Ripping off the system, one patient at a time

This week, I attempted to do what consumers world over try to do: figure out the cost of a transaction to make an informed decision before I acted. Everyone from market shoppers in Malawi to mega-billionaires choosing to invest their capital does this. They all are promoting their self-interest and also trying to save or even make money.

I wanted to know what a doctor’s visit would cost and how much truly might be or might not be covered. If needed, I wanted to know if I had to find a better bargain, if the first option would not be an affordable activity with my plan. It might have been easier to walk across the Sahara barefoot, without water.

What I tried to do is impossible for American consumers trying to figure out the price of just about every medical procedure, doctor’s or dentist’s visit, and hospital activity.

Photo courtesy of Harvard, showing people protesting for health care access. But most of us want health pricing information too, and are prevented from getting that by providers and insurance companies.
Photo courtesy of Harvard, showing people protesting for health care access. But most of us want health pricing information too, and are prevented from getting that by providers and insurance companies.

Today, except the for very rich who do not need insurance, there is no such thing as a functioning U.S. health care market, where consumers can freely choose to pick their providers and choose lower-cost options. Insurance companies and providers do everything possible to hide prices and bully and even threaten insured consumers who are trying to make choices that occur in rational and functioning markets.

The Commonwealth Fund notes, “… the U.S. health care market is unlike any other market: patients rarely know what they’ll pay for services until they’ve received them; health care providers bill different payers different prices for the same services; and privately insured patients pay more to subsidize the shortfalls left by uninsured patients. What’s more, prices for health services vary significantly among providers, even for common procedures such as laboratory tests or mammograms, although there’s no consistent evidence showing that higher prices are linked to higher quality.”

The Commonwealth Fund argues that even some modest reforms in pricing transparency, with our broken system, could lead consumers to “receive high-quality services from lower-cost providers … This, in turn, could encourage competition among providers based on the value of care—not just on reputation and market share.”

So what does this have to do with me and my experience? Everything, actually.

Gauging consumers one by one: the thousand cuts approach:

For years, I have consistently tried to get dentists and doctors to give me a price quote before a visit. To date, I have never had any medical provider provide me prices or codes without fighting tooth and nail, and often it is with caveats that claim they are exempt from any responsibility if their pricing information is wrong, even with the diagnosis code for a routine checkup.

Here is how the health provider and health insurance fraud and rip-offs work, patient by patient, and this is how it recently happened with me.

Step one: Call the provider and have them evade sharing information.

  • “We can’t provide you a diagnosis code until you see the physician.” To which I reply, “I am trying to understand if the charge will be covered by my insurance company.” They answer, “We can’t do that because the doctor may do [fill the BS line that you prefer].”

Step two: Call the insurance company and have them not tell you if a possible charge by a provider is within their “usual and customary charges”—a term that is behind a wall of secrecy and never shared with consumers, ever.

  • “Hello, I’m trying to determine if my visit to my physician is covered and if the charges are within your accepted ranges.” They reply, “Sir, we can’t do that. We’d need to know the diagnosis codes and procedure codes before we can possibly investigate that.”
  • To which I reply, “Sir/mam, I don’t have that. Doctors’ offices never tell you that. I don’t have the codes.” Or, if I was able to get a code for a check up, “Here is the diagnosis code [fill in code], what is your accepted charge.”
  • The reply could be, “Sir, I told you we would need the diagnosis code to investigate…” Me interrupting, “Sir/mam, I just told you they won’t give me that code, and no doctor…” Them interrupting, “Sir, you are becoming agitated, stop interrupting me. I was saying we need the diagnosis….” Me interrupting, “I am not becoming agitated. I am behaving perfectly rationally. I just want to know what this will cost and how it will be covered.”
  • They reply, “Sir, I have already told you, without a diagnosis code and procedure code, we are not able to provide you…” Me interrupting again, “Sir/mom, did you just hear me when I said the office will not provide me with a diagnosis code.”

Usually such a song and dance can go on for about five or 10 minutes. In the end, the insurance reps will likely have bullied the consumer and employed their standard and tested propaganda that justifies preventing nearly all consumers from knowing if any medical procedure will truly be covered and at what level. The same works for hospitals, clinics, and other practices, who will not share their prices.

In short, they have created a system that perpetuates waste, fraud, and abuse, one patient at a time, systemwide—and it is a system that remains protected by powerful special and political interests who profit from this.

Who the hell created this mess and what it means:

We can thank our political process that encourages special interests to buy influence and bankroll candidates with campaign donations for a good chunk of this mess. We can also thank the so-called health insurance companies from protecting their market share that makes the United States the most inefficient and most expensive health care system among all developed nations.

The Commonwealth Fund in 2014 reported the U.S. trailed other developing nations in health care outcomes and costs.
The Commonwealth Fund in 2014 reported the U.S. trailed other developing nations in health care outcomes and costs.

The Commonwealth Fund also has found that the U.S. system underperforms and has worse outcomes than 10 other industrial nations, mirroring past findings. No surprises there—this fact has been reported by health and public health researchers now for years. The U.S. economy devotes an absurd 17.7 percent of GPD to health care spending, almost double that of its peers.

How the United States compares to its peers in health care spending by GPD. Source: Commonwealth Fund.
How the United States compares to its peers in health care spending by GPD. Source: Commonwealth Fund.

The Center for American Progress has described the consolidation of power by the bloated middlemen of our dysfunctional health care system as a crisis, due to consolidation and market control. The center reports the “lack of competition has led to growing insurer profits, increased costs and reduced coverage for enrollees, an epidemic of deceptive and fraudulent conduct, and rapidly escalating costs.”

Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 led one of the earliest efforts to support a national health plan in the United States, and received support from progressives at the National Progressive convention that year.
Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 led one of the earliest efforts to support a national health plan in the United States, and received support from progressives at the National Progressive convention that year.

From the early 1900s to the present, major efforts to reform the U.S. health care system to create a national health system have failed. Some of the principal profiteers that have safeguarded the status quo are the monolithic health insurance companies, like Premera Blue Cross, my provider.

Other bloated health benefits providers include Aetna, Wellpoint, UnitedHealth Group, Cigna MetLife, and Humana. All of these companies are major political players who donate generously to members of Congress and state officials.

The health insurance model is a system vigorously defended by the GOP-controlled Congress, whose members theoretically support open markets, when in fact GOP members have attempted to derail the Affordable Care Act more than 50 times as of January 2015. And that reform was ultimately about reforming the existing health insurance market, not changing the system to promote openness in pricing or improving population health that is linked to universal health care systems.

The ACA only offered modest efforts to promote transparency. The law requires hospitals to publish and annually update a list of standard charges for their services. Other provisions about requiring exchanges to show prices are at best failed and complicated efforts that do nothing to break the wall of secrecy that has fed the beast that is our health insurance market.

The most pathetic part of this is, when I as a consumer try to do something, I am labeled a problem and seen as the bad guy. But I am OK with that, because doing the right thing always will meet with resistance. I have never kissed a doctor’s feet or behind, or those of companies that profit through monopolistic practices. I do not intend to start now. It just rubs me that today when I see the doctor, and tell him to make his pricing transparent, he will roll his eyes and give that “whatever look.”

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