What’s Going On With Health Care Costs?


Posted by Joel Wittman

Egads!  Is it truly possible?  Has the increase in health care costs been at its lowest in almost four decades?  And this in spite of the Baby Boomer generation fast approaching retirement age?  What could account for such a phenomenon and is it sustainable?  All relevant questions that have health care experts scratching their heads in search of answers and have politicians scrambling to enact programs to further the slow down in the increase in health care costs.  But, perhaps inaction at this time is the appropriate response.  Can we afford to have the fractured political process impede the progress that has been achieved?  Eduardo Porter, in an article in his Economic Scene column in the New York Times, opines on his take on the subject.  The article is shown below.  I thought this would be of interest to you.  Comments, please.

 

Economic Scene

Medicare Needs Fixing, but Not Right Now

By EDUARDO PORTER

What’s the rush? For all the white-knuckled wrangling over spending cuts set to start on Friday, the fundamental partisan argument over how to fix the government’s finances is not about the immediate future. It is about the much longer term: how will the nation pay for the care of older Americans as the vast baby boom generation retires? Will the government keep Medicare spending in check by asking older Americans to shoulder more costs? Should we raise taxes instead?

Experiments by health care providers on cheaper and more efficient ways to deliver care appear to be helping push costs down.

Health Spending Slows

It might not be a good idea to try to resolve these questions quite so urgently. Partisan bickering under the threat of automatic budget cuts is unlikely to produce a calm, thoughtful deal.

“We don’t have to solve this tomorrow; not even next year,” said Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on the design of President Obama’s health care reform.

More significantly perhaps, some economists point out that the problem may already be on the way toward largely fixing itself. The budget-busting rise in health care costs, it seems, is finally losing speed. While it would be foolhardy to assume that this alone will stabilize government’s finances, the slowdown offers hope that the challenge may not be as daunting as the frenzied declarations from Washington make it seem.

The growth of the nation’s spending slowed sharply over the last four years. This year, it is expected to increase only 3.8 percent, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the slowest pace in four decades and slower than the rate of nominal economic growth.

Medicare spending is growing faster — stretched by baby boomers stepping out of the work force and into retirement. But its pace has slowed markedly, too. Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office said that by 2020 Medicare spending would be $126 billion less than it predicted three years ago. Spending over the coming decade, it added, would be $143 billion less than it forecast just last August.

While economists acknowledge that the recession accounts for part of the decline, depressing incomes and consumption, something else also seems to be going on: insurers, doctors, hospitals and other providers are experimenting with new, cheaper and more efficient ways to deliver care.

Prodded by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which offers providers a share of savings reaped by Medicare from any efficiency gains, many doctors are dropping the costly practice of charging a fee for each service regardless of its contribution to patients’ health. Doctors are joining hundreds of so-called Accountable Care Organizations, which are paid to maintain patients in good health and are thus encouraged to seek the most effective treatments at the lowest possible cost.

This has kindled hope among some scholars that Medicare could achieve the needed savings just by cleaning out the health care system’s waste.

Elliott Fisher, who directs Dartmouth’s Atlas of Health Care, which tracks disparities in medical practices and outcomes across the country, pointed out that Medicare spending per person varies widely regardless of quality — from $7,734 a year in Minneapolis to $11,646 in Chicago — even after correcting for the different age, sex and race profiles of their populations.

He noted that if hospital stays by Medicare enrollees across the country fell to the length prevailing in Oregon and Washington, hospital use — one of the biggest drivers of costs — would fall by almost a third.

“Twenty to 30 percent of Medicare spending is pure waste,” Dr. Fisher argues. “The challenge of getting those savings is nontrivial. But those kinds of savings are not out of the question.”

We could be disappointed, of course. Similar breakthroughs before have quickly fizzled. Just think back to that brief spell in the mid-1990s when health maintenance organizations seemed to beat health care inflation — until patients rebelled against being denied services and doctors dropped out of their networks rather than accept lower fees.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services already expects spending to rebound in coming years. Without tougher cost control devices, be it vouchers to limit government spending or direct government rationing, counting on savings of the scale needed to overcome the expected increase in Medicare rolls may be hoping for pie in the sky.

“It makes no sense,” said Eugene Steuerle, an economist at the Urban Institute, to expect the government will reap vast Medicare savings without having an impact on the quality of care.

The Affordable Care Act already contemplates fairly big cuts to Medicare. In its latest long-term projections published last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that under current law, growth in spending per beneficiary over the coming decade would be about half a percentage point slower than the rate of economic growth per person.

