Market Consolidation on Trial

Market Consolidation on Trial

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California Attorney General Xavier Becerra alleges that Sutter Health used its pre-eminent market power to artificially inflate prices. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

As a jury trial draws near in a major class-action lawsuit alleging anticompetitive practices by Northern California’s largest health system (PDF), a new CHCF study shows the correlation between the prices consumers pay and the extensive consolidation in the state’s health care markets. Importantly, the researchers estimated the independent effect of several types of industry consolidation in California — such as health insurers buying other insurers and hospitals buying physician practices. The report, prepared by UC Berkeley researchers, also examines potential policy responses.

While other states have initiated antitrust complaints against large hospital systems and medical groups in the past, the case against Sutter Health is unique in both the expansive nature of the alleged conduct and in the scale of the potential monetary damages. The complaint goes beyond claims of explicit anticompetitive contract terms and argues that by virtue of its very size and structure, the Northern California system imposed implicit or “de facto” terms that led to artificially inflated prices. Sutter Health vigorously denies the allegations.

The formation of large health systems like Sutter is neither new (PDF) nor unique to California (PDF). Several factors seem to be encouraging their growth, including payment models that place health care providers at financial risk for the cost of care, increased expectations from policymakers and payers around the continuum of patient needs that must be managed, and economies of scale for investments in information technology and administrative services. Some market participants also point to consolidation in other parts of the health care system, such as health plans and physician groups, as encouragement for their own mergers.

Economic Consolidation in California

In general, economists study two major categories of market consolidation:

  • Horizontal consolidation: Entities of the same type merge, such as the merger of two hospitals or insurance companies, or the merger of providers into a physician network.
  • Vertical consolidation: Entities of different types merge, such as when a hospital purchases a physician practice or when a pharmacy buys an insurance company.

To measure market consolidation, the CHCF study relied on the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI), a metric used by the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. An HHI of between 1,500 and 2,500 is considered moderately concentrated, and 2,500 or above is considered highly concentrated. According to this measure, horizontal concentration is high in California among hospitals, insurance companies, and specialist providers (and moderately high among primary care physicians), even though the level of concentration in all but primary care has remained relatively flat from 2010 to 2018.

The percentage of physicians in practices owned by a hospital or health system increased dramatically in California between 2010 and 2018 — from 24% in 2010 to 42% in 2018. The percentage of specialists in practices owned by a hospital or health system rose even faster, from 25% in 2010 to 52% in 2018.

Consolidation Is Not Clinical Integration

While this study defined and quantified the extent of consolidation across several industry segments in California, it is important to note that it did not define, quantify, or evaluate clinical integration within the state. Clinical integration has been defined by others in many ways, but generally involves arrangements for coordinating and delivering a wide range of medical services across multiple settings.

As the CHCF study authors point out, other analysis has shown that various types of clinical integration can lead to broader adoption of health information technology and evidence-based care management processes. Data from the Integrated Healthcare Association suggests that certain patient benefit designs and provider risk-sharing arrangements associated with clinical integration can lead to higher quality and lower costs.

Crucially, an emerging body of law (PDF) suggests that clinical integration does not require formal ownership and joint bargaining with payers.

Relationship Between Consolidation and Health Insurance Premiums

Among the six variables analyzed in the CHCF study, three showed a positive and statistically significant association with higher premiums: insurance company mergers, hospital mergers, and the percentage of primary care physicians in practices owned by hospitals and health systems. The remaining three variables studied — specialist provider mergers, primary care provider mergers, and the percentage of specialists in practices owned by a hospital and health system — were statistically insignificant.

The figure below shows the independent relationship between market concentration and premiums for these three variables. As the lines move left to right, concentration increases — that is, fewer individual insurers, hospitals, or providers occupy the market. The vertical axis shows the average premiums associated with each level of market concentration. In short, regardless of the industry structure represented by the other variables, insurer consolidation, hospital consolidation, and hospital-physician mergers each lead to higher premiums.

