Weekly Newsletter: June 16, 2008

Durable Medical Equipment Legislation Introduced

Last Thursday, several House Members led by Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-CA) and Ranking Member Dave Camp (R-MI) introduced legislation (H.R. 6252) to delay implementation of competitive bidding for durable medical equipment. The legislation would nullify contracts which suppliers signed with Medicare earlier this spring and delay implementation of the first round of bidding by at least six months, with the second round delayed by over a year.

In recent years, some conservatives have raised concerns that the prices on the Medicare fee schedule for durable medical equipment were in excess of market prices. In 2002, testimony by the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General revealed that the prices paid by Medicare for 16 selected items of durable medical equipment were higher than prices paid by Medicaid, the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) plans, and consumers purchasing directly from retailers. The Inspector General projected that using the lower prices by other payers for these 16 common items alone would have saved Medicare more than $100 million annually.

While there have been logistical difficulties associated with the first round of competitive bidding, some conservatives may still be concerned about the implications of a delay to a program that will save the federal government—and Medicare beneficiaries—billions of dollars by aligning the prices paid by Medicare for medical equipment and supplies with those in the private sector. Delays of the type contemplated by the legislation would delay competitive bidding’s implementation to a future Administration, and could enable a future President and future Congresses to take legislative action to eliminate the program altogether.

The RSC has prepared a Policy Brief on this issue, available here.

“Underinsured” Study’s Findings Subject to Interpretation

Last week several researchers associated with the Commonwealth Fund released a new study claiming that the number of “underinsured Americans” has risen sharply in recent years. According to the authors’ measure of “underinsurance”—medical expenses exceeding 10% of income (5% for low-income populations) or an insurance deductible of 5% of income—the number of “underinsured” Americans rose 60% from 2003 to 2007. This survey follows on the heels of a similar 60 Minutes broadcast on health
insurance that termed an individual receiving free care from an outreach clinic as “underinsured” due to his $500 annual deductible.

Some conservatives may have concerns both with the methodology of the study as well as its underlying rationale. The article releasing the study’s findings did not cite a recent Congressional Budget Office report noting that the percentage of out-of-pocket costs paid directly by individuals—as opposed to a third party insurance carrier or government program—declined from 31% to 13% of all health expenditures from 1975 to 2005. In addition, the survey’s authors did not assess the extent of private savings— whether in a Health Savings Account (HSA) or other vehicle—that could be drawn on by “underinsured” individuals to pay for medical expenses.

More fundamentally, the survey did not consider whether the subject individuals knowingly chose to select a plan with higher deductible exposure in order to receive lower premiums. Some conservatives may believe that implicit in the survey methodology are two questionable premises—the first that no rational person would choose to become “underinsured” according to the study’s definition of the term, and the second that policy-makers, particularly the federal government, should craft “solutions” to respond to this perceived problem. Instead, some conservatives may believe that additional reforms to create a true market in health care have the potential to slow the overall growth in health care costs, which may ultimately make the debate over “underinsurance” moot.

Article of Note: Switzerland in Massachusetts?

Last Friday’s monthly Health Matters column in CongressDaily highlighted the recent budgetary difficulties that the rising cost of health care has created for reformers in Massachusetts, which has seen the estimated cost of its comprehensive plan soar in the two years since its creation. Author Julie Rovner notes that both in its construction and its newfound financial obstacles, the Massachusetts plan looks surprisingly similar to a health reform model first adopted in Switzerland in 1994. While the Swiss model has several characteristics that conservatives may applaud—a wide choice of comprehensive plans, including those with higher deductibles that can yield savings on insurance premiums—as a model of consumer-directed health care, it also includes several forms of regulation—a mandate to purchase insurance coverage, guaranteed issue and community rating restrictions, and a prohibition on profit by carriers selling the standard benefit policy—which some conservatives may argue undermine the savings generated from a more open and transparent health system.

