The Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America (Part 1): The Market Response

Click to access CBC_72_08052020_Final.pdf

 

[Readers’ Note: This is the first of two articles on the Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America. This article
examines how market forces are consolidating, rationalizing and redistributing acute care assets within the
broader industry movement to value-based care delivery. The second article, which will publish next month,
examines gaps in care delivery and the related public policy challenges of providing appropriate, accessible
and affordable healthcare services in medically-underserved communities.]

In her insightful 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore,
Michelle Wucker coins the term “Gray Rhinos” and contrasts them with “Black Swans.” That distinction is
highly relevant to the future of American hospitals.

Black Swans are high impact events that are highly improbable and difficult to predict. By contrast, Gray
Rhinos are foreseeable, high-impact events that we choose to ignore because they’re complex, inconvenient
and/or fortified by perverse incentives that encourage the status quo. Climate change is a powerful example
of a charging Gray Rhino.

In U.S. healthcare, we are now seeing what happens when a Gray Rhino and a Black Swan collide.
Arguably, the nation’s public health defenses should anticipate global pandemics and apply resources
systematically to limit disease spread. This did not happen with the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, COVID-19 hit the public healthcare infrastructure suddenly and hard. This forced hospitals and health systems to dramatically reduce elective surgeries, lay off thousands and significantly change care delivery with the adoption of new practices and services like telemedicine.

In comparison, many see the current American hospital business model as a Gray Rhino that has been charging toward
unsustainability for years with ever-building momentum.

Even with massive and increasing revenue flows, hospitals have long struggled with razor-thin margins, stagnant payment rates and costly technology adoptions. Changing utilization patterns, new and disruptive competitors, pro-market regulatory rules and consumerism make their traditional business models increasingly vulnerable and, perhaps, unsustainable.

Despite this intensifying pressure, many hospitals and health systems maintain business-as-usual practices because transformation is so difficult and costly. COVID-19 has made the imperative of change harder to ignore or delay addressing.

For a decade, the transition to value-based care has dominated debate within U.S. healthcare and absorbed massive strategic,
operational and financial resources with little progress toward improved care outcomes, lower costs and better customer service. The hospital-based delivery system remains largely oriented around Fee-for-Service reimbursement.

Hospitals’ collective response to COVID-19, driven by practical necessity and financial survival, may accelerate the shift to value-based care delivery. Time will tell.

This series explores the repositioning of hospitals during the next five years as the industry rationalizes an excess supply of acute care capacity and adapts to greater societal demands for more appropriate, accessible and affordable healthcare services.

It starts by exploring the role of the marketplace in driving hospital consolidation and the compelling need to transition to value-based care delivery and payment models.

COVID’s DUAL SHOCKS TO PATIENT VOLUME

Many American hospitals faced severe financial and operational challenges before COVID-19. The sector has struggled to manage ballooning costs, declining margins and waves of policy changes. A record 18 rural hospitals closed in 2019. Overall, hospitals saw a 21% decline in operating margins in 2018-2019.

COVID intensified those challenges by administering two shocks to the system that decreased the volume of hospital-based activities and decimated operating margins.

The first shock was immediate. To prepare for potential surges in COVID care, hospitals emptied beds and cancelled most clinic visits, outpatient treatments and elective surgeries. Simultaneously, they incurred heavy costs for COVID-related equipment (e.g. ventilators,PPE) and staffing. Overall, the sector experienced over $200 billion in financial losses between March and June 20204.

The second, extended shock has been a decrease in needed but not necessary care. Initially, many patients delayed seeking necessary care because of perceived infection risk. For example, Emergency Department visits declined 42% during the early phase of the pandemic.

Increasingly, patients are also delaying care because of affordability concerns and/or the loss of health insurance. Already, 5.4 million people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. This will reduce incremental revenues associated with higher-paying commercial insurance claims across the industry. Additionally, avoided care reduces patient volumes and hospital revenues today even as it increases the risk and cost of future acute illness.

