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.

Do Democrats Want Obamacare to Fail under Donald Trump?

In their quest to take back the House and Senate in November’s midterm elections, Democrats have received a bit of bad news. The Hill recently noted:

Health insurers are proposing relatively modest premium bumps for next year, despite doomsday predictions from Democrats that the Trump administration’s changes to Obamacare would bring massive increases in 2019. That could make it a challenge for Democrats looking to weaponize rising premiums heading into the midterm elections.

Administration officials confirmed the premium trend last Friday, when they indicated that proposed 2019 rates for the 38 states using healthcare.gov averaged a 5.4 percent increase—a number that may come down even further after review by state insurance commissioners. So much for that “sabotage.”

The messaging strategy once again illustrates the political peril of rooting for something—particularly legislation Democrats worked so hard to enact in the first place—to fail on someone else’s watch. Like officials accused of “talking down the economy” so they can benefit politically, Democrats face the unique task of trying to talk down their own creation, while blaming someone else for all its problems.

The Obamacare Exchanges’ Prolonged Malaise

While Obamacare hasn’t failed due to President Trump, it hasn’t succeeded much, either. Enrollment continues to fall, particularly for those who do not qualify for subsidies. Two years ago—long before Donald Trump had any power to “sabotage” Obamacare as president—Bill Clinton called Obamacare “the craziest thing in the world” for these unsubsidized persons, and their collective behavior demonstrates that fact.

A recent study from the liberal Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that, away from Obamacare exchanges, where individuals cannot receive insurance subsidies, enrollment fell by nearly 40 percent in just one year, from the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of this year. However, the rich subsidies provided to those who qualify for them—particularly those with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, who receive reduced cost-sharing as well—strongly encourage enrollment by this population, making it unlikely that the insurance exchanges will collapse on their own.

President Trump can talk all he wants about Obamacare imploding, but so long as the federal government props tens of billions of dollars into the exchanges, it probably won’t happen.

Good Reasons for Premium Moderation

Those premium subsidies, which cushion most low-income enrollees from the effects of premium increases, coupled with a lack of competition among insurers in large areas of the country, have allowed premiums to more-or-less stabilize, albeit at levels much of the unsubsidized population finds unaffordable. Think about it: If you have a monopoly, and a sizable population of individuals either desperate for coverage (i.e., the very sick) or heavily subsidized to buy your product, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to break even, much less turn a profit.

As a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, insurers spent the past several years ratcheting up premiums, for a variety of reasons: A sicker pool of enrollees than they expected when the exchanges started in 2014; a recognition that some insurers’ initial strategy of underpricing products to attract market share backfired; and the end of Obamacare’s “transitional” reinsurance and risk corridor programs, which expired in 2016.

While some carriers have adjusted 2019 premiums upward to reflect the elimination of the individual mandate penalty beginning in January, some had already “baked in” lax enforcement of the mandate into their rates for 2018. Some have long called the mandate too weak and ineffective to have much effect on Americans’ decision to buy coverage.

It Could Have Been Worse?

Liberals have started to make the argument that, but for the Trump administration’s so-called “sabotage” of insurance markets, premiums would fall instead of rise in 2019. (Some insurers have proposed premium reductions regardless.) The Brookings Institution recently released a paper claiming that in a “stable policy environment” without repeal of the mandate, or the impending regulatory changes regarding short-term insurance and Association Health Plans, premiums would fall by an average of approximately 4.3 percent.

But as the saying goes, “‘It could have been worse’ isn’t a great political bumper sticker.” Democrats tried to make this point regarding the economic “stimulus” bill they passed in 2009, after the infamous chart claiming unemployment would remain below 8 percent if the “stimulus” passed didn’t quite turn out as promised:

In 2011, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) tried to make the “It could have been worse” argument, claiming that unemployment would have risen to 15 percent without the “stimulus”:

But even she acknowledged the futility of giving such a message to the millions of people still lacking jobs at that point (to say nothing of the minor detail that studies reinforcing Pelosi’s point didn’t exist).

There’s No Need for a Bailout

While the apparent moderation of premium increases complicates Democrats’ political message, it also undermines the Republicans who spent the early part of this year pressing for an Obamacare bailout. Apart from the awful policy message it would have sent by making Obamacare’s exchanges “too big to fail,” such a measure would have depressed turnout among demoralized grassroots conservatives who want Congress to repeal Obamacare.

As it happens, most state markets didn’t need a bailout. That’s a good thing on multiple levels, because a “stability” bill passed this year would have had little effect on 2019 premiums anyway.

That said, if Democrats want to make political arguments about premiums in this year’s elections, maybe they can tell the American people where they can find the $2,500 in annual premium reductions that Barack Obama repeatedly promised would come from his health care law. Given the decade that has passed since Obama first made those claims without any hint of them coming true, trying to answer for that broken promise should keep Democrats preoccupied well past November.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know about President Trump’s Health Care Executive Order

On Thursday morning, President Trump signed an Executive Order regarding health care and health insurance. Here’s what you need to know about his action.

