POPULATION HEALTH TRENDS TO WATCH, TRENDS TO QUESTION IN 2019

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/clinical-care/population-health-trends-watch-trends-question-2019?utm_source=silverpop&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ENL_190319_LDR_BRIEFING_resend%20(1)&spMailingID=15320844&spUserID=MTY3ODg4NTg1MzQ4S0&spJobID=1601503618&spReportId=MTYwMTUwMzYxOAS2

Healthcare organizations cannot afford to ignore consumers in 2019, as a number of major trends shape the future of care delivery (and a number of other trends warrant more critical thinking).

This article was first published March 18, 2019, by MedPage Today.

By Joyce Frieden, news editor, MedPage Today

PHILADELPHIA — The consumer will be where it’s at for population health in 2019, David Nash, MD, MBA, said here Monday at a Population Health Colloquium sponsored by Thomas Jefferson University.

“Whatever business model empowers the consumer, wherever she is,” including at home, will spell success, according to Nash, who is dean of Jefferson’s School of Population Health. “That’s where population health must go.”

Nash noted that back in 1990, Kodak, Sears, and General Electric were the most important companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average; all those companies have disappeared or almost disappeared today.

“If we ignore the consumer, it will be at our peril,” Nash said, citing home healthcare, telehealth, and the use of wearables among the trends to watch in the coming year.

Nash, who is a columnist for MedPage Today, also cited these other trends to watch:

  • The growth of Medicare Advantage and managed Medicaid. “These are two programs that are working,” he said. “They’re working because they deliver value — high-quality care with fewer errors — and they follow our mantra: no outcome, no income.”
  • Tax reform. “Whatever your politics are [on this issue], park it at the door,” he said. “The sugar high is over, and now we’re in a carbohydrate coma. We’ve got the biggest deficits in American history; if we continue to spend money we don’t have, what will that do to healthcare? I think it will bite us in the butt when [it] comes to the Medicare trust fund.”
  • Precision medicine and population health. “[There is a notion] that precision medicine and population health are actually kissing cousins,” said Nash. “They are inexorably linked.”
  • Continued deal-making. The CVS/Aetna, UnitedHealth Group/DaVita, and Humana’s deals with Kindred Healthcare and Curo Health Services are just some of the more recent examples, he said. And he noted, the healthcare company formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase now has a name: Haven. “It’s a place where they’re going to figure it all out and they’ll let us know when they do.”
  • Continued delivery system consolidation. “Big surprise there,” he said sarcastically. “The real question is will they deliver value? Will they deliver synergies?” Nash noted that his own institution is a good example of this trend, having gone from one or two hospitals 5 years ago to 16 today with another two in the works.
  • Population health technology. “The gravy train of public money into this sector will [soon] be over; now the real challenge is for the IT [information technology] systems on top of those legacy companies; can they create the patient registry information and close the feedback loop, and give doctors, nurses, and pharmacists the information they need to improve care?”
  • The rise of “population health intelligence.” “That’s our term for predictive analytics, big data, artificial intelligence, and augmented intelligence … It says we don’t want to create software writers — we want doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others who can glean the usable information from the terabyte of information coming our way, to [know how to interpret it].”
  • Pharmaceutical industry disruption. “This is really under the thumb of consumers … It’s all about price, price, price,” Nash said. “We’ve got to find a way to rationalize the pricing system. If we don’t, we’re going to end up with price controls, and as everybody in this room with a background in this area knows, those don’t work either.”
  • More venture capital money. Nash described his recent experience at the JPMorgan Chase annual healthcare conference, where people were paying $1,000 a night for hotel rooms that would normally cost $250, and being charged $20 just to sit in the lobby of one hotel. “What was going on there? It was more private-sector venture money coming into our industry than ever before. [These investors] know that when there’s $1 trillion of waste in an industry, it’s ripe for disruption.”
  • Workforce development. This is needed for the entire industry, said Nash. “More folks know a lot more [now] about population health, quality measurement and management, Lean 6 Sigma, and improving processes and reducing waste. The only way we’re going to reduce that waste of $1 trillion is to have the right kind of workforce ready to go.”

Lawton Burns, PhD, MBA, director of the Wharton Center of Health Management and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania here, urged the audience to look critically at some of these possible trends.

