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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Hospital M&A spurs rising healthcare costs, MedPAC finds

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/hospital-ma-spurs-rising-healthcare-costs-medpac-finds/566858/

Dive Brief:

  • Both vertical and horizontal hospital consolidation is correlated with higher healthcare costs, according to a congressional advisory committee on Medicare, in yet another study finding rampant mergers and acquisitions drive up prices for consumers.
  • The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission found providers with greater market share see higher commercial profit margins, leading to higher costs per discharge, though the direct relationship between market share and cost per discharge was not statistically meaningful itself.
  • MedPAC also found vertical integration between health systems and physician practices increases prices and spending for consumers. The top-down consolidation leads to higher prices for commercial payers and Medicare alike, as hospitals have more bargaining heft and benefit from Medicare’s payment hikes for hospital outpatient departments.

Dive Insight:

Hospital consolidation has become a major point of concern for policymakers, antitrust regulators and patient advocacy groups.slew of prior studies have found unchecked provider M&A contributes to higher healthcare costs, with the brunt often borne by consumers in the form of higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

Since 2003, the number of “super-concentrated” markets has increased from 47% to 57%, according to the MedPAC analysis of CMS and American Hospital Association data. Those markets, with a high amount of consolidation, rarely see new providers enter, which stifles competition, and are rarely reviewed by the government.

There’s been little change in antitrust regulation since the 1980s and, though the Federal Trade Commission has won several challenges to hospital consolidation in the 2010s, the agency only challenges 2% to 3% of mergers annually.

MedPAC also found super-concentrated insurance markets actually led to lower costs per discharge compared to lower levels of payer concentration, deflating somewhat hospital lobbies’ arguments that payer consolidation is driving prices higher.

Committee members called for more analysis of how macro trends like an aging population and federal policy could be driving consolidation and impacting prices, leading some to call for a revamp of the hospital payment framework itself.

“We have to change the way hospitals are paid. I don’t see another solution,” said Brian DeBusk, CEO of Tennesse-based DeRoyal Industries, a medical manufacturer. “Are you going to undo a thousand hospital mergers? Are you going to enact rate setting? I don’t see another way.”

MedPAC also looked at vertical integration, where hospitals snap up physicians practices downstream. According to the Physician Advocacy Institute, only 26% of physician practices were owned by hospitals in 2012, but by last year that number had spiked to 44%.

Since 2012, billing has shifted from physician offices to hospital outpatient departments, especially in specialty practices. In chemotherapy administration, for example, physician offices saw almost 17% less volume between 2012 and 2018, while outpatient centers saw a 53% increase in volume, according to MedPAC.

Physicians in hospital-owned practices also refer more patients to the hospital’s facilities and, despite a common stumping point that integration improves quality through care coordination, its effect on quality is “ambiguous,” MedPAC analyst Dan Zabinski said Thursday at the committee’s November meeting.

Despite the mountain of evidence, the AHA published a widely-decried study in September claiming acquired hospitals see a reduction in operating expenses and a statistically significant drop in readmission and mortality rates. The study was criticized for not using actual claims data in its analysis among other methodological and conflict of interest concerns.

Republican leaders in the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked MedPAC to study provider consolidation in August, and the body’s full findings will be included in its March report to Congress.​

 

 

 

 

 

Private insurance’s costs are skyrocketing

https://www.axios.com/health-insurance-costs-private-medicare-medicaid-c40bb6f1-c638-4bc3-9a71-c1787829e62e.html?utm_source=The+Fiscal+Times&utm_campaign=7d18fa690b-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_12_16_10_26&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_714147a9cf-7d18fa690b-390702969

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The cost of private health insurance is out of control, compared to Medicare and Medicaid. You see that clearly if you take a long-term view of recently released federal data on health spending.

Why it matters: This is why the health care industry — not just insurers, but also hospitals and drug companies — is so opposed to proposals that would expand the government’s purchasing power. And it’s why some progressives are so determined to curb, or even eliminate, private coverage.

