The impending closure of
Hahnemann University Hospital is a local tragedy. Eliminating a 170-year
old institution is certain to exaggerate the daily travails of the economically
disadvantaged inner-city population that Hahnemann serves as a safety-net
hospital. The closure is also a national tragedy. Hospitals are the
towering, visible monuments of our healthcare system, and closings imply that
something insidious ails that very system—that all is not well.
Hospitals are complex
entities with varied financial drivers, and the solution is never simple.
And the moment is too rich for politicians who see Hahnemann’s failure as the
culmination of their dystopian predictions. Bernie Sanders, most
prominently, stood on the hospital’s doorstep and pitched his deceptively
simple solution—Medicare for All. Medicare for All, Sanders said, would
ensure that every patient carries the same coverage, hospitals are paid a predictable
rate, and voila, no hospitals need to close. Private insurance would
disappear, and no one would be without coverage.
Even physicians have jumped on the Medicare for All bandwagon. Some
doctors insist that once profit is removed as a motive for hospital bottom
lines, and government bodies decide which hospitals can buy a surgical robot,
build a new wing or offer proton beam treatment cancer treatment centers, then
all hospitals will do better.
But these arguments miss
a fundamental point: why pitch government insurance for all, like Medicare and
Medicaid (a federal and state insurance plan to cover low income adult and
children) as a remedy, when it is precisely government-run insurance that is
killing Hahnemann and other hospitals in distress?
In the 20th century, hospitals completed their
transformation from the hospice-like institutions of the Middle Ages, into
large, gleaming centers of advanced medical expertise and technology that save
and improve lives every day. But an unintended consequence of hospitals’
dazzling capabilities is a staggering cost burden that’s proving toxic to the
Today, hospital care accounts for approximately 33% of the US’ $3.5 trillion annual health care expenditures, according to CMS. The drivers of hospital costs are complex and hard to tackle, including (but not limited to) market consolidation that enables price hikes, heavy administrative burdens, expensive technology and patient usage patterns.
In The Innovator’s Prescription, Clayton Christensen et al. explained another important driver of high hospital care costs: conflation under one roof of business models designed to address very different needs—such as the need for diagnosis of unique, complex conditions and experimental treatments, versus that for highly standardized services (for instance, some surgical procedures). This common phenomenon makes optimization of either business model very difficult, and thus drives up overhead costs.
One solution to this seemingly intractable
problem is to make home and community the default locations for care, where in
many circumstances it can be provided less expensively, more conveniently, and
more effectively than in a hospital. Fortunately, business model innovation
toward this end is gaining traction.
Every year at this time, you hear warnings that flu season has arrived. New data from the CDC indicates the season is far from over. So, you are urged by health authorities to get a flu shot. What you may not realize is how the flu can affect the hospitals you and your loved ones rely on for care.
In January, the large urban hospital where I am an intern faced the worst flu outbreak it has ever seen. Nearly 100 staff members tested positive for the flu. Residents assigned to back-up coverage were called to work daily to supplement the dwindling ranks of the sick. Every hospital visitor was required to wear a mask upon entry. At one point, every patient in the medical ICU had the flu and the whole unit had to be quarantined. Because of this, the hospital was put on diversion – no new patients could be admitted.
Why was this flu outbreak so bad? Doctors are still trying to understand all the causes, but one likely reason is that hospital staff with symptoms came to work and became a reservoir for the virus. A majority of visitors and patients don’t get their flu shots, making matters even worse.
Once administrators caught on to the mess this year’s flu was creating, they took some new and aggressive measures. In addition to the free vaccines provided to employees every year, they performed daily symptom check-ins, encouraged sick days, and held an influenza town hall. After discussion with the State Department of Health, medical residents were provided free Tamiflu and urged to take it as prophylaxis. Only 40% picked it up. Residency directors asked symptomatic house staff to stay home. A positive flu swab meant a mandated five days off work. One month later, we are still required to check in daily and confirm that we are symptom-free via a text messaging system or a checklist circulated to each hospital floor. These responses were effective, and the wave of flu appears to have passed. We must now plan ahead to prevent the next outbreak.
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.
Seema Verma, the Trump appointee who runs Medicare, has had an active week. The problem facing much-beloved Medicare is one that faces every other government-funded healthcare extravaganza: it’s always projected to be running out of money. Medicare makes up 15% of the total federal budget. That’s almost $600 billion dollars out of a total federal outlay of $4 Trillion dollars. The only problem here is that revenues are around $3.6 trillion. We are spending money we don’t have, and thus there there is constant pressure to reduce federal outlays.