Unexplained Price Variation and Growth

Health insurance premiums rise when the underlying cost of medical care increases. California ranks as the 16th most expensive state on average in terms of the seven common services the researchers studied, after adjusting for wage differences across states. Among all states, California has the eighth-highest prices for normal childbirth, defined as vaginal delivery without complications. Childbirth is the most common type of hospital admission, and the relatively standardized procedure is comparable across states.

Even within California, prices vary widely and are growing rapidly. For example, the 2016 average wage-adjusted price for a vaginal delivery was twice as high in Rating Area 9 (which has Monterey as its largest county) as it was in Rating Area 19 (San Diego) — $22,751 versus $11,387. (See next figure.) Prices for the service are increasing rapidly across counties — rising anywhere from 29% in San Francisco from 2012 to 2016 to 40% in Orange County over the same period.

The authors of the CHCF report investigated the impact of various types of consolidation on the prices of individual medical services in California. For cesarean births without complications, a 10% rise in hospital HHI is associated with a 1.3% increase in price.

Potential Policy Responses to Consolidation

While the study shows significant associations between various types of market concentration and the prices consumers pay, policymakers should carefully consider implementing steps that restrain the inflationary impact of consolidation while allowing the benefits of clinical integration to proliferate. To that end, the authors of the CHCF report offered a series of recommendations, which include:

Enforce antitrust laws. Federal and state governments should scrutinize proposed mergers and acquisitions to evaluate whether the net result is procompetitive or anticompetitive.

Restrict anticompetitive behaviors. Anticompetitive behaviors, such as all-or-nothing and anti-incentive contract terms, should be addressed through legislation or the courts in markets where providers are highly concentrated.

Revise anticompetitive reimbursement incentives. Reimbursement policies that reduce competition, such as Medicare rules that implicitly reward hospital-owned physician groups, should be adjusted.

Reduce barriers to market entry. Policies that restrict who can participate in the health care market, such as laws prohibiting nurse practitioners from practicing independently from a physician, should be changed when markets are concentrated.

Regulate provider and insurer rates. If antitrust enforcement is not successful and significant barriers to market entry exist — including those in small markets unable to support a competitive number of hospitals and specialists — regulating provider and insurer rates should be considered.

Encouraging meaningful competition in health care markets is an exceedingly difficult task for policymakers. It is no easier to promote the benefits of clinical integration while restraining the inflationary aspects of economic consolidation through public policy. Despite these challenges, the rapid rise in health care premiums and prices in the state require a fresh look at the consequences of widespread horizontal and vertical consolidation in California.

 

 

 

Report: 3 in 4 hospital markets are now ‘highly concentrated’

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals-health-systems/report-three-four-hospital-markets-are-now-highly-concentrated?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiT1dJNE5tUTFZV0k1TVdRNCIsInQiOiJMakFtS1IzZmxaRDlQNUtjdFdMUHVYUFdBd1wvXC9EZFR3ekhHU3ZsYVNib2t3bTlEb0Z2bklLZndEZXFOTjZ1RVZ0bURYMXI5dGFNcW92SXFYV25HTVh4d01tNEY4YkVCUnBMamhpbllXSytVTW5ybGJ1OTh0UjJmVDRmSWJ6c1wveCJ9&mrkid=959610

Photo of two men shaking hands in front of a hospital

Nearly 3 in 4 hospital markets around the U.S. are “highly concentrated,” according to a new Healthy Marketplace Index report by the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI).

Researchers examined more than 4 million commercial inpatient hospital claims between 2012 and 2016 and found 81 out of 112 (72%) were considered “highly concentrated” using the Department of Justice’s Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI). That’s up from 67% in 2012. 

“Increasingly concentrated hospital markets have been linked to the rising cost of hospital care by nearly every expert in the field,” said Niall Brennan, president and CEO of HCCI, in a statement.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the report found:

  • 69% of markets studied experienced an increase in concentration.
  • Metro areas with smaller populations tended to have higher concentration levels. For instance, Springfield, Missouri; Peoria, Illinois; Cape Coral, Florida; and both Durham and Greensboro, North Carolina, had the most concentrated markets in the U.S.
  • Larger metropolitan areas including New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago had the lowest levels of concentration.
  • Some of the less concentrated metros in 2012 like Trenton, New Jersey, experienced larger increases in concentration over time.

