To Cut Healthcare Costs, Let's Start With the Secret Prices

When a colonoscopy ranges from $450 to $10,000, there's room for plenty of savings.

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As President Obama said again in his recent address to Congress, an imperative for health reform is containing runaway health costs. But the elephant in the room that is a real driver of costs is something few people are talking about: the variable and hush-hush pricing of medical goods and services, set by the government or negotiated by insurers and largely kept secret from the patients ultimately responsible for their bills.

Look at a colonoscopy: When paid by Medicare, the fee is roughly $450. Insurance companies secretly negotiate a maze of different prices, generally two to five times that. But as the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans recently reported, patients who have to pay their own bill because they are uninsured, are seeking care outside of their insurer's network, or their insurer has denied their claim, can face retail charges as shameless as $10,000. And how can it be that Medicare pays $40,000, prix fixe, for the same heart operation, by the same doctor, at the same hospital, that costs patients paying privately $80,000 to $120,000?

Consumers' ignorance of what services truly cost blurs the connection between their rising insurance premiums and prices, setting the stage for those prices to soar ever higher. Little wonder that the country's total health costs—for public programs like Medicare and Medicaid, private insurance, and out-of-pocket payments—are twice those of other developed countries. Making prices transparent so they can be compared and giving patients the means to shop for insurers that will get them the best deals would put downward pressure on prices and bring sustainable cost savings.

Instead, Americans are led to think that what's mainly to blame for out-of-control costs is their own voracious overconsumption. So cutting down on the quantity of medical services used by the sick and reallocating dollars for wellness and prevention sound like definite cost savers. But that ignores a few facts. Compared with people in other developed countries, Americans see doctors less often and take fewer medications. They also spend the same or fewer number of days in hospitals, and they already lead the world in expenditures per capita on prevention and public health. Yes, more high-tech care may be given to the sick in this country, and yes, that contributes to higher costs. But whether it's low- or high-tech care, what is achingly obvious is that total costs are a function of prices. Ours are the highest.

[See how crafty insurers are denying care.]

As a classic 2003 report in the journal Health Affairs put it simply: "It's the Prices, Stupid." In their detailed analysis of health spending in 30 developed countries, leading health economists including Gerard Anderson of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Uwe Reinhardt of Princeton University determined that the greater cost of care in the United States was due to much higher prices for virtually all of its medical goods and services.

Our senior citizens must have read that study a few years back when they boarded buses to Canada to buy prescription drugs for half the prices they would pay here. Who stopped their burgeoning tea party? The federal government, citing safety concerns, with heavy pressure from the pharmaceutical interests intent on protecting the higher prices Americans are effectively forced to pay.

We are just beginning to see snippets of such comparative price information become more public in other medical areas, prompted no doubt by the growing out-of-pocket payments besetting insured patients. Just last month, a report initiated by Gov. Tim Pawlenty provided price and quality information on 100 medical services from centers throughout Minnesota. Prices were all over the map. The average for colonoscopies ranged from $325 to $1,354. The price of a simple blood count varied from $13 to $85. The wide variation for these and the other prices disclosed suggests lots of room for competition and cost savings. Another area where scrutiny is needed to understand skyrocketing outpatient bills is that of wildly varying and increasingly common "facility fees." A cardiac stress test, for example, can vary by thousands of dollars depending on the size of this tacked-on fee—a charge for the use of a room needed for less than an hour.