The Flaw in Using Medicare Price Caps as a Cost Control Model

Recent articles have suggested capping health-care prices at a percentage above Medicare payment levels as a way to bring down health costs. But evidence suggests that, rather than reducing overall spending levels, Medicare’s price caps don’t effectively control health costs.

The August blog post proposing the idea, published on the Health Affairs site, suggested that “every patient and every insurance company” should have the option of paying 125% of what Medicare charges for a given service, as a way to rationalize reimbursement systems notorious for their lack of transparency. Ironically, the authors of the Health Affairs post are affiliated with the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, a project that attempts to explain geographic variations in health spending (why Medicare spends much more per patient in Miami than in Minneapolis, for example). Much of its analysis has concluded that differences in physician behavior may account for much of the unexplained variations.

And therein lies the problem: Medicare’s payment system may be to blame for the higher levels in spending. Providers, when paid less per procedure, have sought to increase their incomes by performing more procedures over the past decade. According to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, while price levels rose 9% between 2000 and 2012, overall physician spending per Medicare patient skyrocketed by 72.4% in the same period–because doctors provided more services to beneficiaries.

These problems of low prices driving volume increases seem most acute in Medicare itself. In 2009, the town of McAllen, Tex., became famous after a New Yorker article by Atul Gawande profiled its high-spending health system. McAllen was shown to have abnormally high rates of Medicare per-patient spending than comparable areas. Yet research published in 2010 found that when it came to private health insurance, McAllen actually spent less per patient than the similarly situated town of El Paso. The researchers concluded that “health care providers respond quite differently to incentives in Medicare compared to those in private health insurance programs.”

One co-author of the 2010 study concluding that Medicare creates different provider incentives than does private insurance was Jonathan Skinner, who also co-wrote the August Health Affairs blog post calling for Medicare’s price caps to be extended to all medical providers. Unfortunately, the former questions the wisdom of the latter. Price caps could well function as a politically appealing “solution” whose knock-on effects mean it won’t ultimately solve much of anything.

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