Bureau of Prisons:

Better Planning and Evaluation Needed to Understand and Control Rising Inmate Health Care Costs

GAO-17-379: Published: Jun 29, 2017. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2017.

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Gretta L. Goodwin
(202) 512-8777
goodwing@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

From fiscal years 2009 through 2016, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) obligated more than $9 billion for the provision of inmate health care and several factors affected these costs. Obligations for health care rose from $978 million in fiscal year 2009 to $1.34 billion in fiscal year 2016, an increase of about 37 percent. On a per capita basis, and adjusting for inflation, health care obligations rose from $6,334 in fiscal year 2009 to $8,602 in fiscal year 2016, an increase of about 36 percent. BOP cited an aging inmate population, rising pharmaceutical prices, and increasing costs of outside medical services as factors that accounted for its overall costs.

Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Institution Obligations for Inmate Health Care, Including Psychological Care, and Inflation Adjusted Per Capita Obligations from Fiscal Years 2009 through 2016

Fiscal year

 

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

Total health care obligations (millions)

$978

$1,035

$1,081

$1,122

$1,200

$1,243

$1,299

$1,344

Per capita obligations (2016 dollars)

$6,334

$6,495

$6,485

$6,627

$6,998

$7,350

$7,958

$8,602

Source: GAO analysis of BOP data. GAO-17-379

BOP lacks or does not analyze certain health care data necessary to understand and control its costs. For example, while BOP's data can show how much BOP is spending overall on health care provided inside and outside an institution, BOP lacks utilization data, which is data that shows how much it is spending on individual inmate's health care or how much it is expending on a particular health care service. BOP has identified potential solutions for gathering utilization data, but has not conducted a cost-effectiveness analysis of these solutions to identify the most effective solution. BOP also does not analyze health care spending data, i.e., what its institutions are buying, from whom, and how much they spend. BOP has pursued some opportunities to control its health care spending through interagency collaboration and national contracts, but it has not conducted a spend analysis to better understand trends. Doing so would provide BOP with better information to acquire goods and services more strategically.

BOP has initiatives aimed to control health care costs but could better assess effectiveness and apply a sound planning approach. Since 2009, BOP has implemented or planned a number of initiatives related to health care cost control, but has not evaluated their cost-effectiveness. Further, BOP has engaged in a strategic planning process to help control costs, but has not incorporated certain elements of a sound planning approach, such as developing a means to measure progress toward its objectives and identifying the resources and investments needed for its initiatives. By incorporating these elements, BOP could enhance its planning and implementation efforts before expending resources, better positioning itself for success as it aims to control health care costs.

Why GAO Did This Study

As of June 2017, BOP was responsible for the custody and care—including health care—of about 154,000 inmates housed in BOP institutions. Health care includes medical, dental, and psychological treatment. BOP provides most care inside its institutions, but transports inmates outside when circumstances warrant. GAO was asked to review health care costs at BOP institutions.

This report addresses: (1) BOP's costs to provide health care services and factors that affect costs; (2) the extent to which BOP has data to help control health care costs; and (3) the extent to which BOP has planned and implemented cost control efforts.

GAO analyzed BOP health care obligations data for fiscal years 2009 through 2016, gathered information on BOP's health care cost control initiatives through a data collection instrument, and reviewed BOP's health care related strategic plans. GAO also interviewed BOP officials and visited 10 BOP institutions, selected in part, for total and per capita medical services costs.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making five recommendations, including that BOP conduct a cost-effectiveness analysis to identify the most effective method to collect health care utilization data; conduct a spend analysis of health care spending data; evaluate cost control initiatives; and enhance its planning efforts by incorporating elements of a sound planning approach. BOP concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Gretta L. Goodwin at (202) 512-8777 or goodwing@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: BOP agreed with GAO's June 2017 recommendation and has begun to take steps to address it. In 2018, BOP contracted with a management consulting firm to improve organizational alignment and strengthen data analytics capabilities. This firm is also examining data analytics solutions and by late March 2020 is expected to make recommendations to BOP to support a request for purchase (RFP) for the most cost-effective one. BOP anticipates the RFP will then follow within the subsequent three months. This contracting work is a positive step that should help BOP identify the most cost-effective solution to collect health care utilization data. BOP is still in the early stages of implementing this action, therefore it is too soon to assess whether its efforts will fully address GAO's recommendation. However, once these actions are completed, BOP could be better positioned to find a solution for collecting the needed data.