“You need to look for evidence for everything you hear,” said Burns, who coauthored an article with his colleague Mark Pauly, PhD, about the need to question some of the commonly accepted principles of the healthcare business.

Some of the ideas that merit more critical thinking, said Burns and Pauly, are as follows:

  • Economies of scale
     
  • Synergy
     
  • Consolidation
     
  • Big data
     
  • Platforms
     
  • One-stop shops
     
  • Disruption
     
  • Killer apps
     
  • Consumer engagement

“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those 10 things, but we ought to seriously consider” whether they’re real trends, Burns said. As for moving “from volume to value” in healthcare reimbursement, that idea “is more aspiration than reality” at this point, he said. “This is a slow-moving train.”

Burns also questioned the motives behind some recent healthcare consolidations. In reality, “most providers are positioning themselves to dominate local markets and stick it to the payers — let’s be honest,” he said. “You have to think when you hear about providers doing a merger, you have to think what’s the public rationale and what’s the private rationale? The private one is [often] more sinister than you realize.”

“IF WE IGNORE THE CONSUMER, IT WILL BE AT OUR PERIL.”

 

 

 

 

Healthcare Triage: Hospital Competition Can Impact Your Health

https://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/healthcare-triage-hospital-competition-can-impact-your-health/

Image result for Healthcare Triage: Hospital Competition Can Impact Your Health

It turns out, hospital and health system consolidations can result in worse outcomes for patients. These mergers reduce competition, and it turns out that hospitals compete more often on quality than they do on prices. The result is that quality suffers in markets with less competition.

 

 

A review of health care costs: deck chairs and the Titanic, part 2

https://stateofreform.com/news/federal/2019/02/breaking-down-health-cares-cost-dilemma-part-ii/

Related image

This article is Part II of a two-part series on the cost of health care and its component parts. Part I explores the recent growth of health care costs in the United States as well as the utilization inputs in the cost equation. Part II breaks down the pricing component of cost, determined by market leverage and the cost of delivering services. 


The Titanic

This brings us to the second category of costs: the Titanic. Or, to use our equation here of THC = U x P, the Titanic I’m talking about is the pricing component of cost.

In other words, health care leaders should do everything they can to make sure that utilization is the right care at the right time in the right setting. This makes a meaningful difference in the quality of our health care system.

But, if we focus on health care utilization alone, the health care system is still going to sink under the weight of costs. Our efforts will still be deck chairs on the Titanic.

To keep our ship afloat, we have to address the pricing input of our cost equation.

Like our cost equation above, pricing also has a simple equation of two inputs that determine price. According to a seminal study out of Massachusetts, which has been reaffirmed in additional studies (and by the experience of many network relations vice presidents across America’s health plans), this equation is straightforward.

Pricing is determined by a combination of market leverage (ML) and service delivery costs (SDC), where market leverage is 75 percent of the pricing structure and the cost of delivering the service is 25 percent.

This is true for either the plan or the provider, depending on where market leverage exists. This equation looks like this: P = ML(.75) + SDC(.25).

If we put this together, the math equation would look like this: THC = U x (ML(.75) + SDC(.25)).

Here’s how the study put it:

Price variations are correlated to market leverage as measured by the relative market position of the hospital or provider group compared with other hospitals or provider groups within a geographic region or within a group of academic medical centers. 

While addressing the utilization component of the cost-growth problem is essential, any successful reform initiative must take into account the significant role of unit price in driving costs. Bending the cost curve will require tackling the growth in price and the market dynamics that perpetuate price inflation and lead to irrational price disparities.

But here is what the numbers say: between 2004 and 2017, adjusting for age and sex factors, 68 percent of the growth in overall national health care expenditures came from increases in medical prices. Only 32 percent of growth came from utilization of services.

In other words, pricing is more than twice as important as utilization in the growth of health care costs – costs that are increasing more rapidly than ever.

 

 

Put graphically, while we have two inputs into total health care costs or expenditures, it’s incorrect to think of them as weighted equally, as demonstrated in image 1 above. It’s more accurate to think of these two pieces weighted as shown in image 2. And, if we are honest about the role of market leverage in health care pricing, market leverage alone is more than half of the overall problem in health care costs – more than all of the service delivery costs and utilization combined.