Whether in Switzerland, Massachusetts, or all 50 states, many conservatives have argued that health care needs more competition, not less—not just greater choice among policies for individuals and broader access to information about the price and quality of care, but a streamlining of the bureaucratic regulations that have raised the cost of health insurance. With health care costs continuing to rise at a rate that likely could make reforms like the Massachusetts experiment unsustainable, conservatives may argue that a dose of competition is just the novel concept needed to slow their unrestrained growth.

Health Care Spending Growth

Background:  Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released its annual report projecting health care spending over the next decade.  The report concluded that nationwide health expenditures are expected to rise 6.7% annually in the next ten years, causing health care spending to rise to 19.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2017.  These projections are consistent with a November report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) highlighting the long-term projections for health care spending, which estimated that health expenditures could comprise just under half (49%) of GDP within 75 years.

Ten Year Projections:  The report by the CMS actuaries, released online by the journal Health Affairs, documents the continued growth in health care spending and hints at upcoming trends associated with the retirement of the Baby Boom generation.  In 2007, health care spending is projected to have grown at a 6.7% rate, reaching $2.2 trillion, or approximately 16.3% of GDP.  The report provides a snapshot of current health expenditures, and also cites several projected spending trends over the next decade:

  • Private health insurance premiums grew at a slower rate (6.0%) than overall health care expenditures in 2007, consistent with trends evident since 2004.
  • Prescription drug spending grew by 6.7% in 2007, a measurable slowdown in spending when compared to the increases for the prior two years (12.0% in 2005 and 8.5% in 2006), due in large part to increased price competition and generic drug usage.
  • Private spending on health care is projected to grow more slowly in the latter part of the projection period (2007-2017), while public spending “is expected to accelerate…as the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation becomes eligible for Medicare.”  While the aging population will have minimal effects on overall health expenditures, its effects on public spending, particularly through Medicare, will be significant.
  • Enrollment in private Medicare Advantage plans is expected to rise to 27.5% by 2017, up from 16.4% in 2006.
  • Just over half of the growth in health care spending comes from increases in medical costs, with about one-quarter of the increase due to utilization (volume and intensity of services), and the remainder due to population growth, demographics, and related factors.

Overall, the report’s conclusions indicate that although all health spending continues to rise, the increase in public health spending has accelerated.  While the competition created by the Medicare prescription drug benefit may have contributed to the considerable slowing in pharmaceutical expenditures, an aging population moving to Medicare will only hasten the growth of public spending.

In fact, the true size of the government’s future obligations for health spending is likely underestimated by the model used in the actuaries’ report, which presumes that existing law adjustments in physician reimbursements under the sustainable growth rate mechanism (SGR) will take effect.  If the SGR’s proposed reductions are instead replaced by a 0% increase—in other words, if physician payments are held steady through 2017—Medicare spending will rise by 8.0% annually over the next decade, instead of the 7.4% projected under the trustees’ current law model.

Historical Examples and Long-Term Projections:  The report produced by the CMS actuaries follows on the heels of a study, conducted by CBO and released in November 2007, which examined both historical trends in health care spending and long-term projections for its growth over the next 75 years.  Most notably, the report documents a historical shift in health care expenditures: a significant reduction in out-of-pocket spending, which declined from 31% to 13% of all health expenditures between 1975 and 2005, and the nearly commensurate increase in third-party payment by insurance carriers, which increased from 25% to 37% of health spending nationwide.  While the growth in new technologies and services has helped drive the growth in health spending which CBO documents, the continued rise of third-party payment—which can insulate patients from the marginal costs associated with additional treatments—may well have had inflationary effects.  This shift away from out-of-pocket spending occurred despite the findings of a landmark RAND Institute study, which concluded that higher cost-sharing helped constrain health care spending at little to no adverse effect on patients’ health.

