Hospitals are investing in housing — Here’s why

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Several factors, including changes in reimbursement, have motivated some hospitals to invest in community housing projects, according to NPR.

In the 1990s, 50 percent of the children in Southern Orchards — near Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Children’s Hospital — lived in poverty. Through a partnership called the Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Families initiative, Columbus, community groups like United Way, and Nationwide Children’s began to invest in the neighborhood’s homes. In 2008, the organizations started renovating vacant homes for resale, building affordable housing and funding renovations for homeowners.

With a $6.6 million infusion from Nationwide Children’s, the $22 million project led to the construction of 58 affordable housing units, 71 renovated homes and 15 new homes. The organizations also gave out 149 home improvement grants from 2008 to 2018, according to the report, which cites Pediatrics.

Kelly Kelleher, MD, director of the Center for Innovation in Pediatric Practice at Nationwide Children’s, writes in Pediatrics that Nationwide Children’s is treating “the neighborhood as a patient.” The hospital is attempting to mend harmful socio-economic and physical environments in the hope it will lower the prevalence of health issues caused by those conditions. The investment could pay for itself if the number of hospital visits from Southern Orchards neighborhood falls, said Dr. Kelleher.

Hospitals across the country are taking similar approaches, though not as direct as owning and operating housing in a certain neighborhood, according to Megan Sandel, MD, who helps direct Boston Medical Center’s housing initiative. Dr. Sandel said Boston Medical Center’s projects are owned and operated by other community organizations. Similar projects are off the ground in Seattle, Boston, Atlanta and New York, among other places.

A potential motivator for these projects is a shift from fee-for-service medicine to reimbursement based on improving quality of care, according to the report. Some states are even starting to give healthcare organizations funding to manage populations.



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For CEOs, market share is critical. But measurement of it, and tactics to grow it, are getting more complicated as patients connect with providers in more sophisticated ways.

Health system CEOs have always worked to meet their mission of caring for the poor and underserved and improving the health of their community. They often cite that mission as their top priority. But in truth, they are evaluated by how well they grow revenue and margin, both of which come through expanding market share.

Market share used to be easy to define. CEOs counted on a reliably increasing reimbursement model that exceeded inflation and an aging population that meant more hospital days every year. No longer. But even though market share growth is much more complex now, failing to achieve that growth could mean termination.

To win the market share battle, healthcare organizations must first redefine what it is (see the sidebar on new market share proxies) and then build strategies that take advantage of the shifts in healthcare delivery. Here’s how three healthcare leaders are doing it.


Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York, acknowledges the need to provide access, value, and convenience for consumers who are increasingly looking for a wide-ranging array of services offered by a single health system. The key to this strategy is the consumer as the focal point of healthcare decision-making.

Northwell is currently investing heavily in home health and digital care access, including a major initiative in telemedicine, but tying it all together into a seamless consumer experience is critical.

“You need hospitals as anchors, but the strategy is very consumer-focused in providing access and convenience,” Dowling says. “We’ve been doing this for 10 years, and it’s one of the reasons we’ve grown to being one of the biggest players in the New York City market. It’s the interconnection of all these pieces that makes all the difference.”

Although it’s not a perfect analogy, Dowling says Northwell wants to emulate Starbucks’ approach to market coverage. It’s not a location on every street corner, but it’s close.

“The traditional way of looking at market share isn’t valid anymore.”

—Chris Van Gorder

Also, getting critical market share mass in a variety of modalities is necessary to becoming the viable narrow network that employers and insurers are looking for. Smart health systems are spending more on smaller facilities, like micro-hospitals, or on freestanding ERs, homecare, urgent care centers, and telehealth capabilities. Such investment aims to meet the everyday health needs of consumers, not just provide for their increasingly rare inpatient stays.

This means focusing on organic growth that complements or even stands alone from the inpatient realm rather than buying hospitals, for example. Specialized areas of investment in both inpatient and outpatient care are the usual profitable service lines, such as orthopedics, neurology, and cardiac care, says Dowling.

He says he seeks two kinds of market share when it comes to reimbursement: Medicare and Medicaid, and commercial. Both kinds are needed to serve the community comprehensively, he says, but only one of the two makes a margin. Patients don’t see that distinction, though, and Northwell must serve them all.