The infusion of emergency funding through the CARES Act helped offset some operating losses but it’s unclear when and even whether utilization patterns and revenues will return to normal pre-COVID levels. Shifts in consumer behavior, reductions in insurance coverage, and the emergence of new competitors ranging from Walmart to enhanced primary care providers will likely challenge the sector for years to come.

The disruption of COVID-19 will serve as a forcing function, driving meaningful changes to traditional hospital business models and the competitive landscape. Frankly, this is long past due. Since 1965, Fee-for-Service (FFS) payment has dominated U.S. healthcare and created pervasive economic incentives that can serve to discourage provider responsiveness in transitioning to value-based care delivery, even when aligned to market demand.

Telemedicine typifies this phenomenon. Before COVID, CMS and most health insurers paid very low rates for virtual care visits or did not cover them at all. This discouraged adoption of an efficient, high-value care modality until COVID.

Unable to conduct in-person clinical visits, providers embraced virtual care visits and accelerated its mass adoption. CMS and
commercial health insurers did their part by paying for virtual care visits at rates equivalent to in-person clinic visits. Accelerated innovation in care delivery resulted.

 

THE COMPLICATED TRANSITION TO VALUE

Broadly speaking, health systems and physician groups that rely almost exclusively on activity-based payment revenues have struggled the most during this pandemic. Vertically integrated providers that offer health insurance and those receiving capitated payments in risk-based contracts have better withstood volume losses.

Modern Healthcare notes that while provider data is not yet available, organizations such as Virginia Care Partners, an integrated network and commercial ACO; Optum Health (with two-thirds of its revenue risk-based); and MediSys Health Network, a New Yorkbased NFP system with 148,000 capitated and 15,000 shared risk patients, are among those navigating the turbulence successfully. As the article observes,

providers paid for value have had an easier time weathering the storm…. helped by a steady source of
income amid the chaos. Investments they made previously in care management, technology and social
determinants programs equipped them to pivot to new ways of providing care.

They were able to flip the switch on telehealth, use data and analytics to pinpoint patients at risk for
COVID-19 infection, and deploy care managers to meet the medical and nonclinical needs of patients even
when access to an office visit was limited.

Supporting this post-COVID push for value-based care delivery, six former leaders from CMS wrote to Congress in
June 2020 calling for providers, commercial insurers and states to expand their use of value-based payment models to
encourage stability and flexibility in care delivery.

If value-based payment models are the answer, however, adoption to date has been slow, limited and difficult. Ten
years after the Affordable Care Act, Fee-for-Service payment still dominates the payer landscape. The percentage of
overall provider revenue in risk-based capitated contracts has not exceeded 20%

Despite improvements in care quality and reductions in utilization rates, cost savings have been modest or negligible.
Accountable Care Organizations have only managed at best to save a “few percent of Medicare spending, [but] the
amount varies by program design.”

While most health systems accept some forms of risk-based payments, only 5% of providers expect to have a majority
(over 80%) of their patients in risk-based arrangements within 5 years.

The shift to value is challenging for numerous reasons. Commercial payers often have limited appetite or capacity for
risk-based contracting with providers. Concurrently, providers often have difficulty accessing the claims data they need
from payers to manage the care for targeted populations.

The current allocation of cost-savings between buyers (including government, employers and consumers), payers
(health insurance companies) and providers discourages the shift to value-based care delivery. Providers would
advance value-based models if they could capture a larger percentage of the savings generated from more effective
care management and delivery. Those financial benefits today flow disproportionately to buyers and payers.

This disconnection of payment from value creation slows industry transformation. Ultimately, U.S. healthcare will not
change the way it delivers care until it changes the way it pays for care. Fortunately, payment models are evolving to
incentivize value-based care delivery.

As payment reform unfolds, however, operational challenges pose significant challenges to hospitals and health
systems. They must adopt value-oriented new business models even as they continue to receive FFS payments. New
and old models of care delivery clash.

