The state agency that spends more than $2 billion a year to provide health coverage to 436,000 public employees, retirees, and their families is pushing changes that would allow it to slash what it pays the most expensive hospitals, a drastic move to try to rein in health care costs.
The Group Insurance Commission voted unanimously last week to support capping its payments to health care providers at 160 percent of the rates paid by Medicare, the federal government’s insurance program for seniors….
The limits would hit a “really small number of providers who are at the high end” of the pay scale, such as Partners HealthCare, UMass Memorial Health Care, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and others, Herman said….
This can be modeled in two ways. The first will be the large hospitals near the Charles River screaming socialism. The other will be the state screaming capitalism.
If the ratio of ratios is close to one, the providers and payers are evenly matched. If the ratio is significantly above one, providers have a market power advantage as the largest provider groups control a significant chunk of sub-markets that the payers need access to. If the ratio is significantly below one, the payers have market power. They can pressure providers to take low rates.
A good paper * just came out in Health Affairs by Roberts, Chernew and McWilliams that looks at the impact of a market power dynamics on pricing. They found the intuitively expected (when providers have power rates are high, when insurers have power, rates drop). More importantly, they were able to quantify the effect:
Using multipayer claims for physician services provided in office settings, we estimated that—within the same provider groups—insurers with market shares of 15 percent or more (average: 24.5 percent), for example, negotiated prices for office visits that were 21 percent lower than prices negotiated by insurers with shares of less than 5 percent. Analyses stratified by provider market share suggested that insurers require greater market shares to negotiate lower prices from large provider groups than they do when negotiating with smaller provider groups. For example, office visit prices for small practices were $88, $72, and $70, for insurers with market shares of <5 percent, ≥5 to <15 percent, and ≥15 percent, respectively, whereas prices for large provider groups were $97, $86, and $76...
What does this mean?
The simplest model is that the Massachusetts state employee plan is one of the largest concentrated buyers of services in Massachusetts. It covers almost half a million lives. That is a big pool of people who pay on average, commercial based rates. It is one of the most attractive sub-markets for healthcare providers to service. The state employee plan is making a declaration that it will offer a single maximum price on a take it or leave it basis. The gamble is that the providers who are currently getting rates above that price will look at their next best alternative to fill their beds and realize that 160% of Medicare that gets paid quickly for a significant fraction of their beds is still much better than the next best alternative.
This is as much a political fight as an economics fight. My bet is that at least some of the high cost hospitals will make concessions and drop their rate significantly (remember the high cost hospitals already get significant upward bumps in their Medicare base rate compared to community hospitals a few miles away). One or two of the hospitals will hold out and run a parade of very sympathetic crying parents and sad looking kids in front of the media every five to ten days as well as running millions of dollars in TV ads.
But if we want to get healthcare cost growth under control much less hold spending constant as a fraction of GDP, reducing the relative prices of care will be a major effort. And that means driving more and more price points to lower multipliers of the Medicare base rate in addition to public health improvements and delivery reform efforts that lead to lower quantities of expensive services needed and consumed.
* Eric T. Roberts, Michael E. Chernew and J. Michael McWilliams “Market Share Matters: Evidence Of Insurer And Provider Bargaining Over Prices” Health Affairs 36, no.1 (2017):141-148 doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2016.0479