Are Massachusetts healthcare costs ok after all?

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The best defense is a good offense. I assume that’s what Partners HealthCare CEO David Torchiana had in mind when he penned First do no harm in the Boston Globe. In a nutshell, he argues that healthcare costs in Massachusetts are more affordable for businesses and individuals than elsewhere in the country, that they are becoming relatively more affordable, and that the state should resist the urge to impose further cost controls.

I’ve made similar arguments about affordability myself. See for example, Massachusetts: Land of affordable health insurance from back in 2011.

And yet…

While Massachusetts has retained its affordability relative to other states, healthcare is taking up a higher and higher percentage of family’s incomes, including in Massachusetts. Medicaid and other healthcare spending dominates the state government’s spending growth, squeezes out discretionary initiatives for priorities such as education, and necessitates the tough budget cuts Governor Charlie Baker is making.

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose eyebrows were raised by Torchiana’s sanguine perspective.

Partners also should not claim too much credit for the reasonableness of healthcare spending in Massachusetts, considering that its own costs are among the highest. Despite receiving substantially higher reimbursement from commercial payers than other providers and enjoying a richer payer mix, Partners recently reported a record loss of $108 million for the year. Meanwhile, its smaller rivals –including those who treat a higher proportion of Medicaid patients and receive lower commercial reimbursement rates– are reporting better financial results.

If Partners had remained just Massachusetts General Hospital and the Brigham & Women’s Hospital I don’t think its executives and lobbyists would have to expend so much effort fending off the state. Massachusetts residents are justifiably proud of the worldwide reputations of these hospitals, which draw tremendous research dollars from the NIH and elsewhere, attract patients from around the world, and are equipped with the medical expertise and equipment to treat the most complex conditions.

No, the issue is that over the years Partners has dramatically expanded its footprint throughout the region, buying up or partnering with community hospitals and physician practices, and expanding its own overheads as it grapples with the balance between central and devolved management. Partners is now in the business of providing routine care throughout the region, and that helps drive up costs and puts the company in the spotlight. As the state grapples with bringing costs in line with benchmarks, Partners cannot expect to be given a free pass.

So there are a couple of alternatives: #1: Partners can bring its own costs closer in line with rivals or #2 it can divest its community assets and focus on being a great academic medical center. From what I can see, Partners is pursuing a light version of #1 while simultaneously slowing its plans to further expand in the community and mounting a charm and lobbying offensive with the state and the public.

By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

 

 

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