Update: The Supreme Court and Transparency

The United States Supreme Court recently rendered its decision in a case known as Gobeille v Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. The Court decision rests on an interpretation of ERISA. Nonetheless, in a result illustrative of the tangled complexity of health care coverage, the most profound impact the Court’s opinion may have is to undermine states’ efforts to control health care costs by making medical treatment expenses more transparent.

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Simply put, the Court, on a 6-2 vote, decided that ERISA overrode Vermont’s interest in requiring self-insured health plans to report claims data into a state’s all-payer claims database. As Ronald Mann lays out in his analysis of the case on SCOTUSblog, the Court majority found that Vermont’s requirements were inconsistent with ERISA’s preemption of all but the most trivial state record keeping requirements.

While the decision rested solely on the Court’s interpretation of ERISA, the case will have a substantial impact on the ability of states to use transparency to hold down medical costs. As Erin Fuse Brown and Jame King note in their post on the Health Affairs Blog, “63 percent of America’s workers with employer-sponsored health insurance are in self-funded plans. In Vermont, the ruling eliminates data from 20 percent of the total population ….” In some states this percentage will no doubt be much higher. Self-funding is the approach of choice for many employers with a large number of workers; Vermont has relatively few of these employers compared to other states.

States have sought to establish all-payer claim data bases to enable research into the variation in costs for similar medical procedures. The Court’s decision means these data bases will be unable to capture data from all-payers. It’s hard to see how America’s health care system can become more cost-effective in the future without the means to accurately measure how cost-ineffective it is today.

The majority on the Supreme Court indicated that ERISA may empower the Department of Labor to require self-funded plans to report claims data to state databases. The key word here is “may.” The Court isn’t definitive on the validity of this workaround. Any attempt by the Department to impose this requirement could wind up before the Supreme Court in another few years.

For now, however, Gobeille v. Liberty Mutual will make analysis of cost differences in America’s health care system much tougher.