Hospital Monopolies Are What’s Wrong with American Health Care

Call it a sign of the times. If Rich Uncle Pennybags (a.k.a. “Mr. Monopoly”) appeared today, he would have little interest in holding properties like the Short Line Railroad. In the 21st century, acquiring railroads, or even utilities, is so Baltic Avenue. The real money—and the real monopolies—lie in health care, specifically in hospitals.

Despite the constant focus on prescription drug prices, pharmaceuticals represent a comparatively small slice of the American health care pie. In 2016, national spending on prescription drugs totaled $328.6 billion. That’s a large sum on its own, but only 9.8 percent of total health care spending. By contrast, spending on hospital care totaled nearly $1.1 trillion, or more than three times spending on prescriptions.

Hospitals’ Monopolistic Tactics

The Journal profiled several under-the-radar tactics that some large hospitals use to deter competition and pad their bottom lines. For instance, some contracts “prevent patients from seeing a hospital’s prices by allowing a hospital operator to block the information from online shopping tools that insurers offer.”

Hospitals use these tactics to oppose transparency, because they fear, correctly, that if patients know what they will pay for a service before they receive it, they may take their business elsewhere. It’s an arrogant and high-handed attitude straight out of Marxism.

Also in hospitals’ toolkits: So-called “must-carry” clauses, which require insurers to keep their hospitals in-network, regardless of the high prices they charge, or poor quality outcomes they achieve. The Journal reported that one of the nation’s largest retailers wanted to kick out the lowest-quality providers, but had no ability to do so.

Officials at Walmart a few years ago asked the insurers that administered its coverage…if the nation’s largest private employer could remove from its health-care networks the 5% of providers with the worst quality performance. The insurers told the giant retailer their contracts with certain health-care providers didn’t allow them to filter out specific doctors or hospitals, even based solely on quality measures.

Surprise! Obamacare Made It Worse

Many of these trends preceded President Obama’s health care law, of course. But it doesn’t take a PhD in mathematics to see how hospital mergers accelerated after 2010, the year of Obamacare’s passage:

Hospitals responded to the law by buying up other hospitals, increasing market share in an attempt to gain more negotiating “clout” against health insurers. That leverage allows them to demand clauses such as those preventing price transparency, or preventing insurers from developing smaller networks that only include efficient or better-quality providers.

Here again, industry consolidation begets higher prices. In many cases, hospitals can charge more for services provided by an “outpatient facility” as opposed to one provided by a “doctor’s office.” In some circumstances, the patient will receive the same service, provided by the same doctor, in the same office, but will end up getting charged a higher price—merely because, by buying the physician practice, the hospital can reclassify the office and procedure as taking place in an “outpatient facility.”

Remember: Hospitals Endorsed Obamacare

In 2010, the American Hospital Association, along with other hospital associations, endorsed Obamacare. At the time the hospital lobbies claimed that the measure would increase the number of Americans with health insurance coverage. For some reason, they neglected to mention how the law would also encourage the consolidation that presents ever-upward pressure on insurance premiums.

But remember too that Obama repeatedly promised his health-care law would lower premiums by $2,500 for the average family. Unfortunately for Americans, however, Obamacare’s crony capitalism—allowing hospitals to grow their operations, and thus their bottom line, in exchange for political endorsements—continues to contribute to higher premiums, putting Obama’s promise further and further away from reality.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Obamacare, Health Costs, and Jobs

Yesterday, the Brookings Institution released updated statistics on the role of health care jobs in the broader economy. The study’s findings provide interesting grist for the ongoing debate about Obamacare’s impact on jobs. Three theories follow from the data.

1. Obamacare Has Not Affected Health Care Jobs

The chart showing a steady-state rise in health care employment over the past decade illustrates this point perfectly. As costs continue to rise, and our society continues to age with the impending retirement of the baby boomers, health care employment has steadily grown.

But the fact that health care hiring has increased at virtually the same pace since 2003 demonstrates the law’s minimal to nonexistent effect on employment trends that preceded its enactment.

Brookings Institution

Brookings Institution

2. Obamacare: Little Effect on Health Care Jobs, Little Effect on Health Care Costs

Labor costs comprise one of the major components of health care spending. A report from the American Hospital Association last year found that labor costs were the largest single driver of health cost growth, accounting for more than one-third of the overall rise in hospital prices—a percentage that has remained fairly constant over time.

It’s therefore difficult to assert that Obamacare has permanently “bent the curve” on health costs if the largest driver of health costs—the labor force—has grown unabated. Rather, it seems more likely that the recent slowdown in costs stems largely from the recession and struggling families forgoing health expenses, as a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded.