“[Commercial] is what everyone’s going after,” he says. “So, you try to be the preferred provider. You take market share from competitors by developing the physician relationship and by the expansion of ambulatory. We’ve built a massive ambulatory network with over 650 locations. It’s a marketing and consumer experience strategy. If patients are not happy with experience, they will go somewhere else, so it’s multifaceted.”

Hospital-centric organizations used to measure market share in terms of inpatient volume or discharges, but as more services have moved outside the hospital environment, those have become less reliable measures of success.

“We’re all moving toward understanding that the consumer is the determinant of success, rather than just the patient care business,” says Dowling. “The consumer is going to be determining how they want care and where, and since more of it is not needed in the hospital, you have to create locations for cancer care and imaging and surgery where it can be done on an ambulatory basis.”


Chris Van Gorder, the longtime president and CEO of Scripps Health in San Diego, is content with a level of uncertainty around market share, and says that growing it depends partially on instinct in a time of upheaval.

“Market share’s an odd thing. Everyone still wants to gain commercial market share, of course,” he says. “But today we’re not so focused on the inpatient side. We’re doing total hips on the ambulatory side. So, the traditional way of looking at market share isn’t valid anymore.”

Even though the discharge-based methodology isn’t as relevant as it used to be, it’s still important. Rating agencies still use discharges as an important tool to measure financial health, and with the relative lack of precise alternatives, discharges can be an important factor in how they determine borrowing capacity and interest rate terms for healthcare organizations.

“As an industry, we have to figure that out,” Van Gorder says. “Rating agencies use discharges, but you could be reducing that number and getting stronger as an organization.”

Scripps went through its rating agency sessions about three months ago and has seen a small decline in those traditional market share measures, but Van Gorder says those measures don’t tell the full story anymore. Scripps’ market is dominated by three major players: itself, Kaiser Permanente, and Sharp HealthCare, so fluctuations in discharges are often small and at the edges.

Rating agencies are smart enough to recognize that healthcare is changing, Van Gorder says. For example, they know it’s the right strategy to move to ambulatory, and Scripps experienced growth in covered lives in its health plan, which is part of Scripps’ strategy to build its own narrow network. But even rating agencies are frustrated that there’s no metric to enable consistent comparisons, he says.

“We still talk about market share because I still need to make sure the hospitals are occupied enough. Half-full hospitals are the fastest way to go bankrupt,” he says.

Scripps is strong in cardiovascular services, particularly interventional cardiology. “So, we focus on maintaining our strength in that area and in ortho, which is becoming much more ambulatory than it used to be,” says Van Gorder.

One area where it’s not as strong is cancer, he says, even though Scripps is a major oncology provider in San Diego. To maintain and even buttress that market share, the health system has partnered with Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center to build a new comprehensive cancer program that started treating patients this summer.

“[MD Anderson] is building a network strategy, and they have 23,000 people just working on cancer, so we are taking advantage of their knowledge to make us stronger,” he says. “It was a market share play, but it’s much more than just that, with increased access to research and clinical trials.”

Facing fierce competition in ambulatory, Van Gorder says the health system is focusing on areas where it’s strongest and trying to grow there.

In all areas, he says Scripps must aggressively focus on cutting costs, because he sees cost as a proxy for quality. In fact, he notes, cost may be the major limitation for most health systems in growing market share for the foreseeable future.

“People are paying more out of pocket to come in, and insurance companies have gotten so good at narrow networks,” he says. “People tell me you can’t lead with cost, and I say no. Cost is a quality indicator.”


Safety-net hospitals, such as Grady Health System in Atlanta, have historically been overrun by mission patients—that is, patients who do not bring margin, such as Medicaid patients. But its leadership has recognized that the health system needs to be more competitive in commercial patients.

For Grady, that hasn’t meant investment in traditional service lines, but instead investment in highly complex tertiary and quaternary services that can’t easily be found elsewhere in its market, says John Haupert, its president and CEO. With seed funding from philanthropic sources, Grady has made multimillion-dollar investments in stroke and neurological surgery, interventional cardiology, and surgical subspecialties.

“In our case, it was a matter of survival. If all your patients are Medicaid or unfunded, you’re not going to be in business. Part of Grady coming back to life 10 years ago involved developing strategies to grow in funding the mission,” says Haupert.

