‘An Arm and a Leg’: How much for stitches in the ER? Hard to gauge upfront


Image result for ‘An Arm and a Leg’: How much for stitches in the ER? Hard to gauge upfront

Sarah Macsalka had heard the stories about how expensive an emergency room visit can be, even for a minor complaint.


So when her 7-year-old son, Cameron, tripped and gashed his knee in the backyard, the ER was not where her family headed first. In fact, Macsalka did just about everything she could to avoid paying a big, fat bill to get Cameron’s knee stitched up.

Ultimately, she failed.

Her adventure raises a big question: In a system where consumers are encouraged to “shop” for the best deal in health care, why is it so hard to get simple information, like a price?

On this week’s episode of “An Arm and a Leg,” we get some answers.

Instead of taking her son to the local emergency room for stitches, Macsalka took him to an urgent care clinic, one that provides patients with prices ahead of the service. There, the staff said stitching up Cameron’s knee would cost $150.

But there was a problem. The clinic didn’t have the topical anesthetic the doctor would need to numb Cameron’s skin first.

“And Cameron is like screaming and crying,” Macsalka said. “He doesn’t take pain well.”

So, reluctantly, the family headed to the local emergency room.

Macsalka tried to be a smart shopper there, too. When a staff member came to take her insurance information, Macsalka grilled him about how much the visit would cost.

“He was like, ‘I don’t know. Just walking through the ER [door] costs $600,'” she said.

To Macsalka, that sounded like a “facility fee” — a cover charge of sorts, separate from any health care services. And it sounded pricey. But she was over a barrel.

“The kid is still screaming and crying,” she said. “His knee’s a mess.” She wasn’t about to drive him back to the urgent care place and start over again.

They got the stitches in the ER. And, as it happened, the anesthetic wasn’t very effective.

Macsalka said her son’s screams were ear-piercing. “Yeah, Cameron’s lungs did not give out,” she said. “Those are very healthy lungs.”

As it turned out, Macsalka’s attempts to figure out what the final price would be weren’t very effective either.  A few weeks after the ER visit, she got a bill for the doctor’s services and paid it: $214 after insurance.

Then there was another bill from the hospital. One line: $2,824.

Macsalka went back into smart-consumer mode. She called the hospital billing department and asked if there had been a mistake.

Macsalka said the person she spoke with on the phone told her that “just walking through the doors” of the emergency room cost $4,200. That amount matches a number on her insurance statement — an amount before the insurance company’s negotiated discount.

After that discount, the bill was $2,824 – and because Macsalka’s family had a high deductible, they were responsible for paying it all.

Macsalka said she tried another tactic and asked the billing representative: What if I didn’t have insurance? She said the billing rep told her: In that case, the hospital would accept 10% of its total bill to make sure it collected something. Without a negotiated rate from insurance, the total would have been about $6,000, so 10% would have been about $600.

It was more than Macsalka had hoped to pay. But less than $3,000.

“So I was like, ‘Fine, cool, I’ll take it.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh no. You can’t because it’s already gone through your insurance company. So that’s not an option for you.'”

Having insurance — with a high deductible — meant Macsalka was on the hook for the $2,800 charge.

She wishes someone could have told her the price upfront.

“I would’ve said thank you very much. And walked out and gone back to our lovely urgent care and been like, Cameron, bite on this stick,” she said.

For Episode 4, we also rounded up a hospital consultant and a journalist to better understand the perspectives of the hospital and insurance company.


Hospitals vs. the world


A hospital sign with the 'H' replaced with a dollar sign

Hospitals sued the Trump administration yesterday over its requirement that they disclose their negotiated rates, the latest of the industry’s moves to protect itself from policy changes that could hurt its revenues.

Why it matters: Hospitals account for the largest portion of U.S. health costs — which patients are finding increasingly unaffordable.

The big picture: Hospitals are going to war against Trump’s price transparency push while simultaneously trying to kill Democrats’ effort to expand government-run health coverage.

  • The industry is one of the main forces behind the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, the group that’s gone on offense against “Medicare for All” and every other proposal that would extend the government’s hand in the health system, as Politico recently reported.
  • It’s also emerging victorious from blue states’ health reforms so far, which all started as proposals much more threatening to hospitals than the watered-down versions that eventually replaced them.

Between the lines: The industry has a lot to lose; even non-for-profit systems are, as my colleague Bob Herman put it, “swimming in cash.”

  • The Trump administration’s transparency measure could lead to either more pricing competition or further regulation, if it exposes egregious pricing practices.
  • And Democrats’ proposals often feature government plans that pay much lower rates than private insurance does.