3. Not Reducing Health Costs = Reducing Non-Health Jobs

Nancy Pelosi’s infamous claim at the White House health summit that Obamacare would “create 4 million jobs–400,000 jobs almost immediately” wasn’t based on the health sector creating more jobs—in many respects, it was based on the sector creating fewer new positions.

A 2010 Center for American Progress report, the basis for Pelosi’s claim, asserted that Obamacare would create more jobs outside the health sector by slowing the growth of costs within the sector—essentially, a rebalancing of costs and jobs away from health care and toward other industries.

Of course, as other analysts have noted, the converse is also true: If health care jobs continue to grow—as they have since Obamacare’s enactment—those growing health costs will hinder the competitiveness of non-health industries, to say nothing of our massive entitlement deficits.

It’s why anyone who wants to preserve American economic preeminence should want health care growth to slow, even if it means that some new health care jobs aren’t created. It’s also why analysts should be worried that Obamacare hasn’t fixed that problem in the slightest.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

Weekly Newsletter: September 22, 2008

  • Specialty Hospital Ban a Special-Interest Boondoggle Reports circulated late last week that restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals may be included in mental health parity legislation that could come to the House floor this week. While later press reports indicated that the specialty hospital provisions would be excluded from the mental health parity bill, legislative activity cannot be ruled out.

    Advocates of a specialty hospital ban state that restricting physician ownership will slow the growth of health care costs and improve the solvency of the Medicare program. However, a look at the record of the Democrat-controlled 110th Congress shows little attempt to control the growth of health spending or solve Medicare’s long-term funding shortfalls:

  • Democrats rejected an attempt to make wealthy seniors pay $2 per day more for prescription drug coverage—which would save Medicare $12.1 billion over ten years;
  • Democrats rejected reasonable reforms to the current medical liability reform system that would eliminate the need for defensive medicine practices that raise health care costs—saving the federal government more than $6 billion over ten years;
  • Democrats could not pass structural reforms to the current system of Medicare physician payments—choosing instead to pass a budgetary gimmick that will give physicians a 21% reimbursement cut in January 2010.Given these actions—and an impending floor vote on a bill (HR 758) that will likely increase health care costs by billions of dollars—conservatives may question why Democrats have passed up attempts to save Medicare more than $12 billion by charging billionaires like Warren Buffett more for their prescription drugs and instead remain fixated on saving one-tenth that amount by eradicating a free market for physician-owned facilities.

    Part of the answer may lie in the lobbying activities of entities like the American Hospital Association— which spent nearly $20 million last year alone, and nearly $153 million over the last decade, on federal lobbying activities. Despite the fact that, by one measure, specialty hospitals represent less than 1% of total Medicare hospital spending, traditional hospitals continue their attempts to eradicate this potential source of competition—going so far as to draw a rebuke from Health and Human Services’ Inspector General for “misrepresent[ing]” the IG’s conclusions in a document sent to Congressional staff. Despite— or perhaps because of—these deceptive lobbying practices, some conservatives may support efforts to maintain free markets in health care, and oppose any further efforts by Congressional Democrats to pass a specialty hospital ban.

Medicaid Fraud Will Not Be Addressed by Bailout

Last Tuesday’s New York Times highlighted the case of Staten Island University Hospital, an institution with a history of questionable billing practices—and now one of the largest fraud settlements against a single hospital. This week the hospital agreed to return nearly $90 million to respond to claims of overbilling government programs as a result of two whistle-blower lawsuits and actions by federal prosecutors. The lawsuits and charges alleged among other things that the hospital deliberately inflated bed and patient counts in order to obtain reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid, and come after the hospital had reached two previous settlements—one in 1999 resulting in $45 million in Medicaid repayments, and another in 2005 resulting in $76.5 returned to Medicaid—with state authorities regarding fraudulent billing activity.

Many conservatives may not be surprised by these repeated instances of fraud and graft within the program, given that a former New York state Medicaid investigator estimated that 40% of all Medicaid payments were fraudulent or questionable in nature. However, this episode may only strengthen conservative concerns that a proposed “temporary” increase in federal Medicaid matching funds (HR 5268) would do nothing to combat this fraud and abuse before spending additional federal dollars. Indeed, given that a single hospital has settled more than $200 million in fraud claims, some conservatives may wonder whether, if the Medicaid program had appropriate anti-fraud efforts in place, an additional $10-15 billion “bailout” for states would even be needed at all.

Read the article here.

