For the first time in our history, we are devoting the entire feature section of TIME to a single story by one writer: a powerful examination of America's health care costs. The 24,105-word story, reported and written by Steve Brill, inverts the standard question of who should pay for health care and asks instead, Why are we paying so much? 

S P E C I A L  R E P O R T
Richard Stengal, MANAGING EDITOR
Bitter Pill
How outrageous prices and egregious profits are destroying our health care
By Steven Brill
his wife Stephanie knew she had to get him to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Stephanie’s father had been treated there 10 years earlier, and she and her family credited the doctors and nurses at MD Anderson with extending his life by at least eight years.

Because Stephanie and her husband had recently started their own small technology business, they were unable to buy comprehensive health insurance. For $469 a month, or about 20% of their income, they had been able to get only a policy that covered just $2,000 per day of any hospital costs. “We don’t take that kind of discount insurance,” said the woman at MD Anderson when Stephanie called to make an appointment for Sean.

Stephanie was then told by a billing clerk that the estimated cost of Sean’s visit — just to be examined for six days so a treatment plan could be devised — would be $48,900, due in advance. Stephanie got her mother to write her a check. “You do anything you can in a situation like that,” she says. The Recchis flew to Houston, leaving Stephanie’s mother to care for their two teenage children.

About a week later, Stephanie had to ask her mother for $35,000 more so Sean could begin the treatment the doctors had decided was urgent. His condition had worsened rapidly since he had arrived in Houston. He was “sweating and shaking with chills and pains,” Stephanie recalls. “He had a large mass in his chest that was … growing. He was panicked.”

Nonetheless, Sean was held for about 90 minutes in a reception area, she says, because the hospital could not confirm that the check had cleared. Sean was allowed to see the doctor only after he advanced MD Anderson $7,500 from his credit card. The hospital says there was nothing unusual about how Sean was kept waiting. According to MD Anderson communications manager Julie Penne, “Asking for advance payment for services is a common, if unfortunate, situation that confronts hospitals all over the United States.”

The total cost, in advance, for Sean to get his treatment plan and initial doses of chemotherapy was $83,900.

Why?
When Sean Recchi, a 42-year-old from Lancaster, Ohio, was told last March that he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,
Sean Recchi?, Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 42. Total cost, in advance, for Sean’s treatment plan and initial doses of chemotherapy: $83,900. Charges for blood and lab tests amounted to more than $15,000; with Medicare, they would have cost a few hundred dollars

The first of the 344 lines printed out across eight pages of his hospital bill — filled with indecipherable numerical codes and acronyms — seemed innocuous. But it set the tone for all that followed. It read, “1 ACETAMINOPHE TABS 325 MG.” The charge was only $1.50, but it was for a generic version of a Tylenol pill. You can buy 100 of them on Amazon for $1.49 even without a hospital’s purchasing power.

Dozens of midpriced items were embedded with similarly aggressive markups, like $283.00 for a “CHEST, PA AND LAT 71020.” That’s a simple chest X-ray, for which MD Anderson is routinely paid $20.44 when it treats a patient on Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly.

Every time a nurse drew blood, a “ROUTINE VENIPUNCTURE” charge of $36.00 appeared, accompanied by charges of $23 to $78 for each of a dozen or more lab analyses performed on the blood sample. In all, the charges for blood and other lab tests done on Recchi amounted to more than $15,000. Had Recchi been old enough for Medicare, MD Anderson would have been paid a few hundred dollars for all those tests. By law, Medicare’s payments approximate a hospital’s cost of providing a service, including overhead, equipment and salaries.

On the second page of the bill, the markups got bolder. Recchi was charged $13,702 for “1 RITUXIMAB INJ 660 MG.” That’s an injection of 660 mg of a cancer wonder drug called Rituxan. The average price paid by all hospitals for this dose is about $4,000, but MD Anderson probably gets a volume discount that would make its cost $3,000 to $3,500. That means the nonprofit cancer center’s paid-in-advance markup on Recchi’s lifesaving shot would be about 400%.

