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Tag: Economics

Americans Are Worried About the Cost of Their Healthcare (and they have good reason)

By CASEY QUINLAN, HELEN HASKELL, BILL ADAMS, JOHN JAMES, ROBERT R. SCULLY, and POPPY ARFORD

Last year, the Patient Council of the Right Care Alliance conducted a survey in which over 1,000 Americans answered questions about what worried them most about their healthcare. We asked questions about access to care, concerns about misdiagnosis, and risks of treatment, which we reported on in our last THCB piece about the What Worries You Most survey.

We also asked people to rank their concerns about the costs of their care, in five questions that covered cost of care, cost of prescription drugs, cost and availability of insurance, and surprise billing. In the time since we ran the survey, everything has changed in American healthcare. The COVID19 pandemic is filling emergency rooms wherever the epidemic arrives. Bills are likely to be high, for both patients and insurers, and it is still far from clear how they will be paid. Americans are likely to continue to worry deeply about healthcare costs, with good reason, since it’s only in America that someone can go bankrupt due to seeking medical care.

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It’s Not About Tradeoffs

By MICHEL ACCAD

It is tempting to oppose the harmful effects of COVID-related lockdown orders with arguments couched in terms of trade-offs. 

We may contend that when public authorities promote the benefits of “flattening the curve,” they fail to properly take into account the actual costs of imposing business closures and of forced social distancing: The coming economic depression will lead to mass unemployment, rising poverty, suicides, domestic abuse, alcoholism, and myriad other potential causes of death and suffering which could be considerably worse than the harms of the pandemic itself, especially if we consider the spontaneous mitigation that people normally apply under the circumstances.

While I have no doubt that lockdown policies can and will have very serious negative consequences, I believe that the emphasis on trade-offs is misguided and counterproductive.  It immediately invites a utilitarian calculus: How many deaths and how much suffering will be caused by lockdowns?  How many deaths and how much suffering will occur without the lockdowns? How exactly are we to measure the total harm?  What time frame should we consider when we ponder the costs of one option versus the other?

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Providers Don’t Take Enough Risk to Bend the Cost Curve

By KEN TERRY

Back in 2015, 20 major health systems and payers pledged to convert 75% of their business to value-based arrangements by 2020. Today, more than two-thirds of payments from U.S. commercial health insurers are tied to some kind of value-based model. By 2021, the health plans expect three-quarters of their payments will be value-based.

However, a recent analysis of Change Healthcare data by Modern Healthcare found that the percentage of value-based revenue tied up in upside/downside risk contracts was in the single digits. Among the types of two-sided risk contracts that provider organizations had were capitation or global payment (7.3%), pay for performance (6.5%), prospective bundled payment (5%), population-based payment (5.8%), and retrospective bundled payment (4.1%).

An AMGA survey picked up signs of a recession in risk contracting in 2016. A year earlier, survey respondents—mostly large groups–had predicted their organizations would get 9 percent of revenue from capitated products. In 2016, the actual figure was 5 percent, according to a Health Affairs post by the AMGA’s Chet Speed and the late Donald Fisher.

The authors cited a number of obstacles to the spread of risk contracting, including “limited commercial value-based or risk-based products in their local markets; the inability to access administrative claims data from all payers; the massive administrative burden of submitting data in different formats to different payers; lack of access to investment capital; and inadequate infrastructure.”

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The MSSP Is No Silver Bullet for Healthcare Cost Control

But ACOs could pave the way for more significant cost-cutting based on competition.

By KEN TERRY

The Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP), it was revealed recently, achieved a net savings of $314 million in 2017. Although laudable, this victory represents a rounding error on what Medicare spent in 2017 and is far less than the growth in Medicare spending for that year. It also follows two years of net losses for the MSSP, so it’s clearly way too soon for anyone to claim that the program is a success.

The same is true of accountable care organizations (ACOs). About a third of the 472 ACOs in the MSSP received a total of $780 million in shared savings from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in 2017 out of the program’s gross savings of nearly $1.1 billion. The other MSSP ACOs received nothing, either because they didn’t save money or because their savings were insufficient to qualify them for bonuses. It is not known how many of the 838 ACOs that contracted with CMS and/or commercial insurers in 2016 cut health spending or by how much. What is known is that organizations that take financial risk have a greater incentive to cut costs than those that don’t. Less than one in five MSSP participants are doing so today, but half of all ACOs have at least one contract that includes downside risk.

