About 73% of health insurance markets are highly concentrated, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more, a new report from the American Medical Association shows. The report comes a few months after President Joe Biden directed federal agencies to ramp up oversight of healthcare consolidation.
The majority of health insurance markets in the U.S. are highly concentrated, curbing competition, according to a report released by the American Medical Association.
For the report, researchers reviewed market share and market concentration data for the 50 states and District of Columbia, and each of the 384 metropolitan statistical areas in the country.
They found that 73% of the metropolitan statistical area-level payer markets were highly concentrated in 2020. In 91% of markets, at least one insurer had a market share of 30%, and in 46% of markets, one insurer had a share of 50% or more.
Further, the share of markets that are highly concentrated rose from 71% in 2014 to 73% last year. Of those markets that were not highly concentrated in 2014, 26% experienced an increase large enough to enter the category by 2020.
In terms of national-level market shares of the 10 largest U.S. health insurers, UnitedHealth Group comes out on top with the largest market share in both 2014 and 2020, reporting 16% and 15% market share, respectively. Anthem comes in second with shares of 13% in 2014 and 12% in 2020.
But the picture looks different when it comes to the market share of health insurers participating in the Affordable Care Act individual exchanges. In 2014, Anthem held the largest market share among the top 10 insurers on the exchanges, with a share of 14%. By 2020, Centene had taken the top spot, with a share of 18%, while Anthem had slipped to fifth place, with a share of just 4%.
Another key entrant into the top 10 list in 2020 was insurance technology company Oscar Health, with 3% of the market share in the exchanges at the national level.
“These [concentrated] markets are ripe for the exercise of health insurer market power, which harms consumers and providers of care,” the report authors wrote. “Our findings should prompt federal and state antitrust authorities to vigorously examine the competitive effects of proposed mergers involving health insurers.”
The payer industry hit back. In a statement provided to MedCity News, America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national payer association, said that Americans have many affordable choices for their coverage, pointing to the fact that CMS announced average premiums for Medicare Advantage plans will drop to $19 per month in 2022 from $21.22 this year.
“Health insurance providers are an advocate for Americans, fighting for lower prices and more choices for them,” said Kristine Grow, senior vice president of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, in an email. “We negotiate lower prices with doctors, hospitals and drug companies, and consumers benefit from lower premiums as a result.”
Further, the report does not mention the provider consolidation that also contributes to higher healthcare prices. Mergers and acquisitions among hospitals and health systems have continued steadily over the past decade, remaining relatively impervious to even the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scrutiny around consolidation in the healthcare industry may grow. In July, President Joe Biden issued an executive order urging federal agencies to review and revise their merger guidelines through the lens of preventing patient harm.
The Federal Trade Commission has already said that healthcare businesses will be one of its priority targets for antitrust enforcement actions.
Contrary to what health care executives advertise, hospital mergers and acquisitions aren’t good for patients. They rarely improve access to health care or its quality, and they don’t reduce prices. But the system in place to stop them is often more bark than bite.
In 2018, the last year for which complete data are available, 72% of hospitals and more than 90% of hospital beds were affiliated with a health care system. Mergers and acquisitions are increasing the number of health care systems while decreasing the number of independently operated hospitals.
When hospitals buy provider practices, it leads to more unnecessary care and more expensive care, which increases overall spending. The same thing happens when hospitals merge or acquire other hospitals. These deals often increase prices and they don’t improve care quality; patients simply pay more for the same or worse care.
Mergers and acquisitions can negatively affect clinician morale as well. Some argue they lead to providers’ loss of autonomy and increase the emphasis on financial targets rather than patient care. They can also contribute to burnout and feeling unsupported.
Considerable machinery is in place at both the federal and state levels to stop “anticompetitive” mergers before they happen. But that machinery is limited by a lack of follow through.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice have always had broad authority over mergers. By law, one or both of these entities must review for any antitrust concerns proposed deals of a certain size before the deals are finalized. After a preliminary review, if no competition issues are identified, the merger or acquisition is allowed to proceed. This is what happens in most cases. If concerns are raised, however, the involved parties must submit additional information and undergo a second evaluation.
