Reasons Hospitals Acquire Medical Practices

The Charlotte Observer did a great report on the shift to hospital owned medical practices. For those not familiar with the shift, here’s the numbers the article offers:

Last year, 47 percent of U.S. physicians were employed by hospitals – roughly twice the percentage in 2002, according to surveys by the Medical Group Management Association.

One health care recruiting company predicts that hospitals could employ as many as 75 percent of U.S. doctors within two years.

I still think that some of this shift is cyclical, and independent thinking doctors will eventually leave their hospital overlords and be back on their own again. However, considering the financial side of the equation, many doctors might not be able to go back to their own practice even if they want to do so.

Here’s an example from the article that explains one of the reasons that hospitals are acquiring medical practices.

Gary Ziomek can vouch for that. The Waxhaw resident began getting physical therapy in 2011, after undergoing an unsuccessful spinal fusion surgery. He went to a therapist at Carolinas Rehabilitation on the campus of Carolinas Medical Center-Pineville hospital.

Early this year, his bill was $148 for 30 minutes of massage. But starting in May, the charge for a 30-minute massage rose sharply, to $249.30 – even though he got the same therapy from the same therapist in the same building.

Ziomek said an employee told him the higher charge came about because the office, which is owned by Carolinas HealthCare, began billing as a hospital-based setting. He said he was told that patients could go to the Ballantyne office and pay the lower amount.

Ziomek’s Aetna insurance reimburses differently based on where a service is rendered. For an office visit, Ziomek was responsible for a $20 co-pay, no matter if he had met his $250 deductible. For a hospital visit, he pays 10 percent of the bill after paying the $250 deductible.

In this case, Ziomek’s out-of-pocket expense dropped, because he had already met his deductible for the year. But he’s concerned that the overall cost went up, with no change in service or quality.

“Somewhere along the line, they realized, ‘We can charge more to the insurance company even though the patient is getting exactly the same service,’ ” said Ziomek, 70, a retired investment banker. “They could have kept the lower rate, but they chose not to. Why? Because of greed.”

I think the last line about greed is a little bit of sensationalism. In our market, healthcare is driven by revenue and profits. Many hospitals say they’re non-profit, but they certainly act like for profit entities.

What’s surprising to me is that insurance companies are putting up with this shift. I expect the loophole will be reversed again, but that often takes time. Some policy will be put in place to stop hospital owned medical practices from charging at the hospital rate. However, until that happens you can be sure that hospitals will continue their acquisition of medical practices.