Health Care Cost Institute Sparks Debate with Landmark Data Set

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As the volume of patient data that forms the foundation of the recently released Health Care Cost and Utilization Report: 2010 carries enough weight to stand on its own, all that's left for people on the sidelines to do is comment on its usage.

The report has become fodder for pundits of all stripes because its key finding undercuts all the finger-pointing that has emerged among disappearing reimbursement dollars: it's the cost of care, not a lack of availability nor of utilization, that's behind the big medical bills Americans face.

Not that that will stop anyone from naming a scapegoat.

"The medical imaging industry, or at least its leading trade group, would have us believe it’s 'unsettling' that pricey medical imaging procedures like CT scans and MRIs are on the decline," writes Brandon Glenn of MedCItyNews.com. "A drop in imaging procedures is a problem for few besides those who make money from imaging. For everyone else, it represents one small way of slowing exploding U.S. health costs."

Fierce Health Payer blames "hospitals and drugmakers" for "raising prices faster than inflation," as the study, prepared by the nonpartisan Health Care Cost Institute using patient data from four of the biggest insurers in the country, illustrates that outpatient services have climbed at a rate more than six times that of inflation.

According to Kaiser Health News, the results are simpatico with its own calculations of "a cumulative 138 percent increase in job-based insurance premiums between 1999 and 2010," yet the group says insurers maintain that they "are often outgunned in contract negotiations by hospitals," and only pass along whatever costs are necessary to maintain a thin profit margin.

What's the takeaway? Less reliance on data principally concerned with the elderly, says Washington Post blogger Sarah Kliff:

"While the 30 million Medicare patients make for a large dataset, they do have the distinct statistical disadvantage of all being elderly," she says.

"With the HCCI database, researchers can understand better what’s happening to the 87 percent of the population under 65. Preliminary research suggests that there are indeed different things happening in each age group: While health care costs grew 4.5 percent for the under-18 population between 2009 and 2010, the rate of change was half that for older adults between 45 and 54."

Simply put, there's enough data here to make any stats geek drool, but the one piece of analysis that emerges is this: prices have to come down across the board. That should be enough motivation for decision-makers to work together to shoulder the burden of that cross instead of chasing one another with hammer and nails.