Should We Regulate Prices of Hospitals? All-payer Rate Setting’s Allure

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Image credit: time.com

The Bitter Pill article has received a lot of press lately. People reading it have often turned to a simple solution: regulate prices. The most straightforward approach to this is called “all-payer rate setting,” which has been experimented with before in some places in the U.S. and is still used in Maryland. The basic idea is that the government says, “When any provider performs this certain service, he/she will be paid this much for it no matter who the payer is.” And they set prices for every single service. Think of how this would instantly make all chargemasters a thing of the past. And no more worrying about hospitals increasing their bargaining power as they join together to form ACOs. And all that administrative complexity that would be gone (thus decreasing costs a fair amount)!

But there are downsides, too, which are not as obvious and may lead people to jump on the bandwagon of all-payer rate setting ignorantly. First, back to basics:

Total spending on healthcare = price * quantity

Yes, we probably have some quantity problems (running too many scans, etc., which regional variation literature attests to quite thoroughly), but the main reason we spend so much more than other countries is because of the prices. So, here’s the prices equation:

Price = Cost + Profit

What’s making prices too high? Brill makes a strong case that, at least in a lot of hospitals, profit is part of the problem. But what about costs? Is the actual cost of care too high as well? I’ve never seen literature that breaks down exactly how much of our overspending is a result of high profits versus high costs, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say YES, costs are a problem. Evidence of this: even in countries that do a pretty good job minimizing unnecessary services and regulating profits to reasonable levels, healthcare spending growth is still unsustainable, which only leaves cost as the primary culprit. Therefore, any policy (whether it’s meant to regulate profits, improve access, improve quality, or whatever) that creates barriers to cost lowering should be reserved as a last resort.

So, would all-payer rate setting create a barrier to cost lowering? If yes, I don’t like it. If no, let’s consider it.

First, since I’m reading The Wealth of Nations lately, let’s ask Adam Smith what he thinks about the subject:

I shall conclude this long chapter with observing, that though anciently it was usual to rate wages, first by general laws extending over the whole kingdom, and afterwards by particular orders of the justices of peace in every particular county, both these practices have now gone entirely into disuse.

By the experience of above four hundred years [says Doctor Burn] it seems time to lay aside all endeavours to bring under strict regulations, what in its own nature seems incapable of minute limitation: for if all persons in the same kind of work were to receive equal wages, there would be no emulation, and no room left for industry or ingenuity.

Particular acts of parliament, however, still attempt sometimes to regulate wages in particular trades and in particular places. (Emphasis added)

What’s he trying to say? All-payer rate setting would leave “no room left for [cost-lowering] industry and ingenuity”? (If you’d like to see my explanation for why I assume innovations by providers are generally cost-lowering, see here.)

I’ve explained before how taking away the freedom to set your own prices also removes much of the rewards for cost-lowering industry and ingenuity. In short (and simplified), lowering costs without sacrificing quality means you can lower prices more than others and therefore offer higher value than others, and higher value will eventually be rewarded with market share and profits. (Another assumption I’m making: patients preferentially choose higher-value providers, which is starting to be more true, but there are still many barriers to it.)

Back to the big picture: All-payer rate setting reduces the potential rewards for cost-lowering innovations, which I can guarantee will reduce the amount of cost-lowering innovation that goes on. So, yes, all-payer rate setting will be a barrier to cost-lowering innovation. And that’s a huge problem, so let’s look for other ways to fix egregious profits and costs. More to come . . .

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Why Fee-for-service Reimbursement Is Bad. Wait . . .

Preface: The sparse blogging of late is because I’ve been working on a paper for publication, but it’s mostly done and I’ll be blogging all about it later.

When someone is arguing that the health system needs an overhaul, one of the most common reasons they cite is that “our health system is built on a flawed foundation of fee for service.” Arguments like this always sound so bulletproof when they rely on vague yet widely accepted assumptions, but let’s think clearly about this, just for a moment.

First, let’s go back to Econ 101 to recall that association does not imply causation. So, when you see a health system based on fee for service that is delivering surprisingly low value, you are seeing an association. It starts to look a lot more like causation when you compare this health system to other health systems in the world that are not built on fee for service but are all delivering much higher value. But it starts to look a lot less like causation when you compare this health system to any other industry and see that nearly all of them are based on fee for service yet somehow delivering excellent value. (I’ll come back to this later.)

