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The Myth of the Medical-Device Tax

WASHINGTON — IN the last few days of negotiations in Congress, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s tax on medical devices emerged as a key Republican demand. The medical-device industry waged an intense lobbying campaign — even garnering the support of many Democrats who favored the law — arguing that the tax would stifle innovation and increase health care costs.

This argument is doubly disingenuous. Not only can the medical-device industry easily afford the tax without compromising innovation, but the industry’s enormous profits are a result of anticompetitive practices that themselves drive up medical-device costs unnecessarily. The tax is a distraction from reforms to the industry that are urgently needed to lower health care costs.

The medical-device industry faces virtually no price competition. Because of confidentiality agreements that manufacturers require hospitals to sign, the prices of the devices are cloaked in secrecy. This lack of transparency impedes hospitals from sharing price information and thus knowing whether they are getting a good deal.

Even worse, manufacturers often maintain personal relationships (sometimes involving financial payments like consulting fees) with physicians who choose the medical devices that their hospitals purchase, creating a conflict of interest. Physicians often don’t even know the costs of the devices, and individual physicians often choose devices on their own, which weakens a hospital’s ability to bargain for volume discounts.

Such anticompetitive practices help generate a wide variation in the prices of medical devices — and contribute to higher prices in general. For example, the Government Accountability Office found that prices for cardiac implantable medical devices in the United States vary by several thousand dollars. And even the lowest-priced devices in the United States are expensive compared with those in other developed countries. According to the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the United States spends about 50 percent more than expected on the top five medical devices, compared with Europe and Japan. McKinsey calculates that this amounts to $26 billion in excessive spending each year. Medicare, private health insurers and patients end up paying these inflated prices.

Excessive prices fuel enormous profits — profits that dwarf both the medical-device tax and the industry’s investments in research and development. Consider the device division of Johnson & Johnson, which in 2012 had an operating profit of $7.2 billion. By the company’s own estimate, the device tax would amount to at most $300 million, and its investment in research and development amounts to only $1.7 billion.

There are several ways policy makers could lower device costs. The first step would be to end the anticompetitive practices that prevent hospitals from getting the best deals. Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has sponsored legislation that would foster transparency by posting online price information for implantable medical devices.

In addition, instead of simply paying hospitals based in part on what they have spent on devices, Medicare should force manufacturers to compete for business based on a product’s price and quality.

Medicare should also pay hospitals a single lump sum for all of the associated costs of a given procedure (like a hip replacement). This approach, known as “bundling” the costs, would create incentives for hospitals to lower device costs. Savings should be shared with the physicians, so that their incentives are aligned with the hospital’s.

Bundling has been used successfully in pilot programs. Under Medicare’s Acute Care Episode Program — which bundled payments for cardiac and orthopedic procedures — physicians worked together to choose high-quality, cost-effective devices. Baptist Health System in Texas, which participated in the program, used clinical evidence to choose devices and negotiated lower prices for both Medicare and non-Medicare patients.

States could adopt similar payment reforms for private insurance and their Medicaid programs. In Arkansas, the Medicaid program and private payers — including Walmart — have collaborated to adopt bundled payments for several procedures, including hip and knee replacements.

To complement these efforts, the new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a nongovernmental body created by the Affordable Care Act, should pay for research that compares the effectiveness of devices so physicians can make informed choices. (Three years into its existence, the institute has initiated few, if any, studies of medical devices.) Medicare or the Food and Drug Administration should also require the use of registries that track when devices fail.

Currently, medical-device manufacturers allocate only a sliver of profits to research and development and often focus on “tweaks” to existing devices, without providing any evidence that they are of better quality. Competitive pressures from public and private payers would provide incentives for the industry to become more innovative, producing technologies that actually lowered costs and offered truly advanced breakthroughs.

Instead of using its clout to lobby against the device tax — which helped foment opposition to the Affordable Care Act — the medical-device industry needs to share the responsibility of lowering costs for patients, businesses and taxpayers.

<img src=”<a href=”http://meter-svc.nytimes.com/meter.gif”>http://meter-svc.nytimes.com/meter.gif</a>”/>Topher Spiro is the vice president for health policy at the Center for American Progress.