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A New Approach To Cutting MA’s Health Costs: Throw Spaghetti

(401k/flickr)

By Rachel Zimmerman and Carey Goldberg

When Massachusetts passed sweeping health insurance reform in 2006, a crucial piece was missing from the landmark legislation: how to control rising medical costs.

Today, state lawmakers unveiled an ambitious new proposal to do just that, including new ways to pay doctors and hospitals, a specific cap on health-care spending tethered to economic growth and a tax on the state’s most expensive hospitals if they can’t justify their prices.

MIT economics professor Jonathan Gruber, an architect of the state’s 2006 health law and an advisor to President Barack Obama on the national Affordable Care Act calls the new House proposal “aggressive, broad and visionary.”

“This is an incredibly hard problem,” said Gruber, speaking on WBUR’s Radio Boston today. “What I like about this…is that it’s really taking the spaghetti approach to cost control; let’s throw a bunch of things against the wall and see what sticks. They’re doing a bunch of different things all of which might work.”

So, what does it mean for patients?

Rep. Steve Walsh, the House chair of the joint Committee on Health Care Financing, said the plan would save $160 billion over 15 years. As far as savings for patients, Walsh said: “The first thing I’d tell [a patient] is five years from now, her family plan is going to be $2,000 cheaper than it is today.” Walsh said businesses would also find their health costs cut significantly.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo added: “With this bill, I think everyone’s gotten a little something they want and everyone’s gotten a little something they don’t want. So that’s what this legislation is all about, but at the end of the day, most importantly what it’s going to provide is some real health care cost containment. That’s what the bill is all about.”

One of the greatest challenges, he said, was to contain costs while not undermining a key industry in the state, with 1 in 7 jobs here linked to health care. Clearly some folks will be disappointed that the plan didn’t go far enough. Gov. Deval Patrick introduced legislation in February 2011 that would have allowed greater government oversight of contracts between insurers and health care providers and moved more medical groups into global payment systems that put doctors and medical groups on a budget.

But DeLeo also made the point that once again, the state is in the forefront of health reform. “I look at this as Massachusetts being a leader once again in terms of what’s going on in the health care field in the country.”

Here are some details of the House bill, officially the Health Care Quality Improvement and Cost Reduction Act of 2012, presented today by lawmakers. The state Senate is expected to introduce its own version of the plan next week.

1. Oversight: A new, quasi-governmental agency called the Division of Health Care Cost and Quality would oversee the transition to the new payment and delivery system with a board including consumer, government and industry representatives.

2. Cost-Cutting: To curb the increase in medical spending, the plan establishes a cap for health-care spending linked to the local economy, the Gross State Product, minus one-half a percent.

3. Leveling The Field: The state could impose a 10 percent “luxury tax” on pricey hospitals that charge more than 20 percent of the state median price for a given service without being able to justify that higher price. (Two earlier reports by Attorney General Martha Coakley found that certain hospitals exploited their market clout and charged higher prices without offering better quality care.) Hospitals would pay this penalty into a “distressed hospital” fund for institutions that serve a high proportion of poor and vulnerable patients. Continue reading