Rendering hospital budgets volume based and open ended to reduce waiting lists: Does it work?
In the past decades fixed budgets for hospitals were replaced by reimbursement based on outputs in several countries in order to bring down waiting lists. This was also the case in the Netherlands where fixed global budgets were replaced by budgets that are to a large extent volume based and in practice open-ended. The objective of this study was to examine the effectiveness of this Dutch policy measure, which was implemented in 2001. We carried out a statistical analysis and interpretation of trends in Dutch hospital admission rates. We observed a significant turn in the development of in-patient admission rates after the abolition of budget caps in 2001: decreasing admission rates turned into an internationally exceptional increase of more than 3% per year. Day care admissions had already been rising explosively for two decades, but the pace increased after 2001. The increase in the number of admissions includes a broad range of patient categories that were not in the first place associated with long waiting times. The growth was attributable for a large part to admissions for observation of the patient and the evaluation of symptoms, not resulting in a definite medical diagnosis. We considered several factors, other than the availability of more resources, to explain the growth: the ageing of the population, making up for waiting list arrears, ditto for "under consumption" of unplanned care and, as to the growth of day care, substitution for inpatient care. However, these factors were all found to fall short as an explanation. Although waiting times have dropped since the change in the budget system, they continue to be long for several procedures. Our study indicates that making available more resources to admit patients, or otherwise an increase in hospital activity, do not in itself lead to equilibrium between demand and supply because the volume and composition of demand are partly induced by supply. We conclude that abolishing budget caps to solve waiting list problems is not efficient. Instead of a generic measure, a more focused approach is necessary. We suggest ingredients for such an approach.
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