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Price Variations In Healthcare Are Not Related to Quality

The Massachusetts health reform law, Part II – enacted in 2008 – laid the groundwork for cost control and quality improvement, as a follow-on to the initial legislation’s emphasis on achieving near-universal coverage.  The legislation authorized several studies — including a report published a few months back on global payment strategies — and set the stage for hearings on health care cost containment to be held before the state Division of Health Care Finance and Policy (DHCFP), which are scheduled to begin March 16, 2010.

Update 2/18/10: Paul Levy posted a series of questions DHCFP would like hospitals to answer at the hearings at Running a Hospital.

In anticipation of these hearings, and as required by the law, the Attorney General’s office released a report on health care cost trends and cost drivers on January 29.  While the names of providers and payors are not included in this report, it provides a fascinating level of detail regarding what we already knew, or at least suspected: some providers are paid as much as twice as much as others for the same services, with no correlation to improved quality or outcomes.  The AG’s summary conclusions in full:

[O]ur preliminary review has revealed serious system-wide failings in the commercial health care marketplace which, if unaddressed, imperil access to affordable, quality health care. In brief, our investigation has shown:

A. Prices paid by health insurance companies to hospitals and physician groups vary significantly within the same geographic area and amongst providers offering similar levels of service.

B. Price variations are not correlated to (1) quality of care, (2) the sickness or complexity of the population being served, (3) the extent to which a provider is responsible for caring for a large portion of patients on Medicare or Medicaid, or (4) whether a provider is an academic teaching or research facility. Moreover, (5) price variations are not adequately explained by differences in hospital costs of delivering similar services at similar facilities.

C. 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.

D. Variation in total medical expenses on a per member per month basis is not correlated to the methodology used to pay for health care, with total medical expenses sometimes higher for globally paid providers than for providers paid on a fee-for-service basis.

E. Price increases, not increases in utilization, caused most of the increases in health care costs during the past few years in Massachusetts.

F. The commercial health care marketplace has been distorted by contracting practices that reinforce and perpetuate disparities in pricing.

This report is well worth reading, and it is well-illustrated with clear charts.  While the detail is welcome, many have criticized the AG’s office for leaving out identifying information, and for coming to the party a year after the Boston Globe reported on some of the same issues.

At the end of last week, DHCFP released a series of three reports on health care cost trends as well.  The DHCFP reports are summarized here; they really serve to describe the baseline facts on the ground and explore trends form 2006 through 2008.  Here’s the summary of key findings:

* The Commonwealth’s health care system is a key employer and driver of economic growth for the region. However, personal health spending per capita is higher in Massachusetts relative to the nation and continues to rise.

* Some characteristics of the Massachusetts health care marketplace that may be contributing to the high levels of cost growth, include:
o High concentration of physicians (especially specialists);
o Greater availability and use of academic medical centers for both inpatient and outpatient hospital based-services, and use of outpatient hospital-based facilities for some services that could be provided in less costly settings;
o Richer health insurance benefits compared to the nation; and
o Use of payment methods that are not designed to incentivize efficiency and coordination of medical care.

* Most of a health insurance premium goes toward spending on health care services as opposed to administrative and other non-medical services. On average, in Massachusetts more than 88% of premiums are spent on health care expenses (compared to less than 84% nationally).

* Average monthly health insurance premiums increased 12% from 2006 to 2008.  If employers and individuals had purchased comparable benefits each year, the growth in premiums would have been larger.

* Premium trends, benefit levels, and trends in health care spending vary across different-sized employer groups.  Small group premiums were higher and grew faster on average than mid-size and large group premiums, when adjusted for differences in benefits, demographics and location.

* Health care spending in the Commonwealth increased 7.5% per year from 2006 through 2008, a growth rate that is higher than the nation.  The increased spending can be attributed to several factors:

o Price was an important factor contributing to rising health care spending across all service types.
o One area of particular concern (and opportunity) is the variation in prices, which was typically greater for facility charges than professional charges.
o In addition to price increases, care is being provided in more expensive settings over time—more inpatient care is being provided in academic medical centers and there is a decline in the provision of care at stand-alone outpatient facilities.   Much of the growth in outpatient hospital care occurred at academic medical centers located in the metro Boston area.

Again: no surprise here — Massachusetts health care costs are higher than national averages, and are growing at an unsustainable rate.

The challenge before Massachusetts policymakers is clear:  They need to put together these puzzle pieces of data, learn from the past, model potential solutions, and plan for the future.  Even the national mainstream media acknowledges that, in the face of health reform meltdown, doing nothing is not an option.  (Where were they six months ago?)

In the midst of this challenge, Governor Deval Patrick seems to be distracted by health reform’s implications for his political future.  Instead of waiting for a reasoned outcome of the deliberative process set in motion two years ago (well, as reasoned as possible, given the heavy-duty political and economic interests at stake here), he has leapt into the fray with what looks like an ill-conceived bit of political grandstanding: a bill that would give the state insurance commissioner the authority to cap health care price increases.  The Boston Globe reports:

Rates hospitals and other health providers charge insurers would be “presumptively disapproved as excessive’’ if they increased faster than the level of medical inflation, and they could be rejected after a public hearing.

Similarly, for health insurance plans sold to employers with 50 or fewer workers, premium increases that exceed one and a half times the level of medical inflation would be considered excessive and could be turned down.

The legislation would also impose a two-year moratorium on lawmakers’ mandating any new health benefits that must be covered by insurance plans, a practice that employers have said drives up their health insurance premiums. Small businesses have been hit with double-digit rate increases in recent years.

This proposal brings us back to the future here in Massachusetts:  Twenty years ago, Patrick’s presumptive GOP challenger in the fall, Charlie Baker (who, thanks to some of his views being out of step with GOP orthodoxy, will likely draw many of the significant number of independent voters in Massachusetts, as well as some Democrats), was largely responsible for the dismantling of the Massachusetts health care rate setting system during his tenure in budget and health policy roles in the Weld administration.  (In fact, some of us who have been around long enough still refer to DHCFP as “the agency formerly known as Rate Setting.”)  (As a second aside: For those of you tuning in from afar, Baker’s most recent position was CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, one of the three dominant payors in the Commonwealth.)   Is Patrick trying to stake out a position in opposition to Baker’s legacy?  What constituency is going to buy into this vision of the future?  Other local observers have also questioned the wisdom of this approach, including fellow health policy bloggers Evan Falchuck and Paul Levy.  (Taking a cue from Paul’s musings on blogger disclosure in connection with this issue, I’ll just say that as a life-long registered Democrat, I have voted for a Republican maybe just once.)

Deregulation was successful twenty years ago because we were collectively convinced that payors could do a better job of holding providers’ feet to the fire.  We later framed this in terms of holding providers accountable, and have employed a variety of tools over time to try and make this private-sector arrangement work: capitation, discounted fee-for-service payments, quality incentives, global payments, etc., etc.  Patrick’s proposal is one version of the general acknowledgment that the market approach has essentially failed.

Instead of going back to the future, Governor Patrick ought to let the health reform process play out.  The legislature should hold the Governor’s bill pending the DHCFP hearings and the subsequent deliberations that will — we hope — yield a more data-driven and sustainable approach to the problem of health care costs and quality.

And who knows?  The national debate may continue to be informed by what comes out of Massachusetts.

*This blog post was originally published at HealthBlawg :: David Harlow's Health Care Law Blog*


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