Private insurance is health care’s pot of gold

https://www.axios.com/jp-morgan-2020-private-health-insurance-prices-costs-1e92f969-bffc-4584-a3c9-e8c4072b5144.html

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Private health insurance is a conduit for exploding health care spending, and there’s no end in sight.

The big picture: Most politicians defend this status quo, even though prices are soaring. And as the industry’s top executives and lobbyists gathered this week in San Francisco, some nodded to concerns over affordability — but then went on to tell investors how they plan to keep the money flowing.

 

Where it stands: More than 160 million Americans get private insurance through an employer or on their own, and per-person spending in that market rose by almost 7% in 2018, the highest annual growth rate in 14 years.

  • “Prices are definitely going up,” Owen Tripp, CEO of health tech startup Grand Rounds, told me this week during the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.
  • His company’s vast amount of commercial health data shows big increases in what companies are spending on hospitals, doctors, specialty drugs, devices and out-of-network services.

 

What they’re saying: Many in the industry admit price inflation has been hammering the commercial markets for years.

  • “Cost per unit is the primary driver,” Cigna CEO David Cordani said. He did not mention the exploding costs of administering health insurance.
  • One hospital system at the conference acknowledged that “the number one cause of personal bankruptcy is our industry” — before going on to tell investors about the hospital’s strong margins.

 

Multiple hospital executives claimed they charge commercial plans higher prices to make up for the lower rates they get from Medicare and Medicaid.

  • “Every health system I know of loses money on every Medicaid and every Medicare patient,” Amy Compton-Phillips, a top clinical executive at Providence St. Joseph Health, told me.
  • But the evidence overwhelmingly shows that hospitals’ explanation doesn’t hold water.

 

Drug spending has risen at a slower rate than hospital and physician spending.

  • But in the commercial market, drug companies also have tripled their spending on programs that cover all or part of patients’ out-of-pocket costs, then bill insurers for the full freight.
  • “It’s an intriguing theory,” said Stephen Ubl, CEO of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s main lobbying group. “But I would be shocked if we were a significant contributor” to the increased private spending.

 

The bottom line: The private market is the main pot of money that everyone is chasing at the J.P. Morgan conference, and most in the industry don’t see the ballooning spending within that market as a problem.

 

 

 

 

The Health 202: Who doesn’t like the new North American trade deal? Pharma.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/the-health-202/2020/01/17/the-health-202-who-doesn-t-like-the-new-north-american-trade-deal-pharma/5e20ddda88e0fa6ea99cf6d9/

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Congress has yet to pass major legislation lowering U.S. drug prices. But there are signs within President Trump’s newly passed North American trade deal that the pharmaceutical industry’s grip on lawmakers may be slipping.

The Senate gave the president his long-sought win yesterday just ahead of his impeachment trial, approving in an 89-to-10 vote a sweeping economic pact between the United States, Canada and Mexico that governs more than $1.2 trillion worth of trade between the three countries.

Lawmakers stripped from the final deal several provisions favored by the drug industry that would have boosted efforts by makers of brand-name drugs to quash competition. It was hailed by manufacturers of generic drugs, hospitals and other health providers, who said it sets up a strong and fair foundation for how pharmaceutical products could be treated in future trade agreements with China and the United Kingdom.

The altered U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is “the most balanced trade agreement the U.S. has ever signed,” Jonathan Kimball, vice president of trade for the generic drug group Association for Accessible Medicines, told me.

“I think one of the most important parts of the trade deal is Democrats and Republicans realize the system must change and the bipartisan majority who voted for it have put a marker down that things are changing,” Kimball said.

Indeed, an overwhelming majority of senators from both parties supported the agreement, which the House passed last month by a similarly wide margin, my Washington Post colleagues Erica Werner and Rachel Siegel report. It replaces the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, something Trump repeatedly pledged in 2016 to do.

What’s most significant about the USMCA and prescription drug development is what it didn’t include.

An earlier version would have set the period in which the makers of new brand name drugs are protected from competition at 10 years. That’s two years less than the current 12-year “exclusion period” — but enshrining it in the trade deal would have required Congress to gain permission from Mexico and Canada before altering it in the future.

The original trade deal would also have created additional pathways for makers of branded drugs to extend their exclusivity periods — a practice that’s already common as they seek to maximize earnings off a drug before it has any generic competitors. The companies argue these longer exclusivity periods are necessary to let them reclaim their spending on research and development.

Such practices typically involve biologic drugs, medicines that come from living cells containing proteins and other materials that can treat diseases such as cancer or rheumatoid arthritis. It’s these biologics that are the biggest driver of high drug prices.

