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Article

Peter Sivey and Yijuan Chen

Quality competition between alternative providers is an increasingly important topic in the health economics literature. This literature includes theoretical and empirical studies that have been developed in parallel to 21st-century policies to increase competition between doctors or hospitals. Theoretical studies have clarified how competitive markets can give healthcare providers the incentive to improve quality. Broadly speaking, if providers have an incentive to attract more patients and patients value quality, providers will raise quality until the costs of raising quality are equal to the additional revenue from patients attracted by the rise in quality. The theoretical literature has also investigated how institutional and policy parameters determine quality levels in equilibrium. Important parameters in models of quality competition include the degree of horizontal differentiation, the level of information about provider quality, the costs of switching between providers, and the time-horizon of quality investment decisions. Empirical studies have focused on the prerequisites of quality competition (e.g., do patients choose higher quality providers?) and the impact of pro-competition policies on quality levels. The most influential studies have used modern econometric approaches, including difference-in differences and instrumental variables, to identify plausibly causal effects. The evidence suggests that in most contexts, quality is a determinant of patient choice of provider, especially after greater patient choice is made available or information is published about provider quality. The evidence that increases in competition improve quality in healthcare is less clear cut. Perhaps reflecting the economic theory of quality competition, showing that different parameter combinations or assumptions can produce different outcomes, empirical results are also mixed. While a series of high-quality studies in the United Kingdom appear to show strong improvements in quality in more competitive areas following pro-competition reforms introducing more choice and competition, other studies showed that these quality improvements do not extend to all types of healthcare or alternative measures of quality. The most promising areas for future research include investigating the “black box” of quality improvement under competition, and behavioral studies investigating financial and nonfinancial motivations for quality improvements in competitive markets.

Article

Courtney Van Houtven, Fiona Carmichael, Josephine Jacobs, and Peter C. Coyte

Across the globe, the most common means of supporting older disabled adults in their homes is through “informal care.” An informal carer is a family member or friend, including children or adults, who help another person because of their illness, frailty, or disability. There is a rich economics literature on the direct benefits of caregiving, including allowing the care recipient to remain at home for longer than if there was no informal care provided. There is also a growing literature outlining the associated costs of care provision. Although informal care helps individuals with disabilities to remain at home and is rewarding to many carers, there are often negative effects such as depression and lost labor market earnings that may offset some of these rewards. Economists have taken several approaches to quantify the net societal benefit of informal care that consider the degree of choice in caregiving decisions and all direct and indirect benefits and costs of informal care.

Article

Martin Karlsson, Tor Iversen, and Henning Øien

An open issue in the economics literature is whether healthcare expenditure (HCE) is so concentrated in the last years before death that the age profiles in spending will change when longevity increases. The seminal article “aging of Population and HealthCare Expenditure: A Red Herring?” by Zweifel and colleagues argued that that age is a distraction in explaining growth in HCE. The argument was based on the observation that age did not predict HCE after controlling for time to death (TTD). The authors were soon criticized for the use of a Heckman selection model in this context. Most of the recent literature makes use of variants of a two-part model and seems to give some role to age as well in the explanation. Age seems to matter more for long-term care expenditures (LTCE) than for acute hospital care. When disability is accounted for, the effects of age and TTD diminish. Not many articles validate their approach by comparing properties of different estimation models. In order to evaluate popular models used in the literature and to gain an understanding of the divergent results of previous studies, an empirical analysis based on a claims data set from Germany is conducted. This analysis generates a number of useful insights. There is a significant age gradient in HCE, most for LTCE, and costs of dying are substantial. These “costs of dying” have, however, a limited impact on the age gradient in HCE. These findings are interpreted as evidence against the red herring hypothesis as initially stated. The results indicate that the choice of estimation method makes little difference and if they differ, ordinary least squares regression tends to perform better than the alternatives. When validating the methods out of sample and out of period, there is no evidence that including TTD leads to better predictions of aggregate future HCE. It appears that the literature might benefit from focusing on the predictive power of the estimators instead of their actual fit to the data within the sample.