What Actions Did the President Take?

The Executive Order did not change regulations on its own; rather, it instructed Cabinet Departments to propose changes to regulations in the near future:

  1. Within 60 days, the Department of Labor will propose regulatory changes regarding Association Health Plans (AHPs). Regulations here will look to expand the definition of groups that can qualify as an “employer” under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). AHPs have two advantages: First, all association health plans regulated by ERISA are federally pre-empted from state benefit mandates; second, self-insured plans regulated by ERISA are exempt from several benefit mandates imposed by Obamacare—such as essential benefits and actuarial value standards.
  2. Within 60 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) will propose regulatory changes regarding short-term health plans. Regulations here will likely revoke rules put into place by the Obama Administration last October. Last year, the Obama Administration limited short-term plans to 90 days in duration (down from 364 days), and prevented renewals of such coverage—because it feared that such plans, which do not have to meet any of Obamacare’s benefit requirements, were drawing people away from Exchange coverage. The Trump Administration regulations will likely modify, or eliminate entirely, those restrictions, allowing people to purchase plans not compliant with the Obamacare mandates. (For more information, see my Tuesday article on this issue.)
  3. Within 120 days, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS will propose regulatory changes regarding Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs), vehicles where employers can deposit pre-tax dollars for their employees to use for health expenses. A 2013 IRS Notice prevented employers from using HRA dollars to fund employees’ individual health insurance premiums—because the Obama Administration worried that doing so would encourage employers to drop coverage. However, Section 18001 of the 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law last December, allowed employers with under 50 employees to make HRA contributions that workers could use to pay for health insurance premiums on the individual market. The Executive Order may seek to expand this exemption to all employers, by rescinding the prior IRS notice.
  4. Within six months—and every two years thereafter—the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and HHS, along with the Federal Trade Commission, will submit reports on industry consolidation within the health care sector, whether and how it is raising health care costs, and actions to mitigate the same.

How Will the Order Affect the Health Sector?

In general, however, the issues discussed by the Executive Order will:

  • Give individuals more options, and more affordable options. Premiums on the individual market have more than doubled since 2013, due to Obamacare’s regulatory mandates. AHPs would allow workers to circumvent state benefit mandates through ERISA’s federal pre-emption of state laws; self-insured AHPs would also gain exemption from several federal Obamacare mandates, as outlined above. Because virtually all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits do not apply to short-term plans, these would obtain the most regulatory relief.
  • Allow more small businesses to subsidize workers’ coverage—either through Association Health Plans, or by making contributions to HRAs, and allowing employees to use those pre-tax dollars to buy the health coverage of their choosing on the individual market.

When Will the Changes Occur?

The Executive Order directed the Departments to announce regulatory changes within 60-120 days; the Departments could of course move faster than that. If the Departments decide to release interim final rules—that is, rules that take effect prior to a notice-and-comment period—or sub-regulatory guidance, the changes could take effect prior to the 2018 plan year.

However, any changes that go through the usual regulatory process—agencies issuing proposed rules, followed by a notice-and-comment period, prior to the rules taking effect—likely would not take effect until the 2019 plan year. While the Executive Order directed the agencies to “consider and evaluate public comment on any regulations proposed” pursuant to the Order, it did not specify whether the Departments must evaluate said comments before the regulations take effect.

Does the Order Represent a Regulatory Overreach?

However, with respect to Association Health Plans, some conservatives may take a more nuanced view. Conservatives generally support allowing individuals to purchase insurance across state lines, believing that such freedom would allow consumers to buy the plans that best suit their interests.

However, AHPs accomplish this goal not through Congress’ Commerce Clause power—i.e., explicitly allowing, for instance, an individual in Maryland to buy a policy regulated in Virginia—but instead through federal pre-emption—individuals in Maryland and Virginia buying policies regulated by Washington, albeit in a less onerous manner than Obamacare’s Exchange plans. As with medical liability reform, therefore, some conservatives may support a state-based approach to achieve regulatory relief for consumers, rather than an expanded role for the federal government.

Finally, if President Trump wants to overturn his predecessor’s history of executive unilateralism, he should cease funding cost-sharing reduction payments to health insurers. The Obama Administration’s unilateral funding of these payments without an appropriation from Congress brought a sharp rebuke from a federal judge, who called the action unconstitutional. If President Trump wants to end executive overreach, he should abide by the ruling, and halt the unilateral payments to insurers.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

An Obamacare Lesson for Small Health Insurers?

In 2011, analysts were speculating that Assurant Health might exit the insurance business, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week. So the recent news that Assurant’s parent company was looking to “sell or shut down” the insurance carrier by year’s end was not a total surprise. The issue now is whether its demise holds larger lessons about Obamacare’s impact on insurance markets.