Some health care organizations seem willing to challenge this process. Leaders involved in a pending merger between Lifespan and Care New England in Rhode Island — which would leave 80% of the state’s inpatient market under one company’s umbrella — are preparing to move forward even if the FTC deems the deal anticompetitive. The companies will simply ask the state to approve the merger despite the FTC’s concerns.
The reality is that the FTC’s reach is limited when it comes to nonprofits, which most hospitals are. While the FTC can oppose anticompetitive mergers involving nonprofits, it cannot enforce action against them for anticompetitive behavior. So if a merger goes through, the FTC has limited authority to ensure the new entity plays fairly.
What’s more, the FTC has acknowledged it can’t keep up with its workload this year. It modified its antitrust review process to accommodate an increasing number of requests and its stagnant capacity. In July, the Biden administration issued an executive order about economic competition that explicitly acknowledges the negative impact of health care consolidation on U.S. communities. This is encouraging, signaling that the government is taking mergers seriously. Yet it’s unclear if the executive order will give the FTC more capacity, which is essential if it is to actually enforce antitrust laws.
At the state level, most of the antitrust power lies with the attorney general, who ultimately approves or challenges all mergers. Despite this authority, questionable mergers still go through.
In 2018, for example, two competing hospital systems in rural Tennessee merged to become Ballad Health and the only source of care for about 1.2 million residents. The deal was opposed by the FTC, which deemed it to be a monopoly. Despite the concerns, the state attorney general and Department of Health overrode the FTC’s ruling and approved the merger. (This is the same mechanism the Rhode Island hospitals hope to employ should the FTC oppose their merger.) As expected, Ballad Health then consolidated the services offered at its facilities and increased the fees on patient bills.
It’s clear that mechanisms exist to curb potentially harmful mergers and promote industry competition. It’s also clear they aren’t being used to the fullest extent. Unless these checks and balances lead to mergers being denied, their power over the market is limited.
Experts have been raising the alarm on health care consolidation for years. Mergers rarely lead to better care quality, access, or prices. Proposed mergers must be assessed and approved based on evidence, not industry pressure. If nothing changes, the consequences will be felt for years to come.
Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more.
It’s not often that the American Hospital Association—known for fun lobbying tricks like hiring consultants to create studies showing the benefits of hospital mergers—directly goes after another consolidation in the industry.
But when the AHA caught wind of UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum’s plans, announced in January 2021, to acquire data analytics firm Change Healthcare, they offered up some fiery language in a letter to the Justice Department. “The acquisition … will concentrate an immense volume of competitively sensitive data in the hands of the most powerful health insurance company in the United States, with substantial clinical provider and health insurance assets, and ultimately removes a neutral intermediary.”
If permitted to go through, Optum’s acquisition of Change would fundamentally alter both the health data landscape and the balance of power in American health care. UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S., would have access to all of its competitors’ business secrets. It would be able to self-preference its own doctors. It would be able to discriminate, racially and geographically, against different groups seeking insurance. None of this will improve public health; all of it will improve the profits of Optum and its corporate parent.
Despite the high stakes, Optum has been successful in keeping this acquisition out of the public eye.Part of this PR success is because few health care players want to openly oppose an entity as large and powerful as UnitedHealth. But perhaps an even larger part is that few fully understand what this acquisition will mean for doctors, patients, and the health care system at large.
If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care.
UnitedHealth is the largest health care entity in the U.S., using several metrics. United Healthcare (the insurance arm) is the largest health insurer in the United States, with over 70 million members, 6,500 hospitals, and 1.4 million physicians and other providers. Optum, a separate subsidiary, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more. Through Optum, UnitedHealth also controls more than 50,000 affiliated physicians, the largest collection of physicians in the country.
