The Council on the Economic Impact of Health Care Reform, a research organization of healthcare policy experts, wants to know if hospital mergers benefit the public or just hospitals.
The council was scheduled to meet this week to kick off a research project on the post-merger behavior of hospitals, said its chairman, Stuart Altman.
"Can these large hospital systems efficiently allocate medical resources for their communities better than more purely competitive markets?" Mr. Altman asked. "If they acquire market power, will they use it to minimize cost and support their charitable and educational missions, or will they raise prices?"
Mr. Altman, who said he is neutral on hospital mergers, also is chairman of the Prospective Payment Assessment Commission, which advises Congress on Medicare payment issues. He is a professor of national health policy at Brandeis University's Heller Graduate School for Advanced Studies in Social Welfare.
The 15-member council was formed last year to address issues surrounding healthcare reform. It is supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Mr. Altman said that, in the absence of federal healthcare reform, dozens of hospitals have merged and formed the basis of what some are calling integrated delivery systems.
In merging, hospitals' threefold goal is to integrate services, reduce costs through improved efficiencies, and gain greater clout with managed-care payers and large employers, which are demanding significant price discounts.
"My feeling is the whole healthcare system is going through major restructuring, and it's not being systematically looked at by healthcare policy people," Mr. Altman said.
"What's needed is an understanding of the implications on access, quality and costs," he said. "Who benefits? Do reduced costs generate reduced prices?"