Are Employers the Culprits Behind High U.S. Health Care Prices?

Elizabeth Rosenthal’s eye-opening article about health care costs in The New York Times on Sunday was a reminder of how much more Americans pay for given procedures than citizens in health systems abroad. What was probably more surprising to most readers was the huge price differentials for identical procedures — not only across the United States, but even within American cities, where prices for a given procedure can vary tenfold.

These price differentials, it should be noted, have never been shown to be related either to the cost of producing health care procedures or to their quality. The question, not addressed in the article, is who bears the blame for this chaotic, private-sector price system. The only fair answer is: American employers. Who else could it be?

I have been critical of employment-based health insurance in this country for more than two decades. In the early 1990s, for example, at the annual gathering of the Business Council, I bluntly told the top chief executives assembled there, “If you want to find the culprit behind the health care cost explosion in the U.S., go to the bathroom and look in the mirror.” After years of further study, I stand by that remark.

I can imagine that some would look instead to the usual suspects – Medicare, Medicaid and possibly even the Tricare program for the military – but that would be a stretch. The argument would be that the public programs shift costs to the private sector, causing the chaos there. Few economists buy that theory.

Most health-policy analysts I know regret that employers appointed themselves their employees’ agents in the markets for health insurance and health care, developing in the process the ephemeral insurance coverage that is lost to the family when its breadwinner loses his or her job.

Employers were able to capture that agency role during World War II when they successfully walked around the prevailing wage controls simply by having Congress exempt fringe benefits from the wage cap. Employers were able to retain their agency even after the wage controls ended by having Congress exempt employer-paid fringe benefits from the taxable income of employees, a tax preference not granted Americans who purchased health insurance on their own. Retaining their tax-preferred agency role has been of great help to employers in the labor market.

Alas, in their self-appointed role as purchasing agents in health care, American employers have arguably become the sloppiest purchasers of health care anywhere in the world. The chaotic price system for health care is one manifestation of that sloppiness.

For more than half a century, employers have passively paid just about every health care bill that has been put before them, with few questions asked. And all along they have been party to a deal to keep the chaotic price system they helped create opaque from the public and even from their own employees. Only very recently and very timidly have a few of them dared to lift the veil a little.

Employers may protest that they rarely purchase health care for their employees directly. The actual purchases are made by the employers’ agents, private health insurance carriers. But the latter are merely the conduits for the employers’ wishes. When agents perform poorly, one should look first for the root cause at the principals’ instructions.

One reason for the employers’ passivity in paying health care bills may be that they know, or should know, that the fringe benefits they purchase for their employees ultimately come out of the employees’ total pay package. In a sense, employers behave like pickpockets who take from their employees’ wallets and with the money lifted purchase goodies for their employees. Far too many employees have been seduced into believing that their benevolent employer pays for most of their health care.

The result of this untoward pas de deux is the system Ms. Rosenthal describes.

One consequence of this opaque pricing system has been that, according to the 2013 Milliman Medical Index, the average cost of health care of a typical American family of four under age 65, and insured through an employer-sponsored preferred provider plan, is now $22,000, up from about $10,000 a decade earlier. It is a staggering amount, not only by international comparison, but also when compared with the distribution of family income in the United States, with a median income of $50,000 to $60,000.

Another result has been that, according to a recent analysis published in the policy journal Health Affairs, a decade of health care cost growth under employment-based health insurance has wiped out the real income gains for an average family with employment-based health insurance. One must wonder how any employer as agent for employees can take pride in that outcome.

Yet a third consequence of the rampant price discrimination baked into this pricing system is that uninsured Americans with some financial means are often charged the highest prices for health care when they fall ill, exposing them to the prospect of financial bankruptcy.

How long must the opaque and chaotic health care pricing system of employment-based health insurance in the United States persist? I can envisage two alternatives.

