Press Release

Embargoed Until Contact

March 06, 2014

Sue Ducat
Director of Communications
(301) 841-9962


Geographic Variation in Medicare Spending


Bethesda, MD -- A new Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation describes geographic variation in Medicare spending. Data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) show that in 2012 Medicare spent an average of $9,503 nationally per beneficiary, ranging from $15,957 in Miami, Florida, to $6,569 in Grand Junction, Colorado. This brief looks at the factors that may be driving these variations, including the amount Medicare pays for services, the health status of beneficiaries, the types of services provided to a region's population, and whether the local spending patterns are consistent with the spending on patients with private insurance. As policy makers continue to find ways to improve quality in health care and eliminate unnecessary spending, a better understanding of geographic variation in Medicare spending has the potential to help achieve the so-called Triple Aim: better health, better health care, and lower costs.


Topics covered in this brief include:


  • What's the background? The brief describes research in this area beginning with the findings of the first Dartmouth Atlas in 1996, which was the first demonstration that considerable differences in spending occur at both state and regional levels. In 2009, Peter Orszag, then director of the Office of Management and Budget, cited data suggesting that if high-cost areas incorporated the practice patterns of the lowest-cost areas, health spending could be reduced by some $700 billion annually. Other researchers, however, feel that the problem is more nuanced and are concerned that the variation has more to do with differences in the health needs of a population. If that were the case, reducing payments in a high-cost region could mean that residents in that area could lose access to necessary care.

  • What's Medicare-specific? Medicare is the largest single payer in the United States, providing health insurance for 52 million elderly and disabled beneficiaries. When researchers compare Medicare spending patterns to private insurance, they have found discrepancies. While these patterns are similar at the hospital referral region (HRR) level, differences at the state level suggest that supply factors, such as the number of hospital beds or specialists in a region, may be an underlying factor in geographic spending variations. Researchers conclude that mechanisms--prior authorizations required by private insurers and prices negotiated by health plans--could explain the difference between Medicare and private insurance at the state level.

  • What's next? As the research has demonstrated, there is no single answer to addressing geographic variation in Medicare spending. The brief describes the recommendations of a 2013 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, which urged the CMS to continue to investigate payment reforms that focus on providing incentives for clinical decision makers to improve care coordination and improve health outcomes.
About Health Affairs

Health Affairs is the leading journal at the intersection of health, health care, and policy. Published by Project HOPE, the peer-reviewed journal appears each month in print, with additional Web First papers published periodically and health policy briefs published twice monthly at Read daily perspectives on Health Affairs Blog. Download weekly Narrative Matters podcasts on iTunes.