On a forward-looking basis, CBO projects that overall health care spending will more than double in the next thirty years, rising from 14.9% of GDP in 2005 (and 4.7% in 1975) to 31% in 2035, growing thereafter to nearly half the nation’s economy (49% of GDP) in 2081.  The net federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid is projected to rise at a higher rate than overall health spending, growing from 26% of total spending on health care currently to 30% within thirty years, and 38% of total spending by 2082.

These 75-year projections are materially divergent from the projections made by the Medicare trustees in their annual report.  The trustees project Medicare spending to consume nearly 11% of total GDP by the end of the projection period, while CBO estimates that Medicare will consume more than one in six dollars spent in the United States (17% of GDP).  As the Medicare trustees’ projection notes $36 trillion in unfunded liabilities for the program over the next 75 years, the significantly higher projections made by CBO in its study should provide yet another impetus to enact comprehensive entitlement reform that addresses the unchecked growth in health costs.

Excess Cost Growth:  Both the CMS actuaries’ report and the CBO study projecting long-term health expenditures highlight the issue of excess cost growth in health care.  In this context, “excess cost growth” does not imply a value judgment as to whether or not the spending is necessary or appropriate; rather, the term connotes spending that exceeds economic and productivity growth.  For instance, the CMS actuaries project that health spending will rise by 6.7% over the next ten years, while nominal (i.e. non-inflation-adjusted) GDP will rise by 4.7%, resulting in excess cost growth of 2.0% annually for the decade.

The CBO report projects that the growth of overall health care spending will exceed the rate of economic growth by more than 2% annually for at least the next decade, and will continue to exceed economic growth throughout the entire 75-year projection period.  The report also projects that excess cost growth for Medicare and Medicaid will continue at rates far exceeding cost growth within the private sector,  noting that “that aspect of the projections may appear unrealistic, but it highlights the core problem—the unsustainability of current federal law.”

Over and above the unrealistic nature of the promises made in current federal law, and the need for comprehensive entitlement reform to remedy a looming fiscal crisis for Medicare, the excess cost growth discussed in the CBO report could also have significant macroeconomic implications by displacing other spending.  While CBO projects that per capita economic consumption will increase by $15,000 (in current dollars) from 2005-2035, more than three-quarters of that higher spending will be spent on health care.  Absent external action, health care costs could grow to consume all marginal increases in economic productivity—at which point both consumption and growth of other sectors of the economy could stagnate, and standards of living apart from health care (e.g. clothing, housing, etc.) could fall over time.  Although this pessimistic scenario remains somewhat distant, it highlights the need to understand the factors behind the growth in health spending, and substantially reduce excess cost growth in the coming years.

Geographic Variations:  Another CBO report issued in February examined one source of excess cost growth in health care: geographic variations in total spending.  The report notes that state per capita health expenses in 2004 ranged from a low of about $4,000 in Utah to a high of nearly $6,700 in Massachusetts—a more than 50% disparity.  Analysis of Medicare claims data showed a similar disparity among states—ranging from a per-beneficiary expenditure of $5,600 in South Dakota to $8,700 in Louisiana—and additional variations in areas within states.

The report also notes that geographic differences in price inputs (i.e. cost of labor, etc.), health status, and demographic factors (e.g. income, race, education level) likely constitute at most half of the observed deviation in expenditures, meaning that much of the geographic variation in health spending cannot be explained by known factors.  In other words, similar patients with similar diseases, living in areas with similar prices, are likely to receive differing levels of medical treatments and services.  Of particular note is the fact that patients living in areas with higher spending yield no better results with respect to both health processes and outcomes than patients in low-spending areas—and on some measures at least may receive worse care.