When I asked MD Anderson to comment on the charges on Recchi’s bill, the cancer center released a written statement that said in part, “The issues related to health care finance are complex for patients, health care providers, payers and government entities alike … MD Anderson’s clinical billing and collection practices are similar to those of other major hospitals and academic medical centers.”

The hospital’s hard-nosed approach pays off. Although it is officially a nonprofit unit of the University of Texas, MD Anderson has revenue that exceeds the cost of the world-class care it provides by so much that its operating profit for the fiscal year 2010, the most recent annual report it filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was $531 million. That’s a profit margin of 26% on revenue of $2.05 billion, an astounding result for such a service-intensive enterprise.1

The president of MD Anderson is paid like someone running a prosperous business. Ronald DePinho’s total compensation last year was $1,845,000. That does not count outside earnings derived from a much publicized waiver he received from the university that, according to the Houston Chronicle, allows him to maintain unspecified “financial ties with his three principal pharmaceutical companies.”

DePinho’s salary is nearly two and a half times the $750,000 paid to Francisco Cigarroa, the chancellor of entire University of Texas system, of which MD Anderson is a part. This pay structure is emblematic of American medical economics and is reflected on campuses across the U.S., where the president of a hospital or hospital system associated with a university — whether it’s Texas, Stanford, Duke or Yale — is invariably paid much more than the person in charge of the university.

I got the idea for this article when I was visiting Rice University last year. As I was leaving the campus, which is just outside the central business district of Houston, I noticed a group of glass skyscrapers about a mile away lighting up the evening sky. The scene looked like Dubai. I was looking at the Texas Medical Center, a nearly 1,300-acre, 280-building complex of hospitals and related medical facilities, of which MD Anderson is the lead brand name. Medicine had obviously become a huge business. In fact, of Houston’s top 10 employers, five are hospitals, including MD Anderson with 19,000 employees; three, led by ExxonMobil with 14,000 employees, are energy companies. How did that happen, I wondered. Where’s all that money coming from? And where is it going? I have spent the past seven months trying to find out by analyzing a variety of bills from hospitals like MD Anderson, doctors, drug companies and every other player in the American health care ecosystem.

When you look behind the bills that Sean Recchi and other patients receive, you see nothing rational — no rhyme or reason — about the costs they faced in a marketplace they enter through no choice of their own. The only constant is the sticker shock for the patients who are asked to pay.
has even seen the list in years. So I’m not sure why you care.”

Orstad also refused to comment on any of the specifics in Janice S.’s bill, including the seemingly inflated charges for all the lab work. “I’ve told you I don’t think a bill like this is relevant,” he explained. “Very few people actually pay those rates.”

But Janice S. was asked to pay them. Moreover, the chargemaster rates are relevant, even for those unlike her who have insurance. Insurers with the most leverage, because they have the most customers to offer a hospital that needs patients, will try to negotiate prices 30% to 50% above the Medicare rates rather than discounts off the sky-high chargemaster rates. But insurers are increasingly losing leverage because hospitals are consolidating by buying doctors’ practices and even rival hospitals. In that situation — in which the insurer needs the hospital more than the hospital needs the insurer — the pricing negotiation will be over discounts that work down from the chargemaster prices rather than up from what Medicare would pay. Getting a 50% or even 60% discount off the chargemaster price of an item that costs $13 and lists for $199.50 is still no bargain. “We hate to negotiate off of the chargemaster, but we have to do it a lot now,” says Edward Wardell, a lawyer for the giant health-insurance provider Aetna Inc.