By the numbers: Per capita spending for private insurance has grown by 52.6% over the last 10 years.

  • Per-capita spending for Medicare grew by 21.5% over the same period, and Medicaid 12.5%.

Private insurance generally pays higher prices for care than Medicare, which generally pays more than Medicaid.

  • There’s a long-running debate about whether public programs deliver efficiency because of their purchasing power, or simply underpay.
  • Democrats have proposed a variety of steps to curb health care costs, including cutting payments for out-of-network care, competition from a public insurance plan, and steep payment cuts through Medicare for All.
  • Industry opposes most of them.

The bottom line: The industry knows cutting government spending can only go so far. Any effort to rein in health care costs will have to confront the growth in the cost of private insurance.

 

 

 

Benefit design, higher deductibles will increase bad debt for hospitals

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/node/139468

Legislative proposals could reduce bad debt, but would likely introduce additional complexity to billing processes.

Changes in insurance benefit design that shift greater financial responsibility to the patient, rising healthcare costs and confusing medical bills will continue to drive growth in bad debt — often faster than net patient revenue, according to a new report from Moody’s.

Legislative proposals to simplify billing have the potential to reduce bad debt, but the downside for hospitals is that they’ll likely introduce additional complexity to billing processes and complicate relationships with contracted physician groups. A recent accounting change will reduce transparency around reporting bad debt.

Higher cost sharing and rising deductibles are the main contributors to the trend of patients assuming greater financial responsibility, a trend that’s been occurring for more than a decade, and that will further increase the amount of uncollected payments. Hospitals and providers are responsible for collecting copays and deductibles from patients, which may not always be possible at the time of service; the longer the delay between providing service and collecting payment, the less likely a hospital is to collect payment.

On top of that, the higher an individual’s deductible is, the greater the share of reimbursement that a hospital has to collect. The prevalence of general deductibles increased to 85% of covered workers in 2018, up from 55% in 2006, and the amount of the annual deductible almost tripled in that time to an average of $1,573.

Multiple factors are driving the trend toward higher cost sharing, including a desire among employees and employers for stable premium growth despite steadily rising healthcare costs and the growing popularity of high deductible health plans.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT

Hospitals face an uphill battle when it comes to reducing bad debt. Strategies include point-of-service collections, enhanced technology to better estimate a patient’s responsibility for a medical bill, and offering low-cost financing or payment plans.

A common feature of these approaches is educating patients about what portion of a medical bill is their responsibility, after taking into account the specifics of their insurance plan. But hospitals often find it hard to provide reliable cost estimates for a given service, which can thwart efforts to provide patients with an accurate estimate of their financial responsibility.

One difficulty is that medical bills partly depend on the complexity of service and amount of resources consumed — which may not be known ahead of time. There’s also the need to incorporate specific benefits of the patient’s own insurance plan. A certain amount of bad debt is likely to arise from patients accessing emergency care given the insufficient time to determine insurance coverage.

Another difficulty in billing is surprise medical bills, received by insured patients who inadvertently receive care from providers outside their insurance networks, usually in emergency situations. While the term “surprise medical bills” refers to a specific, narrow slice of healthcare costs, they have become part of the broader debate about the affordability and accessibility of U.S. healthcare.

THE LARGER TREND

To minimize surprise bills, Congress is considering proposals to essentially “bundle” all of the services a patient receives in an emergency room into a single bill. Under a bundled billing approach, the hospital would negotiate a set charges for a single or “bundled” episode of care in the emergency room. The hospital would then allocate payments to the providers involved.

This approach, which major hospital and physician trade groups oppose, has the potential to significantly affect hospitals and disrupt the business models of physician staffing companies, according to Moody’s. Many hospitals outsource the operations and billing of their emergency rooms or other departments to staffing companies. Bundling services would require a change in the contractual relationship between hospitals and staffing companies.