While UnitedHealth as a whole has earned a reputation for throwing its weight around the industry, Optum has emerged in recent years as UnitedHealth’s aggressive acquisition arm. Acquisitions of entities as varied as DaVita’s dialysis physicians, MedExpress urgent care, and Advisory Board Company’s consultants have already changed the health care landscape. As Optum gobbles up competitors, customers, and suppliers, it has turned into UnitedHealth’s cash cow, bringing in more than 50 percent of the entity’s annual revenue.
On a recent podcast, Chas Roades and Dr. Lisa Bielamowicz of Gist Healthcare described Optum in a way that sounds eerily similar to a single-payer health care system. “If you think about what Optum is assembling, they are pulling together now the nation’s largest employers of docs, owners of one of the country’s largest ambulatory surgery center chains, the nation’s largest operator of urgent care clinics,” said Bielamowicz. With 98 million customers in 2020, OptumHealth, just one branch of Optum’s services, had eyes on roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population. Optum is, Roades noted, “increasingly the thing that ate American health care.”
Optum has not been shy about its desire to eventually assemble all aspects of a single-payer system under its own roof. “The reason it’s been so hard to make health care and the health-care system work better in the United States is because it’s rare to have patients, providers—especially doctors—payers, and data, all brought together under an organization,” OptumHealth CEO Wyatt Decker told Bloomberg. “That’s the rare combination that we offer. That’s truly a differentiator in the marketplace.” The CEO of UnitedHealth, Andrew Witty, has also expressed the corporation’s goal of “wir[ing] together” all of UnitedHealth’s assets.
Controlling Change Healthcare would get UnitedHealth one step closer to creating their private single-payer system. That’s why UnitedHealth is offering up $13 billion, a 41 percent premium on the public valuation of Change. But here’s why that premium may be worth every penny.
Change Healthcare is Optum’s leading competitor in pre-payment claims integrity; functionally, a middleman service that allows insurers to process provider claims (the receipts from each patient visit) and address any mistakes. To clarify what that looks like in practice, imagine a patient goes to an in-network doctor for an appointment. The doctor performs necessary procedures and uses standardized codes to denote each when filing a claim for reimbursement from the patient’s insurance coverage. The insurer then hires a reviewing service—this is where Change comes in—to check these codes for accuracy. If errors are found in the coded claims, such as accidental duplications or more deliberate up-coding (when a doctor intentionally makes a patient seem sicker than they are), Change will flag them, saving the insurer money.
The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others.
To accurately review the coded claims, Change’s technicians have access to all of their clients’ coverage information, provider claims data, and the negotiated rates that each insurer pays.
Change also provides other services, including handling the actual payments from insurers to physicians, reimbursing for services rendered. In this role, Change has access to all of the data that flows between physicians and insurers and between pharmacies and insurers—both of which give insurers leverage when negotiating contracts. Insurers often send additional suggestions to Change as well; essentially their commercial secrets on how the insurer is uniquely saving money. Acquiring Change could allow Optum to see all of this.
Change’s scale (and its independence from payers) has been a selling point; just in the last few months of 2020, the corporation signed multiple contracts with the largest payers in the country.
Optum is not an independent entity; as mentioned above, it’s owned by the largest insurer in the U.S. So, when insurers are choosing between the only two claims editors that can perform at scale and in real time, there is a clear incentive to use Change, the independent reviewer, over Optum, a direct competitor.
If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care. In other words, if the acquisition proceeds and Change is owned by UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S. will own the ability to peek into the book of business for every insurer in the country.
Although UnitedHealth and Optum claim to be separate entities with firewalls that safeguard against anti-competitive information sharing, the porosity of the firewall is an open question. As the AHA pointed out in their letter to the DOJ, “[UnitedHealth] has never demonstrated that the firewalls are sufficiently robust to prevent sensitive and strategic information sharing.”
In some cases, this “firewall” would mean asking Optum employees to forget their work for UnitedHealth’s competitors when they turn to work on implementing changes for UnitedHealth. It is unlikely to work. And that is almost certainly Optum’s intention.
