Big Med’s Spread

Early View Original Scholarship Health care costs

Policy Points:

  • Hospital executives posit a number of rationales for system mergers which lack any basis in academic evidence. Decades of academic research question whether system combinations confer public benefits. Antitrust authorities need to continue to closely scrutinize these transactions.
  • Recently, mergers of hospital systems that span different geographic markets are on the rise. Economists have alerted policymakers about the potential impacts such cross-market mergers may have on hospital prices. We suggest there are other reasons for concern that scholars have not often confonted. Cross-market mergers may be conducted for purely self-serving reasons of organizational growth that increases executive compensation. Combinations of sellers should have clear advantages to consumers. System executives and their boards should bear the burden of proof.
  • Federal regulators and state attorney generals should be cognizant that rationales for cross-market systems advanced by merging parties are unlikely to be operative or dominant in merger decision making.
  • Policymakers should be careful about passing legislation that encourages hospitals to consolidate.

Context: There is a growing trend of combinations among hospital systems that operate in different geographic markets known as cross-market mergers. Economists have analyzed these broader systems in terms of their anticompetitive behavior and pricing power over insurers. This paper evaluates the benefits advanced by these new hospital systems that speak to a different set of issues not usually studied: increased efficiencies, new capabilities, operating synergies, and addressing health inequities. The paper thus “looks under the hood” of these emerging, cross-market systems to assess what value they might bestow and upon whom.

Methods: The paper examines recently announced cross-market mergers in terms of their supposed benefits, as expressed by the systems’ executives as well as by industry consultants. These presumed benefits are then evaluated against existing evidence regarding hospital system outcomes.

Findings: Advocates of cross-market hospital mergers cite a host of benefits. Research suggests these benefits are nonexistent. Additional evidence suggests other motives may be at play in the formation of cross-market mergers that have nothing to do with efficiencies, synergies, or community benefits. Instead these mergers may be self-serving efforts by system chief executive officers (CEOs) to boost their compensation.

Conclusions: Cross-market hospital mergers may yield no benefits to the hospitals involved or the communities in which they operate. The boards of hospital systems that engage in these cross-market mergers need to exercise greater diligence over the actions of their CEOs.


Burns L, Pauly M. Big Med's Spread. Milbank Q. 2023;101(2)0330