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February 9, 2016

Why Healthcare Costs Rise So Fast

Summary:

Healthcare costs keep rising faster than general inflation because employers are afraid of even a few complaints by disrupted employees.

Photo Courtesy of Presidencia de la República Mexicana

This is the first of a two-part series, by David Toomey and me, on why healthcare cost growth has historically been much higher that general inflation. 

If you want to truly understand why corporate healthcare costs have risen faster than nearly anything else over the past 40 years, read this article.

In 2001, David was managing large accounts for a major carrier/TPA (third-party administrator) when the largest hospital system in the market issued a notice to terminate its relationship with the carrier, to begin negotiating for higher unit prices. (When hospitals want a very high fee increase, they sometimes start the process by terminating participation in a carrier’s network.) This notice began a tumultuous series of negotiations that involved the local press. The fee increase demanded by the hospital system was high single digits, above market and highly inflationary for the area. This system was already paid a premium because of its large market presence.

David moved quickly to engage major self-insured clients and educated them on the cost impact. They told him to hold firm, as they could not absorb the increases. When asked what they would do if this major hospital was not in the network of the carrier that employed David, many responded that they would turn to another carrier so as not to disrupt employees who used the hospital system!

There were no questions by employers on the quality of the hospital’s care or on its commitment to process improvement. Although they realized that they could not really afford the higher prices, they felt that avoiding disrupting employees (even in a fairly minor way, by having them use a different hospital system) trumps company profits and affordable payroll deductions. That position meant David had no leverage at all in negotiating with the hospital system.

As a result, employer and employee health costs ratcheted up in that market. That’s too bad, but this story is the norm.

We’ve seen this same scenario continuously in our careers. Even if a hospital or clinic is used by fewer than 5% to 10% of a company’s employees, getting complaints from employees—even just a few—trumps corporate profits, shareholder returns, rising payroll deductions, restraining rising deductibles and rising employee out-of-pocket health costs. Even though self-insured employers are the ultimate purchasers of healthcare, they usually just roll over when providers keep raising their charges year after year.

In every market, by definition, half the providers are below average. While company benefit managers profess to want the best-quality care for their employees, they willingly accept larger fee increases from the worst providers. Why? Avoiding a few employee complaints has always been more important than deleting poor-quality providers, ones with a high rate of harming patients. (By “harming patients,” we mean providers with high rates of misdiagnoses, high rates of prescribing bad or suboptimal treatment plans and high rates of infections, some of which are deadly.)

Sally Welborn, head of benefits for Walmart Stores, recently called for self-insured employers to take the lead in reforming how providers are paid and in making hard, value-based purchasing decisions. (The term “value” excludes providers that have a high rate of misdiagnosed patients and give them profitable but unnecessary treatments.)

Soon, you can read Part Two on how employers can obtain value from the provider community.

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About the Author

Tom Emerick is president of Emerick Consulting and cofounder of EdisonHealth and Thera Advisors.  Emerick’s years with Wal-Mart Stores, Burger King, British Petroleum and American Fidelity Assurance have provided him with an excellent blend of experience and contacts.

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