DRG Summary for Medicare Hospital Payments


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SUMMARY – Medicare Hospital Payments 

Medicare does not rely on hospital billings but on data built over decades as to the reasonable cost of services. Some may question the absolute amount of Medicare reimbursements but the relative payment scales are extensively validated by actual data.  Conversely, this analysis shows hospital pricing has inconsistencies that cannot be rationally explained.

However, private insurers negotiate discounts from these hospital pricings. If billed prices are inconsistent, then so are discounts based on them. A major constraint on medical costs will occur when patients can make informed cost decisions at the DRG level, not just for overall premiums and co-pays. Currently, few persons can make those informed decisions.

Many states have enacted legislation for hospitals to be more transparent about their prices, but enforcement is spotty.  This Medicare data suggests that the country would be well served if hospitals posted DRG prices for all to compare.

METHODOLOGY

In May, 2013 Medicare released its most comprehensive set ever of statistical data regarding hospital payments.  The data covered fiscal year 2011 and included the top 100 DRG’s (diagnostic related codes) based on inpatient discharges. Data excludes DRG’s for hospitals with fewer than 11 discharges for that DRG. This allows focus on higher volume services and their financial impact.  The final data set of the top 100 DRG’s results in over 166,000 records of nearly 7 million discharges from over 3,300 hospitals.

The data itself lists for DRG’s for each hospital, the number of discharges, the average covered (billed) charges, and the average total payment including Medicare. Each hospital, also includes its HRR (hospital referral region) which is the method governments use to determine “market areas”.

The chart below from Kaiser Foundation indicates that inpatient hospital is just over a quarter of Medicare spend or about $140 billion annually.

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This analysis examines inpatient service pricing. Step one was to reduce the extreme data, both high and low. To minimize billing overstatement, this analysis removed 51 discharges that were high cost outliers. To minimize billing understatement, the smallest states totaling 10 % of the population and which tend to be more rural and variable were skipped. The sample data covers 6.3 million discharges from over 145,000 records of 100 DRG bills and costs. Total inpatient payments are $61 billion or 40% of total spend.

The data itself was analyzed five different ways.

  1. Percent of average paid vs. average billed, grouped by percent paid quartile
  2. Percent of average paid vs. average billed, grouped by state
  3. Variance from average of billed charges, grouped by state
  4. Variance from average of paid charges, grouped by state
  5. Extremes of 15 largest DRG groups expressed as a ratio of the maximum to minimum billed, along with the number of discharges included in each group

DISCUSSION

% average paid vs average billed, by % paid quartile

The graph below shows 5 sets of bars representing four quartiles 0% to 100% plus a small number of DRG’s that paid more than was billed. The left (gold) bar is the average bill for the four quintiles while the right (blue) bar is the corresponding average paid for each group. The right axis shows average dollars per discharge. Total average billed dollars is $36,384 and ranges from $54,000 highest to $11,867 lowest. Total average paid dollars is $9,754 and ranges from $14,481 highest to $9,548 lowest.

Note the inverse relationship of billed versus paid. One might expect higher billings to result in a lower percentage paid. What was not expected is that the actual dollars paid goes up as the overbilling goes down closer to paid dollars. Clearly billings for lower cost DRG’s bear little resemblance to cost.

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% average paid vs. average billed, grouped by state

The graph below uses the same payment data above but groups results by state.  And rather than two separate bars for billed and paid, there is one bar representing the percent of bill paid. (i.e. paid/billed) equivalent to the blue bar above.

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This graph does highlight the extent of overbilling by state. It does not show either the billed amounts or the paid amounts.  The graph begins with the states with the highest overbilling (and hence lower paid percent) and extends to more realistic levels of overpricing. Maryland at the bottom has billed prices very close to paid, with only a 6% discount to bill.

In the above graph, Illinois payments of 27% billed is the average for these 30 states. States listed above Illinois have more severe overpricing issues than states following Illinois.

“Discounts” from billed rates can have serious side effects. Just to call them discounts is something of a misnomer.  For many, there seems little connection between what it costs and what is billed.  Medicare of course ignores billed prices and pays what the procedures cost plus a margin.  But private insurers do not have the extensive national database that Medicare has. Instead they negotiate “discounts” from billed or list price. But as this graph shows, and as one drills down deeper by hospital, these list prices are all over the map, and that alone can skew private insurance payment amounts.

