News, Analysis, Trends, Management Innovations for
Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel

News, Analysis, Trends, Management Innovations for
Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel
Sign In

Administrative Costs Highest in US, According to NEJM and Health Affairs Studies; Reduction Efforts Will Impact Clinical Laboratories

Clinical laboratory test claims make up a substantial proportion of all claims filed each year. Thus, any effort to streamline or reform claims adjudication and administration in the US will alter how labs and pathologists conduct business

Clinical laboratory managers and anatomic pathologists know how costly and complex the US healthcare system can be. However, expenses associated with care and treatment are only part of the total picture. Resources devoted to paperwork and administrative costs apparently increase overall expenditures associated with healthcare to a much higher degree than is generally known.

That’s according to several studies The New York Times reported on in July.

US Administrative Costs Higher than All Other Nations

One study conducted by The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 2003 estimated administrative costs account for approximately 30% of all healthcare expenditures in the US. The researchers examined data from 1999 to reach those conclusions. In today’s economy, those numbers are higher. On average, $5,700 of every $19,000 that US workers and their employers pay for family coverage each year goes towards administrative costs.

A 2014 study published by Health Affairs compared administrative costs for US hospital expenditures to those of seven other countries: Canada, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Wales. This study evaluated data from 2010/2011 and found that hospital administrative costs in the US far exceed rates in other nations. According to the study, administrative costs accounted for:

  • 25.3% of total hospital expenditures in the US;
  • 19.8% in the Netherlands;
  • 15.5% in England; and,
  • 12% in Canada and Scotland.

According to the Health Affairs study, more than $150 billion could have been saved in 2011 by reducing per capita spending for administrative costs to the levels observed in Canada and Scotland.

“The extraordinary costs we see are not because of administrative slack or because healthcare leaders don’t try to economize,” Kevin Schulman, MD, Professor, Department of Medicine, Duke University, and co-author of the Health Affairs study told The New York Times. “The high administrative costs are functions of the system’s complexity.” (Photo copyright: Duke University.)

Complexity of Payer System Partly to Blame

One reason for the costliness in the US healthcare system is the myriad of payers that healthcare organizations have to grapple with to receive payment. Private health insurers and public health programs like Medicare and Medicaid, each have their own procedures, regulations, and forms that need to be submitted to receive payments. This translates to more employee time devoted to billing.

Another factor driving costs is the staff time devoted to the collection of debts. A 2017 Health Affairs study examined medical claims data from 88,000 healthcare providers contracted with Athenahealth to determine the percentage of bills paid within one year from the initial service.

The study found that 93.8% of patient bills under $35 were paid within a year. However, that percentage decreased as the patient obligation increased:

  • 90.5% of patients paid bills between $35 and $75 within one year;
  • 83.7% paid bills between $75 and $200 in the same time period; however,
  • When bills increase to $200 or more, just 66.7% were paid within a year’s time.

Providers wrote off approximately 16% as abandoned or bad debts, with an additional 17% going to collection agencies.

Another study, published in Health Affairs in 2009, surveyed 895 physicians about the time they spent dealing with administrative tasks. On average, physicians reported spending 43 minutes per workday interacting with health plans. This number is the equivalent of three hours/week and almost three weeks/year. Those numbers have reportedly increased since then.

EHRs Do Not Reduce Administrative Costs, Contrary to Belief

Efforts have been made to reduce administrative costs in the US healthcare industry. One such measure involved increased use of certified electronic health record (EHR) systems, which the federal government spent billions of dollars promoting and incentivizing providers to adopt on the claim that EHRs would reduce healthcare costs, in part by removing most of the paperwork.

However, a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported the adoption of EHRs did not reduce administration costs. Researchers at Duke University and Harvard Business School utilized a cutting-edge accounting method to determine the administrative costs within a large academic healthcare system that was using a certified EHR.

Their study determined the administrative costs for processing a single medical bill ranged from $20 for a doctor visit to $215 for an inpatient surgical procedure. These costs accounted for 3%-25% of total professional revenue for the provided services.

