Employer-sponsored health plans paid on average 224% of what Medicare paid to hospitals for the same services at the same facilities, according to a new study from RAND Corporation. The report covers billing for hospital inpatient and outpatient services in 2020.
The study said that there were significant variances in prices across states or geographic areas and added that the difference in cost seemed to be linked to hospital market share rather than hospitals’ share of Medicare and Medicaid patients.
The researchers found that in Hawaii, Arkansas, and Washington, relative prices were under 175% of Medicare, while other in states, such as Florida, West Virginia, and South Carolina, relative prices were at or above 310% of Medicare.
In addition, the study found that prices for COVID-19 hospitalization were similar to prices for overall inpatient admissions and averaged 241% of what was paid for Medicare patients.
“Employers can use this report to become better-informed purchasers of health benefits,” said Christopher Whaley, the study’s lead author and a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “This work also highlights the levels and variation in hospital prices paid by employers and private insurers, and thus may help policymakers who may be looking for strategies to curb health care spending.”
Cost variation: a “defining characteristic” of US health care
The researchers described the wide variation in prices paid for medical services as “a defining characteristic of the U.S. health care system.”
In 2019, the study said, spending on hospital services accounted for 37% of total health care spending for privately insured Americans and came to approximately $434 billion. “Hospital price increases are key drivers of growth in per capita spending among the privately insured,” the study added.
RAND researchers found the difference between employer prices and Medicare prices was actually a bit lower since a previous study in 2018, when employers paid 247% of Medicare costs. The researchers said the change was because of an increase in claims among states that generally pay lower rates for hospital costs.
Transparency in pricing has been a challenge for the health care industry. Despite efforts by both providers and government regulators to create more transparency, both employers and consumers lack useful information on pricing. And the public data that does exist has gaps, due in part to the fact that many hospitals have not yet complied with recent regulatory requirements.
An Indiana case study: employer pressure lowered prices
The study concludes by looking at efforts in some states to address relatively high hospital prices. In Indiana, employers in the Fort Wayne area were able to prompt price changes at the Parkview Health System in that community, which the RAND study had identified as having some of the highest prices in the country.
“Equipped with information on negotiated prices, employers were able to place pressure on a large hospital system and TPAs to achieve lower prices for their workforce,” the study said. “Other employer and policymaker pressures in Indiana led the Indiana University Health system to announce plans to reduce prices to the national average rate.”
Hospital association response: “Unfounded conclusions”
The American Hospital Association (AHA), however, quickly released a statement saying the RAND conclusions were an over-reach and unfounded.
“The report looks at claims for just 2.2% of overall hospital spending, which, no matter how you slice it, represents a small share of what actually happens in hospitals and health systems in the real world,” said AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack. “Researchers should expect variation in the cost of delivering services across the wide range of U.S. hospitals – from rural critical access hospitals to large academic medical centers. Tellingly, when RAND added more claims as compared to previous versions of this report, the average price for hospital services declined.”