This is a feat that appears to be legislatively impossible. The country barely is able to defund bridges to nowhere let alone try to reduce health care spending because, as everyone knows, any reduction in health care spending will spawn a death toll that would shame the black plague. The prior administration’s health policy wonk certified approach was to change the equation in health care from paying for volume to paying for value. This, we were assured, would allow us to get better healthcare for cheaper! And so we got MACRA, The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act, that introduced penalties for doctors unable to provide ‘good’ care. Never mind that in some years good care means you treat everyone with a statin, and in others it means treat no one with a statin. When in Rome, live like the Romans. In 2018 parlance, that roughly translates to “check every box you can and everything will be all right.”Continue reading…
In an effort to help women make informed decisions about where to deliver their babies, we set out to collect a comprehensive, nationwide database of hospitals’ C-section rates. Knowing that the federal government mandates surveillance and reporting of vital statistics through the National Vital Statistics System, we contacted all 50 states’ (+Washington D.C.) Departments of Public Health (DPH) asking for access to de-identified birth data from all of their hospitals. What we learned might not surprise you — the lack of transparency in the United States healthcare system extends to quality information, and specifically C-section data. Continue reading…
Every October we recognize Domestic Violence Awareness Month, an important opportunity to discuss this widespread social and public health problem and to take stock of what we can do better to protect victims of domestic abuse.
There is lots of talk of disruption in healthcare particularly involving new entrants and weird combinations such as the CVS-Aetna merger, CIGNA and Express Scripts, Amazon Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan, and now Wal-Mart and Humana all claiming to transform healthcare. At the same time, we are seeing continued consolidation in the traditional healthcare industry with hospital systems merging at the local, regional and national level.
The rise of consumerism is affecting healthcare particularly the retail/primary care area where consumers are spending with their own money in a world of high-deductible healthcare.
The growth of digital health offers the opportunity to disrupt traditional care interactions in both the management of chronic conditions and in routine primary care. And there is a whole new set of patient decision-makers such as millennials who bringing with them different sensibilities in terms of access to services.Continue reading…
With healthcare mergers now announced seemingly every week, I’ve been giving some thought to scale: How big can/ should health systems be?
Anecdotally, I’m struck that the most impressive healthcare companies in America are super- regional players: Geissinger, Cleveland Clinic, UPMC, etc. They seem to get a lot more attention than the national players with hundreds of facilities.
Leaving aside questions like strategy (e.g. is integration of payers/doctors/hospitals the key to these successes), I’ve wondered whether regional systems are simply the right size to thrive. My suspicion is that even clever organizational structure (a topic which I wrote about last year) can’t overcome barriers that prevent large healthcare companies from innovating and thriving, particularly as companies move to risk and the business of healthcare becomes more complex. Like cellular organisms, large companies can outgrow their life support. (Interestingly, it’s actually the ratio of body volume to surface area [gas exchange, digestion, etc] that served as a constraint to organism size…)
I recently ran across a superb paper- a doctoral thesis written by Staffan Canback. Canback (who now leads the Economist Intelligence/ Canback predictive analytics consulting firm in Boston) wrote his thesis, called Limits of Firm Size: An Inquiry into Diseconomies of Scale in 2000, while a student in London. Canback argues, convincingly, that companies do become more efficient with scale, but reach a point where “diseconomies” begin to mitigate performance. This may seem intuitive: (as Canback notes, if efficiency only improved with scale then we would buy everything from one company that produces everything with great levels of efficiency). We don’t.
On a recent shift in the Emergency Department, a resident boasted to me that she had convinced a patient to have an MRI done after discharge, rather than in the hospital. She was proud of this achievement because MRIs cost much more in the hospital than they do elsewhere – sometimes thousands of dollars more. To advocates of “cost-conscious care,” a new movement in medical education that aims to instill in young doctors a sense of responsibility for the financial consequences of their decisions, this story seems to belong in the ‘win’ column.
But this story also raises troubling questions: Why wasn’t the resident more concerned about how the hospital’s charging practices were leading her to delay care for her patient? What about the prolonged anxiety the patient would suffer? What about the extra day of work she would have to miss? And most importantly, why does an MRI cost thousands of dollars more in the hospital than it does across the street?
Like many doctors, she had fallen into the ‘transparency trap.’ This phenomenon is an unintended consequence of price transparency efforts that have come in response to patients and doctors being kept in the dark for decades about the prices of common services. Unfortunately, as the CEO of one large hospital put it, “the vast majority of [prices] have no relation to anything, and certainly not to cost.” In fact, studies have shown that in a functional market, MRIs would cost somewhere around $250, and we wouldn’t be nearly as concerned about doing too many of them.