What Explains It: The Cost of Medical Supplies

Published in Vermont Business Magazine (print edition)

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If you’ve heard that Tylenol in a hospital may cost 100 times more than it would if you bought the pills yourself, you heard right.

If you’ve read that hip replacements or cardiac surgery cost more at some hospitals than the procedures would at others, you read that right, too.

And if you know that private insurers pay more for services than Medicare or Medicaid, and that uninsured patients (except those on charity care) pay even higher rates for the same treatments, this may aid your understanding of the Tylenol phenomenon, which plays out in different ways on virtually every facet of health care costs.

Alternately referred to as cost-shifts or cross-subsidizations, the transactions leave charges for health care, including medical supplies, all but untethered from their line-item costs. Like a prism spinning in a window on a sunny day, what shows after financial models are applied to medical services looks like anything but the surface costs they’re comprised of. What’s refracted, instead, is a menagerie of ever-shifting, oddly shaped rainbows — but much, much less pretty.

Cost shifts and cross-subsidization

1chart_salnonsalThe so-called “cost shift” at the heart of much debate over health care reform typically refers to disparities among different kinds of payers. The theory is that private payers (mostly insurance companies, on behalf of their subscribers) reimburse hospitals at higher rates than Medicaid and Medicare, to make up for the government payers’ lower rates.

Not all economists buy the cost-shift theory of price variation among payers. Some studies in recent years indicate that wildly divergent reimbursement rates are more a function of marketplace competition and negotiating prowess, and less about private burdens amplified by government underfunding. Reimbursement rates, after all, vary not just between public and private payers, but also among different insurance companies servicing the same market.

But whatever the reason, one thing is clear: Different payers pay different rates for the same service.

A related transaction that’s undisputed, if not widely understood, is when hospitals up-charge for basic procedures to recover their losses from more complicated care. Such “cross-subsidization,” as it’s known, extends beyond services to the gamut of medical supplies, from pills to gauze pads to knee braces.

Amy Vaughan is Director of Revenue, Finance and Reimbursement at the University of Vermont Medical Center. When asked to explain the relationship between a hospital’s costs and the charges passed along to patients, she laughed.

“Well, it’s —,” she stopped and tried again. “That’s complicated,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan explained that medical supplies get marked up not just to cover the regulatory overhead associated with each one, but also to help make up for what the other cost shifts and cross-subsidizations don’t.

In the case of the Tylenol phenomenon, made notorious in the 2013 TIME Magazine article “Bitter Pill” by Steven Brill, the drug costs patients outrageously more than it costs hospitals not only because there’s a lot of work and red tape associated with administering it. The hospital also up-charges one patient’s Tylenol, for example, because it’s losing money on another patient’s psychiatric services. 

Specific profit-drivers and loss-leaders vary from hospital to hospital, and their algorithms are far more complicated than to imply a one-to-one ratio anywhere within the mix. But the concept is simple: Hospitals mark up medical supplies to help make up for losses elsewhere in their business models. This rings true in profit- and non-profit facilities, alike.

Cory Gustafson, Director of Government and Public Relations for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont, said it takes a paradigm shift to understand the proposition.

“It doesn’t make sense when it’s lined up against our own common sense of supply and demand,” Gustafson said. But pricing in a highly regulated environment like Vermont isn’t determined by classical free market principles, he said. This is, in part, because hospitals are obliged to provide complex services on-demand, even when the demand for those services is not sufficient to sustain the business. 

A small hospital’s emergency room is a good example, Gustafson said. “The community needs that ER, so (the hospital) ends up needing to make revenue in other places to subsidize it,” he said.

This is why BCBSVT, in its rate negotiations with hospitals, doesn’t fixate on how much it’s asked to pay for a knee brace, for example. The insurer agrees to pay the price it does because it knows the knee brace is carrying part of the facility’s overall financial weight, he said. Making sure the hospital is adequately funded is the insurer’s way of making sure the whole health care system is there when members need it.

Cross-subsidization: seen, not touched

2chart_nonsalcats-revised2The fact that you can’t hold a rainbow doesn’t make it any less real. Likewise, cross-subsidization is a very definite part of the health care cost equation, though its exact size and shape are all but impossible to quantify.

Vaughan said she doubts the UVM Medical Center could even figure out how much of its hospitals’ revenues are comprised of reimbursements for medical supplies, because reimbursement for services is so divorced from any system of line-item charges. 

The UVM Medical Center and Central Vermont Medical Center, the health network’s two hospitals in Vermont, are both designated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services as “prospective payment system” hospitals. This means billing — at its most basic level for inpatient care — is based not on the cost of specific services provided to any particular patient, but on that patient’s diagnostic code. (Reimbursement works somewhat differently for some of Vermont’s smaller, more rural hospitals.) 

For example: Imagine if two patients, we’ll call them Ginger and Fred, both had the same health care plan with the same insurer, and were admitted to UVM Medical Center for an appendectomy the same day. Ginger stays only three days, while Fred stays six (but with no complicating factors that result in a second diagnostic code). Ginger and Fred’s insurance company would pay the hospital the same amount for both patients, even though clearly more medical supplies (and labor) would have been used in the process of caring for the patient who stayed twice as long. 

Vaughan cautions that such an example is an oversimplification, but it gets the point across: The hospital may clear a profit from Ginger’s payment, but lose money on Fred’s treatment. Either way, its budgetary goal is not for each service to pay for itself, but for all payments to cover the cost of all services, with some left over to reinvest in the organization’s people, programs and facilities. 

“We look at it in totality,” Vaughan said. “We’re looking at covering (our costs) at the global level, not from a line-item level. We’re not saying whenever we do X procedure, we need to cover X cost.”

