How Excessive Admin Costs are Burdening the Health Care System in United States

Anyone interacting with the U.S. health care system is bound to encounter examples of unnecessary administrative complexity—from filling out duplicative intake forms to transferring medical records between providers to sorting out insurance bills. This administrative complexity, with its associated high costs, is often cited as one reason the United States spends double the amount per capita on health care compared with other high-income countries even though utilization rates are similar.

Each year, health care payers and providers in the United States spend about $496 billion on billing and insurance-related (BIR) costs, according to Center for American Progress estimates presented in this issue brief. As health care costs continue to rise, a logical starting point for potential savings is addressing waste. A 2010 report by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) estimated that the United States spends about twice as much as necessary on BIR costs. That administrative excess currently amounts to $248 billion annually, according to CAP’s calculations.

This issue brief provides an overview of administrative expenditures in the U.S. health care system. It first explains the components of administrative costs and then presents estimates of the administrative costs borne by payers and providers. Finally, the issue brief describes how the United States can lower administrative costs through comprehensive reforms and incremental changes to its health care system. Many of the universal health care plans being discussed to expand coverage and lower costs would lower administrative costs through rate regulation, global budgeting, or simplifying the number of payers. Each of these financing changes deserves consideration—even in the absence of major system wide reform.

The main components of administrative costs in the U.S. health care system include BIR costs and hospital or physician practice administration. The first category, BIR costs, is part of the administrative overhead that is baked into consumers’ insurance premiums and providers’ reimbursements. It includes the overhead costs for the health insurance industry and providers’ costs for claims submission, claims reconciliation, and payment processing. The health care system also requires administration beyond BIR activities, including medical record-keeping; hospital management; initiatives that monitor and improve care quality; and programs to combat fraud and abuse.