“We need to understand better how complexity is driving these enormous costs within the system, costs that do not add value to patients, employers, or providers,” noted Barak Richman, JD, PhD, Duke University School of Law and Margolis Center for Health Policy, one of the study’s authors.

Clinical Lab Test Claims a Major Portion of Administrative Costs

Nevertheless, administrative costs are a necessary part of doing business and not always as negative as perceived. An article published by Health Affairs in 1992 divided administrative costs in the healthcare industry into four categories:

  • Transaction-related: claims processing, billing, admissions, and tracking employee hiring/terminations;
  • Benefits Management: quality assurance, plan design, statistical and internal analyses, and management information systems;
  • Selling and Marketing: strategic planning, underwriting, and advertising; and,
  • Regulatory and Compliance: waste management, licensing requirements, and discharge planning.

“We hope that this work is the first step toward informing policy solutions that could reduce these non-value-added costs largely hidden within the healthcare system,” Schulman stated in a Duke University news release.

The issue of costly paperwork and administrative expenditures is significant for the clinical laboratory profession as lab test claims make up a substantial portion of all medical claims filed annually. Efforts to streamline or reform claims adjudication and administration will have an impact on the way clinical labs and anatomic pathology groups conduct business in the future.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Hidden from View: The Astonishingly High Administrative Costs of U.S. Health Care

NEJM: Costs of Health Care Administration in the United States and Canada

Heath Affairs: A Comparison of Hospital Administrative Costs in Eight Nations: US Costs Exceed All Others by Far

Heath Affairs: Inside the Black Box of Administrative Costs

Heath Affairs: As Patients Take on More Costs, Will Providers Shoulder the Burden?

Heath Affairs: What Does It Cost Physician Practices to Interact with Health Insurance Plans?

Electronic Health Records Don’t Reduce Administrative Costs

Simplifying Administration of Health Insurance

Studies Show How Clinical Whole-Exome Sequencing May Forever Change the Future Practice of Medicine while Giving Pathologists a New Opportunity to Deliver Value

Similar study of exome sequencing at UCLA produces findings that mirror the diagnostic outcomes produced by researchers at the three Houston organizations

In recent years, pathologists and other clinical laboratory professionals have seen increasing evidence of the benefits of using exome sequencing for clinical diagnostic purposes.

Confirming their initial published findings of a 25% molecular diagnostic rate, researchers from Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), Baylor Human Genome Center, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston have released results of a large sampling of 2,000 consecutive patients.

In this expanded study, published in the November 12, 2014, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 504 patients (25.2%) received a molecular diagnosis and 92 patients (4.6%) benefitted from medical intervention to ameliorate or eliminate negative symptoms. (more…)

Attention Pathologists and Clinical Laboratory Professionals: New ‘Sunshine Act’ Requirements Will Track and Publish Financial Relationships Providers Have with Healthcare Vendors

Some physicians fear disclosure of payments by drug and medical device companies could damage patient confidence and physician-patient relationships

Over the course of 2014, pathologists and medical laboratory managers will experience a different relationship with in vitro diagnostic (IVD) manufacturers and other lab industry vendors. That’s because a new federal law requires vendors to publicly disclose financial and other arrangements they have with providers.

That law is the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, and it became effective on August 21, 2013. The intent of this new law is to shed light on financial aspects of relationships between physicians and healthcare vendors.

Vendors Must Disclose All ‘Transfers of Value’ They Made to Providers

Vendors are now required to publicly disclose all payments—or “transfers of value”—to providers where the value is more than $10 or an aggregate amount of $100 annually. Manufacturers and providers, therefore, must report payments for speaking engagements, consulting fees, research grants, travel reimbursements, stock, and even small trinkets and meals during routine sales visits.

This includes medical device and medical equipment manufacturers, group purchasing organizations, pharmaceutical firms, software companies, physicians, and teaching hospitals, noted an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The Sunshine Act also requires manufacturers and group purchasing organizations to report certain information regarding ownership or investment interests of physicians in their companies.

