Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us

How outrageous pricing and egregious profits are destroying our health care

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$132,303: The Lab-Test Cash Machine As 2012 began, a couple I'll call Rebecca and Scott S., both in their 50s, seemed to have carved out a comfortable semiretirement in a suburb near Dallas. Scott had successfully sold his small industrial business and was working part time advising other industrial companies. Rebecca was running a small marketing company. On March 4, Scott started having trouble breathing. By dinnertime he was gasping violently as Rebecca raced him to the emergency room at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Both Rebecca and her husband thought he was about to die, Rebecca recalls. It was not the time to think about the bills that were going to change their lives if Scott survived, and certainly not the time to imagine, much less worry about, the piles of charges for daily routine lab tests that would be incurred by any patient in the middle of a long hospital stay. Scott was in the hospital for 32 days before his pneumonia was brought under control. Rebecca recalls that "on about the fourth or fifth day, I was sitting around the hospital and bored, so I went down to the business office just to check that they had all the insurance information." She remembered that there was, she says, "some kind of limit on it."

"Even by then, the bill was over $80,000," she recalls. "I couldn't believe it."

The woman in the business office matter-of-factly gave Rebecca more bad news: Her insurance policy, from a company called Assurant Health, had an annual payout limit of $200,000. Because of some prior claims Assurant had processed, the S.'s were well on their way to exceeding the limit. Just the room-and-board charge at Southwestern was $2,293 a day. And that was before all the real charges were added. When Scott checked out, his 161-page bill was $474,064. Scott and Rebecca were told they owed $402,955 after the payment from their insurance policy was deducted. The top billing categories were $73,376 for Scott's room; $94,799 for "RESP SERVICES," which mostly meant supplying Scott with oxygen and testing his breathing and included multiple charges per day of $134 for supervising oxygen inhalation, for which Medicare would have paid $17.94; and $108,663 for "SPECIAL DRUGS," which included mostly not-so-special drugs such as "SODIUM CHLORIDE .9%." That's a standard saline solution probably used intravenously in this case to maintain Scott's water and salt levels. (It is also used to wet contact lenses.) You can buy a liter of the hospital version (bagged for intravenous use) online for $5.16. Scott was charged $84 to $134 for dozens of these saline solutions.

Then there was the $132,303 charge for "LABORATORY," which included hundreds of blood and urine tests ranging from $30 to $333 each, for which Medicare either pays nothing because it is part of the room fee or pays $7 to $30. Hospital spokesman Russell Rian said that neither Daniel Podolsky, Texas Southwestern Medical Center's $1,244,000-a-year president, nor any other executive would be available to discuss billing practices. "The law does not allow us to talk about how we bill," he explained. Through a friend of a friend, Rebecca found Patricia Palmer, the same billing advocate based in Salem, Va., who worked on Steve H.'s bill in Oklahoma City. Palmer — whose firm, Medical Recovery Services, now includes her two adult daughters — was a claims processor for Blue Cross Blue Shield. She got into her current business after she was stunned by the bill her local hospital sent after one of her daughters had to go to the emergency room after an accident. She says it included items like the shade attached to an examining lamp. She then began looking at bills for friends as kind of a hobby before deciding to make it a business.


Niacin Tablet Patient was charged $24 per 500-mg tablet of niacin. In drugstores, the pills go for about a nickel each

The best Palmer could do was get Texas Southwestern Medical to provide a credit that still left Scott and Rebecca owing $313,000. Palmer claimed in a detailed appeal that there were also overcharges totaling $113,000 — not because the prices were too high but because the items she singled out should not have been charged for at all. These included $5,890 for all of that saline solution and $65,600 for the management of Scott's oxygen. These items are supposed to be part of the hospital's general room-and-services charge, she argued, so they should not be billed twice.

In fact, Palmer — echoing a constant and convincing refrain I heard from billing advocates across the country — alleged that the hospital triple-billed for some items used in Scott's care in the intensive-care unit. "First they charge more than $2,000 a day for the ICU, because it's an ICU and it has all this special equipment and personnel," she says. "Then they charge $1,000 for some kit used in the ICU to give someone a transfusion or oxygen ... And then they charge $50 or $100 for each tool or bandage or whatever that there is in the kit. That's triple billing." Palmer and Rebecca are still fighting, but the hospital insists that the S.'s owe the $313,000 balance. That doesn't include what Rebecca says were "thousands" in doctors' bills and $70,000 owed to a second hospital after Scott suffered a relapse. The only offer the hospital has made so far is to cut the bill to $200,000 if it is paid immediately, or for the full $313,000 to be paid in 24 monthly payments. "How am I supposed to write a check right now for $200,000?" Rebecca asks. "I have boxes full of notices from bill collectors ... We can't apply for charity, because we're kind of well off in terms of assets," she adds. "We thought we were set, but now we're pretty much on the edge."

Insurance That Isn't "People, especially relatively wealthy people, always think they have good insurance until they see they don't," says Palmer. "Most of my clients are middle- or upper-middle-class people with insurance."

Scott and Rebecca bought their plan from Assurant, which sells health insurance to small businesses that will pay only for limited coverage for their employees or to individuals who cannot get insurance through employers and are not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid. Assurant also sold the Recchis their plan that paid only $2,000 a day for Sean Recchi's treatment at MD Anderson. Although the tight limits on what their policies cover are clearly spelled out in Assurant's marketing materials and in the policy documents themselves, it seems that for its customers the appeal of having something called health insurance for a few hundred dollars a month is far more compelling than comprehending the details. "Yes, we knew there were some limits," says Rebecca. "But when you see the limits expressed in the thousands of dollars, it looks O.K., I guess. Until you have an event."

