Cost-based pricing in the NHS internal market : accounting choices and the achievement of economic efficiency
Since 1988, quasi-markets have been introduced into many areas of social policy in the UK, the NHS internal market is one example. Markets operate by price signals. The NHS Internal Market, if it is to operate efficiently, requires purchasers and providers to respond to price signals. The research hypothesis is - cost accounting methods can be developed to enable healthcare contracts to be priced on a cost-basis in a manner which will facilitate the achievement of economic efficiency in the NHS internal market. Surveys of hospitals in 1991 and 1994 established the cost methods adopted in deriving the prices for healthcare contracts in the first year of the market and three years on. An in-depth view of the costing for pricing process was gained through case studies. Hospitals had inadequate cost information on which to price healthcare contracts at the inception of the internal market: prices did not reflect the relative performance of healthcare providers sufficiently closely to enable the market's espoused efficiency aims to be achieved. Price variations were often due to differing costing approaches rather than efficiency. Furthermore, price comparisons were often meaningless because of inadequate definition of the services (products). In April 1993, the NHS Executive issued guidance on costing for contracting to all NHS providers in an attempt to improve the validity of price comparisons between alternative providers. The case studies and the 1994 survey show that although price comparison has improved, considerable problems remain. Consistency is not assured, and the problem of adequate product definition is still to be solved. Moreover, the case studies clearly highlight the mismatch of rigid, full-cost pricing rules with both the financial management considerations at local level and the emerging internal market(s). Incentives exist to cost-shift, and healthcare prices can easily be manipulated. In the search for a new health policy paradigm to replace traditional bureaucratic provision, cost-based pricing cannot be used to ensure a more efficient allocation of healthcare resources.