 

Keeping the Titanic afloat

Let’s restate the challenge we face here in our trans-Atlantic metaphor. Cost is the biggest problem in health care today. Those costs are made up by pricing and utilization, where pricing is more than twice as impactful in cost growth as utilization, and where market leverage is three times more impactful to pricing than are service delivery costs.

In order to keep our health care system afloat, we must address costs. And to address costs, we must address pricing.  And to address pricing, we must address market leverage.

If we move every deck chair around, but fail to address the cost consequences of market leverage, our ship will sink.

In our capitalist economy, we view consolidated market leverage as a market failure. It’s why we have antitrust statutes and an active regulatory regime to manage and push back against consolidation. Where the market failure is in the area of a public good, the American political system has often regulated those consolidated markets like public utilities or quasi-public entities.

Think of energy and Enron, of railroads and BNSF, of telephones and Ma Bell.

As health care nears 20 percent of the US economy, and where even urban states like California suffer from a “staggering” concentration of market leverage among health care providers, the lesson for health care policymakers and senior health care executives is this: If you want to get your hands around cost, you’re going to have to address market leverage to do that. Everything else is just deck chairs.

 

 

UPMC fires back at state AG, seeks to join BCBS antitrust lawsuit

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/upmc-fires-back-at-state-ag-seeks-to-join-bcbs-antitrust-lawsuit/548993/

Image result for upmc building

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center filed a counter lawsuit on Thursday against the Pennsylvania attorney general, who is seeking to force the healthcare giant into contracting with rival Highmark. The system is also seeking to insert itself in a broader lawsuit over the ways Blues operate.

The flurry of filings taps into big questions over payer competition and underscores tensions seen throughout the country between insurance companies and providers as they negotiate contracts, particularly in highly concentrated markets. States have stepped up their enforcement of consumer protections against rising healthcare costs — but UPMC is saying its regulators have greatly overstepped their bounds. 

Earlier this month, Shapiro alleged Pittsburgh’s dominant medical provider wasn’t living up to its charitable mission as a nonprofit, accusing the health system of “forsaking its charitable obligations” in exchange for “corporate greed.”

The legal duel stems from a contract dispute between UPMC and its rival Highmark. Until June 30, the two have a legal agreement protecting consumer access to the other’s network through a consent decree. UPMC refuses to modify the decree and contract with Highmark, which risks in-network access to UPMC hospitals for Highmark members.

In response to the attorney general’s initial complaint, UPMC alleges that Shapiro’s attempt to renew and modify an expiring agreement between the Pittsburgh health system and Highmark is “unprecedented and unwarranted.”  The modification would, among other things, remove the majority of UPMC’s board of directors and force the integrated system to contract with any payer. 

The state AG responded on Friday, accusing UPMC of ignoring its mission and noting it would not be intimated by the healthcare behemoth.

“With their filings today, UPMC has shown they intend to spend countless hours and untold resources on a legal battle instead of focusing on their stated mission as a non-profit charity — promoting the public interest and providing patient access to affordable health care,” said Attorney General’s Office spokesman Joe Grace.

In its notice to the AG, UPMC lays out five examples it calls frivolous enough to get Shapiro’s motion dismissed — including previous testimony delivered by Deputy Attorney General Jim Donahue in 2014, when he told state representatives there is “no statutory basis” to make the two companies contract with each other without setting a dangerous economic precedent.

“If we force the resolution in this case, we really could not avoid trying to force a similar resolution in all those other situations, and that is simply and unworkable method of dealing with these problems,” Donahue said at the time. “We’d be putting our finger on the scale, so to speak … and we’re not sure what those effects would be.”

One effect is a class action lawsuit, which UPMC filed separately Thursday. It alleges Shapiro has violated at least four federal laws: Medicare Advantage statutes protecting competition, the Affordable Care Act’s nonprofit payer regulations and the Sherman Act and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

“Purporting to act in his official capacity, General Shapiro has illegally taken over nonprofit healthcare in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” UPMC’s class action states. “Without rulemaking, legislation or public comment, General Shapiro has announced new ‘principles’ that radically (and often in direct contravention of existing federal and state law) change how nonprofit health insurers and providers operate, now rendering the Attorney General the arbiter of how nonprofit health organizations should envision and achieve their mission.”

