Monday, October 18, 2010

More on Hospital Market Dominance, Enabled by Secret Pricing

This week two more articles appeared describing how large hospital systems use market dominance to charge more.  Naturally, both were in news publications, not scholarly health services research journals.

San Francisco

Kaiser Health News (via the Contra Costa [CA] Times) discussed hospital market dominance in the San Francisco area.  The article documented how particular systems can command higher prices. Consider the example of John Muir Health vs San Ramon Medical Center:
Often, a hospital's dominance in an area helps determine how much it can charge, experts say. Consider John Muir Health, a two-hospital nonprofit system in the East Bay. With campuses in Concord and Walnut Creek, John Muir has the biggest footprint in the local hospital market, accounting for 54 percent of all the acute care inpatient stays in 2009, more than any other hospital group, according to state data.

The hospital with the weakest market penetration is San Ramon Medical Center, a Tenet-owned, for-profit hospital, with 10 percent of the acute care inpatients.

The least the insurer Aetna paid John Muir for an outpatient colonoscopy was $3,185, according to Aetna's website, which tracks two years of payments. Aetna paid $1,483 to San Ramon Regional Medical Center for the same service. The least Aetna paid John Muir for an uncomplicated birth was $7,722, while its lowest price for a birth at San Ramon was $5,278.

Yet on broad quality measures, John Muir's hospitals generally score no better than San Ramon's, according to the California Hospitals and Reporting Taskforce, a nonprofit that produces hospital report cards published at

San Ramon ranks equal to John Muir's Walnut Creek campus in most major measures, including mortality rates in the intensive care units, overall patient satisfaction and maternity care. John Muir's Concord campus ranks below San Ramon on several measures, including mortality rate and patient experience, though John Muir was rated better in avoiding complications for patients on ventilators.

Then there is Sutter Health:
[Stanford University associate vice president for Benefits Les] Schlaegel says so many employees like to see doctors at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, a doctors' organization affiliated with Sutter with a clinic near the Stanford campus, that the university feels obliged to keep offering insurance networks that include Sutter.

'Sutter basically has a stranglehold on Northern California,' says Schlaegel. 'They are strategically situated, both for hospitals and medical groups. They know purchasers need them. When you are strategically located, you can say 'this is our price and you can pay it.''

Secret Pricing
The ability of dominant hospitals to charge higher prices is facilitated by secrecy in which hospital pricing is cloaked
The hospitals haven't made it easy for consumers to comparison shop. State law requires hospitals to reveal their charges for specific services. But those charges don't reflect the lower negotiated rates insurers actually pay - rates hospitals usually insist be kept secret. The California Hospital Association has opposed legislation to ban such 'gag clauses'; the most recent of these bills died in the state Assembly in August.

Hospitals have also resisted a four-year campaign by the Pacific Business Group on Health, an employer coalition, and CalPERS to create a 'hospital value initiative' that would allow hospital comparison based on cost and quality of care.

In many cases, hospitals are able to keep raising prices beyond inflation because their sizes or reputations give them clout in negotiating rates with insurers, researchers say. Yet high prices don't always equate with superior care.

Quality measures for some of the Bay Area's most prestigious hospitals, including Stanford and John Muir, show that in some instances, less expensive competitors perform as well or better in their basic responsibilities, such as avoiding infections and high death rates for patients in intensive care.

'Some hospitals are able to charge higher prices than the market normally would bear, even without providing higher quality,' says Dr. R. Adams Dudley, a professor of medicine and health policy at the University of California, San Francisco. 'That means they're getting those higher prices without really offering more to patients or the rest of society.'
New York City

Meanwhile, a long feature story in New York magazine about the demise of St Vincent's hospital (see our post here) also discussed the market power of its competitors as one factor in its decline:
The city’s largest and most powerful hospitals, which are crucial to an insurer’s customers, exert their leverage to secure deals that are believed to pay well above the average margin; smaller hospitals, which are often located in low-income neighborhoods, have little choice but to accept the dismal rates dictated by insurers if they want to remain in the insurers’ plans. 'When the big players take their cut, there are only scraps left for everyone else,' says the CEO of an outer-borough hospital. “'United HealthCare couldn’t care less about having my hospital in their network. They tell me to take it or leave it.
Secret Prices

Like in California, market dominance is enabled by secret pricing:
the rates negotiated between hospitals and insurance providers are withheld from public scrutiny—even state health and insurance regulators are denied the information
Free Markets?

