Month: May 2015

Reference Pricing: Another Fad


There have been a number of good discussions of reference pricing. This concept is mainly applicable only to large employer sponsored plans. As Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar from the Associated Press observed, “However, the strategy appears to be suitable only for a subset of medical care: procedures and tests that are frequently performed, where the prices charged vary widely but the quality of results generally does not. In addition to knee and hip replacements, that could include such procedures as MRIs and other imaging tests, cataract surgery and colonoscopies.” The idea is essentially incompatible with the insurance exchanges and narrow networks. And, is there any reason to trust the insurance companies to use a fair, patient-centered set of standards in establishing any given price? Or is it possible that they will game any such system to their own advantage? For instance, they have already found a way to make sure any additional expenses incurred by the patient will not be allowed to apply to the out-of pocket caps required by the ACA.  Sarah Lazare in Common Dreams discusses some of the pitfalls in this latest experiment by CMS. In June, 2014, FamiliesUSA published an excellent brief by Lydia Mitts, “How To Make Reference Pricing Work For Consumers.” Ms. Mitts points out the potential financial risks of cost shifting to consumers if the insurance companies set their pricing too low making it difficult for patients to find providers who will accept the payments. She also mentions that those who do accept the prices might raise prices for other services. She concludes with an excellent list of key elements that would be necessary in order to make such a system work for patients. Unfortunately, the health insurance industry has shown little interest or ability to do such things as providing adequate networks or prioritizing (or even, measuring) quality. Don McCanne provided a good commentary back in 2013, which he summarized by saying, that CMS is saying “we should shift risk to the patients – exposing them to financial penalties should they not make perfect decisions in their health care purchasing, even as the private insurers create yet more barriers to perfectly priced health care!”

The goal to bring down prices of medical care is admirable but one more payment system just adds to the incomprehensible world of multiple payers, multiple (often conflicting) rules and regulations, confused eligibilities, unintended consequences, profit-making, rent-seeking and cost-shifting to the “consumer.”