• U.S. health care costs a lot, and not just in money

    Health spending in the United States is highest in the world, driven in part by administrative complexity. To date, studies examining the administrative costs of American health care have primarily focused on clinicians and organizations—rarely on patients.

    A new study in Health Services Research finds administrative complexity in the U.S. health care system has consequences for access to care that are on par with those of financial barriers like copays and deductibles. In other words, we pay for health care in two ways: in money and in the hassle of dealing with a complex, confusing, and error-riddled system. Both are barriers to access. The study was led by Michael Anne Kyle, and I am a coauthor.

    Main Findings

    • Nearly three-quarters (73%) of people surveyed reported doing at least one health care-related administrative task in the past 12 months. Such administrative tasks include: appointment scheduling; obtaining information from an insurer or provider; obtaining prior authorizations; resolving insurance or provider billing issues; and resolving premium problems.
    • Administrative tasks often impose barriers to care: Nearly one-quarter (24.4%) of survey respondents reported delaying or foregoing needed care due to administrative tasks.
    • This estimate of administrative barriers to access to care is similar to those of financial barriers to access: a 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, found that 26% of insured adults 18-64 said that they or a family member had postponed or put off needed care in the past 12 months due to cost.
    • Administrative burden has consequential implications for equity. The study finds administrative burden falls disproportionately on people with high medical needs (disability) and that existing racial and socioeconomic inequities are associated with greater administrative burden.

    Methods

    To measure the size and consequences of patients’ administrative roles, we used data from the nationally representative March 2019 Health Reform Monitoring Survey of insured, nonelderly adults (18-64) to assess the annual prevalence of five common types of administrative tasks patients perform: (1) appointment scheduling; (2) obtaining information from an insurer or provider; (3) obtaining prior authorizations; (4) resolving insurance or provider billing issues; (5) and resolving insurance premium problems. The study examined the association of these tasks with two important measures of their burden: delayed and forgone care.

    Conclusions

    High administrative complexity is a central feature of the U.S. health care system. Largely overlooked, patients frequently do administrative work that can create burdens resulting in delayed or foregone care. The prevalence of delayed or foregone care due to administrative tasks is comparable to similar estimates of cost-related barriers to care. Administrative complexity is endemic to all post-industrial health systems, but there may be opportunity to design administrative tools with greater care to avoid exacerbating or reinforcing inequities.

     
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