How to Change How Prices Are Set in Healthcare

Image credit: shutterstock.com
Image credit: shutterstock.com

In my previous post, I described the three ways prices can be set in healthcare: administrative pricing, bargaining power-based pricing, and competitive pricing. I also bemoaned the fact that the prices paid to providers by private insurers are determined more by relative market share than by anything else* . . . but this post explains how we can change all that.

I see two possible pathways from bargaining power-based pricing to competitive pricing, so here they are.

First Pathway

Let’s pretend a colonoscopy clinic is super innovative in how they do things, and they eventually are able to lower their costs by 20%. This is great for them because the prices they are paid by insurers has stayed the same (remember, those prices are determined primarily by relative market share, not costs), so now they have a really solid profit margin. And yet, the managers of this clinic still aren’t satisfied because they have excess capacity they want to fill.

One day, the managers come up with an idea. They say, “Up to this point, we’ve always maximally leveraged our bargaining power with insurers to win the highest prices we possibly can, but what if we do something radically different? What if we offer to lower our prices by 10% in exchange for the insurers putting us in a new, lower-copay tier? This would induce way more of their policy holders to choose us for their colonoscopies, so we’ll fill up our excess capacity. And, according to our calculations, our increased volume will more than make up for the lower prices. So everyone wins! Our profit increases, the insurer saves money with the lowered prices, and the patients are happy because their copays are less as well.”

Soon, some of the clinic’s competitors would figure out why their volume is starting to drop, so they would probably find a way to offer lower prices to get put into that lower-copay tier as well. Competitors who can’t or won’t lower prices will slowly lose market share until they, too, are forced to either lower price or improve quality enough to convince patients that going to them is worth the extra money.

Voila! Competitive pricing.

I have a friend who manages a large self-insured employer’s insurance plan, and I asked him what he would do if a clinic came to him offering lower prices in exchange for steering more employees to it. He said as long as the provider can show that quality won’t go down with the additional volume and that wait times for appointments won’t increase, he’d probably go for it.

Now, of course this wouldn’t work with every kind of healthcare service. I purposely chose a non-emergency service that already has pretty straightforward pricing. But as a priori quality and pricing information becomes more available, more services will be candidates for this pathway to competitive pricing.

One other point: Hospitals generally do a horrible job of cost accounting (they’re just such complex organizations!), so they usually have no idea if a proposed price reduction will still be profitable or not. Thus, they’ll be left behind in this game until they start to develop better cost accounting methods. If they have some foresight, they’ll start fixing that now.

Second Pathway

An insurer is despairing the fact that many of the providers in the region have combined into a single price-negotiating group, so now the insurer is stuck paying way higher prices than before. But then some health policy-savvy managers figure out a solution. They say, “Let’s implement reference pricing for a bunch of non-emergency, straightforward services. Let’s start with colonoscopies. This is how it works. We’ll tell our policy holders that we’ll put $1,200 toward a colonoscopy (the “reference price”). If a policy holder chooses a provider who charges more than that, they will pay everything over that price. A few clinics in the area offer prices that are lower than $1,200, so policy holders will still have a few options if they don’t want to pay a dime. But, (and here’s the best part) the price the providers in that huge price-negotiating group forced us to accept is $3,000, so they’re definitely going to lose a lot of volume, which will probably force them to lower their price.”

Soon other insurers jump on the reference pricing bandwagon and higher-priced providers who are losing tons of volume will be forced to price competitively.

In conclusion, shifting to competitive pricing is not immediately possible with most healthcare services. But the way to make more healthcare services amenable to competitive pricing is to improve a priori quality and pricing information: quality information needs to be standardized and more relevant to the factors patients should be considering when they’re choosing between providers, and the full price of an episode of care needs to be available beforehand so patients can compare them apples to apples. Only after these changes happen will we be able to rely more on competitive pricing, which, most importantly, will do more to stimulate value-improving innovations in our healthcare system than almost anything else.

* I also complained about how administrative prices don’t encourage (and actually stifle) innovation toward higher quality and lower prices. Check out the Uwe Reinhardt quote in this blog post and then think, “Uwe must have been reading Taylor’s blog.”

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 [Update: Turns out most hospitals lose money on average, so it’s not as big of a deal as we thought]. But what about costs? Is the actual cost of care too high as well? YES, costs are the major problem, as shown by looking at the average profitability of healthcare organizations. More 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 . . .

Why Is Innovation the Main Driver of Healthcare Spending Increases?

I have this demand: Every weekday, I want to get from home to school and back again with as little travel time as possible. I could fulfill this desire in various ways: drive a car, ride a bike, walk, fly a helicopter. Let’s pretend my demand is currently being fulfilled by a helicopter because that’s the fastest way available. So, you could say that my demand to get to school as quickly as possible is being fulfilled to some extent, but it’s not being completely fulfilled, which would entail getting to school and back with zero total travel time. Technology is limiting my demand from being completely fulfilled.

I will call my fulfilled demand active, because I’m actively spending money to fulfill it, and my unfulfilled demand latent, because it exists but is not currently being fulfilled.

What does this have to do with innovation? Well, not much, except that it lays the background for understanding my next sentence. Innovation (which I will define as finding a new way to fulfill demand) comes in two varieties: (1) the variety that creates cheaper ways to fulfill active demand and (2) innovation that activates latent demand.

Let’s make this concrete. If a new helicopter company comes up with a cheaper way to sell a similar-quality helicopter as the one I have, then I could have gotten that one instead. This would be an example of fulfilling active demand in a cheaper way. And if a teleportation company comes along, then I could get one of those and all of my latent demand would be activated.

All of this assumes money is no object, which, when we’re talking about healthcare, it often isn’t. But this post isn’t about that.

So now you should understand that when innovation has the net effect of increasing total spending in an industry (like healthcare), it’s probably because a lot of latent demand is getting activated (i.e., we’re spending money to fulfill demands that weren’t previously being fulfilled). This is great! . . . Except when it bankrupts us. So we probably need to somehow ration (especially the high-cost-yet-marginally-better-outcome stuff) and encourage innovation of the cost-lowering kind.

Ignoring (for now) the rationing suggestion, here are my thoughts about who we can expect/encourage to provide the cost-lowering innovation.

Providers (doctors and hospitals). I don’t see providers as activating much latent demand in healthcare. They kind of have to just use what treatment techniques they’re provided and find the most cost-effective way to administer them to the right patients. So, provider innovation should be a major source of the cost-lowering variety (think about IHC or Mayo Clinic).

Suppliers (device manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies). When thinking about supplier innovation, they do both kinds. Often they are coming up with miracle drugs and devices that activate latent demand (think about insulin, which prolonged the life expectancy for diabetics from months to decades), and sometimes they are also coming up with devices that make it cheaper to fulfill already active demand (think about at-home dialysis machines).