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Working Paper Series
The Slowdown in Medicare Spending Growth
By Chapin White
The rate of so-called "excess" growth in Medicare spending per beneficiary has varied widely over the last several decades, and growth has slowed substantially in recent years. (Excess growth is defined as growth beyond the combination of the general rate of economic growth and the rate of change in the age composition among beneficiaries.) The annual rate of excess growth fell from 5.5 percent over the period from 1975 to 1983 to 0.9 percent over the period from 1992 to 2003. Changes in provider payment policies might help explain the observed slowdown. Those changes include the implementation of a prospective payment system for short-stay hospitals, and, more recently, the imposition of mechanisms to control aggregate Medicare physician spending. Possible alternative explanations-increases in managed care enrollment, changes in Medicare cost sharing, and a system-wide spending slowdown-do not account for the slowdown in Medicare spending. The slowdown is of an economically important magnitude and deserves further study.
The Boston Globe
August 2, 2006
Medicare eases fee cuts
By Stephen Heuser
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as CMS, released a massive document dictating how much it will reimburse hospitals for hundreds of medical procedures in 2007. Medicare pays $125 billion to hospitals nationwide each year, making it the single most important payer in the American healthcare system. Changes in its policies can trigger shifts in both the American hospital system and the medical-device industry.
The changes detailed yesterday are far less dramatic than the federal agency first proposed in April, when it said it was considering slashing payments for some heart-repair procedures by one-third, and cutting reimbursement for defibrillator implants by one-fifth.
Hospitals and healthcare companies have been watching Medicare unusually closely this year because the agency has launched a major change to the way it pays hospitals. Medicare pays a fixed amount for each type of procedure, and studies had found that those payments had become highly unbalanced. Hospitals were profiting on certain cases, such as cardiac procedures and orthopedic surgery, but losing money on others, such as stroke victims and lung patients.
The revision increases the amount Medicare pays overall by $3.4 billion.
But it shifts the money around in an effort to rebalance its payment system and clamp down on a new breed of hospitals that has emerged to take advantage of discrepancies in the system.
So-called "specialty hospitals," owned by doctors, concentrate on the most profitable procedures, such as coronary angioplasty and orthopedic surgery, leaving the bulk of less profitable medical care to community hospitals.
Comment: Everyone is concerned about the affordability of health care. We want the best care available, but we all realize that we cannot allow health care spending to bankrupt us. As a percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), we spend far more than any other nation on health care, currently 16.5 percent. There is a general consensus that we are ever closer to the threshold that can be tolerated.
Over the past few decades, innumerable efforts have been made to attempt to control the "excess" growth in spending, excess being defined as a rate of growth in health care spending in excess of the rate of growth of our GDP (corrected for demographics, etc.). This CBO study of the success of Medicare cost containment provides us with some very important lessons.
Some will be surprised to see what has not been effective. Managed care has had an insignificant impact within the Medicare program, and actually resulted in an increase in spending because of the higher rates paid for a lower-risk sector of patients. Cost sharing, the tool being touted by the consumer-directed health care advocates, also has not had any significant impact in reducing excess spending.
Perhaps the most important theory dispelled by this study is that the slowdown in Medicare spending represents a general slowdown of spending in our entire health care system. This analysis confirms that Medicare spending slowed while system-wide spending continued to increase at an excessive rate.
So what has worked? Adoption and continual refinement of provider payment policies such as the prospective payment system for hospitals and the sustainable growth rate formula for physicians have been effective. These are not perfect systems. Refinements have been made, and further changes are essential. The point is that they are designed specifically to provide value to the taxpayer while ensuring that our health care delivery system is adequately and fairly funded.
The Medicare payment document just released by CMS demonstrates how well this can work. Policies are being adopted that will reduce excess spending in some sectors while shifting funds to important services that were losing money, and further modifications were made based on input during the public comment period. Isn't that what we should expect from the stewards of our tax funds?
How does the private sector approach excess spending? It uses the blunt instrument of managed care: ratcheting down provider rates, erecting barriers to access, and now shifting often unaffordable costs to patients with needs. What is really ironic is that these mechanisms have failed to slow the increase in excess costs (except for the one-time impact of private-sector price controls).
What do you want: a government program that has a dynamic system of achieving the best value for our finite health care dollars, or a private, fragmented system that provides poor value and isn't even effective in controlling excess spending?