So makers of branded drugs were predictably excited about version 1.0 of USMCA and disappointed by version 2.0. Stephen Ubl, president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the stripped-down final version “removes vital protections for innovators.”

“The only winners today are foreign governments who want to steal American intellectual property and free ride on America’s global leadership in biopharmaceutical research and development,” Ubl said in a statement the group issued when the House passed the deal in December.

But the rest of the health-care industry sees the USMCA as a rebuke of an industry that’s already under fire for hiking drug prices while continuing to pocket huge profits.

“Congress and the White House have rightly recognized that at a time when 58 million Americans struggle to afford their prescription drugs, it would be a step in the wrong direction to further enable Big Pharma’s anti-competitive tactics,” said Lauren Aronson, executive director of the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing, a coalition of health groups that includes hospitals, doctors and insurance plans.

From a pure trade standpoint, USMCA isn’t terribly consequential for the U.S. drug industry. Canada and Mexico are not even close to the U.S.’s top trading partners of pharmaceutical products.

Rather, it’s China that produces many of the ingredients U.S. drugmakers use to develop their medicines. Any trade agreement Trump negotiates with China if he wins a second term as president will be more important commercially to the industry. And if that time comes, supporters of the USMCA are hopeful the deal will be used as a starting point.

“We think we now have a template moving forward where both Democrats and Republicans have a trade agreement that supports access to affordable medicines,” Kimball said.

 

 

 

 

 

The health care debate we ought to be having

https://www.axios.com/what-matters-2020-health-care-costs-7139f124-d4f7-44a1-afc2-6d653ceec77d.html

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Americans worry a lot about how to get and pay for good health care, but the 2020 presidential candidates are barely talking about what’s at the root of these problems: Almost every incentive in the U.S. health care system is broken.

Why it matters: President Trump and most of the Democratic field are minimizing the hard conversations with voters about why health care eats up so much of each paycheck and what it would really take to change things.

  • Instead, the public debate focuses on ideas like how best to cover the uninsured and the relative virtue of health care “choice.”

The U.S. spent $3.6 trillion on health care last year, and almost every part of the system is pushing its costs up, not down.

 

Hospitals collect the biggest piece of the health care pie, at about $1 trillion per year.

  • Their incentive is to fill beds — to send as many bills as possible, for as much as possible.
  • Big hospital systems are buying up smaller ones, as well as physician practices, to reduce competition and charge higher prices.
  • And hospitals have resisted efforts to shift toward a system that pays for quality, rather than volume.

 

Drug companies, meanwhile, are the most profitable part of the health care industry.

  • Small biotech companies usually shoulder the risk of developing new drugs.
  • Big Pharma companies then buy those products, market them aggressively and develop a fortress of patents to keep competition at bay as long as possible.

 

The money bonanza is enticing some nontraditional players into the health care world.

 

Insurers do want to keep costs down — but many of their methods are deeply unpopular.

  • Making us pay more out of pocket and putting tighter restrictions on which doctors we can see create real and immediate headaches for patients.
  • That makes insurers the most convenient punching bag for politicians.

 

The frustrating reality: Democrats’ plans are engaging in the debate about possible solutions more than the candidates themselves.

  • It’s a tacit acknowledgment of two realities: That controlling the cost of care is imperative, and that talking about taking money away from doctors and hospitals is a big political risk.

 

What they’re saying: The top 2020 Democrats have actually released “insanely aggressive” cost control ideas, says Larry Levitt, executive vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “But they don’t talk about that a lot.”

  • Medicare for All, the plan endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, would sharply reduce spending on doctors and hospitals by eliminating private insurance and paying rates closer to Medicare’s. Estimates range from about $380 billion to nearly $600 billion in savings each year.
  • Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have proposed an optional Medicare-like insurance plan, which anyone could buy into. It would pay providers less than private insurance, with the hopes of putting competitive pressure on private plans’ rates.
  • The savings there would be smaller than Medicare for All’s, but those plans are still significantly more ambitious than the Affordable Care Act or most of the proposals that came before it.

 

Yes, but: The health care industry has blanketed Iowa with ads, and is prepared to spend millions more, to defend the very profitable status quo.

  • The argument is simple: Reframe the big-picture debate about costs as a threat to your doctor or your hospital. It’s an easy playbook that both parties, and the industry, know well. And it usually works.

 

The bottom line: “Voters want their health care costs reduced, but that doesn’t mean they would necessarily support what it would take to make that happen,” Levitt said.

 

 

 

 

2020 drug price increases unlikely to change policy

https://www.politico.com/newsletters/prescription-pulse/2020/01/07/2020-drug-price-increases-unlikely-to-change-policy-488001

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— 2020 drug price increases unlikely to catalyze cost-cutting action, say experts.

 Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley cited the initial wave of drug price hikes as examples of why their respective bills tackling the cost of pharmaceuticals should move forward. But when Prescription PULSE spoke with a half dozen experts tracking the industry, not one believed the hikes — which averaged around 5 percent across more than 470 drugs — would sway Congress or the administration to drug pricing reform.

“The increases are a persistent reminder that Congress and the administration have done nothing to reduce drug prices. But the increases also happen so regularly that it’s probably unrealistic to think they’ll spur any action this time around,” said Rob Smith, who tracks the political and policy outlook of the drug industry for Capital Alpha Partners.

“I don’t necessarily think the increases themselves improve or diminish the odds of material drug pricing legislation getting across the finish line,” said John Leppard of Washington Analysis.

Of the 471 drugs whose prices have increased, 466 were brand-name medicines, according to GoodRx, which tracks where consumers can get lower-priced medicines. GoodRx doesn’t track doctor-administered drugs so there were likely other increases not captured by their analysis. Other companies are expected to announce price increases as the month goes on.

Despite the focus on drug costs, companies are continuing their habit of regularly raising the prices, often multiple times a year, said Anna Kaltenboeck, a program director and senior health economist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “This is the starting volley for the year so to speak,” she said.

 

 

 

The U.S. Spends $2,500 Per Person on Health Care Administrative Costs. Canada Spends $550. Here’s Why

https://time.com/5759972/health-care-administrative-costs/

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Whether it’s interpreting medical bills, struggling to get hospital records, or fighting with an insurance provider, Americans are accustomed to battling bureaucracy to access their health care. But patients’ time and effort are not the only price of this complexity. Administrative costs now make up about 34% of total health care expenditures in the United States—twice the percentage Canada spends, according to a new study published Monday in Annals of Internal Medicine.

These costs have increased over the last two decades, mostly due to the growth of private insurers’ overhead. The researchers examined 2017 costs and found that if the U.S. were to cut its administrative spending to match Canadian levels, the country could have saved more than $600 billion in just that one year.

“The difference [in administrative costs] between Canada and the U.S. is enough to not only cover all the uninsured but also to eliminate all the copayments and deductibles, and to amp up home care for the elderly and disabled,” says Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College and co-author of the study. “And frankly to have money left over.”

Closing the Health Care Gap : Ashley Judd, Dr. Raj Panjabi (moderated by Haley Sweetland Edwards)
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Research has long shown that the U.S., which uses a disparate system of private providers and insurers, has higher administrative costs than other developed countries that use single-payer systems. But the Annals study puts a finer point on it: as the first major effort to calculate administrative costs across the U.S. health system in nearly two decades, the researchers found that the gap between the U.S. and Canada has widened significantly.

The U.S. now spends nearly five times more per person on health care administration than Canada does. The U.S. administrative costs came out to $812 billion in 2017, or $2,497 per person in the U.S. compared with $551 per person in Canada, according to the Annals study.

Along with Himmelstein, co-authors Steffie Woolhandler and Terry Campbell examined administrative costs for insurance companies and government agencies that administer healthcare, as well as costs in four settings: hospitals, nursing homes, home care agencies and hospices and physician practices. For each category, the researchers determined which costs were administrative and conducted analyses to adjust comparisons between relative costs in the U.S. and Canada.

Insurers’ overhead, the largest category, totaled $275.4 billion in the U.S. in 2017, or 7.9% of all national health expenditures, compared with $5.36 billion in Canada, or 2.8% of national health expenditures. The American number included $45 billion in government spending to administer health care programs and $229.5 billion in private insurers’ overhead and profits, which covers employer plans and managed care plans funded by Medicare and Medicaid.

This insurance overhead accounted for most of the total increase in administrative spending in the U.S. since 1999, according to the study. While the share of Americans covered by commercial insurance plans has not changed much, private insurers have expanded their role as subcontractors handling what are known as “managed care” plans for Medicaid and Medicare. The study notes that most Medicaid recipients are now on private managed care plans and about one third of Medicare enrollees now have Medicare Advantage plans. Both of these types of plans have higher overhead costs than the publicly administered alternatives.

“We were struck, and frankly hadn’t expected it until we delved into the data, by the huge increase in insurance overhead,” Himmelstein told TIME.

Other reports, including one by the Center for American Progress published last April, have identified ways to reduce administrative costs without moving the U.S. to a single-payer health care system. But Himmelstein says his study shows that a public option that preserves private insurance wouldn’t provide the same savings as a traditional single-payer system. “We could streamline the bureaucracy to some extent with other approaches, but you can’t get nearly the magnitude of savings that we could get with a single payer,” Himmelstein says, adding, “If the Medicare public option includes the Medicare Advantage plans, it’s actually conceivable that the public option would increase the bureaucratic costs.”