The first would be an all-payer system on the German or Swiss model, perhaps on a statewide basis, with some adjustments for smaller regional cost differentials (urban versus rural, for example), as is now the practice in the Medicare price schedules. In those systems, multiple insurance carriers negotiate jointly with counter-associations of the relevant health care providers over common price schedules, which thereafter are binding on every payer and every health care provider in the region (an analysis in Health Affairs offered more details). One can easily link such a system to the growth of gross domestic product.

The second alternative would be a marriage in which the financial risks of ill health are shared up to a point and raw, transparent price competition for the remainder. In such a system, called “reference pricing,” a private insurer, as agent for an employer or for a government program, would cover only the price charged for a medical procedure by a low-cost provider in the insured’s market area, forcing the insured to pay out of pocket the full difference between that low-cost “reference price” and whatever a higher-cost provider in the area charges for the same procedure.

Such a system, of course, presupposes full transparency of the prices charged by alternative providers in the relevant market area.

Because an all-payer system is highly regulatory, I predict the private health care market in the United States will sooner or later lapse into full-fledged reference pricing. It would entail ever more pronounced rationing of quality, real or imagined, by income class.

But such tiering has long been the American way in other important human services – notably justice and education. Why would health care remain the exception?


Uwe E. Reinhardt is an economics professor at Princeton. He has some financial interests in the health care field.

Spending on Specialty Medications Will Rise 67%: Report

Spending in the U.S. on specialty drugs used to treat serious diseases is projected to increase 67 percent by the end of 2015, according to a forecast  by pharmacy benefit management firm Express Scripts.

Specialty medicines are those used to treat chronic, complex diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. They are prescription drugs that require special handling, distribution and administration. Many specialty medicines are biologics that are delivered via an injection or an infusion and are used to treat chronic, complex diseases.

Prescription drug spending on eight of the top 10 specialty therapy classes will continue to increase over the next three years, according to the report. This is due to both the introduction of new biologics and physicians delaying treatment of patients until the new drugs are on the market.

According to the forecast, overall spending on traditional prescription drugs – mostly pills used to treat common conditions such as high cholesterol and depression – will decline four percent by the end of 2015, largely because of the availability of generic medications. Only two of the top 10 traditional drugs — for diabetes and attention disorders — are likely to have spending increases over the next three years, but those increases will be significant.

Express Scripts said it expects that cancer, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis — all specialty conditions — each will command higher drug spending than any other therapy class except diabetes by the end of 2015.

Hepatitis C drug spending likely will quadruple over the next three years, the largest percentage increase by far among therapy classes.  This increase will be caused in part by new interferon-free medications expected to gain FDA-approval in 2014.

“As we see what’s on the horizon, it’s time for employers and health plans to act so they can continue to offer an affordable pharmacy benefit for their members,” said Glen Stettin, M.D., senior vice president, Clinical, Research and New Solutions at Express Scripts. “New specialty treatments are making a real difference in the lives of patients, but the very high cost of these drugs creates difficult decisions for plan sponsors on which medicines to cover.”

Biosimilars, which are  less-costly alternatives to biologics, could become available once the patents expire on currently marketed biologics, a development that could help mitigate the rising cost of specialty medications.. Express Scripts recently projected that the country would save $250 billion between 2014 and 2024 if the 11 most likely biosimilar candidates were launched in the U.S.

Diabetes became the costliest prescription drug therapy class in 2011, and according to the new projections, it will continue to hold that distinction at least through 2015. Over the next three years, Express Scripts expects spending on diabetes medications to rise an additional 24 percent because of high prevalence and a robust pipeline of new therapies.

Despite the availability of generic equivalents for many attention disorder therapies, the data projects spending in the category to increase approximately 25 percent over the next three years, driven by increased utilization among middle-aged adults and wide geographic variation in diagnosis.

Express Scripts said its research shows that prevalence, medication use and associated medical and pharmacy costs for attention disorders is highest in the South. However, the Northeast region of the U.S. experienced rapid growth in attention disorder diagnosis, and that region’s associated costs grew nearly 60 percent from 2008 to 2010.

“In the absence of new therapies, to see such an increase in a traditional drug category suggests there is significant opportunity to better manage attention disorders,” said Dr. Stettin.

