Hospital Pricing: Cost-Shifting and Competition uri icon


  • The issue of cost shifting has taken on enormous policy implications. It is estimated that unsponsored and undercompensated hospital costs--one measure of cost shifting--has totaled $21.5 billion in 1991. The health services research literature indicates that hospitals set different prices for different payers. However, the empirical evidence on hospitals' ability to raise prices to one payer to make up for unsponsored care or lower payments by other payers is mixed at best. No study has concluded that hospitals have raised prices to fully adjust for such actions. The extent of cost shifting is limited by the market. When a hospital has market power, it is able to set prices above marginal costs. However, when a buyer has enough patient/subscribers and a willingness to direct them to particular providers based on price considerations, hospitals have less flexibility in raising prices above costs. Thus, the extent of cost shifting is limited by the market. Cost shifting is not as easy as it may have been in the past because the nature of hospital and insurer competition has changed radically in the last decade. While hospital quality, services, and amenities still matter, some buyers are increasingly concerned about the price they pay. Evidence from studies of PPO and HMO negotiations with hospitals suggests that hospitals' market power is eroding, at least in some areas. In areas with relatively few hospital competitors and little PPO or HMO activity, Medicaid and Medicare price reductions and uncompensated care burdens will be partially absorbed by higher prices paid by private payers. In more price sensitive markets and in markets in which prices to private payers have risen to those commensurate with the market power of local hospitals, such cost shifting will not occur. A market-based approach in hospital pricing requires an explicit policy for the uninsured. In a competitive market, a hospital that traditionally cared for the uninsured by spending some of its profits on them will be unable to do so, at least to the same extent as it did in the past. Increased competition in health care without consideration of the uninsured will decrease the uninsured's access to care.

author list (cited authors)

  • Morrisey, M. A.

citation count

  • 13