Commercial Insurance Cost Savings in Ambulatory Surgery Centers

ASCs Reduce Outpatient Surgery Costs for Commercially Insured Patients by $38 Billion Annually
July 6, 2016
Saving big bucks on medical care by surgery shopping
July 20, 2016

Commercial Insurance Cost Savings in Ambulatory Surgery Centers


Healthcare Bluebook and HealthSmart conducted the analysis presented in this report.



A review of commercial medical-claims data found that U.S. healthcare costs are reduced by more than $38 billion per year due to the availability of ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) as an appropriate setting for outpatient procedures. More than $5 billion of the cost reduction accrues to the patient through lower deductible and coinsurance payments. This cost reduction is driven by the fact that, in general, ASC prices are significantly lower than hospital outpatient department (HOPD) prices for the same procedure in all markets, regardless of payer.

The study also looks at the potential savings that could be achieved if additional procedures were redirected to ASCs. As much as $55 billion could be saved annually depending on the percentage of procedures that migrate to ASCs and the mix of ASCs selected instead of HOPDs.

Finally, the study explores additional cost savings that would result if certain inpatient procedures, such as total joint replacements, continue to migrate to ASCs.

This study supplements an earlier review of Medicare costs by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley that showed that ASCs reduce Medicare costs by $2.3 billion annually. Ambulatory Surgery Center Association, Medicare Cost Savings Tied to ASCs, (2013).



The Medicare price differential for common outpatient services delivered in the hospital outpatient department (HOPD) vs. ambulatory surgery center (ASC) environment is well known and documented. On average, Medicare reimburses ASCs at 53 percent of the rate it reimburses HOPDs for the same procedure. The payment gap between services delivered at ASCs rather than HOPDs reduced the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) costs by more than $7 billion between 2007 and 20111. 1

While CMS payment rates are publicly available, commercial carrier payment rates are not. Therefore, less is known about the price differences and associated savings that exist between the ASC and HOPD environments for those employers and patients covered by commercial insurance (employer-sponsored insurance or private insurance purchased on the public exchanges and elsewhere).

The following analysis provides an estimate of the significant savings that ASCs currently provide to commercially insured patients, along with potential savings available to the commercially insured population, when shifting care to an ASC setting. This analysis was conducted in a partnership between Healthcare Bluebook, the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association (ASCA) and HealthSmart, a leading provider of third-party administrative services for self-funded employers.

Specifically, the paper discusses each of the following:

1. the estimated cost savings generated by ASCs in the commercially insured U.S. population;

2. the estimated additional cost reductions to be achieved if more cases were to be performed in ASCs;

3. the additional value created as traditional inpatient procedures migrate to ASC settings (e.g., total knee replacements); and

4. examples of HOPD and ASC price disparities within and across regions.

The ASC model was developed in 1970, and Medicare approved payments to ASCs for more than 200 procedures in 1982. Steady growth in the number of ASCs and the number of surgical procedures performed in the outpatient setting, including HOPDs, has continued since. This shift toward outpatient procedures has accelerated due to advancements in medical practice and technology that have reduced the need for overnight hospital stays.

Today, many common surgeries are performed as outpatient procedures, and most patients, except those with complicated health conditions, can be served in the outpatient setting. Common ASC procedures include colonoscopies, cataract surgeries, tonsillectomies and arthroscopic orthopedic surgeries. CMS currently approves and reimburses 3,837 procedure codes in the ASC setting, and commercial populations are constantly expanding these boundaries. In fact, some ASCs are performing total joint replacements and other traditionally inpatient procedures with excellent outcomes.

While all HOPDs are hospital owned, most ASCs are at least partially owned by physicians, often in conjunction with hospitals and/or management companies. Sixty-five percent of the more than 5,400 Medicare-licensed ASCs in the U.S. are wholly owned by physicians and operate as small businesses.

A study published in Health Affairs analyzed data from the National Survey of Ambulatory Surgery and discovered that procedures performed in ASCs are more efficient, taking 25 percent less time than those performed in hospitals 2. This efficiency, and corresponding cost-effectiveness, is due largely to the ASCs’ focus on a limited number of procedures, their owner/operator culture and specialized nursing and support staff. Because ASCs specialize in providing outpatient surgery, they are able to deliver patient-care services efficiently and conveniently. For example, operating rooms are turned over quickly and are not interrupted by emergency cases. This enables physicians to commence their procedures in a timely manner and use their time more productively. Consequently, ASCs tend to be more convenient and cost effective than HOPDs while still providing excellent care.