Article

Rosella Levaggi

The concept of soft budget constraint, describes a situation where a decision-maker finds it impossible to keep an agent to a fixed budget. In healthcare it may refer to a (nonprofit) hospital that overspends, or to a lower government level that does not balance its accounts. The existence of a soft budget constraint may represent an optimal policy from the regulator point of view only in specific settings. In general, its presence may allow for strategic behavior that changes considerably its nature and its desirability. In this article, soft budget constraint will be analyzed along two lines: from a market perspective and from a fiscal federalism perspective. The creation of an internal market for healthcare has made hospitals with different objectives and constraints compete together. The literature does not agree on the effects of competition on healthcare or on which type of organizations should compete. Public hospitals are often seen as less efficient providers, but they are also intrinsically motivated and/or altruistic. Competition for quality in a market where costs are sunk and competitors have asymmetric objectives may produce regulatory failures; for this reason, it might be optimal to implement soft budget constraint rules to public hospitals even at the risk of perverse effects. Several authors have attempted to estimate the presence of soft budget constraint, showing that they derive from different strategic behaviors and lead to quite different outcomes. The reforms that have reshaped public healthcare systems across Europe have often been accompanied by a process of devolution; in some countries it has often been accompanied by widespread soft budget constraint policies. Medicaid expenditure in the United States is becoming a serious concern for the Federal Government and the evidence from other states is not reassuring. Several explanations have been proposed: (a) local governments may use spillovers to induce neighbors to pay for their local public goods; (b) size matters: if the local authority is sufficiently big, the center will bail it out; equalization grants and fiscal competition may be responsible for the rise of soft budget constraint policies. Soft budget policies may also derive from strategic agreements among lower tiers, or as a consequence of fiscal imbalances. In this context the optimal use of soft budget constraint as a policy instrument may not be desirable.

Article

Elisa Tosetti, Rita Santos, Francesco Moscone, and Giuseppe Arbia

The spatial dimension of supply and demand factors is a very important feature of healthcare systems. Differences in health and behavior across individuals are due not only to personal characteristics but also to external forces, such as contextual factors, social interaction processes, and global health shocks. These factors are responsible for various forms of spatial patterns and correlation often observed in the data, which are desirable to include in health econometrics models. This article describes a set of exploratory techniques and econometric methods to visualize, summarize, test, and model spatial patterns of health economics phenomena, showing their scientific and policy power when addressing health economics issues characterized by a strong spatial dimension. Exploring and modeling the spatial dimension of the two-sided healthcare provision may help reduce inequalities in access to healthcare services and support policymakers in the design of financially sustainable healthcare systems.

Article

Jordan Everson and Melinda Beeuwkes Buntin

The potential for health information technology (HIT) to reshape the information-intensive healthcare industry has been recognized for decades. Nevertheless, the adoption and use of IT in healthcare has lagged behind other industries, motivating governments to take a role in supporting its use to achieve envisioned benefits. This dynamic has led to three major strands of research. Firstly, the relatively slow and uneven adoption of HIT, coupled with government programs intended to speed adoption, has raised the issue of who is adopting HIT, and the impact of public programs on rates of adoption and diffusion. Secondly, the realization of benefits from HIT appears to be occurring more slowly than its proponents had hoped, leading to an ongoing need to empirically measure the effect of its use on the quality and efficiency of healthcare as well as the contexts under which benefits are best realized. Thirdly, increases in the adoption and use of HIT have led to the potential for interoperable exchange of patient information and the dynamic use of that information to drive improvements in the healthcare delivery system; however, these applications require developing new approaches to overcoming barriers to collaboration between healthcare organizations and the HIT industry itself. Intertwined through each of these issues is the interaction between HIT as a tool for standardization and systemic change in the practice of healthcare, and healthcare professionals’ desire to preserve autonomy within the increasingly structured healthcare delivery system. Innovative approaches to improve the interactions between professionals, technology, and market forces are therefore necessary to capitalize on the promise of HIT and develop a continually learning health system.

