Last week I attended a conference on health policy at the University of Chicago, where I moderated a panel that examined implementation of the Affordable Care Act. For much of our time, the panel focused on Accountable Care Organizations. Panelists and attendees wondered whether ACOs would meet the same fate as Integrated Delivery Systems of the 1990s. Some in the audience mentioned that when it comes to integration, electronic medical records could be a game changer. EMRs could be used to monitor and reward cost saving decision making, for example. But most ACOs are still figuring out how to use EMRs for clinical decision making; their use in helping managerial decision making remains far off.
As more and more speakers expressed skepticism about the future of ACOs, a physician in the audience offered a truly fresh perspective, one that makes me feel much more optimistic. I never learned this physician’s name, so I will call him Dr. Yes. Before I summarize Dr. Yes’ argument, it is helpful to turn back the clock to the late 1990s, when IDSs were taking the health industry by storm. Perhaps the defining feature of IDSs in the 1990s was the integration of hospitals and primary care physician practices. This strategy failed in large part due to classic agency problems. In a nutshell, an agency relationship can fail because of incentive problems (the principal is unable to effectively motivate the agent) or selection problems (the principal employs the wrong type of agent.) IDSs suffered both. When hospitals acquired physician practices, they converted entrepreneurs into employees who resisted any kind of incentive payments. As employees, primary care physicians did not work as hard or show as much commitment to their practices. Moreover, those physicians most eager to give up their autonomy were those looking to dial down their practices and lead the “quiet life.” In these ways, IDSs experienced both incentive and selection problems, with devastating results.
In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal Op-Ed pages, physicians from Harvard and University Pennsylvania Medical Schools criticize subsidies for expanding the use of health information technology (HIT). The physicians cite a recent review article that failed to find consistent evidence of cost savings associated with HIT adoption. If true, this is bad news for the health economy, as supporters claim that HIT could cut health spending by as much as $1 trillion over the next decade.
How can something that is so avidly supported by most health policy analysts have such a poor track record in practice? In a new NBER working paper by myself, Avi Goldfarb, Chris Forman, and Shane Greenstein, we label this the “Trillion Dollar Conundrum.” One explanation may be that most HIT studies examine basic technologies such as clinical data repositories, while most of the buzz about HIT focuses on advanced technologies such as Computerized Physician Order Entry. In our paper, we offer a rather different explanation for the conundrum, one that would have eluded physicians and other health services researchers who failed to consider the management side of HIT.
My coauthors on this paper are experts on business information technology. They are not health services researchers. When I approached them to work on this topic, they insisted on viewing HIT much as one would view any business process innovation. As I have learned, this is by far the best way to study most any issue in healthcare management. Those who advocate that “healthcare is unique” – usually by ignoring broadly applicable theories and methodologies—often strain to explain data that are easily understood using more general frameworks. Such is the case with HIT.
It was the worst of systems. It was the worst of systems.
For decades, policy analysts have debated how we to strike a proper balance among access, quality and cost in our healthcare system. This debate has missed a crucial point: we do not have one healthcare system, we have two. And both are broken. Fortunately, if we fix one the other may heal itself.
The first system is the one that we encounter when we seek treatment for an illness. This system defines how much we pay out of pocket, which depends which providers we seek and what treatments they deliver. This system also defines how much our providers are paid, including rewards for exceptional quality and penalties for substandard quality. Historically, patients have relied on their physicians to guide them through the complexities of this system. In recent years, supporters of consumer-driven healthcare have argued for a bigger role for patients. They make the important point that patients will never make a serious effort to balance access and quality against cost unless they are responsible for all three.
In 1932, the Committee on the Cost of Medical Care identified rising medical costs as a threat to the financial security of millions of Americans. In a series of studies that created the field of health services research, the Committee recommended several strategies for cost containment that reads like a blueprint for today’s cost containment efforts: prevention, price controls, capitation, elimination of unnecessary care, and integration. If it sounds like a précis of my previous two blogs – cut prices and cut quantities – it should. We have known for a long time that those are the only ways to cut spending. And yet here we are, 80 years later, facing a spending crisis that threatens to take down the entire economy.
In my lifetime, we have been subjected to a steady drumbeat of rising medical costs. There have been respites – for a couple of years after Medicare introduced DRGs and for about five years in the 1990s during the heyday of HMOs. While DRGs and HMOs shifted costs down, they did not seem to reverse underlying growth trends, although HMOs did not thrive for long enough to be certain.
Not for lack of trying have medical costs continued to increase. We promote prevention, regulate prices, capitate providers, and review utilization to eliminate wasteful spending. We have seen horizontal integration that led to market power and higher costs, and vertical integration that more often than not created unmanageable bureaucracies. Most of today’s proposals for cost containment can be encapsulated by two words: “Try harder.” The Affordable Care Act gives us free preventive care, stricter price controls, ACOs, and the Comparative Effectiveness Institute. We need radical change but all we get is creeping incrementalism. I will take creeping incrementalism over the do-nothing approach of the previous decade, if only because we could use another respite. But the ACA is no permanent fix.
In a recent column, Clarence Page ridiculed Republicans who claim that they want healthcare reform but oppose programs that dramatically reduce the number of uninsured. Republicans counter that the PPACA is not true reform because it fails to contain costs. It seems that our political commentators have finally joined a long standing debate among health policy experts. More precisely, they have joined two-thirds of that debate.
