Background and methods: The rate of conversion to for-profit ownership of hospitals has recently increased in the United States, with uncertain implications for health care costs. We compared total per capita Medicare spending in areas served by for-profit and not-for-profit hospitals. We used American Hospital Association data to categorize U.S. hospital service areas as for-profit (meaning that all beds in the area were in for-profit hospitals), not-for-profit (all beds were in not-for-profit hospitals), or mixed in 1989, 1992, and 1995. We then used data from the Continuous Medicare History Sample to calculate the 1989, 1992, and 1995 spending rates in each area, adjusting for other characteristics known to influence spending: age, sex, race, region of the United States, percentage of population living in urban areas, Medicare mortality rate, number of hospitals, number of physicians per capita, percentage of beds in hospitals affiliated with medical schools, percentage of beds in hospitals belonging to hospital chains, and percentage of Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in health maintenance organizations.
Results: Adjusted total per capita Medicare spending in the 208 areas where all hospitals remained under for-profit ownership during the study years was greater than in the 2860 areas where all hospitals remained under not-for-profit ownership ($4,006 vs. $3,554 in 1989, $4,243 vs. $3,841 in 1992, and $5,172 vs. $4,440 in 1995; P<0.001 for each comparison). Mixed areas had intermediate spending rates. Spending in for-profit areas was greater than in not-for-profit areas in each category of service examined: hospital services, physicians' services, home health care, and services at other facilities. The greatest increases in per capita spending between 1989 and 1995 were for hospital services (a mean increase of $395 in for-profit areas and $283 in not-for-profit areas, P=0.03 for the comparison between for-profit and not-for-profit areas) and home health care (an increase of $457 in for-profit areas and $324 in not-for-profit areas, P<0.001). Between 1989 and 1995, spending in the 33 areas where all hospitals converted from not-for-profit to for-profit ownership grew more rapidly than in the 2860 areas where all hospitals remained under not-for-profit ownership ($1,295 vs. $866, P=0.03).
Conclusions: Both the rates of per capita Medicare spending and the increases in spending rates were greater in areas served by for-profit hospitals than in areas served by not-for-profit hospitals.