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.
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 consolidation has become a major point of concern for policymakers, antitrust regulators and patient advocacy groups. A 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.
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.
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.