What if purchasing medical products and services were like buying peanut butter? Grocery stores have several brands and varieties: smooth, chunky, old-fashioned, natural, organic, no added sugar, reduced fat, no-stir, and pre-mixed with jelly with clearly marked prices ranging from $1.75 for the store’s generic brand to $7 for the over-priced Yuppie brand. After carefully examining the labels, our shopper chose a 16-ounce, $5 jar of no-added-sugar peanut butter. She paid the cashier $5 for the peanut butter and went home.
If our shoppers were transported to the universe of medical billing with the $5 jar of peanut butter, the shopper with Medicare would pay $1.00 but her grandchild will be presented with a bill for $4. When the shopper with private health insurance attempts to pay, the cashier becomes unglued. The shopper cannot say whether she met her deductible or has a co-payment, and whether the brand of peanut butter is approved by the network. She really wants the peanut butter so she grabs the generic from the shelf and pays the $1.75. Our privately insured shopper was pleasantly surprised at the generic’s good taste and healthful ingredients, her wallet was happy for the cost savings, and she was glad not to have the middleman hassle.
Comparison shopping is one pillar of bringing sanity to the high cost of medical care, but the opacity of the pricing system for medical costs limits the value of posting list prices to encourage lower costs through shaming, competition, and choice. In addition to research and development, manufacturing, and distribution costs, drug costs are affected by additional layers of middlemen: pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) and insurers. Using a “trade secret” process, PBMs negotiate discounts and rebates for private and government insurers. The money saved is supposed to go back to the government (taxpayers) or to insurers to lower premiums or otherwise benefit patients. PBMs typically are paid by a percentage of the rebate or discount off the list price. The higher the price, the bigger the rebate. Thus, the rebate system gives an incentive to raise list prices rather than placing the lowest-priced drug on the insurer’s formulary. (This same system is used by Group Purchasing Organizations (GPOs) for hospital product purchases.)
An analysis of the effect of California’s 2-year old drug price transparency law illustrates the complexity of pricing. Despite being compelled to post list prices, pharmaceutical companies raised the list price for wholesalers by a median of 25.8 percent but the data did not indicate the “price” that consumers actually paid. Moreover, with medical services and products the simple What the Market Will Bear (WTMWB) pricing method works because either the medication is essential (e.g., Epi-Pen®), has no alternative, is in short supply, or the medical consumer is not paying directly for the services.
Similarly, publishing hospital the charge description master (“chargemaster”). i.e., the standard industry price does not give consumers enough information to make a rational choice regarding elective medical services. The data necessary to make price comparisons depends on an individual’s circumstances. More relevant than the chargemaster price, a self-pay patient needs to know the lowest possible cash price. A patient with health insurance must know (1) whether the hospital is in the insurance network, (2) the price negotiated between the health care provider and insurer (including Medicare), (3) the amount and method of calculating cost-sharing, (4) the amount Medicare or other insurer will pay for services performed in a physician’s office in contrast to the hospital which tags on a “facility fee.”
Transparency is one tool for lowering costs through choice. As one of many studies on hospital consolidation noted, “The Sky’s the Limit” on prices where there is lack of competition. But the difficulties of achieving useful price transparency must not be a cue for the government to initiate bureaucratic band-aids. As we have seen with Obamacare, forcing insurers to pay more of the costs leads to higher premiums, deductibles, and/or co-pays.
Nor should the government impose price caps. President Nixon’s 1971 wage and price freeze brought product shortages—which we are already facing with certain drugs, including anesthetics and chemotherapy agents. If the government sticks to enforcing anti-trust laws, a competitive market will thrive. The court house door anti-trust settlement by Northern California’s Sutter Health sends a message to big hospital chains to stop using their market share to inflate prices or require insurers to join their networks on an all-or-nothing basis to prevent insurers from negotiating lower prices at individual hospitals.
If we can get to the point of direct exchange of money for goods and services and reserve health insurance for major expenses, we can see costs decrease just as we have seen with the Surgery Center of Oklahoma over the last 10 years.
Dr. Singleton is a board-certified anesthesiologist. She is Immediate Past President of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). Her opinions, medical or otherwise, are her own. She is a guest columnist and this is an edited version of her article originally written for pennypress.com, reprinted with permission.
