In “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” (Oscar Wilde, 1893) Lord Darlington is asked to define “cynic.” He replies, “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I thought of that quote while listening to the nonstop “repeal and replace” tattoo with its seemingly singular focus on the demand side of the U.S. health care equation.
Related: Seeing it coming
Have we learned nothing in the six years since the ACA was passed? Are we, as Einstein remarked, about to do the same thing but expecting different results? Despite all of the gazillions of words written about the subject, two salient facts are generally omitted — facts without which there cannot be a real discussion or a significant solution to the problems we face.
First, we do not have a free market in health care. That died in 1965 with the passage of Medicare. When a single player responsible for more than half of the health care spend in the U.S. can set arbitrary prices while the remainder of the market cannot, “free” is no longer an applicable adjective. Additionally, pricing is nearly impossible for competitors or (heaven forbid!) consumers to find. If you can’t shop, you don’t have a free market.
Second, until or unless we are willing to touch the third rail — the fact that health insurance is expensive because health care is expensive — we stand as much chance of solving the real problem in the system as this year’s Cleveland Browns have of winning the Super Bowl.
Underscoring the problem is the fact that you have to strain your Google Maximus muscle to find much about this in print. A recent study published in the September 2016 issue of ‘Health Affairs,” offers a peek behind the curtain. “U.S. Hospitals are Still Using Chargemaster Markups to Maximize Revenues,” by lead author Ge Bai of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and Gerard Anderson of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is instructive.
While, according to the study, some hospital executives think chargemaster prices are irrelevant, the reality is quite different. According to Bai, “Hospitals apparently mark up higher in the departments with more complex services because it is difficult for patients to compare prices in these departments.” For example, a hospital whose costs for a CT scan are $100 will charge a patient with health insurance and an out-of-network privately insured patient $2,850.
The study of financial data in 2013 from all Medicare-certified hospitals with more than 50 beds also found (unsurprisingly) that hospitals that dominate regions or markets were more likely to set high markups. Hospital consolidation has doubled in the last 10 years. This is also not a sign of a healthy free market.