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.
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.
Payment systems based on fixed prices have become the dominant model to finance hospitals across OECD countries. In the early 1980s, Medicare in the United States introduced the Diagnosis Related Groups (DRG) system. The idea was that hospitals should be paid a fixed price for treating a patient within a given diagnosis or treatment. The system then spread to other European countries (e.g., France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom) and high-income countries (e.g., Canada, Australia). The change in payment system was motivated by concerns over rapid health expenditure growth, and replaced financing arrangements based on reimbursing costs (e.g., in the United States) or fixed annual budgets (e.g., in the United Kingdom). A more recent policy development is the introduction of pay-for-performance (P4P) schemes, which, in most cases, pay directly for higher quality. This is also a form of regulated price payment but the unit of payment is a (process or outcome) measure of quality, as opposed to activity, that is admitting a patient with a given diagnosis or a treatment. Fixed price payment systems, either of the DRG type or the P4P type, affect hospital incentives to provide quality, contain costs, and treat the right patients (allocative efficiency). Quality and efficiency are ubiquitous policy goals across a range of countries. Fixed price regulation induces providers to contain costs and, under certain conditions (e.g., excess demand), offer some incentives to sustain quality. But payment systems in the health sector are complex. Since its inception, DRG systems have been continuously refined. From their initial (around) 500 tariffs, many DRG codes have been split in two or more finer ones to reflect heterogeneity in costs within each subgroup. In turn, this may give incentives to provide excessive intensive treatments or to code patients in more remunerative tariffs, a practice known as upcoding. Fixed prices also make it financially unprofitable to treat high cost patients. This is particularly problematic when patients with the highest costs have the largest benefits from treatment. Hospitals also differ systematically in costs and other dimensions, and some of these external differences are beyond their control (e.g., higher cost of living, land, or capital). Price regulation can be put in place to address such differences. The development of information technology has allowed constructing a plethora of quality indicators, mostly process measures of quality and in some cases health outcomes. These have been used both for public reporting, to help patients choose providers, but also for incentive schemes that directly pay for quality. P4P schemes are attractive but raise new issues, such as they might divert provider attention and unincentivized dimensions of quality might suffer as a result.
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.
Since the 1980s policymakers have identified a wide range of policy interventions to improve hospital performance. Some of these have been initiated at the level of government, whereas others have taken the form of decisions made by individual hospitals but have been guided by regulatory or financial incentives. Studies investigating the impact that some of the most important of these interventions have had on hospital performance can be grouped into four different research streams. Among the research streams, the strongest evidence exists for the effects of privatization. Studies on this topic use longitudinal designs with control groups and have found robust increases in efficiency and financial performance. Evidence on the entry of hospitals into health systems and the effects of this on efficiency is similarly strong. Although the other three streams of research also contain well-conducted studies with valuable findings, they are predominantly cross-sectional in design and therefore cannot establish causation. While the effects of introducing DRG-based hospital payments and of specialization are largely unclear, vertical and horizontal cooperation probably have a positive effect on efficiency and financial performance. Lastly, the drivers of improved efficiency or financial performance are very different depending on the reform or intervention being investigated; however, reductions in the number of staff and improved bargaining power in purchasing stand out as being of particular importance. Several promising avenues for future investigation are identified. One of these is situated within a new area of research examining the link between changes in the prices of treatments and hospitals’ responses. As there is evidence of unintended effects, future studies should attempt to distinguish between changes in hospitals’ responses at the intensive margin (e.g., upcoding) versus the extensive margin (e.g., increase in admissions). When looking at the effects of entering into a health system and of privatizations, there is still considerable need for research. With privatizations, in particular, the underlying processes are not yet fully understood, and the potential trade-offs between increases in performance and changes in the quality of care have not been sufficiently examined. Lastly, there is substantial need for further papers in the areas of multi-institutional arrangements and cooperation, as well as specialization. In both research streams, natural experiments carried out using program evaluation design are lacking. One of the main challenges here, however, is that cooperation and specialization cannot be directly observed but rather must be constructed based on survey or administrative data.