    Recommendation: To better understand the available opportunities for collecting inmate health care utilization data, BOP should conduct a cost-effectiveness analysis of potential solutions, and take steps toward implementation of the most effective solution.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Bureau of Prisons

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: BOP agreed with GAO's June 2017 recommendation and has begun to take steps to address it. In 2018, BOP contracted with a management consulting firm to identify opportunities to improve organizational alignment and strengthen data analytics capabilities. As part of this effort, BOP also contracted with a health care finance expert, who began working with BOP Health Services Division in June 2019. The expert has met with subject matter experts across disciplines to identify reliable sources for medical cost data, including medical activities data, staffing data, and medical cost data to support conducting spend analyses. BOP expects this effort to be completed by late spring 2020. This contracting work is a positive step toward implementing BOP's spend analysis guidance; however, since BOP has not yet completed this effort, it is too soon to assess whether BOP's efforts will fully address GAO's recommendation. Once BOP has completed this effort, it could be better positioned to identify opportunities for controlling health care costs.

    Recommendation: To better understand the available opportunities for controlling health care costs, BOP should implement its guidance to conduct "spend analyses" of BOP's health care spending, using data sources already available

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Bureau of Prisons

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: BOP agreed with GAO's June 2017 recommendation and has begun to take steps to address it. In 2018, BOP contracted with a management consulting firm to identify opportunities to improve organizational alignment and strengthen data analytics capabilities. As part of this effort, BOP also contracted with a health care finance expert, who began working with BOP Health Services Division in June 2019. BOP is working with this expert to validate existing financial data sources and apply a standardized cost accounting model to evaluate the cost effectiveness of key health care cost control initiatives. According to BOP, the model is being developed in phases with the initial phase expected to be completed by late March 2020. The second phase of the model is scheduled to launch in October 2020. This is a positive step that will better position BOP to evaluate its health care cost control initiations. Since BOP has not yet completed this effort, it is therefore too soon to assess whether its efforts will fully address GAO's recommendation. However, once BOP has completed this effort, it could help BOP evaluate the effectiveness of its health care cost control initiatives.

    Recommendation: To determine the actual or likely effectiveness of its ongoing or planned health care cost control initiatives, BOP should evaluate the extent to which its initiatives achieve their cost control aim.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Bureau of Prisons

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: BOP agreed with GAO's June 2017 recommendation and has begun to take steps to address it. In October 2018, BOP initiated a contract with an external group of public administration experts to examine BOP's organizational structure and its lines of authority. The group completed its study and issued a report in October 2019, which included recommendations for BOP. According to BOP, the Health Services Division is in the process of creating a Strategic Plan Advisory Group, which will implement recommendations in the October 2019 report, and will establish a 2020-2025 Strategic Plan. The Strategic Plan Advisory Group will also evaluate metrics, including those related to financial performance that will, according to BOP, enable it to identify the resources and investments to help control health care costs. This action is a positive step that could help BOP enhance its strategic planning for and implementation of health care cost control efforts. However, BOP is in the early stages of implementing this recommendation; thus it is too soon to assess if BOP will find the most effective method for enhancing its strategic planning.

    Recommendation: To enhance its strategic planning for and implementation of health care cost control efforts, BOP should incorporate elements of a sound planning approach and (1) establish a means of measuring progress toward and effectiveness of its activities for its current strategic objectives and goals related to controlling health care costs; and (2) identify the resources and investments necessary for implementation of its planned health care cost control initiatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Bureau of Prisons

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2017, BOP agreed with GAO's recommendation. However, BOP decided to end the Federal Medical Center mission analyses process. Instead, in September 2018 BOP established a Medical Referral Center (MRC) Executive Advisory Board, made up of BOP's Health Services Division leadership and wardens from all seven MRCs. According to BOP, the Board plans to develop and implement dashboard metrics by the end of calendar year 2020 to monitor essential functions at the centers, which it hopes will improve management of the inmate health care system. In the meantime, BOP reports that the Board has already developed and implemented the MRC pipeline patient dashboard, which permits the MRC wardens to monitor incoming patients in advance of arrival and to maximize the best patient care and housing until treatment is complete. In addition, the Board has developed and implemented the Memory Disorder Unit at one if its MRCs. This resulted in BOP making more efficient use its inpatient beds, as inmates that were housed in community hospitals could return to a BOP inpatient setting. While these steps might not fulfill the recommendation as worded, they have already resulted in some improvements to the utility of the MRCs, and therefore the intent of the recommendation. We will continue to monitor progress on this effort to ensure BOP develops and implements the metrics as planned.

    Recommendation: To improve the reliability and utility of its Federal Medical Center mission analyses, BOP should document the analyses and findings that underlie its recommendations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Bureau of Prisons

 

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