Hospitals Stand to Lose Billions Under ‘Medicare for All’

For a patient’s knee replacement, Medicare will pay a hospital $17,000. The same hospital can get more than twice as much, or about $37,000, for the same surgery on a patient with private insurance.

Or take another example: One hospital would get about $4,200 from Medicare for removing someone’s gallbladder. The same hospital would get $7,400 from commercial insurers.

The yawning gap between payments to hospitals by Medicare and by private health insurers for the same medical services may prove the biggest obstacle for advocates of “Medicare for all,” a government-run system.

If Medicare for all abolished private insurance and reduced rates to Medicare levels — at least 40 percent lower, by one estimate — there would most likely be significant changes throughout the health care industry, which makes up 18 percent of the nation’s economy and is one of the nation’s largest employers.

Some hospitals, especially struggling rural centers, would close virtually overnight, according to policy experts.

Others, they say, would try to offset the steep cuts by laying off hundreds of thousands of workers and abandoning lower-paying services like mental health.

he prospect of such violent upheaval for existing institutions has begun to stiffen opposition to Medicare for all proposals and to rattle health care stocks. Some officials caution that hospitals providing care should not be penalized in an overhaul.

Dr. Adam Gaffney, the president of Physicians for a National Health Program, warned advocates of a single-payer system like Medicare for all not to seize this opportunity to extract huge savings from hospitals. “The line here can’t be and shouldn’t be soak the hospitals,” he said.

“You don’t need insurance companies for Medicare for all,” Dr. Gaffney added. “You need hospitals.”

Soaring hospital bills and disparities in care, though, have stoked consumer outrage and helped to fuel populist support for proposals that would upend the current system. Many people with insurance cannot afford a knee replacement or care for their diabetes because their insurance has high deductibles.

Proponents of overhauling the nation’s health care argue that hospitals are charging too much and could lower their prices without sacrificing the quality of their care. High drug prices, surprise hospital bills and other financial burdens from the overwhelming cost of health care have caught the attention (and drawn the ire) of many in Congress, with a variety of proposals under consideration this year.

But those in favor of the most far-reaching changes, including Senator Bernie Sanders, who unveiled his latest Medicare for all plan as part of his presidential campaign, have remained largely silent on the question of how the nation’s 5,300 hospitals would be paid for patient care. If they are paid more than Medicare rates, the final price tag for the program could balloon from the already stratospheric estimate of upward of $30 trillion over a decade. Senator Sanders has not said what he thinks his plan will cost, and some proponents of Medicare for all say these plans would cost less than the current system.

The nation’s major health insurers are sounding the alarms, and pointing to the potential impact on hospitals and doctors. David Wichmann, the chief executive of UnitedHealth Group, the giant insurer, told investors that these proposals would “destabilize the nation’s health system and limit the ability of clinicians to practice medicine at their best.”

Hospitals could lose as much as $151 billion in annual revenues, a 16 percent decline, under Medicare for all, according to Dr. Kevin Schulman, a professor of medicine at Stanford University and one of the authors of a recent article in JAMA looking at the possible effects on hospitals.

“There’s a hospital in every congressional district,” he said. Passing a Medicare for all proposal in which hospitals are paid Medicare rates “is going to be a really hard proposition.”

Richard Anderson, the chief executive of St. Luke’s University Health Network, called the proposals “naïve.” Hospitals depend on insurers’ higher payments to deliver top-quality care because government programs pay so little, he said.

“I have no time for all the politicians who use the health care system as a crash-test dummy for their election goals,” Mr. Anderson said.

The American Hospital Association, an industry trade group, is starting to lobby against the Medicare for all proposals. Unlike the doctors’ groups, hospitals are not divided. “There is total unanimity,” said Tom Nickels, an executive vice president for the association.

“We agree with their intent to expand coverage to more people,” he said. “We don’t think this is the way to do it. It would have a devastating effect on hospitals and on the system over all.”

Rural hospitals, which have been closing around the country as patient numbers dwindle, would be hit hard, he said, because they lack the financial cushion of larger systems.