The complex cases that have come from Grady’s recent investments weren’t previously present in the market. Unlike many organizations, Grady needed to create additional inpatient capacity to maximize those investments in capital and talent. It will soon be operating around 700 occupied beds; 10 years ago, it was barely operating 400. It’s building new outpatient facilities as well, expanding ambulatory surgical and oncology capacity across the street to free up space in the main facility where its cancer center is now.

“In the next three years, we’ll have 750 beds in operation,” Haupert says. “We’ve gone from 9% to 20% commercial. That helps with sustainability.”


When Your ‘Regular Doctor’ Could Be Anyone

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Just what duty, if any, exists for doctors to keep tabs on their sickest patients?

“Will you be my regular doctor?” a new patient seeing me in my primary care clinic asked.

“Sort of,” I honestly answered.

She looked back at me quizzically.

“Technically speaking I will be your doctor,” I explained. “But you may have trouble scheduling an appointment with me and may have to see another doctor here at our group clinic at times. And if you need to get admitted to this hospital, other doctors who work there will take care of you.”

The patient seemed disappointed.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I’ll do my best to be available for you.”

It was not long ago that such words, coming from a doctor, would have been almost heretical. But logistical and philosophical changes in medicine have dramatically altered the doctor-patient relationship.

In clinic-based practices such as mine, patients may be told they may need to wait weeks or months in order to see their doctor. In the world of private medicine, some physicians now charge their patients extra annual fees for the privilege of seeing or speaking with their doctor more promptly.

Just how bad is this situation? Do patients followed by just one doctor do better or worse? And just what duty, if any, exists for doctors to keep tabs on their sickest patients?

My father, an infectious diseases specialist who practiced medicine from the 1950s to the 1990s, would have answered these questions: “Very bad,” “worse” and “a tremendous duty.” My dad was constantly vigilant, going to the hospital seven days a week, giving patients our home phone number and staying in touch with covering physicians when we were on vacation.

But things were different then. For one thing, it was expected that my father would follow his patients both in and out of the hospital. Today there are hospitalists — specialists in inpatient medicine who are in charge of admitted patients and specially trained to diagnose and treat illnesses requiring hospitalization. And my mother, like most doctors’ wives of a generation ago, did not expect my dad to be a co-parent. Medicine, after all, was a calling.

The reasons for the changes are diverse. For one thing, the growing number of women in medicine has helped bring a better work-life balance among physicians. In addition, the 1984 Libby Zion case, in which a young woman died while under the care of young doctors working 36-hour shifts, pointed out the potential dangers of sleep-deprived providers.

When I was a medical resident in the 1980s, the first “night floats”— doctors who covered the wards at night so other physicians could sleep or go home — appeared. To many doctors of my father’s era, this development was heresy. Medicine, they feared, was becoming “shift work.” Patients were passed from doctor to doctor, none of whom really “knew” them. With the advent of hospitalists, this fragmentation has gotten worse.

Fortunately, researchers are studying how well patients do in these competing types of systems. The 2016 FIRST trial, which received a lot of attention, found that patient safety was not compromised when doctors in training worked longer shifts.

But even when the data show that limiting work hours leads to as good or better care, physicians should not be content to play “doctor tag,” in which a physician or clinic simply designates a new provider to “take over” treatment. Just because a physician takes good care of someone during his or her shift does not mean that responsibility ends there.

It may be helpful to think about specialties within medicine that have long been associated with limited continuity, such as emergency or intensive-care medicine. In both of these venues, patients move in and out of treatment quickly and follow-up may be difficult. But it is not impossible.

In her new book, “You Can Stop Humming Now,” Dr. Daniela Lamas, a critical care specialist, recounts visits she made to patients after they had left her unit. In one case, she attends a party thrown by a man whose severe West Nile virus infection had initially made it unlikely he would ever return home. But now there he was, eating, chatting, “working the crowd” and reminding his son to videotape the event.

Dr. Lamas did this on her own time. But she found it immensely rewarding. “We rarely have the opportunity,” she writes, to follow patients “through long-term acute care hospitals, infections, delirium, readmissions, and maybe, if they are very lucky, back home to a life that looks something like what they left.” The patient and his wife seemed thrilled that she had come — not as his current doctor but as his past doctor who still cared.