The Green Mountain Care Board, with regulatory authority over hospital budgets, likewise focuses on the forest, not the trees. Mike Davis, GMCB Director of Health System Finances, said the board’s priority in hospital budgeting is to curb overall cost growth, not to micromanage spending.

“Whether medical supplies are going up 15 percent or down 15 percent, we don’t try to manage at that level,” Davis said. However hospitals piece together their budgets to stay within certain targets for overall growth is up to them, as long as quality of care is maintained, Davis said. 

The Green Mountain Care Board collects categorized spending projections from all of Vermont’s hospitals, so the rough outline of each facility’s equation is visible. Medical supplies, including pharmaceuticals, account for almost 10 percent of Vermont hospitals’ overall budgets. At individual hospitals, that proportion ranges from less than one percent at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center, a rural Critical Access Hospital, to 13 percent at the UVM Medical Center, a Level 1 Trauma Center. Davis cautioned that these numbers are a good place to start, but reporting nuances among hospitals complicate direct comparison.

Among the complications: Different hospitals have different overhead and different payer mixes to compensate for. Plus, the Board’s reporting instructions include general definitions for medical or surgical supplies sold, drugs sold, and other related expenses — as granular as it gets, he said. But each hospital may apply these definitions somewhat differently, and the Board has never conducted a reporting audit, he said.

Teasing apart the dollar value of cross-subsidized medical supplies also is complicated by a proprietary veil: Each hospital and insurance company negotiates reimbursement rates separately, and privately. Insurance companies get a discount off the full-price charges, but neither hospitals nor insurers want their competition to know how much (or how little) it’s worth.

The art of the bargain

3chart_medsuppercenttotalIt’s up to the Green Mountain Care Board to make sure hospitals and insurance companies set fair rates that keep health care reliable, hospitals solvent and health insurance affordable. Inside the hospitals, it’s up to supply chain managers to find good deals. 

Charlie Miceli, C.P.M., Vice-President and Network Chief Supply Chain Officer at the UVM Health Network, said medical supplies procurement has evolved from a back-office function to an integral part of the network’s financial strategy. 

“It’s not just three bids and a cloud of dust anymore,” Miceli said. “In the old days, you just went for the lowest bid. You were on a hamster wheel of repetitive, non-critical processes.” 

Today, Miceli said, physicians and nurses are pulled into the procurement process and even into bargaining sessions, both to get them invested in savings and for their expertise. He said in some cases, “procurement stiffs” can only get negotiations so far, but practitioners who work with the supplies in question can push a good deal across the finish line.

The UVM Health Network also has signed on with several “third-party decision support providers.” Miceli said the cost of these contracts is more than offset by the savings they facilitate through specialized consulting, analytical tools and group purchasing power. 

The UVM Medical Center buys about 30 percent of its medical-surgical supplies through a consortium of 116 academic medical centers that comprise about $52 billion of annual buying power. The University HealthSystem Consortium’s benchmarking data show that UVM Medical Center just makes it into the top one-third of all academic medical centers for price competitiveness on med-surge supplies. Miceli said the benchmarking data help his team identify where they could be getting better deals by giving them a sense of the prices being paid by others in the hospital’s peer group. 

And with four hospitals under its umbrella, the UVM Health Network claims a group purchasing power of its own. 

“We’ve taken over $6 million out of the system,” Miceli said, just by contracting together for a few high-ticket items, including cardiology, orthopedic implants, imaging services and pharmaceutical distribution. 

Miceli said the network is about two years away from having all its supply chain management aligned on one computer system, and that it’s already taken over supplies ordering and delivery for almost all its primary care clinics, as well. 

“Maybe you can get two more appointments in per week, because you don’t have to count sutures or supplies to order,” he said. Their strategy with supply chain management is not just to save money, but time. “It’s the time that’s even more scarce,” he said. 

The health network’s growing heft also helps when it gets into procurement negotiations with medical supply companies, many of which are undergoing their own rounds of consolidation that let them throw new weight around the bargaining table. But it can only get them so far. Case in point: One of the only major national suppliers of IV solution, Hospira, was recently bought out by Pfizer. Not interested in leveraging the product as a loss leader, as Hospira had done, the new owner — with a mandate for shareholder return, not affordable community health — is making up for lost profits. 

“I understand what they’re doing,” Miceli said. But he said the hit to UHC members alone is about $600 million from the Hospira acquisition and a change in another company’s distribution of key cancer-fighting drugs. “(A)t the end of the day, we’ve got to figure out something else. That’s why supply chain management has risen from a back-office function like it was when I started in the ’80s,” he said.

Mike Del Trecco, Vice-President of Finance at the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, said the health care system is complex partly because of such shifting market forces as any business faces, but also because hospitals negotiate those market forces while delivering extremely specialized care to individuals with unique situations. The best way to manage that complexity, he said, lies in current efforts to reform health care delivery away from a fee-for-service system.

“You come up with an aggregate approach for paying for that population,” Del Trecco said. “The status quo is gone from our mind. It’s not even an option.”

Again, it’s a paradigm shift. One that’s already underway, where the concept of services comprised of line-item charges may mean even less than it does today.

One Reply to “What Explains It: The Cost of Medical Supplies”

  1. What do you think might be some easy paths toward making our healthcare system more balanced and appropriately priced? I think a big part of it would have to come from taxes, but we would likely need to have a complete overhaul of our tax structure to pull that off. We would also probably have to gut our military spending budget to redirect some funds to health subsidizations. And I bet a lot could be done in hospitals to repair and recycle medical supplies, and re-use where applicable. Knee braces could be rented for $2/week, giving a patient incentive to buy their own if they need it for long-term, and when they don’t need it, that brace can be returned to the hospital and used for another patient (after inspecting it for damage or performance flaws). I had a minor MCL tear, and I was amazed how much I was charged for a brace that I used for a month.

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