Millions of plans have annual payout limits, though the more typical plans purchased by employers usually set those limits at $500,000 or $750,000 — which can also quickly be consumed by a catastrophic illness. For that reason, Obamacare prohibited lifetime limits on any policies sold after the law passed and phases out all annual dollar limits by 2014. That will protect people like Scott and Rebecca, but it will also make everyone's premiums dramatically higher, because insurance companies risk much more when there is no cap on their exposure.


Photograph by Nick Veasey for TIME

Acetaminophen $1.50 Charge for one 325-mg tablet, the first of 344 lines in an eight-page hospital bill. You can buy 100 tablets on Amazon for $1.49

But Obamacare does little to attack the costs that overwhelmed Scott and Rebecca. There is nothing, for example, that addresses what may be the most surprising sinkhole — the seemingly routine blood, urine and other laboratory tests for which Scott was charged $132,000, or more than $4,000 a day. By my estimates, about $70 billion will be spent in the U.S. on about 7 billion lab tests in 2013. That's about $223 a person for 16 tests per person. Cutting the overordering and overpricing could easily take $25 billion out of that bill. Much of that overordering involves patients like Scott S. who require prolonged hospital stays. Their tests become a routine, daily cash generator. "When you're getting trained as a doctor," says a physician who was involved in framing health care policy early in the Obama Administration, "you're taught to order what's called 'morning labs.' Every day you have a variety of blood tests and other tests done, not because it's necessary but because it gives you something to talk about with the others when you go on rounds. It's like your version of a news hook ... I bet 60% of the labs are not necessary."

The country's largest lab tester is Quest Diagnostics, which reported revenues in 2012 of $7.4 billion. Quest's operating income in 2012 was $1.2 billion, about 16.2% of sales.

But that's hardly the spectacular profit margin we have seen in other sectors of the medical marketplace. The reason is that the outside companies like Quest, which mostly pick up specimens from doctors and clinics and deliver test results back to them, are not where the big profits are. The real money is in health care settings that cut out the middleman — the in-house venues, like the hospital testing lab run by Southwestern Medical that billed Scott and Rebecca $132,000. In-house labs account for about 60% of all testing revenue. Which means that for hospitals, they are vital profit centers. Labs are also increasingly being maintained by doctors who, as they form group practices with other doctors in their field, finance their own testing and diagnostic clinics. These labs account for a rapidly growing share of the testing revenue, and their share is growing rapidly. These in-house labs have no selling costs, and as pricing surveys repeatedly find, they can charge more because they have a captive consumer base in the hospitals or group practices. They also have an incentive to order more tests because they're the ones profiting from the tests. The Wall Street Journal reported last April that a study in the medical journal Health Affairs had found that doctors' urology groups with their own labs "bill the federal Medicare program for analyzing 72% more prostate tissue samples per biopsy while detecting fewer cases of cancer than counterparts who send specimens to outside labs."

If anything, the move toward in-house testing, and with it the incentive to do more of it, is accelerating the move by doctors to consolidate into practice groups. As one Bronx urologist explains, "The economics of having your own lab are so alluring." More important, hospitals are aligning with these practice groups, in many cases even getting them to sign noncompete clauses requiring that they steer all patients to the partner hospital. Some hospitals are buying physicians' practices outright; 54% of physician practices were owned by hospitals in 2012, according to a McKinsey survey, up from 22% 10 years before. This is primarily a move to increase the hospitals' leverage in negotiating with insurers. An expensive by-product is that it brings testing into the hospitals' high-profit labs.

4. When Taxpayers Pick Up the Tab
Whether it was Emilia Gilbert trying to get out from under $9,418 in bills after her slip and fall or Alice D. vowing never to marry again because of the $142,000 debt from her husband's losing battle with cancer, we've seen how the medical marketplace misfires when private parties get the bills.

When the taxpayers pick up the tab, most of the dynamics of the marketplace shift dramatically.

In July 2011, an 88-year-old man whom I'll call Alan A. collapsed from a massive heart attack at his home outside Philadelphia. He survived, after two weeks in the intensive-care unit of the Virtua Marlton hospital. Virtua Marlton is part of a four-hospital chain that, in its 2010 federal filing, reported paying its CEO $3,073,000 and two other executives $1.4 million and $1.7 million from gross revenue of $633.7 million and an operating profit of $91 million. Alan A. then spent three weeks at a nearby convalescent-care center.

Medicare made quick work of the $268,227 in bills from the two hospitals, paying just $43,320. Except for $100 in incidental expenses, Alan A. paid nothing because 100% of inpatient hospital care is covered by Medicare.

The ManorCare convalescent center, which Alan A. says gave him "good care" in an "O.K. but not luxurious room," got paid $11,982 by Medicare for his three-week stay. That is about $571 a day for all the physical therapy, tests and other services. As with all hospitals in nonemergency situations, ManorCare does not have to accept Medicare patients and their discounted rates. But it does accept them. In fact, it welcomes them and encourages doctors to refer them.

Health care providers may grouse about Medicare's fee schedules, but Medicare's payments must be producing profits for ManorCare. It is part of a for-profit chain owned by Carlyle Group, a blue-chip private-equity firm.

About a decade ago, Alan A. was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 78, and his doctors in southern New Jersey told him there was little they could do. Through a family friend, he got an appointment with one of the lymphoma specialists at Sloan-Kettering. That doctor told Alan A. he was willing to try a new chemotherapy regimen on him. The doctor warned, however, that he hadn't ever tried the treatment on a man of Alan A.'s age.

The original version of this article stated that the Assurant Health insurance policy of Rebecca and Scott S. had an annual pay limit of $100,000. It was $200,000.

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