Certificate of Need Programs

History and Background:  In the 1960s, some health care policy makers began to believe that an excess supply of providers was having an inflationary impact on the price of health care.  As a result, several states, beginning with New York in 1964, enacted “certificate of need” (CON) laws giving state agencies the power to evaluate whether a new hospital or nursing home facility was needed prior to its construction.  Prompted in part by support from the American Hospital Association, 20 states enacted certificate of need laws by 1975.[1]

In January 1975, President Ford signed into law the National Health Planning and Resources Development Act (P.L. 93-641), originally sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA).  The Act provided incentives for states to enact approval mechanisms prior to the construction of major facilities. As a result, by 1980 all states but Louisiana had established CON programs.[2]  However, Congress enacted legislation (P.L. 99-660) repealing the federal law in November 1986, which in time led 14 states to abolish their certificate of need programs.  Nevertheless, 36 states and the District of Columbia maintain some form of restriction on the construction of new medical facilities absent a determination of necessity.

Changes within the Hospital Industry:  In the more than four decades since the first certificate of need program was established, the hospital industry has undergone numerous changes and consolidations that may be seen as undermining the original rationale for the certificate of need mechanism.  At the time certificate of need laws were enacted, most hospitals received cost-based reimbursement for services from both the federal government and private insurers.  This payment mechanism, when coupled with a perceived lack of incentives for consumers to become cost-conscious about their health care expenditures, led policy-makers to impose external restrictions on providers’ growth (in an attempt to slow the growth of health expenditures) due to a belief that they would fail to compete on price grounds.[3]  However, the intervening decades have seen a move away from cost-based reimbursement and toward prospective payment for procedures, along with greater incentives—higher deductibles, Health Savings Accounts, co-insurance, etc.—for consumers to demonstrate price sensitivity in health care.  Thus the economic conditions which led regulators to impose certificate of need restrictions have changed appreciably for both consumers and providers, which may prompt a re-evaluation of their usefulness and efficacy.

In addition, a wave of consolidation within the hospital sector has attracted the attention of antitrust regulators, who have examined the impact of hospital mergers on health care.  As of 2001, nearly 54% of hospitals nationwide had joined a larger hospital system, with a further 12.7% working in looser affiliations.  Combined, two-thirds of hospitals nationwide (66.7%) participated in some form of network or system affiliation—more than double the 31% two decades previously, in 1979.[4]

In 2004, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) conducted a series of fact-finding hearings that culminated in a joint study analyzing the antitrust implications of health care policy, which featured several chapters specifically devoted to the changes within the hospital industry.[5]  Reports submitted to the panel cited the “extensive consolidation” within the health care industry, “at times creating virtual monopolies in geographic submarkets” that allowed hospitals to “exert greater leverage in managed care contract negotiations” while pressuring physicians to join a particular system.[6]  Other witnesses noted the way in which hospital systems attempt to include at least one “must have” hospital in each geographic market, which will allow the system to demand price increases.[7]

Both the FTC-DOJ report and other independent studies have noted the link between high levels of consolidation within the hospital industry and higher prices.  Best estimates indicate that hospital mergers tend to increase prices from 5-40%—while also resulting in decreases in quality.[8]  A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper found that, by resulting in a loss of consumer surplus of $42.2 billion over a decade (most of which went to providers), hospital mergers had the net effect of raising insurance premiums 3-5%, thus increasing the number of uninsured by almost 5.5 million life-years from 1990 through 2003.[9]

Effect of CON on Competition, Price, and Quality:  Conservatives who believe in free markets may not object to consolidation within the hospital industry, or any other industry, provided that no other external factor interferes with the operation of the economic market.  However, if the market has been distorted through public policy actions by legislators—as in the case of the 36 states and the District of Columbia with certificate of need laws—some conservatives may view such laws with caution, due to the potential negative implications which a state-granted oligopoly for existing providers may have on the ability of new entrants to improve the health care marketplace through innovative practices and techniques.

The same FTC-DOJ report that noted the correlation between hospital consolidation and rising prices also criticized the state certificate of need model as anticompetitive and not in consumers’ best interest.  Witnesses testified that the barriers to entry presented by certificate of need requirements impeded rapid implementation of new health care technologies, with significant adverse effects on overall health care spending—rising prices due to more limited access to care, and/or re-directing spending to other areas of health care (i.e. a restriction on development of new beds leading to increased investment in radiological or other equipment).[10]  The report concluded:

The Agencies believe that CON programs are generally not successful in containing health care costs and that they can pose anticompetitive risks….CON programs risk entrenching oligopolists and eroding consumer welfare.  The aim of controlling costs is laudable, but there appear to be other, more effective means of achieving this goal that do not pose anticompetitive risks.[11]

Because of the “serious competitive concerns” that outweighed the purported benefits, the agencies advised states to re-evaluate whether their certificate of need programs in fact serve the public good.

