By Austin Frakt
Even a divided America can agree on this goal: a health system that is cheaper but doesn’t sacrifice quality. In other words, just get rid of the waste.
A new study, published Monday in JAMA, finds that roughly 20 percent to 25 percent of American health care spending is wasteful. It’s a startling number but not a new finding. What is surprising is how little we know about how to prevent it.
William Shrank, a physician who is chief medical officer of the health insurer Humana and the lead author of the study, said, “One contribution of our study is that we show that we have good evidence on how to eliminate some kinds of waste, but not all of it.”
Following the best available evidence, as reviewed in the study, would eliminate only one-quarter of the waste — reducing health spending by about 5 percent.
Because American health spending is so high — almost 18 percent of the economy and over $10,000 per person per year — even small percentages in savings translate into huge dollars.
The estimated waste is at least $760 billion per year. That’s comparable to government spending on Medicare and exceeds national military spending, as well as total primary and secondary education spending.
If we followed the evidence available, we would save about $200 billion per year, about what is spent on the medical care for veterans, the Department of Education and the Department of Energy, combined. That amount could provide health insurance for at least 20 million Americans, or three-quarters of the currently uninsured population.
The largest source of waste, according to the study, is administrative costs, totaling $266 billion a year. This includes time and resources devoted to billing and reporting to insurers and public programs. Despite this high cost, the authors found no studies that evaluate approaches to reducing it.
Moving to a single-payer system, he suggested, would largely eliminate the vast administrative complexity required by attending to the payment and reporting requirements of various private payers and public programs. But doing so would run up against powerful stakeholders whose incomes derive from the status quo. “What stands in the way of reducing waste — especially administrative waste and out-of-control prices — is much more a lack of political will than a lack of ideas about how to do it.”
While the lead author works for Humana, he also has experience in government and academia, and this is being seen as a major attempt to refine previous studies of health care waste. Reflecting the study’s importance, JAMA published several accompanying editorials. A co-author of one editorial, Ashish Jha of the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said: “It’s perfectly possible to reduce administrative waste in a system with private insurance. In fact, Switzerland, the Netherlands and other countries with private payers have much lower administrative costs than we do. We should focus our energies on administrative simplification, not whether it’s in a single-payer system or not.”
After administrative costs, prices are the next largest area that the JAMA study identified as waste. The authors’ estimate for this is $231 billion to $241 billion per year, on prices that are higher than what would be expected in more competitive health care markets or if we imposed price controls common in many other countries. The study points to high brand drug prices as the major contributor. Although not explicitly raised in the study, consolidated hospital markets also contribute to higher prices.
A variety of approaches could push prices downward, but something might be lost in doing so. “High drug prices do motivate investment and innovation,” said Rachel Sachs, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.
That doesn’t mean all innovation is good or worth the price. “It means we should be aware of how we reduce prices, taking into consideration which kinds of products and which populations it might affect,” she said.
Likewise, studies show that when hospitals are paid less, quality can degrade, even leading to higher mortality rates.
With more than half of medical treatments lacking solid evidence of effectiveness, it’s not surprising that these areas add up to a large total. They include things like hospital-acquired infections; use of high-cost services when lower-cost ones would suffice; low rates of preventive care; avoidable complications and avoidable hospital admissions and readmissions; and services that provide little to no benefit.
In addition to wasting money, these problems can have direct adverse health effects; lead to unwarranted patient anxiety and stress; and lower patient satisfaction and trust in the health system.
Here the study’s findings are relatively more optimistic. It found evidence on approaches that could eliminate up to half of waste in these categories. The current movement toward value-based payment, promoted by the Affordable Care Act, is intended to address these issues while removing their associated waste. The idea is to pay hospitals and doctors in ways that incentivize efficiency and good outcomes, rather than paying for every service regardless of need or results.
Putting this theory into practice has proved difficult. “Value-based payment hasn’t been as effective as people had hoped,” said Karen Joynt Maddox, a physician and co-director of the Center for Health Economics and Policy at Washington University in St. Louis and a co-author of another editorial of the JAMA study.
So far, only a few value-based payment approaches seem to produce savings, and not a lot. Some of the more promising approaches are those that give hospitals and doctors a single payment “as opposed to paying for individual services,” said Zirui Song, a physician and a health economist with Harvard Medical School.
“Savings tend to come from physicians referring patients to lower-priced facilities or cutting back on potentially lower-value care in areas such as procedures, tests or post-acute service,” he said.