Building a Healthcare System from Scratch, Part 4: Levers that Determine Profit

leverIn parts 1, 2, and 3, we looked at what we want a healthcare system to do for us (the “jobs”), we figured out which parties in a healthcare system have an incentive to perform those jobs, and then we discussed that, for those parties to have an incentive to maximize value while performing those jobs, they need to make more profit when they deliver higher value.

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Now we’ll look at the different levers that affect profit and see which can be used to reward higher-value parties with more profit.

Let’s review how profit is calculated:

Profit = Revenues – Costs

Profit = (Price x Quantity Sold) – Costs

And since most companies sell more than one product or service, . . .

Profit = ∑((Price x Quantity Sold) – Total Costs)

These are the only four factors that determine a company’s profit: service mix, price, quantity sold, and total costs. So, which can be used to reward higher-value parties with more profit?

Service mix: Companies in healthcare already generally have the freedom to dedicate their resources in ways that maximize the amount of higher-profit services they deliver (why do you think my hospital renovated the orthopedics floor first?), so I won’t go into depth on this one other than to say that we need to allow them to continue doing that.

Price: Could we use prices somehow to reward higher-value parties with more profit?How about we try giving bonuses to higher-value providers? Those bonuses would effectively raise their prices, which actually lowers their value (remember, Value = Quality/Price). Sure, other providers would be motivated to raise their quality to get the higher prices too, but all we’d end up with is a little better quality at a little higher price, with no clear path to much else. Therefore, this approach doesn’t do a very good job of accomplishing the core goal of rewarding higher value with more profit. It’s not the lever we are looking for. But, while we’re talking about prices, there’s one crucial aspect of price that we need to include in our optimal healthcare system: providers and insurers need the freedom to set their prices themselves. The reasons for this will become clearer in subsequent posts.

Costs: Finding a way to lower the costs of higher-value providers is basically the same as raising their price–either way, more money is given to them, which raises their profit but lowers the value people obtain from them. So, the same problems exist with using costs as a lever to reward value with profit.

Quantity Sold: We’re left with one last lever, and I saved it for last on purpose. What would happen if higher-value insurers or providers all of a sudden were getting more patients flocking to them? They would certainly get more profit (assuming they have the capacity to take on more patients/subscribers). And the patients are happy because more of them are getting higher-value services. Now think beyond that static world. Over time, higher-value parties would continue to make more money and expand, and lower-value parties would be forced to improve their value or just go out of business. Parties would have an incentive to take big risks on innovations that improve value because they would know that, if the innovation ends up improving value for people (lower price, higher quality, or both), it will be rewarded handsomely with profits.

In summary, the best way to reward higher value with more profit is to get more patients to flow to them.

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In Part 5, I will enumerate the core elements required for people to do that.

The Three Different Ways We Could Set Prices in Healthcare

Image credit: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Image credit: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Out of the three general ways we could set prices in our healthcare system, one is best. Too bad we’re using the other two.

First, I’ll describe each method:

  1. Administrative pricing: This one is very straightforward. The government says, “For procedure A, healthcare providers will be paid X dollars.” Usually the methods for coming up with that dollar amount are sophisticated and rely on the best available data, but not always because they are subject to various political influences and government budgets.
  2. Bargaining power-based pricing: This one is easiest to explain using an example. Think of a small town with only two family medicine docs. One, Dr. Awesome, treats 90% of the town’s residents; the other, Dr. Mediocre, treats the other 10%. All patients are insured by one of four different private insurers, each of which has approximately equal market share. Now think of Dr. Awesome sitting down at the bargaining table with one of the insurers to decide on prices. He says, “If you don’t pay me at least Medicare rates times 1.4, I won’t accept your insurance. I’m serious, I won’t accept anything less.” And the insurer says, “Hey, that’s a horrible deal, but if we stop covering care you provide then most of our policy holders in your town will just switch to one of our three competitors and we’d lose out on even more profit!” Now think of the conversation between Dr. Mediocre and that same insurer. Dr. Mediocre says, “Pay me Medicare rates times 1.4.” And the insurer responds, “No. We’ll pay you Medicare times 0.8. If you say no and we don’t have you listed as a provider in our network anymore, that’s okay because only a tiny percentage of our policy holders are your patients. And we know that you don’t have many patients, so you can’t afford to risk losing 1/4 of them by saying no to the price we offer.” Relative market share between the two parties is the primary determinant of bargaining power, so a bigger market share means you can get a better price.*
  3. Competitive pricing: This is the method used to determine prices in almost every other industry. Here’s basically how it plays out: Competitor A says, “Everyone knows that our product has similar quality to our competitor’s product, so we can’t price it higher than theirs without sacrificing quite a bit of market share. We could sell it for less than theirs to win more market share, but then the price is perilously close to our costs, so we’ll have to do some math to see what the profit-maximizing price/market share combination is likely to be.” Note the one huge condition that is required for this to work: Potential customers must be able to compare the price and quality of all their options, which is starting to happen more and more as better quality information is starting to become available and as prices are becoming more transparent.

Our healthcare system currently relies primarily on number 1 (think: Medicare and Medicaid) and number 2 (think: private insurers and providers setting prices with each other). But which method is best?

If you want to have the lowest possible prices, administrative pricing is the obvious best choice. But that’s only for the short term (as you’ll see), and it does nothing to encourage quality improvement unless you start getting into the treacherous area of performance incentives.

The only thing I’ll say about bargaining power-based pricing is that I don’t like it. I’d rather not have prices that are totally unrelated to costs or quality and instead are determined by relative market share.

Now let me tell you why I like competitive pricing so much. I want our healthcare system to deliver better value right now (Value = Quality / Price), and even more than that I want that value to go up over time as providers and insurers innovate in ways that allow them to decrease prices, increase quality, or both. Competitive pricing is the only method that provides an incentive for competitors to innovate because it rewards the highest-value offerings with increased market share and profit. The other two options don’t do that, which seems like a pretty big downside, don’t you think? I’d be willing to forgo short-term super-low administratively set prices in favor of stimulating innovation that will improve value way more over the long term.

In my next post, I’ll explain how we can shift from bargaining power-based pricing to competitive pricing.

* Do you ever hear those arguments that if public insurers lower their prices any more, providers will just raise their prices for private insurers? Well, now you know why those arguments are mostly hogwash. Providers are already leveraging their relative market share to get as high prices as possible from private insurers, and getting paid less by public insurers doesn’t change that relative market share.