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Letting the Data Speak: Estimating County Health Care Costs In Washington State

Besides state and higher-level health care expenditures, county level HCE are useful, integral really. For example, to promote the Triple Aim (the best care for the whole population at the lowest cost) you need per capita HCE. And knowing those costs at the county level would help a lot. However, county estimates generally don’t exist. They didn’t in Washington State until a client needed cost estimates for our 39 counties. To supply those estimates I used a regression approach resulting in this model:

percaphce = +0.1*percapinc + 247*pctage65 + 0.71*percapmedaid + 10.5*pctrural – 1349

Washington State Context
Before discussing model rationale and county HCE estimation, here’s some context about Washington State and its counties. You might view Washington as a microcosm of the nation. It has mountains, forests, deserts, rivers and lakes, vast rural areas, major cities, diverse populations and industries, and a varied climate. It is distinguished by active volcanoes and a coastal border. There is a wide range of political, social and economic clusters. In 2010 King County, where Seattle is located, median annual household income was about $67 thousand (the U.S. median was roughly $50 thousand) yet there are state counties where one in three children live in poverty. The total population is approximately 7 million with half of those people living in just three of the 39 counties.1 At the other end about a third of the counties have populations of 30 thousand or less.

An Aside about Seattle Weather
You may have been told that it rains all the time in Seattle. I live in Seattle and can tell you that’s a myth. Seattle’s average annual rainfall is less than New York City’s. However, during a good part of the non-summer months Seattle, and Puget Sound generally, is grey and cloudy. I once heard a story about the original settlers who landed in November, 1851, at Alki near present-day Seattle. The story is they were there for months before the weather finally cleared and they saw Mt. Rainier for the first time. I don’t know if that story is historically true, but as a Seattleite it’s believable. Regardless, Seattle is a summer paradise. Seattle summers, like most of Puget Sound, are characterized by pleasant sunny days, cool nights and no mosquitoes.

Background for the County HCE Estimates
Last year Empire Health Foundation of Spokane, Washington, asked me to estimate HCE for the 39 counties in the state. The purpose was for an upcoming meeting of policy types such as county commissioners, members of various health organizations, and other stake holders. A theme would be Donald Berwick’s Triple Aim, so cost estimates were wanted for benchmarks and context. The CMS2 Office of the Actuary had recently developed state HCE.3 If I could build a reasonable regression model on state-level data to predict state HCE, and there were similar variables at the county level, I could use the state model to estimate county HCE. That’s the approach I took. A caveat is my understanding was that acceptance—believability and reasonableness of the estimates to a lay audience—were as important as accuracy.

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