Secret prices determined by market power hardly sound like characteristics of a free market. Yet in New York, at least, they seem partially to be the result of the free market ideology of previous political leaders:
Then George Pataki took office in 1995, determined to allow hospitals to test their mettle in the free market by negotiating their own terms with insurers. It turned out to be an exercise in shock-therapy capitalism. Inexperienced at the bargaining table, hospitals engaged in intramural rivalry with each other, cutting unfavorable deals with insurers in order to hold on to patients in the short term. With their already thin margins pared down further by deregulation, many hospitals soon built up paralyzing debt loads. Even the largest and seemingly least vulnerable facilities decided that their best hope for survival was to get bigger. A flurry of mergers and buyouts ensued, and by the end of the nineties, the hospital system began to assume its current bewildering patchwork of partnerships and affiliations. Columbia Presbyterian and New York Hospital, both attached to elite medical schools, joined forces. NYU and Mount Sinai forged a deal (it later came undone). On the eastern edge of the city, North Shore hospitals merged with nearby Long Island Jewish, staking out an enormous swath of the hospital market on Long Island, Queens, and Staten Island. Beth Israel and St. Luke’s–Roosevelt, debt-ridden and left on the sidelines by the major academic hospitals, decided to try making a go of it together. It was unclear if bigger was actually better—for patients or the bottom line—but size seemed to offer hospitals a buffer against collapse.

By 2005, less than a decade into its dalliance with free enterprise, the city’s hospital system had taken on something of a post-Soviet tinge, with winners ruling the roost like oligarchs and losers reduced to a state of grim dependency. A pecking order emerged, with elite academic centers at the top, well-regarded independent hospitals like Lenox Hill in the middle, and community hospitals on the bottom.

We have previously written (for example, here and here) about how increasing market dominance by large, sometimes strategically located, and sometimes politically well-connected (e.g., see here) hospital systems run by conflicted leaders. This seems like another unintended consequence of the "free markets solve all problems" ideology, possibly fueled by conflicts of interest that has done so badly in our financial arena (see here). What some of these free market enthusiasts seem to forget, their forgetfulness perhaps fueled by payments received from the large corporations that have profited from this movement, are that true free markets are hard to maintain. This is particularly so in health care, in which knowledge is asymetric, outcomes are uncertain, and sick and anxious patients have trouble making cool, rational choices (as per Arrow, see this post.)

But if the free market enthusiasts really believe in free markets, why have they not been out campaigning to prevent the "unfree" characteristics, like secret pricing, of current health care markets?  Of course, ending secret pricing might compromise the ability of their financial sponsors to keep earning their millions


pjacob said...

Dr. Poses,

I believe you have enough material to write a compelling book. With the right editorial marketing, your ideas would have a far bigger audience in book format, hence increasing the blog's relevance.

I completely agree with you on this case (although disagreeing on so many others).

Free markets mean they are free for the people profiting, and government is expected to help with the losses. That's what our free market system means.

Riz said...

such a valued and informative post..regards

Anonymous said...

The disgust is brewing:

Anonymous said...

I sincerely hope that everyone who understands what the medical "free market" is really like will get out and vote against those candidates who want to repeal health care reform and bring the "free market" back. The health care reform law may not be perfect, far from it, but it goes along way to stopping travesties like this.


John Mitchel said...

I would like to believe that everyone knows what they are doing. I's so sad.