And what of my patients? I have made a decision not to try to imitate my father, as much as I admire the type of doctor that he was. But patients deserve to have a “doctor,” despite the caveat to my new patient. Plus I have found that most physicians, at the end of the day, are control freaks, wanting to be in charge of their own patients.

So I try to stay in touch, by phone, computer or other messaging strategies. Patient portals, being implemented at many hospitals, now allow patients to leave messages for their physicians in secure ways that do not threaten confidentiality. And I “sneak in” patients with urgent issues when I am not scheduled in clinic but there are open rooms, such as early in the morning or during lunch. The generous staff members at my clinic help make this happen by registering these patients and getting their vital signs. My clinic is also pursuing strategies to increase the chance that patients can see their regular doctors.

My patients seem pleased when I go the extra mile. If I am willing to squeeze them in, they are willing to move around their schedules to come. But I just can’t promise I can or will always be available.



With 8k more physicians than Kaiser, Optum is ‘scaring the crap out of hospitals’

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Since its acquisition of 250 Las Vegas-area physicians in 2008, UnitedHealth Group has steadily expanded its physician workforce to shield itself from competitors and hospitals, according to a Bloomberg report.

To date, the health insurance giant’s physician arm, OptumCare, employs or is affiliated with about 30,000 physicians. If OptumCare completes its acquisition of Davita Medical Group, the insurer will tack on another 17,000 physicians to its ranks — making it one of the largest physician employers in America.

Hospitals are gobbling up physicians, too. A recent Avalere Health study found that by mid-2016, hospitals employed 42 percent of U.S. physicians. Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare has roughly 37,000 physicians, Bloomberg reports. Still, Optum outpaces Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente’s roughly 22,000 physicians by 8,000.

“This is obviously scaring the crap out of hospitals in many markets,” Chas Roades, CEO at consulting firm Gist Healthcare, told the publication. By controlling a greater number of physicians, Optum is not only buffering itself from competitors, but attempting to steer patients toward lower-priced care outside of the hospital.

In some cases, Bloomberg notes, UnitedHealth is directing members toward its acquired physicians. For example, UnitedHealth lists New West Physicians, a Denver-area group of 120 physicians that the insurer purchased last year, as a favored narrow-network plan for commercial members. Some members can see the physicians for 20 percent to 30 percent less in out-of-pocket expenses compared to physicians outside the network.

Andrew Hayek, a leader in UnitedHealth’s care delivery operation, told Bloomberg the company has “been slowly, steadily, methodically aligning and partnering with phenomenal medical groups who choose to join us.” In the future, OptumCare hopes to expand its 30-market operation to 75 markets, including the nation’s most populous states: California, Texas, Florida and New York.

Whether it’s hospital- or insurer-employed physicians, Ken Marlow, an attorney with Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, told the publication, “The smartest participants in the system are the ones who are going to be able to provide quality care at the lowest cost setting. Whoever gets there first, and whoever is able to do that, I think will be the winner.”


Maryland governor signs federal all-payer health contract

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, center, signs a contract with the federal government for the state's unique all-payer health care model in Annapolis, Md., on Monday, July 9, 2018. Seema Verma, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is on the right and Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is on the left. Robert Neall, Maryland's health secretary is standing behind the governor. Photo: Brian Witte, AP / AP

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed a contract with the federal government on Monday to enact the state’s unique all-payer health care model, which he said will create incentives to improve care while saving money.

Hogan signed the five-year contract along with the administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Seema Verma.

“The Maryland Model provides incentives across the health system to provide greater coordinated care, expanded patient-care delivery and collaboration of chronic-disease management … all while improving the quality of care at lower cost to the consumer,” Hogan said.

He said the model emphasizes the quality of care over the quantity of care.

The Hogan administration said the new contract is expected to provide an additional $300 million in savings a year by 2023, totaling $1 billion in savings over five years.

Maryland is the only state that can set its own rates for hospital services, and all payers must charge the same rate for services at a given hospital. The policy has been in place since the 1970s, though Maryland modernized its one-of-a-kind Medicare waiver about four years ago to move away from reimbursing hospitals on a fee-for-service basis to a fixed budget.

Because that change focused on hospitals only, the federal government required the state to develop a new model that would provide comprehensive coordination across the entire health care system.

