Steven Brill’s TIME MAGAZINE blockbuster article, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us, uncovers the CHARGEMASTER: a publicly undisclosed pricelist accountable for what we see in hospital bills. What we see there doesn’t look good: it includes acetaminophen sold for $1.50 a tablet (you can buy 100 of those for the same price at Amazon); $77 for a box of sterile gauze pads (Amazon’s prices vary between $6 and $11); $18 for a single diabetes test strip (sold for 54 cents by Amazon); $108 for antibacterial Bacitracin ointment (Amazon’s prices vary between $2.50 and $6.50); and so forth. Charges for stay, scans, surgeries, canes, and wheelchairs skyrocket as well.
The American Hospital Association (AHA) rejects Brill’s analysis. According to AHA, the chargemaster aggregates the hospital’s overall costs on delivering quality care to patients: “In order to take medications in a hospital, even over-the-counter medicines, they must be prescribed by a doctor (a little bit of cost for the doctor), that order gets transmitted to the pharmacy (a little more cost), the order gets filled by a pharmacist or pharmacy tech who retrieves just one Tylenol pill and individually packages that one pill (still more cost), the pill gets transported from the pharmacy to the nursing unit where the patient resides (a little more cost), then the pill is retrieved by a registered nurse who personally gives the pill to the patient and then must document the administration of that pill in the patient medication administration record (a little more cost). All of this process to give a patient a single dose of Tylenol in a hospital bed [must also be] in compliance with all pertaining regulations (a little more cost).”
This post will not try to resolve the Tylenol Debate. Nor will it say anything about the government as a plausible substitute for the eccentric chargemaster. Instead, I will raise a legal question: Can patients sue hospitals for excessive markups on medications and devices?
My answer to this question is a qualified YES.
Entrepreneurial and business aspects of running a hospital fall under states’ consumer protection laws (Brookins v. Mote, 292 P.3d 347 (Mont. 2012)). Those aspects certainly include billing (Jaramillo v. Morris, 750 P.2d 1301, 1304 (Wash. App. 1988); Ambach v. French, 216 P.3d 405 (Wash. 2009)).
The key question here is whether an excessive markup on medications and devices amounts to deceit or an unfair trade practice. If it does, the hospital would be in violation of the relevant state consumer protection law.
Google’s informal corporate slogan is “Don’t be evil.” Whole Foods is a Fortune 500 company with a net revenue of 10 billion dollar that prides itself on a commitment to social responsibility. Both companies have pledged to do long-term good in the world, even at the expense of short-term gains, and both are wildly successful.
If corporations can be profitable as a result of their commitments to social justice and corporate ethics, why can’t this doctrine be extended to the pharmaceutical industry? Someday, a company called GoodPharma might reach the Fortune 500 on the basis of a pledge to improve access to medicine, conduct international research trials in accordance with the highest standards of research ethics, engage in research on orphan diseases, publish negative research findings, promptly report information about adverse effects, and generally act as a model for ethical industry practices. If this business model hasn’t been explored, it should be.
This November, voters weighed in on an array of state ballot initiatives on health issues from medical marijuana to health care reform. Ballot outcomes by state are listed below (more after the jump).
Voters in Alabama, Montana, and Wyoming passed initiatives expressing disapproval of the Affordable Care Act, while a similar initiative in Florida garnered a majority of the vote but failed to pass under the state’s supermajority voting requirement. Missouri voters passed a ballot initiative prohibiting the state executive branch from establishing a health insurance exchange, leaving this task to the federal government or state legislature.
Florida voters defeated a measure that would have prohibited the use of state funds for abortions, while Montana voters passed a parental notification requirement for minors seeking abortions (with a judicial waiver provision).
Perhaps surprisingly, California voters failed to pass a law requiring mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food. Several states legalized medical marijuana, while Arkansas voters struck down a medical marijuana initiative and Montana voters made existing medical marijuana laws more restrictive.
Physician-assisted suicide was barely defeated in Massachusetts (51% to 49%), while North Dakotans banned smoking in indoor workplaces. Michigan voters failed to pass an initiative increasing the regulation of home health workers, while Louisiana voters prohibited the appropriation of state Medicaid trust funds for other purposes.
Next Tuesday, those of us registered in Massachusetts will have the opportunity to vote on “Question 2″ – prescribing medication to end life, otherwise known as physician-assisted suicide.
As described by the state secretary, “This proposed law would allow a physician licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication, at a terminally ill patient’s request, to end that patient’s life. To qualify, a patient would have to be an adult resident who (1) is medically determined to be mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions; (2) has been diagnosed by attending and consulting physicians as having an incurable, irreversible disease that will, within reasonable medical judgment, cause death within six months; and (3) voluntarily expresses a wish to die and has made an informed decision.”
There are, of course, a number of other safeguards built in, such as the need to make the request twice, separated by 15 days, in the presence of witnesses. However, there could probably be stronger safeguards to protect individuals who are experiencing depression and anxiety, and might have preferable alternatives to physician-assisted death.