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2. Medical Technology's Perverse Economics
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.
Nonprofit Profitmakers To the extent that they defend the chargemaster rates at all, the defense that hospital executives offer has to do with charity. As John Gunn, chief operating officer of Sloan-Kettering, puts it, "We charge those rates so that when we get paid by a [wealthy] uninsured person from overseas, it allows us to serve the poor."
A closer look at hospital finance suggests two holes in that argument. First, while Sloan-Kettering does have an aggressive financial-assistance program (something Stamford Hospital lacks), at most hospitals it's not a Saudi sheik but the almost poor those who don't qualify for Medicaid and don't have insurance who are most often asked to pay those exorbitant chargemaster prices. Second, there is the jaw-dropping difference between those list prices and the hospitals' costs, which enables these ostensibly nonprofit institutions to produce high profits even after all the discounts. True, when the discounts to Medicare and private insurers are applied, hospitals end up being paid a lot less overall than what is itemized on the original bills. Stamford ends up receiving about 35% of what it bills, which is the yield for most hospitals. (Sloan-Kettering and MD Anderson, whose great brand names make them tough negotiators with insurance companies, get about 50%). However, no matter how steep the discounts, the chargemaster prices are so high and so devoid of any calculation related to cost that the result is uniquely American: thousands of nonprofit institutions have morphed into high-profit, high-profile businesses that have the best of both worlds. They have become entities akin to low-risk, must-have public utilities that nonetheless pay their operators as if they were high-risk entrepreneurs. As with the local electric company, customers must have the product and can't go elsewhere to buy it. They are steered to a hospital by their insurance companies or doctors (whose practices may have a business alliance with the hospital or even be owned by it). Or they end up there because there isn't any local competition. But unlike with the electric company, no regulator caps hospital profits.
Yet hospitals are also beloved local charities.
The result is that in small towns and cities across the country, the local nonprofit hospital may be the community's strongest business, typically making tens of millions of dollars a year and paying its nondoctor administrators six or seven figures. As nonprofits, such hospitals solicit contributions, and their annual charity dinner, a showcase for their good works, is typically a major civic event. But charitable gifts are a minor part of their base; Stamford Hospital raised just over 1% of its revenue from contributions last year. Even after discounts, those $199.50 blood tests and multithousand-dollar CT scans are what really count.
Thus, according to the latest publicly available tax return it filed with the IRS, for the fiscal year ending September 2011, Stamford Hospital in a midsize city serving an unusually high 50% share of highly discounted Medicare and Medicaid patients managed an operating profit of $63 million on revenue actually received (after all the discounts off the chargemaster) of $495 million. That's a 12.7% operating profit margin, which would be the envy of shareholders of high-service businesses across other sectors of the economy.
Its nearly half-billion dollars in revenue also makes Stamford Hospital by far the city's largest business serving only local residents. In fact, the hospital's revenue exceeded all money paid to the city of Stamford in taxes and fees. The hospital is a bigger business than its host city.
There is nothing special about the hospital's fortunes. Its operating profit margin is about the same as the average for all nonprofit hospitals, 11.7%, even when those that lose money are included. And Stamford's 12.7% was tallied after the hospital paid a slew of high salaries to its management, including $744,000 to its chief financial officer and $1,860,000 to CEO Grissler.
In fact, when McKinsey, aided by a Bank of America survey, pulled together all hospital financial reports, it found that the 2,900 nonprofit hospitals across the country, which are exempt from income taxes, actually end up averaging higher operating profit margins than the 1,000 for-profit hospitals after the for-profits' income-tax obligations are deducted. In health care, being nonprofit produces more profit.
Nonetheless, hospitals like Stamford are able to use their sympathetic nonprofit status to push their interests. As the debate over deficit-cutting ideas related to health care has heated up, the American Hospital Association has run daily ads on Mike Allen's Playbook, a popular Washington tip sheet, urging that Congress not be allowed to cut hospital payments because that would endanger the "$39.3 billion" in uncompensated care for the poor that hospitals now provide either through charity programs or because of patients failing to pay their debts. Based on the formula hospitals use to calculate the cost of this charity care, that amounts to approximately 5% of their total revenue for 2010.
Under Internal Revenue Service rules, nonprofits are not prohibited from taking in more money than they spend. They just can't distribute the overage to shareholders because they don't have any shareholders.
