One of the greatest pleasures of running THCB has been to get to know and host the writings of some of my health policy heroes. This week I have already published work from Jeff Goldsmith, and Ian Morrison & Michael Millenson among others will be featured next week (as the party won’t quite stop). Perhaps one of the most amazing things was that the doyen of health economists, Uwe Reinhardt, offered to write some original pieces for THCB…prodded by former editor John Irvine. This is one of my favorites, riffing on a talk I heard him give in (I think) 1993 about how HCFA was like the Kremlin and how free market Reaganite Republicans had made it so. This piece is from Jan 2017 and Uwe sadly died that November.–Matthew Holt
Although, unlike most other nations, the U.S. has only two parties worth the name, their professed doctrines compared with their actions strikes me as more confusing than the well-known Slutsky Decomposition which, as everyone knows, can be derived simply from a straightforward application of Kramer’s rule to a matrix of second partial derivatives of a multivariable demand function.
The leaders of the drug industry, for example, probably are now breaking out the champagne in the soothing belief that their aggressive pricing policies for even old drugs are safe for at least the next eight years from the allegedly fearsome, regulation-prone, price-controlling Democrats. My advice to them is: Cool it! Follow me through a brief history of Republican health policy, to learn what Republicans will do to the health-care sector when it ticks them off.
Republicans like to tar Democrats over allegedly socialist policy instruments such as price controls, global budgets and deficit-financed government spending. Democrats usually roll over to take that abuse, almost like hanging onto their posteriors signs that says “Kick me.” I say “abuse,” because Republicans have never shied away from using the Democrats’ allegedly left-wing tactics when health care chews up their budgets or turns voters against them.
We Need Legal Assaults On The Greediest Providers!
When a patient is hospitalized, or diagnosed with a deadly disease, they often have no choice about the cost of their treatment.
They are legally helpless, and vulnerable to price gouging.
Medicare offers decent protection — i.e. limits on balance billing, and no patient liability if a claim is denied.
But under age 65, it is a Wild West — especially for emergency care, and drugs and devices. The more they charge, the more they make. Even good health insurance does not offer complete financial insulation.
We need more legal protection of patients. In some cases we need price controls.
‘Charging what the market will bear’ is inadequate, even childish, when ‘the market’ consists of desperate patients. Where contracts are impossible and there is no chance for informed financial consent, government can and should step in.
This series describes the new laws that we need. Very little is required in tax dollars….but we do require a strong will to protect.
Ultimately, spending less on health care is a relatively easy task: We either need to consume fewer services, or spend less on the services that we consume. But much like we teach our Kellogg students about maximizing profits, the devil is in the details.
It’s certainly tempting to ask the government to swoop in on a white stallion and solve the all our problems by fiat. For example, we could have the government simply exploit its monopsony power and set prices, but an artificially low price will lead to an inefficiently low quantity of services and future innovation (stay tuned, we will have more to say about this next week).
Similarly, we could explicitly ration quantities (as opposed to implicitly doing it through a large uninsured population). But how could we hope to determine the right level of care? Ultimately, if we ask the government to unilaterally fix this problem, instead of a white stallion we could behold a pale horse and all that it entails.
The good part, perhaps the best part, about the Affordable Care Act is that it attempts to address this problem using market forces. The question is whether we are ready for what these market forces will entail.
We will focus today on the role of market forces in the insurance market to control prices in the newly established ACA exchanges.
This month the Obama administration announced that it would allow insurers to use “reference pricing” for insurance programs in the exchanges. Under a reference pricing system, insurers set the maximum price they will pay for a specific set of services and if patients go to a facility that costs more than that amount they are required to pay the difference.
The recent Medicare report on variation in hospital “prices” is not exactly news. In fact, I wonder why anyone (including the NY Times and NPR) covered it, let alone make it a lead story.
As you probably know, Medicare reported that hospital charges for specific treatments, such as joint replacement surgery, greatly vary from one hospital to another. (This includes charges for all services during the hospitalization, including room charges, drugs, tests, therapy visits, etc.) Everyone in the healthcare business knows that charges do not equal the actual prices paid to hospitals, no more than automobile sticker prices equal the prices that car buyers actually pay. Except that for the past thirty years, the gap for hospitals greatly exceeds (in percentage terms) the gap for cars. This is not just a nonstory, it is an old nonstory.
So reporters tried to give it a new spin. One angle concerns the uninsured, who may have to pay full charges. I will write about this in a future blog. Another angle is that by publishing these charges, Medicare will encourage patients to shop around. That is the subject of this blog.
I suppose it is okay to tell patients that the amount they might have to pay out of their own pockets may vary from one hospital to the next. But the published charge data is useless for computing out of pocket payments; in fact, it may be worse than useless. As even the NY Times noted, insured patients make copayments based on prices that their insurers negotiate with hospitals. These prices are essentially uncorrelated with charges. So a patient who visits a hospital with low charges may well make higher out-of-pocket payments than a patient who visits a high charge hospital. It is a crap shoot.
If consumers could review and shop for health care coverage as easily as they do television sets, costs would decline and we wouldn’t have as large a health care crisis. At least that’s what some folks would lead us to believe. But the picture isn’t that clear.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal reports how companies are using private health insurance exchanges to lower costs and give employees more flexibility. The exchanges are similar in nature to those mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare)—the difference being a private company is overseeing the exchange and not the federal government or states. Employees are able to log on to a site, review coverage plans with different benefits and a range of deductibles, and choose what works best for their budget.
A consultant running one such exchange was enthusiastic about its progress thus far. “When people are spending their own money, they tend to be more consumeristic,” Ken Sperling, national health exchange strategy leader for Aon Hewitt, a unit of AON Plc, told the Journal. (Aon itself, as well as Sears Holdings Inc. and Darden Restaurants are using a new Aon run exchange.) Benefits consultants Mercer (part of Marsh & McLennan Cos.) and Buck (part of Xerox) are rolling out similar private exchanges.
There’s no doubt that consumers are more astute, on average, regarding price for benefit when directly paying for goods and services.
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.
If there is anything about economics that has been proven over and over, it is that price controls do not work. The unintended consequences are usually worse than the problem that led to the solution in the first place.
Massachusetts legislators, feeling the frustration of higher insurance premiums, are now considering a bill to limit doctor and hospital reimbursement payments to 110% of Medicare rates, or perhaps some other percentage of Medicare rates. The problem with this is that Medicare rates are not fully compensatory to doctors and hospitals and have contributed to the increase in private insurance company rates. This was one of the conclusions reached by the Attorney General in her extensive investigation of these matters.Continue reading…