In addition to the impact of certificate of need programs on price and market penetration, the stubbornly high rates of medical errors and hospital-acquired infections may be symptomatic of quality control difficulties rooted in a lack of competition.  The 1999 Institute of Medicine study To Err Is Human estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die annually in hospitals due to preventable medical errors, creating a total economic cost of as much as $29 billion, and a November 2006 report utilizing data from a new infection-reporting regime in Pennsylvania found 19,154 cases of hospital-acquired infections in 2005 alone, representing an infection incident rate of more than 1 in 100 hospitalizations.[12]  With consolidation having eroded the breadth of competing hospitals in some markets, and state certificate of need programs presenting a significant barrier for potential new entrants, the prime driver of quality improvement within the hospital sector may be fear of litigation—a process which some conservatives may find economically inefficient and poor public policy.

The impact of certificate of need programs on quality improvements was illustrated in data from an October 2003 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study examining physician-owned specialty hospitals.  According to GAO, 83% of all specialty hospitals—and all specialty hospitals then under development—were located in states without certificate of need requirements.[13]  The FTC-DOJ study also cited the example of a Florida law enacted in 2003, which barred single-practice specialty hospitals while simultaneously eliminating certificate of need requirements for various cardiac programs at general hospitals.[14]  Some conservatives may therefore be concerned first that the innovation and quality improvements which physician-owned specialty hospitals have introduced are being denied to residents in many states due to certificate of need restrictions, and second that this archaic and bureaucratic mechanism has become a political football that existing facilities attempt to manipulate in order to maintain existing oligopolies.[15]

Security Impact:  The September 11 attacks and subsequent concerns regarding incidents of mass terrorism, bioterrorism, or pandemic outbreaks have raised the prominence of the need for “surge capacity” in the event of a major public health disaster.  Although such surge capacity need not be located within the confines of a hospital, specialized medical centers may play a significant role in any response to a large-scale incident.

On May 5 and 7, 2008, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held hearings regarding a potential lack of hospital surge capacity.[16]  Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) attempted to assert that the implementation of several proposed Medicaid anti-fraud regulations would compel hospitals to reduce or eliminate trauma centers whose services would be needed in the event of a major terror incident.  In response, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt noted that the need for proper public health capacity to respond to terrorist incidents should not impede the Administration from enacting reasonable controls to ensure that the Medicaid program meets its statutory goal of providing health care to low-income individuals, as opposed to serving as a bioterror response agency.

In addition to agreeing with the Secretary’s assertion that the distinction between public health preparedness and implementation of Medicaid anti-fraud regulations saving $42 billion over a decade is a false dichotomy, some conservatives may also believe that a better way to increase “surge capacity” in 36 states and the District of Columbia would involve a repeal of certificate of need restrictions.  Rather than maintaining bureaucratic regulations that prevent construction of health care facilities of critical importance in a mass-casualty incident—or jeopardizing existing physician-owned trauma centers by enacting new restrictions on physician ownership, as House Democrats have proposed—conservatives may believe that a better alternative would allow free markets to innovate and create new medical centers should capacity for trauma units or other segments of care be lacking in a particular market.

Conclusion:  Proposals to expand the government’s role in health care have frequently been criticized by conservatives as the first step towards rationed care.  However, some conservatives may use the certificate of need model to argue that 36 states and the District of Columbia already ration health care, by limiting the ability of new entrants to provide medical services to their citizens.  For instance, the recent decision of the Michigan Certificate of Need Commission to limit the number of new radiation facilities in the state may have an adverse impact on cancer patients seeking access to a novel form of treatment.[17]

With a McKinsey group study noting that hospitals account for 50% of the excess spending in American health care relative to other countries, some conservatives may argue that the hospital industry in particular warrants the additional innovation and reduced costs which new entrants can provide.[18]  Congress itself recognized this fact in 1980 by passing legislation (P.L. 96-499) making ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) eligible for Medicare reimbursement, believing that new ASCs could perform certain medical procedures more cost-effectively than general hospitals.[19]  Yet the exhaustive FTC-DOJ study, as well as related literature, have documented the ways in which state-based certificate of need laws have undermined market-based efforts at cost control—by resulting in less competition, higher prices, and a diminished emphasis on quality that new market entrants can elicit.  In addition, the changed environment of a post-9/11 world raises questions as to whether states with certificate of need programs are denying to their citizens facilities that could be of critical importance in a public health crisis.  Viewed from these perspectives, the certificate of need model may look less like an effective mechanism to contain the growth of health care costs than an outdated shibboleth that ultimately harms the citizens whom it was designed to protect.

