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Tag: Jeff Goldsmith

Is Health Industry Price Inflation Really At a Historical Low?

One hesitates to make too much of a single report, but the Altarum Institute’s July Report, “Health Care Price Growth at 20+ Year Low,” certainly commands one’s attention.  According to Altarum’s analysis, the health sector pricing trend ran at a 1.0 percent annual rate in May 2013, lowest since January of 1990.  What is striking about Altarum’s health care pricing trendline is that it has declined for the last three years in spite of an alleged economic recovery.

It also runs parallel to a subsiding utilization trend, suggesting that the health sector has been unable to offset reduced utilization with price increases.  Since the beginning of the recession, pricing has subsided from double the rate of the GDP deflator to parity, and it has closely tracked the deflator with only two deviations for more than eight years. Clearly, something more than the recession is at work here.

These trendlines confirm what this observer sees from his contacts in multiple sectors of the health industry:  a widespread and durable “top line flu”.  The growth in enterprise revenue for most health providers and manufacturers has been static (e.g. very low single digits or actually declining) over the last two years.  Most investor-owned hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, and physician practices (pretty much everyone except the consultants and IT vendors) have reported both revenue stasis and earnings compression.

My economist friends point to rising consumer copayments as inhibiting price increases.  The Kaiser Family Foundation has reported almost a quadrupling of the number of covered workers in high deductible health plans (from 5 percent to 19 percent) since the end of the recession.  It is also possible that a disinflationary mindset has inhibited providers and suppliers from seeking outsized price increases to compensate for lost sales volume.  For suppliers, the marked decline of “physician preference” marketing has also hurt both sales and margins.

Hospital pricing. Performance of hospital prices will provide more fodder for those concerned about hospital consolidation pushing prices up.  On the one hand, overall hospital prices rose an annualized 1.8 percent for May 2013, fractionally higher than the consumer price index (CPI) at 1.4 percent.  However, when one strips out the “administered price” portion (Medicaid and Medicare), hospital prices to privately insured patients rose 4.8 percent annualized in May, nearly five times rate of health prices as a whole.  Altarum suggests that cost shifting might explain this significant disparity.  However, even this increase to private patients was not enough to raise overall health costs significantly.

Government payment to hospitals has trended lower for multiple reasons.   Many state Medicaid plans have cut hospital rates in the past several years to help balance state budgets.  And in addition to the ACA’s mandated reductions in hospitals’ disproportionate share payments and DRG updates, the sequester took a significant further bite out of DRG payments during the winter.

Since most hospital contracts with private insurers are multi-year, it’s difficult to argue that compensating upward revisions in private health insurance contract rates would yet be reflected in national economic statistics.  Moreover, not all hospitals are part of systems capable of exerting pricing power on private health plans.  Have-not hospitals have had their prices constrained by payer contracts, compensating for the effect of leverage by market hegemons.  We’ll have more evidence in a year to confirm or disconfirm the cost shifting/pricing power hypothesis.

There’s another indicator of a tougher hospital pricing environment.  According to the Advisory Board’s Dan Diamond, hospital employment has actually contracted in one-quarter of the monthly jobs reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics since January 2009, including a 6000 person force reduction in May, 2013.  On balance, hospital executives would much rather raise rates than lay off staff, so the fact that the nearly unbroken decades-long expansion of hospital headcounts is faltering suggests a very difficult pricing environment for hospital services.

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Hospitals’ Twenty First Century Time Warp

There has been a lot of controversy in health policy circles recently about hospital market consolidation and its effect on costs.  However, less noticed than the quickened pace of industry consolidation is a more puzzling and largely unremarked-upon development:  hospitals seem to have hit the wall in technological innovation.   One can wonder if the two phenomena are related somehow.