That so few consumers seem to be aware of the chargemaster demonstrates how well the health care industry has steered the debate from why bills are so high to who should pay them.
Pay No Attention to the Chargemaster
A $21,000 Heartburn Bill
Patient was charged $18 each for Accu-chek diabetes test strips. Amazon sells boxes of 50 for about $27, or 55¢ each.
Unlike those of almost any other area we can think of, the dynamics of the medical marketplace seem to be such that the advance of technology has made medical care more expensive, not less. First, it appears to encourage more procedures and treatment by making them easier and more convenient. (This is especially true for procedures like arthroscopic surgery.) Second, there is little patient pushback against higher costs because it seems to (and often does) result in safer, better care and because the customer getting the treatment is either not going to pay for it or not going to know the price until after the fact.

Beyond the hospitals’ and doctors’ obvious economic incentives to use the equipment and the manufacturers’ equally obvious incentives to sell it, there’s a legal incentive at work. Giving Janice S. a nuclear-imaging test instead of the lower-tech, less expensive stress test was the safer thing to do — a belt-and-suspenders approach that would let the hospital and doctor say they pulled out all the stops in case Janice S. died of a heart attack after she was sent home.

“We use the CT scan because it’s a great defense,” says the CEO of another hospital not far from Stamford. “For example, if anyone has fallen or done anything around their head — hell, if they even say the word head — we do it to be safe. We can’t be sued for doing too much.”

His rationale speaks to the real cost issue associated with medical-malpractice litigation. It’s not as much about the verdicts or settlements (or considerable malpractice-insurance premiums) that hospitals and doctors pay as it is about what they do to avoid being sued. And some no doubt claim they are ordering more tests to avoid being sued when it is actually an excuse for hiking profits. The most practical malpractice-reform proposals would not limit awards for victims but would allow doctors to use what’s called a safe-harbor defense. Under safe harbor, a defendant doctor or hospital could argue that the care provided was within the bounds of what peers have established as reasonable under the circumstances. The typical plaintiff argument that doing something more, like a nuclear-imaging test, might have saved the patient would then be less likely to prevail.

When Obamacare was being debated, Republicans pushed this kind of commonsense malpractice-tort reform. But the stranglehold that plaintiffs’ lawyers have traditionally had on Democrats prevailed, and neither a safe-harbor provision nor any other malpractice reform was included.

Medical Technology’s Perverse Economics
Slipped and fell in June 2008 and was taken to the emergency room. She is still paying off the $9,418 bill from that hospital visit in weekly installments. Her three CT scans cost $6,538. Medicare would have paid about $825 for all three
Emilia Gilbert
The billing advocates aren’t always successful. just ask Emilia Gilbert, a school-bus driver who got into a fight with a hospital associated with Connecticut’s most venerable nonprofit institution, which racked up quick profits on multiple CT scans, then refused to compromise at all on its chargemaster prices. Gilbert, now 66, is still making weekly payments on the bill she got in June 2008 after she slipped and fell on her face one summer evening in the small yard behind her house in Fairfield, Conn. Her nose bleeding heavily, she was taken to the emergency room at Bridgeport Hospital.

Along with Greenwich Hospital and the Hospital of St. Raphael in New Haven, Bridgeport Hospital is now owned by the Yale New Haven Health System, which boasts a variety of gleaming new facilities. Although Yale University and Yale New Haven are separate entities, Yale–New Haven Hospital is the teaching hospital for the Yale Medical School, and university representatives, including Yale president Richard Levin, sit on the Yale New Haven Health System board.

“I was there for maybe six hours, until midnight,” Gilbert recalls, “and most of it was spent waiting. I saw the resident for maybe 15 minutes, but I got a lot of tests.”

In fact, Gilbert got three CT scans — of her head, her chest and her face. The last one showed a hairline fracture of her nose. The CT bills alone were $6,538. (Medicare would have paid about $825 for all three.) A doctor charged $261 to read the scans.

Gilbert got the same troponin blood test that Janice S. got — the one Medicare pays $13.94 for and for which Janice S. was billed $199.50 at Stamford. Gilbert got just one. Bridgeport Hospital charged 20% more than its downstate neighbor: $239.