Data collected must be reported to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and will be compiled into a database. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is expected to publish the information on a public website for the first time in September 2014. HHS also will include this information in an annual report to Congress.

Study Revealed Extent of Physician-Vendor Financial Relationships

The NEJM article noted the extent of vendor-physician financial relationships by citing a 2007 study. This study revealed that 94% of U.S. physicians had an industry financial relationship. The study found that 83% of physicians received gifts and 28% received payments for professional services, such as consulting or research participation. Of physicians reporting industry relationships, 60% were involved in medical education and 40% in creating clinical practice guidelines.

By 2001, commercial vendors had also become the major source of research and development funding, accounting for 55% to 60% of the $100 billion annually spent on these activities. Additionally, commercial funding for continuing medical education (CME) has also increased, with the industry now paying for more than a third of all CME offerings.

Requirements of the Sunshine Act are particularly familiar to companies that have been sued by the federal government for allegedly making payments to physicians to encourage them to improperly market drugs for off-label uses or as kickbacks to get them to use specific devices. In settlements with the government to resolve the charges, these companies have signed corporate integrity agreements, noted a report in Modern Healthcare. Under these settlements, dozens of companies, including Eli Lilly and Co., Novartis, and Pfizer, disclosed their financial arrangements with physicians.

Will Disclosure of Payments Hurt Physician-Patient Relationships? 

Congress passed this law in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to thwart the influence of financial perks on physician choice of vendor products and healthcare costs. Research has indicated that disclosure of physician-vendor financial relationships may bring down healthcare costs.

Patients “might be less inclined to accept treatment recommendations from these physicians or even to receive care from them,” noted authors of the NEJM article. “Given the evidence that greater physician financial involvement with manufacturers is associated with higher utilization of expensive, brand-name products, such dynamics could reduce costs.”

Attorney David Hoffmeister, a Partner at the global law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, agrees. In a Medsider interview, he suggested that smart, computer-savvy patients are likely to seek out this information.

Attorney David Hoffmeister is a partner in the law firm of Wilson Sonsi Goodrich & Rosati. When it comes to public reporting about vendor payments to physicians, he believes a significant number of computer-savvy patients will look for such information about their physicians’ financial relationships with commercial vendors and judge them accordingly. (Photo copyright Wilson Sonsi Goodrich & Rosati)

Attorney David Hoffmeister is a partner in the law firm of Wilson Sonsi Goodrich & Rosati. When it comes to public reporting about vendor payments to physicians, he believes a significant number of computer-savvy patients will look for such information about their physicians’ financial relationships with commercial vendors and judge them accordingly. (Photo copyright Wilson Sonsi Goodrich & Rosati)

In light of the number of people seeking healthcare information on websites, such as WebMD, it is apparent “there are some folks who are going to be very interested in what type of remuneration their physicians receive from medical device companies,” said Hoffmeister. He noted that, if undergoing a hip replacement or knee replacement, for example, smart patients might look at the HHS website to determine whether or not their physicians have received significant remuneration from the manufacturers of those devices.

Will Transparency End Cozy Physician-Vendor Relationships?

Although HHS intends the website to inform the general public, Hoffmeister noted that the information may not be useful to anyone other than prosecutors or investigators.  The concern of physicians about disclosure was voiced at the American Medical Association’s (AMA) annual meeting in June. The greatest fear about the new law expressed by physicians was that it would cause patients to question their reasons for prescribing a certain drug if the HHS data links them to a drug company. In turn, that may ultimately affect the patient-physician relationship.

“Whether transparency will lead to fewer relationships is really the million-dollar question,” said Daniel Carla, M.D., Director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Prescription Project. “The kinds of relationships that may drop off may well be the most inappropriate relationships.” He suggested, however, that drug and device companies are expected to seek new ways to keep frustrated doctors from walking away from valued consulting and research relationships.