During the last three decades of the twentieth century, health policymakers warned constantly that medical technology was driving up costs inexorably, and that unless we could somehow harness technological change, we’d be forced to ration care.  The most prominent statement of this thesis was Henry Aaron and William Schwartz’s Painful Prescription (1984).  Advocates of technological change argued that higher prices for care were justified by substantial qualitative improvements in hospitals’ output.

Perhaps policymakers should be careful what they wish for.  The care provided in the American hospital of 2013 seems eerily similar to that of the hospital of the year 2000, albeit far more expensive.    This is despite some powerful incentives for manufacturers and inventors to innovate (like an aging boomer generation, advances in materials, and a revolution in genetics), and the widespread persistence of  fee for service insurance payment that rewards hospitals for offering a more complex product.

Technology junkies should feel free to quarrel with these observations.  But the last major new imaging platform in the health system was PET , which was introduced into hospital use in the early 1990’s.  Though fusion technologies like PET/CT and PET/MR were introduced later, the last “got to have it” major imaging product was the 64 slice CT Scanner, which was introduced in 1998.  Both PET and CT angiography were subjects of fierce controversy over CMS decisions to pay for the services.

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An Indecent Proposal That Just Might Solve the Primary Care Crisis: Meet the 35 Hour Work Week

A few weeks ago, The Health Care Blog published a truly outstanding commentary by Jeff Goldsmith, on why practice redesign isn’t going to solve the primary care shortage. In the post, Goldsmith explains why a proposed model of high-volume primary care practice — having docs see even more patients per day, and grouping them in pods — is unlikely to be accepted by either tomorrow’s doctors or tomorrow’s boomer patients. He points out that we are replacing a generation of workaholic boomer PCPs with “Gen Y physicians with a revealed preference for 35-hour work weeks.” (Guilty as charged.) Goldsmith ends by predicting a “horrendous shortfall” of front-line clinicians in the next decade.

Now, not everyone believes that a shortfall of PCPs is a serious problem.

However, if you believe, as I do, that the most pressing health services problems to solve pertain to Medicare, then a shortfall of PCPs is a very serious problem indeed.

So serious that maybe it’s time to consider the unthinkable: encouraging clinicians to become Medicare PCPs by aligning the job with a 35 hour work week.

I can already hear all clinicians and readers older than myself harrumphing, but bear with me and let’s see if I can make a persuasive case for this.

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The Gold Plated Health Care System: What the New Numbers Tell Us about the State of the Economy

For the third year in a row, national health spending in 2011 grew less than 4 percent, according to the CMS Office of the Actuary.  However, the report said modest rebounds in pharmaceutical spending and physician visits pointed toward an acceleration of costs in 2012 and beyond.  CMS’s analysts make much of the cyclical character of health spending’s relationship to economic growth and also forecast a doubling of cost growth in 2014 to coincide with the implementation of health reform.

This non-economist respectfully disagrees and believes the pause could be more durable, even after 2014.   Something deeper and more troublesome than the recession is at work here.  As observed last year, the health spending curve actually bent downward a decade ago, four years before the economic crisis. Health cost growth has now spent three years at a pre-Medicare (indeed, a pre-Kennedy Administration) low.

More Than The Recession Is At Work

Hospital inpatient admissions have been flat for nine years, and down for the past two, despite compelling incentives for hospitals to admit more patients. Even hospital outpatient volumes flat-lined in 2010 and 2011, after, seemingly, decades of near double-digit growth.  Physician office visits peaked eight years ago, in 2005, and fell 10 percent from 2009 to 2011 before a modest rebound late in 2011 — all this despite the irresistible power of fee-for-service incentives to induce demand.

The modest rebound in pharmaceutical spending (2.9 percent growth) in 2011 appears to have been a blip.  IMS Health reports that US pharmaceutical sales actually shrank in 2012, for the first time in recorded history, and that generic drugs vaulted to the high 70s as a percent of prescriptions!

