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Implementing Health Reform: IRS Releases Premium Tax Credit Rules And Draft Forms


July 25th, 2014

Although the focus of activity the week of July 21 was in the courts, the agencies were not totally silent. On July 24, 2014 the Internal Revenue Service released final and temporary and proposed regulations addressing issues that are presented by the premium tax credit program. The IRS also released drafts of the forms that individuals, insurers, and employers will use for reporting information to the IRS necessary for reconciliation of premium tax credits and for the enforcement of the individual and employer mandate programs. Finally, the IRS set the maximum individual mandate penalty for individuals whose income is high enough that they pay the penalty as a percentage of income rather than a flat dollar amount. This amount is established by the statute as the average cost of a bronze level plan for the applicable family size for 2014 and was set by the IRS at $2,448 per individual annually, up to $12,240 for families of five or more.

The draft forms operationalize the reporting requirements established by rules published earlier. Insurers and self-insured health plans will provide a Form 1095-B to each of their enrollees and members, and file these forms, together with a transmittal form 1094-B with the IRS. Large employers must provide a form 1095-C to each employee, and transmit these, together with a transmittal form 1095-B to the IRS. Exchanges will provide their enrollees a form 1095-A. Individuals who receive premium tax credits will file a form 8962 with the IRS, while individuals claiming an exemption from the individual mandate will file a form 8965. Though the forms are not accompanied by instructions, they are quite straightforward and track closely the earlier released rules.

The final and temporary rules address several situations that will arise under the premium tax credit program that have not yet been addressed by the premium tax credit rules. The temporary rules are identical to the proposed rules and will cease to apply once the proposed rules are finalized.

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Implementing Health Reform: Appellate Decisions Split On Tax Credits In ACA Federal Exchange


July 23rd, 2014

July 22, 2014 was arguably the most important day in the history of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act since the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the National Federation of Independent Business case in June of 2012. As no doubt most readers of this blog know by now, shortly after 10 a.m. the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit handed down its decision in Halbig v. Burwell. Two judges ruled over a strong dissent that an Internal Revenue Service rule allowing federally facilitated exchanges to issue premium tax credits to low and moderate income Americans is invalid.

Approximately two hours later the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, unanimously upheld the IRS rule in King v. Burwell. Combined, the cases contain five judicial opinions, three in the Halbig case and two in King. Four of the six judges voted to uphold the rule, two to strike it down.

The Controversy

The issue in the cases is this: The ACA authorizes the IRS to provide premium tax credits to individuals with household incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level who are not eligible for other minimum essential coverage (such as affordable and adequate employer coverage, Medicaid, or Medicare). Premium tax credits are, however, only available to individuals who purchase coverage through the exchanges.

The ACA requests that the states establish exchanges, and sixteen states and the District of Columbia have done so. The ACA also, however, authorizes the federal government to establish exchanges in states that fail to set up their own exchanges. The federal government has done so in 34 states and is operating the individual exchange for two more. The IRS regulation allows premium tax credits to be awarded to eligible individuals in both states with state-operated exchanges and states with federal exchanges.

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Health Policy Brief Updates


July 22nd, 2014

In the first half of 2014 Health Affairs has released seven new Health Policy Briefs and also has provided updates of five previously released briefs, in order to reflect continuously changing and evolving health policy issues and perspectives.

The following Health Policy Briefs were updated in 2014:

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Implementing Health Reform: Hobby Lobby Response, The ACA In The Territories, And More


July 18th, 2014

July 17, 2014 was a remarkably active day in an otherwise quiet week for Affordable Care Act implementation. First, the Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services issued their first response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision —a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) guidance requiring ERISA plans to provide notice to their participants and beneficiaries if they do not intend to cover contraceptives. Second, the Department of Health and Human Services sent letters to the territories (the Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico) informing them that insurers that market individual insurance policies in the territories are no longer required to comply with the ACA’s insurance market reforms.

