Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Feeling The Price Chasm

Even Anita and my routine medical expenses this past month show how our leadership from the top down miss the key flaw with our U.S. healthcare system.

It's like in the satirical novel Catch-22 where the (anti) hero Yossarian tends to airman Snowden aboard their WW2 bomber which has been hit by anti-aircraft fire. Yossarian painstakingly treats a serious but non-life threatening leg wound while unaware that beneath his flak jacket the dying Snowden's abdomen has been blown apart.

In similar fashion, President Obama touts a new system to tie more payments to the quality - not quantity - of health care services rendered. He echoes health secretary Sylvia Burwell's similar recipe offered up on Jan. 26, '15.  This implicitly implies that our main issue is one of over-treatment, "wrong" treatment or even waste, and data shows this to be false as I repeatedly highlight, including in my previous post. Americans already see doctors 40% less and are hospitalized 20% less often than in other developed countries so how is excessive "quantity" a big problem? Yet our bills run over twice as high.

Neither Mr. Obama nor Ms. Burwell nor any legislative leader has said anything about our core problem - grotesquely high prices of medical services and goods compared to anywhere else in the world.

So about our own March medical purchases, these involved office visits to a dermatologist, an orthopedic surgeon and an ophthalmologist for routine eye exams. All providers are highly rated and attended to us well. We paid them out of pocket as it counted towards our deductible in our health savings account.  Our rates were negotiated by our insurer Aetna, which were below "usual and customary charges" or what they would take up front from a cash paying customer without insurance.

Most Americans would consider what we paid to be very reasonable. That's part of the problem as they have no idea about the rates for medical services and goods abroad. Though reports like the 2013 IFHP comparative price study are available, listing our own payments as below and what they'd have been in Germany, France and India puts it all in a personal context:

1) Eye exam: We paid $235 for an eye exam and glasses / contact lens prescription by an ophthalmologist. The cheapest option would have been a $95 eye exam by a Costco optometrist purely to get glasses or contacts - no detailed exam for any other potential trouble.

According to an Oct. 2011 IBES study in France an eye exam costs between 25 and 40 euros (p. 35, or $35 - $55) and in Germany it is free if you buy glasses or contacts from that specialist. If you don't charges vary, averaging around 40 euros. In India an eye test by an optician is free if you buy glasses or contacts from them. Now get this: I paid only $66 for a pair of glasses with progressive lenses and free eye exam in India last year, though charges would have been $150 - $200 had I opted for top line glasses.  For my father-in-law a couple of years ago I had a detailed eye exam for macular degeneration by Pune's top eye specialist for $50.  Routine screening was for $15 - $25. In sum eye exams in France and Germany cost about a fourth, and in India about a tenth of what we paid in U.S.A.

2) Dermatologist: First, most dermatologists were booked solid for two months or had closed their practice to new patients as they were so busy. But one was available within a week. The standard office visit which included some cortisone shots lasted 15 minutes with the doctor and another 15 minutes with a nurse and for paperwork with the office staff. The charge was $262 but our payment was $181 at Aetna's negotiated rate. The doctor also prescribed a generic steroid ointment clobetasol propionate that cost us $40 at our CVS pharmacy.

In France the dermatologist fee would be 25 euros and coupled with the cortisone shots the total bill would be under $50. In Germany it may have been $70.  In Pune, India a reputed dermatologist charges $7 for office visits (and $20 for house calls) and along with cortisone shots we'd have paid $12 - $14. And that ointment that cost us $40 at "negotiated rates?" I discovered I had that exact same one, only a branded product called Tenovate made in India by the reputed GlaxoSmithKline that cost - get this - $2 for the same quantity. In addition as per Indian law the packaging had this price printed on it to prevent overcharging.

3) Orthopedist: The complaint was leg pain. The diagnosis after physical examination and taking three X rays was osteoarthritis worsened by some undesirable exercises. The treatment was avoiding those exercises, wearing a knee brace and taking ibuprofen tablets for a few days. The list charges for this 45 minute visit (15 minutes with the doctor, and the rest with X rays technicians, assistant and billing clerk) were $380 though we paid $220 at Aetna's negotiated rates.

In France an orthopedist will charge 25 euros and an uninsured visitor will pay about 45 euros for X rays (locals pay less) bringing the total to about $90.  In Germany the doctor may cost about $20 more, so overall cost is $110. In Pune, India a top orthopedic surgeon Dr. Dudani charges $6 - $12 per visit depending on where you see him, and X rays cost $5 - $15 in private facilities bringing the total to $11 - $27.

So there you have it. Our March personal medical expenses in U.S.A. for routine treatment were 2 - 3 times what we'd have paid in West Europe even without any state subsidies, and ten or more times those in India.  And it would be all traditional fee for service in those other places as well, with none of those quality versus quantity approaches that seem to be distracting Mr. Obama and his health administration.

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