Hospitals argue that the transparency measure could end up raising prices if providers with lower negotiated rates see what their competitors are getting. They also warn that Democrats’ plans could put hospitals and doctors out of business and threaten patients’ access to care.

The bottom line: Politicians are reacting to patients’ complaints about their health care costs, but the industry has historically been excellent at getting its way.

Go deeper: Hospitals winning big state battles




People hate shopping for health insurance


Illustration of a plastic bag with "NO THANK YOU" printed multiple times on it alongside a health plus.

Americans rarely switch to new health plans when the annual insurance-shopping season comes around, even if they could have gotten a better deal, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

The bottom line: People loathe shopping for health plans, and many are bad at it, for one major reason: “It’s just too hard,” Tricia Neuman, a Medicare expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Bob last year.

Reality check: During any insurance program’s annual enrollment period, most people end up staying with the status quo, if it’s an option, instead of picking a new plan.

  • Fewer than one out of 10 seniors voluntarily switch from one private Medicare Advantage plan to another, according to new research from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
  • The same holds true for Medicare’s private prescription drug plans.
  • Most employers don’t usually change insurance carriers, often out of fear of angering workers, and keep plan options limited.
  • Employees, after several reminders from HR, usually default to what they had.
  • Fewer than half of people in the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces actively re-enroll in new plans, even though the market was designed for comparison shopping.
  • Medicaid enrollees in some states have no say in the private plans they get.

Between the lines: Buying health insurance — $20,000 decision for the average family — is more complicated than buying furniture.

  • With consumer products, you pretty much know what you’re getting. With health insurance, you’re making an educated guess of how much health care you’ll use, hoping you’ll need none of it.
  • Health insurance terms and policies also are confusing, which turns people off from the shopping process.

The big picture: Shopping for insurance is difficult enough for most people. Shopping for actual doctors, tests and services is even more difficult and less widespread, and likely won’t change if prices are unlocked.




Would ‘Medicare for All’ really save money?


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We invited experts to cut through one of the biggest campaign claims about single-payer health care — and what might really work.

Every year, health care eats up a huge and growing chunk of America’s GDP — soon projected to be $1 in every $5 spent in the U.S. ― and “Medicare for All” supporters love to tout its ability to bring that dizzying price tag down.

Would it? Is that even possible in today’s political reality?

For the answer, we looked past the candidates making lavish promises about their policies and turned instead to the experts who’ve been studying this question for years. To encourage a lively back-and-forth, we opened up a shared file and invited six of America’s smartest health-cost thinkers to weigh in freely on a handful of questions, arguing in real time about how and whether a new system might deliver on this one big promise.

The Lineup


  • Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Berwick was the Medicare administrator under President Barack Obama and advised Elizabeth Warren on her Medicare for All plan.


  • Dean of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.


  • President of Blase Policy Strategies, a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, and previously special assistant to President Donald Trump for economic policy.


  • Director of domestic policy studies at Stanford University, and fellow at the Hoover Institution.


  • Dean of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.


  • Assistant professor at University of Minnesota School of Public Health.


1. The Trillion-Dollar Question

Could Medicare for All really rein in health care spending in America?

Key Takeaway

Don Berwick: A single-payer system may be the only plausible way to get a grip on our health care costs without harming patients. Without it, it’s hard to find a route to the administrative simplification, purchasing power, and investments in better quality of care and prevention that can get at the fundamental drivers of cost increases that don’t add value. Whether it’s realistic or not depends on building public confidence in the benefits of that strategy.

Kate Baicker: The potential simplification has to be balanced against the increase in health care use that we should expect when uninsured people gain access to insurance. Insured people use a lot more health care than uninsured people! That’s a very good thing for their health, but it comes with a cost that taxpayers have to finance. Given that, I’m not sure that we can lower overall health spending without restricting access to care in ways that people might not like, such as through denying coverage, or even shortages caused by cutting back on reimbursement rates.

Hannah Neprash: If I’m sure about anything in this world, it’s that expanding health insurance coverage will increase the total quantity of health care consumed, like Kate said! So that means M4A would need to dramatically reduce the price we pay for care, in order to rein in spending. That’s not out of the question; we know there’s tremendous variation within commercial insurance prices that doesn’t necessarily reflect higher quality. But it could raise concerns about access to care.

Brian Blase: No. Economics 101 says that increasing the demand without doing anything about the supply will put upward pressure on prices. The government can force prices below market-clearing levels, but that would lead to access problems for patients and complaints from politically powerful hospitals and providers. Also, Medicare rates are set through a political process with a bureaucracy subject to intense pressure. Unsurprisingly, Medicare overpays for certain services and procedures, and underpays for others. A single-payer program would likely lead to more wasteful health care expenditures, since it would further reduce market signals about what is valuable and what is not. Innovation and disruption represent the best way to lower costs without harming quality of care, and an even bigger Medicare-style bureaucracy would favor the status quo over more innovative ways of delivering care.

