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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Medicare Fraud and For-Profit Hospitals- A Story That Never Ends

Sunday, CBS’ Sixty Minutes took a close look at Health Management Associates (HMA) a for-profit hospital chain that, according to its employees, has “relentlessly pressured its doctors to admit more and more patients—regardless of medical need—in order to raise revenues”

“We talked to more than 100 current and former employees and we heard a similar story over and over,” CBS correspondent  Steve Kroft reported.  Emergency room physicians were told “that if they didn’t start admitting more patients to the hospital, they would lose their jobs.” The orders came from the top:

With 71 hospitals in 15 states, HMA is the fourth-largest for profit chain in the country. Last year it raked in revenues of nearly $5.8 billion;  half of that came from Medicare and Medicaid. In other words, taxpayers were footing the bill for a large share of those unnecessary hospitalizations.

Patients also paid. As one doctor observed: “If you are put into the hospital for reasons other than a good, justifiable medical reason, it puts you at significant risk for hospital-acquired infections and what we would refer to as ‘medical misadventure’” (i.e. “preventable medical errors)

     :                           “Putting Heads on Beds” –An Old Story

 The piece was shocking. But it is not a new story. It is an old story. To be more precise, it is a never-ending story. In Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason HealthCare Costs So Much, I profiled several for-profit hospital companies that did just what Health Management Associates has done: “put heads on beds”– even though the patients didn’t need to be hospitalized.

At Tenet, in Redding, California, patients weren’t just hospitalized, they underwent heart surgery. An investigation would reveal that in many cases, they “had no serious cardiac problems whatsoever.”

 A FBI affidavit estimated that in one-quarter of all cases, Tenet’s two “rainmaker” heart surgeons were slicing  open patients who should never have been on an operating table. Other doctors tried to alert the hospital’s administration. They were ignored.

Some of those patients did not survive. Others were crippled. All suffered psychological trauma. 

                    HCA:  Florida Governor Rick Scott’s Back-Story                       

In 1997, Health Corporation of America (HCA) made headlines when FBI agents swarmed HCA offices in five states, and found evidence that at HCA, executive salaries hinged on meeting financial targets such as “growth in admissions and surgery cases.”
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Health Wonk Review –Waste, Warnings and the Future

 

Last week I hosted Health Wonk Review for HIO.  This round-up of some of the health care posts published over the past two weeks includes:

–  A piece by Managed Care Matter’s Joe Paduda that takes a hard look at “Flu season and Tamiflu,” and asks “Which one’s more hyped?”

 – A investigative post on Health Care Renewal that reviews “The Tragic Case of Aaron Swartz,”  the young computer activist who faced criminal charges for downloading thousands of scientific scholarly articles from the site JSTOR. After being pursued by a “tough as nails, relentless federal prosecutor,” Swartz committed suicide. Yet blogger Roy Poses notes, this same U.S. Attorney has been “soft as a marshmallow when dealing with top executives of health care corporations.”

– A post by The Hospitalist Leader’s Brad Flansbaum questioning the ACA’s assumption that a high rate of hospital readmissions signals waste. Just how many were preventable?

 –  In  a provocative post on Health Business Blog, David E. Williams asks why Cincinnati hospitals are furious because some employers have signed up for an insurance plan that would pay all hospitals just 40% more than Medicare pays for the same service.  The Hospitals claim  that isn’t enough. Moreover, each hospital would like to set its own prices—quietly. (This allows brand-name hospitals to charge far more than some of their competitors, for exactly the same services. )

 – On Wright on Health, Brad Wright describes a new rule, proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services that could prove “disastrous” for patients on Medicaid: “HHS is now attempting to woo states into participating in the Medicaid expansion by allowing them to increase cost-sharing in Medicaid” for all but the poorest of the poor. (More bloggers and reporters might want to write about this. The proposed rule will be open for comment until Feb. 13.)

 

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“The Third Rail of Payment Reform”–Tackling Wide Variations in How Much Providers Charge

Gallery

Why do some hospitals and doctors charge far more than others for exactly the same routine procedure?   “Because they can; it’s not any more sophisticated than that,” says Gerard Anderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hospital Finance and … Continue reading