Under the agreement, Maryland will be relieved of federal restrictions and red tape that the other 49 states face in the Medicare program. However, the state will have to meet benchmarks of improving access to health care while improving quality and reducing costs.

Verma said the model is the first involving the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that holds the state “fully at risk for total Medicare costs for all residents.”

“The state and CMS have agreed on the goals, and now our job is to get out of the way and give the state the maximum flexibility to achieve success.”

Maryland health secretary Robert Neall says if successful, the plan could be replicated around the country to address financial strain on Medicare. Neall described the model as being “less transactional and more just taking care of the total person.”

“The incentives are going to be aligned so that it’s right place, right time, right purpose, right price, instead of, ‘Come back and see me in two weeks, and we’ll run the same set of tests on you,'” Neall said.



Health Care Is an Investment, and the U.S. Should Start Treating It Like One


We invest billions of dollars each year in medicines, new technologies, doctors, and hospitals — all with the goal of improving health, arguably our most prized commodity. Yet, investments in the U.S. health care system woefully underperform relative to those made in health care in other countries. For instance, the U.S. spends nearly 7–10% more of its national income on health care than other similar countries and yet life expectancy at birth remains, on average, two to three years lower.

To be sure, many factors influence health outcomes and the investments the health care system makes are only one input. But a large reason why investments in health care underperform is because we invest so much in services that are clearly low-value — i.e., offer little or no clinical benefit relative to the cost — and likely many more where the returns are gray. Investing limited health care dollars into low-value services crowds out our ability to spend on high-value services. So if we want to see better outcomes, we need to start to think like investors.

Examples of significant investments in low-value care services abound in the U.S. health care system, ranging from expensive imaging for benign medical conditions to routine pre-operative testing before low-risk surgeries like cataract surgery. Some research estimates that 42% of Medicare beneficiaries receive some form of low-value care.

Many factors contribute to our failure to disinvest from low-value services and invest more heavily in high-value services. For one thing, physicians, insurers, and patients often have limited data on the relative value of different health care services. There is an abundance of high-quality comparative effectiveness data for pharmaceuticals, largely because of the drug approval process, but there’s less data on the value of other expensive investments into health, such as doctor visits and hospitalizations. Put differently, there is no equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration for a large chunk of the health care sector, which means evidence on value in these sectors takes long to produce, in part because nobody requires that evidence to be generated. Furthermore, even when we have good evidence that a treatment or service is highly valuable, we frequently underuse it. Many medications for chronic conditions such as heart disease, e.g., statins, are routinely underused.

Physicians and businesses also generate income from performing low-value services. They may even be able to order these services themselves, effectively generating their own business. (For example, a cardiologist who performs and reads nuclear stress tests, which are frequently low value, has the ability to order these studies for his or her patient.) So reducing investments in low-value care services means spending less on doctors, hospitals, and other health care technologies. But, like pharmaceuticals, each of these entities is represented by powerful lobbyists (such as physician and hospital organizations), who will strongly oppose any steps to reduce payments.

Patients also frequently lack the information and ability to evaluate whether or not low value studies should be performed, and to hold their physicians accountable for choosing to provide low-value care. This issue is further complicated by the fact that labeling care as low-value is context dependent — advancing imaging for back pain is often not useful but sometimes it is. And moreover, some physicians may order unnecessary low-value testing because of the perceived threat of liability. Despite significant efforts to make physicians and patients aware of low-value services, we’ve observed little improvement in reigning in use.

Overinvesting in low-value services by physicians, payers, and patients leads to the underinvestment in high-value services. But affordability and timing is another critical issue that stymies investment in high-value care. Many high-value treatments take several years to yield significant health benefits. Because patients regularly change insurers, any individual insurer has less incentive to commit to investing in an expensive, high-value treatment if the return on investment could end up accruing to a competitor. Short-term budget constraints among both public and private insurers, and the fact that re-allocating resources away from low value services takes time, further limit investments in high-value services.

Consider, for example, the debate around the pricing of new Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) therapies. HCV is a chronic infectious disease that affects 3 million or more Americans. If untreated, HCV can cause liver dysfunction, liver failure, cirrhosis, and ultimately death. Until recently, the only available treatments for HCV were complex, multi-drug regimens with severe side effects and only modest efficacy. In the last half decade, however, several new HCV treatments have been developed with cure rates exceeding 90%. These new treatments typically cost $40,000-$50,000 per treatment course, but they have been shown to be cost effective over the long-term, as they can help patients avoid terminal liver disease, which is extremely expensive to treat, and reduce morbidity and mortality due to progressive liver disease.