So what is fee-for-service reimbursement, really? It is simply one extreme end of a spectrum, and at the other end sits capitation:

1This spectrum is not well understood. People always think of it in terms of incentives (“bad” incentives at the fee-for-service end, “good” incentives at the capitation end), but what is actually being varied as you move from one end to the other? I’ve never heard anyone talk about that. So let’s talk about it; the conclusion will be surprising.

I will say that fee for service is the purchase of a narrowly defined service (e.g., a single doctor visit, a single operation, a single medication), whereas capitation is the purchase of a broadly defined service (e.g., all health care you need for a year). So, breadth of service purchased at one time is really what varies on this spectrum. But in addition to the breadth of the service being purchased, there is another important difference: risk. When you pay for narrowly defined services one at a time, you have all the risk (meaning, if you get sick or break your arm, you’re the one who is financially accountable). And when you pay for a broadly defined service, the party you’ve paid has all the risk (meaning, if you get sick or break your arm, they’re the one that is financially accountable). Note that this is primarily where the “accountable” comes from in accountable care organizations–they have the financial risk, not the patient.

This is a spectrum because a service could sit at any point along it. For example, Qliance offers flat-rate, no-limit primary care; they are financially accountable for anything that could be considered primary care. Another example is episode-based billing, where the patient pays a single lump sum in exchange for a guarantee that the provider will do everything necessary to treat the specified medical condition. An interesting side note is that even a typical fee-for-service doctor visit is not truly fee for service in the sense that the patient has all the risk; at least, last time I checked doctors don’t make patient pay larger copays any time appointments run longer than the allotted 15 minutes.

2So what can we conclude from this discussion? Is fee for service actually bad?

Being too far at the fee-for-service end of the spectrum can definitely be bad if it means patients are expected to coordinate complex care by themselves. But being too far at the capitation end of the spectrum can also be bad if it means patients are not at all financially responsible for the services they choose to consume and are also stuck having to get all their care from one source that will inevitably provide less-than-exceptional quality for some services.

This means we need to find the perfect point somewhere in between the extreme ends of the spectrum where our health system will deliver optimal value. This point obviously depends on the service and the individual involved, as well as who can bear risk most effectively, but the way to think about it is using the “jobs” principle as taught by Clay Christensen. When a person enters the health system, it’s because they have a “job” they want to get done. That job generally isn’t something as narrow as to get an x-ray; more likely, their job would be to fix a suspected broken arm, so they’re looking to purchase all the services together that can fulfill that job. The job could also be broader, like to have the peace of mind that they have little to no healthcare-related financial risk and can just go and get care from one source no matter what comes up, or also to have help to keep healthy and thereby reduce care-requiring episodes (think: Kaiser Permanente and similar integrated delivery systems).

If we want to successfully redesign our healthcare delivery system (isn’t that all the talk these days?), we need to understand that fee-for-service isn’t intrinsically bad; the only bad thing is missing the sweet spots on that spectrum.

One final, crucial point: Yes, overhaulists* properly attribute many of the problems in our system to it sitting too far at the fee-for-service end of the spectrum (e.g., overtesting, overtreating, fragmentation), but they have overlooked what has caused the system to fail to adjust itself to a more optimal, jobs-focused point on the spectrum, as other industries do. This has everything to do with value not being financially rewarded in our system, and it is the topic of the publication I’ve been working on, as well as many future blog posts that will start to lay out the solutions more cohesively (after my publication comes out). More to come!

* My term for someone who believes the entire health system needs to be overhauled

UPDATE: Added a paragraph or two for clarity.

Can We Please Use the Proper Definition of Value?

I went to the AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting over the weekend (it’s probably the biggest health policy conference of the year), and then this morning I went to the annual report for one of the regions participating in RWJF’s Aligning Forces for Quality, and I can’t stand the abuse of the word “value” any longer. The picture on the right is part of the cover of the program I came home with from the meeting this morning. Does the text strike anyone else as . . . ineffective? Shortening the path is great, but shortening it to “high-quality, high-value health care”?

