“The only constant is the sticker shock for the patients who are asked to pay”

Lost in the debate on health insurance among our fair politicians in Washington, DC is the reality that getting sick in America — even with health insurance — can bankrupt a family.

When we debate health care policy, we seem to jump right to the issue of who should pay the bills, blowing past what should be the first question: Why exactly are the bills so high?

What are the reasons, good or bad, that cancer means a half-million- or million-dollar tab? Why should a trip to the emergency room for chest pains that turn out to be indigestion bring a bill that can exceed the cost of a semester of college? What makes a single dose of even the most wonderful wonder drug cost thousands of dollars? Why does simple lab work done during a few days in a hospital cost more than a car? And what is so different about the medical ecosystem that causes technology advances to drive bills up instead of down?

If you don’t want to get sick, it’s probably best not to read this eye-opening article on medical care in America. It also makes me wonder why America doesn’t just shift to a single-payer Medicare-like system:

Because she was 64, not 65, Janice S. was not on Medicare. But seeing what Medicare would have paid Stamford Hospital for the troponin test if she had been a year older shines a bright light on the role the chargemaster plays in our national medical crisis — and helps us understand the illegitimacy of that $199.50 charge. That’s because Medicare collects troves of data on what every type of treatment, test and other service costs hospitals to deliver. Medicare takes seriously the notion that nonprofit hospitals should be paid for all their costs but actually be nonprofit after their calculation. Thus, under the law, Medicare is supposed to reimburse hospitals for any given service, factoring in not only direct costs but also allocated expenses such as overhead, capital expenses, executive salaries, insurance, differences in regional costs of living and even the education of medical students.

It turns out that Medicare would have paid Stamford $13.94 for each troponin test rather than the $199.50 Janice S. was charged.

Janice S. was also charged $157.61 for a CBC — the complete blood count that those of us who are ER aficionados remember George Clooney ordering several times a night. Medicare pays $11.02 for a CBC in Connecticut. Hospital finance people argue vehemently that Medicare doesn’t pay enough and that they lose as much as 10% on an average Medicare patient. But even if the Medicare price should be, say, 10% higher, it’s a long way from $11.02 plus 10% to $157.61. Yes, every hospital administrator grouses about Medicare’s payment rates — rates that are supervised by a Congress that is heavily lobbied by the American Hospital Association, which spent $1,859,041 on lobbyists in 2012. But an annual expense report that Stamford Hospital is required to file with the federal Department of Health and Human Services offers evidence that Medicare’s rates for the services Janice S. received are on the mark.

More than anything else, this is the failing of America’s medical system more than who should or shouldn’t have access to health insurance, whether it should be provided by an employer, or whether or not a state or the federal government should be responsible for setting up an insurance exchange.

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