The Dark Report wrote about the reference pricing pilot conducted by Safeway, the grocery chain, in collaboration with Anthem, Inc. (NYSE:ANTM), the large health insurance company. The reference pricing program had these elements:
When Safeway employees and their beneficiaries chose a lab that priced its tests below the 60th percentile, the patient qualified for the health plan’s benefits. But if the patient chose a lab with test prices above the 60th percentile, that patient was responsible for the full cost of the test.
Safeway employees and their beneficiaries were given a real-time price checking tool that they could access by web browser and smart phone. This app, developed by Castlight Health, Inc., of San Francisco, showed the prices each lab in the Safeway/Anthem network charged for the same lab test, along with the percentile price of that test.
As reported in JAMA Internal Medicine, Safeway introduced reference pricing into its health insurance design for 15,000 employees in 2011. Three years later, the company and its employees were spending 32% less for clinical laboratory tests and saved $2.57 million during the years 2011 to 2013.
The reference pricing program at Safeway, which focused
primarily on clinical laboratory testing, succeeded because of the large
variability in how different labs price the same tests. For example, as TDR
For a basic metabolic panel, which was the most
commonly prescribed test, prices among different labs ranged from $5.75 to
Prices for a lipid panel ranged from $8.85 to
Typically, a reference pricing arrangement is done to lower
costs, decrease disparities in pricing for similar medical services, and make
health plans more attractive to employers. This is why state health plans are
looking at implementing reference price reimbursement models as a way to reduce
healthcare costs for state employees and other beneficiaries.
North Carolina Providers Respond Negatively to State Reference
North Carolina’s State Health Plan encountered resistance
from the state’s medical community when it attempted to implement a similar
reference-price reimbursement model.
The state’s health plan covers more than 727,000
beneficiaries, including teachers, state employees, retired employees, and
their dependents. It is overseen by the State Treasurer and administered by BlueCross
BlueShield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC).
Pricing for medical lab and pathology services also was set
at 160% of the Medicare rate. The document states, “Except for services
identified by Medicare as CLIA Excluded or CLIA Waiver,
In-Office Laboratory Service fees will be limited to those services for which
you have provided Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina with evidence of
North Carolina’s healthcare providers had no choice but to
agree to the pricing to be included in the state’s provider network, but they
were not happy about the arrangement.
NCHA Warns Hundreds of Providers Could Be Pushed Out of
Hospitals countered with a public relations and lobbying
campaign through the North Carolina Healthcare
Association (NCHA). Soon after Folwell’s announcement, the NCHA issued a
statement claiming that his plan “could force hundreds of providers out of
the State Health Plan network or out of business.” The NCHA estimated the
potential losses to hospitals and health systems at “upwards of $400 million.”
In the statement, NCHA President Steve
Lawler said, “We believe the treasurer is not being transparent about what
this proposal will do to state health plan members and their families.”
As an alternative, the NCHA proposed that the state examine
value-based approaches such as “case management, outcomes-based payment models,
and member education as ways to manage costs.”
The organization established a web page explaining its opposition
to the state’s plan and pushed for legislation that would delay its
Bill 184, which sought to delay implementation of the state’s healthcare
reimbursement plan, passed the state House of Representatives in April, before
stalling in the Senate in May, North
Carolina Health News reported.
Many providers simply refused to sign the necessary
Healthcare reported, even after Folwell agreed to increase the average
rate to 196%. In August, he relented and announced that for 2020, the provider
network will consist of the North Carolina State Health Plan Network—28,000
providers that had signed on to the Clear Pricing Project—plus the Blue Options
PPO Network, which includes providers that had not agreed to the new pricing.
That makes for a total of more than 68,000 providers, states
release from the treasurer’s office. After the change was announced,
providers in the State Health Plan Network were permitted to revert to the Blue
Options PPO Network rates.