Let’s do a refresher on what the word “value” means. This has a precise definition in the professional and academic world, and I guess anyone can choose to define a word however they want, but this is the widely accepted (and most useful) definition:

Value = Quality / Price

Quality can be defined differently as well, but it generally includes outcomes, patient experience, and everything a patient wants. It doesn’t just include quantitative metrics, but it also includes all the softer metrics that are important to patients. For example, the softer metrics related to a physician would include bedside manner, friendly office staff, convenience, length of relationship, and so forth.

Price is the amount of money paid to get the quality. PRICE IS NOT THE SAME AS COST, NOR IS IT THE SAME AS TOTAL SPENDING. I’ve never done all caps for a sentence before, but this is the first time I felt like a sentence needed it. Cost would be the actual costs that were incurred to provide the service, but patients don’t care about cost. They care about the price, the thing they actually have to pay. And, in healthcare, beware of the word “charge” as well, which generally refers to the price a provider is asking for even if the insurer pays him something completely different. Confused? I explain provider pricing in an earlier post.

Now that the more appropriate meaning of the word “value” is understood, look back at the text on the cover picture. “Shortening the Path to High-quality, Low-cost Health Care” would work. “Shortening the Path to High-value Health Care” would also work, but I guess it would not be as explicit as it would be to anyone who hasn’t read this blog post. But not Hooper Humperdink. Not him.

So, next time you hear someone say, “We need to improve the value of healthcare delivered in the U.S.,” you should think, “Ah. This person wants to improve the quality and/or decrease the prices of healthcare in the U.S.” And FYI, the only way we can substantially decrease prices is to decrease COSTS first. Yes, I would say that our new absolutely most important goal in the health policy world (now that the ACA stands; for the time being at least) is to help providers decrease costs and then make sure prices follow.

The Only Two Ways to Reduce Healthcare Spending

If you’ve graduated from elementary school, you have probably learned this formula:

Money Spent = Number of Units * Price per Unit

If we’re talking healthcare (and we are), the “Money Spent” part would be the approximately 18 percent of our GDP that goes to healthcare. The number of units would be the number of doctor visits, ER visits, x-rays, cardiac catheterizations, pills, MRIs, etc. that we buy each year. And the price per unit would be the actual cost of the provision of care plus some amount of profit.

So, if we are to solve our healthcare spending crisis, we need to either reduce the number of units we buy or the price per unit. Those are the only two ways.

It’s been interesting lately as I read/hear about healthcare reform ideas with this in mind. I’m not sure any of them have actually proposed something that will directly reduce the actual cost of the provision of care, which, in my mind, is what we need to be worrying about. Think about it: We can reduce the number of units by doing more preventive care and rationing; we can reduce healthcare organizations’ profits by having the government set prices lower; but healthcare will still cost a lot of money! The real money-saving potential lies in reducing the actual cost of the provision of care.

Is that possible? YES.

How? Evolution of the healthcare industry through better information, business model innovation, and technology. (See The Innovator’s Prescription by Christensen, Grossman, and Hwang, which doesn’t have all the answers, and the ones provided are disputed, but I think they’re on the right track.)

Stupid Assumptions I Often See Healthcare Experts Make

Brief preface: Our healthcare system is a mixture of government-run stuff (e.g., Medicare, the VA system) and non-government-run stuff (e.g., the private insurance market, private hospitals).

Often I will read something written by a healthcare expert that says, “Turning healthcare completely over to the free market can’t fix our healthcare cost problems because spending in the private aspects of our healthcare system has been growing at an unsustainable rate.” That statement is often accompanied by its corollary, “And there is also no data that a completely government-run system can solve our increasing cost problem because Medicare hasn’t done so already.”

I’d just like to make explicit the major assumptions contained within those two faulty assertions:

  • Major assumption #1: The free-market aspects of our current system have no influence on the success of the government-run aspects of our system.
  • Major assumption #2: The government-run aspects of our current system have no influence on the success of the free-market aspects of our system.

An example: Our free-market system’s pricing is mostly based on the government-administered prices Medicare uses. This definitely hinders the free market’s ability to price things according to their real value to the market, which, in turn, affects what medical device companies and pharmaceutical companies choose to invest in.