Some conservatives may believe that the nearly 100,000 deaths annually due to preventable medical errors constitute proof positive that the certificate of need model should be permanently dismantled, and that the billions of dollars in hospital expenditures made by the federal government may warrant a federal role in persuading recalcitrant states to do so.  This fiscal year alone, the federal government will spend at least $27.1 billion on payments to hospitals not directly attributable to patient care—including Medicare and Medicaid disproportionate share hospital payments, and graduate and indirect medical education costs.[20]  Some conservatives may therefore support policies intended to link some or all of these payments to states’ repeal of certificate of need laws, in the belief that the abolition of such measures will improve competition, drive down prices, and enhance the quality of health care nationwide.

 

[1] “Certificate of Need State Laws 2008,” (Washington, DC, National Council of State Legislatures, updated May 8, 2008), available online at http://www.ncsl.org/programs/health/cert-need.htm (accessed May 11, 2008).

[2] Cited in Improving Health Care: A Dose of Competition (Washington, DC, Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission Joint Report, July 2004), available online at http://www.ftc.gov/reports/healthcare/040723healthcarerpt.pdf (accessed May 11, 2008), p. 301.

[3] Ibid., pp. 302-303.

[4] Ibid., pp. 133-134.

[5] Background information, agendas, and transcripts for the hearings can be found online at http://www.ftc.gov/bc/healthcare/research/healthcarehearing.htm (accessed May 12, 2008).

[6] Cara Lesser and Paul Ginsburg, “Back to the Future?: New Cost and Access Challenges Emerge,” (Washington, DC, Center for Studying Health System Change Issue Brief No. 35, February 2001), available online at http://www.hschange.com/CONTENT/295/ (accessed May 11, 2008).

[7] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 138.

[8] William Vogt and Robert Town, “How Has Hospital Consolidation Affected the Price and Quality of Hospital  Care?” (Princeton, NJ, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Research Synthesis Project No. 9, February 2006), available online at http://www.rwjf.org/pr/synthesis/reports_and_briefs/pdf/no9_researchreport.pdf (accessed May 12, 2008), pp. 8-10.

[9] Robert Town et al., “The Welfare Consequences of Hospital Mergers,” (Cambridge, MA, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 12244), available online at http://www.nber.org/papers/w12244.pdf?new_window=1 (accessed May 13, 2008), Tables 8-10, pp. 48-50.

[10] See ibid., pp. 301-306.

[11] Ibid., p. 306.

[12] Institute of Medicine, To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, summary available online at http://www.iom.edu/Object.File/Master/4/117/ToErr-8pager.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008); Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, Hospital Acquired Infections in Pennsylvania, available online at http://www.phc4.org/reports/hai/05/docs/hai2005report.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008).

[13] “Specialty Hospitals: Geographic Location, Services Provided, and Financial Performance,” (Washington, Government Accountability Office, Report GAO-04-167), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04167.pdf (accessed May 11, 2008), pp. 20-21.

[14] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 146, note 116.

[15] The Center for Responsive Politics notes that from 1998 through March 2008, the hospital and nursing home industry spent more than $610 million on federal lobbying alone, placing it ninth among 121 industry categories.  Data available online at http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?indexType=i (accessed May 12, 2008).

[16] Information about the hearings can be found at http://oversight.house.gov/story.asp?ID=1929 (accessed May 10, 2008).

[17] Andrew Pollack, “States Limit Costly Sites for Cancer Radiation,” New York Times May 1, 2008, available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/01/technology/01proton.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&8br=&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1210543656-RJG4oNSF434Dh4b52KfeFA&pagewanted=print (accessed May 11, 2008).

[18] Cited in Regina Herzlinger, Who Killed Health Care? America’s $2 Trillion Medical Problem—and the Consumer Driven Cure (New York, McGraw-Hill, 2007), p. 62.

[19] Cited in Dose of Competition, p. 148.

[20] Congressional Budget Office March 2008 baselines for Medicare and Medicaid, available online at http://www.cbo.gov/budget/factsheets/2008b/medicare.pdf and http://www.cbo.gov/budget/factsheets/2008b/medicaidBaseline.pdf, respectively  (accessed May 12, 2008).