UPMC says Blues system bad for business

Separate from its battle with the state attorney general, UPMC is attempting to jump in the middle of a legal antitrust battle over how Blue Cross Blue Shield plans operate. UPMC is seeking both a preliminary injunction and a motion to intervene in the years-long federal case in Alabama.

UPMC is asking the Alabama court to stop the Blues plans from enforcing their own market allocation agreements that prevent UPMC from contracting with other Blues plans, according to the filing. UPMC says a significant chunk of its patients have a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan from a different provider other than Highmark.

Joe Whatley, co-lead counsel for provider plaintiffs in the Alabama case, told Healthcare Dive UPMC “presents a good example of how the Blues are abusing their illegal agreement for their benefit and to harm healthcare providers throughout the country.”

UPMC argues that it would contract with other Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, separate from Highmark, but cannot due to the way Blues operate — or limit how they compete with one another. BCBS plans tend to stake out their own geographic areas and avoid competition with one another, a practice the Alabama court has already found is in violation of antitrust laws. A BCBS appeal to the Alabama judge’s opinion was already struck down by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late last year.

UPMC is asking the Alabama court for an injunction, or to step in and stop the Blues plans from enforcing or complying with their own market allocation agreements that are preventing UPMC from contracting with other Blues plans, according to the filing. And because the hometown plan, Highmark, does not have a contract with UPMC after June 30, it means that other Blues plan members that have enjoyed in-network access to UPMC will soon lose access after the consent decree expires.

About 24% of UPMC’s hospital patients have a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan other than Highmark.

UPMC contends that it has tried to contract with other Blues but was turned down. “The average non-Highmark Blues patient does not know that UPMC has offered contracts to each of these plans and been turned down because the Blues’ illegal market allocation prevents them entering into such an agreement with UPMC,” according to the filing.

Without an injunction, UPMC alleges it will suffer irreparable harm to its reputation and will lose a significant number of patients who have a non-Highmark Blues plans.

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office has not responded to Healthcare Dive’s request for comment and UPMC declined to discuss the case further.

 

 

 

 

The 4 Biggest New Areas to Focus on in 2019

https://www.managedhealthcareexecutive.com/health-management/4-biggest-new-areas-focus-2019

Executives talking

If you ignore the Sword of Damocles hanging over the industry in the form of a Texas federal judge’s ruling the entire ACA unconstitutional, 2019 could shape up as a relatively chaos-free year with little chance of legislative or regulatory upheaval. Despite the fact that the number one issue on voters’ minds during the 2018 election was healthcare, it’s unlikely that the extremely divided Congress will be able to address it in any meaningful way. Cue the 2020 election.

The biggest issues healthcare industry leaders foresee include:

1. Addressing social drivers of health 

Although it’s become clear that a person’s zip code has more impact on their health than their DNA, dealing with the social determinants (or social drivers) of health that relate to where a person lives are often far outside of the scope of most health plans’ operations. That’s rapidly changing. Whether it’s food or housing insecurity, economic stability, social or environmental safety or literacy, the impacts these social drivers have on health outcomes and costs are significant. Spurred by state Medicaid agencies and CMS, finding and deploying tools to measure and address the underlying issues that drive much of the cost and utilization in healthcare will be a focus during the year.

2. Provider consolidation 

As hospital systems extend their reach with acquisitions, mergers and alliances (for example the $28 billion Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health merger), health plans will be faced with much less leverage in rate negotiation and greater challenges in establishing competitive product differentiation as providers will have more power to dictate terms for products and rates. On the other hand, plans aligned with providers will face a more favorable environment and may see significant growth over their unaligned competition.

3. Medicaid work requirements 

Adding work requirements for “able-bodied adults” to Medicaid expansion waivers has allowed Republican states that opted out of this ACA option (and the significant federal dollars that go with it) to find a way to participate that aligns with their stated conservative values.

Unfortunately, work requirements are much easier to put in place than to administer as some of the early-implementing states like Arkansas are finding out. Expect more non-expansion states to use this mechanism to expand their Medicaid coverage and for the health plans involved to be inundated with a whole new set of administrative requirements and challenging enrollment issues.