Healthcare prices vary dramatically even within the same insurance network and city. For example, in Charleston, West Virginia, the price of a cataract surgery, including payments to the anesthesiologist and physician, can vary from $2,684 to $8,662 depending on the facility where the surgery is performed (Figure 1). In this case prices vary by more than 300 percent, primarily due to the amount charged by the facility – not the physicians. These facility prices vary by almost 600 percent and total more than 70 percent of all dollars spent for cataract surgery in Charleston, WV.

Payments to anesthesiologists vary, partially due to the time component of anesthesia billing, but these payments are the smallest portion of the total cost and are dwarfed by payments to facilities.

Payments to physicians are a more significant portion of total cost, but physicians performing the most expensive cataract surgeries are paid approximately the same as physicians performing the least expensive surgeries. Thus, it is the choice of facility that drives the total price variation.

The consistency of payments to physicians indicates that most physicians are unable to differentiate themselves when negotiating payment rates from insurance companies and, hence, are paid similar rates. Facilities, on the other hand, vary significantly in their service offerings and market power and, therefore, have significantly different negotiated rates with insurance companies.

For example, Hospital A provides emergency, inpatient and outpatient care. Hospital B offers everything Hospital A offers and also operates the only children’s hospital in the metropolitan area. Due to this exclusive service line, Hospital B has better negotiating leverage with an insurance company. Importantly, this leverage applies not only to services uniquely performed in the children’s hospital, but also to outpatient surgeries, such as cataract surgery, that are performed in other facilities in the area. Since the entire hospital is either in or out of network, all services are negotiated together, allowing Hospital B to demand higher reimbursement for procedures even though equally good, lower-priced alternative sites of service exist in that market area.

Since any ASC will offer fewer services than both Hospital A and B, those ASCs will have less negotiating leverage with commercial carriers and, therefore, often will receive lower reimbursement rates than either Hospital A or B if they want to be included in the insurer’s network. While the efficiency inherent in the ASC model explains why ASCs can continue to exist when receiving significantly lower payments, it is the market power of hospitals that widens these price disparities4.

As a result of these factors, the total price of a procedure performed at an ASC is generally significantly lower than the total price of the same procedure performed in an HOPD. For example, the average price of cataract surgery at an ASC in Charleston, West Virginia, is $2,932, including the physician and anesthesiologist payments, while the average price at an HOPD is $5,762 (Figure 2). In this example, the average price for a cataract surgery at the least expensive facility was $2,684, including the payments to anesthesiologists and physicians. At the most expensive facility, the average price was $7,987. ASCs are at the low end of the spectrum and HOPDs are at the high end.

This commercial price differential between the ASC and HOPD environments is persistent across metropolitan areas (Figure 3), insurance carriers and procedure categories, with the degree of price variability related to local market factors.

Summary of Methodology

All analysis was conducted using a sample of de-identified commercial claims data for calendar year 2014 from HealthSmart. This data represents more than 400,000 lives across all regions of the U.S. The CMS list of ASC-eligible procedure codes, with a few additions reflecting those prevalent in a commercial population (pediatric-related codes, OB/GYN-related codes, etc.), was used to identify the spending on procedures that can be performed in an ASC.

Total price of service was included in the analysis (facility fees, professional fees and anesthesia fees, where relevant). Based on the commercial population considered, these services accounted for about 19 percent of total medical spend, or $890 per person for the year. All prices are calculated using the “allowed” amount, which reflects the actual amount a provider received after any discounts were applied.

Thirteen high-volume outpatient procedures were used as proxies to analyze the price differential between the ASC and HOPD environments and estimate the percentage of spending that could be saved by performing the procedures in ASCs instead of HOPDs. An adjustment was made to account for the fact that some high-risk patients are not candidates for ASC-based care (patients with high comorbidities are traditionally directed to an HOPD in order to be closer to critical-access care). This adjusted percentage was applied to the $890 ASC-eligible spend per person and then scaled by the commercially insured U.S. population to estimate the national savings potential.

All estimates are based on the calendar year 2014 data. No adjustments were made to account for population aging or increasing utilization of ASC-eligible services. (See Appendix A: Methodology and Appendix B: Adjustments for ASC Ineligibility for a more detailed explanation of the methodology.)


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