Don Berwick: I have some skepticism about claims Medicare for All will unleash major increases in utilization. That’s not the case in some European countries with health care “free at the point of service,” and I believe that the experience in Massachusetts with nearly universal coverage didn’t match the predictions of major utilization increases — at least not persistent increases.

Kate Baicker: I think we actually have a fair amount of evidence that when patients have to pay less for care, they use more. Again, that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but I think it’s unrealistic to hope that we can insure more people but spend less on health care overall without substantially cutting back on payments or restricting services, both of which would restrict access to care for the insured.

Sherry Glied: This question really comes down to politics, not economics. As Hannah says, prices are the key here, but we already know Congress has had a very hard time reducing hospital prices or physician prices Right now, a Democratic majority in the House can’t even agree on a way to address surprise billing, which benefits only a small minority of physicians. Today, health care is the largest employer in over 55 percent of U.S. congressional districts ― a political reach the defense industry must envy. Under a single-payer system, the entire livelihood of all those health care providers would depend on choices made by federal legislators and regulators. That’s an extraordinarily potent political force, with unparalleled access to members of Congress. Think of those annual checkups! Simply invoking the words “single-payer” isn’t going to change that political reality.

Lanhee Chen: I have to agree with Sherry that the history of entitlement spending in the United States supports the notion that the politics will make it almost impossible for single-payer to be fiscally sustainable. The current proposals from the likes of Elizabeth Warren make dramatically unrealistic assumptions about what will happen to provider reimbursement rates — and the history of how Congress has reacted to the provider lobby makes clear that if it passes some kind of single-payer system, reimbursement rates would steadily rise and costs would rise with them. Of course, single-payer advocates could be honest about their intent to ration care to constrain cost — but here again, it’s unlikely politicians would actually make such a concession.

2. The Hospital Challenge

We know that more money is spent in hospitals than any other setting or service, but hospital costs haven’t gotten much attention from the 2020 candidates — in part because beating up on hospitals isn’t good politics. So what can be done there?

Hannah Neprash: The past decade-plus has seen a tremendous amount of merger and acquisition activity in and across hospital markets. As a result, large hospital systems have the bargaining power to command increasingly high prices from commercial insurers. Antitrust enforcement should certainly play a role. I’m also intrigued by what states like Massachusetts are doing, with agencies like the Health Policy Commission that monitors health care spending growth.

Don Berwick: Moving away from fee-for-service payment to population-based payment would be a powerful way to check needless hospital spending. We’d also benefit from stronger antitrust action to mitigate the price effects of hospital market consolidation. Strengthening community resources for home-based and noninstitutional care is also important.

Brian Blase: The key answer is to increase competition. As a reference, see the Trump administration’s 2018 report, Reforming America’s Health Care System Through Choice and Competition. Beyond putting more resources into antitrust enforcement, Congress should also consider restricting anti-competitive contract terms, like “all-or-nothing” contracts that require that every hospital and provider in a system participate in an insurer’s network if the insurer wants to contract with any hospital or provider in that system. The actual practice of medicine matters, too: If states took steps to allow providers to practice to the “top of their license,” delivering the most advanced care they’re qualified to do, it would let hospitals trim costs by using highly qualified but lower-cost alternatives — such as nurse anesthetists instead of specialist MDs on some procedures.

Sherry Glied: I’m sympathetic to Brian’s emphasis on the role of competition, but unfortunately, only a tiny minority of areas in the U.S. have the population base to support four or more large hospitals, which is the number needed for that kind of competition. Some combination of maximum price regulation in markets where there are few choices and expanded public programs to put downward pressure on prices would help. Interestingly, the share of U.S. health care expenditures that goes to hospitals is the same today as it was in 1960 ― before Medicare and Medicaid. I’m dubious that simply changing methods of payment is going to make much of a dent.

Don BerwickCompetition and transparency may help, but I do not have faith that these will be sufficient to control escalating prices. I suspect we will sooner or later have to turn to some form of direct price controls.

Brian Blase: Of course, we already have price controls throughout the health care sector as a result of Medicare fee-for-service’s prominent role. And just a reminder that the onset of Medicare led to an explosion of health care spending in the United States.

3. Would Transparency Work?

One thing everyone across the ideological spectrum seems to agree on is that we need more transparency in health care pricing, so everyone from patients to regulators can see what things actually cost. But what’s the evidence that this actually helps keep costs down? And what more could policymakers realistically achieve, given pushback from industry groups?

