Contribution of Preventable Acute Care Spending to Total Spending for High-Cost Medicare Patients

By Karen E. Joynt, MD, MPH; Atul A. Gawande, MD, MPH; E. John Orav, PhD; Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH
JAMA, June 24, 2013


To quantify preventable acute care services among high-cost Medicare patients.


We found that more than 70% of the roughly $91.7 billion in acute care costs in the Medicare population in 2010 were for the 10% of patients that comprise the high-cost cohort. Approximately 10% of these costs were for what were deemed potentially preventable causes as calculated using standard algorithms; the percentage was slightly higher for the persistently high-cost cohort. Hospital referral regions with a higher primary care or specialist physician supply had higher annual preventable costs per capita.

The biggest drivers of inpatient spending for high-cost patients were catastrophic events such as sepsis, stroke, and myocardial infarction, as well as cancer and expensive orthopedic procedures such as spine surgery and hip replacement. These findings suggest that strategies focused on enhanced outpatient management of chronic disease, while critically important, may not be focused on the biggest and most expensive problems plaguing Medicare’s high-cost patients. Indeed, while a proportion of these very expensive inpatient episodes may be potentially preventable (such as acute myocardial infarction or degenerative joint disease leading to orthopedic procedures), their prevention would likely require a long time horizon and substantial investments in population wellness. Such investments are critically important for ensuring the health of the population, but the time frame needed to see cost savings is likely years, not weeks or months.

These findings may shed light on why many recent efforts to control costs for these very medically complex, high-utilizing patients, including the Medicare Coordinated Care Demonstration programs, have failed to do so, even in cases in which there was a small decrease in hospital admissions. The majority of these programs have focused on providing enhanced outpatient services, such as frequent telephone and in-person contact, patient education, enhanced medication management services, and assistance with transitional care following a hospitalization. These types of services are targeted toward reducing ambulatory care–sensitive hospitalizations, and investing further in disease management programs may lead to reductions in avoidable ED visits and hospitalizations. Although these visits are still very expensive in aggregate, our findings suggest that they make up a small proportion of the total acute care spending among the costliest of patients. As a result, while disease management may yield cost savings, even a substantial reduction in these preventable hospitalizations is unlikely to have a large effect on overall spending levels within this cohort.

Conclusions and Relevance

Among a sample of patients in the top decile of Medicare spending in 2010, only a small percentage of costs appeared to be related to preventable ED visits and hospitalizations. The ability to lower costs for these patients through better outpatient care may be limited.

The experts keep talking about the 30 percent of spending that is wasted on clinical services, and they keep proposing and implementing solutions to squeeze that waste out of our system. Yet when we look closer at the waste and at the methods being used to reduce it, we find that most efforts are relatively ineffective, and, further, that much of that suspect care may not be wasteful after all. This study adds to the data showing how elusive the goal of eliminating clinical waste has been.

Yet the savings that they are looking for are potentially recoverable, but not in the clinical services. They are to be found primarily in the financing infrastructure. The non-clinical administrative waste is profound in our current financing system. It could be dramatically reduced by adopting a single payer system (eliminating the administrative excesses of the private insurers and the administrative burden they place on the delivery system, placing hospitals on global budgets, negotiating rates with health care professionals, bulk purchasing of pharmaceuticals, and separate planning and budgeting of capital improvements).

We should continue to make efforts to improve clinical services. But we should not look upon these improvements as a source of savings that would allow us to continue to unjustly enrich the superfluous vested interests who are diverting our finite funds from health care. Why would we want to continue to reward them anyway? Let’s fix what we do know is wrong with the system… especially since we know how to do that.