Mixed reimbursement of hospitals: Securing high activity and global expenditures control?
When introducing Diagnosis-Related Group (DRG) tariffs as the basis for paying hospitals in Europe, one of the major problems was to find a balancing point between the aim of increasing hospital activity and the need to control global expenditures on hospital care. Consequently, in several European countries, DRG-based reimbursement has been mixed with the already existing forms of hospital reimbursement, such as block budgets, instead of replacing the latter entirely. The mixed reimbursement is viewed as a cautious way of introducing DRG-based funding, which offers the potential for achieving activity expansion without jeopardizing global expenditures control. Denmark is one of the countries where DRG tariffs have been added to the system of block budgets coupled with activity targets. The transition to the mixed reimbursement occurred by replacing a part of each hospital’s ‘old’ block budget by a ‘new’ DRG-based component. The DRG-based component depends on a hospital’s case mix and applicable DRG tariffs, which are, however, reduced by, e.g. 30-50% as compared with a monetary value of a full tariff. The usual interpretation is that such a mix of reimbursement methods provides a specific set of incentives that is different from other hospital payment methods. Yet, the exact modus operandi of the mixed reimbursement remains obscure. It is not entirely clear whether and how the unit rate of reimbursement was changed after the transition? Was the entire volume of a hospital’s activity affected or only certain treatments and/or higher levels of activity? Another question is what happened with the activity targets that traditionally accompanied the ‘old’ block budgets? The aim of this article is to provide a comprehensive description of the change in hospital incentive scheme that followed the transition to the mixed reimbursement in Denmark. In doing so, the paper provides a qualitative assessment of the mixed reimbursement with regard to the asserted exceptionality of its incentive structure, with a particular focus on its ability to balance incentives for activity expansion and global expenditures control. We show that the mixed reimbursement is simply a veiled version of the usual block budget system, which due to certain added complications might even distort activity/efficiency improvements in a new way. The cautions way of implementing DRG –based reimbursement resulted in a system that has hardly moved away from the historical patterns of activity and costs. The sum of the ‘new’ DRG-based component and the remaining part of the ‘old’ block budget simply added up to the total of the ‘old’ block budget (+/- standard annual corrections for inflation, etc.), which allowed hospitals to produce unchanged sort and volume of activity at unchanged unit cost. Only few percent of the annual activity volume is indeed subject to altered reimbursement incentives. In sum, the mixed reimbursement as implemented in Denmark does not present any innovation. Hence, any empirical research based on the assumption that the incentive scheme for the entire volume of hospital activity was changed by the transition to the mixed reimbursement might produce false conclusions.
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