COVID makes this transition even more formidable as many health systems now lack the operating stamina and
balance sheet strength to make the financial, operational and cultural investments necessary to deliver better
outcomes, lower costs and enhanced customer service.

 

MARKET-DRIVEN CONSOLIDATION AND TRANSFORMATION

Full-risk payment models, such as bundled payments for episodic care and capitation for population health, are the
catalyst to value-based care delivery. Transition to value-based care occurs more easily in competitive markets with
many attributable lives, numerous provider options and the right mix of willing payers.

As increasing numbers of hospitals struggle financially, the larger and more profitable health systems are expanding
their networks, capabilities and service lines through acquisitions. This will increase their leverage with commercial
payers and give them more time to adapt to risk-based contracting and value-based care delivery.

COVID also will accelerate acquisition of physician practices. According to an April 2020 MGMA report, 97% of
physician practices have experienced a 55% decrease in revenue, forcing furloughs and layoffs15. It’s estimated the
sector could collectively lose as much as $15.1 billion in income by the end of September 2020.

Struggling health systems and physician groups that read the writing on the wall will pro-actively seek capital or
strategic partners that offer greater scale and operating stability. Aggregators can be selective in their acquisitions,
seeking providers that fuel growth, expand contiguous market positions and don’t dilute balance sheets.

Adding to the sector’s operating pressure, private equity, venture investors and payers are pouring record levels of
funding into asset-light and virtual delivery companies that are eager to take on risk, lower prices by routing procedures
and capture volume from traditional providers. With the right incentives, market-driven reforms will reallocate resources
to efficient companies that generate compelling value.

As this disruption continues to unfold, rural and marginal urban communities that lack robust market forces will
experience more facility and practice closures. Without government support to mitigate this trend, access and care gaps
that already riddle American healthcare will unfortunately increase.

 

WINNING AT VALUE

The average hospital generates around $11,000 per patient discharge. With ancillary services that can often add up to
more than $15,000 per average discharge. Success in a value-based system is predicated on reducing those
discharges and associated costs by managing acute care utilization more effectively for distinct populations (i.e.
attributed lives).

This changes the orientation of healthcare delivery toward appropriate and lower cost settings. It also places greater
emphasis on preventive, chronic and outpatient care as well as better patient engagement and care coordination.
Such a realignment of care delivery requires the following:

 A tight primary care network (either owned or affiliated) to feed referrals and reduce overall costs through
better preventive care.

 A gatekeeper or navigator function (increasingly technology-based) to manage / direct patients to the most
appropriate care settings and improve coordination, adherence and engagement.

 A carefully designed post-acute care network (including nursing homes, rehab centers, home care
services and behavioral health services, either owned or sufficiently controlled) to manage the 70% of
total episode-of-care costs that can occur outside the hospital setting.

 An IT infrastructure that can facilitate care coordination across all providers and settings.

Quality data and digital tools that enhance care, performance, payment and engagement.

Experience with managing risk-based contracts.

 A flexible approach to care delivery that includes digital and telemedicine platforms as well as nontraditional sites of care.

Aligned or incentivized physicians.

Payer partners willing to share data and offload risk through upside and downside risk contracts.

Engaged consumers who act on their preferences and best interests.

 

While none of these strategies is new or controversial, assembling them into cohesive and scalable business models is
something few health systems have accomplished. It requires appropriate market conditions, deep financial resources,
sophisticated business acumen, operational agility, broad stakeholder alignment, compelling vision, and robust
branding.

Providers that fail to embrace value-based care for their “attributed lives” risk losing market relevance. In their relentless pursuit of increasing treatment volumes and associated revenues, they will lose market share to organizations that
deliver consistent and high-value care outcomes.

CONCLUSION: THE CHARGING GRAY RHINO

America needs its hospitals to operate optimally in normal times, flex to manage surge capacity, sustain themselves
when demand falls, create adequate access and enhance overall quality while lowering total costs. That is a tall order
requiring realignment, evolution, and a balance between market and policy reform measures.

