Hospital and health system mergers have become rampant and are typically announced with glowing press releases promising greater access to better and more affordable health care. However, research into the results of consolidation exposes outcomes that run counter to these promises.
In 2022, healthcare mergers and acquisitions resulted in a record setting $45+ billion in total transacted revenue. Industry insiders expect even more activity in 2023 with Deloitte predicting that “after consolidation in the next decade, only 50 percent of current health systems will likely remain.”
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) has studied the real impact of consolidation on American consumers, 54% of whom receive healthcare through employer-sponsored health plans. Their findings align with other studies showing the unmet promises and benefits promoted by hospital system aggregators.
Results are mixed with the majority of studies concluding that health care quality is essentially unchanged or worsened. Research from The National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM) Foundation states that there is “no evidence that clinical processes or patient outcomes improved after an ownership change, but results point to modestly worsening quality from the patient experience perspective.” Findings from the New England Journal of Medicine show “modestly worse patient experiences” resulting from hospital mergers and acquisitions.
A Harvard review found that care quality was only slightly better at consolidated health systems than private practices. According to Nancy Beaulieu, study first author, “One of the key arguments for hospital mergers and practice acquisition was that health systems would deliver better-value care for patients. This study provides the most comprehensive evidence yet that this isn’t happening.”
Competition and Cost
Despite claims by the American Hospital Association (AHA) that consolidation reduces health care costs, mergers have shown to increase prices and reduce affordability even as profits increase.
Studies continue to show that consolidation and health care costs have a detrimental association. Less competition means fewer choices and more opportunities for health systems to monopolize a market and raise prices. This impact is nuanced in large, metropolitan areas and keenly felt in small and mid-sized markets where dominant providers emerge as the result of consolidation.
Trade association AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) describes this connection rather succinctly:
“Everyday Americans bear the brunt of hospital consolidation. Hospitals in highly concentrated markets can charge higher prices for medical services and have greater leverage to negotiate higher prices from health insurance providers, leading to ever-increasing health care costs for individuals and families.”
Neutralizing the Impact of Consolidation
KFF calls for policymakers “to address any potential anti-competitive behavior in markets that are already consolidated.” And NIHCM declares, “In the face of ongoing hospital market consolidation and accompanying price increases, consumers deserve to experience measurable and meaningful quality [and cost] improvements… Merging hospitals must be held more accountable for achieving, not just promising, such benefits.”
Employers that maintain allegiance to legacy insurance carriers whose profits increase when hospital prices rise will feel the negative impact of health system consolidation in higher medical claim costs and insurance premiums. While there are plenty of excuses for sticking with the status quo, employers who choose a modern health plan administrator using advanced claims payment technology can limit the negative impacts of health system consolidation, and meet their fiduciary obligation to manage costs for their health plan participants.