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Changing the structure of health care delivery systems: to benefit the patient, the providers, or the insurers?

By Joshua Freeman, M.D.
Medicine and Social Justice blog, Jan. 12, 2014

In an important series of three articles beginning on the Sunday before the New Year, “Doctors Inc.”, Alan Bavley of the Kansas City Star looked at the increasing acquisition of physician practices by hospitals, and the impact this has on access to, quality of, and cost of health care for patients. The first article, “Medicine goes corporate as more physicians join hospital payrolls,” describes the “what,” that:

“Since 2000, the number of doctors on hospital payrolls nationwide has risen by one-third, according to the American Hospital Association. In the Kansas City area, fully 55 percent of physicians are now employed by hospitals, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City estimates. That includes virtually all cardiologists and most cancer specialists.” 

These changes are not limited to the KC area; he cites both national data and that from disparate regions such as Spartanburg, SC, and Phoenix, AZ. Part of the reason, the "financial model", which is described in this first article, is that such “integrated” practices generate internal referrals, keeping patients within the system, as well as generating lucrative procedures. Physicians get a piece of the action; they get guaranteed salaries paid in part by the hospital or health system which is getting downstream revenue for their referrals.

And it makes these hospitals and health systems a lot of money, because they can now charge a lot more money. Bavley quotes “Robert Zirkelbach, vice president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association. ‘When a hospital buys a practice, its rates will increase in the following year’s contract. Increases of 20, 30 or 40 percent are not uncommon. It’s not 3 or 4 percent, that is for sure.’” 

It is also not always good for patients, as Bavley illustrates with examples of people who were referred internally and had delayed diagnosis. (One story discusses a woman discouraged from going to the academic medical center at which I work – full disclosure – for a second opinion regarding her lung cancer; the "reasons" given were both that she “didn’t have time”, and because she would see “young doctors still in training”.) Sometimes it is fine to see doctors within the system, and certainly this can be, and is, encouraged, but discouraging people from seeking outside referrals can also be hazardous to their health.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) encourages the creation of “Accountable Care Organizations” (ACOs), which would be responsible (at least hopefully, in the best of scenarios) for the health of a population. At a minimum, they would seek to decrease the degree to which the delivery of health care is a series of episodic events paid for individually, instead taking on a global responsibility including inpatient, outpatient, and long-term care. This would, in theory, change the usual patient experience from seeing one (or many) doctors or having one (or many) ER visits, each charged and paid separately, culminating in a hospitalization, and then discharge to one (or many) doctors, or a long-term care facility (paid separately), and failure of care resulting in readmission to the hospital (paid again). The idea is that all levels would be coordinated to provide the best care at the most appropriate (inpatient, outpatient, long-term, home based) level.  In some settings, particularly for fully-integrated plans (where the providers of care are also the insurers) such as Kaiser, this works relatively well.

However, as Bavley makes clear in his series, written as part of a yearlong Reporting Fellowship on Health Care Performance sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists and supported by The Commonwealth Fund, particularly in the second article, “’Facility fees’ add billions to medical bills”, there is often a great cost to those who are paying, the patient and their insurer (including Medicare and Medicaid). This is because Medicare (and, following their lead, private insurers) pays an additional fee (the "facility fee") for services, and especially procedures, done in a hospital outpatient facility beyond what they would pay for it to be done in a doctor’s office. (This is also addressed in the series by Elisabeth Rosenthal, "The $2.7 Trillion Medical Bill" in the New York Times.) 

Why? The original intent (as is often the case) was good, intended to both save money and improve care, by having many procedures done in outpatient rather than inpatient settings, where the cost would be even higher. And (as also so often is the case) the providers realized that this system could be gamed as well. The physician fee for a visit or procedure done in an office is greater than that done in a hospital clinic, but is expected to include all the overhead. In a hospital-based clinic (which just has to be owned by the hospital or health system; it doesn’t have to be on the campus and can be in the same doctor’s office that used to be separate) there is a somewhat lower doctor's fee, but there is also a facility fee that, together with the doctor’s fee, is much higher in total than the office-based reimbursement; indeed, the facility fee can be far higher than the physician fee. Thus, the hospital makes money, and can share some of that with the physician, allowing the physician to make a lot more money without the overhead and risk. Voilà! Physicians are incented to become employed by hospitals!

I am a doctor and work in a medical center, so I understand the impetus for this from the point of view of providers, both doctors and hospitals. Medicare is ratcheting down its reimbursement, and a particular form of support for hospitals caring for a disproportionate share of uninsured is being cut back, and operating margins for many hospitals are getting thin or negative. Doctors are making less money (arguably some of them were making far too much, but they still don’t like making less) and will thus endorse efforts to have hospitals support them and maintain their incomes. The problem is that the cost to consumers goes up, especially when co-pays and co-insurances that come out of patients’ pockets, even when they are insured, go ever upward. 

Medicare is, sadly, responsible for much of this situation, as illustrated by the following: seeking to reduce costs for unnecessary admissions, Medicare has empowered bounty hunters (called “RACs”) to go after Medicare “fraud” by reviewing admissions to hospitals for patients who could have been care for in the hospital on “observation” status, which will save Medicare money. Hospitals are thus very careful to only officially “admit” people who meet very strict criteria. However, because “observation” status is officially “outpatient”, while Medicare saves money the patient pays more out of pocket, because this is under Medicare Part B, not the Part A that covers hospitalization. Complicated, but what it comes down to is what is financially good for Medicare is financially bad for the patient. Is this what we want?

I hope not. Yes, some of the fault is Medicare, and the fault is also providers (hospitals and doctors) seeking to maximize profit (even if “not-for-profit”) by manipulating the rules of the system. The fault is that we have Rube Goldberg-type complex constructs put in place to encourage behavior by providers, and providers are figuring out ways to work the system to their benefit. The real problem is that we do not have a straightforward system to deliver the highest-quality, necessary, health care to all people but a mess of conflicting incentives where gain to one component (i.e., insurers) is a loss to another (i.e., providers) and that they then take actions that benefit them and the overall loser is the patient. Bavley quotes an email from a board member of a hospital system to the Chief Financial Officer that said “Let’s be realistic. Employing physicians is not achieving better cost, it’s achieving better profit.”

That is not what our national health policy should be doing. A health system that did not permit gaming but straightforwardly paid for health care,  and eliminated the profit motive, would solve these problems. The answer is to put everyone in Medicare, in a single-payer system, so some patients are not “more desirable” than others. And to have Medicare, which is now covering everyone, pay for the appropriate level of care for every patient, where doctors and hospitals have no incentive to label a person’s hospitalization as “admission” or “observation”, or an outpatient visit as “hospital based” or “office based” because there is a difference in the reimbursement.

It can be done. It is done in Canada. It is done in some fashion in every other developed country. If we decide that the health of our people is more important than the profit of the health care industry, we can do it also. 

Dr. Joshua Freeman is chairman of the department of family medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine and a member of Physicians for a National Health Program (www.pnhp.org).

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