Also on the bill were items that neither Medicare nor any insurance company would pay anything at all for: basic instruments and bandages and even the tubing for an IV setup. Under Medicare regulations and the terms of most insurance contracts, these are supposed to be part of the hospital’s facility charge, which in this case was $908 for the emergency room.

“We think the chargemaster is totally fair,” says William Gedge, senior vice president of payer relations at Yale New Haven Health System. “It’s fair because everyone gets the same bill. Even Medicare gets exactly the same charges that this patient got. Of course, we will have different arrangements for how Medicare or an insurance company will not pay some of the charges or discount the charges, but everyone starts from the same place.” Asked how the chargemaster charge for an item like the troponin test was calculated, Gedge said he “didn’t know exactly” but would try to find out. He subsequently reported back that “it’s an historical charge, which takes into account all of our costs for running the hospital.”

Bridgeport Hospital had $420 million in revenue and an operating profit of $52 million in 2010, the most recent year covered by its federal financial reports. CEO Robert Trefry, who has since left his post, was listed as having been paid $1.8 million. The CEO of the parent Yale New Haven Health System, Marna Borgstrom, was paid $2.5 million, which is 58% more than the $1.6 million paid to Levin, Yale University’s president.

“You really can’t compare the two jobs,” says Yale–New Haven Hospital senior vice president Vincent Petrini. “Comparing hospitals to universities is like apples and oranges. Running a hospital organization is much more complicated.” 

Actually, the four-hospital chain and the university have about the same operating budget. And it would seem that Levin deals with what most would consider complicated challenges in overseeing 3,900 faculty members, corralling (and complying with the terms of) hundreds of millions of dollars in government research grants and presiding over a $19 billion endowment, not to mention admitting and educating 14,000 students spread across Yale College and a variety of graduate schools, professional schools and foreign-study outposts. And surely Levin’s responsibilities are as complicated as those of the CEO of Yale New Haven Health’s smallest unit — the 184-bed Greenwich Hospital, whose CEO was paid $112,000 more than Levin.

“When I got the bill, I almost had to go back to the hospital,” Gilbert recalls. “I was hyperventilating.” Contributing to her shock was the fact that although her employer supplied insurance from Cigna, one of the country’s leading health insurers, Gilbert’s policy was from a Cigna subsidiary called Starbridge that insures mostly low-wage earners. That made Gilbert one of millions of Americans like Sean Recchi who are routinely categorized as having health insurance but really don’t have anything approaching meaningful coverage.

Starbridge covered Gilbert for just $2,500 per hospital visit, leaving her on the hook for about $7,000 of a $9,400 bill. Under Connecticut’s rules (states set their own guidelines for Medicaid, the federal-state program for the poor), Gilbert’s $1,800 a month in earnings was too high for her to qualify for Medicaid assistance. She was also turned down, she says, when she requested financial assistance from the hospital. Yale New Haven’s Gedge insists that she never applied to the hospital for aid, and Gilbert could not supply me with copies of any applications.

In September 2009, after a series of fruitless letters and phone calls from its bill collectors to Gilbert, the hospital sued her. Gilbert found a medical-billing advocate, Beth Morgan, who analyzed the charges on the bill and compared them with the discounted rates insurance companies would pay. During two court-required mediation sessions, Bridgeport Hospital’s attorney wouldn’t budge; his client wanted the bill paid in full, Gilbert and Morgan recall. At the third and final mediation, Gilbert was offered a 20% discount off the chargemaster fees if she would pay immediately, but she says she responded that according to what Morgan told her about the bill, it was still too much to pay. “We probably could have offered more,” Gedge acknowledges. “But in these situations, our bill-collection attorneys only know the amount we are saying is owed, not whether it is a chargemaster amount or an amount that is already discounted.”

