Reading list

Competitive Pricing and the Challenge of Cost Control in Medicare, by Robert Coulam, Roger Feldman, and Bryan Dowd (JHPPL)

The Medicare program faces a serious challenge: it must find ways to control costs but must do so through a system of congressional oversight that necessarily limits its choices. We look at one approach to prudent purchasing — competitive pricing — that Medicare has attempted many times and in various ways since the beginning of the program, and in all but one case unsuccessfully due to the politics of provider opposition working through Congress and the courts. We look at some related efforts to change Medicare pricing to explore when the program has been successful in making dramatic changes in how it pays for health care. A set of recommendations emerges for ways to respond to the impediments of law and politics that have obstructed change to more efficient payment methods. Except in unusual cases, competitive pricing threatens too many stakeholders in too many ways for key political actors to support it. But an unusual case may arise in the coming Medicare fiscal crisis, a crisis related in part to the prices Medicare pays. At that point, competitive pricing may look less like a problem and more like a solution coming at a time when the system badly needs one.

Comparative Effectiveness Research, COURAGE, and Technological Abandonment, by David H. Howard, Yu-Chu Shen (NBER)

When a major study finds that a widely used medical treatment is no better than a less expensive alternative, do physicians stop using it? Policymakers hope that comparative effectiveness research will identify less expensive substitutes for widely-used treatments, but physicians may be reluctant to abandon profitable therapies. We examine the impact of the COURAGE trial, which found that medical therapy is as effective as percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) for patients with stable angina, on practice patterns. Using hospital discharge data from US community, Veterans Administration, and English hospitals, we detect a moderate decline in PCI volume post-COURAGE. However, many patients with stable angina continue to receive PCI. We do not find differences in PCI volume trends by reimbursement scheme or hospitals’ teaching status, ownership, or degree of vertical integration.

Health Service Use Among the Previously Uninsured: Is Subsidize Health Insurance Enough? by Sandra L. Decker, Jalpa A. Doshi, Amy E. Knaup, Daniel Polsky (Health Economics)

Although it has been shown that gaining Medicare coverage at age 65 years increases health service use among the uninsured, difficulty in changing habits or differences in the characteristics of previously uninsured compared with insured individuals may mean that the previously uninsured continue to use the healthcare system differently from others. This study uses Medicare claims data linked to two different surveys—the National Health Interview Survey and the Health and Retirement Study—to describe the relationship between insurance status before age 65 years and the use of Medicare-covered services beginning at age 65 years. Although we do not find statistically significant differences in Medicare expenditures or in the number of hospitalizations by previous insurance status, we do find that individuals who were uninsured before age 65 years continue to use the healthcare system differently from those who were privately insured. Specifically, they have 16% fewer visits to office-based physicians but make 18% and 43% more visits to hospital emergency and outpatient departments, respectively. A key question for the future may be why the previously uninsured seem to continue to use the healthcare system differently from the previously insured. This question may be important to consider as health coverage expansions are implemented.

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