4. Personal healthcare technologies 

The Dick Tracy watches are here and are way more than cool communication devices. Measuring pulse and blood sugar, breathing rate, simple ECGs, and providing emergency alerts for falls are only the beginning of what appears to be a host of clinical monitoring and alerts coming from these personal technologies. Whether and how health plans address and incorporate the application of these new capabilities to their membership will make a significant difference in the MCO’s market presence and competitive stance.

While these were a some of the more frequently mentioned challenges, obviously other issues resonated a higher level for some execs based on their geography and product lines. Here’s hoping that 2019 sees the industry better serve the diverse healthcare needs of the country by meeting consumers’ demands for quality, affordability, and access.

 

 

 

Asking the wrong question about physician consolidation

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1077558719828938?utm_source=The+Weekly+Gist&utm_campaign=41103e2ef1-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_02_14_09_16&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_edba0bcee7-41103e2ef1-41271793&

Image result for healthcare vertical integrationImage result for healthcare vertical integration

A paper out this week from Rice University healthcare economist Vivian Ho is the latest analysis to posit that vertical integration of doctors and hospitals does little to improve care quality. Researchers evaluated 29 primarily hospital-focused quality and patient satisfaction measures and found that higher levels of vertical integration were associated with improved performance on just a small number of metrics—and increased market concentration was associated with lower scores on all patient satisfaction measures.

Before concluding that vertical integration generates little improvement in quality, it’s worth looking a little deeper at the methodology of this study, as well as the larger drivers of hospital-physician integration. Researchers used a blunt measure of vertical integration, combining health systems’ self-reported physician alignment model with a standard index of hospital market concentration (on the theory that lower hospital-to-hospital competition indicates greater vertical integration). The performance measures examined are hospital-focused, ignoring outpatient care quality, as well as the nuance of whether the “integrated” physicians in any market are responsible for the outcomes measured (employing primary care doctors and orthopedic surgeons would have little impact on measures of hospital treatment of heart attacks).

In a press release, the author notes: “If patient welfare doesn’t improve after integration, there may be other reasons why physicians and hospitals are forming closer relationships—perhaps to raise profits.” That’s right: there are many motives for vertical integration. Surely profitability has been a driver, as well as the rising complexity and deteriorating economics of running an independent practice. In the real world, physician alignment strategies are rarely driven by the primary goal of improved quality. However, many health systems have begun to recognize that closer financial alignment is a necessary (but far from sufficient) requirement to enable real progress on quality improvement. Regardless of alignment approach, though, quality improvement results from the hard work of care process redesign and cultural change, not as the inevitable result of vertical integration. Success stories are still too few and far between, but we believe there is value in leveraging vertical integration to make this work easier. Condemning vertical integration seems a harsh verdict; a more appropriate criticism would be that much of the heavy lifting of care redesign is yet to begin.

 

 

Market Concentration and Potential Competition in Medicare Advantage

https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-briefs/2019/feb/market-concentration-and-potential-competition-medicare

Market concentration and competition

ABSTRACT

  • Issue: Medicare Advantage (MA), the private option to traditional Medicare, now serves roughly 37 percent of beneficiaries. Congress intended MA plans to achieve efficiencies in the provision of health care that lead to savings for Medicare through managed competition among private health plans.
  • Goal: Two elements are needed for savings to accrue: a sound payment policy and effective competition among the private plans. This brief examines the latter.
  • Methods: We use data from 2009–17 to describe market structure in MA, including the insurers offering plans and enrollment in each U.S. county. We measure both actual and potential competitors for each county for each year.
  • Key Findings and Conclusions: MA markets are highly concentrated and have become more concentrated since 2009. From 2009–17, 70 percent or more of enrollees were in highly concentrated markets, dominated by two or three insurers. Since the payment system used to reimburse insurers selling in the MA market relies on competition to spur efficiency and premiums that more closely reflect insurers’ actual costs, these developments suggest that taxpayers and beneficiaries will overpay. We also find an average of six potential entrants into MA markets, which points to a source of competition that may be activated in MA. To tap into potential competition, further research is needed to understand the factors affecting entry into MA markets.

