The September 16, 2015 JBJS study by Robinson et al. offers clear proof that many of our patients are sensitive to price when it comes to choosing where to go for arthroscopic surgery of the knee or shoulder. This phenomenon began at least a decade ago when employers began shifting the cost burden of health care coverage onto their employees. The findings from Robinson et al. confirm the increasing strength of this effect.
The authors analyzed administrative data from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) to evaluate the impact of so-called “reference-based benefits” on patient choice for the setting of arthroscopy—hospital-based outpatient departments or freestanding ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs). Reference-based benefits require patients to pay the cost differential between an insurer-established “contribution limit” and the actual price charged by a facility.
Within two years of shifting to reference-based benefits, CalPERS-covered patients increased their utilization of ASCs by 14.3% for knee arthroscopy and by 9.9% for shoulder arthroscopy, with corresponding decreases in the use of hospital-based facilities. Meanwhile, CalPERS reduced overall spending on these procedures by 13%, and there were no significant before-and-after differences in 90-day complication rates.
These findings lead one to ask what added benefits patients receive from hospital-based outpatient surgery — Is it a safer environment or more convenient? Are the results more predictable? I think not, and on that basis the added charges are not justified.
Now that Robinson et al. have provided us with hard data on the impact of surgical-setting charges on patient behavior, we need to think about providing additional information that our patients would find helpful. We should, for example, move forward with increasing transparency on surgery fees and charges for outpatient visits, imaging, and durable medical goods. The time is right for us to do our part in eliminating this “black box” aspect of orthopaedic care.
At the same time, as commentators Kern Singh and Junyoung Ahn note, because payers will continue to define value according to their criteria, “orthopaedic surgeons should increase their involvement in this process to ensure the balance between outcome benefits and associated costs.”
Marc Swiontkowski, MD