While the CBO report cites studies attributing some geographic variations in health spending to areas with a high supply of health providers (particularly hospitals and specialist physicians) creating additional demand for services, competition among a greater number of providers is likely to exert downward pressure on prices, if not the number of services performed.  To the extent that geographic variation in health costs are in fact driven by excess supply, some conservatives may be wary of government efforts—such as a Certificate of Need model for approving new hospital construction, or restrictions on physician-owned specialty hospitals—that impose bureaucratic regulations to stifle the supply of health providers, as they are likely to have adverse and unintended consequences that reduce access to care.  Many conservatives might prefer a more productive solution focused on mechanisms to place reasonable restraints on demand, by reducing the historical trends that have increased reliance on third-party payment, and making price and quality measures more transparent, so that consumers can have more information about available treatment options—and make a rational choice as to whether or not the additional treatment justifies the marginal cost.

Summary and Conclusions:  The growth in health care spending projected in the coming decades, following upon years of sustained increases, is likely to place significant and exacting demands on both the private and public sectors of the American economy absent external action.  Many conservatives believe that a discussion of ways to stem the growth in health care costs should be a part of any discussion to achieve so-called universal coverage, as health insurance would become much more affordable for all Americans at the point when premium costs and related expenditures rise at a more modest (and therefore more sustainable) rate.

The geographic variations in Medicare spending, particularly those portions of which cannot be explained by regional differences in income or health status, might prompt some Democrats to call for a centralized, government-controlled mechanism to reduce spending in higher-cost areas, likely through rationed care.  One popular variation on this approach has emerged in the form of comparative effectiveness, which would attempt to conduct research on the cost-effectiveness of various treatment options with an eye towards establishing more uniform practice standards.  While such efforts by the private sector could help reduce costs, many conservatives might have strong concerns as to whether a government-run effectiveness institute—such as the center proposed by Democrats in a wide-ranging health bill last July (H.R. 3162), which would have been funded by tax increases on insurance premiums—would result in a federal bureaucracy micro-managing the doctor-patient relationship, and ultimately, rationing care to patients.

A better alternative might lie in the data showing that private health spending is not rising as dramatically as expenditures on public health programs, suggesting that competition—and placing health care dollars in control of patients—holds the true solution to containing health costs.  The significant decline in out-of-pocket spending over the past three decades, and the escalating rise in costs during that time, demonstrate the perils associated when third-party payment of health expenses, particularly incidental (i.e. non-catastrophic) expenses, insulates patients from the marginal costs of additional treatment.  Likewise, the geographic variations in Medicare spending stem from a publicly-funded system where the costs for additional treatment can be minor—especially in areas where a high percentage of seniors own Medigap policies that can insulate beneficiaries from any increase in marginal costs.

The funding warning issued by the Medicare trustees, and the subsequent action required by Congress to act on legislation addressing this “trigger,” provides an opportunity for conservatives to construct a system designed to address the geographic variations in Medicare costs—with an impact that could stretch throughout the entire health system.  An improved and enhanced Medicare system similar to the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP)—where beneficiaries receive a defined contribution from Medicare to select a health plan of their choosing—would eliminate much of the geographic variations currently present within Medicare, slowing the growth of health costs and restoring the program’s long-term stability.

Physician-Owned Hospitals

Background:  The past few years have seen the significant growth of so-called specialty hospitals.  These facilities, which generally concentrate on one medical practice area (often cardiac or orthopedic care), are often able to provide higher-quality care than general hospitals due to their focused mission.  Critics of specialty hospitals claim that, by “cherry-picking” the best—and therefore most lucrative—candidates for surgical procedures, they siphon off revenues from general and community hospitals, threatening their future viability.

The ownership arrangements of many specialty hospitals have also been questioned.  While federal law against physician self-referral prohibits doctors from holding an ownership stake in a particular department of a hospital facility, the “whole hospital” exemption permits physicians to hold an ownership stake in an entire facility.  Because many specialty hospitals are physician-owned in whole or in part, some critics believe that physicians owning a stake in a specialty hospital may be inclined to perform additional tests and procedures on patients due to a stronger profit motive.

