Paying a Premium: How Patient Complexity Affects Costs and Profit Margins

Department of Surgery, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States
Annals of Surgery (Impact Factor: 8.33). 07/1999; 229(6):807-11; discussion 811-4. DOI: 10.1097/00000658-199906000-00007
Source: PubMed


Tertiary medical centers continue to be under extreme pressure to deliver high-complexity care, but paradoxically there is considerable pressure within these institutions to reduce their emphasis on tertiary care and refocus their efforts to develop a more community-like practice. The genesis of this pressure is the perceived profitability of routine surgical activity when compared with more complex care. The purpose of this study is to assess how the total cost and profit (loss) margin can vary for an entire trauma service. The authors also evaluate payments for specific trauma-related diagnostic-related groups (DRGs) and analyze how hospital margins were affected based on mortality outcome.
The authors analyzed the actual cost of all trauma discharges (n = 692) at their level I trauma center for fiscal year 1997. Data were obtained from the trauma registry and the hospital cost accounting system. Total cost was defined as the sum of the variable, fixed, and indirect costs associated with each patient. Margin was defined as expected payments minus total cost. The entire population and all DRGs with 10 or more patients were stratified based on survival outcome, Injury Severity Score, insurance status, and length of stay. The mean total costs for survivors and nonsurvivors within these various categories and their margins were evaluated.
The profit margin on nonsurvivors was $5,898 greater than for survivors, even though the mean total cost for nonsurvivors was $28,821 greater. Within the fixed fee arrangement, approximately 44% of transfers had a negative margin. Both survivors and nonsurvivors become increasingly profitable out to 20 days and subsequently become unprofitable beyond 21 days, but nonsurvivors were more profitable than survivors.
There is a wide variance in both the costs and margins within trauma-related DRGs. The DRG payment system disproportionately reimburses providers for nonsurvivors, even though on average they are more costly. Because payers are likely to engage in portfolio management, patients can be transferred between hospitals based on the contractual relationship between the payer and the provider. This payment system potentially allows payers to act strategically, sending relatively low-cost patients to hospitals where they use fee-for-service reimbursement and high-cost patients to hospitals where their reimbursement is contractually capped. Although specific to the authors' trauma center and its payer mix, these data demonstrate the profitability of maintaining a level I trauma center and preserving the mission of delivering care to the severely injured.

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