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Revisiting CONventional Wisdom on State Hospital Licensure

Posted Jan 02 2010 12:00am

If there is one aspect of contemporary health care regulation that conservatives have decried, it’s “certificate of need laws.” These laws require licensure of new health facilities (and sometimes expansions of facilities) in thirty-seven states. Denounced as relics of socialist central planning, they were a prime target of the Bush-Era Dose of Competition report. But, as David Leonhardt notes, it appears that CON laws are reducing costs without impairing quality in some areas.

First, a bit of background. As health costs rose in the 1960s, many policymakers believed that a surplus of health services was to blame. Policymakers worried that health care costs were rising due to “induced demand:” the more doctors and hospitals there were, the more these actors would try to counteract the normal price-depressing effect of increased competition by finding more wrong with patients, thus “inducing” demand for their services. Although such a strategy could rarely work in a normal market, health care is a credence service—it is very hard for the average consumer to “second guess” his or her provider about the amount or nature of care needed.*

In 1974, Congress passed the National Health Planning and Resources Development Act. The Act required new health care facilities, and additions to existing facilities, to obtain a Certificate of Need (CON) from the appropriate state agency as a prerequisite to receiving federal funds via the Medicare and Medicaid programs. As a result of these laws, those opening new health care entities needed to demonstrate to state commissions that their services are actually needed by the community.

Over time, state boards started addressing concerns beyond “induced demand,” including social goals of equity and fair distribution of health resources. When I emailed a New Jersey policymaker who has worked in this area, he told me that the state would be unlikely to license specialty hospitals that concentrate on the most lucrative cases because they would threaten the ability of safety net hospitals to use revenue from such cases to cross-subsidize uncompensated care. He called such egalitarian concerns “explicit and leading factor[s] of discussion at all levels in CON proceedings.”

Leonhardt is more concerned about the classic CON goal of cost-control, and sees CON laws as a key reason for positive developments in Richmond, Virginia:

Since 1996, the Richmond area has lost more than 600 of its hospital beds, mostly because of state regulations on capacity. . . . Richmond has gotten rid of 15 percent of its hospital beds, and its health care still looks a lot like the rest of the country’s, only cheaper and a bit better. . . .

[Meanwhile, health facilities vastly expanded in South Dakota after it scrapped its CON law in 1988.] In other industries, all that new capacity might have led to a glut, in which workers and equipment sat idle. But health care is different. Doctors and patients tend to believe that more care is better, and patients often don’t pay much extra for any additional care. So new doctors, nurses and equipment generally stay busy.

Dr. John Wennberg of the Dartmouth Medical School refers to this phenomenon as supply-sensitive care. Dr. Marlon Priest, the chief medical officer of Bon Secours, puts it this way: “If you build 100 beds, they’ll get used.” . . . [But] [m]ore care is not always better care. Sometimes, in fact, it’s worse. Just consider the recent research showing that radiation from CT scans will eventually kill thousands of patients a year.

I’m not fully sold on the Dartmouth studies (here’s one critique of them), and I do worry that efforts to fight overtreatment will lead to some “meat ax” rationing that denies care to the poorest (rather than motivating those who don’t need the attention of the health care system to avoid it). But when cost saving initiatives are combined with a commitment to preserve access to necessary care for all, they may be as close to a “Pareto optimal” health policy as we can get.

*(Lawyers have their own version of this “induced demand” problem, encapsulated in the old saw: “When there was one lawyer in town, he had no business; when another moved in, he was swamped with cases.” I suppose laws against barratry are offer a loose parallel to CON in the legal profession. Antitrust may stand in the way of legal and medical professionals’ own actions to avoid “induced demand.”)

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.

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