Are hospital mergers a good thing or a bad thing?
Much of the answer to that question depends on what happens after the merger—does the combined organization provide better, more efficient care, or does it use its increased leverage to raise prices? Yet another round of back and forth on this issue took place this week, as the American Hospital Association (AHA) released the results of a study it commissioned from economic analysis firm Charles River Associates (CRA), while a group of academic antitrust specialists countered with their own briefing in response.
The AHA study, based on interviews with select health system leaders and econometric analysis by CRA, shows (surprise, surprise) that consolidation decreases hospital expenses by 2.3 percent, reduces mortality and readmissions, and reduces revenue per admission by 3.5 percent—indicating that the “savings” from consolidation are being passed along to purchasers. The economists, including Martin Gaynor at Carnegie Mellon, Zack Cooper at Yale, and Leemore Dafny at Harvard, countered in their briefing (surprise, surprise) that CRA’s research was biased in favor of hospitals, and cited numerous academic studies that indicate that hospital consolidation drives overall healthcare costs higher.
Beyond the predictable debate, our view is that consolidation can and should lead to better quality and lower prices—but that it largely hasn’t delivered on that promise. The prospect of “integrated care” that’s often touted by consolidation advocates hasn’t materialized in most places, both because hospital executives haven’t pushed hard enough on strategies to produce it, and because the market lacks sufficient incentives to encourage it.
The American Hospital Association released a report stating that hospital acquisitions allow providers to provide better care at a lower cost to patients.
The report, which revisited an analysis concluding similar results three years ago, found acquisitions decrease cost due to the increased size of a combined system as well as clinical standardization.
Specifically, the AHA said hospital acquisitions lead to a 2.3 percent reduction in annual operating expenses at acquired hospitals. The study also said readmission and mortality rates decline at merging hospitals, and acquired hospitals see revenues per admission decline 3.5 percent, suggesting “savings that accrue to merging hospitals are passed on to patients and their health plans.”
However, the AHA’s findings — which were largely based on interviews with leaders of 10 health systems who weren’t randomly surveyed — contradict a wealth of economic data published that argues the opposite.
Last year, researchers found hospitals in monopoly markets, compared to hospitals in markets with four or more competitors, have prices that are 12 percent higher. In markets with four or more competitors, hospitals have lower prices and take on more financial risk, researchers said. Another independent analysis found hospital prices rise after hospitals combine. Researchers have also questioned whether consolidation really leads to better quality.