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Comparing Private Payer Prices to Medicare Rates

Private Payer Prices Relative to Medicare RatesTrust, but verify” is a memorable quote that President Ronald Reagan used while negotiating nuclear disarmament with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. According to Wikipedia, this quote was derived from a rhyming Russian proverb, Doveryai, no proveryai.

Trust, but verify” comes to mind in today’s healthcare environment, specifically as it relates to third-party price negotiations between commercial payers (insurance companies) and health providers. Since the prices we pay for non-government medical care are largely secretly negotiated in the backroom by insurers and providers, the TRUE payers (e.g. taxpayers, employers and consumers) often assume they are paying competitive prices for medical services. But they never really know just how much money is being left on the table – it’s anyone’s guess.

With a few exceptions, transparent medical pricing is virtually non-existent. For example, a family member of mine is scheduled to have a knee-replacement performed during this month, but despite our requests to learn the negotiated costs between our insurer and this provider, we were unable to obtain the true cost of the surgeon’s fee, in addition to many of the ancillary costs associated with this particular procedure. My mindset is quite simple: if we have to ask more than once about how much this will cost, then something is clearly not right with our supposedly ‘consumer-centric’ high-deductible health plan – supplemented by a health savings account. We have a $10,000 deductible, so we SHOULD know the true cost, right? But we don’t.

Additionally, we were offered the ‘choice’ between using the outpatient surgical center (owned by our surgeon’s group practice) versus having this procedure performed at a nearby West Des Moines hospital. When we asked the gracious office lady employed by the group practice about the price differential between the center and hospital, we received a blank stare that was followed with a promise that someone would be contacting us ‘soon’ with answers. Over two months later, we are still waiting for that promised phone call. But because we have insurance, our desire to become true ‘consumers’ is not that urgent. This will be fodder for future blogs!

To date, transparency-hype serves as a smokescreen to protect the status quo of pricing opaqueness. A great primer regarding opaqueness in healthcare pricing can be found at The Powers Report Podcast found here.

Linking Private Payment to Medicare Rates

In March of last year, I attended a conference in Indianapolis hosted by the Employers’ Forum of Indiana. The conference centered around a RAND Corp. research report that revealed a national employer-led initiative comparing private (commercial) reimbursements with known Medicare payments. In other words, how do privately-negotiated rates compare to the lower Medicare rates determined by our federal government? Claims data from almost 1,600 hospitals in 25 states were gathered and analyzed by RAND Corp. Iowa, by the way, was NOT represented in this study*.

Because there is little-to-no price transparency in the private/commercial payment sphere, RAND was forced to gather claims data from three types of data sources:

  1. Self-insured employers who chose to participate in the study.
  2. State-based, all-payer claims databases from Colorado and New Hampshire.
  3. Health plans (insurers) who chose to participate.

The key finding from the RAND study (comparing prices from 2015 to 2017) was that relative prices (which represent the allowed amount paid as a percentage of what Medicare would have paid for the same services) rose from 236 percent of Medicare rates in 2015 to 241 percent of Medicare rates in 2017. Put another way, assume that Medicare prices are at 100 percent, private reimbursements were well over double what Medicare pays hospitals for the same services.

Medicare payments are tied to average hospital costs. Some hospitals, due largely to efficient internal practices that result in lower costs, break even or make money on Medicare patients, while many less-efficient hospitals lose money.

The private reimbursement rates range widely from state-to-state, even when states are next to one another. For example, the RAND study found the average Michigan commercial payer price was 156 percent of Medicare rates, yet, their neighbor to the south, Indiana, was highest of all states with 311 percent of Medicare rates. Suffice it to say, Indiana employers in attendance at this conference where both shocked and upset about overpaying for care when compared to other employers outside Indiana.

Employers, specifically self-insured employers, have a fiduciary responsibility to spend prudently and are justifiably frustrated with ever-escalating healthcare costs that do not add value to their bottom line. Because of this, the RAND report is causing a snowballing effect with employers who wish to take a much more active role in directly negotiating and contracting with medical providers for better, more reliable and effective care. Employers are hoping to narrow the large gap between commercial and Medicare payment rates.

According to RAND, the implications of knowing this information allows employers new “opportunities to redesign their health benefits to better align hospital prices with the value of care provided. Employers can exert pressure on their health plans and hospitals to shift from discounted charge contracts to contracts based on a multiple of Medicare or other prospective case rates.”

What About Iowa Commercial Rates?

Because there were no self-insured employers from Iowa participating with RAND during the 2015 and 2017 studies, there is no information on how commercial payments in Iowa compare to Medicare rates and to other states. This, however, can certainly change if a few large, self-insured Iowa employers would voluntarily share their claims data with RAND* for future analysis. Sharing such data would provide proof that the commercial rates being paid in Iowa are competitive (or not) with other states when using Medicare rates as the measuring stick. Very large national organizations participating with RAND evidently trust that their claims data are highly guarded by RAND and will not be compromised due to HIPAA privacy concerns, etc.

In a perfect world, having completely transparent negotiated rates between commercial payers and providers would eventually become a game-changer on knowing just how competitive the prices are in Iowa and elsewhere. It is telling that research is necessary in order to learn whether or not the prices we pay to our healthcare providers are trusted to be appropriate. As President Reagan indicated a few decades ago, verification is a sound strategy.

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*Self-insured Iowa employers, if interested, can become part of the RAND Hospital Price Transparency Project for 2020-2021.

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