The status quo likely wasn’t sustainable before COVID. The nation has invested heavily for many decades in acute and
specialty care services while underinvesting, on a relative basis, in primary and chronic care services. It has excess
capacity in some markets, and insufficient access in others.

COVID has exposed deep flaws in the activity-based payment as well as the nation’s underinvestment in public health.
Disadvantaged communities have suffered disproportionately. Meanwhile, the costs for delivering healthcare services
consume an ever-larger share of national GDP.

Transformational change is hard for incumbent organizations. Every industry, from computer and auto manufacturing to
retailing and airline transportation, confronts gray rhino challenges. Many companies fail to adapt despite clear signals
that long-term viability is under threat. Often, new, nimble competitors emerge and thrive because they avoid the
inherent contradictions and service gaps embedded within legacy business models.

The healthcare industry has been actively engaged in value-driven care transformation for over ten years with little to
show for the reform effort. It is becoming clear that many hospitals and health systems lack the capacity to operate
profitably in competitive, risk-based market environments.

This dismal reality is driving hospital market valuations and closures. In contrast, customers and capital are flowing to
new, alternative care providers, such as OneMedical, Oak Street Health and Village MD. Each of these upstart
companies now have valuations in the $ billions. The market rewards innovation that delivers value.

Unfortunately, pure market-driven reforms often neglect a significant and growing portion of America’s people. This gap has been more apparent as COVID exacts a disproportionate toll on communities challenged by higher population
density, higher unemployment, and fewer medical care options (including inferior primary and preventive care infrastructure).

Absent fundamental change in our hospitals and health systems, and investment in more efficient care delivery and
payment models, the nation’s post-COVID healthcare infrastructure is likely to deteriorate in many American
communities, making them more vulnerable to chronic disease, pandemics and the vicissitudes of life.

Article 2 in our “Future of Hospitals” series will explore the public policy challenges of providing appropriate, affordable and accessible healthcare to all American communities.

 

 

 

Covid-19 has decimated independent US primary care practices—how should policymakers and payers respond?

Covid-19 has decimated independent US primary care practices—how should policymakers and payers respond? 

9 ways Covid-19 may forever upend the U.S. health care industry - STAT

The coronavirus pandemic has torn through the global economy, suppressing consumer demand and industrial production. As countries look to an eventual recovery, but in a very different environment characterized by continuing distancing measures and loss of public confidence, businesses in many sectors, such as hospitality and retail, are asking how they can adapt to survive these new economic conditions. Yet perhaps surprisingly, those feeling threatened include independent primary care practices in the United States. Despite the USA being one of the most expensive healthcare systems in the world, many primary care practices are now facing financial collapse. Some estimates suggest that primary care practices will lose up to $15 billion during 2020 as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

Covid-19 has highlighted a fundamental weakness in how primary care is paid for in the USA. Many practices are financed by fee-for-service (FFS) reimbursement. Put bluntly, providers make money from office visits, diagnostic tests, and procedures. This has long been criticized for encouraging an expansion of what is considered disease and overtreatment, contributing to the high cost of the American health system. However, it can only work as long as patients keep coming, and they are no longer doing so, at least not in sufficient numbers for many primary care practices to remain viable. The imposition of social distancing policies has seen a severe reduction in office visits, and with it a substantial decline in revenue. The pandemic has taught Americans that the financial model that underpins primary care needs to be reformed. It needs to move from a per-visit reimbursement to a per-patient reimbursement, in other words primary care capitation, as used in many other countries, including the UK.

If the existing reimbursement model is not reformed, the clinical and financial implications for struggling primary care practices, which could play a key role in the continuing coronavirus pandemic, will be far-ranging. From a clinical standpoint, primary care practices that need to lay off staff or close will not be able to respond effectively to an influx of patients who have been delaying care since the pandemic began. Given that primary care is often the entry point into the healthcare system, this could lead to severe reductions in access to routine health care as well as referrals to specialty providers for advanced complaints. From a financial standpoint, many of these independent practices may consider consolidation with larger health systems, something that has been shown to increase prices without improving quality in the long run.

