Why medical bills are killing us
It’s a long read, but HIGHLY worth it. Really goes in depth about why Health Care in America is such a mess. Here’s a few snippets:
When Sean Recchi, a 42-year-old from Lancaster, Ohio, was told last March that he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his wife Stephanie knew she had to get him to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Stephanie’s father had been treated there 10 years earlier, and she and her family credited the doctors and nurses at MD Anderson with extending his life by at least eight years.
Because Stephanie and her husband had recently started their own small technology business, they were unable to buy comprehensive health insurance. For $469 a month, or about 20% of their income, they had been able to get only a policy that covered just $2,000 per day of any hospital costs. “We don’t take that kind of discount insurance,” said the woman at MD Anderson when Stephanie called to make an appointment for Sean.
Stephanie was then told by a billing clerk that the estimated cost of Sean’s visit — just to be examined for six days so a treatment plan could be devised — would be $48,900, due in advance. Stephanie got her mother to write her a check. “You do anything you can in a situation like that,” she says. The Recchis flew to Houston, leaving Stephanie’s mother to care for their two teenage children.
About a week later, Stephanie had to ask her mother for $35,000 more so Sean could begin the treatment the doctors had decided was urgent. His condition had worsened rapidly since he had arrived in Houston. He was “sweating and shaking with chills and pains,” Stephanie recalls. “He had a large mass in his chest that was … growing. He was panicked.”
Nonetheless, Sean was held for about 90 minutes in a reception area, she says, because the hospital could not confirm that the check had cleared. Sean was allowed to see the doctor only after he advanced MD Anderson $7,500 from his credit card. The hospital says there was nothing unusual about how Sean was kept waiting. According to MD Anderson communications manager Julie Penne, “Asking for advance payment for services is a common, if unfortunate, situation that confronts hospitals all over the United States.”
The total cost, in advance, for Sean to get his treatment plan and initial doses of chemotherapy was $83,900.
On the second page of the bill, the markups got bolder. Recchi was charged $13,702 for “1 RITUXIMAB INJ 660 MG.” That’s an injection of 660 mg of a cancer wonder drug called Rituxan. The average price paid by all hospitals for this dose is about $4,000, but MD Anderson probably gets a volume discount that would make its cost $3,000 to $3,500. That means the nonprofit cancer center’s paid-in-advance markup on Recchi’s lifesaving shot would be about 400%.
When I asked MD Anderson to comment on the charges on Recchi’s bill, the cancer center released a written statement that said in part, “The issues related to health care finance are complex for patients, health care providers, payers and government entities alike … MD Anderson’s clinical billing and collection practices are similar to those of other major hospitals and academic medical centers.”
The president of MD Anderson is paid like someone running a prosperous business. Ronald DePinho’s total compensation last year was $1,845,000. That does not count outside earnings derived from a much publicized waiver he received from the university that, according to the Houston Chronicle, allows him to maintain unspecified “financial ties with his three principal pharmaceutical companies.”
DePinho’s salary is nearly triple the $674,350 paid to William Powers Jr., the president of the entire University of Texas system, of which MD Anderson is a part. This pay structure is emblematic of American medical economics and is reflected on campuses across the U.S., where the president of a hospital or hospital system associated with a university — whether it’s Texas, Stanford, Duke or Yale — is invariably paid much more than the person in charge of the university.
The result is a uniquely American gold rush for those who provide everything from wonder drugs to canes to high-tech implants to CT scans to hospital bill-coding and collection services. In hundreds of small and midsize cities across the country — from Stamford, Conn., to Marlton, N.J., to Oklahoma City — the American health care market has transformed tax-exempt “nonprofit” hospitals into the towns’ most profitable businesses and largest employers, often presided over by the regions’ most richly compensated executives. And in our largest cities, the system offers lavish paychecks even to midlevel hospital managers, like the 14 administrators at New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center who are paid over $500,000 a year, including six who make over $1 million.
One night last summer at her home near Stamford, Conn., a 64-year-old former sales clerk whom I’ll call Janice S. felt chest pains. She was taken four miles by ambulance to the emergency room at Stamford Hospital, officially a nonprofit institution. After about three hours of tests and some brief encounters with a doctor, she was told she had indigestion and sent home. That was the good news.
The bad news was the bill: $995 for the ambulance ride, $3,000 for the doctors and $17,000 for the hospital — in sum, $21,000 for a false alarm.
Out of work for a year, Janice S. had no insurance. Among the hospital’s charges were three “TROPONIN I” tests for $199.50 each. According to a National Institutes of Health website, a troponin test “measures the levels of certain proteins in the blood” whose release from the heart is a strong indicator of a heart attack. Some labs like to have the test done at intervals, so the fact that Janice S. got three of them is not necessarily an issue. The price is the problem. Stamford Hospital spokesman Scott Orstad told me that the $199.50 figure for the troponin test was taken from what he called the hospital’s chargemaster. The chargemaster, I learned, is every hospital’s internal price list. Decades ago it was a document the size of a phone book; now it’s a massive computer file, thousands of items long, maintained by every hospital.
Stamford Hospital’s chargemaster assigns prices to everything, including Janice S.’s blood tests. It would seem to be an important document. However, I quickly found that although every hospital has a chargemaster, officials treat it as if it were an eccentric uncle living in the attic. Whenever I asked, they deflected all conversation away from it. They even argued that it is irrelevant. I soon found that they have good reason to hope that outsiders pay no attention to the chargemaster or the process that produces it. For there seems to be no process, no rationale, behind the core document that is the basis for hundreds of billions of dollars in health care bills.
