Medical costs are rising, and by this time next year costs will likely show a modest increase of about 6% over the past two years, according to a new report from PwC, PricewaterhouseCoopers.
After figuring in health plan changes such as increased employee cost sharing and network and benefit changes, PwC's Health Research Institute, which conducted the study, projects a net growth rate of 5 percent. Even with employers' actions, market forces likely will still overrun the efforts to quell them.
Prices, not utilization, are continuing to fuel healthcare spending. Utilization is still being dampened by high deductibles and other cost sharing, but at the expense of employee satisfaction with their health plan. In response, employers are inserting themselves more forcefully into the healthcare delivery equation.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT
Beyond market forces, HRI identified three "inflators" that will, influence the medical cost trend.
One is that drug spending will grow faster. Between 2020 and 2027, retail drug spending under private health insurance is projected to increase at a rate of 3 percent to 6 percent a year as the impact of generics on spending plateaus, biosimilars continue to see slow uptake, and costly new therapies enter the market.
Chronic diseases will also be a major issue. Obesity and Type 2 diabetes continue to produce high rates of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Sixty percent of adults have a chronic disease, with 40 percent managing two or more. For employers, per capita health spending on someone with a complex chronic illness is eight times that of a healthy person.
Lastly, employers are beginning to recognize the importance of helping their employees manage their mental health and wellbeing. Nearly 75 percent of employers offer mental health disease management programs, the report found. Anytime access is expanded, costs will go up in the short term, though it may have the opposite effect long-term.
And speaking of the opposite effect, there are a few "deflators" HRI recognized that will likely slow down the medical cost trend.
HRI predicts that in 2020, more companies will take action to make sure healthcare is accessible to their employees, opening and expanding clinics as a strategy to control the cost trend. Thirty-eight percent of large employers offered a worksite clinic in 2019, up from 27 percent in 2014.
Also, payers are designing plans to encourage members to choose free-standing facilities and in-home care rather than more expensive sites. How those benefits are designed, and how employees perceive the costs, will shape the effectiveness of site of care strategies. Payers and employers are aiming to grow the role of telemedicine as employees grow more comfortable with it, especially if out-of-pocket costs are lower and the quality doesn't suffer.
WHAT ELSE YOU SHOULD KNOW
The trend has implications for employers, payers, providers and even pharmaceutical and life science companies.
For payers, it becomes important to benchmark the prices paid commercially against a common reference point such as Medicare. With this information it's possible to pursue value-based arrangements with high-performing and lower-cost providers, in addition to negotiating better contracted rates on existing fee-for-service arrangements.
For providers, a value line strategy is necessary as employers and consumers look for high quality care for a low cost. Providers armed with a value line strategy are more likely to be included in health plans' high-performance networks, and are better positioned to directly contract with employers.
Providers should also understand what risk they can take on to guarantee a health outcome, and the cost structure needed to make them profitable in doing so. Providers should understand and manage both the risk inherent in their ability to deliver care and the risk of the population they're managing -- from health status to the social determinants impacting their health -- to help them design appropriate clinical interventions and non-clinical support services.
For employers, it becomes imperative to understand their role as the purchaser of healthcare for employees and join the ranks of employer activists, pursuing new solutions to lower costs, improve access and enhance quality. Pharmaceutical and life science companies, meanwhile, should go beyond the basic outcomes-based arrangements currently in place and consider exploring and expanding alternative financing arrangements, such as subscription models for unlimited access to a product for a set period of time, or a mortgage model to finance expensive specialty drugs over time.
THE LARGER TREND
The PwC study loosely mirrors the findings of an October report from the Altarum Center for Value in Health Care, which found prices and spending in healthcare growing steadily, but at a moderate pace.
The country's healthcare spending habits are at a level nearly double that of similar countries. Spending per capita in the U.S. is more than $9,000, compared to just over $5,000 in other Western nations, and because prices are growing slowly but steadily, spending is doing the same.