States may approach implementing reference pricing in
different ways, which will likely lead to a distinct disparity in outcomes. Nevertheless,
whatever approach is used, medical laboratories and pathology groups will want
to understand how reference pricing works and how it may be implemented in
Armed with that understanding, they may want to pursue a
proactive strategy of aligning the prices of their lab tests to be at the 50th percentile
or lower to avoid being the highest-priced labs in their communities and
Now that hospitals’ medical laboratory test prices are
required to be easily accessible to patients, researchers are beginning to compile
test prices across different hospitals and in different states to document and
publicize the wide variation in what different hospital labs charge for the
same medical laboratory tests.
Journalists are jumping on the price transparency bandwagon
too. That’s because readers show strong interest in stories that cover the
extreme range of low to high prices providers will charge for the same lab
test. This news coverage provides patients with a bit more clarity than
hospitals and other providers might prefer.
Shocking Variations in Price of Healthcare
Services, including Medical Laboratory Tests
The Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI) in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), examines price levels of various procedures and medical laboratory tests at healthcare institutions across the United States in the first release of a series called Healthy Marketplace Index. According to the HCCI website, “a common blood test in Beaumont, Texas ($443) costs nearly 25 times more than the same test in Toledo, Ohio ($18).”
In April, the New
York Times (NYT) made the wide variation
in how clinical laboratories price their tests the subject of an article titled,
“They Want It to Be Secret: How a Common Blood Test Can Cost $11 or Almost
$1,000.” The article discusses the HCCI findings.
The coverage by these two well-known entities is increasing the
public’s awareness of the broad variations in pricing at clinical laboratories
around the country.
Aside from the large differences in medical laboratory test
prices in different regions, the HCCI found that there are sometimes huge price
variations within a single metro area for the same lab tests. “In just one
market—Tampa, Fla.—the most expensive blood test costs 40 times as much as the
least expensive one,” the NYT notes.
In other industries, those kinds of price discrepancies are
not common. The NYT made a comparatively outrageous example using
ketchup, saying, “A bottle of Heinz ketchup in the most expensive store in a
given market could cost six times as much as it would in the least expensive
store,” adding, however, that most bottles of ketchup tend to cost about the
The CMS mandate designed to make the prices of medical services accessible to healthcare consumers has, in many ways, made things more confusing. For example, most hospitals simply made their chargemaster available to consumers. Chargemasters can be confusing, even to industry professionals, and are filled with codes that make no sense to the average consumer and patient.
“This policy is a tiny step forward but falls far short of what’s needed. The posted prices are fanciful, inflated, difficult to decode and inconsistent, so it’s hard to see how an average person would find them useful,” Jeanne Pinder, Founder and Chief Executive of Clear Health Costs, a consumer health research organization, told the NYT in an article on how hospitals are complying with the mandate to publish prices.
In addition to the pricing information being difficult for
consumers to parse, it also may lead them to believe they would need to pay
much more for a given procedure than they would actually be billed, resulting
in patients opting to not get care they actually need.
Why Having a Strategy Is Critically
Important for Clinical Laboratories
Clinical laboratories are in a particularly precarious position in all of this pricing confusion. For one thing, most hospital-based medical laboratories don’t have a way to communicate directly with consumers, so they don’t have a way to explain their pricing. Additionally, articles and studies such as those in the NYT and from the HCCI, which describe drastic price variations for the same tests, tend to cast clinical laboratories in a somewhat sinister light.
To prepare for this, medical laboratory personnel should be
trained in how to address customer requests for pricing and how to explain
variations in test prices among labs, before such requests become problematic. Lab
staff should be able to explain how patients can find out the cost of a given
test, and what choices they have regarding specific tests.
In 2016, Dark Daily’s sister-publication, The Dark Report (TDR), dedicated an entire issue to the impact of reference pricing on the clinical laboratory industry. In that issue, TDR reported on how American supermarket chain Safeway helped guide their employees to lower-priced clinical laboratories for lab tests, resulting in $2.7 million savings for the company in just 24 months. Safeway simply implemented reference pricing; the company analyzed lab test prices of 285 tests for all of the labs in its network, and then set the maximum amount it would pay for any given test at the 60th percentile.