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.
It turns out that Medicare would have paid Stamford $13.94 for each troponin test
Insurers with the most leverage, because they have the most customers to offer a hospital that needs patients, will try to negotiate prices 30% to 50% above the Medicare rates rather than discounts off the sky-high chargemaster rates. But insurers are increasingly losing leverage because hospitals are consolidating by buying doctors’ practices and even rival hospitals. In that situation — in which the insurer needs the hospital more than the hospital needs the insurer — the pricing negotiation will be over discounts that work down from the chargemaster prices rather than up from what Medicare would pay. Getting a 50% or even 60% discount off the chargemaster price of an item that costs $13 and lists for $199.50 is still no bargain. “We hate to negotiate off of the chargemaster, but we have to do it a lot now,” says Edward Wardell, a lawyer for the giant health-insurance provider Aetna Inc.
That so few consumers seem to be aware of the chargemaster demonstrates how well the health care industry has steered the debate from why bills are so high to who should pay them.
According to a McKinsey study of the medical marketplace, a typical piece of equipment will pay for itself in one year if it carries out just 10 to 15 procedures a day. That’s a terrific return on capital equipment that has an expected life span of seven to 10 years. And it means that after a year, every scan ordered by a doctor in the Stamford Hospital emergency room would mean pure profit, less maintenance costs, for the hospital. Plus an extra fee for the doctor.
Another McKinsey report found that health care providers in the U.S. conduct far more CT tests per capita than those in any other country — 71% more than in Germany, for example, where the government-run health care system offers none of those incentives for overtesting. We also pay a lot more for each test, even when it’s Medicare doing the paying. Medicare reimburses hospitals and clinics an average of four times as much as Germany does for CT scans, according to the data gathered by McKinsey.
A closer look at hospital finance suggests two holes in that argument. First, while Sloan-Kettering does have an aggressive financial-assistance program (something Stamford Hospital lacks), at most hospitals it’s not a Saudi sheik but the almost poor — those who don’t qualify for Medicaid and don’t have insurance — who are most often asked to pay those exorbitant chargemaster prices. Second, there is the jaw-dropping difference between those list prices and the hospitals’ costs, which enables these ostensibly nonprofit institutions to produce high profits even after all the discounts. True, when the discounts to Medicare and private insurers are applied, hospitals end up being paid a lot less overall than what is itemized on the original bills. Stamford ends up receiving about 35% of what it bills, which is the yield for most hospitals. (Sloan-Kettering and MD Anderson, whose great brand names make them tough negotiators with insurance companies, get about 50%). However, no matter how steep the discounts, the chargemaster prices are so high and so devoid of any calculation related to cost that the result is uniquely American: thousands of nonprofit institutions have morphed into high-profit, high-profile businesses that have the best of both worlds. They have become entities akin to low-risk, must-have public utilities that nonetheless pay their operators as if they were high-risk entrepreneurs. As with the local electric company, customers must have the product and can’t go elsewhere to buy it. They are steered to a hospital by their insurance companies or doctors (whose practices may have a business alliance with the hospital or even be owned by it). Or they end up there because there isn’t any local competition. But unlike with the electric company, no regulator caps hospital profits.
So, what do these wealthy nonprofits do with all the profit? In a trend similar to what we’ve seen in nonprofit colleges and universities — where there has been an arms race of sorts to use rising tuition to construct buildings and add courses of study — the hospitals improve and expand facilities (despite the fact that the U.S. has more hospital beds than it can fill), buy more equipment, hire more people, offer more services, buy rival hospitals and then raise executive salaries because their operations have gotten so much larger. They keep the upward spiral going by marketing for more patients, raising prices and pushing harder to collect bill payments. Only with health care, the upward spiral is easier to sustain. Health care is seen as even more of a necessity than higher education. And unlike in higher education, in health care there is little price transparency — and far less competition in any given locale even if there were transparency. Besides, a hospital is typically one of the community’s larger employers if not the largest, so there is unlikely to be much local complaining about its burgeoning economic fortunes.
Getting a patient in and out of a hospital the same day seems like a logical way to cut costs. Outpatients don’t take up hospital rooms or require the expensive 24/7 observation and care that come with them. That’s why in the 1990s Medicare pushed payment formulas on hospitals that paid them for whatever ailment they were treating (with more added for documented complications), not according to the number of days the patient spent in a bed. Insurance companies also pushed incentives on hospitals to move patients out faster or not admit them for overnight stays in the first place. Meanwhile, the introduction of procedures like noninvasive laparoscopic surgery helped speed the shift from inpatient to outpatient.
By 2010, average days spent in the hospital per patient had declined significantly, while outpatient services had increased even more dramatically. However, the result was not the savings that reformers had envisioned. It was just the opposite.
Experts estimate that outpatient services are now packed with so much hidden profit that about two-thirds of the $750 billion annual U.S. overspending identified by the McKinsey research on health care comes in payments for outpatient services. That includes work done by physicians, laboratories and clinics (including diagnostic clinics for CT scans or blood tests) and same-day surgeries and other hospital treatments like cancer chemotherapy. According to a McKinsey survey, outpatient emergency-room care averages an operating profit margin of 15% and nonemergency outpatient care averages 35%. On the other hand, inpatient care has a margin of just 2%. Put simply, inpatient care at nonprofit hospitals is, in fact, almost nonprofit. Outpatient care is wildly profitable.
And these are only culled from the first three or so pages, once again I highly encourage you to go read the whole thing.