Another example: Medicare is limited in how much it can reduce compensation to providers because they will just start rejecting Medicare patients in favor of seeing only private-insurance patients. This definitely hinders Medicare’s ability to price things according to what they view as sustainable.

Numbers Don’t Lie . . . People Do

Yes, I’ve strayed from the healthcare basics focus that I intended to take. I’ll get back to that, I promise. But this is something I’ve been wanting to post about for a while now.

Picture a child learning how to count. Now picture that child trying to use that new skill to count trees on her way home from school. She walks past a tree and says, “One.” Then she walks past another, even bigger one, and says, “Two.” And then she walks past a little tiny bush. She ignores it, confidently praising herself for knowing that that’s not a tree. But then she walks past a pretty tall bush. It has a trunk. It has leaves. Is it a tree? She gets confused and decides not to apply stuff she learns in school to her life anymore.

What was her problem, and what does that have to do with healthcare? She had a problem with identifying what she should count and what she shouldn’t. This is an essential fact of counting–it’s a game of categorization. By counting trees, you have to define what a tree is and what a tree isn’t. And this has everything to do with healthcare! Have you ever heard the number 46 million come up in healthcare debates before? You got it! It’s the number of “uninsured” people in the U.S.

I always took that number at face value. After all, numbers don’t lie. Right? Right. But that number was obtained by some people somewhere deciding who should be considered “uninsured” and who shouldn’t. So are they completely unbiased when they are deciding what to count and what not to count? I argue that they are not.

Numbers are almost always used for political purposes! The mere fact that you’re counting something presupposes that it’s worth counting, probably because you think it will help you know if you’re right in suspecting something’s wrong. In the case of healthcare, people were probably hearing anecdotes about how someone didn’t have insurance died because of it (probably leaving her kids behind as orphans). “Wow! I think the number of uninsured people in the U.S. is a problem! I’m going to check that by counting them.” And then, after they decide how to count uninsured people, they get a number. And they don’t stop there. They use that number to incite action. Why else would someone count something? “Look, that’s really neat that I got that number. Let’s stare at it.”

So, am I saying that the people advocating universal health coverage are the ones who are counting (and skewing) the number of uninsured people in the U.S.? Glenn Beck certainly thinks so. He estimates that number of uninsured people to be closer to 9 million, not 46 million. And I don’t know if he’s right or wrong. I haven’t done the research to find out how the powers that be get to that 46 million number.

What I am sure of, though, is that the principle is correct. It seems cynical to say that you shouldn’t trust any numbers or statistics, but it also seems naive to completely ignore the politics that goes into obtaining a number. I’ve seen charts that show health spending growth by country. Depending on which countries are included on the chart, some make it look like the United States’ health spending growth is pretty average, others make it look like we’re an extreme outlier (implying something should be done about it NOW!). But maybe this is all a good thing. I mean, if no one was convinced that healthcare is a problem, would we be going through this whole “let’s improve healthcare” movement? Probably not.

The Secret Problem with Healthcare

I’ve decided it’s a good evening to wax Platonic a little bit and write in dialogue form.

Interviewer: I see you like to study health policy. What do you think are the biggest problems with our healthcare system today?

Taylor: Cost, quality, and access; we spend way too much money and still don’t have relatively great outcomes or access to care.

Interviewer: How do you think we can solve them?

Taylor: You missed a question.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Taylor: Didn’t you mean to ask me what’s causing the problems before you asked me how to solve them?

Interviewer: *Gives me the “go on” look*

Taylor: Well, you’ve just exemplified the secret (fourth) problem of healthcare: ignorance. We skip the second question. We don’t really understand what’s causing the problems we identify. Instead, we jump right to ideas about how to solve them (i.e., answering the third question). So, go ahead and try again.

Interviewer: Thank you, but that will be all. And remember, don’t worry about calling us–we’ll call you.

This is my explanation for being so slow to form an opinion on reform proposals. I don’t really know what would help yet because I don’t really understand all the root causes of the problems. I guess one can probably never understand all of the root causes, but one can surely understand the two or three main ones to each problem. And there doesn’t seem to be a single place online or anywhere that I can go to find them clearly laid out and thoroughly explained. It’s probably because we keep skipping the second question.

Now if only I could figure out what justice is . . .