A New IOM Report Reveals Why Medicare Costs So Much (Hint–It’s Not Just the Prices)

George W.  Bush is 67. Chances are Medicare paid for the stent operation that I describe in the post above.  For years, medical researchers have been telling us that this procedure will provide no lasting benefit for a patient who fits Bush’s medical profile.   Nevertheless, in some hospitals, and in some parts of the country, stenting has become as commonplace as tonsillectomies were in the 1950s.

Location matters. Last month, a new report from the Institute of Medicine confirmed what Dartmouth’s researchers have been telling us for more than three decades: health care spending varies  across regions. More recently, as Dartmouth’s investigators have drilled down into othe data,, they have shown that even within a region, Medicare spends far more per beneficiary in some hospitals than in others.

In a recent Bloomberg column, former CBO director Peter Orszag notes that “Because this variation doesn’t appear to be reliably correlated with differences in quality, the value [that we are getting for our health care dollars] seems to be much higher in some settings than in others.” He asks the logical question: “What is causing this and what might we do about it?”

Some health care analysts claim that as a nation, we spend far more on health care than any other developed country because we over-pay for everything—from statins to surgery. (A landmark article that appeared in Health Affairs in 2003 put it this way “It’s the Prices Stupid!” )

Others put more emphasis on overtreatment. Up to one-third of Medicare dollars are squandered, physicians like Dartmouth’s  Dr.  Elliott Fisher, Boston surgeon Atul Gawade and former Medicare director Dr. Don Berwick argue.  As Fisher puts it, “hospital stays in the U.S. may not be as long as in some other countries, but more happens to you while you’re there.” (Note: the authors of “It’s the Price’s Stupid” also point out that care in the U.S. is “more intensive.”)

I agree that both theories are true: We have managed to devise a health care system where we both over-pay AND are over-treated. The  Institute of Medicine report that came out at the end of July supports this thesis.

              The Difference between Medicare and Commercial Insurers

The IOM report reveals that both Medicare and commercial insurers are spending about 40 percent more per patient in some areas and in some hospitals than in others. “This has persisted over decades;” Orszag observes.  “Regions that spent the most in 1992 tended to remain big spenders in 2010.”

But, he adds, “There is one important difference between Medicare and commercial insurance, the Institute found, and that is in the causes of spending variation. With commercial insurance, spending is higher in some areas because of markups — that is, the difference between the charge for a service and the cost of providing that service.

“Seventy percent of the variation in commercial spending was attributed to differences in markups, which in turn probably reflect local differences in market power among hospitals and other providers relative to insurance companies and beneficiaries.”

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Obama’s Proposals For Medicare — Do They Go Far Enough? Will They Become Law?

Not long ago, I wrote about the Center for American Progress’ (CAP’s) “Senior Protection Plan” —a report that aims to rein in Medicare “by $385 billion over ten years without harming beneficiaries.” In that post, I suggested that CAP’s proposals might well give us a preview of the “modest adjustments” that President Obama had said he would be willing to make to Medicare.  At the time, I highlighted three of CAP’s recommendations:

– increase premiums for the wealthiest 10% of Medicare beneficiaries (raising $25 billion);

– insist that drug-makers extend Medicaid rebates to low-income Medicare beneficiaries (saving $137.4 billion);

– prohibit “pay for delay” agreements that let “brand-name drug manufacturers pay generic drug manufacturers to keep generics off the market” (saving $5 billion).

Last week, in his State of the Union address, President Obama embraced the first two:  “Already, the Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of health care costs,” he noted. “The reforms I’m proposing go even further. We’ll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors.”  (In time, I suspect that the administration also will call for a ban on those decidedly seamy “pay for delay” deals.)

“On Medicare,” he added, “I’m prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.” The commission called for reducing Medicare spending by roughly $350 billion over 10 years–  a sum that is not far from CAP’s $385 billion target.

Are These “Adjustments” Too Modest ?