But two other adverse factors also come into play. The most important is that billed rates are what uninsured people are charged when they require treatment. Most of the uninsured cannot afford the insurance, and should they be hospitalized, things get far worse. Over 60% of personal bankruptcies have medical bills as a significant factor.

Another adverse factor is that hospitals report the amount of uncompensated care that they provide, and are provided tax exempt status if that care exceeds a specific target, and/or get reimbursed for some of these expenses. The computations are far from transparent, and it is quite possible that taxes are avoided or reimbursements received that overstate actual uncompensated care were it calculated as Medicare does.

Variance from average of billed charges, by state

The graph below offers a more close-up view of overbilling. It shows how each state’s average dollar amounts differ from the 30 state billing average of $36,384.

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Data is sorted from the most overbilling at the top to the least at the bottom. Note that Massachusetts, which state closely resembles the Affordable Care Act, has less overpricing (though still 50%) than all other states except Maryland.

Variance from average of paid charges, by state

The graph below is the same format as the prior except using paid instead of amounts. Its scale is also much lower. In the former graph, Maryland had the least overbilling. But as shown below, Maryland has the second most expensive payments following only slightly behind California.

This graph, more than any other highlights the cost-of-living differences between different parts of the country. Larger urban states tend to have higher costs than smaller less urban states. Nevertheless, the $5,000 difference between the extremes reflects costs nearly double from the lowest cost states to the highest.  The financial effect (+30%/-40) seems larger than justified by differences in cost-of-living alone.

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The most obvious difference would be intensity where higher cost states are able to justify more services. Another factor could be the use of more expensive equipment and methods.

Extremes of 15 largest DRG groups expressed as a ratio of maximum to minimum billed, along with the number of discharges included in each group

The graph below represents two different data, each with its own range of values.  The grouping is a selection of 15 of the most frequent DRGs. The wider (green) bars have their value scale shown along the top. The wide bar represents the ratio of the maximum billing divided by the minimum billing – in other words, the ratio of maximum to minimum, the extremes of over-pricing. For instance, the second DRG, “Cellulitis” has its highest billing more than 70 TIMES that of the lowest bill. Bad as that is, the extreme for septicemia is over 100 times the lowest billing. These are extreme differences for closely related illnesses. Sure there are differences in how serious the illness is, but high-low factors greater than 50, not even considering ratios greater than 100 are hard to explain.

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Then there are the narrow (gold) bars. They represent the number of discharges in each DRG group and whose values are shown below the graph. There are over 3.6 million discharges in the data.  One may reasonably conclude that hospital pricing bears little relationship to costs of service. While deep discounts mitigate some of this, discounting just reduces the magnitude but not the irrational pricing itself.

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Link to Medicare Provider Charge Data

Medicare Trends

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SUMMARY

Medicare became law only in 1965 in part to mitigate the adverse effect of rising health care costs on seniors’ income. Those costs were driving many millions of seniors below the poverty line. In the pre Medicare environment, nearly 30% of seniors had fallen below the poverty level. In the intervening years, the percent of seniors with income below poverty level has dropped nearly three times.

While the benefits to seniors have dramatically improved their lot, the cost to society is the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed in Congress.  This report looks at the components that are driving up Medicare costs as well as increasing seniors’ out-of-pocket expenses.

 Overall population is increasing demands for care

As expected, growing populations result in growing health care costs. What is evident from the graph below is that in addition to overall growth, the percent of people 65 years and old is increasing.

Two factors are contributing. One is that the baby boomers as a group are beginning to move into the senior group. They are followed by a drop off (percent wise), in younger people.  Projections refer to the increasing mix of older people with fewer people working to pay into Medicare. But this trend is not permanent, and once the baby boomer “bubble” works its way through the population, the mix of retirees to workers stabilizes.  But that is out past the year 2040, beyond the range of most forecasts.

In short, solve the Medicare problem expected for the next 30 years and only minor changes will likely be needed after that.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 01

Greater life expectancy adds to aging population

The second factor contributing to the growth of seniors is their increasing life expectancy.  The graph below  shows that all major groups of seniors have benefited from better health care. Life expectancy at birth show lower increases.

The question is whether these significant increases will continue into the future.  If they continue, then the percent of seniors will continue to increase.  If trends tend to slow, then the population age mix may stabilize.

