A review of health care costs: deck chairs and the Titanic, part 2

This article is Part II of a two-part series on the cost of health care and its component parts. Part I explores the recent growth of health care costs in the United States as well as the utilization inputs in the cost equation. Part II breaks down the pricing component of cost, determined by market leverage and the cost of delivering services. 

You can find Part I here


The Titanic

This brings us to the second category of costs: the Titanic. Or, to use our equation here of THC = U x P, the Titanic I’m talking about is the pricing component of cost.

In other words, health care leaders should do everything they can to make sure that utilization is the right care at the right time in the right setting. This makes a meaningful difference in the quality of our health care system.

But, if we focus on health care utilization alone, the health care system is still going to sink under the weight of costs. Our efforts will still be deck chairs on the Titanic.

To keep our ship afloat, we have to address the pricing input of our cost equation.

Like our cost equation above, pricing also has a simple equation of two inputs that determine price. According to a seminal study out of Massachusetts, which has been reaffirmed in additional studies (and by the experience of many network relations vice presidents across America’s health plans), this equation is straightforward.

Pricing is determined by a combination of market leverage (ML) and service delivery costs (SDC), where market leverage is 75 percent of the pricing structure and the cost of delivering the service is 25 percent.

This is true for either the plan or the provider, depending on where market leverage exists. This equation looks like this: P = ML(.75) + SDC(.25).

If we put this together, the math equation would look like this: THC = U x (ML(.75) + SDC(.25)).

Here’s how the study put it:

Price variations are correlated to market leverage as measured by the relative market position of the hospital or provider group compared with other hospitals or provider groups within a geographic region or within a group of academic medical centers. 

While addressing the utilization component of the cost-growth problem is essential, any successful reform initiative must take into account the significant role of unit price in driving costs. Bending the cost curve will require tackling the growth in price and the market dynamics that perpetuate price inflation and lead to irrational price disparities.

But here is what the numbers say: between 2004 and 2017, adjusting for age and sex factors, 68 percent of the growth in overall national health care expenditures came from increases in medical prices. Only 32 percent of growth came from utilization of services.

In other words, pricing is more than twice as important as utilization in the growth of health care costs – costs that are increasing more rapidly than ever.

 

 

Put graphically, while we have two inputs into total health care costs or expenditures, it’s incorrect to think of them as weighted equally, as demonstrated in image 1 above. It’s more accurate to think of these two pieces weighted as shown in image 2. And, if we are honest about the role of market leverage in health care pricing, market leverage alone is more than half of the overall problem in health care costs – more than all of the service delivery costs and utilization combined.

 

Keeping the Titanic afloat

Let’s restate the challenge we face here in our trans-Atlantic metaphor. Cost is the biggest problem in health care today. Those costs are made up by pricing and utilization, where pricing is more than twice as impactful in cost growth as utilization, and where market leverage is three times more impactful to pricing than are service delivery costs.

In order to keep our health care system afloat, we must address costs. And to address costs, we must address pricing.  And to address pricing, we must address market leverage.

If we move every deck chair around, but fail to address the cost consequences of market leverage, our ship will sink.

In our capitalist economy, we view consolidated market leverage as a market failure. It’s why we have antitrust statutes and an active regulatory regime to manage and push back against consolidation. Where the market failure is in the area of a public good, the American political system has often regulated those consolidated markets like public utilities or quasi-public entities.

Think of energy and Enron, of railroads and BNSF, of telephones and Ma Bell.

As health care nears 20 percent of the US economy, and where even urban states like California suffer from a “staggering” concentration of market leverage among health care providers, the lesson for health care policymakers and senior health care executives is this: If you want to get your hands around cost, you’re going to have to address market leverage to do that. Everything else is just deck chairs.