Legislative History:  Congressional action on specialty hospitals over the past several years has focused on the “whole hospital” exemption and the issue of physician self-referral.  In December 2003, Section 507 of the Medicare Modernization Act (P.L. 108-173) placed an 18-month moratorium on physician self-referrals to any new specialty hospital and ordered reports to Congress regarding the issue.  Upon expiration of the moratorium in June 2005, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a further suspension in the processing of Medicare enrollment applications for specialty hospitals, pending a CMS review.

In February 2006, Section 5006 of the Deficit Reduction Act (P.L. 109-171) extended the CMS suspension of applications for new specialty hospitals until CMS submitted a report to Congress.  The report, issued in August 2006, summarized the earlier reports on specialty hospitals and outlined a strategic plan for examining the issues raised.  Although the report included no legislative recommendations, CMS did subsequently issue regulations in August 2007 requiring all hospitals, not just specialty hospitals, to notify patients of their physician ownership arrangements beginning in Fiscal Year 2008.

In July 2007, Section 651 of H.R. 3162, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection (CHAMP) Act, proposed several modifications to the “whole hospital” exemption for physician self-referral.  Most notably, the bill applied the exemption only to those facilities with Medicare provider agreements in place prior to July 2007—excluding new specialty hospitals or other facilities, including those currently under construction, from protection under the self-referral statute—and prohibited existing facilities from expanding their number of operating rooms or beds.  While the bill passed the House by a 225-204 vote, the Senate has yet to take up the measure.

Quality of Care:  Many public and private studies that have examined the specialty hospital issue have compared the quality of care and patient outcomes for both specialty and general hospitals.  Most studies have found that specialty hospitals perform no worse than general hospitals with respect to patient outcomes, and many studies have found measurable performance improvements.  The independent quality review firm HealthGrades found that specialty hospitals constitute a disproportionate share of the highest-quality facilities among the top tier of facilities it surveyed.[1]

The focus on improved quality control comes at a time when the impact of medical errors and hospital-acquired infections has risen to greater prominence.  The landmark 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.[2]  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, and average costs for patients who developed infections nearly six times higher than those who did not ($185,260 vs. $31,389).[3]

For this reason, many specialty hospitals include their physician-owners in all aspects of the planning, design, and implementation of the facility and its treatment delivery systems, so as to minimize the possibility of preventable errors and the spread of infection.  Additionally, regular performance of surgical procedures in specialized settings permits physicians and medical staff to develop expertise and innovative techniques that improve the quality of care delivered.  For instance, physicians in one cardiac specialty hospital developed new procedures to recognize and treat irregular heartbeats following surgery; the new protocol reduced incidence of this dangerous symptom by two-thirds.[4]

Although some critics of specialty hospitals cite concerns about “cherry-picking”—whereby physician-owned facilities attract comparatively healthy patients, leaving general hospitals to treat the sickest cases—reports such as the HealthGrades study have quantified the better care provided by many specialty hospitals on a risk-adjusted basis that controls for patients’ varied health status.  Some specialty hospitals have been found to have patients sicker than average when compared to Medicare claims data are used to compare patients in specialty hospitals and general hospitals.[5]  Moreover, to the extent that specialty hospitals may wish to pick the “easiest” cases, such changes can be resolved by reforms currently being implemented by CMS to reform Medicare’s diagnosis-related group (DRG) classification system and adjust reimbursements to more closely reflect health status upon admission.

Financial Arrangements:  Much of the criticism surrounding specialty hospitals has focused on the potential conflict-of-interest associated with physician ownership, and specifically whether an ownership stake motivates physicians to increase the number and scope of tests and procedures performed, increasing patient costs.  In scoring the additional restrictions proposed by Section 651 of the CHAMP Act, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) asserted that Medicare spends more for outpatient services for patients treated in specialty hospitals than for treatments provided in other facilities.  Based on this assumption and related changes in reimbursements, CBO estimated that the CHAMP Act’s proposed restrictions on specialty hospitals would generate $3.5 billion in savings to the federal government over a ten-year period by diverting patient care to general and community hospitals.