On the other end of the age scale, if birth rates rise, this will create a greater percentage of younger people.  And there is some evidence of this occurring, though not equally among different races. 

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 14 

It may be 30 years before age group % stabilizes

On the assumption that the mix of aged people stabilizes in the 2040-2050 range, this still represents a significant change from today where less than 15% of population is 65 and over.  By the time it stabilizes, seniors will represent over 20% of population and may for some time to come beyond that.

Current Medicare premiums assessed on workers is not enough to cover those future costs. Two events clearly need to happen. One is to increase the “premiums” paid into the system.  Options include raising all rates uniformly or raising the wage ceiling on which premiums are based. The other is to take costs out of Medicare.

Another analysis has shown huge discrepancies being paid in Medicare indicating excess care being provided to some and not others that needs to be addressed.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 01

As people get older, their health demands increase

It is common knowledge that seniors slow down as they age.  The graph below shows the five most common reasons seniors reduce their activity level.  As they age, each factor grows in significance.

 Nearly 3 in 10 seniors over 85 will become limited by arthritis or musculoskeletal conditions.  2 in 10 seniors over 85 will be limited by heart or circulatory conditions.  Though climbing with age, vision, hearing and senility are factors in less than 1 in 10 seniors 85 and older.

While the graph shows the number of medical conditions increasing with aging, it does not indicate severity.  But on volume alone, seniors require more health care. This can be mitigated somewhat by more exercise and healthier diets, the two largest slowdown factors. Less can be done about vision, hearing, senility or dementia.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 13 

Medicare a major factor in improving poverty levels

Medicare came law only in 1965 in part to mitigate the adverse effect of rising health care costs on seniors’ income. Those costs were driving many millions of seniors below the poverty line. The success of Medicare was dramatic as shown in the graph below. With pre Medicare environment, nearly 30% of seniors had family income below the poverty level. In the short span of 7 years, the percent of seniors with family income below poverty level dropped to 15%, roughly in half. Gradual reductions since have lowered that threshold to about 10%.  This could partially explain why older seniors are often very protective of their benefits. They remember when there was no safety net.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Figure 04 

 Price inflation creates higher bills for seniors

The graph below highlights cost trends for four groups of people from 1996 to 1996. Except for a slight break around, 1998 – 2000, costs have trended upward every year for every age group. Within each age group there is another consistent trend. Seniors 65-74 years incur only about half the expense that seniors 85 and over do, while those 75-84 years incur more than half again as much as seniors 65-74. This confirms the comments above that as people age, their health demands increase.

Now these data are per enrollee. So price inflation is causing costs for all seniors to rise. As seniors age, their costs continue to rise. And finally, as the baby boomer bubble moves into the senior ranks, the total number of seniors increases dramatically. It is sort of a “perfect storm” where all factors are pointing towards Medicare costs consuming more and more of the nation’s economic output.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 143 

Cost sharing of Medical Expense Also Rising

In nearly all cases where medical expense is incurred, insurance picks up a large share of the costs, but not all. Amounts paid by individuals is called “cost sharing” or deductibles and co-payments, or out-of-pocket expense. Below are 6 age groups that incurred over $2,000 in out-of-pocket expense. This threshold allows a focus on the more expensive medical encounters. Cost sharing for all seniors has consistently risen over the entire period.  Any solutions to rising Medicare costs that reduce benefits, shifting more costs to seniors should at least take into account that seniors have for years, been paying higher out-of-pocket costs for health care. 

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 133

 One Good Example of Government Run Medicare

While overall Medicare costs have continued to rise, there is one component that is trending favorable – Administrative Expense. Early on, there were inefficiencies in Medicare part B as these tended to be smaller dollar claims but the same amount of manual effort to record claims into the system.  As automation and standardization increased, these costs came down such that since 2000, the administrative costs per claim dollar for both hospitals and doctors are roughly equal.

What is far mor telling is that since 2000, these administrative costs have (a) stayed level and (b) averaged just two (2%) of total costs.  In the 1980’s private insurers, primarily non-profit, had administrative costs of about 5%. Today, insurers are frequently incurring administrative costs of more than 20% on large blocks of their businesses.  In at least one area, government appears to have done better.

Source: Center for Disease Control – Health, United States 2008 Table 142

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