Health Care Price Transparency and Economic Theory

By Uwe E. Reinhardt, PhD
JAMA, October 22/29, 2014

Citizens in most economically developed nations have health insurance coverage that results in only modest cost sharing at the time health care is used. Furthermore, physicians, hospitals, and other clinicians and entities that provide health care within most systems outside the United States are paid on common fee schedules uniformly applied to all clinicians, health care organizations, and insurers. That approach spares the insured the need to seek out lower-priced health care and obviates the need for transparency on the prices charged by individual clinicians and organizations that provide health care.

Not so in the United States, where every private health insurer negotiates prices with every health care practitioner and organization, where large public health insurance systems such as Medicaid and Medicare pay fees that do not cover the full cost of treating patients covered by these programs, and where uninsured, self-paying patients can often be asked to pay whatever can be extracted from their household budgets, sometimes with the help of debt collectors and the judiciary. Economists call the approach price discrimination, which means the identical service is sold to different buyers are different prices.

This approach to pricing health care has led in the United States to a system in which, at one end of the spectrum, hospitals and physicians are expected by society to treat low-income patients free of charge, on a charitable basis, or for modest fees that do not cover the cost of those treatments and then to finance that informal catastrophic health insurance system for the poor out of the other part of their enterprises that they can operate as profit-maximizing business firms. This is true even in some of the large segment of institutions referred to as not-for-profit. The harsh excesses that this quest for profits in health care can unleash—even among not-for-profit hospitals—have been well reported in various articles in the popular press.

Private employers in the United States have played a pivotal role in the evolution of this system. They hired as their agents in health care the private insurers who helped put that system into place, and they supported it. To gain better control over the growth of their health spending, employers have of recent resorted to a technique long recommended to them by the market devotees among health economists, namely, putting the patient’s “skin in the game,” as the jargon goes. It is done with health insurance policies imposing on the insured very high annual deductibles before insurance coverage even begins, followed by significant coinsurance, perhaps requiring patients to pay 10% to 20% of every medical bill, up to a maximum total annual out-of-pocket expenditure that can potentially exceed $10 000 for a family.

This approach of shifting more of the cost of employment-based health insurance visibly and directly into the household budgets of employees amounts to rationing parts of US health care by price and ability to pay and delegates the bulk of the hoped-for belt-tightening to low-income families. Because the word rationing is anathema in the US debate on health policy, the strategy has been marketed instead under the felicitous label of consumer-directed health care, presumably designed to empower consumers in the health care market to take control of their own health care. However, this strategy, based mainly on economic theory, so far has put the cart before the horse.

In virtually all other areas of commerce, consumers know the price and much about the quality of what they intend to buy ahead of the purchase. This information makes comparison shopping relatively easy and is the sine qua non of properly functioning markets. By contrast, consumer-directed health care so far has led the newly minted consumers of US health care (formerly patients) blindfolded into the bewildering US health care marketplace, without accurate information on the prices likely to be charged by competing organizations or individuals that provide health care or on the quality of these services. Consequently, the much ballyhooed consumer-directed health care strategy so far has been more a cruel hoax than a smart and ethically defensible health policy.

http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1917413

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Association Between Availability of Health Service Prices and Payments for These Services

By Christopher Whaley, BA; Jennifer Schneider Chafen, MD, MS; Sophie Pinkard, MBA; Gabriella Kellerman, MD; Dena Bravata, MD, MS; Robert Kocher, MD; Neeraj Sood, PhD
JAMA, October 22/29, 2014

Conclusions

Use of price transparency information was associated with lower total claims payments for common medical services. The magnitude of the difference was largest for advanced imaging services and smallest for clinician office visits.

http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1917438

In a JAMA editorial commenting on an article about price transparency and health care spending, Uwe Reinhardt first describes the ridiculous system we currently have, concluding, “the much ballyhooed consumer-directed health care strategy so far has been more a cruel hoax than a smart and ethically defensible health policy.”

He then discusses the article by Christopher Whaley and his colleagues in which they describe price savings resulting from health care price shopping: an average of a mere $1.18 for clinician office visits, $3.45 for laboratory tests, and a more impressive average savings of $124.74 for advanced imaging services.

Imaging aside, think about that one dollar saved by shopping office visit prices. Does that one dollar really pay for the labor involved in price shopping, much less the additional transportation costs and other inconveniences of going to a different doctor, not to mention the disruption in care provided by a primary care medical home? Not exactly a shopper’s paradise.

Even the more significant savings in advanced imaging can have drawbacks if it results in non-coordinated care outside of a system functioning as an integrated unit, whether or not it is technically a single integrated health care entity.

But what is really important here lies in Uwe Reinhardt’s comments. As he states, “other clinicians and entities that provide health care within most systems outside the United States are paid on common fee schedules uniformly applied to all clinicians, health care organizations, and insurers. That approach spares the insured the need to seek out lower-priced health care and obviates the need for transparency on the prices charged by individual clinicians and organizations that provide health care.”

Other nations pay the right amount to sustain he system, without the waste of overpaying some nor the threat of inequitable access caused by underpaying others. No matter how much price transparency we have in the United States, our highly dysfunctional, fragmented system of financing health care will never get pricing right.

Yes, we need a single payer national health program. Under such a system the pricing would be transparent to our public administrators, and who better could determine whether or not the price is right? We surely can’t.