“Our findings add to the growing consensus that most localities have highly concentrated hospital markets, and this is becoming increasingly true over time,” Bill Johnson, Ph.D., a senior researcher at HCCI and an author of the report, said in a statement. “The increased concentration we observed can be driven by many factors such as hospital closures, mergers, and acquisitions, changes in hospital capacity, patient preference, or changes in patients’ insurance networks.”

Previous, HCCI reports found inpatient hospital prices were rising in nearly every metro area studied. This new study found a positive relationship—but not a causal relationship—between price increases and increases in hospital market concentration. Those findings align with similar findings correlating consolidation with rising healthcare prices including from the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Urban Institute.

However, the American Hospital Association recently released its defense of consolidation in a report that argues mergers can improve costs by increasing scale, improving care coordination, reducing capital costs and improving clinical standardization.

 

 

 

Denver Provider Market at ‘Tipping Point,’ Study Finds

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/denver-provider-market-tipping-point-study-finds?spMailingID=16259324&spUserID=MTg2ODM1MDE3NTU1S0&spJobID=1720747610&spReportId=MTcyMDc0NzYxMAS2

The report expects employers and health plans to exert more influence in demanding market power going forward.

Health systems and physician groups have dominated the Denver healthcare market in recent years, but a new study indicates that employer-purchasers and health plans are poised to disrupt that dynamic. 

Supported by existing legislation, activism from local businesses, and the efforts of Gov. Jared Polis, the Denver market is at a ‘tipping point,’ according to a Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR) and the Colorado Business Group on Health (CBGH) report released Thursday morning.

The study specifically referenced the RAND report from May which found that payers were paying rates to providers well above Medicare levels, noting that employers have an opportunity to pressure insurers to engage providers in contract arrangements that better align with care rendered.

Researchers believe that payment reform is achievable in Denver, suggesting six policy recommendations to business groups, lawmakers, and insurers, including the expansion of price transparency measures and promotion of benchmarking prices relative to Medicare.

Corralling healthcare prices has been a primary issue in Colorado this year, with the state most recently pursuing a reinsurance program that Polis expects to lower premiums by 18%.

The study found that four major health systems, HCA Holdings, Centura Health, UC Health, and SCL Health, accounted for 85% of patient admissions in 2017. On the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, this level is considered “moderately concentrated” but the report highlights that it also means the market is “concentrated enough to stifle price competition.”

While providers have concentrated in the market through continuous merger activity, the study found that insurers are governed by strict regulations. The result has been Coloradans facing 13% higher prices compared to the national average and 5% high utilization rates.

Two of the recommendations offered by the study were to align two-sided risk arrangements with Medicaid and the Polis-Primavera “Roadmap to Affordability,” the governor’s strategic initiative to make care more affordable, as well as to implement benefit designs to “encourage consumers seek higher value care.” The study also urges that employer-purchases to pursue value-oriented programs that hold providers accountable to the listed targets.

However, in an interview with HealthLeaders earlier this year, Centura Health CEO Peter Banko said the system was going to “pause on the mad rush” to value-based care models, citing the direction the market was taking on the issue.

As highlighted in the RAND report, CPR and CBGH believe that building on purchaser momentum through a statewide purchase cooperative can be an effective method at changing the market dynamics in Denver.

Similar to the Employers’ Forum of Indiana, an employer-led healthcare coalition which collaborated on the RAND report, the Peak Health Alliance, a Summit County-based purchaser cooperative, has sought to combat rising healthcare prices in the Denver area. The report states that Peak Health, which represents 6,000 covered lives, has already negotiated a “very aggressive” reduction in rates with Centura.

Bob Smith, MBA, executive director of CBGH, said that the report gives employer-purchasers “the tools to make changes” to the Denver healthcare market and stem the tide of rising prices.

“Healthcare costs, primarily driven by high prices and seemingly unwarranted increases, are edging out salary growth and economic development,” Smith said in a statement. “These trends are taking a toll on every employer from school districts to manufacturers and are simply not sustainable.”

Smith urged lawmakers to act on the report’s suggested reforms but also said that employers now have “the responsibility to act.”