A Comment on the “Time” Article

A recent article in Time Magazine (“Bitter Pill-Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us”, by Steven Brill), did a fine job of thrusting into the spotlight the profiteering behavior of some providers in our health care system.  While the article covered a lot of ground, his discussion of the behavior exhibited by hospitals and hospital systems was particularly interesting.  That is where I will focus.

To summarize, hospitals are wildly inconsistent in what they charge for specific services and service packages.  By packages, I mean the room, the procedure(s), the doctors, and the drugs required to treat you.  The costs are frequently hidden, and if pressed, hospitals will quote from a greatly inflated “charge master”.  One result is “non-profit” institutions that are incredibly profitable, while their patients experience financial devastation.

It almost seems as if the behavior is somewhat predatory (my words).  So what should we do?

Let’s start here- hospitals should be required to post conspicuously a price list for the 100 most common services or service packages.

If you are considering a hospital for an uncomplicated childbirth or a knee arthroscopy or a hernia repair, you should be able to look at a list and see what it costs.  The price should include all services, tests, supplies, labs and doctors expected to be involved. If the hospital chooses to post it’s charge master, fine (as opposed to an insurance rate, which may be prohibited by their contract).  Posting the charge master will allow consumers to compare prices.  Even if you wind up in the hospital because of an emergency, you can transfer to a more reasonably priced facility once the immediate crisis has passed.

Just this would prevent, or at least lessen, some of the financial horror stories described in the article.

So what do you think?

Should hospitals be required to post a price list for the most common service packages?

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A Brief Comment on the Ryan Medicare Plan

Medicare is too expensive and becoming more unsustainable every day.  Congress has also demonstrated that they will bow to special interests before implementing what they have already passed- the so-called “doc fix”, whereby reimbursement cuts to physicians that are already mandated by law are deferred, year after year.

One approach is the Ryan plan, named after Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.  Without delving into the details of the plan, which are debated hotly by very partisan commentators, one great flaw in the plan appears to have escaped comment:

That is, the notion that physicians will compete for patients, thereby reducing costs.

This assumption is deeply flawed for one simple reason- there is a well documented shortage of physicians.  Economics 101, and the basic law of supply and demand, teaches us that if the supply is low, the price is correspondingly high.

Physicians will never have to compete aggressively for patients (the Ryan Plan assumes that they will) as long as there is a shortage of physicians.  Rather, patients will have to chase physicians and endure long wait times to get an appointment.  Physicians will continue to raise fees, not lower them, and they will threaten to stop seeing patients whenever their fees are reduced- hence the “doc fix”, which happens year after year.

If Medicare is changed to a voucher system, as Rep. Ryan proposes, seniors will be at the mercy of physicians, who are in short supply, and who will retain any negotiating leverage as long as there is a shortage of physicians.

Until we are able to address the shortage of physicians (train more and/or allow the greater use of nurse practitioners, midwives, pharmacists and other “physician extenders”), it is wrong to place seniors in this ruinous position.

What happens when the pie is shrinking?

Throughout my entire life, the economic pie in the US has been growing. This has made possible civil rights, women’s rights and a number of safety net programs. Now, we are entering a time when the pie is shrinking, or at least perceived to be shrinking.

When this happens, people are unwilling to share. What used to be “I am doing well, so you can have a little” has become “What I gave you before, well I need that back”.

This is what is driving our nasty and unproductive politics. The question is, “What do we do about it”?

Game theorists look at this as a form of dividing the pain. And there is no universally agreed on definition of fairness, especially when dividing pain.

Where we need to start though, is understanding the situation we are in, and where this tends to lead us if we are unaware- that is, towards selfishness, unreasonableness and conflict.

The pie is perceived to be shrinking. Let’s understand this and manage through it in a way we will look back on and feel proud.