The high cost of medical care is on the lips of every politician and draining the pocketbooks of most Americans. After creating the Medicare/Medicaid monster, the government’s expanded intervention into the medical care marketplace with the inaptly named Affordable Care Act doubled the premiums and deductibles for both employer-sponsored and individual insurance. Piling on more laws, regulations, and agencies is not the answer.
Anonymity, complexity, and opacity invite shady behavior. Individuals, companies, and patients who defraud the massive federal “health system” would never dream of lifting money from their patients’ wallets or stealing from their doctors’ cash drawer.
The government’s track record does not bode well for imposing more bureaucracy to remedy a problem created by the layers of third-party payer bureaucracy. Waste, fraud, and abuse are so rampant that the government has a Medicare Strike Force to root out and recover lost federal funds. Medicare fraud—about $60 billion in 2016 alone—is about 10 percent of Medicare’s total payments. By contrast the typical private business loses 5 percent of its revenues to fraud. Unfortunately, since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Strike Force has recouped less than $2 billion per year in misappropriated funds.
Medicare’s $16.7 billion per year hospice program is fertile ground for the unscrupulous. Hospices are paid a fixed daily sum for each patient enrolled “regardless of the services provided.” One amoral scheme recruits patients who unknowingly forgo curative treatment options by joining hospice. A recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) report revealed that in 2012 hospices billed Medicare more than $250 million for services to patients in long-term care or assisted-living residences who did not require hospice care, costing four times more than the appropriate level of care. Even worse, the OIG found that the quality of care suffered in 31 percent of programs. The bureaucratic morass allows the perpetrators to pocket the fixed fee and skimp on the services.
Further, the government cannot keep track of its program dollars. According to another OIG audit, in 2009, Medicare Prescription Drug program paid $33.6 million and hospice patients paid $3.8 million for medications that should have been included in the hospice daily fee. Even after discovering the snafu, the problem got exponentially worse. In 2016 the government paid $160.8 million for drugs that hospice organizations should have paid for from its fixed daily fee. Our tax dollars paid for the drugs twice.
Physicians know what patients want and are acting on it. Free from the restraints of government “healthcare” programs, the physician-led, price-transparent, direct-pay Surgery Center of Oklahoma performs some surgeries for less than the copays of some insurance policies. Direct Primary Care physicians provide 24/7 access and basic labs for as little as $50 per month with at-cost medications and low-priced x-rays.
The corporate private sector has learned a thing or two from innovative physicians. Care Accelerator is Sam’s Club’s version of “affordable [medical care] options with transparent pricing.” To offer relief from high out-of-pocket costs, $50 (individual) to $240 per year (families) buys access to lab screening for diabetes and heart disease, free generic drugs, telehealth, and up to a 30 percent discount on vision, dental, and other ancillary services. Additionally, Walmart is training its own employees for jobs in the health sector and ideally to staff Walmart’s own medical services. For their employees, Apple has “health care built around you” with its AC Wellness that offers office and home visits; Amazon launched its Amazon Care telemedicine services.
Given the outrageous price of drugs—largely due to the pharmacy benefit manager middlemen—Good Rx discount coupons are just what the doctor ordered. Good Rx is free to the consumer and makes money from advertisements on the website and referral fees. One typical victory is a Medicare patient whose neurologist prescribed a drug for his Parkinson’s disease symptoms. The government demanded testing that could not be done because of the patients debilitated condition. Despite a sympathetic ear and supporting research, the government arbiter could only parrot the party line: because the drug was not on the “list,” it was not covered by Medicare. In a fortunate twist of fate, with a Good Rx coupon the patient paid $34 per month cash instead of the drug’s $1,100 per month price with 20 percent patient co-pay that would have been charged through the Medicare Prescription Drug program.
Congress claims it plans a full-frontal attack on the high cost of medical care (with the same results as the war on poverty and drugs?). Frankly, we are better off with Congress engrossed in its impeachment clown show and keeping its nose out of our medical business.
Dr. Singleton is a guest columnist. Her opinions are her own. Dr. Singleton is a board-certified anesthesiologist. She is Immediate Past President of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). She graduated from Stanford and earned her MD at UCSF Medical School. This is an edited version of her column that originally appeared on pennypress.com. Reprinted with permission.