Third, HHS released an enrollment bulletin at its REGTAP website describing how insurers in the federally facilitated exchange should handle enrollment for 2015 for individuals whose coverage was terminated in 2014 for non-payment. This post describes these issuances, as well as the May Medicaid enrollment report released on July 11, 2014 by HHS

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Income Verification On The Exchanges: The Broader Policy Picture


July 14th, 2014

The Affordable Care Act scandal de jour (or at least one of them) is the difficulty the exchanges have faced in verifying the eligibility of many premium tax credit applicants. Two Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General Reports in early July documented the existence of these problems. One reported that as of the first quarter of 2014, the federal exchange alone had been unable to resolve 2.6 or 2.9 million data inconsistencies. Another reported that internal controls at the federal and two state exchanges were not fully effective in ensuring that individuals enrolled in exchanges were in fact eligible.

House Republicans claim that in fact there are 4 million data inconsistencies affecting half of all enrollments. In House Energy and Commerce hearings on June 10, 2014, Republican Representative Charles Bustany Jr. claimed that $44 billion in improper payments would be made over the next 10 years. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Bush Administration official, who testified at the hearings claims that improper payments may equal $152 billion. The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee is holding further hearings on data inconsistencies on July 16.

The seriousness of verification issues should not be overestimated. The administration has been put in place procedures to verify carefully premium tax credit applications. Many of the discrepancies CMS is attempting to resolve do not relate to income eligibility, and those that do may result ultimately in a finding of eligibility for increased, rather than decreased, premium tax credits. A discrepancy that could result in the need for additional documentation may be as trivial as a hyphen left out of a name or a digit transposed on a Social Security number.

Unfortunately, programs proposed by Republicans and other ACA opponents that in fact make a serious attempt to cover the uninsured will require income reporting and face similar difficulties. Current reform proposals that avoid coverage eligibility determinations will not in fact cover the uninsured. While the administration could have perhaps done a better job in making eligibility determinations, any means-tested program faces a similar challenge. It is possible to design a system that does not rely on means testing and could cover low-income and high-cost uninsured Americans, as I describe below. But it would be a very different system than the ACA or alternatives currently being proposed.

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Recent Health Policy Brief: E-Cigarettes And Federal Regulation


July 11th, 2014

The latest Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) describes federal policy makers’ recent efforts to propose rules for e-cigarette regulation. E-cigarettes, virtually non-existent ten years ago, have skyrocketed in popularity, including among people who claim to use e-cigarettes as a tool to help them quit smoking altogether.

The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to oversee the manufacture, marketing, distribution, and sale of regulated tobacco products such as cigarettes, tobacco in cigarettes, roll-your-own, and smokeless tobacco. But it left unregulated other tobacco products such as cigars, pipe and hookah tobacco, nicotine gels, and e-cigarettes.

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A Health Reform Framework: Breaking Out Of The Medicaid Model


July 10th, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is coauthored by Joseph Antos and James Capretta.

A primary aim of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is to expand insurance coverage, especially among households with lower incomes. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that about one-third of the additional insurance coverage expected to occur because of the law will come from expansion of the existing, unreformed Medicaid program. The rest of the coverage expansion will come from enrolling millions of people into subsidized insurance offerings on the ACA exchanges — offerings that have strong similarities to Medicaid insurance.

Unfortunately, ample evidence demonstrates that this kind of insurance model leaves the poor and lower-income households with inadequate access to health care. The networks of physicians and hospitals willing to serve large numbers of Medicaid patients have been very constrained for many years, meaning access problems will only worsen when more people enroll and begin using the same overburdened networks of clinics and physician practices.

It does not have to be this way. It is possible to expand insurance coverage for the poor and lower-income households without reliance on the flawed Medicaid insurance model. Opponents of the ACA should embrace plans to replace the current law with reforms that would give the poor real choices among a variety of competing insurance offerings, including the same insurance plans that middle-class families enroll in today. Specifically, we propose a three-part plan that includes a flexible, uniform tax credit for all those who lack employer-based coverage; deregulation of Medicaid; and improved safety-net primary and preventive care.