Most of the public option plans proposed by Democratic presidential candidates are not detailed enough to determine exact costs, Himmelstein says. But overall, he believes they won’t result in significant cost savings.

In addition to their research, Himmelstein and Woolhandler have been longtime advocates for single-payer health care. They co-founded the group Physicians for a National Health Program, which advocates for a single-payer system. They also conducted the initial health administrative costs study on 1999 data and have published other studies comparing hospital administrative costs in the U.S. and other countries.

Himmelstein says his team’s estimates of total U.S. administrative costs in the Annals study are likely conservative. When estimating physicians’ administrative costs, the researchers relied on a 2011 study of time spent by physicians and their staffs interacting with insurers. And he notes that while 2017 data was often the latest available when they were conducting this study, 2018 health spending numbers have since come out showing further increases in insurance overhead.

“We can afford universal coverage with a single payer plan, not just universal coverage but first dollar coverage for everybody in our country if we adopted a single-payer Medicare for all approach,” Himmelstein says. “If you’re going to cover everybody without getting those savings you’re going to have to spend more or you’re going to have to have big co-payments and deductibles that deter people from getting the care that they actually need.”

 

 

Despite provider claims, hospital M&A not associated with improved care, NEJM finds

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/despite-provider-claims-hospital-ma-not-associated-with-improved-care-ne/569671/

Dive Brief:

  • Hospital consolidation is associated with poorer patient experiences and doesn’t improve care, according to a study published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, refuting a common provider justification for rampant mergers and acquisitions.
  • The study funded by HHS’ health quality research division, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, found that acquired hospitals saw moderately worse patient experience, along with no change in 30-day mortality or readmission rates. ​Acquired hospitals did improve slightly in clinical process, though that can’t be directly chalked up to the results of an acquisition, researchers found.
  • It’s further evidence that bigger isn’t always better when it comes to hospitals, and adds onto a heap of previous studies showing provider mergers lead to higher prices for commercially insured patients.

Dive Insight:

Hospitals continue to turn to M&A to navigate tricky industry headwinds, including lowering reimbursement and flatlining admissions as patients increasingly turn to alternate, cheaper sites of care. Provider trade associations maintain consolidation lowers costs and improves operations, which trickles down to better care for patients.

Though volume of deals has ebbed and flowed, hospital M&A overall has steadily increased over the past decade. The hospital sector in 2018 saw 90 deals, according to consultancy Kaufman Hall, up 80% from just 50 such transactions in 2009.

Thursday’s study analyzed CMS data on hospital quality and Medicare claims from 2007 through 2016 and data on hospital M&A from 2009 to 2013 to look at hospital performance before and after acquisition, compared with a control group that didn’t see a change in ownership.

American Hospital Association General Counsel Melinda Hatton took aim at the study’s methods to refute its findings, especially its reliance on a common measure of patient experience called HCAHPS.

“Using data collected from patients to make claims about quality fails to recognize that it is often incomplete, as patients are not required to and do not always respond comprehensively,” Hatton told Healthcare Dive in a statement. “The survey does not capture information on the critical aspects of care as it is delivered today.”

The results contradict a widely decried AHA-funded study last year conducted by Charles River Associates that found consolidation improves quality and lowers revenue per admission in the first year prior to integration. The research came quickly under fire by academics and patient advocates over potential cherrypicked results.

A spate of previous studies found hospital tie-ups raise the price tag of care on payers and patients. Congressional advisory group MedPAC found both vertical and horizontal provider consolidation are correlated with higher healthcare costs, the brunt of which is often borne by consumers in the form of higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

A 2018 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found prices rose 6% after hospitals were acquired, partially due to limiting market competition. Groups like the left-leaning Center for American Progress have called for increased scrutiny from antitrust regulators as a result, but — despite snowballing M&A — there’s been little change in antitrust regulation since the 1980s. The Federal Trade Commission won several challenges to hospital consolidation in the 2010s, but the agency only contests 2% to 3% of mergers annually, according to MedPAC analysts.

Providers, like most actors across the healthcare ecosystem, are increasingly under fire for high prices and predatory billing practices. President Donald Trump’s administration finalized a rule late last year that would force hospitals to reveal secret negotiated rates with insurers, relying on the assumption that transparency would shame both actors into lowering prices.

A cadre of provider groups led by the AHA sued HHS over the regulation, arguing it violates the First Amendment and would place undue burden on hospitals, while potentially stifling competition. The lawsuit is currently being reviewed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.