By JEFF GOLDSMITH and IAN MORRISON
Hospital consolidation has risen to the top of the health policy stack. David Dranove and Lawton Burns argued in their recent Big Med: Megaproviders and the High Cost of Health Care in America (Univ of Chicago Press, 2021) that hospital consolidation has produced neither cost savings from “economies of scale” nor measurable quality improvements expected from better care co-ordination. As a consequence, the Biden administration has targeted the health care industry for enhanced and more vigilant anti-trust enforcement.
However, as we discussed in a 2021 posting in Health Affairs, these large, complex health enterprises played a vital role in the societal response to the once-in-a-century COVID crisis. Multi-hospital health systems were one of the only pieces of societal infrastructure that actually exceeded expectations in the COVID crisis. These systems demonstrated that they are capable of producing, rapidly and on demand, demonstrable social benefit.
Exemplary health system performance during COVID begs an important question: how do we maximize the social benefits of these complex enterprises once the stubborn foe of COVID has been vanquished? How do we think conceptually about how systems produce those benefits and how should they fully achieve their potential for the society as a whole?
Origins of Hospital Consolidation
In 1980, the US hospital industry (excluding federal, psych and rehab facilities) was a $77 billion business comprised of roughly 5,900 community hospitals. It was already significantly consolidated at that time; roughly a third of hospitals were owned or managed by health systems, perhaps a half of those by investor-owned chains. Forty years later, there were 700 fewer facilities generating about $1.2 trillion in revenues (roughly a fourfold growth in real dollar revenues since 1980), and more than 70% of hospitals were part of systems.
It is important to acknowledge here that hundreds more hospitals, many in rural health shortage areas or in inner cities, would have closed had they not been rescued by larger systems. Given that a large fraction of the hospitals that remain independent are tiny critical access facilities that are marginal candidates for mergers with larger enterprises, the bulk of hospital consolidation is likely behind us. Future consolidation is likely not to be of individual hospitals, but of smaller systems that are not certain they can remain independent.
Today’s multi-billion dollar health systems like Intermountain Healthcare, Geisinger, Penn Medicine and Sentara are far more than merely roll-ups of formerly independent hospitals. They also employ directly or indirectly more than 40% of the nation’s practicing physicians, according to the AMA Physician Practice Benchmark Survey. They have also deployed 179 provider-sponsored health plans enrolling more than 13 million people (Milliman Torch Insight, personal communication 23 Sept, 2021). They operate extensive ambulatory facilities ranging from emergency and urgent care to surgical facilities to rehabilitation and physical therapy, in addition to psychiatric and long-term care facilities and programs.
Health Systems Didn’t Just “Happen”; Federal Health Policy Actively Catalyzed their Formation
Though many in the health policy world attribute hospital consolidation and integration to empire-building and positioning relative to health insurers, federal health policy played a catalytic role in fostering hospital consolidation and integration of physician practices and health insurance. In the fifty years since the HMO Act of 1973, hospitals and other providers have been actively encouraged by federal health policy to assume economic responsibility for the total cost of care, something they cannot do as isolated single hospitals.Continue reading…