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After Hobby Lobby: How Might Policymakers Mitigate The Decision’s Impact On Women And Families?


July 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Sara Rosenbaum, Adam Sonfield and Rachel Benson Gold also coauthored this post. 

On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that has the potential to undermine an important provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that establishes for women a federal guarantee of coverage for their full range of contraceptive methods, services, and counseling without any out-of-pocket costs. This guarantee is administered through private health plans, whether purchased in the individual market or made available through the insurers and plan administrators that provide group coverage.

The 5-4 ruling in Burrell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, written by Justice Samuel Alito on behalf of the Court’s conservative bloc, held that closely held for-profit corporations that assert a religious objection to some or all forms of contraception cannot be required to include such coverage in the health plans they sponsor for employees and their families. As emphasized by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissent (joined in whole by Justice Sotomayor and in part by Justices Kagan and Breyer), the Court’s decision could have serious and widespread consequences.

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Implementing Health Reform: Exchange Eligibility Redeterminations; Small Employer Tax Credit


June 27th, 2014

While it seems like the 2014 open enrollment period just ended, the 2015 open enrollment period, which begins on November 15, is in fact only four and a half months away. On June 26, 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services released a proposed rule addressing eligibility redeterminations for 2015. Together with the proposed rule, HHS issued a guidance describing how the federally facilitated exchange intends to redetermine eligibility, as well as draft standard notices for health plans to use when discontinuing or renewing plans in the individual and small group market and instructions for completing those notices.

On the same date, the Internal Revenue Service released final rules governing the small employer tax credit program. This post will discuss these rules and guidances, as well as another court decision rejecting a challenge to the individual mandate and another spate of FAQs on the SHOP exchange program.

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Do Insurance Marketplace Consumers Need More Doctor Choices In-Network, Or Just Better Information?


June 26th, 2014

Media outlets have focused extensively on consumer complaints about “limited networks” and not being able to find a doctor under qualified health plans (QHPs) offered through the Health Insurance Marketplaces (HIMs). In response, the Obama administration released new standards which will require all QHPs to contract with a larger proportion of essential community providers within its service area. This means that health plans will be forced to accept more health care providers within their network, which may potentially increase costs for consumers.

At the heart of the recent changes lies a fundamental question worth exploring: Is consumer satisfaction with, and perceptions of health plan “network adequacy” grounded in the number of choices for doctors within network, or is it something different?

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Behind The Numbers: Slight Rise In Health Care Spending Growth Projected


June 24th, 2014

PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) released its ninth annual Medical Cost Trend: Behind the Numbers report today. This forward-looking report is based on interviews with industry executives, health policy experts, and health plan actuaries whose companies cover a combined 93 million members. Findings from PwC’s Health and Well-being Touchstone Survey of 1,200 employers from 35 industries are also included.

HRI projects that after a five-year contraction in spending growth in the employer-sponsored market, the growth rate will rise to 6.8 percent in 2015, up from the 6.5 percent projected last year.

What are the biggest drivers of the growth in health care costs? We identify four cost inflators in this report, and I would like to highlight two. First, the economy. More than five years after the end of the Great Recession, the improved economy is finally translating into greater medical spending. Consumers are now addressing health issues they ignored or postponed previously.

Secondly, the high cost of specialty drugs. While only four percent of patients use specialty drugs, those medications account for 25 percent of total U.S. drug spending. And estimates are that U.S. specialty drug spending will quadruple by 2020

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Implementing Health Reform: Premiums And Choice In The 2014 Health Insurance Marketplace (Updated)


June 18th, 2014

In the fall of 2013 the headlines were full of stories of individuals facing steep premium increases as the Affordable Care Act’s market reforms went into effect. The question was raised repeatedly whether Affordable Care Act premiums were really affordable. Commentators observed that major national commercial insurers were avoiding the exchanges and that in some states the ACA marketplace offered few choices and little competition.