To overcome these issues, insurers and primary care practices could work together to construct capitated payment models. In capitated contracts, providers are paid a risk-adjusted sum for each patient enrolled in the practice. Payment to providers is not reliant on volume of office visits, but rather delivering cost-effective care focused on the health of primary care patients.

As we noted above, this system is already widely used internationally, but there are also good examples in the USA. For example, Iora Health is a venture-backed primary care company that partners with insurers to obtain a flat $150 per-member-per-month (PMPM) fee for taking care of its patients. They also receive bonuses for reducing total cost of care (TCOC). As a result, they have been able to use their dollars for health-related interventions, such as hiring health coaches. They have also demonstrated significant reductions in hospitalizations and health spending along with high patient satisfaction scores. Most importantly, they were able to quickly adapt to the needs of their patient population in the pandemic using alternative models of care, such as online consultations, without the added stress of losing revenue.

There are also many other promising examples of both public and private payers designing capitated contracts for independent primary care practices. In the public sector, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) introduced the multi-payer Primary Care First (PCF) Model. Under PCF, primary care practices will receive a risk-adjusted population-based payment for patients as well as a flat fee for any office visits performed. In addition, there are bonuses for practices to limit hospitalizations, an expensive component of delivering care. However, this is still an experimental program that is supposed to begin in 2021, which may be too late for primary care practices that are already facing financial strain from the pandemic.

In the private sector, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBS NC) has created the Accelerate to Value program for independent primary care practices. Through this program, BCBS NC is offering independent primary care practices a supplemental stabilization payment, based on the number of members a particular practice serves. In return, it is asking them to remain open for patients and deliver care appropriate to the circumstances created by the pandemic. In the longer term, it also asks them to join an accountable care organization (ACO) and consider accepting capitation for future reimbursement. 

While CMS and BCBS can offer blueprints for a path towards primary care capitation, there will be challenges to implement capitation at scale across the nation’s primary care system. A key defining aspect of the US healthcare system is its multitude of payers, from commercial to Medicaid to Medicare. For primary care capitation to succeed, practices will need to pursue multi-payer contracts that cover a critical mass of the patients they serve. Independent practices will also have to adapt to a fixed budget model where excess healthcare utilization could actually lead to financial losses, unlike in fee-for-service.

Ultimately, it is important to recognize that no payment model will be a panacea for healthcare providers during the pandemic and afterwards. However, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted clear deficiencies in the American fee for service system that have existed for almost a century. Covid-19 has created an opportunity for policymakers and providers to look anew at a model that is already implemented widely in other countries, and in parts of the US. At some point there will have to be an inquiry into the many failures that have characterized the American response to covid-19. Given the magnitude of the catastrophe that has befallen the US, in stark contrast to the relative successes achieved in many other countries, it will be essential to challenge many things once taken for granted. One must be the fee for service system that has so clearly undermined the resilience of the US health system. Covid-19 has provided an almost unprecedented opportunity to create a healthcare system that rewards providers caring for patients in a coordinated manner, rather than prioritizing expensive and often wasteful healthcare provision.

 

 

 

 

Navigating a Post-Covid Path to the New Normal with Gist Healthcare CEO, Chas Roades

https://www.lrvhealth.com/podcast/?single_podcast=2203

Covid-19, Regulatory Changes and Election Implications: An Inside ...Chas Roades (@ChasRoades) | Twitter

Healthcare is Hard: A Podcast for Insiders; June 11, 2020

Over the course of nearly 20 years as Chief Research Officer at The Advisory Board Company, Chas Roades became a trusted advisor for CEOs, leadership teams and boards of directors at health systems across the country. When The Advisory Board was acquired by Optum in 2017, Chas left the company with Chief Medical Officer, Lisa Bielamowicz. Together they founded Gist Healthcare, where they play a similar role, but take an even deeper and more focused look at the issues health systems are facing.

