There are many reliable research statistics from the private sector and the federal agencies that support the evidence that medical costs are rising and the current pace is unsustainable. Medical cost trend has two primary components, the number of services provided to patients (utilization) and the cost of each of those services (unit cost). While utilization management can be important for achieving cost savings, some employers are now giving further attention to the significant price variation in unit cost. Chart 1 below provides an example of the price variation using the average reimbursement as a percentage of Medicare in Buffalo, New York; Indianapolis, Indiana; Ventura, California; and nationwide. As shown, going from Buffalo to Indianapolis reflects an 80% increase in cost, based on unit price alone.
We regularly encounter employers who don’t fully understand the impact of provider reimbursement variation on their medical plans’ financial performances. This comes as no surprise, given the limited transparency and complexity of current provider reimbursements.
Limited transparency of provider reimbursement (allowed charges)
For employers, the industry standard technique of benchmarking commercial allowable charges has historically been traditional discount analyses, which compare discounts to billed charges. However, these approaches do not provide the required rigor and precision to understand medical service reimbursement analysis—both across markets and within a given market. This is because billed charges are not standardized across providers or different services. As a result, the exact same discount could mean very different things, depending on the provider and service—in some cases, price differences of over 300%. In addition, providers often optimize their billed charges to enhance reimbursement on contracts based on billed charges.
Employers generally have had a difficult time measuring unit cost, which is solely due to the complexity of various medical procedures. There is a large amount of price variation within each inpatient diagnosis-related group (DRG) and outpatient type of service. Chart 2 below provides a powerful illustration of how reimbursement can vary significantly across even a single inpatient DRG or outpatient service category. The chart compares the commercial reimbursement for inpatient joint replacement and an outpatient MRI in three different metropolitan areas with what the government would pay under Medicare allowable. The variation in inpatient joint replacements, a large bundle of complicated services, is much lower than outpatient MRIs, which reflects a specific service that generally has little variation in intensity compared with a joint replacement.