Introduction

Medicare Advantage (MA), the private option to traditional Medicare (TM), now serves roughly 37 percent of beneficiaries through health care plans. Federal subsidy of the premiums of MA plans is intended to create a “level playing field,” so that the government pays MA plans based on what beneficiaries would typically cost in TM. This approach is based on Alain Enthoven’s concept of “managed competition,” wherein private plans that provide better benefits and higher-quality care at a lower price than TM would attract beneficiaries. Two elements are needed for this approach to work: a sound payment policy and effective competition among the private plans. This issue brief examines the latter.

Recent data show that many MA markets are served by just one or a small number of insurers.1 In 2012, 97 percent of county markets in the MA program were designated as highly concentrated according to the definitions used by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), with a Hirschman-Herfindahl Index (HHI) of greater than 2,500.2 In 2016, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission observed that local markets for MA plans were becoming increasingly concentrated.3 Recently, courts have blocked mergers that would further erode competition within the MA market.4

This issue brief updates information about the market structure in the MA program. We report on traditional measures of market structure, such as concentration ratios and the HHIs, and a simple count of the number of insurers offering plans in a market. We also include the “two-firm concentration ratio,” or the share of enrollment accounted for by the top two firms. We also offer new perspectives on competition in MA. First, we comment on competition and choice from the standpoint of a beneficiary by examining the number of plans available. Second, we introduce the idea of “potential competition” in an MA market. Potential competition, like actual competition, can constrain market power. Third, we consider the role of TM in constraining the market power of MA insurers.

Actual and Potential Competition

News stories about consumers’ choices among Medicare Advantage plans often begin with a statement such as “On average, seniors will have a choice of 21 plans, although at least 40 plans will be accessible in some counties and large metropolitan areas of the country.”5 But such accounts give a misleading indication of competition in the MA program, because many insurers offer multiple health plan products in the same market. In this issue brief, we measure the number of MA plans but also focus on the number of different insurers in the market to assess competition at the insurer level.

An insurer needs to be wary of potential as well as actual competitors. Insurers that set premiums high may enable competitors to gain footholds in a market. A market is said to be “contestable” if it is relatively easy for a potential entrant to contest for market share.6Barriers to entry, the magnitude of one-time entry costs, and the availability of comparably efficient technology all influence contestability of a market. Here, we identify “potential competitors,” or insurers that are in a position to contest a county-defined market and therefore pose a competitive threat to incumbents. Insurers licensed to operate MA plans in a state have already crossed some local regulatory barriers and contract with some local providers. We therefore measure potential competition by the number of health insurers participating in some MA markets within the state but not in a particular county.

Data and Measurement

We use data from 2009–17 to describe market structure in MA, including the insurers offering plans in each county and the level of enrollment by county and plan. From these data we measure both actual and potential competitors for each county for each year. Actual competitors are those insurers that participate in MA in a specific county; potential competitors are the insurers participating in MA in a state but not in the county of interest. These data also allow us to compute concentration ratios and the HHI for each county and in each year. In some analyses we categorize the counties according to the HHI corresponding to the FTC/DOJ classifications of concentration: 1) not concentrated, HHI <1,501; 2) moderately concentrated, HHI=1,501–2,500; and 3) highly concentrated, HHI >2,500.

Results

As shown in Exhibit 1, in 2017 Medicare beneficiaries could choose from a relatively large number of private plans (roughly seven) by the standards of the private insurance market. The number of insurers declined from 2009 to 2011 then remained steady through 2017, averaging 2.5 in 2017. For comparison, in 2017, the average metropolitan area had two insurers competing in the health insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.

Insurer concentration increased from 2009 to 2011 (the number of insurers selling MA plans fell from 4.5 to 2.9) then remained at about the same, high level of concentration. The two-firm concentration ratio was already high in 2009 (81%); it rose to 91 percent by 2011 and stayed there through 2017. The average county-level HHI was 4,914 in 2009, rising to 6,360 in 2013, and declining slightly to 6,285 in 2017. To put this in perspective, a market with two equal-size health plans would have an HHI of 5,000. The average MA market is therefore even more concentrated than that. Notably, the number of potential competitors also fell over the same period. Nevertheless there are now more potential than actual competitors in each county.

