An official of a health system in North Carolina sent an email to
the entire board of the North Carolina State Health Plan calling them a bunch
of “sorry SOBs” who would “burn in hell” after they
“bankrupt every hospital in the state.”
Wow. He sounds rather upset. He sounds angry and afraid. He
sounds surprised, gobsmacked, face-palming.
Bless his heart. I get it, I really do. Well, I get the fear and
pain. Here’s what I don’t get: the surprise, the tone of, “This came out
of nowhere! Why didn’t anyone tell us this was coming?”
Brother, we did. We have been. As loudly as we can. For years.
Two things to notice here:
What is he so upset about? Under State Treasurer
Dale Folwell’s leadership, the State Health Plan has pegged its payments to
hospitals and other medical providers in the state to a range of roughly 200%
of Medicare payments (with special help for rural hospitals and other
exceptions). In an industry that routinely says that Medicare covers 90% of
their costs, this actually sounds rather generous.
What is the State Health Plan? It’s not a payer,
that is, an insurer. It’s a buyer. Buyers play under a different set of rules
and incentives than an insurer.
It is commonly believed that deliberate, careful price regulation by enlightened technocrats trumps the haphazard and chaotic regulation of prices imposed by the free market—especially when the market is subject to greed and corruption.
A most interesting case study challenging that belief comes courtesy of the largest Democracy in the world: India.
In 2017, an arm of the Indian Government, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) took action to control the price of coronary stents in India by capping their retail price. The problem that stimulated this action was their exorbitant price that made them unaffordable to many Indians.
The retail prices of US made drug-eluting stents ranged from Rs 80,000 – 150,000 (~$1000 – ~$2000), while the price of Indian made drug-eluting stents ranged from Rs 45,000 – 90,000 (~$600 – ~$1200). Considering that a good job for 90% of the Indian labor force pays about Rs 180,000 per year, these prices put most coronary stents out of the reach of a vast swath of the populace.
What regulators knew, however, was that the price point at which coronary stents were being imported into India was a fraction of the price being charged to Indians. The up-charge had everything to do with what happened after the stent was brought onto Indian soil: The Indian subsidiary of the US stent manufacturer would sell its product to a domestic distributor that would then employ all means necessary to ensure their stent was chosen by cardiologists to be implanted.
The 2019 ACA plan year is notable for the increase in insurer participation in the marketplace. Expansion and entry have been substantial, and the percent of counties with one insurer has declined from more than 50 percent to approximately 35 percent. While urban areas in rural states have received much of the new participation, entire rural states have gained, along with more metropolitan urban areas.
Economic theory and common sense lead most to believe that increased competition is unquestionably good for consumers. Yet in the paradoxical world of the subsidized ACA marketplace, things are not so simple. In some markets, increased competition may result in a reduction in the purchasing power of subsidized consumers by narrowing the gap between the benchmark premium and plans that are cheaper than the benchmark. Even though the overall level of premiums may decline, potential losses to subsidized consumers in some markets will outweigh gains to the unsubsidized, suggesting that at the county level, the losers stand to lose more than the winners will win.
One way to illustrate this is to hypothetically subject 2018 marketplace enrollees to 2019 premiums in counties where new carriers have entered the market. Assuming that enrollees stay in the same metal plan in both 2018 and 2019, and that they continue to buy the cheapest plan in their metal, we can calculate how much their spending would change by income group.
Under these assumptions, in about one quarter of the counties with federally facilitated marketplaces (FFM) that received a new carrier in 2019, both subsidized and unsubsidized enrollees would be better off in 2019, meaning that they could spend less money and stay in the same metal level. In about thirty percent of these counties, all enrollees are worse off. In almost all of the rest, about forty percent, there are winners and losers, but in the aggregate, the subsidized lose more than the unsubsidized win. Overall, in about 70 percent of FFM counties with a new carrier, subsidized enrollees will lose purchasing power, while in about 66 percent of these counties, unsubsidized customers will see premium reductions. In population terms, about two-thirds of subsidized enrollees in counties with a new carrier will find plans to be less affordable, while a little more than half of unsubsidized enrollees will see lower premiums.
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?
There’s a growing view in U.S. healthcare circles that the industry is on the cusp of remarkable – perhaps even revolutionary – transformation. At a recent summit sponsored by the Altarum Institute’s Center for Sustainable Health Spending, speaker after speaker returned to the theme that we are slowly but surely moving from a volume-based system (paying for stuff) to a value-based model (paying for results).