Another recent proposal in Congress would require in-network hospitals to guarantee that all providers operating at their facilities are also in network. This approach adds significant complexity because many physicians and ancillary service providers are not employed or controlled by the hospitals where they work. Some hospitals would likely seek to employ more physicians, leading to increases in salaries, benefits and wages expense.

 

A stunning indictment of the U.S. health-care system, in one chart

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/12/10/stunning-indictment-us-health-care-system-one-chart/?fbclid=IwAR35UzHd8LQexhBxPukkwmBAmGGyxhagBfTR6CINomsJcSM-IkjiC26x10c

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One quarter of American adults say they or a family member has put off treatment for a serious medical condition because of cost, according to data released this week by Gallup. That number is the highest it’s been in nearly three decades of Gallup polling.

An additional 8 percent have made the same choice for less serious ailments, the survey showed. That means a collective 33 percent of those polled have prioritized financial considerations over their health, tying the high set in 2014.

The report also shows a growing income gap in cost-related delays. In 2016, for instance, one-fourth of U.S. households earning less than $40,000 a year reported cost-related delays, vs. 13 percent for households making more than $100,000. In 2019, the rate of cost-related delays among poorer households shot up to 36 percent, while the rate for the richer group remained at 13 percent.

Gallup cautions that the Trump presidency may be influencing these numbers on a partisan level: From 2018 to 2019, the share of Democrats reporting cost-related delays for serious conditions jumped from 22 percent to 34 percent. Among Republicans, the year-over-year increase was more subdued, from 12 percent to 15 percent.

Gallup data also show Democrats (31 percent) self-report higher rates of preexisting conditions than Republicans (22 percent).

“Whether these gaps are indicative of real differences in the severity of medical and financial problems faced by Democrats compared with Republicans or Democrats’ greater propensity to perceive problems in these areas isn’t entirely clear,” according to Gallup’s Lydia Saad. “But it’s notable that the partisan gap on putting off care for serious medical treatment is currently the widest it’s been in two decades.”

Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Employer Health Survey underscores the severity of the health-care spending problem. In 2019, 82 percent of covered workers must meet a deductible before health-care coverage kicks in, up from 63 percent a decade ago. “The average single deductible now stands at $1,655 for workers who have one,” according to KFF, “similar to last year’s $1,573 average but up sharply from the $826 average of a decade ago.”

Deductibles have surged 162 percent since 2009, data show — more than six times the 26 percent climb in earnings over the same period.

There are many factors driving up the cost of care for most American families. Administrative costs are a big part of the issue: Health insurance is largely a for-profit industry, meaning insurance companies and their shareholders are reaping a percentage of your deductibles and co-pays as profit.

Many hospitals, too, are raking in profits. In recent years, surprise billing practices and outrageous markups for simple drugs and services have drawn the ire of lawmakers looking for ways to reduce health-care spending.

Physician pay is another significant expense. The Commonwealth Fund, a health-care research group, estimates American doctors earn “nearly double the average salary” of doctors in other wealthy nations. The American Medical Association, a trade group representing doctors, has a long history of opposing efforts to implement European-style single-payer health-care systems in the United States.

The American health-care system, in other words, works pretty well for the powerful players in the health-care industry. Hospitals and insurance companies are reaping significant profits. Doctors are earning high salaries. But what are the rest of us getting in return for our ever-growing co-pays and deductibles?

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an answer, and it’s an indictment of our health-care system: The United States is in the midst of the longest sustained drop in life expectancy in at least 100 years. Relative to other wealthy countries, lives in America are short and getting shorter.

The disparities domestically are perhaps even more shocking: In the nation’s wealthiest places, where the high cost of modern health care remains within relatively easy reach, life expectancies are literally decades longer than in America’s poorest places.

As health care becomes more expensive and economywide inequalities more pronounced, these disparities in life span are likely to get worse — and the share of Americans skipping out on much-needed medical care only likely to grow.