Many physicians, experts in public health, and, of course, representatives of the pharmaceutical companies which produce these new treatments contend that these drugs should be made available to all patients with HCV who could benefit from them. But both private and public payers have raised objections over the price of these therapies, in large part because the population of patients who require treatment is so large. Payers contendthat they simply cannot afford to cover the cost of these drugs for all patients who are eligible for them and still provide coverage for other health care services that patients use. And state Medicaid agencies and small insurers frequently assert that short-term budget constraints prevent them from paying for costly, high value therapies like those for HCV.

In cases like this, it may be instructive to think about the circumstances through the lens of a portfolio manager who is choosing how to allocate investments. When given the opportunity to invest in an expensive asset, with high potential for significant future returns on investment, an investment manager would not pass it over due to lack of funds, because this capital could likely be acquired at a cost below the asset’s expected return. The manager would reduce holdings in investments with lower expected returns and re-allocate these funds into more promising investments. If the investment were valuable enough, the manager might even find ways to raise additional capital to invest in this asset.

In health care, this means at least two things: (1) wrestling with the factors that continue to promote use of low-value services (like lack of information and financial incentives for patients, and inappropriately structured financial incentives for physicians) and (2) recognizing that high-value investments often require large financial outlays today that ultimately reap future benefits.

Aside from reducing the use of low-value services, one potential solution is to identify and develop sources of long-term financing for high-value services. Mortgages exist to spread the costs of a home or a car out over a longer period of time, thereby allowing people to buy a product that they otherwise could not afford. Similar approaches could be used to help finance high-value health care investments that otherwise would be unaffordable.

For both public and private insurers, a long-term view should be feasible. State governments already rely heavily on capital markets to finance infrastructure investments and it’s quite possible that the returns on these investments fall below high-value health care investments like HCV drugs. Private insurers could also access private capital markets and design contracts with other insurers that allow them to partake in some of the long-term benefit of early high-value care when individuals switch between plans. For instance, an insurer that covers HCV therapy for an individual could, in theory, be compensated by future insurers, even Medicare, that treat that patient and benefit from that patient already being cured of HCV.

Ultimately, reducing investments in low-value care will require coordinated action from many actors. Patients and providers need more robust and up-to-date information on the value of different services. Insurers must look hard at the services they cover and discourage utilization of low-value services and encourage use of high-value services, even those that are high cost. Innovators developing new drugs, devices, and procedures should look beyond profits alone and incorporate the need to add value into their investments. And policymakers must create incentives for all of the above to consider value when making decisions about how to invest their health care dollars.

These actions are important because not only does underinvesting in high-value services make them less accessible, it may also make them less available in the future. Many expensive high-value treatments — like HCV therapies, new cancer treatments, and gene therapies — are the product of extensive research and development, which are undertaken because the expected returns are thought to exceed the known costs. A failure to reduce investments in low-value care and reinvest these resources in high-value therapies will reduce incentives to develop future therapies that can deliver significant value to patients.




Would Americans Accept Putting Health Care on a Budget?

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If you wanted to get control of your household spending, you’d set a budget and spend no more than it allowed. You might wonder why we don’t just do the same for spending on American health care.

Though government budgets are different from household budgets, the idea of putting a firm limit on health care spending is far from unknown. Many countries, including Canada, Switzerland and Britain, pay hospitals entirely or partly this way.

Under such a capped system, called global budgeting, a hospital has an incentive to deliver less care — including reducing hospital admissions — and to increase the efficiency of the care it does deliver.

Capping hospital spending raises concerns about harming quality and access. On these grounds, hospital executives and patient advocates might strongly resist spending constraints in the United States.

And yet some American hospitals and health systems already operate this way, including Kaiser Permanente and the Veterans Health Administration. To address concerns about access and quality, these programs are usually paired with quality monitoring and improvement initiatives.

That brings us to Maryland’s experience with a capped system. The evidence from the state is far from conclusive, but this is a weighty and much-watched experiment for health researchers, so it’s worth diving into the details of the latest studies.