The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others. This means that doctors (and someday, perhaps, hospitals) owned by the corporation will get better rates, funded by increased premiums on patients. Optum drugs might seem cheaper, Optum care better covered. Meanwhile, health care costs will continue to rise as UnitedHealth fuels executive salaries and stock buybacks.
UnitedHealth has already been accused of self-preferencing. A large group of anesthesiologists filed suit in two states last week, accusing the company of using perks to steer surgeons into using service providers within its networks.
Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past.
Beyond this obvious risk, the data alterations caused by the Change acquisition could worsen existing discrimination and medical racism. Prior to the acquisition, Change launched a geo-demographic analytics unit. Now, UnitedHealth will have access to that data, even as it sells insurance to different demographic categories and geographic areas.
Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past, and there’s no reason to expect it to do so in the future. A study published in 2019 found that Optum used a racially biased algorithm that could have led to undertreating Black patients. This is a problem for all algorithms. As data scientist Cathy O’Neil told 52 Insights, “if you have a historically biased data set and you trained a new algorithm to use that data set, it would just pick up the patterns.” But Optum’s size and centrality in American health care would give any racially biased algorithms an outsized impact. And antitrust lawyer Maurice Stucke noted in an interview that using racially biased data could be financially lucrative. “With this data, you can get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise purchase at the highest price they are willing to pay … when there are often fewer options in their community, the poor are often charged a higher price.”
The fragmentation of American health care has kept Big Data from being fully harnessed as it is in other industries, like online commerce. But Optum’s acquisition of Change heralds the end of that status quo and the emergence of a new “Big Tech” of health care. With the Change data, Optum/UnitedHealth will own the data, providers, and the network through which people receive care. It’s not a stretch to see an analogy to Amazon, and how that corporation uses data from its platform to undercut third parties while keeping all its consumers in a panopticon of data.
The next step is up to the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the acquisition (through an informal agreement, the DOJ monitors health insurance and other industries, while the FTC handles hospital mergers, pharmaceuticals, and more). The longer the review takes, the more likely it is that the public starts to realize that, as Dartmouth health policy professor Dr. Elliott Fisher said, “the harms are likely to outweigh the benefits.”
There are signs that the DOJ knows that to approve this acquisition is to approve a new era of vertical integration. In a document filed on March 24, Change informed the SEC that the DOJ had requested more information and extended its initial 30-day review period. But the stakes are high. If the acquisition is approved, we face a future in which UnitedHealth/Optum is undoubtedly “the thing that ate American health care.”
When Jeff Goldsmith and Ian Morrison talk, people listen (apologies to E.F. Hutton…Goldsmith and Morrison are old enough to get that reference, anyway). These two lions of health policy and strategy came together recently to pen an editorial in Health Affairs examining the impact of large integrated health systems on the nation’s response to COVID-19. Morrison and Goldsmith admit to often finding themselves on opposite sides of consolidation issue, but looking back over the past year, both agree the scale systems have built over decades has been foundational to their effective and rapid response to the pandemic, which they rate as “better than just about any other element of our society”.
Larger health systems were able to mobilize the resources to secure protective gear as supplies dwindled.They responded at a speed many would have thought impossible, doubling ICU capacity in a matter of days, and shifting care to telemedicine, implementing their five-year digital strategies during the last two weeks of March.
This kind of innovation would have been impossible without the investments in IT and electronic records enabled by scale—butsystems also exhibited an impressive degree of “systemness”, making important decisions quickly, and mobilizing across regional footprints. Given the financial stresses experienced by smaller providers, consolidation is sure to increase. And the Biden healthcare team will likely bring more scrutiny to health system mergers.
Morrison and Goldsmith urge regulators to reconsider the role of health systems. The government should continue to pursue truly anticompetitive behavior that raises employer and consumer prices. But lawmakers should focus less on the sheer size of health systems and rather on their behavior, considering the potential societal impact a combined system might deliver—and creating policy that takes into account the role health systems have played in bolstering our public health infrastructure.
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.
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
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).
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:
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 plan, led 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.