Don Berwick: I’m very much in favor of total transparency in pricing. It’s hard to control costs if we don’t know how the money flows. But the evidence suggests that simple-minded notions of informing patients to create price sensitivity don’t work. The effects of transparency are more subtle and indirect.

Kate Baircke: Information alone goes only so far: It has to be coupled with a system that rewards quality of care and health outcomes, rather than just the quantity of care delivered. And it has to be done in a nuanced way. On the patient side, simply increasing deductibles, for example, is likely to restrict patients’ access to high- as well as low-value care — but cost-sharing that is clearly tied to value, like having lower copayments for highly beneficial services, could create pressure for better use of resources and better outcomes. Similarly, on the provider side, having providers share in the benefits of steering patients toward higher-value care is likely to be much more effective in improving value than just cutting back on payment rates.

Brian Blase: I just wrote a paper on this subject, so I apologize for a somewhat long answer. There’s definitely evidence that consumers who have incentives to care about prices benefit from transparent prices — meaning they shopped and saved money. Consumers who used New Hampshire’s health care price website for medical imaging saved an estimated 36 percent per visit. Safeway linked a reference pricing design with a price transparency tool, and its employees saved 27 percent on laboratory tests and 13 percent on imaging tests. (Reference pricing means that consumers are given a set amount of money for a procedure, and then bear any cost above the reference price.) California used reference pricing for orthopedic procedures for their public employees and retirees, and it led to a 9- to 14-percentage-point increase in the use of low-price facilities, and a 17-percent to 21-percent reduction in prices. Perhaps the neatest finding is that people who didn’t shop also benefited, since providers lowered prices for everyone. In California, about 75 percent of these price reductions benefited people who were not participating in the reference pricing model.

So in my paper, I argue that the primary way price transparency will create benefit is by helping employers drive reforms — by easing their ability to use reference price models, better monitoring insurers, and designing their benefits so employees have an incentive to use lower-cost providers.

Hannah Neprash: I think it really depends on what we mean here. Simply providing price information to patients via price transparency tools hasn’t changed behavior much. Reference pricing is promising — because patients switch providers, and higher-priced providers appear to lower their prices in response. Since patients rely so heavily on the recommendation of their physicians, I’d been hopeful about physician-directed price transparency, but existing evidence doesn’t seem to bear this out. This may very well be another area where aligning financial incentives is crucial, so physicians share in the savings if they steer patients toward more efficient providers.

Sherry GliedSome kinds of price transparency seem to be no-brainers. No one should ever face an unexpected out-of-pocket bill for a scheduled medical service, and everyone should know exactly how much to expect to pay in an emergency. That’s Consumer Protection 101. Things get more complicated from there. If incentives of patients and referring physicians are aligned, there’s some hope of steering patients toward lower-cost providers and encouraging lower prices all-around through structured shopping tools, like reference pricing, but the scope of these programs is very narrow. We actually don’t know — theoretically or empirically — what would happen if all doctors, hospitals and insurers knew what others were paying or charging. And in general, wholesale prices of that type, paid by one business to another, are not transparent in other industries either.

Brian Blase: I think the potential application of reference price models and value-based arrangements is far broader than Sherry does. Only a small amount of health care procedures or services are for emergency care.

Lanhee Chen: The one thing I would add here is that price transparency — however one defines it — should be coupled with better and more thorough information about provider quality. We have long struggled with a way to report quality measures that account for differences in underlying patient health and other factors, but there are a number of private-sector and nonprofit driven efforts that have made good progress on quality reporting in recent years. Whatever efforts there are to drive forward with transparency on the pricing side, we shouldn’t forget that those measures alone may not be enough to help consumers make truly educated decisions.

4. OK, Panel: Now What?

If it were up to you, what’s a politically viable first step you’d take to bring down health care costs right now?

Don Berwick: I’d like to give provider systems the flexibility to invest in care and supports that really help patients, instead of trapping the providers on the fee-for-service hamster wheel of continually increasing activity. So, continue bipartisan efforts to end fee-for-service payment wherever possible. The more we can orient payment toward a population-based system, the faster we can likely make progress. By “population-based” payment, I mean a range of options including capitated payments, global budgets and, generally, paying integrated care systems to take responsibility for the health of groups of enrollees over time.

Kate Baicker: I agree that moving away from fee-for-service and toward value-based payments would be a big step in the right direction. I’d also like to see the Cadillac tax implemented, to limit the regressive subsidy of expensive employer-based plans. This would both make our system both more progressive and more fair, and also promote higher-value health insurance plans.