To understand how ambitious this is, consider that Medicare spending per beneficiary since 1985 has exceeded the growth of gross domestic product per person by about 1.5 percentage points per year. Slowing down that spending would require deep cuts in doctor reimbursements that, though written into law, Congress has never allowed to happen — repeatedly voting to cancel or postpone them.

Under a more realistic situation, the Budget Office projected that the growth of Medicare spending per capita over the next 10 years would be in fact 0.6 percentage points higher than under current law and accelerate further after that.

Yet despite the ambition of these targets, they would not be enough to stabilize future Medicare spending as a share of the economy. A report by three health care policy experts, Michael Chernew and Richard Frank of Harvard Medical School, together with Stephen Parente of the University of Minnesota, concluded that to do that would require limiting the growth of spending per beneficiary at 1.25 percentage points less than the growth of our gross domestic product per person.

“The Affordable Care Act places Medicare spending on a trajectory that is historically low,” Mr. Chernew said, noting his opinion was not an official statement as vice chairman of Medicare’s Payment Advisory Commission, which advises Congress on Medicare. “Could we do better? Of course. Will we? That requires a little more skepticism.”

Yet even if it is unrealistic to expect that newfound efficiencies will stabilize Medicare’s finances, the slowdown in health care spending suggests that politicians in Washington calm down. It offers, at the very least, more breathing room to carefully consider reforms to the system to raise revenue or trim benefits in the least damaging way.

There are many ideas out there — from changing Medicare’s premiums, deductibles and coinsurance to introducing a tax on carbon emissions to raise revenue. Some of them are not as good as others. Until recently, President Obama favored increasing the eligibility age for Medicare. Then research by the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that raising the age would increase insurance premiums and cost businesses, beneficiaries and states more than the federal government would save. The nation would lose money in the deal.

“As we do this, there are smarter and dumber ways to do it,” Mr. Gruber said. “It would be a problem if we were to do things in a panic mode that set us backward.”

                                                                                                                                               

 Joel Wittman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University.  He is the proprietor of both Health Care Mergers and Acquisitions and The Wittman Group, two organizations that provide management advisory services to companies in the post-acute health care industry. He can be reached at joel.wittman@verizon.net.


Do Health Care and Profits Mix?


Posted by: Joel Wittman 

The debate continues: can a social service such as health care operate in a profit-generating mode?  Undoubtedly, there are fierce opinions on both the pro and con aspects of this question.  Those who support the notion that health care can operate as for-profit entities point out that the financial difficulties encountered by not-for-profit health care providers.  Their mantra is “No Margin, No Mission”; the patient population will receive fewer, or no, services if health care companies are not managed in financially responsible and profitable ways.  On the other hand, those who favor the realm of the non-profit universe contend that the quality of care is compromised and patients not receiving care because of the emphasis in the profit mentality.  So, who’s correct?  It’s a difficult conundrum to address.

An article in the January 8, 2013 edition of the New York Times focused on this issue.  The article appears below:

Health Care and Profits, a Poor Mix

By EDUARDO PORTER
Published: January 8, 2013

Thirty years ago, Bonnie Svarstad and Chester Bond of the School of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered an interesting pattern in the use of sedatives at nursing homes in the south of the state.

Patients entering church-affiliated nonprofit homes were prescribed drugs roughly as often as those entering profit-making “proprietary” institutions. But patients in proprietary homes received, on average, more than four times the dose of patients at nonprofits.

Writing about his colleagues’ research in his 1988 book “The Nonprofit Economy,” the economist Burton Weisbrod provided a straightforward explanation: “differences in the pursuit of profit.” Sedatives are cheap, Mr. Weisbrod noted. “Less expensive than, say, giving special attention to more active patients who need to be kept busy.”

This behavior was hardly surprising. Hospitals run for profit are also less likely than nonprofit and government-run institutions to offer services like home health care and psychiatric emergency care, which are not as profitable as open-heart surgery.

A shareholder might even applaud the creativity with which profit-seeking institutions go about seeking profit. But the consequences of this pursuit might not be so great for other stakeholders in the system — patients, for instance. One study found that patients’ mortality rates spiked when nonprofit hospitals switched to become profit-making, and their staff levels declined.

These profit-maximizing tactics point to a troubling conflict of interest that goes beyond the private delivery of health care. They raise a broader, more important question: How much should we rely on the private sector to satisfy broad social needs?

From health to pensions to education, the United States relies on private enterprise more than pretty much every other advanced, industrial nation to provide essential social services. The government pays Medicare Advantage plans to deliver health care to aging Americans. It provides a tax break to encourage employers to cover workers under 65.

