Why Is It So Difficult To Reduce The Cost Of Care?

This post was originally featured on EMRandHIPAA.

By refusing to pay for readmissions within 30 days of discharge from a hospital, Medicare has sent a strong message across the healthcare industry: < 30 day readmissions should be avoided at all costs. As a result, providers and vendors are doing everything in their power to avoid < 30 day readmissions.

This seems like a simple way to reduce costs, right? Well, not quite…

The vast majority of costs of care delivery are fixed: capital expenditures, facilities and diagnostics, 24/7 staffing, administrative overhead, etc. In other words, it’s extremely expensive just to “keep the lights on.” There are some variable costs in healthcare delivery – such as medications and unnecessary tests – but the marginal costs of diagnostics and treatments are small relative to the enormous fixed costs of delivering care.

Thus, Medicare’s < 30 day readmission policy doesn’t really address the fundamental cost problem in healthcare. If costs were linearly bound by resource utilization, than reducing readmissions (and thus utilization) should lead to meaningful cost reduction. But given the reality of enormous fixed costs, it’s extremely difficult to move down the cost curve. To visualize:

Medicare’s < 30 day readmission policy is a bandaid – not a cure – to the underlying cost problem. The policy, however, reduces Medicare’s outlays to providers. Rather than reduce (or expand, depending on your point of view) the size of the pie, Medicare has simply dictated that it will keep a larger share of the metaphorical pie for itself. Medicare is simply squeezing providers. One could argue that providers are bloated and that Medicare needs to squeeze providers to drive down costs. But this is intrinsically a superficial strategy, not a strategy that addresses the underlying cost problems in healthcare delivery.

So how can we actually address the fixed-cost problem of healthcare? Please leave a comment. Input is welcome.