As part of its analysis, Express Scripts incorporates historical prescription drug cost and utilization trends from its own pharmacy claims data, the pipeline for emerging therapies, anticipated patent expirations, and other clinical and demographic factors.

Source | Insurance Journal

U.S. Medical Price Tag Far Higher Than Others

Deirdre Yapalater’s recent colonoscopy at a surgical center near her home here on Long Island went smoothly: she was whisked from pre-op to an operating room where a gastroenterologist, assisted by an anesthesiologist and a nurse, performed the routine cancer screening procedure in less than an hour. The test, which found nothing worrisome, racked up what is likely her most expensive medical bill of the year: $6,385.
That is fairly typical: in Keene, N.H., Matt Meyer’s colonoscopy was billed at $7,563.56. Maggie Christ of Chappaqua, N.Y., received $9,142.84 in bills for the procedure. In Durham, N.C., the charges for Curtiss Devereux came to $19,438, which included a polyp removal. While their insurers negotiated down the price, the final tab for each test was more than $3,500.
“Could that be right?” said Ms. Yapalater, stunned by charges on the statement on her dining room table. Although her insurer covered the procedure and she paid nothing, her health care costs still bite: Her premium payments jumped 10 percent last year, and rising co-payments and deductibles are straining the finances of her middle-class family, with its mission-style house in the suburbs and two S.U.V.’s parked outside. “You keep thinking it’s free,” she said. “We call it free, but of course it’s not.”
In many other developed countries, a basic colonoscopy costs just a few hundred dollars and certainly well under $1,000. That chasm in price helps explain why the United States is far and away the world leader in medical spending, even though numerous studies have concluded that Americans do not get better care.
Whether directly from their wallets or through insurance policies, Americans pay more for almost every interaction with the medical system. They are typically prescribed more expensive procedures and tests than people in other countries, no matter if those nations operate a private or national health system. A list of drug, scan and procedure prices compiled by the International Federation of Health Plans, a global network of health insurers, found that the United States came out the most costly in all 21 categories — and often by a huge margin.
Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times
A poster illustrating diseases of the digestive system at a doctor’s office.
Americans pay, on average, about four times as much for a hip replacement as patients in Switzerland or France and more than three times as much for a Caesarean section as those in New Zealand or Britain. The average price for Nasonex, a common nasal spray for allergies, is $108 in the United States compared with $21 in Spain. The costs of hospital stays here are about triple those in other developed countries, even though they last no longer, according to a recent report by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that studies health policy.
While the United States medical system is famous for drugs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and heroic care at the end of life, it turns out that a more significant factor in the nation’s $2.7 trillion annual health care bill may not be the use of extraordinary services, but the high price tag of ordinary ones. “The U.S. just pays providers of health care much more for everything,” said Tom Sackville, chief executive of the health plans federation and a former British health minister.
Colonoscopies offer a compelling case study. They are the most expensive screening test that healthy Americans routinely undergo — and often cost more than childbirth or an appendectomy in most other developed countries. Their numbers have increased manyfold over the last 15 years, with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that more than 10 million people get them each year, adding up to more than $10 billion in annual costs.
Largely an office procedure when widespread screening was first recommended, colonoscopies have moved into surgery centers — which were created as a step down from costly hospital care but are now often a lucrative step up from doctors’ examining rooms — where they are billed like a quasi operation. They are often prescribed and performed more frequently than medical guidelines recommend.
The high price paid for colonoscopies mostly results not from top-notch patient care, according to interviews with health care experts and economists, but from business plans seeking to maximize revenue; haggling between hospitals and insurers that have no relation to the actual costs of performing the procedure; and lobbying, marketing and turf battles among specialists that increase patient fees.
While several cheaper and less invasive tests to screen for colon cancer are recommended as equally effective by the federal government’s expert panel on preventive care — and are commonly used in other countries — colonoscopy has become the go-to procedure in the United States. “We’ve defaulted to by far the most expensive option, without much if any data to support it,” said Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.