Article

Joachim Winter and Amelie Wuppermann

Choice of health insurance plans has become a key element of many healthcare systems around the world along with a general expansion of patient choice under the label of “Consumer-Directed Healthcare.” Allowing consumers to choose their insurance plan was commonly associated with the aim of enhancing competition between insurers and thus to contribute to the efficient delivery of healthcare. However, the evidence is accruing that consumers have difficulties in making health insurance decisions in their best interest. For example, many consumers choose plans with which they spend more in terms of premiums and out-of-pocket costs than in other available options. This has consequences for the individual consumer’s budget as well as for the functioning of the insurance market. The literature puts forward several possible reasons for consumers’ difficulties in making health insurance choices in their best interest. First, consumers may not have a sufficient level of knowledge of insurance products; for example, they might not understand insurance terminology. Second, the environment or architecture in which consumers make their decision may be too complicated. Health insurance products vary in a large number of features that consumers have to evaluate when comparing options, introducing search or hassle costs. Third, consumers may be prone to psychological biases and employ decision-making heuristics that impede good choices. For example, they might choose the plan with the cheapest premium, ignoring other important plan features that determine total cost, such as copayments. There is also evidence that consumer education programs, simplification of the choice environment, or introducing nudges such as setting smart defaults facilitate consumer decision making. Despite recent progress in our understanding of consumer choices in health insurance markets, important challenges remain. Evidence-based healthcare policy should be based on an evaluation of whether different interventions aimed at facilitating consumer choices result in welfare improvements. Ultimately, this requires measuring consumer utility, an issue that is vividly debated in the literature. Furthermore, welfare calculations necessitate an understanding of how interventions will affect the supply of health insurance, including supply reactions to changes in demand. This depends on the specific regulatory setting and characteristics of the specific market.

Article

Ching-to Albert Ma and Henry Y. Mak

Health services providers receive payments mostly from private or public insurers rather than patients. Provider incentive problems arise because an insurer misses information about the provider and patients, and has imperfect control over the provider’s treatment, quality, and cost decisions. Different provider payment systems, such as prospective payment, capitation, cost reimbursement, fee-for-service, and value-based payment, generate different treatment quality and cost incentives. The important issue is that a payment system implements an efficient quality-cost outcome if and only if it makes the provider internalize the social benefits and costs of services. Thus, the internalization principle can be used to evaluate payment systems across different settings. The most common payment systems are prospective payment, which pays a fixed price for service rendered, and cost reimbursement, which pays according to costs of service rendered. In a setting where the provider chooses health service quality and cost reduction effort, prospective payment satisfies the internalization principle but cost reimbursement does not. The reason is that prospective payment forces the provider to be responsible for cost, but cost reimbursement relieves the provider of the cost responsibility. Beyond this simple setting, the provider may select patients based on patients’ cost heterogeneity. Then neither prospective payment nor cost reimbursement achieves efficient quality and cost incentives. A mixed system that combines prospective payment and cost reimbursement performs better than each of its components alone. In general, the provider’s preferences and available strategies determine if a payment system may achieve internalization. If the provider is altruistic toward patients, prospective payment can be adjusted to accommodate altruism when the provider’s degree of altruism is known to the insurer. However, when the degree of altruism is unknown, even a mixed system may fail the internalization principle. Also, the internalization principle fails under prospective payment when the provider can upcode patient diagnoses for more favorable prices. Cost reimbursement attenuates the upcoding incentive. Finally, when the provider can choose many qualities, either prospective payment and cost reimbursement should be combined with the insurer’s disclosure on quality and cost information to satisfy the internalization principle. When good healthcare quality is interpreted as a good match between patients and treatments, payment design is to promote good matches. The internalization principle now requires the provider to bear benefits and costs of diagnosis effort and treatment choice. A mixed system may deliver efficient matching incentives. Payment systems necessarily interact with other incentive mechanisms such as patients’ reactions against the provider’s quality choice and other providers’ competitive strategies. Payment systems then become part of organizational incentives.