These may seem like small numbers. But keep in mind that this is on top of the $950 billion that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) saves by squeezing waste out of health care spending, while simultaneously raising new revenues. Of that $950 billion, some $350 billion comes in the form of Medicare savings achieved by:

–  Pruning over-payments to private sector Medicare Advantage insurers– $132 billion  

–  Containing Medicare inflation by shaving annual “updates” in  payments to hospitals and other large facilities by 1% a year for ten years, beginning in 2014– $196 billion

– Cutting disproportionate share hospital payments to hospitals that care for a disproportionate share of poor and uninsured patients over 10 years beginning in 2014 – $22 billion.

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Join the debate on “Reining in Medicare Costs without Hurting Seniors”

The January 26 post below (“How to Rein in Medicare costs without Hurting Seniors“) has drawn some 43 comments (including mine, as I responded to readers). I thought of turning a couple of my replies into posts, but then decided it might be more interesting for you to read them in the context of what other readers said.

I would love to see more readers participate in this thread. Comments are still open.

It’s a lively thread that takes on a number of third-rail issues: Does Medicare spend too much on pricey cancer drugs, end-of-life care and brand name hospitals?

 Should we try to spend less on end-of life care? Many say “Yes,” but Zeke Emanuel (a medical ethicist and oncologist who was part of the Obama team during the president’s first term), says “No.” I link to a column where he notes that “It is conventional wisdom that end-of-life care is an increasingly huge proportion of health care spending. . . Wrong. Here are the real numbers: end-of-life care (not just for the elderly, but for all Americans) accounts for just 10% to 12% of  total health care spending. This figure has not changed significantly in decades.”

He goes on to suggest that while we probably can’t make end-of-life “cheaper,” we can make it “better . . .  Here are four things the health care system should do to try to improve care for the dying, even if they won’t save money.”

A number of readers comment on what is driving Medicare spending. Is it “patient expectations,”  “doctors’ fear of litigation,”  “regulations that dictate nurse-staffing ratios,” “practice patterns that doctors learned long ago,” or is the biggest problem “promotional efforts by manufacturers?”

Other questions come up: Does anyone really have any idea how much Medicare will cost in 2022?  By then will Medicare have begun negotiating with drug-makers and device-makers for discounts on drugs (the way the VA does now, saving 40%)?  How far will Medicare go in using medical evidence to decide what to cover?

One doctor/reader points out that in his field Medicare has begun to refuse to pay for procedures when research shows that they are not effective. He and another reader agree that in this way Medicare can provide “political cover” for private sector insurers who will follow Medicare’s lead.

We also discuss the deficit, and whether we should be trying to address the deficit now — or wait until the recession ends and unemployment falls. Also, is the deficit already dissolving as CAP suggests? 

And is the deficit our biggest problem? On this question, you will find links to Paul Krugman, Peter Orszag (who analyzes the slow-down in health care spending over the past three years as a “structural change, not just the result of the recession) and Ezra Klein,

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Obama Wins Round One of Budget Negotiations

CNN is reporting that the “Fiscal cliff deal is down to wrangling over the details.” While others in the media continue to say that talks are stalled, everything I know about both the economics and the politics of the situation tells me that CNN is right.

At 4:30 this afternoon, CNN updated its story: “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff  talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.

“To President Barack Obama, it’s all about first locking in additional revenue from raising taxes on high-income owners, an outcome the GOP has long rejected.”

President Obama had made it clear that negotiations over government spending on safety nets such as Medicare wouldn’t begin until Republicans accepted a higher marginal tax rate for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000.

The president dug in, and, according to CNN, he has won round one.

“Retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told CNN on Thursday that he sensed a shift in the House GOP approach during a conference meeting the day before.

“A GOP source told CNN that talks between staff members on both sides resumed Thursday for the first time this week, after Obama and Boehner spoke by phone the day before.”

A Two-Step Approach

It is not clear whether negotiations over so-called “entitlements” will be concluded before the end of the year. But CNN, reports

“All signs point toward a two-step approach sought by newly re-elected Obama — an initial agreement that would extend lower tax rates for income up to $250,000 for families, while letting rates return to higher levels from the Clinton era on income above that threshold.”  That agreement on taxes will be signed and sealed before the end of the year.