Brian Blase: I agree with Kate that the Cadillac tax should be implemented, although I recommend a reform that would exempt contributions to health savings accounts from the tax thresholds — so we’re replacing a subsidy for third-party payment with a subsidy for personal accounts that employees own and control. More generally, Regina Herzlinger, the dean of the consumer-directed health reform movement has put it this way: “Choice supports competition, competition fuels innovation, and innovation is the only way to make things better and cheaper.” The Trump administration’s report I mentioned earlier has more than 50 recommendations to maximize choice and competition in health care. For politically possible steps in the near term, we should pursue real price transparency at the federal level, and at the state level we should encourage states to allow providers to practice to the top of their license and eliminate anti-competitive restrictions, like certificate-of-need laws.


Sherry GliedMedicaid for all! Give all Americans access to a low-cost health care option, as is done in Australia. That will put downward pressure on prices across the system, because providers will know that if they charge too much, patients will revert to public insurance.


Kate Baicker: When it comes to Medicare for All, my colleagues Mark Shepard, Jon Skinner and I have some new analysis suggesting that a “one size fits all” Medicare-type program is increasingly unsustainable as medical technology advances, income disparities rise and taxes increase. A workable alternative would be a more basic universal insurance package that people could then choose to “top up” if they wanted — more like “Medicaid for All” (thanks for the setup, Sherry!). That has the potential to make our health care spending more efficient in a way that can benefit both high- and low-income people.


Brian Blase: Without knowing the details, I like Kate’s proposal. I’ve long argued that we should send public subsidies directly to people and let them choose how they want to finance their health care, rather than sending subsidies directly to insurance companies or health care providers.


Lanhee Chen: I think there is bipartisan agreement around the need to move away from fee-for-service arrangements, but the devil is in the details. Similarly, bipartisan thinkers and analysts generally agree on the benefits of limiting the tax subsidy for employer-sponsored health insurance — but politically it’s hard to imagine too many politicians coming out to defend the Cadillac tax or supporting other limits.



Hospitals, insurers object to rule posting their negotiated rates


CMS is proposing that hospitals make public their payer-specific negotiated charges for a limited set of “shoppable” services.

Hospitals and insurers have made clear their opposition to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services proposed rule requiring the disclosure of their privately negotiated contract rates.

CMS is proposing that hospitals make public their payer-specific negotiated charges for a limited set of “shoppable” services or face civil monetary penalties, in a rule to go into effect on January 1, 2020. Comments were due by September 27.

Under the rule, hospitals would display payer-specific negotiated charges for at least 300 shoppable services, including 70 selected by CMS and 230 by the provider.

The American Hospital Association called it the wrong approach, even though it said it supported ensuring patients have the information they need, including knowing what their expected out-of-pocket costs would be. However, the AHA said, “Instead of helping patients estimate their out-of-pocket obligations, it would introduce confusion and fuel anticompetitive behavior among commercial health insurers in an already highly-concentrated insurance industry, seriously limiting the choices available to patients.”

America’s Essential Hospitals said, “We are particularly concerned that the agency’s proposals regarding the public posting of charges, in particular the posting of negotiated rates, offer little benefit to the consumer, add substantial burden to hospitals, and pose harm to competition, potentially driving up prices.”

America’s Health Insurance plans said that forcing disclosure of privately and competitively negotiated rates will not provide consumers with information that is actionable or helpful. I

“Instead,”AHIP said, “it will hamper competitive negotiations and push healthcare prices and premiums higher for patients, consumers, businesses and taxpayers. This proposed rule also has significant implications for, and is interconnected with, other proposed rules regarding interoperability of health care data. We are concerned that unknown entities will have open access to the data, with few restrictions on how they may use it.”


CMS released the proposals on July 29 in the 2020 hospital outpatient prospective payment and ambulatory surgical center payment rule.

The rule also has three additional proposed policies that run afoul of the law, the AHA said.

Specifically, the AHA opposes completion of the phase-in of payment reductions for the hospital outpatient clinic visit in excepted off-campus provider-based departments to the “physician fee schedule equivalent” rate of 40% of the outpatient prospective payment system rate.

The AHA said the proposal “exceeds the Administration’s legal authority and should be abandoned.”

The AHA has already won a case in court on the government’s site neutral payment policy.

“On the clinic visit policy, we remind CMS that the agency was recently found by the courts to have exceeded its statutory authority when it cut the payment rate for clinic services at excepted off-campus provider-based departments,” the AHA said.

Hospitals also object to continuing the current policy that pays for separately payable drugs acquired through the 340B drug savings program at the rate of average sales price minus 22.5%.

