How health care is like an airline

A rapidly consolidating industry. One that generally delivers on very difficult work, but with such a horrible customer-service reputation that people hate dealing with it. Known for wringing every last dollar out of its customers. You and the person next to you may be paying wildly different prices.

Health care, or an airline?

It’s a common comparison, and not without merit.

  • Harvard doctor and researcher Ashish Jha invoked the metaphor last year, in response to a non-profit hospital telling investors that it was trying to boost admissions: “Every extra passenger they can squeeze in is profit,” Jha said.
  • Here’s Brent Miller, a nephrologist at Indiana University, explaining to Modern Healthcare why most dialysis patients are treated in facilities instead of at home: “An empty chair is kind of like an empty seat on an airplane. If we were just looking at this not as people and not as health care but just as a business like an airline, our goal would be to fill all those slots.”
  • And, for the trifecta, here’s Elizabeth Rosenthal, writing in Kaiser Health News: “Just as airlines have been shown to exaggerate flight times so they can boast about on-time arrivals, hospitals set prices crazy high so they can tout their generous discount.”

The bottom line: In all seriousness, this analogy does get at an underlying problem with health care: As much as providers love to talk about new payment models, volume is still king — it’s simply too lucrative to give up.

Can Paying for a Health Problem as a Whole, Not Piece by Piece, Save Medicare Money?

https://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/can-paying-for-a-health-problem-as-a-whole-not-piece-by-piece-save-medicare-money/

Among the standard complaints about the American health care system is that care is expensive and wasteful. These two problems are related, and to address them, Medicare has new ways to pay for care.

Until recently, Medicare paid for each health care service and reimbursed each health care organization separately. It didn’t matter if tests were duplicated or if a more efficient way of delivering care was available — as long as doctors and organizations were paid for what they did, they just kept providing care the way they always had.

But ordinary people do not think this way. We focus on solving our health problem, not which — or how many — discrete health care services might address it. New Medicare programs are devised to more closely align how care is paid for with what we want that care to achieve.

One of these programs is known as bundled payments. Instead of paying separately for every health care service associated with a medical event, you pay (or Medicare pays, in this case) one price for the entire episode. If health care providers can address the problem for less, they keep the difference, or some of it. If they spend more, they lose money. Bundled payment programs vary, but some also include penalties for poor quality or bonuses for good quality.

Medicare has several bundled payment programs for hip and knee replacements — the most common type of Medicare procedures — and associated care that takes place within 90 days. This includes the operation itself, as well as follow-up rehabilitation (also known as post-acute care). In theory, if doctors and hospitals get one payment encompassing all this, they will better coordinate their efforts to limit waste and keep costs down.

Do bundled payments work? They certainly appear promising, at least for some treatments. But it’s important to conduct rigorous evaluations.

Previous studies for Medicare by the Lewin Group and other researchers suggest that Medicare’s Bundled Payments for Care Improvement program has reduced the amount Medicare pays for each hip and knee replacement.

But that doesn’t mean the program saved money over all.

One possible issue would be if, despite saving money per procedure, health care providers wastefully increased the number of procedures — replacing hips and knees that they might not otherwise. A related concern is if hospitals try to increase profits by nudging services toward patients who may not need a procedure as much as patients with more severe and more expensive conditions. An average joint replacement costs $26,000, split almost equally between the initial procedure and post-acute care. But more expensive cases can be $75,000 to $125,000 — a costly proposition for hospitals.

A recent study published in JAMA examined whether the volume of Medicare-financed hip and knee replacements changed in the markets served by hospitals that volunteered for a bundled payments program, relative to markets with no hospitals joining the program. It found no evidence that the bundled payment program increased hip and knee replacement volume, and it found almost no evidence that hospitals skewed their services toward patients whose procedures cost less.

“These results suggest bundled payments are a win-win,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a co-author of the study. “They save payers like Medicare money and encourage hospitals and physicians to be more efficient in the delivery of care.”

But Robert Berenson, a fellow at the Urban Institute, urges some caution. “Studying one kind of procedure doesn’t tell you much about the rest of health care,” he said. “A lot of health care is not like knee and hip replacements.”

Michael Chernew, a Harvard health economist, agreed. “Bundles can certainly be a helpful tool in fostering greater efficiency in our health care system,” he said. “But the findings for hip and knee replacements may not generalize to other types of care.”

Christine Yee, a health economist with the Partnered Evidence-Based Policy Resource Center at the Boston Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, has studied Medicare’s previous efforts and summarized studies about them. (I and several others were also involved in compiling that summary.) “Medicare has tried bundled payments in one form or another for more than three decades,” Ms. Yee said. “They tend to save money, and when post-acute care is included in the bundle, use of those kinds of services often goes down.”