The health sector is moving toward the traditional economic principles of other industries. Revenues flow to businesses that are high quality, efficient and knowledgeable about customer desires. In other words, high performers reap the financial rewards, not those that are simply doing more. We at PwC describe this future state as the New Health Economy.
Several stars have aligned to make this shift possible. Cost pressures have turned attention to getting our money’s worth in healthcare. Technological advances such as cloud storage, mobile devices and data analytics provide the tools to deliver the right care to the right patient at the right time. And consumers today have both the freedom and responsibility that come with making more decisions and spending their own money.
What was striking at the Altarum summit was the widespread agreement on where American healthcare is headed. Speakers referenced the rise of myriad alternative payment programs, including overall spending growth limits in Massachusetts, site agnostic payments for specialty care such as oncology and provider bonuses tied to patient satisfaction.
“As a small business owner, I’ve been following the arguments about Obamacare with a mixture of amusement and total horror. Just when you thought Washington couldn’t screw things up any worse, they find new and creative ways to do exactly that.
My question concerns the phenomenon of the “death spiral” the terrifying sounding scenario that observers predict will occur if not enough people buy insurance. According to this theory, if not enough people buy health insurance, insurers will be forced to abandon unprofitable markets. As a business owner myself, this argument resonates. But I still don’t get it. This seems like common sense.
It is certainly true that if nobody buys my goods and services, my business will go into a “death spiral.” I will no longer be able to make a living selling my widgets. I will be forced to invent a new widget. Or go get a new job. This is like my kid saying if he doesn’t to play more Call of Duty IV he will go into an “entertainment death spiral” and be unable to do his homework ever again or be a productive member of society.
Or McDonalds warning that if too many people take up vegetarianism, its business will go into a horrible “hamburger death spiral.” So what evidence do we have? I need documentation. Like, let’s say, a picture. Or a YouTube clip.
Seriously, when has this happened? Otherwise, the death spiral thing sounds like really good economic spin to me …”
There’s been a great deal of discussion about health care payment reform. Prominent in this discussion is “Pay for Performance” (P4P). The idea is simple — rather than pay providers based on volume of care (fee-for-service) or number of patients (capitation), tie their payment to a measure(s) of performance. There has been substantial concern about the quality of care delivered to patients, so pay for performance appears to make a lot of sense. Don’t we want to reward providers for good performance? Shouldn’t this encourage them to provide high quality care?
Unfortunately, this is not as straightforward as it might appear. While the idea of pay for performance is very appealing and intuitive, there are some major pitfalls in implementation.
A recent article in Time magazine by Steven Brill, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” is a brilliantly written expose of the excesses and outrages of health care pricing. In reaction to the story, some have suggested the price controls are the appropriate (or the only) way to rectify the situation. A recent story in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, “Steven Brill’s 26,000-word health-care story, in one sentence,” suggests that US health care costs and cost growth are so high because we do not use rate setting, i.e., price controls.
In fact, I think it’s not easy to establish whether that is indeed the case. We don’t get to use randomized controlled trials for health policies or systems, so it’s difficult to figure out how effective a policy like rate setting is. Let me start with some simple examinations of patterns in data to see if something jumps out that strongly supports (or contradicts) the assertion that price controls reduce health care costs.
As the New Year begins, I look forward to reading and commenting on the latest developments in health economics. I thought I would start by making a few predictions:
1) With the economy on a slow but steady road to recovery, Republicans will resurrect health reform as a key issue in the fall election. They run a controversial ad showing a patient named Debbie getting diagnosed by her iPhone’s Siri. In response, Democrats show Debbie filing for bankruptcy because her insurance refused to pay for Siri’s consultation fee.
2) The Supreme Court will uphold the purchase mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Lobbyists for every major industry flood Congress with requests for more purchase mandates.
3) Healthcare continues to be a bright spot in a sluggish labor market. As a way to simultaneously address persistent unemployment and the growing needs of the elderly, Nancy Pelosi proposes a new law mandating that all baby boomers purchase a caregiver for their parents.
4) CMS will release new revised rules for ACOs. The new rules discourage ACOs from only covering patients in good health by reducing reimbursements for patients who are able to lift the new 1200 page ACO rulebook.