Value-based purchasing (VBP) is a widely favored strategy for improving the US health care system. The meaning of value that predominates in VBP schemes is (1) conformance to selected process and/or outcome metrics, and sometimes (2) such conformance at the lowest possible cost. In other words, VBP schemes choose some number of “quality indicators” and financially incent providers to meet them (and not others). Process measures are usually based on clinical science that cannot determine the effects of a process on individual patients or patients with comorbidities, and do not necessarily measure effects that patients value; additionally, there is no provision for different patients valuing different things. Proximate outcome measures may or may not predict distal ones, and the more distal the outcome, the less reliably it can be attributed to health care. Outcome measures may be quite rudimentary, such as mortality rates, or highly contestable: survival or function after prostate surgery? When cost is an element of value-based purchasing, it is the cost to the value-based payer and not to other payers or patients’ families. The greatest value of value-based purchasing may not be to patients or even payers, but to policy makers seeking a morally justifiable alternative to politically contested regulatory policies.

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