One limitation shared by all of these studies is that they are voluntary: No hospital is required to participate. Nor are they randomized into the new payment system (treatment) or business as usual (control). Therefore we can’t be certain that apparent savings are real. Maybe hospitals that joined the bundled payment programs are more efficient (or can more easily become so) than the ones that didn’t.

Another new study in JAMA examines a mandatory, randomized trial of bundled payments. On April 1, 2016, Medicare randomly assigned 75 markets to be subject to bundled payments for knee and hip replacements and 121 markets to business as usual. This policy experiment, known as the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement program, will continue for five years. The JAMA study analyzed just the first year of data.

“In this first look at the data, we examined post-acute care because it is an area where there is concern about overuse,” said Amy Finkelstein, an M.I.T. health economist and an author of the study. “In addition, prior work suggested that it’s a type of care that hospitals can often avoid.”

The study found that bundled payments reduced the use of post-acute care by about 3 percent, which is less than what prior studies found. “Those prior studies weren’t randomized trials, so some of the savings they estimate may really be due to which hospitals chose to participate in bundled payment programs,” Ms. Finkelstein said. Despite reduced post-acute care use, the study did not find savings to Medicare once the costs of paying out bonuses were factored in. The study also found no evidence of harm to health care quality, no increase in the volume of hip and knee replacements, and no change in the types of patients treated.

“Savings could emerge in later years because it may take time for hospitals to fully change their behavior, “ Ms. Finkelstein said. In addition, the program’s financial incentives will increase over time; bonuses for saving money and penalties for failing to do so will rise.

On the other hand, Dr. Berenson said, health care providers could figure out how to work the system: “In three to five years, we may see volume go up in a way that offsets savings through reduced payments for a procedure. We’ll wait and see.”

Medicare put its best foot forward by using a randomized design. Not only were the markets selected in a randomized fashion, but providers in those markets were also required to participate. Though common in medical studiesrandomization is rare in health care policy, as is mandatory participation. Nearly 80 percent of medical studies are randomized trials, but less than 20 percent of studies testing health system change are. Organizations that would be subject to the experiments often strongly resist randomizing health system changes and forcing providers to participate.

Unfortunately, the randomization of the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement program will be partly compromised in coming years. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced last year that hospitals in only half of markets under the program would have to stay in it. Participation is voluntary in the other half, and only one-quarter of hospitals opted in.

Going to a partly voluntary program will make it harder to learn about longer-term effects, Ms. Finkelstein said, and to get at the answers we’re seeking.

Envisioning new roles for the health system

It’s obvious that if we’re going to make healthcare a sustainable proposition for the nation, we have to address the elephant in the room—inefficient, high-cost hospital systems that are built and incentivized to maximize reimbursement, not outcomes. One of our core beliefs is that we’re not going to fix that problem without engaging health systems in the work. The notion that we’re going to “disrupt” hospitals and make them “obsolete” is the worst kind of wishful thinking, a David-and-Goliath fantasy that doesn’t us any closer to a real solution. What’s needed are re-envisioned health systems that transform the way they organize and deliver care in a way that drives real value for consumers. Over the next several weeks in this space, we’re going to share one of our core frameworks for working with health systems to advance that goal. We’ll lay it out piece by piece, and then discuss some of the major implications for health system leaders.
 
We start with a conceptual depiction of the status quo. We describe today’s health system as “Event Health” because most providers are in the business of single-serve interactions with patients, paid on a fee-for-service basis. And indeed, many of the healthcare needs that consumers have present as “events”—acute episodes of illness that can be addressed with a one-time service interaction. For instance, I may have a sinus infection and need treatment, and a single visit to urgent care solves the problem. But across the stages of their lives, consumers have other kinds of health needs as well: some are episodic, with multiple events taking place over a defined time period (think pregnancy and childbirth, joint replacement, heart surgery). And some are just conditions that need to be managed over an extended period (diabetes, depression, cancer). But our health system is a hammer looking for nails—addressing health needs of every type with an event-driven model. Next week, we’ll begin to discuss alternative organizing principles for the health system that moves beyond this “Event Health” approach.

 

What’s Driving Health Care Costs?

https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20180625.872430/full/?utm_term=Read%20More%20%2526gt%3B%2526gt%3B&utm_campaign=Health%20Affairs%20Sunday%20Update&utm_content=email&utm_source=2018-06-24&utm_medium=email&cm_mmc=Act-On%20Software-_-email-_-ACA%20Round-Up%3B%20Health%20Care%20Costs%3B%20Medicaid%20Expansion%3B%20Prescription%20Drug%20Monitoring%20Programs-_-Read%20More%20%2526gt%3B%2526gt%3B

Value-based payment (VBP) models are an effort to rein in the growth of health care costs and improve quality. However, it’s unclear what overall impact VBP models are having on health care costs. Even though health care is provided at the local level, most evaluations examine health care spending at the national level. To address this disconnect, we conducted quantitative and qualitative market-level assessments. Our goals were to examine the impact of population-based, value-based care within a market; identify what measurable factors were associated with differing costs; and understand how business leaders are thinking about value-based care and cost reduction.

