Unchecked Provider Clout In California Foreshadows Challenges To Health Reform

By Robert A. Berenson, Paul B. Ginsburg and Nicole Kemper
Health Affairs
February 25, 2010


Faced with declining payment rates, California providers have implemented various strategies that have strengthened their leverage in negotiating prices with private health plans. When negotiating together, hospitals and physicians enhance their already significant bargaining clout. California’s experience is a cautionary tale for national health reform: It suggests that proposals to promote integrated care through models such as accountable care organizations (ACOs) could lead to higher rates for private payers. Because antitrust policy has proved ineffective in curbing most provider strategies that capitalize on providers’ market power to win higher payments, policy makers need to consider approaches including price caps and all-payer rate setting.


As the dominant payer for the elderly and disabled, Medicare sets prices and is generally indifferent to providers’ negotiating clout. Private payers, which must negotiate with all hospitals and large physician practices, generally agree to pay much higher rates than Medicare pays to persuade providers to enter into a contract with them.

If accountable care organizations lead to more integrated provider groups that are able to exert market power in negotiations — both by encouraging providers to join organizations and by expanding the proportion of patients for whom provider groups can negotiate rates — private insurers could wind up paying more, even if care is delivered more efficiently.

Lessons from California, then, can inform current discussions about whether health delivery and payment reforms would reduce the rate of health care spending growth, not only in Medicare but overall. Our findings suggest the opposite: a definite shift in negotiating strength toward providers, resulting in higher payment rates and premiums. As one medical group executive said, “We are making out hand over fist.” In some cases, payment rates to hospitals and powerful physician groups approach and exceed 200 percent of what Medicare pays, with annual negotiated double-digit increases in recent years.

From the Discussion

The shift in who holds the upper hand in negotiating payments — once held by health insurance plans but now resting with health care providers — has had a major impact on California premium trends. According to some survey respondents, the dynamic needs urgent policy attention. “I am shocked there isn’t an outcry over the fact that our costs are driven out of control,” a health plan executive complained. “We would like to establish some sort of boundary, beyond which these guys can’t go. We’d welcome some regulatory intervention to break up these monopolies, because they are just killing us.”

A single “must-have” hospital can develop enough clout to obtain payment rates much higher than Medicare’s, acknowledging that many providers believe Medicare payments to be inadequate. Indeed, across other markets studied by the Center for Studying Health System Change, providers are developing increased leverage through single-specialty group formation and merger-and-acquisition strategies that do not involve integration. Nevertheless, given the push in Congress and elsewhere to restructure health care delivery with accountable care organizations, it is instructive that whatever their merits in improving quality and efficiency, California-style integrated care systems currently produce higher prices that undermine cost containment.

Unless market mechanisms can be found to discipline providers’ use of their growing market power, it seems inevitable that policy makers will need to turn to regulatory approaches, such as putting price caps on negotiated private-sector rates and adopting all-payer rate setting. Indeed, some purchasers who believe strongly in the long-term merits of increased integration of care delivery believe that price regulation may be a prerequisite for payment reforms that encourage integration.



AHIP Statement on Premium Increases

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP)
Press Release
February 18, 2010

AHIP recently sent a letter to Capitol Hill to highlight the key factors contributing to increases in health insurance premiums. These factors include:
* sharp increases in provider rates;
* increased cost-shifting as providers seek to offset the costs of treating more Medicaid patients;
* an increase in uncompensated care costs;
* consolidation among hospitals and other health care providers;
* a wide range of new state laws, including benefit mandates, regulations, and premium taxes; and
* economic factors that have caused some people to drop coverage resulting in a risk pool that is more heavily weighted with older, less healthy persons.



White House says health-care bills contain cost-cutting remedies

By Shailagh Murray
The Washington Post
November 26, 2009

Unless lawmakers institute changes across the entire system, (AHIP’s Karen) Ignagni said in a statement Wednesday, “Health costs will continue to weigh down the economy and place a crushing burden on employers and families.”


The private insurers claim that health care costs are the major cause of high health insurance premiums. That is true. So where do we place the blame for failure to slow cost escalation?

The private insurers can be blamed for their despicable policies that prevent patients from receiving the care that they should have, but they can’t really be blamed for the fact that health care prices in the United States are much higher than in any other nation. So should they share some of the blame for failing to use their clout to slow down health care spending? Or is it that the private insurers really have no clout?

Are the health care providers to blame? The Health Affairs article by Robert Berenson and his colleagues at the Center for Studying Health System Change should be read by everyone interested in health system reform. They show that some California physicians and hospitals have been able to reverse the cost restraints that characterized the managed care revolution by using consolidation to greatly increase their negotiating clout. As an example of the impact, California hospitals were able to increase their prices for privately insured patients by 10.6 percent per year during 1999-2005.

Some may want to point to the greed and profit motives of the health care providers as being the primary problem. So which nefarious organizations are these? Sutter Health. Catholic Healthcare West. Hospitals in the University of California system. Ceders-Sinai Medical Center. These are not evil investor-owned institutions that take their directions from Wall Street. Since we can’t really blame Wall Street for high prices in California, do we blame the providers for failing to contain their own excesses? Or are they merely trying to meet the demand of patients who want the very latest and best in health care?

The current reform proposal before Congress calls for accountable care organizations (ACOs) and bundled payments as means to slow the growth in health care spending. That might work for Medicare though it wouldn’t save much, but, as explained in this Health Affairs article, it would likely lead to higher private insurance costs through the market impact of provider consolidation.

When we’re deciding where to place the blame, we should keep in mind a very important declaration from this article: “As the dominant payer for the elderly and disabled, Medicare sets prices and is generally indifferent to providers’ negotiating clout. Private payers, which must negotiate with all hospitals and large physician practices, generally agree to pay much higher rates than Medicare pays to persuade providers to enter into a contract with them.”

Private insurers do not have the clout to obtain best pricing, but a single payer such as Medicare does. Best prices are prices that are adequate to ensure that physicians and hospitals will be there when you need them but are not so high that they result in waste on non-beneficial excesses. If a universal public payer were to exercise too much clout, push back by patients and providers would moderate it.

So where should we place the blame for the failure to slow our excessive cost escalation? It is President Obama and Congress who have refused to consider a publicly financed and publicly administered program such as an improved Medicare for all that would finally allow us to receive the care that we need while still being able to pay for it.

But the real culprits? We, the people. We have failed to let our leaders know how truly passionate we are about achieving honest-to-goodness health care justice for all. We can change that.