Hospital consolidation and the Affordable Care Act

New Evidence of the Association between Hospital Market Concentration and Higher Prices and Profits

By James C. Robinson, PhD, University of California, Berkeley
National Institute for Health Care Management, November 2011

After a swell of hospital mergers and acquisitions in the 1990s, the industry has again been experiencing significant consolidation as large hospital systems have bought up smaller systems and stand-alone hospitals left vulnerable by the recession. The local and regional chains resulting from consolidation typically wield greater bargaining leverage than do stand-alone facilities. The evidence from several decades of research on this topic shows higher hospital prices following consolidation and recent work documents how large hospital systems serving multiple markets are able to extract higher prices for all facilities in their chain, not just in markets where they are dominant.

Two provisions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) have brought new attention to the issue of hospital market power. First, because the ACA coverage expansions will be financed in part by slowing the rate of increase in Medicare payment updates, there is concern that hospitals with as yet unexploited pricing leverage will attempt to recoup some of the lost Medicare revenue by raising prices to private insurers. Second, the integration of hospitals and physicians into the accountable care organizations (ACOs) encouraged by the health reform legislation is expected to accelerate provider consolidation in local markets. Indeed, hospitals are already consolidating with physicians at a fast clip, and many observers are asking whether this integration will give hospitals (and physicians) additional pricing power vis-à-vis private payers.

In this essay I present findings from a new study that adds another piece of evidence to support concerns over hospital consolidation and market power. Specifically, using individual level data from 61 hospitals for patients treated during 2008 for any of six high-cost inpatient cardiac or orthopedic procedures, I show that hospitals in concentrated markets charge significantly higher prices to private payers than do their peers in more competitive markets. Furthermore, these prices are significantly above their direct costs of providing care.

The work reported here confirms earlier studies showing that hospitals are able to extract higher private payments when they hold more market power. Public policy has been ambivalent with respect to the ongoing consolidation within hospital markets. While antitrust regulatory agencies have challenged a number of hospital mergers in the past few decades, these challenges rarely culminated in decisions to disallow a merger. Now provisions of the ACA are encouraging further consolidation of hospitals and physicians, and the final antitrust review regulations from the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have eliminated the proposed mandatory review of certain prospective ACOs.

It will take some time to see what types of ACOs are allowed to form and how they will affect the competitive structure within their markets. It is clear, however, that the ongoing consolidation of local hospital markets is already frustrating the efforts of employers and private insurers to moderate the growth of health care costs. While the use of administered pricing systems largely insulates public payers from the effects of provider market power, the higher reimbursement rates that dominant providers can extract from private payers during rate negotiations put significant upward pressure on private premiums. In response, employers and other purchasers of private coverage have begun demonstrating a new willingness to accept limits on their health plan’s provider network, and private insurers are developing new products using tiered networks that exclude or disadvantage providers judged to not deliver value commensurate with their higher prices.


By Don McCanne, MD

The increase in hospital market concentration has resulted in higher prices with enormous profits, simply due to the boost in leverage that consolidation of hospitals has had in price negotiations with private insurers. How will the Affordable Care Act impact this?

The Federal Trade Commission will be relaxing antitrust review of provider consolidation in order to allow greater freedom for accountable care organizations to experiment with delivery system reform. Consolidation will likely increase.

To counter this, private insurers are already developing new products such as those with tiered networks which will penalize patients financially if they use the dominant providers in their communities.

So the intent is to improve quality and the cost effectiveness of health care by encouraging integration of the health care providers, as through accountable care organizations, yet we will be seeing higher costs and higher profits as a result. That inevitably means that premiums for the private health plans will be higher - a problem that the Affordable Care Act was supposed to address.

What is the link that causes this unintended perversity? It is the insistence of our policymakers that the private insurers be included as the financial intermediaries. Plenty of studies have now shown that the private insurers do not have negotiating clout in markets with provider consolidation. So why should we continue to include them, especially when they waste so much in imposing a huge administration burden, while taking away patients' choices of health care providers?

The government does have the leverage to get the pricing right. We should have it representing all of us in obtaining the best value for our national health expenditures. An improved Medicare for everyone is the vehicle that we need.