S. Prakash Sethi has called group purchasing organizations (GPO’s) an “undisclosed scandal in the U.S. health care industry.” Mariah Blake’s article in the Washington Monthly on GPO’s is a sobering “must-read” for those concerned about the future of health care in the US. She writes about the entrepreneur Thomas Shaw, who’s invented a syringe that drastically reduces the risk of bloodstream infections for patients and healthcare workers. (According to Barry Lynn, who’s also written on the issue, “each year about 6,000 medical workers come down with HIV or infectious hepatitis from such accidents, and dozens end up dead.”) Shaw’s brilliant innovation “added only a few pennies to the cost of production,” but it’s rarely used today. Blake traces the non-diffusion of this innovation to a complex set of deregulatory decisions relating to GPO’s.
GPO’s are supposed to use purchasing clout on behalf of buyers (like hospitals) to drive down prices from sellers. But it appears that these intermediaries, like large Wall Street firms, are often more interested in fees and payments from the sell-side than they are in helping the buy-side. As one analyst testified before the DOJ and FTC, “the compensation of most GPO management is almost always based on . . . fee income [from suppliers] rather than on the real savings to hospital members.”
Shaw’s bad luck was to enter the market shortly after a massive GPO, Premier, struck a multiyear deal with supplier Becton Dickinson. As Blake notes, “Premier signed a $1.8 billion, seven-and-a-half-year deal with Becton Dickinson [whereby its 1700 member hospitals] had to buy 90 percent of their syringes and blood collection tubes from” Becton Dickinson, which also “landed similar deals with all but one major GPO.” Lynn says that “many hospital buying agents won’t even dare to talk to Shaw for fear of upsetting their more powerful suppliers.”
How did the GPO-Supplier nexus grow so strong? Blake does a terrific job explaining developments that transmogrified many cost-cutting intermediaries into self-serving middlemen:
To keep costs in check, in the 1970s many medical facilities began banding together to form group purchasing organizations, or GPOs. The underlying idea was simple: because suppliers generally give price breaks to customers who buy large quantities, hospitals could get better deals on, say, gauze or gloves, if a group of them came together and bargained for ten cases, rather than each hospital buying a case on its own. . . . By decade’s end, virtually every hospital in America belonged to a GPO.
Then, in 1986 Congress passed a bill exempting GPOs from the anti-kickback provisions embedded in Medicare law. This meant that instead of collecting membership dues, GPOs could collect “fees”—in other industries they might be called kickbacks or bribes—from suppliers in the form of a share of sales revenue. (For example, in exchange for signing a contract with a given gauze maker, a GPO might get a percentage of whatever the company made selling gauze to members.) The idea was to help struggling hospitals by shifting the burden of funding GPOs’ operations to vendors. To prevent abuse, “fees” of more than 3 percent of sales were supposed to be reported to member hospitals and (upon request) the secretary of [HHS].
[This shift] turned the incentives for GPOs upside down. Instead of being tied to the dues paid by members, GPOs’ revenues were now tied to the profits of the suppliers they were supposed to be pressing for lower prices. This created an incentive to cater to the sellers rather than to the buyers. . . . Before long, large suppliers began using “fees”—sometimes very generous ones—along with tiered pricing to secure deals that locked GPO members into buying their products. . . .
This situation only grew thornier in 1996, when the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission overhauled antitrust rules and granted the organizations protection from antitrust actions, except under “extraordinary circumstances.” . . . Within a few years, five GPOs controlled purchasing for 90 percent of the nation’s hospitals, which only amplified the clout of big suppliers.
There are a few lessons here. Within the confines of competition law, the message should be clear: Einer Elhauge was right to state in 2003 that “Serious antitrust concerns remain about exclusionary agreements that charge higher prices to GPOs or hospitals that won’t commit to limiting purchases from rivals of dominant manufacturers to a small (often 5-10%) percentage of their purchases.” The broader lesson is that intermediaries in many fields are often tempted to put their own profits ahead of the entities they’re ostensibly serving. In the endless battle for compensation between providers, hospitals, and insurers, there are many profitable opportunities to shift alliances. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs like Thomas Shaw, patients, and thousands of medical workers are enduring unsafe conditions that could easily be remedied.