As Chas explains, Gist Healthcare has members from Allentown, Pennsylvania to Beverly Hills, California and everywhere in between. Most of the organizations Gist works with are regional health systems in the $2 to $5 billion range, where Chas and his colleagues become adjunct members of the executive team and board. In this role, Chas is typically hopscotching the country for in-person meetings and strategy sessions, but Covid-19 has brought many changes.

“Almost overnight, Chas went from in-depth sessions about long-term five-year strategy, to discussions about how health systems will make it through the next six weeks and after that, adapt to the new normal. He spoke to Keith Figlioli about many of the issues impacting these discussions including:

  • Corporate Governance. The decisions health systems will be forced to make over the next two to five years are staggeringly big, according to Chas. As a result, Gist is spending a lot of time thinking about governance right now and how to help health systems supercharge governance processes to lay a foundation for the making these difficult choices.
  • Health Systems Acting Like Systems. As health systems struggle to maintain revenue and margins, they’ll be forced to streamline operations in a way that finally takes advantage of system value. As providers consolidated in recent years, they successfully met the goal of gaining size and negotiating leverage, but paid much less attention to the harder part – controlling cost and creating value. That’s about to change. It will be a lasting impact of Covid-19, and an opportunity for innovators.
  • The Telehealth Land Grab. Providers have quickly ramped-up telehealth services as a necessity to survive during lockdowns. But as telehealth plays a larger role in the new standard of care, payers will not sit idly by and are preparing to double-down on their own virtual care capabilities. They’re looking to take over the virtual space and own the digital front door in an effort to gain coveted customer loyalty. Chas talks about how it would be foolish for providers to expect that payers will continue reimburse at high rates or at parity for physical visits.
  • The Battleground Over Physicians. This is the other area to watch as payers and providers clash over the hearts and minds of consumers. The years-long trend of physician practices being acquired and rolled-up into larger organizations will significantly accelerate due to Covid-19. The financial pain the pandemic has caused will force some practices out of business and many others looking for an exit. And as health systems deal with their own financial hardships, payers with deep pockets are the more likely suitor.”

 

 

 

 

Myth Diagnosis: Do hospitals charge more to make up for low government pay?

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/myth-diagnosis-do-hospitals-charge-more-to-make-up-for-low-government-pay/560021/

Image result for hospital prices

It’s a mantra from providers to justify the disparate prices charged patients depending on their level of insurance coverage: It’s all in the name of cost shifting to make up for stingy government reimbursement.

The idea is that hospitals bill commercial payers more to make up for low rates from government payers and the costs from treating the uninsured. Providers and payers both insist the practice occurs, but academics are skeptical — and the notion is notoriously difficult to measure.

No one is doubting that the prices are different depending on who is footing the bill. The issue is whether they are dependent on each other.

“What is crystal clear is that there’s a huge unit cost payment differential between government and commercial payers,” John Pickering of Milliman told Healthcare Dive. “What isn’t clear is whether there’s a causal effect between those two.”

Heath economists, doctors and industry executives have been arguing about whether hospitals perform cost shifting for at least 40 years.

Government efforts to tamp down on runaway payments to providers may have sparked the debate. These include Medicare’s shift from strictly fee-for-service reimbursement to the prospective payment system in the 1980s.

Also, the Affordable Care Act attempted to codify efforts to pay providers based on performance with initiatives like the Hospital Readmission Reduction Program and alternative payment models.

Part of the difficulty is untangling factors like differences in geography, quality and market share, said Michael Darden, an associate professor at Carey Business School.

The body of research on healthcare cost shifting is mixed. There is evidence that some hospitals perform cost shifting, but not strong and clear results showing hospitals make such adjustments consistently or what exactly is causing them.

The debate has received some renewed attention as more states approve Medicaid expansion under the ACA and as employers consider offering high-deductible health plans that patients on the hook for more costs, Rick Gundling, senior vice president for healthcare financial practices with the Healthcare Financial Management Association, told Healthcare Dive.