Starting in 2010 with eight rural hospitals, and expanding its plan in 2014 to the state’s other hospitals, Maryland set global budgets for hospital inpatient and outpatient services, as well as emergency department care. Each hospital’s budget is based on its past revenue and encompasses all payers for care, including Medicare, Medicaid and commercial market insurance. Budgets for hospitals are updated every year to ensure that their spending grows more slowly than the state’s economy.

Because physician services are not part of the budgets, there is an incentive to provide more physician office visits, including primary care. According to some reports, Maryland hospitals are responding to this incentive by providing additional support outside their walls to patients who have chronic illnesses or who have recently been discharged from a hospital. Greater use of primary care by such patients, for example, could reduce the need for future hospital admissions.

In 2013, early results found, rural hospital admissions and readmissions were both down from their levels before the system was introduced.

In the first three years of the expanded program, revenue growth for Maryland’s hospitals stayed below the state-set cap of 3.58 percent, saving Medicare $586 million. Spending was lower on hospital outpatient services, including visits to the emergency department that do not lead to hospital admissions. In addition, preventable health conditions and mortality fell.

According to a new report from RTI, a nonprofit research organization, Maryland’s program did not reap savings for the privately insured population (even though inpatient admissions fell for that group). However, the study corroborated the impressive Medicare savings, driven by a drop in hospital admissions. In reaching these findings, the study compared Maryland’s hospitals with analogous ones in other states, which served as stand-ins for what would have happened to Maryland hospitals had global budgeting not been introduced.

But a recent study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, was decidedly less encouraging.

Led by Eric Roberts, a health economist with the University of Pittsburgh, the study examined how Maryland achieved its Medicare savings, using data from 2009-2015. Like RTI’s report, it also compared Maryland hospitals’ experience with that of comparable hospitals elsewhere.

However, unlike the RTI report, Mr. Roberts’s study did not find consistent evidence that changes in hospital use in Maryland could be attributed to global budgeting. His study also examined primary care use. Here, too, it did not find consistent evidence that Maryland differed from elsewhere. Because of the challenges of matching Maryland hospitals to others outside of the state for comparison, the authors took several statistical approaches in reaching their findings. With some approaches, the changes observed in Maryland were comparable to those in other states, raising uncertainty about their cause.

A separate study by the same authors published in Health Affairs analyzed the earlier global budget program for Maryland’s rural hospitals. They were able to use other Maryland hospitals as controls. Still, after three years, they did not find an impact of the program on hospital use or spending.

Changes brought about by the Affordable Care Act, which also passed in 2010, coincide with Maryland’s hospital payment reforms. The A.C.A. included many provisions aimed at reducing spending, and those changes could have led to hospital use and spending in other states on par with those seen in Maryland.

A limitation of Maryland’s approach is that payments to physicians are not included in its global budgets. “Maryland didn’t put the state’s health system on a budget — it only put hospitals on a budget,” said Ateev Mehrotra, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Slowing health care spending and fostering better coordination requires including physicians who make the day-to-day decisions about how care is delivered.”

broader global budget program for Maryland is in the works. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is reviewing a state application that commits to global budgets for Medicare physician and hospital spending. An editorial that accompanied the JAMA Internal Medicine study noted that a few years may be insufficient time to detect changes. It suggests that five to 10 years may be more appropriate.

“Maryland hospitals are only beginning to capitalize on the model’s incentives to transform care in their communities,” said Joshua Sharfstein, a co-author of the editorial and a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This means that as Maryland moves forward with new stages of innovation, there is a great deal more potential upside.” As former secretary of health and mental hygiene in Maryland, he helped institute the Maryland hospital payment approach.

Global budgets are unusual in the United States, but their intuitive appeal is growing. A California bill is calling for a commission that would set a global budget for the state. And soon Maryland won’t be the only state using such a system. Pennsylvania is planning a similar program for its rural hospitals.

Can this system work across America?

How much spending control is ceded to the government is the major battle line in health care politics. An approach like Maryland’s doesn’t just poke a toe over that line, it leaps miles beyond it.

But the United States has been trying to get a handle on health care costs for decades, spending far more than other advanced nations without necessarily getting better outcomes. A successful Maryland experiment could open an avenue to cut costs through the states, perhaps one state at a time, bypassing the steep political hurdle of selling a national plan.