The healthcare system is often described as a three-legged stool, supported by access, cost, and quality. Policy makers have usually paid attention to the most “rickety” leg, sometimes to the detriment of the others. During the 1960s and 1970s, access was the biggest problem, and government gave us Medicare, Medicaid, and the community health center movement. These programs triggered a surge in healthcare spending, and by the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, the emphasis shifted to cost containment. When government price controls and planning laws failed, the private sector stepped in with a “competitive” solution based on HMOs and selective contracting.
I am coauthoring (with Cory Capps) a chapter on healthcare antitrust for the forthcoming International Handbook of Antitrust Economics. As we finish our first draft, we were searching for a good way to tie everything together. We both thought of concluding by discussing antitrust and ACOs. Cory and I believe that the underappreciated (and often excruciatingly boring) topic of antitrust is fully interwoven with the story of ACOs. And even if the Supreme Court strikes down the ACA (note to readers of my prior blog – I was just kidding), ACOs may endure. So this is as good a time as any to explain the connections between antitrust and ACOs.
I first recognized this connection twenty years ago, when my colleague Steve Shortell was touting the growth of integrated delivery systems. Steve even offered a universal health insurance proposal (which several states explored) built around competing IDSs. In Steve’s world, an IDS would consist of several hospitals and hundreds of physicians. I argued with Steve that economic theory provided little support for massive vertical integration (and theory is still not all that kind to the idea.) I granted Steve that if integration made theoretical sense, integration would be all well and good for Chicago, where there might be four or five competing IDS. But what about Milwaukee, Cleveland, or any number of other midsize metropolitan areas? They would do well to have two or three IDS. Indeed, even with a legislative mandate to form IDS, consolidation has left these and other midsize markets with just two or three health systems. Smaller metro areas might have only had one IDS.
The New York Times and other media outlets are trumpeting a new GAO report that blasts an ongoing $8 billion Medicare demonstration project. CMS has put the money towards a new pay-for-performance scheme for Medicare Advantage plans. The media have focused their attention on part of the GAO study describing how most of the money will go to average performing plans (those receiving as few as three “stars” out of a possible five), with 90 percent of plans receiving some sort of bonus.
If that were the gist of the GAO complaint, then the GAO would have been the ones guilty of wasting taxpayer money for writing a useless report. But the key elements of the GAO report pertain to a different matter: will the demonstration allow CMS to determine whether the new pay-for-performance scheme is superior to the existing scheme? Here the GAO report gets bogged down in the details of research methodology. The media understandably got lost in this discussion and have given this part of the report short shrift. As a result, I expect politicians to blast CMS for “giving $8 billion to bad health plans” and other stuff of nonsense.
Let me explain why it is pointless to focus on how the money is distributed among Medicare Advantage plans. The purpose of any pay-for-performance scheme is to provide incentives for improving quality. (A scheme that rewards the best plans but does nothing to alter the status quo really is a waste of money.) Some of the comments by the GAO and aped by the media would have you believe that the best way to improve quality is to reward the top achievers. Tell this to parents of a D student who would be grateful to see their child get C’s. Should they tell their child “we will take you on a nice vacation but only if you get all A’s?” Talk about killing motivation.
Many opponents of Obamacare claim that large employers will drop employee health coverage in droves. The Wall Street Journal has made this argument a centerpiece of its opposition to the health exchanges. The argument has some face validity – employers that drop coverage can save about $10,000 per employee in insurance costs but only have to pay fines of $2000 per employee. What employer would not want to save $8000 per employee?
Supporters of Obamacare argue that if employers do not pay for insurance, they will have to increase wages. This will temper the incentives of employers to drop coverage. This follows from a classic model in labor economics that says that employers have to give workers a competitive wage/benefits bundle, and that the mix of wages and benefits is largely fungible. Thus, if benefits fall by $10,000, wages will increase by about the same amount. The theory is well accepted.
While it has been difficult to construct empirical tests of this theory, the available evidence is largely supportive (though the evidence of 1:1 fungibility is less compelling than the evidence of some degree of fungibility.) This may explain why the Congressional Budget Office predicts that only a few million workers will lose their employer sponsored coverage and get pushed onto the exchange. Even so, the Wall Street Journal and others have dismissed this theory and evidence, arguing that employers who drop coverage will pocket the full savings and therefore than tens of millions of workers will be affected.
I want to propose a simple test of the naysayers’ position. The test relies on evidence that the Wall Street Journal and others should find unimpeachable –stock market valuations. This is a quick and dirty test but the results are so compelling that I think it is sufficient.
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…
In the latest edition of Health Affairs, Dr. Francis Crosson, chair of the Council of Accountable Physician Practices and senior fellow at Kaiser Institute of Health Policy, offers an impassioned defense of Accountable Care Organizations. Crosson’s main point is in his title: “The Concept is Too Vitally Important to Fail.” He adds:
“The accountable care organization model is intended as an option both for Medicare and for non-Medicare, commercial health care services. However, the general model and the specific shared savings model proposed for Medicare have come under criticism. Much of the criticism is valid and should be addressed. However, none should serve to prevent the evolution of this model.”
If the concept is “It sure would be nice to hold down costs and improve quality” then how can I argue? Who wants to argue against God, Mother or Country? But if the concept is “The only way to save the healthcare system is to organize everyone into ACOs,” well forgive me for disagreeing.