New Study Reveals Where Healthcare Costs Are Rising

Higher prices charged by hospitals, outpatient centers and other providers drove up healthcare spending at twice the rate of inflation during the financial crisis – even as patients sought less medical care, according to the first-ever Health Care Cost and Utilization Report. According to Kaiser Health News, prices rose five times faster than the inflation rate for emergency room visits, outpatient surgery and facility-based mental health care from 2009 to 2010, according to the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI), a nonpartisan research group funded by insurers.  Prices fell only in nursing home care, which declined by 3.2 percent in the cost per admission.  Rather surprisingly, the fastest growing spending was in children’s medical care.

“The story really does seem to be prices,” said Martin Gaynor, chair of the institute’s governing board and a healthcare economist at Carnegie Mellon University.  One of the most comprehensive analyses at real claim payments made by insurers, the study’s findings raise questions about the nation’s $2.6 trillion annual healthcare bill: Why are medical services costs rising significantly faster than inflation?  Is the fast increase in spending on children a glitch, or a long-standing drift with major implications for future costs?  “If you don’t know what the cause is, you don’t know what the right policy lever is (for a solution),” Gaynor said.

The study’s results are based on nearly three billion claims paid by Aetna, Humana and UnitedHealthcare for 33 million people with employer-based insurance.  The data represent approximately 20 percent of the people with insurance nationally, but do not include spending for people who are on Medicare, Medicaid or those who purchase private policies.

According to the report, people with job-based insurance “are paying more and getting less,” said Chapin White, a senior researcher at the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan think tank.  Hospitals and other medical providers “just seem to be able to raise prices faster than general inflation.”

“This is an important study that clearly demonstrates that rising prices for medical services are driving health care cost growth,” said Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry lobby. “Reducing medical costs is essential to making health care coverage more affordable for individuals, families, and employers.”

Before this treasure trove of data was available, researchers have relied on far smaller surveys of employers or on government claims statistics from Medicare, which primarily covers Americans over age 65.

Healthcare researchers have wondered why, after more than 10 years of startling growth, healthcare spending is now rising more slowly.  The researchers’ numbers lend support to one of the most popular theories: People are using less healthcare.  According to the report, between 2009 and 2010, people with employer-sponsored insurance had 3.3 percent fewer admissions to hospitals and other medical facilities, 3.1 percent fewer “outpatient” visits, and virtually no change in the number of procedures performed at physicians’ offices.  There was a slight increase in procedures performed at medical facilities, which rose by two percent, and use of prescription drugs, which went up by just under one percent.

“People had speculated that there was a decline in utilization, but by analyzing over three billion claims we now know not only the trend but the magnitude of the trend,” said David Newman, the institute’s executive director.  “It’s one thing to believe something, it’s a completely different thing to actually know it.”

If these tendencies continue, Gaynor said, “we may need to think about where we’re directing our policies” to control costs.  That’s because healthcare reform initiatives like accountable care organizations — networks of hospitals and doctors that will work together to coordinate patients’ care and cut out unnecessary services — may not help if they’re still charging more for those services.  Gaynor suggested that it might be worthwhile to keep a closer eye on consolidation in the health care sector — since larger hospitals and health systems might have the leverage to demand higher prices from insurers. He also said it might be more effective to regulate prices or increase the portion of health costs insured people pay so that they demand better deals.

Although the insurers whose data was analyzed provided “seed funding” for the study, they did not limit the questions that researchers can ask and have no control over what they produce, Gaynor said.  The group plans to update the database with more-recent claims and make the information available for further study.  “There’s been an awful lot of consolidation in certain sectors of the healthcare industry, and we know that tends to lead to higher prices, but we can’t draw any conclusions yet,” Gaynor said.

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