Big hospital systems haggle constantly with Medicare over what they are paid, and often battle the government over charges of overbilling. On average, the government program pays hospitals about 87 cents for every dollar of their costs, compared with private insurers that pay $1.45.

Some hospitals make money on Medicare, but most rely on higher private payments to cover their overall costs.

Medicare, which accounts for about 40 percent of hospital costs compared with 33 percent for private insurers, is the biggest source of hospital reimbursements. The majority of hospitals are nonprofit or government-owned.

The profit margins on Medicare are “razor thin,” said Laura Kaiser, the chief executive of SSM Health, a Catholic health system. In some markets, her hospitals lose money providing care under the program.

She says the industry is working to bring costs down. “We’re all uber-responsible and very fixated on managing our costs and not being wasteful,” Ms. Kaiser said.

Over the years, as hospitals have merged, many have raised the prices they charge to private insurers.

“If you’re in a consolidated market, you are a monopolist and are setting the price,” said Mark Miller, a former executive director for the group that advises Congress on Medicare payments. He describes the prices paid by private insurers as “completely unjustified and out of control.”

Many hospitals have invested heavily in amenities like single rooms for patients and sophisticated medical equipment to attract privately insured patients. They are also major employers.

“You would have to have a very different cost structure to survive,” said Melinda Buntin, the chairwoman for health policy at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Everyone being on Medicare would have a large impact on their bottom line.”

People who have Medicare, mainly those over 65 years old, can enjoy those private rooms or better care because the hospitals believed it was worth making the investments to attract private patients, said Craig Garthwaite, a health economist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. If all hospitals were paid the same Medicare rate, the industry “should really collapse down to a similar set of hospitals,” he said.

Whether hospitals would be able to adapt to sharply lower payments is unclear.

“It would force health care systems to go on a very serious diet,” said Stuart Altman, a health policy professor at Brandeis University. “I have no idea what would happen. Nor does anyone else.”

But proponents should not expect to save as much money as they hope if they cut hospital payments. Some hospitals could replace their missing revenue by charging more for the same care or by ordering more billable tests and procedures, said Dr. Stephen Klasko, the chief executive of Jefferson Health. “You’d be amazed,’ he said.

While both the Medicare-for-all bill introduced by Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, and the Sanders bill call for a government-run insurance program, the Jayapal proposal would replace existing Medicare payments with a whole new system of regional budgets.

“We need to change not just who pays the bill but how we pay the bill,” said Dr. Gaffney, who advised Ms. Jayapal on her proposal.

Hospitals would be able to achieve substantial savings by scaling back administrative costs, the byproduct of a system that deals with multiple insurance carriers, Dr. Gaffney said. Under the Jayapal bill, hospitals would no longer be paid above their costs, and the money for new equipment and other investments would come from a separate pool of money.

But the Sanders bill, which is supported by some Democratic presidential candidates including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, does not envision a whole new payment system but an expansion of the existing Medicare program. Payments would largely be based on what Medicare currently pays hospitals.

Some Democrats have also proposed more incremental plans. Some would expand Medicare to cover people over the age of 50, while others wouldn’t do away with private health insurers, including those that now offer Medicare plans.

Even under Medicare for all, lawmakers could decide to pay hospitals a new government rate that equals what they are being paid now from both private and public insurers, said Dr. David Blumenthal, a former Obama official and the president of the Commonwealth Fund.

“It would greatly reduce the opposition,” he said. “The general rule is the more you leave things alone, the easier it is.”

 

 

 

Uwe Reinhardt, 80, Dies; a Listened-to Voice on Health Care Policy

Uwe Reinhardt, an economist whose keen, caustic and unconventional insights cast him as what colleagues called a national conscience in policy debates about health care, died on Monday in Princeton, N.J. He was 80.

The cause was sepsis, his wife, Tsung-Mei Cheng, said. He had taught in the economics department at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University since 1968.

Professor Reinhardt helped shape health care deliberations for decades as a prolific contributor to numerous publications, an adviser to White House and congressional policymakers, a member of federal and professional commissions and a consultant and board member, paid and unpaid, for private industry.