On July 11, 2011, with the school-bus driver representing herself in Bridgeport superior court, a judge ruled that Gilbert had to pay all but about $500 of the original charges. (He deducted the superfluous bills for the basic equipment.) The judge put her on a payment schedule of $20 a week for six years. For her, the chargemaster prices were all too real.
A Slip, a Fall And a $9,400 Bill
‘When hospitals say they are losing money on Medicare, my reaction is that Central Florida is overflowing with Medicare patients and all those hospitals are expanding and advertising for Medicare patients,’ says Blum, deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. ‘Hospitals don’t lose money when they serve Medicare patients.’
Jonathan Blum
We should tighten antitrust laws related to hospitals to keep them from becoming so dominant in a region that insurance companies are helpless in negotiating prices with them. The hospitals’ continuing consolidation of both lab work and doctors’ practices is one reason that trying to cut the deficit by simply lowering the fees Medicare and Medicaid pay to hospitals will not work. It will only cause the hospitals to shift the costs to non-Medicare patients in order to maintain profits — which they will be able to do because of their increasing leverage in their markets over insurers. Insurance premiums will therefore go up — which in turn will drive the deficit back up, because the subsidies on insurance premiums that Obamacare will soon offer to those who cannot afford them will have to go up.

Similarly, we should tax hospital profits at 75% and have a tax surcharge on all nondoctor hospital salaries that exceed, say, $750,000. Why are high profits at hospitals regarded as a given that we have to work around? Why shouldn’t those who are profiting the most from a market whose costs are victimizing everyone else chip in to help? If we recouped 75% of all hospital profits (from nonprofit as well as for-profit institutions), that would save over $80 billion a year before counting what we would save on tests that hospitals might not perform if their profit incentives were shaved.

To be sure, this too seems unlikely to happen. Hospitals may be the most politically powerful institution in any congressional district. They’re usually admired as their community’s most important charitable institution, and their influential stakeholders run the gamut from equipment makers to drug companies to doctors to thousands of rank-and-file employees. Then again, if every community paid more attention to those administrator salaries, to those nonprofits’ profit margins and to charges like $77 for gauze pads, perhaps the political balance would shift.

We should outlaw the chargemaster. Everyone involved, except a patient who gets a bill based on one (or worse, gets sued on the basis of one), shrugs off chargemasters as a fiction. So why not require that they be rewritten to reflect a process that considers actual and thoroughly transparent costs? After all, hospitals are supposed to be government-sanctioned institutions accountable to the public. Hospitals love the chargemaster because it gives them a big number to put in front of rich uninsured patients (typically from outside the U.S.) or, as is more likely, to attach to lawsuits or give to bill collectors, establishing a place from which they can negotiate settlements. It’s also a great place from which to start negotiations with insurance companies, which also love the chargemaster because they can then make their customers feel good when they get an Explanation of Benefits that shows the terrific discounts their insurance company won for them.

But for patients, the chargemasters are both the real and the metaphoric essence of the broken market. They are anything but irrelevant. They’re the source of the poison coursing through the health care ecosystem.

We should amend patent laws so that makers of wonder drugs would be limited in how they can exploit the monopoly our patent laws give them. Or we could simply set price limits or profit-margin caps on these drugs. Why are the drug profit margins treated as another given that we have to work around to get out of the $750 billion annual overspend, rather than a problem to be solved?

Just bringing these overall profits down to those of the software industry would save billions of dollars. Reducing drugmakers’ prices to what they get in other developed countries would save over $90 billion a year. It could save Medicare — meaning the taxpayers — more than $25 billion a year, or $250 billion over 10 years. Depending on whether that $250 billion is compared with the Republican or Democratic deficit-cutting proposals, that’s a third or a half of the Medicare cuts now being talked about.

Similarly, we should tighten what Medicare pays for CT or MRI tests a lot more and even cap what insurance companies can pay for them. This is a huge contributor to our massive overspending on outpatient costs. And we should cap profits on lab tests done in-house by hospitals or doctors.