As ACOS gain more experience and expand into financial risk, it is possible they will have a bigger impact. In fact, the ACOs that received MSSP bonuses in 2017 tended to be those that had participated in the program longer—an indication that experience does make a difference.

However, ACOs on their own will never be the silver bullet that finally kills out-of-control health spending. To begin with, 58 percent of ACOs are led by or include hospitals, which have no real incentive to cut payers’ costs. Even if some hospitals receive a share of savings from the MSSP and/or private insurers, that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of revenue they can generate by filling beds instead of emptying them. So it’s not surprising that physician-led ACOs are usually more profitable than those helmed by hospitals.

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A Libertarian’s Case Against Free Markets in Health Care

By ROMAN ZAMISHKA

In the final act of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the eponymous villain king arrives on the battlefield to fight against Richmond, who will soon become Henry VII. During the battle, Richard is dismounted as his horse is killed and in a mad frenzy wades through the battlefield screaming “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Richard shows us how market value can change drastically depending on the circumstances, or your mental state, and even the most absurd exchange rate can become reasonable in a moment of crisis.

This presumably arbitrary nature of prices should be the first thing about the US healthcare market that catches the attention of any student of economics. Prices for the same procedure vary greatly between hospitals on opposite sides of the street and even then appear to have no basis in reality. Further investigation reveals many other features of the healthcare market that economics teaches us will increase transaction costs and the misallocation of resources. The prices we discussed are generally not paid by the patient, but by a third party insurer. Often the patient isn’t even able to select the insurer but is assigned one by his or her employer. What the patient thinks of the insurer’s ability as a steward of his or her premiums is irrelevant. Further, contracts between providers or pharmacies and the insurer completely hide the true price from the patient’s view. In addition, anti-competitive certificate of need laws limit competition between providers and expensive regulations compel providers to merge to compete in a nuclear arms race with the insurers, although the real victim is the patient’s wallet over which the providers and insurers fight their proxy wars. The best way to explain the US healthcare system is if you took every economic best practice and then did the opposite. How does one get out of this mess?

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It’s (Still) the Prices, Stupid

Inefficient markets create price differentials for identical goods. These price differentials frequently occur among markets dominated by oligopolies. Taking advantage of market pricing inefficiencies is known as arbitrage. Commodity traders frequently arbitrage by buying low and selling high. In inefficient markets for perishable goods, such as airline tickets, hotel rooms, or medical imaging, there is no opportunity to re-sell these goods. Thus consumers of these goods, such as health insurance companies, will attempt to buy at the lowest possible price to maximize value. Today we see many apps and websites, such as Expedia, that engage in improving these markets in airline and hotel industries. Stroll Health is one company attempting to scale this behavior to medicine.

Our current Hospital Outpatient Department (HOPD) payment schedule is one example of an inefficient market where identical CPT codes are priced very differently based on whether they are provided in a grandfathered hospital outpatient department or a freestanding outpatient medical center. Hospital accountants will justify this higher payment schedule by attributing social expenses such as police and training programs. Other HOPD supporters will claim they deliver relative value through higher quality (outcomes) that justifies (often disproportionally) higher prices. Yet increasingly “illusions about value: that we know what it means and can measure it, that the same things matter to all patients” are being voiced.

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How to Avoid Being a Dumb-Ass Doctor, Blog Edition

Evil Dr Rob Part 2It’s been two years since I first started my new practice.  I have successfully avoided driving my business into the ground because I am a dumb-ass doctor.  Don’t get me wrong: I am not a dumb-ass when it comes to being a doctor. I am pretty comfortable on that, but the future will hold many opportunities to change that verdict.  No, I am talking about being a dumb-ass running the businessbecause I am a doctor.

We doctors are generally really bad at running businesses, and I am no exception.  In my previous practice, I successfully delegated any authority I had as the senior partner so that I didn’t know what was going on in most of the practice.