Leavitt Partners, the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA), and McManis Consulting, with participation from Mark McClellan at Duke University, conducted three mixed-methods studies:

  1. Growth of Population-Based Payments Is Not Associated with a Decrease in Market-Level Cost Growth, Yet” examined the impact of population-based VBP on per-beneficiary-per-year (PBPY) health care spending and quality of care. The study used growth curve modeling and fixed-effects regression analyses of Medicare and commercial claims data.
  2. Market Factors Associated with Medicare Costs and Cost Growth” examined which market factors are correlated with PBPY health care costs and cost growth within a market using growth curve modeling. The study used and aggregated multiple data sets from public and private sources.
  3. What Is Driving Total Cost of Care? An Analysis of Factors Influencing Total Cost of Care in U.S. Health Care Markets” combined qualitative interviews conducted during site visits of nine markets and the quantitative findings from the studies above to understand factors that may be influencing total cost of care in US health care markets.

Key findings from the studies include:

  • Based on data from 2015, there was no association between an increase in population-based VBP and slowing of health care costs in a given market. Our study did not include episode-based payments.
  • Health care leaders across markets believe further changes to payment and delivery models are coming. Less clear is what, or who, will be the catalyst to push further change.
  • Some stakeholders expressed stronger support for other types of VBP models, including episode-based models and models that address the needs of specific patient groups.
  • The question of “what type of competition” in a market may be more important than “how much” competition. Lower-cost markets featured competition among a few health systems with well-aligned physician practices and geographic coverage across their market.
  • Lower-cost markets appear to benefit from organized mechanisms, including state-sponsored or endorsed reporting agencies, for more transparent sharing of information on provider quality and costs.Based on quantitative and qualitative evidence, the studies contribute to our understanding of the dynamics of competition, integration, and transparency on health care costs in a market. Below, we summarize findings from the three mixed-method studies and provide some policy implications.

Population-Based VBP Models Are Not Lowering Market-Level Health Care Costs … Yet

VBP dates back to 2005 with the Physician Group Practice Demonstration. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) significantly accelerated the proliferation of VBP models with the creation of the Medicare Shared Savings Program(MSSP) and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, which was tasked with developing and testing innovative new models. Commercial VBP arrangements have also taken hold in the years since the ACA’s passage.

Given the growth of VBP, we wanted to examine whether, in the first few years following the ACA, these models were influencing the total cost of care. We used Medicare data from 2012 to 2015 and commercial data from 2012 to 2014 to assess the early impact of these models. We restricted our study to population-based VBPs, which included models with upside risk only (shared savings), both upside and downside risk, and global budgets, but excluded episode-based (bundled) payments.

We did not find a statistical relationship between the level of penetration of population-based VBPs in a market and a decline in health care costs for Medicare or commercial payers. Nor did we find an improvement in quality. When we limited our analysis to just those markets with higher levels of population-based VBP penetration (at least 30 percent), our results suggested a very modest, not statistically significant, market-level decrease in cost growth. Despite this null finding, our results provide an important baseline for future research.

Possible Explanations

There are several potential explanations for the null findings. For one, our study period (2012–15) may simply have been too early to see signs of population-based VBP lowering health care costs. Although today 561 MSSP accountable care organizations (ACOs) (the largest of Medicare’s ACO programs) cover 10.5 million beneficiaries, at the beginning of our study period in 2012 and 2013, only 220 MSSP ACOs covered 3.2 million beneficiaries. Many interviewees told us not enough lives were covered under VBP. Indeed, in some markets, less than 1 percent of lives were part of a VBP arrangement.

Second, although participation in population-based VBP models is growing, few models involve the provider taking on downside risk. As of 2018, the majority (82 percent) of MSSP ACOs were in the non-risk-bearing Track 1, which means they share in savings if they spend less money than their assigned benchmark, but they will not incur financial losses if they spend more than the benchmark. Our site visits found that although different markets had varying levels of population-based VBP activity, no market had significant numbers of providers participating in downside risk. Several interviewees stressed the need to take incremental steps to more risk.

Fee-for-service payment remains quite profitable for many providers and health systems. Even for those that have begun to take on risk-based contracts, fee-for-service payment represents the majority of total revenue. As long as the status quo remains lucrative, it’s difficult to make the business case for why a provider should undertake the effort to switch to a value-based focus that may lead to a reduction in use and total revenue.