Finally, we should embarrass Democrats into stopping their fight against medical-malpractice reform and instead provide safe-harbor defenses for doctors so they don’t have to order a CT scan whenever, as one hospital administrator put it, someone in the emergency room says the word head. Trial lawyers who make their bread and butter from civil suits have been the Democrats’ biggest financial backer for decades. Republicans are right when they argue that tort reform is overdue. Eliminating the rationale or excuse for all the extra doctor exams, lab tests and use of CT scans and MRIs could cut tens of billions of dollars a year while drastically cutting what hospitals and doctors spend on malpractice insurance and pass along to patients.

Other options are more tongue in cheek, though they illustrate the absurdity of the hole we have fallen into. We could limit administrator salaries at hospitals to five or six times what the lowest-paid licensed physician gets for caring for patients there. That might take care of the self-fulfilling peer dynamic that Gunn of Sloan-Kettering cited when he explained, “We all use the same compensation consultants.” Then again, it might unleash a wave of salary increases for junior doctors.

Or we could require drug companies to include a prominent, plain-English notice of the gross profit margin on the packaging of each drug, as well as the salary of the parent company’s CEO. The same would have to be posted on the company’s website. If nothing else, it would be a good test of embarrassment thresholds.

None of these suggestions will come as a revelation to the policy experts who put together Obamacare or to those before them who pushed health care reform for decades. They know what the core problem is — lopsided pricing and outsize profits in a market that doesn’t work. Yet there is little in Obamacare that addresses that core issue or jeopardizes the paydays of those thriving in that marketplace. In fact, by bringing so many new customers into that market by mandating that they get health insurance and then providing taxpayer support to pay their insurance premiums, Obamacare enriches them. That, of course, is why the bill was able to get through Congress.

Obamacare does some good work around the edges of the core problem. It restricts abusive hospital-bill collecting. It forces insurers to provide explanations of their policies in plain English. It requires a more rigorous appeal process conducted by independent entities when insurance coverage is denied. These are all positive changes, as is putting the insurance umbrella over tens of millions more Americans — a historic breakthrough. But none of it is a path to bending the health care cost curve. Indeed, while Obamacare’s promotion of statewide insurance exchanges may help distribute health-insurance policies to individuals now frozen out of the market, those exchanges could raise costs, not lower them. With hospitals consolidating by buying doctors’ practices and competing hospitals, their leverage over insurance companies is increasing. That’s a trend that will only be accelerated if there are more insurance companies with less market share competing in a new exchange market trying to negotiate with a dominant hospital and its doctors. Similarly, higher insurance premiums — much of them paid by taxpayers through Obamacare’s subsidies for those who can’t afford insurance but now must buy it — will certainly be the result of three of Obamacare’s best provisions: the prohibitions on exclusions for pre-existing conditions, the restrictions on co-pays for preventive care and the end of annual or lifetime payout caps.

Put simply, with Obamacare we’ve changed the rules related to who pays for what, but we haven’t done much to change the prices we pay.

When you follow the money, you see the choices we’ve made, knowingly or unknowingly.

Over the past few decades, we’ve enriched the labs, drug companies, medical device makers, hospital administrators and purveyors of CT scans, MRIs, canes and wheelchairs. Meanwhile, we’ve squeezed the doctors who don’t own their own clinics, don’t work as drug or device consultants or don’t otherwise game a system that is so gameable. And of course, we’ve squeezed everyone outside the system who gets stuck with the bills.

We’ve created a secure, prosperous island in an economy that is suffering under the weight of the riches those on the island extract.

And we’ve allowed those on the island and their lobbyists and allies to control the debate, diverting us from what Gerard Anderson, a health care economist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says is the obvious and only issue: “All the prices are too damn high.”
Change Our Choices
Steven Brill is the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, is the founder of Court TV and the American Lawyer 
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