Exhibit 2 shows that 70 percent or more of MA enrollees were in highly concentrated markets (HHI>2,500). Few MA enrollees were able to choose a plan in a market not dominated by two or three insurers.

Virtually all Medicare enrollees face MA markets that are moderately to highly concentrated. Exhibit 3 shows the distribution of all Medicare enrollees (in MA and TM) by the levels of MA concentration. We stratify markets (i.e., counties) into quartiles according to the size of the total population of Medicare beneficiaries. The table reports mean population and mean HHI for each quartile of the total Medicare population. Among sparsely populated markets, which are largely rural, the mean HHI is 6,684 — indicating that they are highly concentrated. This is in part because of the difficulty that managed care plans, like HMOs and PPOs, have in establishing provider networks in rural areas where providers are scarce and provider markets are highly concentrated. In highly populated markets, the average HHI shows that they too are highly concentrated HHI = 3,774), but the index value is considerably lower than in sparsely populated markets.

Exhibit 4 shows the average numbers of potential entrants in counties grouped by the three HHI ranges. In recent years, there has been little difference in the number of potential competitors in areas with high or low concentration, implying that potential competitors are no more attracted to highly concentrated markets and may not discipline competition any more strongly in areas with few actual competitors. This was not true in earlier years, during which the number of potential competitors was higher in areas with less current competition. The number of potential competitors in moderately concentrated counties has remained steady over the nine-year period.

While Medicare beneficiaries have a choice between TM and MA, in assessing the competitive forces on MA plans we assume that the actual or potential competition from other MA plans matters most. The market position of an MA insurer in relation to TM received examination in connection with two recently proposed mergers, between Aetna and Humana and between Anthem and Cigna. The U.S. Department of Justice challenged these mergers on antitrust grounds, arguing that the proposed consolidations would threaten effective competition in MA. In the Aetna-Humana case, Judge Bates observed: “The weight of the evidence presented at trial indicates ‘industry [and] public recognition’ of a distinct market for Medicare Advantage. Competition within that market, between Medicare Advantage plans, is far more intense than competition with products outside of it.”7 While the role of traditional Medicare in affecting competition in the MA market deserves further analysis, competition among MA plans is where most of market discipline is likely to arise. While the presence of TM likely affects the conduct of MA plans, existing evidence suggests that the primary drivers of consumer choices are differences in the premiums, quality of care, and benefits among MA plans.8

Implications of MA Market Concentration

Even though 37 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in private plans, when compared with employer-based health insurance Medicare’s transition to managed care has been slow. Traditional Medicare is the last major bastion of open-network, fee-for-service health insurance, although the fee-for-service component is beginning to change with the spread of accountable care organizations. Competition or lack thereof of in a market plays a role in accelerating or attenuating this shift. Consumer choices tend to be driven by the better value (premiums and quality) that can turn more favorable with increased competition.

Several forces may have driven greater concentration in MA markets since 2009. First, consolidation in the health insurance industry generally may have affected the MA market structure.9 Concentration in provider markets also has been increasing, which has made price negotiations for health care services more difficult for insurers, especially smaller ones.10 Medicare policy changes over these years may have inadvertently limited the supply and market entry of MA insurers. When Medicare rules were changed to require all MA plans to create networks of providers, the effect of provider concentration was heightened and some health insurers were less willing to remain in and/or enter MA markets. This effect may have been especially significant in rural areas.11 At the same time, there appears to be a substantial number of potential MA insurer entrants in most moderate to highly concentrated markets, yet there appears to have been little clear impact on market outcomes in terms of premiums and quality.

Together, the confluence of these forces continues to push MA markets in the direction of greater concentration. Since the payment system used to reimburse insurers selling in the MA market relies on competition to drive premiums toward insurers’ actual costs, these developments suggest that taxpayers and beneficiaries will overpay for MA products, compared with what they might have paid in markets with more robust competition.

Need for Further Analysis

A competitive market is intended to deliver good products to consumers at low prices. Ultimately, the effect of Medicare Advantage market power on prices or quality of care needs to be assessed empirically. There is some, but limited, evidence on the exercise of MA market power.12 Further research is needed to understand how potential competitors affect the actions of existing competitors. It also will be important to understand the barriers to market entry for potential competitors, especially those that might be lowered to spur greater competition.