On June 17, 2014, the Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) released a report surveying Premium Affordability, Competition, and Choice in the Health Insurance Marketplace, 2014. ASPE examined over 19,000 2014 marketplace plans within the four bronze, silver, gold, and platinum metal levels in each of the 501 geographic rating areas in the 50 states and the District of Columbia; the office analyzed premium levels, available choices, and market variables that might affect cost. It is always possible to find negative anecdotes (particularly if one is not too careful in checking their veracity), but when we look beyond anecdotes at the actual data, it is clear that the ACA was largely successful in achieving many of its goals for 2014.

One of the primary goals of the ACA is to make health insurance affordable to lower-income Americans. During the 2014 open enrollment period, 5.4 million individuals selected a plan in the 36 states served by the federal exchange (which are the states primarily covered by the report since state exchange data is still being assembled and analyzed). According to the report, 87 percent of these individuals qualified for a premium tax credit. They paid a premium that was, on average, 76 percent less than the full premium that they would have owed before the premium tax credit was applied.

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Cancelled Non-Group Plans: What We Know Now That We Did Not Know In October


June 17th, 2014

In October of 2013 President Obama faced a political firestorm over the cancellation of millions of individual insurance plans — plans not compliant with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Associated Press (AP) estimated that 4.8 million persons with non-group coverage had their policies cancelled, and this estimate was widely quoted in the media and the Congress. In headline stories, the media also reported that policyholders of the canceled plans were now offered alternative plans, often at premiums more than double of their current plans.

When the controversy over cancelled policies broke, no surveys were available to estimate the number and the cost of cancelled policies. In October, HealthCare.gov and many state-based marketplace websites were virtually non-functional, so assessing comparative cost and benefits of cancelled and Marketplace plans largely was precluded. In this post I highlight information from subsequent surveys and analyses conducted in late 2013 and 2014 that measure the number of cancelled plans and the comparative cost of coverage in the pre-ACA and post ACA-Markets. The next two paragraphs summarize findings.

Recent survey data indicates the number of persons affected by cancelled policies was about 1.9 million persons, less than the often cited 4.8 million estimate. When persons with group health insurance are included in the denominator, these cancellations affected less than one percent of persons holding comprehensive private insurance. The number of people with non-group policies who became uninsured following last October’s cancellation of policies is similar to what occurs in the normal churn of the non-group market.

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How Much Market Power Do Hospital Systems Have?


June 12th, 2014

Sometimes big game hunters find frustration when their prey moves by the time they’ve lined up to blast it. That certainly appears to be the case with the health policy target de jour: whether providers, hospital systems in particular, exert too much market power. A recent cluster of papers in Health Affairs and policy conferences this spring have targeted the question of whether hospital mergers have contributed to inflation in health costs, and what to do about them.

Hospitals’ market power appears to be one of those frustrating moving targets. The past eighteen months have seen a spate of hospital industry layoffs by market-leading institutions, and also a string of terrible earnings releases from some of the most powerful hospital systems and “integrated delivery networks” in the country. These mediocre operating results raise questions about how much market power big hospital systems and IDNs do, in fact, exert.

The two systems everyone points to as poster children for excessive market power-California-based Sutter Health and Boston’s Partners Healthcare, both released abysmal operating results in April. Mighty Partners reported a paltry $3 million in operating income on $2.7 billion in revenues in their second (winter) quarter of FY14. Partners cited a 4.5 percent reduction in admissions and a 1.6 percent decline in outpatient visits as main drivers. Captive health insurance losses dragged down Partners’ patient care results.

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Changing Provider Networks In Marketplace Health Plans: Balancing Affordability And Access To Quality Care


June 11th, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Sabrina Corlette, JoAnn Volk, Robert Berenson, and Judy Feder coauthored this post. 

Twelve percent of the complaints to California’s Department of Managed Health Care this year relate to access to care problems. In New Hampshire, consumers were upset to learn that their local hospital had been excluded from the network of the sole insurance company participating on the state’s health insurance marketplace. In reaction to concerns about narrowing networks, legislators in Mississippi and North Dakota considered “any willing provider” legislation this year.