Employers face a few key barriers to purchasing health care in different and more efficient ways:
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.
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.
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. A recent KFF survey found just 4% of employers had dropped a hospital in order to cut costs.
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.
Health insurers are no longer immune from federal antitrust scrutiny for conduct considered the business of insurance.
The Competitive Health insurance Reform Act of 2020 became law on January 13, a move praised by the Department of Justice but opposed by health insurers.
Health insurers are no longer immune from federal antitrust scrutiny for conduct considered the business of insurance and regulated by state law.
With enactment of the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act, the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission have expanded authority to prosecute alleged anticompetitive behavior, including data sharing between insurers.
The McCarran-Ferguson Act previously afforded immunity by exempting from federal antitrust laws certain conduct considered the “business of insurance.” This exemption has sometimes been interpreted by courts to allow a range of what the Justice Department considered “harmful” anticompetitive conduct in health insurance markets.
The new law aims to promote more competition in health insurance markets by limiting the scope of conduct that’s exempt from antitrust laws. This move was praised by the Trump Justice Department shortly before the former president left office.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
The antitrust scrutiny is coming at a time when insurers are under a deadline to meet interoperability standards to share information with patients that meet Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, or FHIR, standards.
“The McCarran-Ferguson Act recognized that all healthcare is local, and that states should be able to govern their own health insurance markets,” Eyles said in December. “Removal of this exemption adds tremendous administrative costs while delivering absolutely no value for patients and consumers. It will unnecessarily add layers of bureaucracy, destabilize markets, create conflicting federal and state oversight requirements, and lead to costly litigation.”
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners sent a letter to Senate leaders on December 2 voicing its concern for the bill’s passage.
“The premise of the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act is that collusion among health insurance companies is permitted under state law and that the McCarran-Ferguson Act somehow currently protects these practices. This is not true. The McCarran-Ferguson antitrust exemption for health insurance does not allow or encourage conspiratorial behavior but simply leaves oversight of insurance, including health insurance, to the states – and state laws do not allow collusion,” commissioners said.
“The potential for bid rigging, price-fixing and market allocation is of great concern to state insurance regulators and we share your view that such practices would be harmful to consumers and should not be tolerated. However, we want to assure you that these activities are not permitted under state law,” commissioners wrote.
While insurers have not been thrilled with the move, Consumer Reports said the legislation is good for providers who have felt pressured into contract terms that benefit insurers.
THE LARGER TREND
The Justice Department has a track record of successfully enforcing the antitrust laws against health insurers. Over the past five years, the department has enforced the antitrust laws against health insurers involved in transactions valued at over $160 billion.
The Act will help the department build on those successes by requiring health insurers to play by the same rules as competitors in other industries. It will clarify when health insurers qualify for the McCarran-Ferguson exemption, and it will enable the Antitrust Division to spend resources more efficiently to achieve desired results, the Justice Department said.
On January 13, Trump signed into law the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020, which limits the antitrust exemption available to health insurance companies under the McCarran-Ferguson Act. The act, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore), passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 21, 2020 and passed the Senate on Dec. 22.
As happened with cars in the 1960s, price competition among brand-name drugs is hard to find.
Before 1973, when the Arab oil embargo upended the U.S. auto industry, Americans witnessed an annual ritual by carmakers. In the late summer, the Big Three — Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors — would release sticker prices for their products, always showing increases, of course.
Almost always, the increases from each company for similar models were nearly identical. If one company’s was out of line — substantially bigger or smaller than its erstwhile competitors’ — it quickly made an adjustment. Explicit collusion to fix prices was never proven, but the effect for consumers was the same.
Now, researchers report that something very similar seems to be occurring for big-market brand-name drugs, including anti-diabetic medications and blood thinners.
Average wholesale prices for products in five classes — direct-acting oral anticoagulants (DOACs), P2Y12 inhibitors, glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) agonists, dipeptidyl dipeptidase-4 (DPP-4) inhibitors, and sodium-glucose transport protein-2 (SGLT-2) inhibitors — increased in “lock-step” each year from 2015 to 2020, according to Joseph Ross, MD, of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and colleagues writing in JAMA Network Open.