“His work was instrumental in advocating some of the reforms embodied in the Affordable Care Act, such as having Medicare pay for performance rather than entirely on a fee-for-service basis,” Professor Janet Currie, the chairwoman of the Princeton economics department, wrote in an email.

Another colleague, Stuart H. Altman, a professor at Brandeis University, wrote, “No one was close to him in terms of impact on how we should think about how a decent health care system should operate.”

In 2015, the Republic of China awarded Professor Reinhardt its Presidential Prize for having devised Taiwan’s single-payer National Health Insurance program. The system now provides virtually the entire population with common benefits and costs 6.6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (about one-third the share that the United States spends).

Just last month, he received the 2017 Bipartisan Health Policy Leadership Award from the Alliance for Health Policy, a nonpartisan research and educational group in Washington.

Professor Reinhardt argued that what drove up the singularly high cost of health care in the United States was not the country’s aging population or a surplus of physicians or even Americans’ self-indulgent visits to doctors and hospitals.

“I’m just an immigrant, so maybe I am missing something about the curious American health care system,” he would often say, recalling his childhood in Germany and flight to Canada and apologizing that English was only his second language.

Then he would succinctly answer the cost question by quoting the title of an article he wrote with several colleagues in 2003 for the journal Health Affairs: “It’s the Prices, Stupid.”

What propelled those prices most, he said, was a chaotic market that operates “behind a veil of secrecy.”

That market, he said, is one in which employers “become the sloppiest purchasers of health care anywhere in the world,” as he wrote in the Economix blog in The New York Times in 2013.

It is also defined by the high cost of prescription drugs, he said, and the astronomical amounts that hospitals spend in dealing with a maze of insurers and health maintenance organizations.

“Our hospitals spend twice as much on administration as any hospital anywhere in the world because of all of this complexity,” he told Managed Care magazine in 2013.

If the nation cut the cost of health care administration in half, he said, the savings would be enough to insure everyone.

Professor Reinhardt’s prescription for a more sensible system included imposing penalties on the uninsured so that people would not postpone buying policies until they got sick. That idea, the so-called individual mandate, requiring most people to purchase health insurance, became an integral component of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Republicans in Congress are now seeking to repeal that provision as part of a tax overhaul.

Professor Reinhardt also advocated providing government subsidies so that low-income families could afford mandated insurance, another feature of Obamacare.

His ideal model was the German system in which insurers negotiate with health care providers to set common binding prices in a specific region.

“I believe it is still the best model there is, because it blends a private health care delivery system with universal coverage and social solidarity,” he told The Times in 2009. “It’s inexpensive and equitable. Coverage is portable. You’re never uninsured in Germany. No family goes broke over health care bills.”

Always opinionated, Professor Reinhardt was also unsparing in inflicting his mordant wit on any self-satisfied expert he considered hypocritical or illogical.

“He was a knife twister of the first class,” the health economist Austin Frakt wrote on the blog The Incidental Economist, of which he is an editor in chief. “Should you hold dearly an idea he targeted for systematic dismantling, you would squirm.”

Professor Reinhardt excoriated college students who blamed loneliness for their binge drinking, describing them as “among the most pampered and highly privileged human beings on the planet.” He suggested that before applying for college young people “be required to spend one to two years in a tough job in the real world.”

And when critics complained that doctors were overpaid, he countered that their collective take-home pay amounted to only 10 percent of national health spending. Slicing it by 20 percent, he wrote, “would reduce total national health spending by only 2 percent, in return for a wholly demoralized medical profession to which we so often look to save our lives.

“It strikes me as a poor strategy,” he added.

With near unanimity, colleagues and admirers praised Professor Reinhardt for transforming raw data into moral imperatives.

Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who advocates a “Medicare for all” national health care system, wrote in an email, “Uwe Reinhardt was one of the leaders in the effort to make health care a right, not a privilege.”

And Professor Elliott S. Fisher of Dartmouth called Professor Reinhardt “in so many ways the conscience of the U.S. health care system.”

Uwe (pronounced OO-vuh) Ernst Reinhardt was born on Sept. 24, 1937, in the city of Osnabrück in northwest Germany. His father, Wilhelm, was a chemical engineer. His mother, the former Edeltraut Kehne, was a photographer and painter.