There is no question that the recession’s 7-million increase in the uninsured depressed cost growth.  But the main reason health cost growth has been slowing for ten years is the steadily growing number of Americans — insured or otherwise — that cannot afford to use the health system.  The cost of health care may have played an unscripted role in the 2008 economic collapse.  A 2011 analysis published in Health Affairs found that after accounting for increased health premium contributions, out-of-pocket spending growth and general inflation, families had a princely $95 more a month to spend on non-health items in 2009 than a decade earlier.  To maintain their living standards, families doubled their household debt in just five years (2003-2008), a debt load that proved unsustainable.  When consumers began defaulting on their mortgages, credit cards and car loans, the resultant chain reaction brought down our financial markets, and nearly resulted in a depression.

By sucking up consumers’ income since 2008, the rising cost of health benefits has weighed heavily upon the recovery.  According to the 2012 Milliman Cost Index, the cost of health coverage rose by 32.8 percent from 2008 to 2012, while family income did not grow at all in real terms.  The total cost (employer and employee contributions plus OOP spending) of a standard PPO policy for a US family of four was $20,700, almost 42 percent of the US household median income in 2012.

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Accidental Tourist: Visiting the Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok


There’s been a lot of recent speculation that more Americans will be taking their elective medical problems overseas. In 2008, Deloitte’s Center for Health Solutions estimated that 750 thousand Americans travelled overseas for medical care in 2007, and forecast a eight-fold increase by 2010 In a 2009 update, Deloitte found that the 2008 financial crisis devastated overseas medical travel, but still forecast 1.6 million US citizens going abroad for medical care in 2012.

Among overseas medical destinations, no facility is mentioned more than Bumrungrad (last syllable rhymes with “hot”) Hospital. Bumrungrad is a privately owned but publicly traded 550 bed acute care hospital in central Bangkok. On a recent trip to Thailand, I stopped at Bumrungrad to find out what all the shouting was about and was really impressed with what I saw.

Bumrungrad’s CEO is a courtly, silver-haired Virginian named Mack Banner, who spent most of his career in the US investor-owned sector. Though the hospital was founded in 1980, it moved into its new facility in 1997, just in time for the Asian financial crisis. The facility was Joint Commission (International) certified in 2002, and one fifth of its physicians are US Board certified in their respective specialties.

In 2008, the hospital opened a beautiful 21 story Clinic building next door, housing 30 specialty clinics and most of its medical staff. Bumrungrad’s Clinic Facility is Mayo-esque, enabling patients with particular specialty problems to be worked up, evaluated and cared for on a single floor. The hospital subsequently renovated its inpatient rooms, which resemble those of the Asian-themed Washington DC Park Hyatt in elegance. The hospital is a sunny, happy place, with apparent high morale and very high service standards. English is spoken widely throughout the hospital.

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Behind The Numbers, A Diminishing Sense Of Urgency

After a summer of disappointing economic news, the recent Census report on the uninsured was a rare bit of sunshine.  The number of uninsured Americans declined by about 3 percent, or 1.34 million, to 48.6 million in 2011.  This was the largest one-year numerical decline in twelve years.  There were “only” about 1.7 million more uninsured in 2011 than there were in 2006, before the devastating recession.

Medicaid’s vital role. The search for policy fingerprints on these findings points directly to Medicaid. For all the controversy over this program, the safety net did its job.  Medicaid enrollment rose another 4.4 percent in 2011, or 2.2 million people, likely masking continued shrinkage in private insurance coverage.   If Medicaid rolls had not expanded by 10 million folks from 2006 to 2011, the number of uninsured would have soared due to the recession.

Digging deeper into the Census numbers, one surprise was the relatively modest decline in the number of uninsured between the ages of 19 and 25, about 540,000, or about 40 percent of the overall drop. The reported reduction in the uncovered 19-25 year olds falls far short of the 3.1 million newly covered GenY’ers claimed by the Department of Health and Human Services due to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to retain them on parents’ health policies.