But at the same time, the Congressional Budget Office expects narrow networks to help reduce marketplace costs by billions of dollars. Network configurations clearly offer consumers a cost-access trade-off. Narrowing networks is by no means a new trend – using network design to constrain providers’ price demands has long predated the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In the new marketplaces, insurers are using narrow networks to help keep premiums low for price-sensitive purchasers. But if a plan’s low premium reflects limited network access, its policyholders might not only face compromised quality care but unanticipated and potentially crippling financial liabilities.

Regulators are recognizing this trade-off and reconsidering network standards at the state and federal level. But regulators face a challenge: If they overly constrain insurers’ ability to negotiate with providers, consumers could face significant premium increases. On the other hand, if they ignore provider participation issues, consumers will lack confidence that there is a sufficient network to deliver the benefits promised without posing financial or quality risks.

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Implementing Health Reform: Medicaid And CHIP Enrollment; Data Verification (Updated)


June 5th, 2014

Throughout the spring of 2014, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued monthly reports on enrollment in the federal and state exchanges (marketplaces) and on applications, eligibility determinations, and enrollment in the Medicaid program.

With the close of the 2014 exchange open enrollment period, HHS has ceased issuing exchange enrollment reports, even though exchange enrollment continues to fluctuate as new enrollees join through special enrollment periods and current enrollees terminate their plans or are terminated, for example, for nonpayment. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), however, continue to issue Medicaid reports.

On June 4, 2014, CMS released the April 2014 Medicaid and CHIP Monthly Applications, Eligibility Determinations and Enrollment Report. As has been the case with earlier reports, the data are subject to so many qualifications as to offer only a rough approximation of current Medicaid enrollment or activity.

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The Cost Of A Cure: Medicare’s Role In Treating Hepatitis C


June 5th, 2014

Editor’s note: In addition to Tricia Neuman, Jack Hoadley and Juliette Cubanski also coauthored this post.

For a patient with hepatitis C, a potentially deadly disease, the prospect of finding a cure with minimal side effects is a really big deal. Also a big deal is the cost of Sovaldi (sofosbuvir), an oral drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration in December 2013 for the treatment of chronic hepatitis C. Sovaldi has been priced by its manufacturer, Gilead, at $1,000 per pill, or an estimated $84,000 for its entire 12-week regimen. It joins the treatment arsenal with several older drugs generally thought either to be less effective or to have more side effects, and another newly approved drug to be taken in combination with other drugs. More drugs are expected to gain approval within the year.

Sovaldi’s price tag has drawn attention in part because an estimated 3 million Americans have the hepatitis C virus and could be considered candidates for new drugs. Patients will clearly benefit from a long-awaited cure, and public and private payers could potentially see a reduction in health care spending over the long term if Sovaldi successfully cures this disease and fewer patients require high-cost liver transplants. But private insurers and public programs will face significant budgetary pressures if a large number of patients receive this treatment at current prices.

To date, attention has focused on cost implications for private health plans, Medicaid, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). For example, UnitedHealth reported that the cost of Sovaldi was “multiple times” its expectations. State Medicaid officials and Medicaid plans have warned that the cost of the new treatments will pose significant fiscal challenges to state budgets and plan payment rates, even though Medicaid receives a 23.1 percent rebate (discount) for all brand drug purchases. The VA has decided to cover the drug and secured from Gilead a discount of 44 percent, one that applies to certain other federal purchasers, but is targeting treatment to the sickest patients while waiting for less expensive drugs to become available.

Less attention has been paid to the cost implications for Medicare, where coverage of Sovaldi will fall under Part D, the program’s outpatient prescription drug benefit administered by private plans. Given the drug’s effectiveness, most if not all of Part D plans will likely cover Sovaldi. The anticipated impact on costs to Medicare will be revealed to CMS later this month, when plans submit premium bids for 2015. Plans will increase their bids to cover the expected costs of new treatments, which will raise costs for both the federal government and Part D enrollees who pay premiums. CMS will release the average Part D premium for 2015 in August.

