- Both vertical and horizontal hospital consolidation is correlated with higher healthcare costs, according to a congressional advisory committee on Medicare, in yet another study finding rampant mergers and acquisitions drive up prices for consumers.
- The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission found providers with greater market share see higher commercial profit margins, leading to higher costs per discharge, though the direct relationship between market share and cost per discharge was not statistically meaningful itself.
- MedPAC also found vertical integration between health systems and physician practices increases prices and spending for consumers. The top-down consolidation leads to higher prices for commercial payers and Medicare alike, as hospitals have more bargaining heft and benefit from Medicare's payment hikes for hospital outpatient departments.
Hospital consolidation has become a major point of concern for policymakers, antitrust regulators and patient advocacy groups. A slew of prior studies have found unchecked provider M&A contributes to higher healthcare costs, with the brunt often borne by consumers in the form of higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs.
Since 2003, the number of "super-concentrated" markets has increased from 47% to 57%, according to the MedPAC analysis of CMS and American Hospital Association data. Those markets, with a high amount of consolidation, rarely see new providers enter, which stifles competition, and are rarely reviewed by the government.
There's been little change in antitrust regulation since the 1980s and, though the Federal Trade Commission has won several challenges to hospital consolidation in the 2010s, the agency only challenges 2% to 3% of mergers annually.
MedPAC also found super-concentrated insurance markets actually led to lower costs per discharge compared to lower levels of payer concentration, deflating somewhat hospital lobbies' arguments that payer consolidation is driving prices higher.
Committee members called for more analysis of how macro trends like an aging population and federal policy could be driving consolidation and impacting prices, leading some to call for a revamp of the hospital payment framework itself.
"We have to change the way hospitals are paid. I don't see another solution," said Brian DeBusk, CEO of Tennesse-based DeRoyal Industries, a medical manufacturer. "Are you going to undo a thousand hospital mergers? Are you going to enact rate setting? I don't see another way."
MedPAC also looked at vertical integration, where hospitals snap up physicians practices downstream. According to the Physician Advocacy Institute, only 26% of physician practices were owned by hospitals in 2012, but by last year that number had spiked to 44%.
Since 2012, billing has shifted from physician offices to hospital outpatient departments, especially in specialty practices. In chemotherapy administration, for example, physician offices saw almost 17% less volume between 2012 and 2018, while outpatient centers saw a 53% increase in volume, according to MedPAC.
Physicians in hospital-owned practices also refer more patients to the hospital's facilities and, despite a common stumping point that integration improves quality through care coordination, its effect on quality is "ambiguous," MedPAC analyst Dan Zabinski said Thursday at the committee's November meeting.
Despite the mountain of evidence, the AHA published a widely-decried study in September claiming acquired hospitals see a reduction in operating expenses and a statistically significant drop in readmission and mortality rates. The study was criticized for not using actual claims data in its analysis among other methodological and conflict of interest concerns.
Republican leaders in the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked MedPAC to study provider consolidation in August, and the body's full findings will be included in its March report to Congress.