And the AHA objects to the implementation of a prior authorization process for five categories of outpatient department services.


On September 17, a federal judge ruled in favor of the AHA and hospital organizations, saying CMS exceeded its statutory authority when it reduced payments for hospital outpatient services provided in off-campus provider-based departments that were grandfathered under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.

The AHA, joined by the Association of American Medical Colleges and several member hospitals, had filed the lawsuit in December.


America’s Essential Hospitals said, “These cuts deter hospitals from expanding access in communities with the most need for healthcare services and run counter to CMS’ goal of integrated, coordinated healthcare.

“Taken together, these proposals would have a chilling effect on beneficiary access to care while also increasing regulatory burden,” the AHA said.










Why is healthcare so expensive? This Johns Hopkins surgeon might have the answers


For a small group of vascular surgery centers in metropolitan Washington, D.C., it was local churches that turned out to be surprisingly lucrative.

It was at health screening fairs hosted by these houses of worship where Marty Makary, M.D., found surgeons drumming up business for pricey—and often unnecessary—leg stents. It’s among the collection of systemic and human examples Makary examines in his new book “The Price We Pay: What Broke American Health Care—and How to Fix It” as driving forces behind rising U.S. health costs.

Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins and New York Times best-selling author, hits every segment of the market, from a health system in New Mexico that has sued 1 in 5 residents in town to a health insurance conference where brokers described over drinks why they usually aren’t helping employers get the best deal.

“Healthcare has adopted a business model that uses middlemen, price gouging and sometimes delivers care that can be inappropriate, and this bloated economy has a tremendous amount of waste,” Makary said. “So our research really asks the question: ‘What is the experience of the everyday American interfacing with our healthcare system?’”

I caught up with Makary recently to discuss some of the problems he highlights in his new book, which is being released Sept. 10, and some of his ideas on how we solve them.

FierceHealthcare: Why did you write this book?

Marty Makary: Hospitals are amazing places and there is a tremendous amount of public trust in hospitals. But I’ve been seriously concerned about the erosion of public trust by the price gouging and predatory billing practices that patients are describing all over America. Our research team found bills are marked up as much as 23 times higher than what hospitals will accept from Medicare. We kept hearing over and over again that, ‘No one is expected to pay these bills. Hospital CEOs assured me when I showed them inflated bills that nobody is expected to pay the sticker price.’ But that didn’t seem to match the stories we were hearing on the ground.

FH: One of the hospitals you highlight in this book in Carlsbad, New Mexico, had a practice of hiking prices and suing patients who were unable to pay. What did you find there?

MM: We decided to shift our research into the question: “Are Americans asked to pay the sticker price and if so, what happens when they can’t afford it?”

A woman sent me a message where not only was the bill inflated, but the care was—in her opinion, unnecessary—and the hospital had sued her. When I reached out, she said, “They’ve sued all my friends as well and garnished our paychecks.” I couldn’t believe this, and so I flew out to Carlsbad. The driver of the Chamber of Commerce taxi service that picked us up from the airport, the receptionist at the hotel, the waitress at the breakfast place, the clerk’s office staff, families in the courthouse: You couldn’t believe it. Everywhere you turned, people had been terrorized financially by this local community hospital. I thought: “Where is the spirit of medicine? Do these executives even know the consequences on the ground of these billing practices?”

FH: In the book, you mention many hospital executives don’t even know they’re suing patients.

MM: Oftentimes, there’s detachment. And when we’re detached from the consequences or problems, that’s when horrible things happen in societies historically. I found sometimes hospital executives, board members and certainly our research supports doctors not knowing about this practice. And when they find out, the clinicians are outraged. By and large, board members want it to stop … I think if you look at any major issue in the United States, whether it be race, poverty or healthcare, if we are not proximate to the problem, we tend to rationalize financial systems that enable the problem. In healthcare, what I’ve noticed is, when I would share these stories at conferences, other healthcare experts argued it was not a problem that was diabolical, they just weren’t proximate to the issue.

FH:  You also document that many hospitals are doing the right thing.

MM: Most hospitals try to do the right thing. But I think it tells us a lot about the practice of suing patients and that it’s unnecessary. When all the revenue generated from suing patients amounts to less than the amount of the CEO pay increase in one year, which is something we’ve seen, the argument that it’s essential to sue patients in order for the hospital to be sustainable melts away.

FH: But obviously, the problem is not just about hospitals, right?

