By MATTHEW HOLT
Sometimes you wonder where the line is in health care. And perhaps more importantly, whether anyone in the system cares.
The last few months have been dominated by the issue of costs in health care, particularly the costs paid by consumers who thought they had coverage. It turns out that “surprise billing” isn’t that much of a surprise. Over the past few years several large medical groups, notably Team Health owned by Blackstone, have been aggressively opting out of insurers networks. They’ve figured out, probably by reading Elizabeth Rosenthal’s great story about the 2013 $117,000 assistant surgery bill that Aetna actually paid, that if they stay out of network and bill away, the chances are they’ll make more money.
On the surface this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Wouldn’t it be in the interests of the insurers to clamp down on this stuff and never pay up? Well not really. Veteran health insurance observer Robert Laszewski recently wrote that profits in health insurance and hospitals have never been better. Instead, the insurer, which is usually just handling the claims on behalf of the actual buyer, makes more money over time as the cost goes up.
The data is clear. Health care costs overall are going up because the speed at which providers, pharma et al. are increasing prices exceeds the reduction in volume that’s being seen in the use of most health services. Lots more on that is available from HCCI or any random tweet you read about the price of insulin. But the overall message is that as 90% of American health care is still a fee-for-service game, as the CEO of BCBS Arizona said at last year’s HLTH conference, the point of the game is generating as much revenue as possible. My old boss Ian Morrison used to joke about every hospital being in the race for the $1m hysterectomy, but in a world of falling volumes, it isn’t such a joke any more.
By REBECCA FOGG
In the run-up up to this month’s mid-term elections, health care appears to be just one of many burning political issues that will be influencing Americans’ votes. But delve into nearly any issue—the economy, the environment, immigration, civil rights, gun control—and you’ll find circumstances and events influencing human health, often resulting in profound physical, emotional and financial distress.
Evidence suggests that separating immigrant children from their families could cause lasting emotional trauma. Gun violence and adverse weather events destroy lives and property, and create hazardous living conditions. Structural racism has been linked to health inequities, for instance where housing discrimination leads to segregation of black buyers and renters in neighborhoods with poor living conditions. The list goes on, and through every such experience, affected individuals, their loved ones, and their communities learn implicitly what health care providers have long known: that health status depends on much more than access to, or quality of, health care.
Some of the most influential factors are called social determinants of health, and they include education, immigration status, access to safe drinking water, and others. Society and industry must collaborate to address them if we are to reduce the extraordinary human and economic costs of poor health in our nation. Fortunately, many providers have embraced the challenge, and are tackling it in myriad, innovative ways.
For a large and growing number of us with meager or no coverage, health care is the ultimate “gotcha.” Events conspire, we receive care and then are on the hook for a car- or house-sized bill. There are few alternatives except going without or going broke.
Steven Brill’s recent Time cover story clearly detailed the predatory health care pricing that has been ruinous for many rank-and-file Americans. In Brill’s report, a key mechanism, the hospital chargemaster, with pricing “devoid of any calculation related to cost,” facilitated US health care’s rise to become the nation’s largest and wealthiest industry. His recommendations, like Medicare for all with price controls, seem sensible and compelling.But efforts to implement Brill’s ideas, on their own, would likely fail, just as many others have, because he does not fully acknowledge the deeper roots of health care’s power.