s cheaper for you to just pay to have it fixed (or fix it yourself)? The higher the deductible, the lower the premium, even if it means more out-of-pocket cost for you for the small stuff.
Along these same lines is the second reason. If employees spend more of their own money on health care, maybe they’ll be smarter about how they spend it.
It sounds good – but does it work?
Yes. And No.
Studies show that consumers in high-deductible health plans do spend less than those in traditional plans. But, they spent less in some worrisome ways:
Childhood vaccination rates dropped. . .Rates of mammography, cervical cancer screening, and colorectal cancer screening also fell among those with high-deductible health plans relative to those in traditional plans. . . . even though high-deductible plans waive the deductible for such preventative care.
As another study put it: “Deductibles can create powerful yet potentially indiscriminate and blunt incentives for consumers to alter their care-seeking behavior.”
Of course, this is a complicated way of saying higher deductibles work, and are smart choices for employees and their employers. But the research tells us they aren’t enough.
There is a pervasive notion that providers of health care can make up for lower payments received from one set of payers (e.g. Medicare, Medicaid, uncompensated care) by increasing prices charged to other payers (e.g. private insurance companies). To the extent it occurs cost shifting offsets attempts to control overall health care costs through reduced fees paid by public insurers. It makes “bending the cost curve” harder.
However, it is a myth that providers can fully shift costs. That they could do so violates, in most cases, principles of economics. Moreover, empirical evidence suggests cost shifting, where it occurs, is done so a minimal level: only a small fraction of decreased payments by public payers shows up as an increase in charges to private payers. Losses associated with one payer are largely not recouped from another.
Some take price discrimination as evidence of cost shifting. However, price differentials are not necessarily the recouping of losses from one payer by overcharging another. As described in the 2001 Health Affairs paper by Richard Frank “Prescription Drug Prices: Why Do Some Pay More Than Others Do?” price discrimination can be due to unequal bargaining power across classes of purchasers. In other words, in maximizing profits, providers charge different prices to different market segments. In such cases, by definition, profits cannot be further increased by cost shifting.
It’s true that cost shifting could theoretically occur under specific conditions. One case is when a provider has monopoly power that it has not fully exploited, for instance charging private insurers less than it could. More fully exploiting its monopoly power with respect to those payers, such a provider can recoup losses. Still, there is a limit to how much of the lost revenue can be recouped. The monopoly profit-maximizing price level imposes a ceiling.
Another instance in which cost shifting could occur is in a more competitive market in which all providers have roughly the same level of undercompensated care. All competitors in such a market might choose to increase charges to private insurers by the same amount, maintaining their relative competitive positions. However, if one competitor elects to reduce costs or reduce its burden of undercompensated care, it might be able to charge private insurers less then others, thereby increasing its market share. So, cost shifting may not be a stable equilibrium.
The literature provides estimates of the extent of cost shifting in cases where it is theoretically possible. The March 2009 MedPAC Report to Congress: Medicare Payment Policy (Chapter 2A) includes a summary of such evidence. It concludes that the dominant dynamic in the market is that hospitals with strong market power have abundant financial resources. In turn they have a high cost structure (perhaps due to provision of relatively higher quality care) that causes lower or negative Medicare margins. In contrast, hospitals that are forced to run efficiently are adequately funded by Medicare payments. That is, Medicare payments are sufficient to cover costs but some hospitals run inefficiently and make it appear otherwise. Therefore, MedPAC has concluded that increased Medicare payments to hospitals would not reduce rates charged to private insurers. The primary effect would be to induce lower cost operations.
The MedPAC report cites mixed evidence from the literature on the level of cost shifting, as does the December 2008 CBO report Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals. A few studies from the 1980s found evidence of cost shifting at a rate of up to fifty cents on the dollar. However, conditions in the 1990s were less conducive to cost shifting and the rates were found to be on the order of a 0.4 to 1.7 percent increase in private payments in response to a 10 percent reduction in Medicare and Medicaid fees. In a 2005 study of geographic variation in health costs of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, the GAO concluded that the considerable variation it found was not due to variations in payments from other payers.
In conclusion, cost shifting is not as large and widespread a phenomenon as some would believe. Under some market conditions it is inconsistent with economic theory. And, while it can occur under other market conditions it is far from a dollar-for-dollar shift in costs. The most recent studies of the phenomenon find little evidence of cost shifting or very low levels of it. Claims that reductions in public payments for health care will necessarily show up as commensurate increases in private payments are unfounded.
Austin Frakt blogs at The Incidental Economist and is a health economist and principal investigator with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Health Services Research and Development Service and assistant professor with the Boston University School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Management. The views expressed in this post are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Boston University or the Department of Veterans Affairs.