The culmination of this was when I was greeted by a “Dear Rob” letter from my partners who wanted a divorce from me.  It wasn’t a total shock that this happened, but it wasn’t fun.  My mistake in this was to back off and try to “just be a doctor while others ran the business.”  It’s my business, and I should have known what was happening.  I didn’t, and it is now no longer my business.

This new business was built on the premise that I am a dumb-ass doctor when it comes to business.  I consciously avoided making things too complicated.  I wanted no copays for visits (and hence no need to collect money each visit).  I wanted no long-term contracts (and hence no need to refund money if I or the patient was hit by a meteor or attacked by a yeti).   The goal was to keep things as easy as possible, and this is a very good business policy.

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Rethinking The Gruber Controversy: Americans Aren’t Stupid, But They’re Often Ignorant — And Why

flying cadeuciiM.I.T. economist Jonathan Gruber, whom his colleagues in the profession hold in very high esteem for his prowess in economic analysis, recently appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Gruber was called to explain several caustic remarks he had offered on tortured language and provisions in the Affordable Care Act (the ACA) that allegedly were designed to fool American voters into accepting the ACA.

Many of these linguistic contortions, however, were designed not so much to fool voters, but to force the Congressional Budget Office into scoring taxes as something else. But Gruber did call the American public “stupid” enough to be misled by such linguistic tricks and by other measures in the ACA — for example, taxing health insurers knowing full well that insurers would pass the tax on to the insured.

During the hearing, Gruber apologized profusely and on multiple occasions for his remarks. Although at least some economists apparently see no warrant for such an apology, I believe it was appropriate, as in hindsight Gruber does as well. “Stupid” is entirely the wrong word in this context; Gruber should have said “ignorant” instead.Continue reading…

Grubernomics

Gruber OptimizedIn the giddy days after the passage of ACA, I was chatting to a PhD student in health economics. He was in love with the ACA. He kept repeating that it would reduce costs, increase quality and increase access. Nothing original. You know the sort of stuff you heard at keynotes of medical meetings; ‘Healthcare post Obamacare’ or ‘Radiology in the new era.’ Talks warning us that we were exiting the Cretaceous period.

He spoke about variation in healthcare, six sigma, fee-for-value and ‘paying doctors to do the right thing.’

‘How?’ I asked.

‘I just told you, we need to pay doctors for value and outcomes.’ He smugly replied.

‘How?’ I asked again.

He did not answer. Instead he gave me the look that one gives an utter imbecile who doesn’t know the difference between a polygon and a triangle.Continue reading…

Is Healthcare a Business?

flying cadeuciiIn the United States, the question has been asked time and again but never satisfactorily answered. By virtue of publically financed healthcare systems, the rest of the developed world has decided, to a greater or lesser extent, that medicine and healthcare are not pure businesses—that citizens have a right to care, even when they can’t pay all associated costs.

It’s starting to look like Americans won’t be able to duck the question for much longer.

In the last year, the profitability of U.S. hospitals eroded for the first time since the Great Recession, pushing some closer to and others over the solvency precipice. Revenues are down and costs are up.  And these issues appear systemic and entrenched, giving rise to a series of important and relevant questions: How can hospitals adapt?  If they do, will they still survive? And, do we as a nation think it’s important to make hospitals accessible, even if they lose money?

As recently reported in the New York Timesanalysis by Moody’s Investors Service shows that this year nonprofit hospitals had their worst financial performance since the Great Recession. Among the 383 hospitals studied, revenue growth dipped from a 7 percent average to 3.9 percent on declining admissions.  For the last two years, expenses have grown faster than revenues, and fully one quarter of all hospitals are operating at a loss.

In a word, Moody’s describes the situation as “unsustainable” because it is the product of what look like enduring realities:

  1. Private insurers did not increase payments to hospitals.
  2. Medicare reduced payments due to federal budget cuts.
  3. Demand for inpatient services declined as outpatient care options rose.
  4. Retail outpatient options now compete with hospital clinics.
  5. Patients with higher copays and deductibles chose not to seek care.
  6. Hospitals are buying up physician practices.
  7. The costs of electronic medical record systems are impacting the bottom line.

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