In coming months, The New York Times will look at common procedures, drugs and medical encounters to examine how the economic incentives underlying the fragmented health care market in the United States have driven up costs, putting deep economic strains on consumers and the country.
Hospitals, drug companies, device makers, physicians and other providers can benefit by charging inflated prices, favoring the most costly treatment options and curbing competition that could give patients more, and cheaper, choices. And almost every interaction can be an opportunity to send multiple, often opaque bills with long lists of charges: $100 for the ice pack applied for 10 minutes after a physical therapy session, or $30,000 for the artificial joint implanted in surgery.
The United States spends about 18 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, nearly twice as much as most other developed countries. The Congressional Budget Office has said that if medical costs continue to grow unabated, “total spending on health care would eventually account for all of the country’s economic output.” And it identified federal spending on government health programs as a primary cause of long-term budget deficits.
While the rise in health care spending in the United States has slowed in the past four years — to about 4 percent annually from about 8 percent — it is still expected to rise faster than the gross domestic product. Aging baby boomers and tens of millions of patients newly insured under the Affordable Care Act are likely to add to the burden.
With health insurance premiums eating up ever more of her flat paycheck, Ms. Yapalater, a customer relations specialist for a small Long Island company, recently decided to forgo physical therapy for an injury sustained during Hurricane Sandy because of high out-of-pocket expenses. She refused a dermatology medication prescribed for her daughter when the pharmacist said the co-payment was $130. “I said, ‘That’s impossible, I have insurance,’ ” Ms. Yapalater recalled. “I called the dermatologist and asked for something cheaper, even if it’s not as good.”
The more than $35,000 annually that Ms. Yapalater and her employer collectively pay in premiums — her share is $15,000 — for her family’s Oxford Freedom Plan would be more than sufficient to cover their medical needs in most other countries. She and her husband, Jeff, 63, a sales and marketing consultant, have three children in their 20s with good jobs. Everyone in the family exercises, and none has had a serious illness.
Like the Yapalaters, many other Americans have habits or traits that arguably could put the nation at the low end of the medical cost spectrum. Patients in the United States make fewer doctors’ visits and have fewer hospital stays than citizens of many other developed countries, according to the Commonwealth Fund report. People in Japan get more CT scans. People in Germany, Switzerland and Britain have more frequent hip replacements. The American population is younger and has fewer smokers than those in most other developed countries. Pushing costs in the other direction, though, is that the United States has relatively high rates of obesity and limited access to routine care for the poor.
A major factor behind the high costs is that the United States, unique among industrialized nations, does not generally regulate or intervene in medical pricing, aside from setting payment rates for Medicare and Medicaid, the government programs for older people and the poor. Many other countries deliver health care on a private fee-for-service basis, as does much of the American health care system, but they set rates as if health care were a public utility or negotiate fees with providers and insurers nationwide, for example.
“In the U.S., we like to consider health care a free market,” said Dr. David Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund and a former adviser to President Obama. ”But it is a very weird market, riddled with market failures.”
Consider this:
Consumers, the patients, do not see prices until after a service is provided, if they see them at all. And there is little quality data on hospitals and doctors to help determine good value, aside from surveys conducted by popular Web sites and magazines. Patients with insurance pay a tiny fraction of the bill, providing scant disincentive for spending.
Even doctors often do not know the costs of the tests and procedures they prescribe. When Dr. Michael Collins, an internist in East Hartford, Conn., called the hospital that he is affiliated with to price lab tests and a colonoscopy, he could not get an answer. “It’s impossible for me to think about cost,” he said. “If you go to the supermarket and there are no prices, how can you make intelligent decisions?”
Instead, payments are often determined in countless negotiations between a doctor, hospital or pharmacy, and an insurer, with the result often depending on their relative negotiating power. Insurers have limited incentive to bargain forcefully, since they can raise premiums to cover costs.
“It all comes down to market share, and very rarely is anyone looking out for the patient,” said Dr. Jeffrey Rice, the chief executive of Healthcare Blue Book, which tracks commercial insurance payments. “People think it’s like other purchases: that if you pay more you get a better car. But in medicine, it’s not like that.”