Cost shifting vs. Cost Saving

Ezekiel Emanuel has a commentary in the New York Times criticizing plans to convert Medicare to vouchers (aka ‘premium support.’ He reminds us that we really need to control costs – not merely shift them. Austin Frakt of The Incidental Economist has also just wrapped up a series on Medicare premium support – which points out that premium support could be designed so that it didn’t cost shift (although that seems unlikely given political realities).

We have a multi-payer system, and there are many opportunities to shift costs from one party to another. No value is created in the system by cost shifting. Private health plans and the government both practice robust cost-shifting in our system. They do this because it is far easier to shift costs than to genuinely lower costs.

The Affordable Care Act takes aim at some of the cost shifting in the current health care market. However, it does not do nearly enough. It’s possible that regulatory action alone won’t be the cure for cost shifting.

Let me review some additional examples of cost shifting in the US health care system:

Medicaid Underpayment

Medicaid pays quite low rates in many states to most providers – rate that are below the real cost of providing care. Providers bill extra to private insurers to make up this shortfall. The state balances its budget by cutting Medicaid provider payments, but this makes private health insurance in the state even more expensive. Employers who might benefit from a tax subsidy that forces budget cutbacks pay for the health care of the uninsured through a nontransparent extra fee added to their health care premiums. Voila. Costs are shifted.

The Affordable Care Act addressed a very small segment of this problem by fixing Medicaid primary care payments and Medicare rates for a limited period of time with full federal funding.

However, states continue to ratchet down Medicaid fees to address their current budget shortfalls. More cost shifting is in the wind.

Dependent Audits

Many employers have been performing audits to be sure that their employees are not enrolling ineligible dependents. That makes sense – why should the employer pay for an uncle or a godchild that is not an actual dependent? On the other hand, when ineligible dependents are removed, there is no cost saving in the health care system unless they no longer access care. The cost is merely shifted to another party – in some cases to ‘free care’ which is an invisible surcharge on all health care charges.

The Affordable Care Act specifies that children up to age 26 can stay on their parents’ health plan regardless of college status, work status, and even their own marital status. This is not very expensive – since the average cost of those between 18-26 is very low. It gets rid of a whole series of administrative hurtles to coverage – so that parents don’t have to get paperwork from their children’s college.

Medicaid Funding

Many states have developed ingenious ways to get the Federal government to pay for a larger portion of total medical care. Massachusetts managed to get Medicaid to fund replacement of a University of Massachusetts hospital fascade based on some fancy legislative dance in 2001.  In some instances, states agreeing to pay providers a higher fee (with the feds picking up more than half of the cost). Then, the states tax the providers to recoup some (but not all) of the excess costs. The total cost of medical care goes up, but the state has constrained its own outlays.

Lifetime Limits

One thing that’s certain about hemophiliacs is that without blood factor concentrates they will have bleeding episodes, which can threaten their lives and cripple their joints. Many hemophiliacs require over $100,000 in biopharmaceuticals each year – so it’s easy to hit lifetime limits very quickly. This is a cost shift either to patients (few of whom could afford this) or more likely to state Medicaid programs, for which some hemophiliacs qualify if they hit the lifetime maximum in their employer-sponsored plan. The Affordable Care Act eliminated lifetime maximums as of this year – although there are still some employers who are “grandfathered” and will be allowed to maintain
Mini-Med Plans

These are health plans with very low premiums which pay benefits up to a very low total limit – as little as $5000 or even $1000. They are marketed to low-wage employees –often in retail or service industries, and often by companies that for competitive reasons simply can’t afford to pay the employer share of a more conventional health plan. The problem is that this is “upside down” insurance, which max out if a member has any significant illness at all. If a member gets leukemia – costs are not “controlled,” but are shifted to the patient, or again to state Medicaid plans if the member qualifies after hitting the employer plan maximum.

Raising Eligibility Age for Medicare

Austin Frakt has previously published data showing that raising Medicare eligibility age would save the federal government $5.7 billion, while it would cost individuals and businesses $11.4 million. A bad deal indeed.

Not all cost shifting is necessarily evil – and there are some examples which seek to change behavior by making health plan members responsible for a larger share of the costs.
For instance, reference pricing requires that health plan beneficiaries pay for any excess cost if they get elective care from providers who charge more than an allowed amount. These can save money for employers by shifting costs to the employees – but can also save money in the system by encouraging beneficiaries to choose lower cost providers. Reference pricing thus saves money for health plan sponsors through a mixture of cost shifting and actual cost saving.

Advocates also suggest that high deductible health plans save money through encouraging more responsible resource use. Studies have shown consistently that these plans do overall reduce utilization, but recent studies also suggest that these plans reduce both unnecessary and beneficial care.
Cost shifting will be a continued reality in our fragmented, multipayer system. Shifting costs to others is almost always easier than genuinely lowering health care costs, so we’ll need to continue to develop regulations to discourage cost-shifting. The Affordable Care Act is at least a start.

The managed care indicator will return with the next post.