For the past four years, Pennsylvania insurance company Highmark has watched its bills for cancer care skyrocket. The increase wasn’t because of new drugs being prescribed or a spike in diagnoses. Instead, the culprit was a change that had nothing to do with care: Previously independent oncology clinics and private practices have been acquired by big hospital systems that charge higher rates, sometimes three times as much, for chemotherapy drugs. “The site of care and the type of service provided does not change at all,” says Tom Fitzpatrick, Highmark’s vice president of contracting. “The only significant difference that we primarily see is the [patient] gets a wristband placed on them.”
Hospitals have long charged more than freestanding medical offices for similar services. It’s part of how they pay for higher operating expenses such as running 24-hour emergency rooms. As the Affordable Care Act attempts to steer people away from pricey inpatient admissions, hospitals have begun buying up doctors’ offices in hopes of increasing their revenue and market share. The number of oncology practices owned by hospitals increased by 24 percent from 2011 to 2012. By turning what used to be independent medical offices into so-called hospital outpatient centers, hospitals are creating networks that, critics say, give them the power to set prices and ultimately raise costs for private insurers and government programs such as Medicare.