How Doctors Make Prices

I’m venturing out a little bit on this post because I don’t know if the pricing process I’m about to explain is used by all providers or not. That’s my disclaimer.

Now I’m going to pretend I’m a doctor with a brand new self-run clinic. I’ve just hired all my nurses and bought all my computers, etc. My next step is to decide on a fee schedule. How do I do it?

I start by checking prices of other doctors in the area. Or not, because I can’t find any of those. So then I ask some of my physician friends, who say they generally charge 100 to 120 percent of Medicare fees. “That’s quite a range,” I say. But then they say it doesn’t matter too much what I set my fees at because my future patients’ insurance companies will basically choose how much they are going to pay me anyway.

Insurance companies decide the price? I guess that makes sense because they have all the bargaining power over me, a lowly solo doctor running my own clinic. So I somehow find a way to take a look at compensation schedules for different insurance companies, including Medicare and Medicaid. Their prices are all over the board for every procedure! For a single billing code (maybe it’s the one for setting and casting a broken arm), Insurance Company X will pay $1,100, Insurance Company Y will pay $1,000, Medicare will pay $900, and Insurance Company Z will pay $1,200.

Now I start thinking strategically about this. If patients are never going to ask me how much I charge, since their insurance companies will handle all of that, I decide to set my price for setting and casting a broken arm at $1,200. Why? Because if I set it at $1,000, I’m only going to get $1,000 from Company X, who was willing to pay me $1,100, and $1,000 from Company Z, who was willing to pay me $1,200. Why would I set my price low and leave all that money on the table? So as long as I set my price at $1,200 or higher, I’ll get the full $1,200 from Company Z, the full $1,100 from Company X, the full $1,000 from Company Y, etc.

So how do the insurance companies decide on these fees? I hear stuff about this specialist-dominated group of physicians who, working as a committee (known as the RVS Update Committee, or RUC), get to update the Medicare fee schedule every year. And people keep telling me that’s why I, as a primary-care doc, don’t get paid as much as I should because those darn specialists in that committee overvalue work done by specialists and undervalue work done by primary-care physicians.

At this point, I give up worrying about prices and just trust that the money that comes in every month will be more than the money that goes out every month. And, after a few years, that seems to consistently be the case, so I just stop worrying about it.

. . . That is, until patients on high-deductible insurance plans start calling my receptionist and asking what our prices are for various procedures. We’re not sure we want her to admit that our price for setting and casting a broken arm is a whole $1,200, so we prepare a canned response to such inquiries: “We’re not allowed to quote prices over the phone. You’ll just have to come in so the doctor can take a look at you first.”

Why Doesn’t the Healthcare Industry Evolve Like Other Industries?

If you think about almost any industry and how it changes over time, you can see an obvious shift from high cost, low quality to lower cost, higher quality (and, thus, greater access to the product/service). Think about computers, or portable music players, or cars, or flat-screen TVs, or indoor plumbing, or airline flights. . . .

Average yearly productivity growth of industries is estimated to be about 2.4%. But healthcare is different–it receives negative estimates year after year. So what’s the cause of this? Why doesn’t healthcare evolve toward higher productivity over time? If we can figure this out, then maybe we’ll know what we should work on changing with how the industry is structured. And then we’ll be able to permanently solve this crazy trend of healthcare spending, which has been increasing at a rate of 2 – 4% faster than the rest of our economy for a long, long time.

People often blame the lack of evolution (toward lower cost, at least) on healthcare providers not having an incentive to compete on price. Patients don’t price shop, so why would they compete on price? And patients don’t price shop because insurance just covers everything for them, even the small, routine things.  We’re all contributing to this because, no matter which doctor we choose, we still have a $15 co-pay, so why would we waste our time finding out which provider will send the cheapest bill to our insurer? It’s reasonable, this argument, which says that the insurance structure is the reason healthcare providers don’t have to compete on price, and that that is causing the industry not to evolve like it should.

Are there any solutions to this?

The most commonly proposed solution is high-deductible insurance plans. It makes sense. If nothing is covered until you surpass a $1,000 or $2,000 or $5,000 deductible, price starts to really matter unless you’ve already surpassed that deductible for the year (which would be unusual for healthy people). The hard part about this is actually being able to find out prices from providers, but we’ll ignore that with the assumption that if enough people start requesting prices, providers will start making them more readily available. So the result would be that providers finally have to compete on price, they now have an incentive to find ways to reduce prices, and problem solved!

Not so fast.

Did anyone ever consider that providers already do compete on price? No, they don’t compete on prices for patients, but they do compete on price to win insurance contracts. How do you think insurance companies choose which doctors will be in their network? By price! Yes, providers definitely compete on price already. They do it to win insurance contracts, which then guarantees them a steady flow of patients and revenue.

But why doesn’t price competition for insurer contracts provide enough of an incentive for providers to find ways to cut costs and help the healthcare industry to evolve like almost every other industry?

I don’t know. But here’s my guess:

Management is in charge of negotiations to win insurance contracts, so they feel the pressure to find ways to lower costs, but that pressure isn’t conveyed strongly down to the people who have the knowledge required to actually recommend cost-cutting changes: doctors and nurses. If management isn’t working with the current business model’s routines and processes day in and day out, they aren’t going to see the inefficiencies in how things run. Doctors and nurses need to do that, so maybe most healthcare organizations aren’t giving doctors and nurses enough/any incentives to do that.

But, management’s specialty is figuring out completely new processes, routines, and business models that can achieve the same job for the patient but at a way lower cost. So why aren’t healthcare management people figuring out and experimenting with those in an effort to secure more insurance contracts (and, thus, market share and higher profitability)? You’d think the price competition for insurance contracts would at least motivate those kinds of experiments.

The answer may lie in the fact that healthcare provider organizations are known as some of the most complex organizations conceived by man. Possibly this complexity deters innovations like that. They’d be so hard to predict financial outcomes and market response! And with fewer ideas being tested, the evolution of healthcare will necessarily be slower than most industries. I’d love to see some research comparing the complexity of organizations with their speed of productivity growth. And I’m also interested to see the results of all sorts of government-funded “pilot programs” that allow providers to test new ideas out.

So, those are my conjectures, that price competition for insurance contracts isn’t enough because doctors and nurses aren’t given enough incentives to root out inefficiencies and because healthcare organizations are so complex that they deter business model innovations. Maybe I’m way off. Ideas?

UPDATE: I’m wrong. Providers don’t compete on price to convince insurers to add them to their networks. I’ve since learned that prices between insurers and providers are pretty much decided by Medicare prices as an anchor and adjusted up or down depending on bargaining power. This means prices will stay the same even if providers find lower-cost ways to deliver care. So, the question remains: Why aren’t providers finding all sorts of ways to lower costs if any cost reduction would not be followed by price reductions and, therefore, go straight to their bottom line? I still haven’t figured this one out, but Clay Christensen seems to think providers need to encompass the whole value chain to be successful at it, so maybe that has something to do with it.