The High Price of Lowering Health Costs for 150 Million Americans

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The Problem

Employers — including companies, state governments and universities — purchase health care on behalf of roughly 150 million Americans. The cost of that care has continued to climb for both businesses and their workers.

For many years, employers saw wasteful care as the primary driver of their rising costs. They made benefits changes like adding wellness programs and raising deductibles to reduce unnecessary care, but costs continued to rise. Now, driven by a combination of new research and changing market forces — especially hospital consolidation — more employers see prices as their primary problem.

The Evidence

The prices employers pay hospitals have risen rapidly over the last decade. Those hospitals provide inpatient care and increasingly, as a result of consolidation, outpatient care too. Together, inpatient and outpatient care account for roughly two-thirds of employers’ total spending per employee.

By amassing and analyzing employers’ claims data in innovative ways, academics and researchers at organizations like the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) and RAND have helped illuminate for employers two key truths about the hospital-based health care they purchase:

1) PRICES VARY WIDELY FOR THE SAME SERVICES

Data show that providers charge private payers very different prices for the exact same services — even within the same geographic area.

For example, HCCI found the price of a C-section delivery in the San Francisco Bay Area varies between hospitals by as much as:$24,107

Research also shows that facilities with higher prices do not necessarily provide higher quality care. 

2) HOSPITALS CHARGE PRIVATE PAYERS MORE

Data show that hospitals charge employers and private insurers, on average, roughly twice what they charge Medicare for the exact same services. A recent RAND study analyzed more than 3,000 hospitals’ prices and found the most expensive facility in the country charged employers:4.1xMedicare

Hospitals claim this price difference is necessary because public payers like Medicare do not pay enough. However, there is a wide gap between the amount hospitals lose on Medicare (around -9% for inpatient care) and the amount more they charge employers compared to Medicare (200% or more).

Employer Efforts

A small but growing group of companies, public employers (like state governments and universities) and unions is using new data and tactics to tackle these high prices. (Learn more about who’s leading this work, how and why by listening to our full podcast episode in the player above.)

Note that the employers leading this charge tend to be large and self-funded, meaning they shoulder the risk for the insurance they provide employees, giving them extra flexibility and motivation to purchase health care differently. The approaches they are taking include:


Steering Employees

Some employers are implementing so-called tiered networks, where employees pay more if they want to continue seeing certain, more expensive providers. Others are trying to strongly steer employees to particular hospitals, sometimes know as centers of excellence, where employers have made special deals for particular services.

Purdue University, for example, covers travel and lodging and offers a $500 stipend to employees that get hip or knee replacements done at one Indiana hospital.

Negotiating New Deals

There is a movement among some employers to renegotiate hospital deals using Medicare rates as the baseline — since they are transparent and account for hospitals’ unique attributes like location and patient mix — as opposed to negotiating down from charges set by hospitals, which are seen by many as opaque and arbitrary. Other employers are pressuring their insurance carriers to renegotiate the contracts they have with hospitals.

In 2016, the Montana state employee health planled by Marilyn Bartlett, got all of the state’s hospitals to agree to a payment rate based on a multiple of Medicare. They saved more than $30 million in just three years. Bartlett is now advising other states trying to follow her playbook.

In 2020, several large Indiana employers urged insurance carrier Anthem to renegotiate their contract with Parkview Health, a hospital system RAND researchers identified as one of the most expensive in the country. After months of tense back-and-forth, the pair reached a five-year deal expected to save Anthem customers $700 million.

Legislating, Regulating, Litigating

Some employer coalitions are advocating for more intervention by policymakers to cap health care prices or at least make them more transparent. States like Colorado and Indiana have passed price transparency legislation, and new federal rules now require more hospital price transparency on a national level. Advocates expect strong industry opposition to stiffer measures, like price caps, which recently failed in the Montana legislature. 

Other advocates are calling for more scrutiny by state and federal officials of hospital mergers and other anticompetitive practices. Some employers and unions have even resorted to suing hospitals like Sutter Health in California.

Employer Challenges

Employers face a few key barriers to purchasing health care in different and more efficient ways:

Provider Power

Hospitals tend to have much more market power than individual employers, and that power has grown in recent years, enabling them to raise prices. Even very large employers have geographically dispersed workforces, making it hard to exert much leverage over any given hospital. Some employers have tried forming purchasing coalitions to pool their buying power, but they face tricky organizational dynamics and laws that prohibit collusion.

Sophistication

Employers can attempt to lower prices by renegotiating contracts with hospitals or tailoring provider networks, but the work is complicated and rife with tradeoffs. Few employers are sophisticated enough, for example, to assess a provider’s quality or to structure hospital payments in new ways. Employers looking for insurers to help them have limited options, as that industry has also become highly consolidated.

Employee Blowback

Employers say they primarily provide benefits to recruit and retain happy and healthy employees. Many are reluctant to risk upsetting employees by cutting out expensive providers or redesigning benefits in other ways.recent KFF survey found just 4% of employers had dropped a hospital in order to cut costs.

The Tradeoffs

Employers play a unique role in the United States health care system, and in the lives of the 150 million Americans who get insurance through work. For years, critics have questioned the wisdom of an employer-based health care system, and massive job losses created by the pandemic have reinforced those doubts for many.

Assuming employers do continue to purchase insurance on behalf of millions of Americans, though, focusing on lowering the prices they pay is one promising path to lowering total costs. However, as noted above, hospitals have expressed concern over the financial pressures they may face under these new deals. Complex benefit design strategies, like narrow or tiered networks, also run the risk of harming employees, who may make suboptimal choices or experience cost surprises. Finally, these strategies do not necessarily address other drivers of high costs including drug prices and wasteful care. 

