Cost Containment and Cost Shifting

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at Health Law Profs.]

With Harvard professors protesting their increased responsibility for health care costs, we are seeing just the most visible aspect of the recurring cycle described in “Tragic Choices.” As Guido Calabresi and Philip Bobbitt observed in that book, society tries to defuse societal conflict by hiding its rationing choices through implicit forms of rationing. Thus, for example, health care insurers relied on managed care organizations in the 1990’s to contain health care costs with the premise that managed care would preserve health care access and quality while squeezing the fat out of the health care system.

But after a time, the public realizes what’s going on and rebels against the implicit rationing policy. Hence, managed care’s effective cost containment strategies, such as limited networks of physicians or primary care gatekeeping, were dumped, and health care costs began to climb again.

What did health care insurers turn to after abandoning serious managed care? Shifting more of the costs of health care to patients through higher deductibles and higher copayments. Insurers didn’t need to identify limits on their coverage because individuals would respond to their higher out-of-pocket costs by hesitating to seek care. Costs would be contained by “market forces” rather than rationing. But the Harvard professors and other Americans are now rebelling against the shifting-of-costs policy, just as Calabresi and Bobbitt predicted in 1978. (Indeed, they even included the shifting of costs as an example of an implicit rationing strategy.)

Of course, cost shifting raises a number of concerns, including the fact that patients often do not distinguish well between necessary and unnecessary care when cutting back their doctor visits in response to cost shifting.

Where do we go from here? The Affordable Care Act includes many provisions designed to reward high quality care, and maybe we’ll see some meaningful cost containment out of them. But more likely, health care insurers will need to find another form of implicit rationing that will work for a while until the public rejects it.

For more discussion of the “Tragic Choices” cycle and the change from rationing through managed care to rationing through cost shifting, see here. For more discussion of the barriers to explicit rationing, see here.