We use insurance claims data covering 28% of individuals with employer-sponsored health insurance in the United States to study the variation in health spending on the privately insured, examine the structure of insurer-hospital contracts, and analyze the variation in hospital prices across the nation. Health spending per privately insured beneﬁciary differs by a factor of three across geographic areas and has a very low correlation with Medicare spending. For the privately insured, half of the spending variation is driven by price variation across regions, and half is driven by quantity variation. Prices vary substantially across regions, across hospitals within regions, and even within hospitals. For example, even for a nearly homogeneous service such as lower-limb magnetic resonance imaging, about a ﬁfth of the total case-level price variation occurs within a hospital in the cross section. Hospital market structure is strongly associated with price levels and contract structure. Prices at monopoly hospitals are 12% higher than those in markets with four or more rivals. Monopoly hospitals also have contracts that load more risk on insurers (e.g., they have more cases with prices set as a share of their charges). In concentrated insurer markets the opposite occurs—hospitals have lower prices and bear more ﬁnancial risk. Examining the 366 mergers and acquisitions that occurred between 2007 and 2011, we ﬁnd that prices increased by over 6% when the merging hospitals were geographically close (e.g., 5 miles or less apart), but not when the hospitals were geographically distant (e.g., over 25 miles apart). JEL Codes: I11, L10, L11.
We examined the growth in health spending on people with employer-sponsored private insurance in the period 2007–14. Our analysis relied on information from the Health Care Cost Institute data set, which includes insurance claims from Aetna, Humana, and UnitedHealthcare. In the study period private health spending per enrollee grew 16.9 percent, while growth in Medicare spending per fee-for-service beneficiary decreased 1.2 percent. There was substantial variation in private spending growth rates across hospital referral regions (HRRs): Spending in HRRs in the tenth percentile of private spending growth grew at 0.22 percent per year, while HRRs in the ninetieth percentile experienced 3.45 percent growth per year. The correlation between the growth in HRR-level private health spending and growth in fee-for-service Medicare spending in the study period was only 0.211. The low correlation across HRRs suggests that different factors may be driving the growth in spending on the two populations.
Evidence suggests that growth in providers’ prices drives growth in health care spending on the privately insured. However, existing work has not systematically differentiated between the growth rate of hospital prices and that of physician prices. We analyzed growth in both types of prices for inpatient and hospital-based outpatient services using actual negotiated prices paid by insurers.
We found that in the period 2007–14 hospital prices grew substantially faster than physician prices. For inpatient care, hospital prices grew 42 percent, while physician prices grew 18 percent. Similarly, for hospital-based outpatient care, hospital prices grew 25 percent, while physician prices grew 6 percent. A majority of the growth in payments for inpatient and hospital-based outpatient care was driven by growth in hospital prices, not physician prices.
Our work suggests that efforts to reduce health care spending should be primarily focused on addressing growth in hospital rather than physician prices. Policymakers should consider a range of options to address hospital price growth, including antitrust enforcement, administered pricing, the use of reference pricing, and incentivizing referring physicians to make more cost-efficient referrals.