So, what do these wealthy nonprofits do with all the profit? In a trend similar to what we've seen in nonprofit colleges and universities where there has been an arms race of sorts to use rising tuition to construct buildings and add courses of study the hospitals improve and expand facilities (despite the fact that the U.S. has more hospital beds than it can fill), buy more equipment, hire more people, offer more services, buy rival hospitals and then raise executive salaries because their operations have gotten so much larger. They keep the upward spiral going by marketing for more patients, raising prices and pushing harder to collect bill payments. Only with health care, the upward spiral is easier to sustain. Health care is seen as even more of a necessity than higher education. And unlike in higher education, in health care there is little price transparency and far less competition in any given locale even if there were transparency. Besides, a hospital is typically one of the community's larger employers if not the largest, so there is unlikely to be much local complaining about its burgeoning economic fortunes.
In December, when the New York Times ran a story about how a deficit deal might threaten hospital payments, Steven Safyer, chief executive of Montefiore Medical Center, a large nonprofit hospital system in the Bronx, complained, "There is no such thing as a cut to a provider that isn't a cut to a beneficiary ... This is not crying wolf."
Actually, Safyer seems to be crying wolf to the tune of about $196.8 million, according to the hospital's latest publicly available tax return. That was his hospital's operating profit, according to its 2010 return. With $2.586 billion in revenue of which 99.4% came from patient bills and 0.6% from fundraising events and other charitable contributions Safyer's business is more than six times as large as that of the Bronx's most famous enterprise, the New York Yankees. Surely, without cutting services to beneficiaries, Safyer could cut what have to be some of the Bronx's better non-Yankee salaries: his own, which was $4,065,000, or those of his chief financial officer ($3,243,000), his executive vice president ($2,220,000) or the head of his dental department ($1,798,000).
Shocked by her bill from Stamford hospital and unable to pay it, Janice S. found a local woman on the Internet who is part of a growing cottage industry of people who call themselves medical-billing advocates. They help people read and understand their bills and try to reduce them. "The hospitals all know the bills are fiction, or at least only a place to start the discussion, so you bargain with them," says Katalin Goencz, a former appeals coordinator in a hospital billing department who negotiated Janice S.'s bills from a home office in Stamford.
Goencz is part of a trade group called the Alliance of Claim Assistant Professionals, which has about 40 members across the country. Another group, Medical Billing Advocates of America, has about 50 members. Each advocate seems to handle 40 to 70 cases a year for the uninsured and those disputing insurance claims. That would be about 5,000 patients a year out of what must be tens of millions of Americans facing these issues which may help explain why 60% of the personal bankruptcy filings each year are related to medical bills.
"I can pretty much always get it down 30% to 50% simply by saying the patient is ready to pay but will not pay $300 for a blood test or an X-ray," says Goencz. "They hand out blood tests and X-rays in hospitals like bottled water, and they know it."
After weeks of back-and-forth phone calls, for which Goencz charged Janice S. $97 an hour, Stamford Hospital cut its bill in half. Most of the doctors did about the same, reducing Janice S.'s overall tab from $21,000 to about $11,000.
But the best the ambulance company would offer Goencz was to let Janice S. pay off its $995 ride in $25-a-month installments. "The ambulances never negotiate the amount," says Goencz.
A manager at Stamford Emergency Medical Services, which charged Janice S. $958 for the pickup plus $9.38 per mile, says that "our rates are all set by the state on a regional basis" and that the company is independently owned. That's at odds with a trend toward consolidation that has seen several private-equity firms making investments in what Wall Street analysts have identified as an increasingly high-margin business. Overall, ambulance revenues were more than $12 billion last year, or about 10% higher than Hollywood's box-office take. It's not a great deal to pay off $1,000 for a four-mile ambulance ride on the layaway plan or receive a 50% discount on a $199.50 blood test that should cost $15, nor is getting half off on a $7,997.54 stress test that was probably all profit and may not have been necessary. But, says Goencz, "I don't go over it line by line. I just go for a deal. The patient usually is shocked by the bill, doesn't understand any of the language and has bill collectors all over her by the time they call me. So they're grateful. Why give them heartache by telling them they still paid too much for some test or pill?"
The original version of this article stated that the total annual amount of charity care provided by U.S. hospitals cost them less than half of 1% of their annual revenue. In fact, the uncompensated care hospitals provide, either through charity programs or because of patients failing to pay their debts, amounts to approximately 5% of their total revenue for 2010.