When asked about health care innovations, especially practices directed at controlling costs, most policymakers and wonks point to private sector solutions, such as the cost-constraining effects of HMOs in the 1990′s or today’s ideation of consumer-directed health plans. But is this conventional wisdom wrong? What about public sector health policies, most notably in Medicare or Medicaid?

In a fascinating new book, two top thought leaders show how a powerful and complex Medicare payment formula led to fundamental changes across the health care system, facilitating a dramatic power shift from providers (hospitals and physicians) to buyers (Medicare, Medicaid, and employers).

Influence of Medicare PPS on U.S. Health System:

In Medicare Prospective Payment and the Shaping of U.S. Health Care, Rick Mayes, Ph.D. and Robert A. Berenson, M.D. describe how Medicare’s transformation from retrospective, cost-based payment methods to prospective payment systems (PPS) “both initiated and repeatedly intensified the economic restructuring of the U.S. health care system.” In addition to providing a thoughtful history of Medicare PPS from a research concept to the single most powerful financial driver in health care, Drs. Mayes and Berenson make the case that the public sector has been the major innovator.

In building their case and exploring how PPS works in the real world, they interviewed 65 health financing experts, including several former CMS administrators. Bob Berenson and Rick Mayes do a nice job challenging conventional wisdom, which in health policy is always a good thing.

Earlier in my career, I cut my teeth on PPS at the White House Office of Management and Budget, where my scope included Medicare Part A and hospital reimbursement policy. Therefore, for me, Medicare Prospective Payment and the Shaping of U.S. Health Care made for a particularly intriguing read. But you don’t need to be a Medicare wonk to understand and benefit from this crisp, well-written book.

Prospective Payment Systems in a Nutshell:

Medicare%20PPS%20in%20Nutshell.jpgOld style cost-based or retrospective systems are inherently inflationary, reward inefficient providers, and reimburse largely for factors unrelated to the patient. In a nutshell, prospective payment is based on reimbursing health care providers for factors outside their control – notably the diagnosis and other relevant characteristics of the patient and outside, industry-wide factors like inflation and geographic variation in wage rates.

Under a prospective payment system (PPS), a provider receives a fixed payment to cover an episode of care during a period of time. The payment formulas are highly complex, with many adjustments to address everything from outliers, teaching-related costs, and uncompensated care to more purely political issues. The idea is to set the bundled, prospective payment on what it costs an efficient provider to serve the patient. The efficient players make money; the inefficient lose money.

Every year, rates are modified to reflect inflation or technical refinements. However, annual increases are often driven by federal budget constraints or attempts to moderate provider profit margins. Also, because PPS is about promoting economic efficiency, payments have little to do with quality of care or patient safety – hence, recent interest in adding elements of Pay for Performance (P4P) into the system.

Medicare began using the PPS approach for inpatient hospital services in 1983-84. Through a series of Congressional changes, PPS-based approaches are now used in Medicare to pay outpatient hospital services, skilled nursing facilities, home health agencies, and hospice organizations. While each provider type has its own kind of prospective payment method, the concept is the same. Prospective payment is also used heavily by state Medicaid programs and employer-sponsored health plans.