Friday, June 4, 2010

qotd: Will financial incentives work?

Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
May 2010
Financial Incentives for Health Care Providers and Consumers
by Jill Bernstein, Deborah Chollet, and Stephanie Peterson

Health reform will emphasize financial incentives for providers and consumers to promote the use of effective health services and discourage the use of marginally effective or inappropriate services. This brief looks at evidence on the impacts of financial incentives and draws lessons for policymakers.

Consumer Incentives Affect Their Choices

Most private and public insurance plans use financial incentives to constrain consumer demand for care. This strategy is premised on the idea that consumers will make better decisions about seeking care and using cost-effective services when they bear responsibility for a portion of the cost. So-called "consumer-directed" health plans attempt to extend this model, coupling high cost sharing with consumer information about treatment alternatives.

Indeed, research shows that cost sharing — including deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments — does affect health care use and expenditures. However, cost sharing can have important negative effects on health, and high cost sharing may ultimately have little impact on total costs.

When people respond to greater cost sharing by reducing their use of health services, they may forgo services that are necessary and effective as well as those that are more discretionary or ineffective. Forgoing care in response to higher cost sharing may not have significant health consequences for people with good overall health status and average income. But people with health problems and those with lower income and education enrolled in high-deductible health plans may suffer worse outcomes when they forgo or delay care. Vulnerable populations are especially likely to experience negative health outcomes related to cost sharing.

In addition, financial incentives may not significantly change the overall costs of care. Consumers with serious health problems account for most health care costs. Even if strong incentives induce these consumers to use care judiciously, most of their care is nondiscretionary, and costs that exceed their cap on out-of-pocket spending may account for most of the total cost of their care.

Value-Based Purchasing

A growing number of private and public payers (including Medicare) use financial incentives targeted to providers, consumers, or both, and linked to measures of health care quality and efficiency. These strategies have come to be known generally as value-based purchasing.

Value-based purchasing efforts that focus on providers typically use evidence-based measures of quality, effectiveness, and efficiency to classify or select providers, and to determine how much they are paid. These payment strategies, generally known as "pay for performance" (P4P), may also take into account measures of consumer experience or satisfaction. Most commercial P4P systems use hybrid approaches that combine fee-for-service payment with payment bonuses or withholds that reflect provider performance on specific measures of quality or patient satisfaction.

Value-based systems have encountered various problems related to consumer education and continuity of care that have affected their ability to meet program goals. For example:

* Consumers sometimes associate higher prices with higher quality, leading them to select inefficient, lower-quality health plans with higher premiums.

* Adverse outcomes — and ultimately greater cost — may result when conversions to new evidence-based treatment protocols disrupt care. Disruptions may be especially problematic for patients with serious, chronic illnesses and close ties to their care providers. Although careful targeting of incentives can protect vulnerable patients by identifying those who would most benefit from specialized care, it may also entail additional costs for technical and clinical expertise and for educating and communicating with patients.


Evidence on the impacts of financial incentives in private and public insurance plans is limited, but we do know that:

* In general, financial incentives work best when carefully targeted to a specific population, set of services, or health condition. However, providing high quality, effective care can be expensive, even when it is targeted.

* Incentives that improve care and reduce cost present challenges. For plan administrators, designing and using effective incentives can be technically demanding and administratively expensive. For providers, performance reporting can be time consuming. For consumers, choosing among plan options, providers, and treatments can be difficult.

* If not carefully designed, financial incentives can have unintended adverse consequences, including poorer health outcomes and higher long-term costs.

Comment:  Considerable attention has been paid to controlling health care costs through financial incentives to constrain consumer demand for care (e.g., consumer-directed health care, or CDHC) or to encourage value-based purchasing (e.g., pay for performance, or P4P). This is more than just a theoretical construct since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) "focuses on developing financial incentives to improve quality of care and constrain costs."

A great many readers have told me that they often skip the excepts from the resource, and go straight to my comment. Today's surprise is that I do request that you read the excerpts above so that you understand more clearly why CDHC and P4P are yet other diversions that will not save money and yet would risk adverse outcomes.

(I'll omit the comment that a single payer financing system would bring all of us true consumer choice of health care, absent financial barriers, while providing us value-based purchasing though the power of our own public monopsony. Er... I guess I didn't omit that after all.)

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