Simple lab work done during a few days in the hospital can cost more than a car. A trip to the emergency room for chest pains that turn out to be indigestion brings a bill that can exceed the price of a semester at college. When we debate health care policy in America, 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?
Steven Brill spent seven months analyzing hundreds of bill from hospitals, doctors, and drug companies and medical equipment manufacturers to find out who is setting such high prices and pocketing the biggest profits. What he discovered, outlined in detail in the cover story of the new issue of TIME, will radically change the way you think about our medical institutions:
· Hospitals arbitrarily set prices based on a mysterious internal list known as the “chargemaster.” These prices vary from hospital to hospital and are often ten times the actual cost of an item. Insurance companies and Medicare pay discounted prices, but don’t have enough leverage to bring fees down anywhere close to actual costs. While other countries restrain drug prices, in the United States federal law actually restricts the single biggest buyer—Medicare—from even trying to negotiate the price of drugs.
· Tax-exempt “nonprofit” hospitals are the most profitable businesses and largest employers in their regions, often presided over by the most richly compensated executives.
· Cancer treatment—at some of the most renowned centers such as Sloan-Kettering and M.D. Anderson—has some of the industry’s highest profit margins. Cancer drugs in particular are hugely profitable. For example, Sloan-Kettering charges $4615 for a immune-deficiency drug named Flebogamma. Medicare cuts Sloan-Kettering’s charge to $2123, still way above what the hospital paid for it, an estimated $1400.
· Patients can hire medical billing advocates who help people read their bills and try to reduce them. “The hospitals all know the bills are fiction, or at least only a place to start the discussion, so you bargain with them,” says Katalin Goencz, a former appeals coordinator in a hospital billing department who now works as an advocate in Stamford, CT.
The health care market is not a market at all. It’s a crapshoot. Everyone fares differently based on circumstances they can neither control nor predict. They may have no insurance. They may have insurance, but their employer chooses their insurance plan and it may have a payout limit or not cover a drug or treatment they need. They may or may not be old enough to be on Medicare or, given the different standards of the 50 states, be poor enough to be on Medicaid. If they’re not protected by Medicare or protected only partially by private insurance with high co-pays, they have little visibility into pricing, let alone control of it. They have little choice of hospitals or the services they are billed for, even if they somehow knew the prices before they got billed for the services. They have no idea what their bills mean, and those who maintain the chargemasters couldn’t explain them if they wanted to. How much of the bills they end up paying may depend on the generosity of the hospital or on whether they happen to get the help of a billing advocate. They have no choice of the drugs that they have to buy or the lab tests or CT scans that they have to get, and they would not know what to do if they did have a choice. They are powerless buyers in a sellers’ market where the only consistent fact is the profit of the sellers.
Read the full TIME cover story on rising medical costs here.