Economists and policy-makers have been trying to determine whether the growth in healthcare spending has slowed and, more importantly, whether it will be slower in the future than the past. Although the precise trajectory of future healthcare spending will depend on a range of factors that are difficult to predict, it seems a safe bet that spending will continue to grow as fast as or faster than the economy as a whole. The reason is simple: the economics of the healthcare industry are still fundamentally the same as in every other industry—greater economic rewards accrue to those who sell more products and services—and, unless that changes, we will continue to see the same kinds of profit-maximizing, entrepreneurial behavior that the nation celebrates in every other industry.
Hospital services have been the biggest and fastest growing share of healthcare spending in recent years. In most ways, the economics of running a hospital are similar to the economics of running a manufacturing firm—significant capital investment is needed in facilities and equipment, and, as long as products/services can be sold for a price above the marginal cost of production, profits increase when more products/services are sold.
However, unlike manufacturing firms, we expect hospitals to over-invest in facilities and equipment. We want the emergency room to be ready to go at all times in case we have an accident. We want the cardiac cath lab to be open 24/7 with the latest equipment and highly skilled staff ready to treat us quickly if we have a heart attack. But we don’t pay hospitals for this standby capacity, we only pay them when they actually treat someone. So the hospital has to find ways to deliver enough services to paying customers to cover the costs of the idle capacity we expect the hospital to maintain. That’s easier for hospitals to do than businesses in other industries because third party payers are covering most of the cost for consumers, and so it leads to faster growth in healthcare spending than in other industries.
What about physicians? What we most want doctors to do is keep us healthy, but Medicare and most commercial insurance plans don’t pay doctors at all when their patients stay healthy, they only pay when the physicians deliver services and procedures. Moreover, payers pay more for procedures than office visits even if the amount of time involved for the physician is the same. So if a physician is struggling to pay the rising fixed costs of running a practice—the office space, equipment, and staff—in the face of flat Medicare payments, the solution is to do more procedures on sick patients, not spend time helping patients stay well. Government cuts to payments and demands for greater price competition further increase the pressure to deliver more services. This is one area where hospitals and physicians have very “aligned incentives.”
The “shared savings” programs that are currently so popular with Medicare and commercial health plans don’t change these fundamental economic principles because they don’t change the underlying fee-for-service payment system. Since both hospitals and doctors have high fixed costs, the marginal revenue they receive for most procedures is much higher than the marginal cost of delivering the procedures. As a result, the losses they would experience by doing fewer procedures are far greater than what they would receive back through most shared savings programs. Moreover, the complexity and uncertainty of the shared savings formulas, combined with the delay in calculating and distributing shared savings payments, makes it even less likely that providers will willingly make major cuts in their own operating margins.
The conclusion is inescapable—if we don’t fundamentally change the way we pay for healthcare, we won’t change the economic principles that continue to drive the rapid growth in healthcare spending. Procedure-based episode payments for hospitals aren’t the answer; they don’t do anything to discourage unnecessary procedures and they may make procedures even more profitable than before. The solution is to pay physicians and hospitals based on the health problems their patients have, not based on the number and types of procedures they perform. These condition-based payments will give physicians and hospitals the flexibility they need to redesign care without unnecessary tests and procedures, but also the accountability to ensure that outcomes are better and total spending is lower.
As the Choosing Wisely® campaign has demonstrated, there are opportunities to reduce healthcare spending without rationing in every medical specialty. The American Medical Association, specialty societies such as the American College of Cardiology and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and some provider organizations have been actively working to develop the kinds of true payment reforms that will support lower-cost, higher-quality care. The biggest barrier has been getting the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and commercial health plans to make fundamental changes in the way they pay for patient care.
The faster we can design and implement better ways of paying for healthcare, the sooner we will be able to reap the many benefits of higher quality, more affordable health care.