However, the CBO score did not take into account any potential savings due to differential rates of medical errors and acquired infections when comparing costs in specialty and general hospitals.  One study noted that the nearly 9,000 infections acquired by Medicare and Medicaid recipients hospitals during 2004 cost taxpayers nearly $1.4 billion in added costs in Pennsylvania alone—and the study also noted that hospital-acquired infections, and thus the costs associated with them, were likely to be underreported during the report’s time frame.[6]  Given the existing studies documenting better patient outcomes and lower infection rates in physician-owned facilities, reduced costs to the federal government from an expansion of specialty hospitals could well exceed the $3.5 billion in purported savings CBO attributes to lower utilization rates by general hospitals.

In addition, some critics of the ownership arrangements of specialty hospitals have failed to acknowledge the implications of the vast growth of hospital-owned physician networks in the past two decades.  While a 2005 CMS report to Congress noted that “we did not see clear, consistent patterns of preference for referring to specialty hospitals among physician owners relative to their peers,” it also added that “physicians in general are constrained in where they refer patients by several factors.”[7]  Physicians working for networks affiliated with a particular community hospital may be contractually obligated to refer their patients to that hospital.  When viewed from this prism, the significant growth—from 24% in 1983 to 39% in 2001—of physicians directly employed by hospitals or other medical centers is likely to have had a greater impact on physician referral patterns than the growth of approximately 200 specialty hospitals when compared to 60,000 hospitals nationwide.[8]

Conclusion:  The benefits of increased specialization have been examined and analyzed by economists for more than two centuries.  In his seminal work The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith highlighted the benefits of a division of labor to focus on discrete tasks as providing the greatest possible improvement in productivity, and thus economic growth, for all individuals.  In health care, specialization can increase productivity gains, which are the key to controlling the rise of health care costs without relying on heavy-handed rationing of care.  The growth of specialty hospitals—which focus on performing discrete groups of surgical procedures well, improving quality and thus reducing costs—is consonant with the theories which Smith and his adherents used to expound open markets and free trade worldwide.

Amidst spiraling costs and uneven quality, the health sector warrants more competition, not less: new entrants to introduce innovative techniques and practices improving the quality of care; greater transparency of both price and quality information, so patients can make rational choices about the nature of their treatment options; and a funding system that reduces where possible the distortionary effects of third-party payment and empowers consumers to take control of their health.  Viewed from this perspective, opposition to undue and onerous restrictions on the specialty hospitals that have driven innovation within health care may strike many conservatives as a return to first principles.


[1] Cited in David Whelan, “Bad Medicine,” Fortune 10 March 2008, available online at http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2008/0310/086_print.html (accessed March 1, 2008).

[2] 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).

[3] 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).

[4] Regina Herzlinger and Peter Stavros, “MedCath Corporation (A),” Harvard Business School Case No. 303-041, rev. August 2006, p. 10.

[5] Regina Herzlinger and Peter Stavros, “MedCath Corporation (C),” Harvard Business School Case No. 305-097, rev. May 2006, p. 1.

[6] Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, Reducing Hospital-Acquired Infections: The Business Case (Issue Brief No. 8, November 2005), available online at http://www.phc4.org/reports/researchbriefs/111705/docs/researchbrief2005report_hospacqinfections_bizcase.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008).

[7] Department of Health and Human Services, “Study of Physician Owned Specialty Hospitals Required in Section 507(c)(2) of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003,” available online at http://www.cms.hhs.gov/MLNProducts/Downloads/RTC-StudyofPhysOwnedSpecHosp.pdf (accessed March 1, 2008).

[8] Kaiser Family Foundation, Trends and Indicators in the Health Care Marketplace, Section Five, available online at http://www.kff.org/insurance/7031/print-sec5.cfm (accessed March 3, 2008) ; Whelan, “Bad Medicine.”