In previous notes about medical tourism, particularly with regard to Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, I referenced the fact that hospitals abroad were offering pre-priced treatment packages for selected patients for operations such as hip replacement (see: Interview with Bumrungrad Group CEO, Curt Schroeder). I say selected here because patients were required to be examined by a Bumrungrad doctor before being offered any such surgical package. This was obviously a means to identify patients with multi-organ disease who might be not expected to do well post-operatively and for whom pre-payment could result in losses. This approach to care has now arrived in the US with some companies like Lowe's offering "free" surgery to its employees (see: Some Firms Save Money By Offering Employees Free Surgery). Below is an excerpt with details:
Lowe's home improvement company, like a growing number of large companies nationwide, offers its employees an eye-catching benefit: Certain major surgeries at prestigious hospitals are free....Here's how the program works: Lowe's and other employers pay one flat rate for a particular procedure from any of a number of hospitals they've selected for its quality.....[U]nder the agreement, the hospital handles all the treatment within a certain time frame — the surgery, the physical therapy and any complications that arise — all for that one price....[M]ore than 700 Lowe's employees have taken the company up on its offer....The Pacific Business Group on Health negotiates that [fixed] price for Lowe's, Walmart and a number of other large employers. Associate director Olivia Ross oversees these deals, and says her team is able to negotiate rates that are 20 to 30 percent below what the companies used to pay for the procedures....And, because the hospital is responsible for all that care, the institution has a strong incentive to be careful and thorough....Lowe's initially had trouble wrangling all a patient's medical records from local doctors. And the company found that patients who had questions weeks or months after an operation sometimes had trouble following up with the out-of-town doctor who had performed the surgery."....In addition to cutting the cost of procedures, another chunk of savings to the companies came from avoiding surgeries that probably shouldn't happen in the first place.....What typically happens in these cases, she says, is that employees get a recommendation from a local doctor that they should have surgery, only to have physicians at the selected hospitals deem the operation inappropriate.In some cases that may be because the employee hasn't first tried less invasive treatments, such as physical therapy....
The term "free" in this article needs further explanation. It probably means that the employee undergoing surgery is not responsible for any out-of-pocket expenses such as deductibles, co-pays, or co-insurance. Another major benefit is that the patients are being operated on at well-known hospitals where I will assume that the volume of surgical cases is higher and better postoperative results can be anticipated. One of the reason that these larger hospitals can offer these 20 to 30 percent reductions to Lowe's via Pacific Business Group is that they have refined "the book" on various types of surgical procedures and, in so doing, have been able to squeeze out excess costs.
In a note almost four years ago about "Big Med," I discuss how super-regional health systems would be offering service like various surgical procedures at a reduced price (see: The Transition to "Big Med": Need for Emphasis on Standardization and Cost). Here's a quote from that note: Large “super-regional” health-care systems will compete aggressively on price and drive smaller hospitals out of business or force them to affiliate with these very large health systems. All of us need to ponder how this will change healthcare delivery as it exists today. Needless to say, a diminishing number of surgeries as smaller hospitals will drive further consolidation.
One of the most interesting points in the excerpt above is that Lowe's is realizing unexpected savings from the elimination of unnecessary cases that may had been recommended by a local surgeon but called out as unnecessary when the patients were referred to the larger hospitals. The bigger hospitals probably have enough volume that they were wiling to do so and are probably also eager to develop a positive relationship with Lowe's and Pacific Business Group. This is a sad but true commentary on the frequency of unnecessary procedures under our current fee-for-service approach.