MM: A lot of people are getting rich in healthcare. We’ve created tens of thousands of millionaires that are not patient-facing. If you look at the earnings on Wall Street of some of these healthcare companies, for example, UnitedHealth Group reported a 25% increase in earnings in a recent earnings report. How do earnings go up 25% in an actuarial insurance business? They said on their call it was in part due to their pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), a well-known middleman that profits from spread pricing and money games. Hospitals are on target this year for their highest margin in history—5.1% based on early 2019 data. At the same time rural hospitals are closing, large hospitals are making barrels of money. Although they are claiming razor-thin margins, the cost shift accounting is so sophisticated, that they can use their profit to buy new buildings, pay down debt, buy more real estate, increase executive pay. What we have right now is an arms race of profiteering in healthcare where all the stakeholders are making a lot of money except for one, and that’s the patient.

FH: In the book, you talk about efforts to address practice outliers like those vascular surgeons through the use of big data, which led to the creation of the “Improving Wisely” initiative. What did you do?

MM:  Most doctors do the right thing or always try to. But the fraction that are responding to the consumerist culture or the perverse incentives or are just not practicing state of the art care can cost the system a lot more money than those who aren’t … Instead of hammering doctors that do the right thing with reporting burdens and other hassles, we can shunt those resources to address outliers identified in the data using metrics endorsed by the experts in each specialty, and gold card the good doctors so they don’t have to deal with reporting hassles and the expense of the reporting hassles.

In studying the issue of inappropriate care and delivering measures of the appropriateness of care, we’ve been meeting with individual specialists around the country and many of these doctors are telling us about the practice pattern that a fraction of specialists in their field are doing that represents overuse. Our work called “Improving Wisely” partners with associations to send outlier physicians their data around a specialty-endorsed measure of overuse. What we’ve seen is, among doctors, among outlier physicians who see their data with a confidential dear doctor letter, that 83% reduce their pattern of overuse. The initial project two years ago that cost $150,000 has resulted in $27 million worth of savings. This is an example of a high consensus approach that results in real savings that you just don’t see in other areas. By and large, politicians are talking about different ways to fund the broken healthcare system and not ways to fix it. We need to talk about how to fix it.

FH: In the book, you really seem to try to take on everyone: doctors, hospitals, air ambulances, workplace wellness companies, PBMs.

MM:  Almost all the voices in healthcare are beholden to some special interest or stakeholder. We desperately need a global critique of how this system has gone awry and there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on right now, especially at the insurance companies and pharma. But the reality is, we all have a piece of this pie. I don’t think there’s really any one villain in the healthcare system. I don’t even think there’s much deliberate malfeasance that goes on. I think we have a system that’s largely run by people doing what they are told to do and they are doing it in a place where they may not be proximate to the hardship the system creates.

FH: So the big question: How do we fix the problems?

MM: For every problem I described, I tried to describe one of the most exciting disrupters in this space. With the pricing failure problem, I highlight the Free Market Medical Association and the individuals who are saying they are going to make all prices transparent and fair regardless of who’s paying whether it’s a patient or an insurance company. There’s one fair price. Keith Smith of the Surgery Center of Oklahoma is offering one fair true price. Not a sticker price but a true price, regardless of who’s paying. You look at MDsave and Clear Health Costs. They are offering ways for people to shop. If the government does nothing on healthcare, I’m still optimistic we are moving in the right direction because businesses in American are realizing that they’re getting ripped off on their healthcare and pharmacy plans. They’re increasingly doing direct contracting and looking closely at their health insurance benefits and pharmacy design and realizing there is a lot of money wasted.

One of the root issues in healthcare is the way we physicians are educated. It uses a model that’s highly flawed, relying highly on rote memorization of things that are easily available on the Internet today and omits training in effective communication, public policy and healthcare literacy. It turns out that many doctors feel paralyzed in fixing this broken system even as they’re suspicious of the waste in it. One of the goals of writing the book was creating healthcare literacy because we in the field are taught medical literacy but we’re never taught healthcare literacy. One of the exciting disrupters I had the privilege of spending time was the Sidney Kimmel Medical College (in Philadelphia). They have an academic standard in the admissions process. Once people meet that academic standard, everybody is considered based on their empathy, self-awareness and communication skills. It’s revolutionary as simple as it sounds. But they’re focusing on what matters.





US health care: An industry too big to fail


Image result for US health care: An industry too big to fail

As I spoke recently with colleagues at a conference in Florence, Italy about health care innovation, a fundamental truth resurfaced in my mind: the U.S. health care industry is just that. An industry, an economic force, Big Business, first and foremost. It is a vehicle for returns on investment first and the success of our society second.

This is critical to consider as presidential candidates unveil their health care plans. The candidates and the electorate seem to forget that health care in our country is a huge business.