These increases ranged from annual averages of 6.6% for DDP4 inhibitors to 13.5% for P2Y12 inhibitors — far outpacing not only inflation in general, but even the 2.1% average for all prescription drugs.
Within each class, Kendall τb correlation coefficients for average wholesale prices were as follows:
SGLT-2 inhibitors: 0.98
DPP-4 inhibitors: 0.96
GLP-1 agonists: 0.92
P2Y12 inhibitors: 0.75
“These results suggest there was little price competition among the sponsors of these products,” Ross and colleagues wrote.
Although the analysis came with significant limitations — it didn’t account for rebates or other discounts, for example — the researchers said some patients must suffer from these increases.
“Rebates, list prices, and net prices have been growing for brand-name medications, and rebate growth has been shown to positively correlate with list price growth, thereby impacting costs faced by patients paying a percentage of (or the full) list price,“ the group noted. “Therefore, the lock-step price increases of brand-name medications, without evidence of price competition, raise concerns and would be expected to adversely affect patient adherence to medications and thus clinical outcomes.”
For the car buyers, the solution to lock-step price increases was imposed from outside: soaring gas prices in the mid-1970s prompted demand for vehicles with better fuel economy than domestic makers were prepared to sell. That opened the market to Japanese cars that not only got better mileage, but were also more reliable and (in many cases) cheaper than Big Three products. Thus ended Detroit’s ability to set prices.
How to rein in Big Pharma is less clear. For their part, Ross and colleagues suggested policies to limit such lock-step price hikes, shortened patent exclusivity periods, and faster introduction of generic equivalents.
Congress passed a bill that would end an antitrust exemption for health insurers, and the legislation is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump, according to The National Law Review.
On Sept. 21, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020, with the Senate passing the Act on Dec. 22, 2020.
The bill would repeal parts of the McCarran-Ferguson Act that exempt insurance businesses from most federal regulation, including antitrust regulation. When the bill passed the House, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who introduced the bill, said, “As long as this exemption is still on the books, health insurance companies legally can, and do, collude to drive up prices, limit competition, conspire to underpay doctors and hospitals, and overcharge consumers.”
Proponents of the McCarran-Ferguson Act have said it sets up important state authorities. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has said, “The McCarran-Ferguson Act is as relevant today as it was when it was adopted. It contains the basic delegation of authority from Congress to the states with respect to the regulation and taxation of the business of insurance. It has been affirmed as the law of the land in the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and in the Dodd-Frank Act.”
The Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020 was presented to President Trump for his signature on Jan. 1. He was expected to sign the legislation before pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol Jan. 6.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a lawsuit to stop Memphis, Tennessee-based Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s $250 million acquisition of two hospitals in the area owned by Tenet Healthcare.
The agency said in the federal lawsuit filed Friday that the acquisition of two Memphis-based hospitals known as Saint Francis would imperil competition in the area.
Competition would dampen for a “broad range of inpatient medical and surgical diagnostic and treatment services that require an overnight hospital stay,” the FTC said in a release Friday. “If the proposed acquisition is consummated, healthcare costs will rise.”
FTC said only four hospital systems provide general services to the area. If the deal goes through, the new health system would control approximately 60% of the Memphis market.
“It’s clear that patients in the Memphis area have benefited from the competitive pressure that Saint Francis brings to bear on Methodist, through lower rates, more options for insurers and patients, and quality improvements,” said Daniel Francis, deputy director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, in a statement.
FTC is seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the deal until completion of a trial next year.
This is the latest move by the FTC to combat hospital mergers. Last year, the FTC launched a probe into the effects of health system mergers on prices and healthcare quality.
Methodist and Tenet said in a joint statement they are reviewing the lawsuit and were bewildered by the move.
“We are surprised by the FTC action given the strong support for the transaction by local stakeholders, including leading local health plans, physicians, employers and community leaders,” the statement said.