The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Carolyn Lochhead and Victoria Colliver use the recent furor over insurer Anthem’s rate hikes to explore just how much of the blame for rising health care costs should be shouldered by insurers. The reporters find that, in the end, insurers are just another one of the cartels (others include device makers and providers) and operate inside the opaque world of medical pricing and snag hefty cuts for themselves. Lochead and Colliver put it thus:
While the Anthem case has raised a political storm, the underlying surge in costs gets far less scrutiny. But each sector of the health industry points fingers at the other for driving up prices, and all are raking in money.
Insurers blame hospitals and doctors, doctors blame insurers, and hospitals blame doctors and medical devicemakers in what academics call an inscrutable medical-industrial complex that rivals anything the defense industry ever invented. All these groups are combining into what many experts describe as cartels.
The reporters write that, despite their best efforts, they weren’t able to get many folks on the record. When they did find someone who was willing to talk, it was often a source we’ve seen before in other cost stories. It’s a tough theme to get quotes on, as nobody wants to burn bridges with their professional suppliers and everybody’s got some sort of skin in the game. They did, however, manage to find a local source who offered an original and illuminating anecdote:
Christina Bernstein, a medical-device engineer and independent sales representative based in San Francisco, sells disposable surgical tools made mostly out of plastic that she estimates are manufactured for about $40 each. These are marked up and sold to hospitals for as much as $350, she said, for a single use in a surgery on a patient.
“But if you were to get a detailed bill of what the hospital was charging the insurance company for the insured patient, those things get marked up to something like $1,200,” Bernstein said. “It’s ridiculous. There’s no open competition.”
(Hat tip to AHCJ Immediate Past President Trudy Lieberman, who wrote a column on CJR.org praising the Chronicle‘s story.)