If a Safeway employee selected a medical laboratory with prices less than the 60th percentile, the normal benefits and co-pays applied. But if a Safeway employee went to clinical laboratories that charged more than the 60th percentile level, they were required to pay both their deductible and the amount above Safeway’s maximum.
Safeway’s strategy revealed wide variation in testing
prices, just as the HCCI report found. This means that employers can be added
to the list of those who are paying much closer attention to medical laboratory
test pricing than they have in the past. These are developments that should
motivate forward-looking pathologists and clinical laboratory executives to act
sooner rather than later to craft an effective strategy for responding to consumer
and patient requests for lab test price transparency.
While multiple studies show reference pricing is an effective approach to reduce the cost of testing and procedures, medical laboratories and consumers alike must continue to focus on quality to ensure positive outcomes
That issue of The Dark Report also highlights a similar use of reference pricing by CalPERS (California Public Retirement System) that involved hip and knee replacement surgeries. CalPERS saw a 30% reduction in the cost of these surgeries after 12 months.
These highly publicized efforts have fueled interest in how reference pricing might work for other businesses, insurers, and the US government. The 2014 Protecting Access to Medicare Act (PAMA) is already collecting private payer rates paid to laboratories for tests. This data will then be used to create new rate-based fee schedules in 2018.
Speaking with Joseph Burns, Managing Editor of The Dark Report, about the outcome and potential rise of reference pricing, study author James C. Robinson, PhD, of University of California Berkeley noted that, “Any discussion about how to contain inappropriate healthcare utilization is challenging. By contrast, significant price variation is the low-hanging fruit. Employers would much rather save money by having patients travel to cheaper clinical labs than get into some esoteric discussion about whether a clinical procedure is appropriate or not.”
Quality is Key to Both Avoiding Price Erosion and Improving Patient Outcomes
“Differences among providers in quality can eliminate any cost advantages,” stated Binder in the Forbes article. “Some purchasers assume they can get around this problem by targeting reference pricing only for procedures that don’t vary in quality. When quality is all the same, decisions can pivot on price alone. Unfortunately, no such procedures exist. Extreme variation is the hallmark of our healthcare system.”
As reference pricing continues to force more consumers to shoulder a portion of medical laboratory testing costs, prices for more expensive laboratories are likely to continue eroding unless they can convince consumers that their services are higher quality or produce better results. (Graphic copyright: California Public Retirement System.)
Binder cites a study in Spine Journal’s April 2017 issue regarding diagnostic error rates for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The study involved a 63-year-old woman seeking relief from low back pain. Over a three-week span, she received 10 different scans. These scans resulted in 49 different findings. Of these findings, none were repeated across all 10 scan reports provided to her physician.
“As a result,” the study’s authors concluded, “where a patient obtains his or her MRI examination, and which radiologist interprets the examination, may have a direct impact on radiological diagnosis, subsequent choice of treatment, and clinical outcome.”
Binder reinforced this, stating, “Purchasers should still pursue reference pricing and try to incorporate considerations of utilization and quality to the extent they have the data. Never assume any procedure is like a commodity—largely the same quality everywhere.”
High-Cost Medical Laboratories Likely to Face a Decision Between Volume or Price Erosion
Thus, for pathology groups and medical laboratories in the upper percentiles for their region, referencing pricing is likely to impact volume. Even if adoption of reference pricing by payers or self-insured business groups remains stable, price cuts due to PAMA loom on the horizon. As reported by Dark Daily in December 2016, price cuts to the Part B clinical laboratory fee schedule could add up to $400 million in reduced Medicare payments in 2018 alone.
This is particularly troublesome for hospital laboratory outreach programs, where Medicare patients commonly represent 40% to 70% of outreach lab volumes. The combination of reduced volume and reduced Medicare pricing could have dire financial consequences.
It will remain essential for medical laboratories to differentiate their services from those of lower-cost competitors to avoid volume and price erosion. Continuing to optimize test utilization, improving laboratory efficiency, and emphasizing the value of services rendered will help to further strengthen lab positions and reduce the impact of coming change.
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