As if hospital costs aren’t high enough already, reports on hospital mergers, such as the planned merge of Chicago’s Advocate Health Care and NorthShore University HealthSystem hospitals, seem to suggest that these new mega-hospitals will result in substantially larger medical bills for patients. These “megamergers,” as one reporter for the Chicago Sun Times has called them, are occurring in response to pressures from employers, insurance companies, and the federal government which call for greater efficiency in the health care industry. These hospitals are attempting to change policies in accordance with the new Affordable Care Act, which is encouraging the health care sector to provide patients with a more comprehensive system.
While it seems like health care officials have the best intentions in mind when planning these mergers, plenty of critics have already expressed their discontent with the tax-exempt “megamerger” hospitals. Brendan Buck, the Vice President of Communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, states that “bigger hospitals really only mean bigger bills for patients…Consolidation promises greater efficiency, but all that ever materializes is greater costs.”
And considering that many hospitals are already struggling to provide patients with quality care — which, as the Sun Times notes, leads to declining admissions, which in turn causes hospital officials to raise prices — it’s worth wondering whether the “megamerger” hospitals will be able to monitor (and in some cases, improve) quality care as they expand. Chicago’s merger, in particular, will include 16 different facilities and is expected to provide services to over three million patients annually; the new hospital partnership might seem to resemble a monopoly rather than a health care system, as it will control nearly 25% of the Chicago metro region’s health care market.
NorthShore’s board chair, Steven Crown, has responded to these criticisms by stating that both Chicago-based hospitals “share a long-term strategy to reduce costs while improving efficiencies and advancing quality,” but where medical bills are concerned, a “long-term strategy” may not be very helpful for patients.
Furthermore, these “megamergers” may have another hurdle to consider before claiming that they’ll be able to lower costs and improve quality — and that hurdle is the growing urgent care industry. Unlike massive hospital systems, independent urgent care centers have been able to respond to patient requests for lower bills and shorter waiting times, and these facilities aren’t inhibited by time-consuming bureaucratic operations like hospitals are. Regardless of whether or not big hospital mergers hold potential long-term success, patient care isn’t something that can be put on hold for a few years until all the system kinks are worked out.