“As folks get more price-sensitive through higher cost-sharing with patients and employers and these types of things — it’s certainly talked about. As it should be,” he said.

Policy implications

The topic may get even more attention as healthcare has come to dominate the early days of the 2020 presidential election, at least among the 20-plus contenders running in the primary.

While still a long way off, a “Medicare for All”-type system seems closer than any time in recent history.

While not all of the proposals explicitly or fully eliminate the private insurance industry, some (including those put forward by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.,) do, and others would at least severely curtail it. One key question for those plans is whether government rates would have to increase in order to keep hospitals and providers above water, and if so, by how much.

To counter, President Donald Trump and his administration have stepped up their scrutiny of industry billing practices. These efforts include pushing Congress to ban surprise billing and executive orders to revamp kidney care in the country and advance price transparency.

For their part,  providers say they’ll be forced to raise other rates if government programs pay less. Insurers will say the phenomenon means they must raise premiums to keep up.

In a statement to Healthcare Dive, America’s Health Insurance Plans pointed the finger at rising hospital prices, spurred in part from provider consolidation. The payer lobby argued health plans do their best to keep out-of-pocket costs affordable for customers through payment negotiations and by offering a number of coverage options.

“However, insurance premiums track directly with the underlying cost of medical care. The rising cost of doctor’s visits, hospital stays, and prescription medications all put upward pressure on premiums,” the group said.

Employers care about this issue as well, especially those that self-insure, said Steve Wojcik, vice president of public policy for the National Business Group on Health. Coverage can get expensive for businesses because they don’t get as good of a deal as government payers, he told Healthcare Dive.

Wojcik suggested more radical change away from fee-for-service payment arranges would be a better way of dealing with the issue. It’s an argument for many who push the healthcare sector’s slow march toward paying for quality and not quantity of treatment.

“I think, ultimately, it’s about driving transformation in healthcare delivery so that there’s more of a global payment for managing someone’s health or the health of a population rather than paying piecemeal for different services, which I think is inflationary,” he said.

Regardless, whether hospitals cost shift isn’t as important as whether they go out of business. “We may be missing the point if we focus on cost shifting,” Christopher Ody, a health economist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told Healthcare Dive.

Charging as much as they can?

A paper Darden helped author in the National Bureau of Economic Research found some hospitals that faced payment reductions from value-based Medicare programs did negotiate slightly higher average payments from private payers.

Health economist Austin Frakt noted the ability to negotiate better pricing could be related to quality improvement these hospitals likely undertook, knowing their quality measures would directly affect future payments.

It comes back to determining causality, Frakt, who holds positions with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Boston University and Harvard, told Healthcare Dive.

“It’s an important distinction, because the simplest economic model which is consistent with the evidence is that hospitals charge as much as they can to each type of payer,” he said. “So, they can’t really change what they receive from Medicare — those prices are fixed. But they charge private payers whatever the revenue- or profit-maximizing price is.”

Hospitals assert there is causality, but haven’t pointed to evidence that convinced Frakt of their argument. Frakt, for the record, understand why hospitals make the argument to policymakers, however.

“I’m not implying that this, throughout, is just to make a profit,” he said. “I think it’s possible to also have the best interests of patients in mind and to have this argument.”

Grundling said there has to be a breaking point somewhere so long as government rates fail to keep up with medical inflation. Also, hospitals have a federal legal responsibility to stabilize any patient regardless of ability to pay and have other philanthropic investments.

“It just puts a greater pressure on other payers in the system,” he said.

Frakt said the argument providers give for cost shifting doesn’t necessarily make sense for the average consumer. “It’s very strange that people find it intuitive that hospitals can readily cost shift because we don’t talk about any other industry like that,” he said. “Nobody says, well, my theater tickets was so much higher because you paid less.”

The idea that healthcare is vastly different from other industries is enduring, however, he said. “People don’t even want to think of healthcare as having prices,” he said. “How do you put a price on that?”