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Health Care: An Alternate Economic Universe

In July, 2012, the US economy produced roughly the same volume of goods and services as it did five years earlier with five million fewer workers. Yet, during the first four years of the recession (May 2007 to May 2011), the US health system, despite slowing or declining utilization, added 1.149 million workers. Key sectors, specifically hospitals and physician offices, grew their workforces despite declining admissions and office visit volume. (Employment data in this post comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) National 4-digit NAICS Industry-Specific Estimates from May 2007 and May 2011.)

Compared to the rest of the economy, health care seems to exist in an alternate economic universe. This would be good news, rather than a problem, if we were not borrowing roughly half of every dollar of general revenue the federal government is spending on health care and if employers were not robbing their workers of wage increases to fund their health benefits.

Hospitals and physician offices saw declines in their core activity in the past few years. Hospital admissions have been flat the past five years, and have shrunk the past two. Even hospital outpatient volume growth has subsided into the low single digits, only partially offsetting the lost admissions. Yet hospital employment rose by over 220,000 workers, or 4.4 percent from mid-2007 to mid-2011.
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Roberts’ “Flying Squirrel” Maneuver Takes Down the Affordable Care Act

After a four month “death watch” in the mainstream media for President Obama’s health reforms (following an ineffectual defense in March’s Supreme Court hearings), instant analysts were quick to characterize last week’s Supreme court decision as a ringing vindication of the Affordable Care Act and a big political victory for a struggling President Obama.

However, on closer reading, the instant analysts were wrong. The Roberts Court actually punched a huge hole in the law, potentially reducing its historic coverage expansion by as much as a third. In addition, the Court’s ruling will set off serious political conflict in southern and mid-western states that will ripple through those states’ health care markets, and fracture hospitals’ and health plans’ support for health reform.

Unlike the Act itself, which was almost unreadable, the Court’s opinions were written in English and will reward readers with fresh understanding of this complex law. They reveal two incommensurable philosophical positions eloquently argued and improbably bridged. There were two big surprises: Justice Robert’s apparent last minute support of the Court’s liberal wing in preserving the mandate and the remarkable decision to render the Medicaid coverage expansion optional! (Justice Kennedy, the presumed swing vote, actually supported killing the entire law).

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Jeff Goldsmith on what’s next, post-SCOTUS

Hours after the SCOTUS verdict and about the same time as a feisty (and not too productive) shouting match on the NY Times site between Maggie Mahar & Michael Cannon with commentary from Bob Reich and “expert” Grace Marie Turner, a real health care expert dissected the future of health care.

Here’s Jeff Goldmsith‘s talk (done for Eliza with Queen Bee/Chairman & Chief Visionary Officer Alexandra Drane refereeing). And it’s excellent. (It also has a tad of rambling from me at the very end….). I suggest you spend a chunk of your Saturday morning listening to Jeff tell you more.

 

WEBINARVID from Leigh Eck on Vimeo.

MedPAC’s SGR Solution: Bad Medicine For A Chronic Problem

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) is the closest thing Congress has to adult supervision on important health policy questions. The Commission commands bipartisan respect both for its record of sound policy advice and for its leadership.

With its October recommendations, MedPac attempted to solve the sustainable growth rate (SGR) physician payment formula budget crisis by spreading its more than $300 billion cost beyond the physician community.  More than two-thirds of the burden would fall on hospitals, pharmaceutical and device manufacturers and, significantly, on Medicare beneficiaries themselves. Clearly MedPac’s intent was to widen the circle of pain.

However, a significant portion of the burden, over $100 billion, would still be borne by the physician community through 17 percent reductions in specialists’ fees and a ten-year freeze on primary care fees.    If implemented, MedPac’s policies will give rise to a festival of unintended consequences: weakening multi-specialty group practices (which rely upon specialist comp to cross-subsidize their primary care services); winding down private practice-based primary care medicine; accelerating the hospital roll-up of medical practices while widening hospitals’ losses on the practices they already own; and triggering a further wave of ill-timed cost shifting to private insurers.

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