Still, several interviewees said they believed the move toward paying for value would continue, even if there’s some uncertainty over whether Medicare or private payers will lead the movement. It’s possible that when VBP models outweigh fee-for-service payments in a market, we’ll reach a “tipping point” and health care cost growth will decline. Many interviewees expressed enthusiasm for other VBP models, such as those based on episodes of care (bundled payments) and those designed for specific populations (for example, the frail elderly). These models may make more sense for specialty providers who perform a certain type of procedure or care for a certain type of patient.

Other Market Factors

If these initial population-based VBPs results don’t show a relationship to health care cost growth, then which market-level factors do correlate? For our second quantitative analysis, we used a variety of public and private data sources to examine the relationship among several market-level factors beyond value-based payment and Medicare costs and cost growth between 2007 and 2015. All the factors together explained 82 percent of variation in baseline Medicare costs (Exhibit 1). 

The prevalence of chronic diseases was the most influential predictor of market costs, accounting for 41.5 percent of the variance. Hospital quality metrics, market socioeconomic status, and the concentration of hospitals and insurers also helped explain market-level costs.

Using these same factors to predict Medicare cost growth was less fruitful, explaining only 27 percent of the variation in Medicare cost growth—substantially less than the 82 percent of baseline costs. As Exhibit 2 shows, a much weaker association exists between chronic disease prevalence and Medicare cost growth. Significant additional research should be done to identify factors that predict cost growth.

These findings matter for several reasons. First, they reinforce efforts currently underway to contain costs, including strategies to prevent and better manage chronic conditions, reduce hospital readmissions, and reduce the number of individuals without insurance. Second, although we know less about what drives health care cost growth in a market, meaningfully reducing spending in a market relies on developing strategies that target cost growth, instead of baseline costs. More research that focuses on what’s driving cost growth is needed.

The Role Of Competition And Transparency On Costs

The interviews we conducted add insights into these market-level findings. We identified two distinguishing characteristics of higher- and lower-cost markets: type of competition in the market and degree of transparency in the market. We recognize that while there are some common lessons, health care markets differ significantly and their approaches to care, costs, and VBP models will vary.

Competition

We know competition can help drive down costs and increase quality in health care markets. However, how much competition, and what type, seems to make a difference. For example, we found that the lower-cost markets in our nine site visits had at least one integrated delivery system. Consolidation in these markets had resulted in two to four health systems with geographic coverage across the market. In these markets, physicians were generally employed by the health system or worked in close alignment with it. Health plan competition matters as well, particularly with respect to innovation in new payment and care delivery models. Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, two of the lowest-cost markets, both had competitive health plan landscapes.

Conversely, the markets we visited with less integration and seemingly more provider competition actually had higher costs. These included Los Angeles, California (which had higher Medicare costs only), Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. One reason for this may be that there is less focus on addressing unnecessary use in these markets.

Transparency

Transparency is often cited as a strategy that will help contain costs. Similar to competition, the type of transparency effort matters. We found that some lower-cost markets seemed to benefit from organized transparency mechanisms, including state-sponsored or endorsed reporting agencies and employer coalitions that made information on provider quality and costs publicly available. For example, in 2005, the Minnesota Medical Association and health plans in the state together formed MN Community Measure, a nonprofit organization tasked with the collection and dissemination of data on the quality and cost of providers across the state. Today, providers are required to submit data to the organization. Our interviewees expressed optimism but acknowledged more work is needed to optimize consumer-oriented transparency tools, which research has so far shown to have had only minimal use.

Policy Recommendations

Our research led us to three primary policy recommendations to help improve health care quality and lower costs (for additional ones, see the fullstudies).

  1. Continue movement toward payment models that increase financial incentives to manage total cost of care and closely monitor the impact of doing so because our findings show that the majority of payments in a market continue to flow through fee-for-service, instead of value-based arrangements. Experiments should continue with population-based VBP models but should not be confined exclusively to these models. Episode-based payment models, for example, may be better suited to certain types of providers who perform a certain procedure (for example, a knee replacement) instead of care for a general population of patients.
  2. Balance the benefits of competition with the benefits of integration. The lower-cost markets we studied had competition among two and four systems with well-organized provider networks that had been developed through vertical integration or strong alignment of physician practices. Most of the lower-cost markets also had an integrated delivery system—with vertically integrated health plan, hospital, and physician capabilities—as a competitor in the market.
  3. Support more transparent sharing of information on health care cost and quality within markets. Lower-cost markets in the qualitative study had organized mechanisms for the sharing of information on health care cost and quality, whether through employer coalitions, statewide reporting agencies, or both.

Although differences exist among each health care market, all markets can act to improve quality and reduce costs. Our studies suggest several actions different stakeholders in each market can take to improve care for their populations.