Article

Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries have experienced a long-term process of improvement in populational health conditions, shifting their health priorities from child–mother care and transmissible diseases to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). However, persistent socioeconomic inequalities create barriers to achieve universal health coverage (UHC). Despite a high level of governmental commitment to UHC, and rising coverage, approximately 25% of the population does not have access to healthcare, particularly in rural and outlying areas. Health system quality issues have been largely ignored, and inefficiency, from health financing to health delivery, is not on the policy agenda. The use of incentives to improve performance are rare in LAC health systems and there are political barriers to introduce reforms in payment systems in the public sector, though the private sector has opportunity to adapt change. Fragmentation in the financing of healthcare is a common theme in the region. Most systems retain social health insurance (SHI) schemes, mostly for the formal sector, and in some cases have more than one; and parallel National Health System (NHS)-type arrangements for the poor and those in the informal labor market. The cost and inefficiency in delivery and financing is considerable. Regional health economics literature stresses inadequate funding—despite the fact that the region has the highest inequality in access and spends the most on healthcare across the regions—and analyzes multiple aspects of health equity. The agenda needs to move from these debates to designing and leveraging delivery and payment systems that target performance and efficiency. The absence of research on payment arrangements and performance is a symptom of a health management culture based on processes rather than results. Indeed, health services in the region remain rooted in a culture of fee-for-service and supply-driven models, where expenditures are independent of outcomes. Health policy reforms in LAC need to address efficiency rather than equity, integrate healthcare delivery, and tackle provider payment reforms. The integration of medical records, adherence to protocols and clinical pathways, establishment of health networks built around primary healthcare, along with harmonized incentives and payment systems, offer a direction for reforms that allow adapting to existing circumstances and institutions. This offers the best path for sustainable UHC in the region.

Article

Economists have long regarded healthcare as a unique and challenging area of economic activity on account of the specialized knowledge of healthcare professionals (HCPs) and the relatively weak market mechanisms that operate. This places a consideration of how motivation and incentives might influence performance at the center of research. As in other domains economists have tended to focus on financial mechanisms and when considering HCPs have therefore examined how existing payment systems and potential alternatives might impact on behavior. There has long been a concern that simple arrangements such as fee-for-service, capitation, and salary payments might induce poor performance, and that has led to extensive investigation, both theoretical and empirical, on the linkage between payment and performance. An extensive and rapidly expanded field in economics, contract theory and mechanism design, had been applied to study these issues. The theory has highlighted both the potential benefits and the risks of incentive schemes to deal with the information asymmetries that abound in healthcare. There has been some expansion of such schemes in practice but these are often limited in application and the evidence for their effectiveness is mixed. Understanding why there is this relatively large gap between concept and application gives a guide to where future research can most productively be focused.

Article

Diane McIntyre, Amarech G. Obse, Edwine W. Barasa, and John E. Ataguba

Within the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, it is important to critically review research on healthcare financing in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) from the perspective of the universal health coverage (UHC) goals of financial protection and access to quality health services for all. There is a concerning reliance on direct out-of-pocket payments in many SSA countries, accounting for an average of 36% of current health expenditure compared to only 22% in the rest of the world. Contributions to health insurance schemes, whether voluntary or mandatory, contribute a small share of current health expenditure. While domestic mandatory prepayment mechanisms (tax and mandatory insurance) is the next largest category of healthcare financing in SSA (35%), a relatively large share of funding in SSA (14% compared to <1% in the rest of the world) is attributable to, sometimes unstable, external funding sources. There is a growing recognition of the need to reduce out-of-pocket payments and increase domestic mandatory prepayment financing to move towards UHC. Many SSA countries have declared a preference for achieving this through contributory health insurance schemes, particularly for formal sector workers, with service entitlements tied to contributions. Policy debates about whether a contributory approach is the most efficient, equitable and sustainable means of financing progress to UHC are emotive and infused with “conventional wisdom.” A range of research questions must be addressed to provide a more comprehensive empirical evidence base for these debates and to support progress to UHC.