An Unpleasant Surprise

An Unpleasant Surprise

An Unpleasant Surprise - Tradeoffs

Surprise medical bills have become a major issue for Americans, but federal legislation to protect consumers continues to stall. ICongress getting closer to halting this practice?

Listen to the full episode below, read the transcript or scroll down for more information.

https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9yc3MuYWNhc3QuY29tL3RyYWRlb2Zmcw/episode/YTQzMDkzOGYtY2Q3MS00ZTU0LWI0ZTAtZGIyMGM3YWQ0ZTk4?sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiRrfOb48zrAhXvmnIEHT-bBvgQkfYCegQIARAF&hl=en

The Basics: The Scope of the Problem

Surprise bills can occur when patients with insurance unknowingly receive care from an out-of-network provider while at an in-network facility (such as a bill from an anesthesiologist for a scheduled surgery).

That provider is not bound by a set rate negotiated with an insurer and may charge more for a service than the insurer is willing to pay, and patients can end up on the hook for the difference.

It is difficult to capture the full extent of the problem, but research shows that surprise bills, also called balance bills, occur often, and have only been increasing in frequency and size over the past few years. 

42% of hospital and ER visits may come with an unexpected charge
$2,000 average size of a surprise bill for a hospital visit
66% of Americans fear surprise bills
80% of Americans support surprise bill protections

The Source: Who’s To Blame?

Physicians

Hospitals employ some physicians directly, but many also contract with speciality physician groups of surgical assistants, anesthesiologists, radiologists, emergency medicine doctors and pathologists who may not be in the same insurance networks as the hospital. This is why most surprise bills occur. Research shows that private equity firms also play an important role, buying up speciality physician groups and using surprise billing as a core part of their business model.

Insurers

Insurers often take a lot of heat for the price of health care, but they play a more limited role in surprise billing. They can create narrow networks that leave hospitals or doctors out and open the door to balance billing. Insurers also do a poor job of maintaining accurate in-network provider directories, which means patients may think they’re choosing an in-network doctor when they are not.

Hospitals

While surprise bills from hospitals are less common than from physicians, they do occur when, for instance, a hospital is not in a patient’s network, but the patient is rushed there because of an emergency.

Ambulances

Air and ground ambulances rides are another source of surprise bills. One analysis showed that air ambulances resulted in median potential surprise bills of almost $21,700.

The Fixes: The Legislation Landscape

Federal Proposals

Over the past two years, Congress has considered at least four bipartisan bills to protect patients from surprise charges, but all four have stalled. The proposals offer different approaches to determine how much insurers will pay out-of-network providers. These bills typically address the problem by adopting a payment standard, arbitration process or a hybrid of the two.

Payment Standard

Insurers reimburse providers for out-of-network bills based on a set amount. Most bills propose using established in-network rates.

Arbitration

This process requires an insurer and provider to submit payment offers to a neutral party who makes the final call.

Hybrid

This approach combines the payment standard with arbitration to resolve disputes. An insurer pays a set amount, and if the provider disagrees, it can initiate arbitration.

State Laws

With federal solutions at a standstill, 30 states have passed varying levels of protections from surprise billing. As of July, 2020, 16 states have more comprehensive protections, which ensure that insured patients are only responsible for paying in-network costs, even when receiving care from out-of-network providers or emergency services at an out-of-network facility. Georgia was the latest state to pass such a law in July 2020. The other 14 states offer far more limited protections.

But even states with comprehensive protections cannot protect all patients from surprise medical bills. States are not able to regulate job-based coverage that falls under a federal law known as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which applies to most employer sponsored insurance. These patients remain vulnerable to surprise medical bills until Congress takes action to ban the practice.

Click on the map below for an interactive map from the Commonwealth Fund that details each state’s protections.

State Balance-Billing Protections | Commonwealth Fund

The Sticking Point: Will Congress Pass Protections?

Despite strong bipartisan support for protecting patients from surprise bills, disagreement comes over how much physician groups should charge and how much insurers should pay. Essentially, resolving this issue may mean Congress has to pick sides.

As a result, stakeholders such as hospitals and private equity-backed physician groups, in particular, have pushed back on federal legislation, arguing that banning surprise billing will cripple their bottom line. These equity-backed physician groups have powerful lobbying groups, and in 2019, spent at least $5 million to persuade lawmakers to halt the legislation.

The pandemic has increased the risk that patients will unknowingly receive care from an out-of-network provider or at an out-of-network facility. The Trump administration tried to limit surprise bills for those in need of COVID-19 treatment by banning hospitals and providers that receive money from its Provider Relief Fund from sending balance bills to patients. But this approach leaves significant gaps and has had mixed success.

 

 

Cartoon – Modern Health Policy

MSSNYeNews: October 18, 2019 - Foul Turns FairMSSNYeNews Surprise Medical  Bills -

3 New Jersey health systems tap Chris Christie for lobbying

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/3-new-jersey-health-systems-tap-chris-christie-for-lobbying.html?utm_medium=email

Lobbyist transparency bill headed to House floor - New Mexico In Depth

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who registered as a lobbyist earlier this month, has three new health system clients: Atlantic Health SystemHackensack Meridian Health and RWJBarnabas Health

The three New Jersey health systems hired Mr. Christie to lobby the federal government on Medicare reimbursement and federal relief funding, according to lobbying disclosure documents submitted June 17.

Mr. Christie is registered to lobby through his firm, Christie 55 Solutions. He works with his former chief of staff Rich Bagger.

Atlantic Health System is based in Morristown, Hackensack Meridian is in Hackensack, and RWJBarnabas is in West Orange.