Health care accounts for almost 20% of GDP and is a, if not the, job engine for the U.S. economy. The sector added 2.8 million jobs between 2006 and 2016, higher than all other sectors, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects another 18% growth in health sector jobs between now and 2026. Big Business indeed.

This basic truth separates us from every other nation whose life expectancy, maternal and infant mortality or incidence of diabetes we’d like to replicate or, better still, outperform.

As politicians and the public they serve grapple with issues such as prescription drug prices, “surprise” medical bills and other health-related issues, I believe it critical that we better understand some of the less visible drivers of these costs so that any proposed solutions have a fighting chance to deflect the health cost curve downward.

As both associate chief medical officer for clinical integration and director of the center for health policy at the University of Virginia, I find that the tension between a profit-driven health care system and high costs occupies me every day.

The power of the market

Housing prices are market-driven. Car prices are market-driven. Food prices are market-driven.

And so are health care services. That includes physician fees, prescription drug prices and non-prescription drug prices. So is the case for hospital administrator salaries and medical devices.

All of these goods or services are profit-seeking, and all are motivated to maximize profits and minimize the cost of doing business. All must adhere to sound business principles, or they will fail. None of them disclose their cost drivers, or those things that increase prices. In other words, there are costs that are hidden to consumers that manifest in the final unit prices.

To my knowledge, no one has suggested that Rolls-Royce Motor Cars should price its cars similarly to Ford Motor Company. The invisible hand of “the market” tells Rolls Royce and Ford what their vehicles are worth.

Prescription drugs pricing has different rules

Ford can (they won’t) tell you precisely how much each vehicle costs to produce, including all the component parts that they acquire from other firms. But this is not true of prescription drugs. How much a novel therapeutic costs to develop and bring to market is a proverbial black box. Companies don’t share those numbers. Researchers at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development have estimated the costs to be as high as US$2.87 billion, but that number has been hotly debated.

What we can reliably say is that it’s very expensive, and a drug company must produce new drugs to stay in business. The millions of research and development(R&D) dollars invested by Big Pharma has two aims. The first is to bring the “next big thing” to market. The second is to secure the almighty patent for it.

U.S. drug patents typically last 20 years, but according to the legal services website Upcounsel.com: “Due to the rigorous amount of testing that goes into a drug patent, many larger pharmaceutical companies file several patents on the same drug, aiming to extend the 20-year period and block generic competitors from producing the same drug.” As a result, drug firms have 30, 40-plus years to protect their investment from any competition and market forces to lower prices are not in play.

Here’s the hidden cost punchline: concurrently, several other drugs in their R&D pipelines fail along the way, resulting in significant product-specific losses . How is a poor firm to stay afloat? Simple, really. Build those costs and losses into the price of the successes. Next thing you know, insulin is nearly US$1,500 for a 20-milliliter vial, when that same vial 15 years ago was about $157.

It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but my point is that business principles drive drug prices because drug companies are businesses. Societal welfare is not the underlying use. This is most true in the U.S., where the public doesn’t purchase most of the pharmaceuticals – private individuals do, albeit through a third party, an insurer. The group purchasing power of 300 million Americans becomes the commercial power of markets. Prices go up.

The cost of doing business, er, treating

I hope that most people would agree that physicians provide a societal good. Whether it’s in the setting of a trusted health confidant, or the doctor whose hands are surgically stopping the bleeding from your spleen after that jerk cut you off on the highway, we physicians pride ourselves on being there for our patients, no matter what, insured or not.

Allow me to state two fundamental facts that often seem to elude patient and policymaker alike. They are inextricably linked, foundational to our national dialogue on health care costs and oft-ignored: physicians are among the highest earners in America, and we make our money from patients. Not from investment portfolios, or patents. Patients.

Like Ford or pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, physician practices also need to achieve a profit margin to remain in business. Similarly, there are hidden-to-consumer costs as well; in this case, education and training. Medical school is the most expensive professional degree money can buy in the U.S. The American Association of Medical Colleges reports that median indebtedness for U.S. medical schools was $200,000.00 in 2018, for the 75% of us who financed our educations rather than paying cash.
Our “R&D” – that is, four years each of college and medical school, three to 11 years of post doctoral training costs – gets incorporated into our fees. They have to. Just like Ford Motors. Business 101: the cost of doing business must be factored into the price of the good or service.

For policymakers to meaningfully impact the rising costs of U.S. health care, from drugs to bills to and everything in between, they must decide if this is to remain an industry or truly become a social good. If we continue to treat and regulate health care as an industry, we should continue to expect surprise bills and expensive drugs.

It’s not personal, it’s just…business. The question before the U.S. is: business-as-usual, or shall we get busy charting a new way of achieving a healthy society? Personally and professionally, I prefer the latter.