“Even conservatives such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledge the obvious — taxes on the wealthy are going up despite opposition by Republicans.

“‘Whatever deal is reached is going to contain elements that are detrimental to our economy,’ Jindal wrote Thursday in an opinion piece published by Politico. ‘Elections have consequences, and the country is going to feel those consequences soon.’”

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The Nation is Divided, Not between Whites and Minorities, But between the Past and the Future

Women, minorities, and young people re-elected President Obama. 

Pundits have pointed out that the president won only 39 percent of the vote among whites—down from 43 percent four years ago. But exit polls reveal that among women, Obama enjoyed an 11 percent advantage. “Fifty-five percent of women chose Obama,” Blooomberg observes —and clearly, this group included many white women. Sixty percent of voters ages 18 to 24 favored Obama—again, many were white voters. Among Latinos, the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., Obama won with a 44-point advantage. Romney secured just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, down from the 31 percent who voted for the Republican candidate four years ago. Ninety-three percent of  African-Americans voted for the president, along with 73% of Asians (who now make up 3% of the electorate.)  And in the rust belt, Obama appealed to enough of the Democratic Party’s old blue-collar base  (which is largely white) to carry that section of the country.

Romney captured just two groups:  Americans over 65 and white men.  Romney’s cohort is made up of the people who ran this country in the 1980s. In a word, his supporters represent the past. Obama won among the young people, Latinos and women who will shape this nation’s future. They will be our leaders.  We have reached an inflection point in our history.

                                             Women in the Senate

 When Massachusetts elected Elizabeth Warren this was the first time that the Commonwealth sent a woman to the Senate. Thanks to last night’s election a record number of women will be serving in the U.S. Senate. There are currently 17. While two are retiring, at least four more have won — Democrats Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Warren in Massachusetts, Mazie Hirono in Hawaii, and Republican Deb Fischer in Nebraska.  Claire McCaskill of Missouri, once considered the party’s most vulnerable Senator, held off a challenge by her Republican challenger, U.S. Representative Todd Akin (one of two Republicans who learned that during an election it is never a good idea to talk about rape) 

This is not to say that, going forward white men will not also be in positions of power. But in the future, a more mosaic leadership will reflect a new majority.  As Ross Douthat observed in today’s New York Times: “conservatives must face reality: The age of Reagan is officially over, and the Obama majority is the only majority we have.  (It is worth noting that Douthat describes himself as a conservative, though less “starry-eyed” than George Will.) 

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Truth Squad: Is “Obamacare” Pushing Health Care Spending Higher? What Will Happen in 2014?

In last Tuesday’s debate Mitt Romney suggested that, under Obamacare, health insurance premiums have spiraled by $2,500 per family. Not true.  (Hat tip to Healthcarefinancenews.com.)

 First let’s get the number right: According to an annual survey of employer plans  by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Educational Trust, since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed in 2010, the average annual premium for family coverage has risen by $1,975 not $2500.  $1975 is a hefty sum, but 20% less than Romney claimed.

More importantly, $1,975 represents the combined increase in contributions made by employers and employeeswith employers picking  up the lion’s share of the hike. “In reality, premiums paid by employees haven’t changed that much.Factcheck observes. In fact, when you look at the rise in how much employees contributed, “the federal health care law was responsible for a 1 percent to 3 percent increase because of more generous coverage requirements.” In other words, employees were paying a little more, but getting value for their dollars.

After telling a whopper about how much employee’s health care premiums have risen in the past, Romney went on to assert that if Obamacare is  “implemented fully, it’ll be another $2,500 on top” of that. His evidence?  None.

                                              The Media Spreads the Myths

Yet the media continues to swallow the notion that under “Obamacare” health care spending will levitate. A few days ago, the Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson wrote: “Almost every expert agrees that controlling health costs is the crux of curing chronic budget deficits. Health-care spending already exceeds a quarter of federal outlays. With Obamacare’s coverage of the uninsured starting in 2014 and retiring baby boomers flooding into Medicare, the share is headed toward a third.”

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