Businesses devote almost 6 percent of the nation’s economic output to pay for health insurance for their employees. This amounts to nine times similar private spending on health benefits across the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, on average. Private plans cover more than a third of pension benefits. The average for 30 countries in the O.E.C.D. is just over one-fifth.

We let the private sector handle tasks other countries would never dream of moving outside the government’s purview. Consider bail bondsmen and their rugged sidekicks, the bounty hunters.

American TV audiences may reminisce fondly about Lee Majors in “The Fall Guy” chasing bad guys in a souped-up GMC truck — a cheap way to get felons to court. People in most other nations see them as an undue commercial intrusion into the criminal justice system that discriminates against the poor.

Our reliance on private enterprise to provide the most essential services stems, in part, from a more narrow understanding of our collective responsibility to provide social goods. Private American health care has stood out for decades among industrial nations, where public universal coverage has long been considered a right of citizenship. But our faith in private solutions also draws on an ingrained belief that big government serves too many disparate objectives and must cater to too many conflicting interests to deliver services fairly and effectively.

Our trust appears undeserved, however. Our track record suggests that handing over responsibility for social goals to private enterprise is providing us with social goods of lower quality, distributed more inequitably and at a higher cost than if government delivered or paid for them directly.

The government’s most expensive housing support program — it will cost about $140 billion this year — is a tax break for individuals to buy homes on the private market.

According to the Tax Policy Center, this break will benefit only 20 percent of mostly well-to-do taxpayers, and most economists agree that it does nothing to further its purported goal of increasing homeownership. Tax breaks for private pensions also mostly benefit the wealthy. And 401(k) plans are riskier and costlier to administer than Social Security.

From the high administrative costs incurred by health insurers to screen out sick patients to the array of expensive treatments prescribed by doctors who earn more money for every treatment they provide, our private health care industry provides perhaps the clearest illustration of how the profit motive can send incentives astray.

By many objective measures, the mostly private American system delivers worse value for money than every other in the developed world. We spend nearly 18 percent of the nation’s economic output on health care and still manage to leave tens of millions of Americans without adequate access to care.

Britain gets universal coverage for 10 percent of gross domestic product. Germany and France for 12 percent. What’s more, our free market for health services produces no better health than the public health care systems in other advanced nations. On some measuresinfant mortality, for instance — it does much worse.

In a way, private delivery of health care misleads Americans about the financial burdens they must bear to lead an adequate existence. If they were to consider the additional private spending on health care as a form of tax — an indispensable cost to live a healthy life — the nation’s tax bill would rise to about 31 percent from 25 percent of the nation’s G.D.P. — much closer to the 34 percent average across the O.E.C.D.

A quarter of a century ago, a belief swept across America that we could reduce the ballooning costs of the government’s health care entitlements just by handing over their management to the private sector. Private companies would have a strong incentive to identify and wipe out wasteful treatment. They could encourage healthy lifestyles among beneficiaries, lowering use of costly care. Competition for government contracts would keep the overall price down.

We now know this didn’t work as advertised. Competition wasn’t as robust as hoped. Health maintenance organizations didn’t keep costs in check, and they spent heavily on administration and screening to enroll only the healthiest, most profitable beneficiaries.

One study of Medicare spending found that the program saved no money by relying on H.M.O.’s. Another found that moving Medicaid recipients into H.M.O.’s increased the average cost per beneficiary by 12 percent with no improvement in the quality of care for the poor. Two years ago, President Obama’s health care law cut almost $150 billion from Medicare simply by reducing payments to private plans that provide similar care to plain vanilla Medicare at a higher cost.

Today, again, entitlements are at the center of the national debate. Our elected officials are consumed by slashing a budget deficit that is expected to balloon over coming decades. With both Democrats and Republicans unwilling to raise taxes on the middle class, the discussion is quickly boiling down to how deeply entitlements must be cut.

We may want to broaden the debate. The relevant question is how best we can serve our social needs at the lowest possible cost. One answer is that we have a lot of room to do better. Improving the delivery of social services like health care and pensions may be possible without increasing the burden on American families, simply by removing the profit motive from the equation.

 

Granted this is one person’s view of the matter. What are your thoughts?  In my course, “The Business of Health Care”, this issue is a key component of the subject matter.  Care to learn more and hear both points of view?  Register for the class.  I look forward to meeting you.

Joel Wittman is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wagner School of Public Service of New York University.  He is the proprietor of both Health Care Mergers and Acquisitions and The Wittman Group, two organizations that provide management advisory services to companies in the post-acute health care industry. He can be reached at joel.wittman@verizon.net.