One analyst called Assurant, which reported operating losses of nearly $64 million in fiscal 2014 and $84 million in the first quarter of fiscal 2015, a “casualty” of the law. The Affordable Care Act “required health plans to cover a package of basic benefits and required health insurers to spend at least 80 cents of every premium dollar on medical care or quality initiatives,” the Journal-Sentinel reported. Simply put, the law made health insurance more like a regulated utility—with plan designs, benefits, and overhead costs strictly regulated.

Obamacare supporters generally argue that these regulatory changes eliminate the potential for customer confusion or the sale of “substandard” insurance products. But further Journal-Sentinel reporting underscores a complication of that approach:

Finding a buyer for Assurant Health could be difficult. Unlike companies such as UnitedHealthcare or Anthem, which focus on larger employers, Assurant Health does not have the size in any one market to negotiate contracts directly with hospitals and doctors. It instead typically pays a monthly fee to other insurers to access their networks, potentially increasing its costs.

By standardizing insurance offerings—reducing or eliminating carriers’ ability to create niche markets through innovative product designs—Obamacare heightened the focus on insurers’ provider networks. Those companies that have the market clout to demand lower reimbursements from doctors and hospitals can moderate premium increases—winning more market share in the process. But smaller insurers that don’t have that clout may find themselves squeezed—and other carriers could face a similar fate to Assurant Health.

Obamacare standardizes offerings in the name of increasing competition, but doing so could end up reducing competition by creating an environment in which large insurers compete with large hospital and doctor networks in a battle of health-care oligopolies. Supporters of the law have worried about this for years—and Assurant’s impending closure appears to give more reason to do so.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Important Context on Next Year’s Premium Increases

The Associated Press yesterday published an article that at first appears to contain exciting and important news:

There’s good news for most companies that provide health benefits for their employees: America’s slowdown in medical costs may be turning into a trend, rather than a mere pause.

A report Tuesday from accounting and consulting giant PwC projects lower overall growth in medical costs for next year, even as the economy gains strength and millions of uninsured people receive coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care law.

As with many things in health care, however, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Only in the tenth paragraph does the full picture become clear:

PwC’s report forecasts that direct medical care costs will increase by 6.5 percent next year, one percentage point lower than its previous projection.

In other words, overall employer health costs in 2014 will rise by more than twice the rate of economic growth and nearly four times faster than overall inflation, based on recent Federal Reserve projections. Moreover, the PwC report notes that insurance premiums may rise even faster on insurance exchanges due to the massive uncertainty associated with Obamacare: “Insurers face the uncertainty of who will enroll—the sick, the healthy, or a combination of the two.”

The study also points out that consolidation in the health care sector has served to drive up prices: “Studies have shown that hospital mergers in concentrated markets can increase prices by more than 20%.”

The bottom line is clear: Then-Senator Obama promised that Obamacare would lower premiums by $2,500 for struggling American families. Today’s report from PwC puts President Obama even further away from living up to that promise.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

How Obamacare — And Big Hospitals — Will Raise Health Costs

The New York Times published a column highlighting one way Obamacare will raise health costs: by promoting hospital industry consolidation that will force prices higher.

The Times highlighted the case of two Chicago-area hospital systems whose merger was investigated by the Federal Trade Commission in 2000. The article notes that one hospital CEO “had told his board that the deal would ‘increase our leverage, limited as it might be,’ the investigation found, and ‘help our negotiating posture’ with managed care organizations.”

The other hospital’s CEO said that “it would be real tough for any of the Fortune 40 companies in this area…to walk from [the merged hospital group] and 1,700 of their doctors.” The end result of the merger:

It was a great deal for the hospitals. The fees they charged to insurers soared. One insurer, UniCare, said it had to accept a jump of 7 to 30 percent for its health maintenance organizations and 80 percent for its preferred provider organizations.

Aetna said it swallowed price increases of 45 to 47 percent over a three-year period. “There probably would have been a walkaway point with the two independently,” testified Robert Mendonsa, an Aetna general manager for sales and network contracting. “But with the two together, that was a different conversation.”

And who was left holding the bag? Not the shareholders of UniCare or Aetna. It was the people who bought their policies, who either paid higher premiums directly or whose wages grew more slowly to compensate for the rising cost of their company health plans.

Industry mergers give hospitals more market clout to raise prices—and those higher, “take it or leave it” prices are passed on to all Americans in the form of higher insurance premiums.

What has Obamacare done to solve this problem? It’s made it worse. The Times quotes Martin Gaynor, an expert on industry consolidation, about this “potentially troubling” aspect of the law:

Professor Gaynor, for instance, worries that accountable care organizations may prove anticompetitive. Merger activity has jumped in anticipation of the law’s coming fully into effect.

“Hospitals want to maintain their revenue streams and enhance their bargaining leverage,” said Professor Gaynor. “This [i.e., Obamacare] is a way to do so.”

Obamacare as a way for hospitals to “enhance their bargaining leverage”? No wonder they endorsed the law. However, the American people will be paying the price—quite literally—for years to come.

This post was originally published at The Daily Signal.

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).