Daniel Carla, M.D., (pictured here) is Director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Prescription Project. He is unsure if disclosure will actually end or limit physician financial relationships with commercial vendors. He suggested that drug and device companies will find loop holes in the new law to retain valued research and consulting relationships. (Photo copyright of National Physicians Alliance.)

Daniel Carla, M.D., (pictured here) is Director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Prescription Project. He is unsure if disclosure will actually end or limit physician financial relationships with commercial vendors. He suggested that drug and device companies will find loop holes in the new law to retain valued research and consulting relationships. (Photo copyright of National Physicians Alliance.)

AMA Encourages Doctors to Take Advantage of Disclosure Review Period

Though the burden for collecting and reporting data falls on industry vendors, the AMA is encouraging doctors to review vendor disclosures and demand correction of inaccuracies. The law provides 45 days for physicians to review industry disclosures before submission to the CMS. The CMS will indicate the data is in dispute, but it’s up to vendors to make corrections, noted the Modern Healthcare report.

Some hospitals are educating their physicians about the potential impact of the Sunshine Act. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, for instance, began strengthening its conflict-of-interest policy more than two years ago to address relationships between physicians and commercial interests.

Medical Laboratory Professionals Affected by ‘Sunshine Act’ Too

The law has already changed policies and practices of in vitro diagnostics (IVD) companies and other lab industry vendors. Because this law calls for tracking and public reporting of the various types of incentives and remuneration provided by IVD manufacturing and supply firms, every pathologist and medical laboratory professional should be aware of this law’s requirements. They will also want to follow guidelines established by their parent organizations or hospital institutions regarding vendor remuneration.

It is also important to know that the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed) introduced stricter new ethics guidelines for its members in recent years. This combination of industry guidelines and federal legislation is why many IVD manufacturers, healthcare informatics companies, and other lab industry vendors have revised their policies for remunerating pathologists and clinical laboratory professionals for various technology development and evaluation services. It is also why lab industry vendors have changed the policies that govern how they provide sponsorships and grants in support of medical lab industry meetings and conferences.

—By Patricia Kirk

Related Information:

Already feeling the heat: Docs rethinking payments as Sunshine Act looms

The Sunshine Act — Effects on Physicians

Physician Payment Sunshine Act: Listing of Policy and Medicine Resources for Open Payments

Finally, Final Rule on the Physician Payments Sunshine Act under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Released

AdvaMed Ethics Guidelines

Study of Urologists Who Refer Patients for Imaging to Facilities They Own is Published by the New England Journal of Medicine

Radiology and pathology associations are supporting a new bill in Congress to address self-referrals made by urologists

Criticism is mounting against urologists who refer their patients to radiation providers in which they have an ownership relationship. This criticism is strikingly similar to concerns that pathologists and others have expressed about situations where urologists refer their patients to anatomic pathology laboratories in which they have an ownership relationship.

Study about Radiation Therapy Referrals Published in NEJM (more…)

More Use of Whole Gene Sequencing Poised to Play Important New Roles in Microbiology and Medical Laboratory Testing

Cheaper, faster, and more accurate rapid gene sequencing technologies show great promise in identifying infectious disease agents

In clinical laboratories across the nation, microbiology has greatly benefited from the introduction of molecular diagnostics in clinical practice. Now the field of microbiology is poised to undergo a more profound transformation of clinical practice, due to advances in whole genome sequencing.

Leaders in this field are calling these developments “transformative” and say they have the potential to change “all aspects of microbiology.” The driver to this emerging trend is advanced technology that makes it possible to sequence the whole gene sequence of an organism in a day or less, for a cost that is $1,000 and falling rapidly.

In the past six months, microbiologists and pathologists at such hospitals as Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, have begun to do whole genome sequencing of microbes found in specimens collected from patients arriving in the emergency room. The New York Times wrote about these developments in a story titled “The New Generation of Microbe Hunters,” that it published on August 29, 2011.