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Hiding in Plain Sight

by Kim Bellard, June 18, 2013

I saw two recent articles in The New York Times recently that I thought merited further discussion.  One attracted a fair amount of attention, the second not quite as much.  They deal with the high prices in the U.S. health system and the trend towards provider consolidation, respectively.  Both problems are well known, yet they describe continue to get worse, not better.  

The first article – The $2.7 Trillion Medical Bill: How Colonoscopies Explain Why the U.S. Leads the World in Health Expenditures – focuses on the wacky world of charges and overuse of expensive procedures, especially as they relate to colonoscopies.  It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, but their analysis indicated that charges for the procedure varied dramatically between providers, and were much higher than in other countries.  The U.S. also does them more commonly than many other countries, preferring the expensive surgical approach to other screening options.  

The boom in the number of colonoscopies has been great for gastroenterologists, anesthesiologists, and surgical centers; for patients, perhaps not so much.  The article’s discussion of how many gastroenterologists have invested in surgical centers to reap more of the profits from the procedure is disturbing, and they are far from the only specialty to have discovered this financial gimmick.  It’s part of what drives our health care bill.  

The article notes that insured patients typically shrug off the inflated charges, since their insurance has negotiated rates that are far lower, but, of course, uninsured patients get stuck with the full bill, kind of like having to pay those absurd prices on the back of hotel room doors.  Arbitrary and inconsistent as charges may seem, they’ve nonetheless helped lead to “allowed charges” that are still much higher than anywhere else in the world.  We all end up paying for the costs, of course, through higher insurance rates or as taxpayers.  

Meanwhile, the second article – Health Care’s Overlooked Cost Factor – centers on market consolidation, particularly through mergers of health systems.  It starts off with the FTC’s first successful antitrust case against a hospital merger since 1990 (!!), blocking the merger of two neighboring Chicago hospitals.  A victory of sorts, but the case was done post-merger and it is not at all clear that the ruling actually rolled back pricing with the payors to the levels they would have been sans merger.  

Earlier this year the FTC did move to block the acquisition of Idaho’s largest physician group by its largest hospital provider, so perhaps they’re starting to wake up to the problem.  With all the health system merger activity in the past 10-15 years, these isolated victories lead one to wonder why the FTC has been so asleep at the wheel. 

The article cites research by Gaynor and Town, done for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last year, which concluded that hospital consolidation generally raises prices, often dramatically, and that physician-hospital consolidation has not led to improved quality or reduced costs.  Their research is not the first to reach these conclusions, and of course the American Hospital Association has a different perspective.  Earlier this month they released a report that which indicated that only about 10% of hospitals have been involved in a merger in the past five years, that most mergers aren’t happening in concentrated markets, and don’t necessarily result in higher prices.  Uh-huh.  

AHIP was quick to rebut the recent study’s conclusions. 

These are well-known problems.  The insight on prices goes back at least ten years to Gerry Anderson’s Health Affairs famous article “It’s the Prices, Stupid.”  Steve Brill wrote a similar article in Time (“Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us”) earlier this year.  The state of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have both publically been concerned about the consolidation issue, and there was the great quote from consultant Robert Murray: “Finally the evidence is catching up with the reality that we have a humongous monopoly problem in health care.”  Even I’ve previously written on both prices and market consolidation.  So, no, these shouldn’t catch anyone by surprise. 

Many experts cite greater transparency as an important way to attack prices, and there are numerous companies purporting to provide consumers transparency tools.  Indeed, a recent report from the Aite Group claims transparency itself will be a $3 billion industry by 2016 – up from $540 million in 2012.  Of course, someone – i.e., consumers – ultimately will pay for that increase.  Only in the American health care system does creating a business to provide information on prices lead to greater costs for the system, as to date the data is inconclusive at best that consumers will actually change their behavior based on transparency information.  And in a consolidated market they may find few options to price shop even if they want to. 

We need more competition, and we need it on the right things, like value.  I’m not sure any of the metrics we use now are going to get us there anytime soon.  Some claim that this is the era of “Big Data,” and its application in health care will provide revolutionary insights.  McKinsey & Company issued a report that says use of Big Data in health cae could save $450 billion a year.  Do a search on Big Data in health care and you’ll find a plethora of eager companies, from behemoths like IBM to upstarts that specialize in health care, like ExplorysGNS Healthcare, or Health Catalyst, to name a few.  Hidden in the morass of health care data, it appears, are gems. 

Much has been made of the recent scandal over the NSA pulling unimaginable reams of data from telephone and internet records, and using their Big Data capabilities to mine it – hopefully only to detect terrorists.  Meanwhile, when I read articles like the one Bloomberg News recently reported about how one Chicago hospital has literally been cutting patients’ throats – e.g., performing tracheotomies -- unnecessarily to increase revenues, I kind of wish we did have some Big Brother looking at the data better.  

In a series of articles over two years ago the Wall Street Journal showed (see here or here) the kinds of fraud can be detected through proper analysis of the Medicare claims data – and it makes one wonder why CMS hasn’t done the same.  Perhaps now that the Wall Street Journal has forced CMS to release Medicare claims data on individual doctors someone else can detect this kind of abuse on an ongoing basis.  That data is still not freely available, but at least the door is open wider.  

Some say pricing can be addressed via greater transparency, others want more bundled payments, and yet others like reference pricing, which essentially limits payor liability to a fee schedule.  I’m old enough to remember when health insurance often had set fee schedules, with charges above those scheduled amounts the patient’s problem, and I don’t recall people being too crazy about them.  On the other hand, costs were a lot lower, so maybe there is something there, just as we’re also going back to the old idea of big upfront deductibles.  

Personally I think the source problem is that we’ve allowed our pricing structures to become so complex, so piecemeal, and so jargon-filled that no consumer – and few professionals – can really be expected to understand them, much less shop based on them.  Step one has to be to greatly, greatly simplify how we price health care services. 

One of my pet peeves in health care are those financial responsibility forms providers try to get everyone to sign upfront.  They say, essentially: we don’t know exactly what we’ll do to you, or how much it will cost, and we may get some other people to do some other things to you too, and we don’t know what that will cost either, but whatever is done to you and however much it costs, you are obligated to pay.  I’m no contract lawyer, but that sure doesn’t seem like an enforceable contact to me, given the vast asymmetries.  I’d sure love to see the ACLU or Public Citizen or maybe even AHIP take this on in court.  Pricing would get a whole lot more rational if there had to be more upfront disclosure and agreement. 

As for the market consolidation, if health systems are going to create monopolies or virtual monopolies, they may need to be treated more like public utilities, facing rate and spending review.  I’d hate for that to happen, and much prefer that we reimagine the role of these capital-intensive structures.  Why do these big buildings with all those beds and all that equipment still make sense in the 21st century?  Can they be reinvented with something that allows more competition?  I offered one conceptual approach some time ago, but would welcome other proposals to address the issue. 

There is a lot of “reform” happening in health care these days, but if they just end up incorporating these two structural problems I doubt we’re going to actually see much real improvement to our health care system.

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