He was raised near the Belgian border and the Hürtgen forest, where American and German soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat for four months in 1944.

“I could not help but become witness daily to the horrors of war,” Professor Reinhardt wrote in 2003 in a Times Op-Ed article, praising a Marine chaplain for urging soldiers to pray for their enemies ad well as themselves. “Millions of Europeans of my generation, whom many Americans now disparage so contemptuously as pacifists, had a similar experience.”

His exposure to the war so dismayed him that in the mid-1950s, at 18, rather than be drafted into the army and have to salute a German officer in the wake of “the unimaginable atrocities committed by Nazi Germany” years earlier, his wife said, he left the country, setting off for Canada and leaving his parents and four siblings behind.

He landed in Montreal with $90 in his pocket and no Canadian connections. Having had some apprentice training in shipping in Germany, he found work at a shipping company and worked nights parking cars in a parking lot. He always ate oatmeal for breakfast because it was cheap, his wife said, and to make extra money he routinely volunteered to work overtime for co-workers who had families.

After three years, he had saved enough money to enroll, hundreds of miles away, at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, the cheapest university he knew of, Ms. Cheng said. (Selling his used Chevrolet and beloved guitar helped defray the costs.)

He graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree and went on to Yale, where he received his doctorate. His thesis was titled “An Economic Analysis of Physicians’ Practices.”

In addition to Ms. Cheng, a health policy research analyst at Princeton who is known as May, he is survived by their children, Dirk, Kara and Mark Reinhardt; his sisters, Heide Cermin and Imeltraut Arndt; his brother, Jurgen; and two grandchildren.

Professor Reinhardt joined the Princeton faculty in 1968 as an assistant professor. At his death, he was the James Madison professor of political economy and professor of economics and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School.

“He was so inspired a teacher,” said Henry J. Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the research organization in Washington, “that he could make accounting the most popular course at Princeton.” Among his students was Bill Frist, a surgeon and a former Republican Senate majority leader from Tennessee.

In 2015, Professor Reinhardt humbly — and facetiously — announced that after reflecting on the global economic crisis that had occurred several years earlier, he was calling it quits.

“After the near-collapse of the world’s financial system has shown that we economists really do not know how the world works, I am much too embarrassed to teach economics anymore,” he wrote.

In an interview not long before that, though, he belied any pretense of self-doubt when he was asked whether he was perplexed by the seemingly insolvable challenges of health care economics.

“Have you ever seen a perplexed economist?” Professor Reinhardt replied. “We have an answer for everything.”

 

It’s not over

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/its-over-richard-j-pollack?trk=v-feed&lipi=urn%3Ali%3Apage%3Ad_flagship3_feed%3BjHJHJb4uQmylHlL6EK6JsQ%3D%3D&lipi=urn%3Ali%3Apage%3Ad_flagship3_feed%3BjOr1uQoFRSCV0kd0MJgD3Q%3D%3D

This was a dramatic week for the Senate’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Revised bills were introduced, each with an updated CBO score. There were last-minute meetings to wrangle votes, and surprise announcements from senators bucking their party’s leaders. There might even be another twist by the time you finish reading this.

The headlines keep changing, but the bottom line is the same. Whatever version of repeal and replace – or repeal without replacement – that the Senate votes on will take away health care coverage for tens of millions of Americans.

The Senate is expected to vote on the “Motion to Proceed” to a repeal bill next week. If the motion passes, senators will begin consideration of a bill. The vote could come as early as Monday or Tuesday.

This debate isn’t over! We need to keep the pressure on. Please contact your senators, especially Republicans, and urge them to vote “no” on the Motion to Proceed.

Hospital and health system leaders have done a tremendous job reaching out to their senators and letting them know how much every community relies on its local hospital. We can’t stop speaking out on behalf of our patients and their families now.

I’ll be in San Diego next week for our annual Leadership Summit, where I hope to see many of you – but rest assured our advocacy team will be fully engaged on the front lines in Washington. At the Summit, look for our advocacy center, where we’ll be monitoring the latest developments and providing platforms for you to send messages to legislators. Coverage for millions of patients is at stake. Let’s see this effort through.