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Repeal, And Replace, The Employer Mandate


June 4th, 2014

As it enters its fifth year, the Affordable Care Act has chalked up an impressive list of accomplishments. More than 8 million Americans have chosen a health plan through the ACA exchanges. At least another five million have likely enrolled in Medicaid. The minimum medical loss ratio requirement has saved privately insured Americans billions of dollars, while the closing of the doughnut hole has saved Medicare beneficiaries billions more. The percentage of Americans who are uninsured is dropping precipitously and is already at the lowest level it has been for years.

Recent polling, however, seems to show that Americans are not yet impressed — a majority still oppose the Affordable Care Act. Significantly, however, polling also consistently shows that Americans are not giving up on the law–a substantial majority of Americans are against repealing the ACA and would rather that problems with the ACA be fixed. Support for amending the law should create an opening for lawmakers who can identify real problems with the ACA and propose practical solutions.

One provision of the ACA that cries out for repair is the employer mandate. The Urban Institute has recently raised the question, “Why Not Just Eliminate the Employer Mandate?Conservative advocacy groups have called for its repeal for some time. Repeal of the employer mandate might, in fact, not be such a bad idea, as long as the current mandate was replaced with a better alternative.

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Making Markets Work In Health Care: What Does That Mean?


June 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: See Robert Berenson’s post on consolidation and market power in health care, also published today, and watch for more on these subjects in Health Affairs Blog.

Health Affairs last week posted a set of papers that represent several perspectives on Provider Consolidation in Health Care: Challenges and Solutions. To provide a context for these papers and for the broader discussion of how to make markets work in health care, I suggest a couple of thoughts.

There are two types of markets in health care: the market for health services and the market for health coverage—these markets are interrelated, and both of them are broken.

The historical correlation between provider concentration and both higher prices and lower quality is well-documented. With the increased focus under health reform on collaboration across providers and settings, and the increase in physician and hospital consolidation and the purchase of physician practices by hospitals, the concern is that this trend may lead to adverse consequences for the health system.

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Acknowledging The Elephant: Moving Market Power And Prices To The Center Of Health Policy


June 3rd, 2014

Editor’s note: See Stuart Guterman’s post on consolidation and market power in health care, also published today, and watch for more on these subjects in Health Affairs Blog.

Health Affairs recently published a set of papers addressing the problem of provider consolidation and consequent increased prices. Perhaps even more striking than the specific arguments made in these papers is the very fact that smart and busy people other than antitrust economists and lawyers now are actually spending a great deal of their professional time thinking about this problem. High prices and the distortions in markets resulting from differential pricing power have been the unacknowledged elephant in the policy room for decades, even as the policy community and policy makers have wrung their hands over what to do about rising health care costs. More than 40 years ago, President Nixon declared that health care spending increases were “unsustainable.” And here we still are grappling with health care spending.

Over the decades I have been told by smart health economists that the main culprit behind increasing health spending is technology, although the definition of technology turns out to be pretty flexible — new ways of providing care are considered new technology, not just machines and drugs. And nominees for the reason our baseline spending exceeds other countries’ by so much have included administrative complexity in our multi-payer, crazy quilt organization of health care; defensive medicine caused by malpractice concerns; and fraud and abuse. Jack Wennberg and colleagues at Dartmouth have argued that variations in service use that do not increase quality explain spending variations, at least in Medicare where payment (price) variations are not permitted other than to reflect differences in input costs.

All of these explanations have merit, but for non-government payers, prices have actually been the main source of high spending and variations in spending, at least in the recent past and probably for much longer. Prices for commercial and self-funded insurance products result from market negotiations between insurers and providers; the balance of power in these negotiations has sometimes shifted, most recently toward many providers, but certainly not all of them — the relatively few remaining independent hospitals and the solo and small physician practices have become “price takers,” even as other providers are able to negotiate payment rates far higher than Medicare benchmarks.

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