Doctors and Money

The NHS is funded(or should be) to take care of everyone to a level of minimum care. No one(in practice) should have to pay for any medical care.

One question that comes up regularly when discussing how to fix the healthcare system in the USA, is Doctors and Money. While Doctors are far from the only important people in a healthcare service, they are possibly the most visibly important.

It is often asked, or asserted, that if you had a single-payer healthcare system where Doctors were possibly salaried this would act as a disincentive, and over time you’d lose the best doctors to purely private practice. This belies the fact that experienced doctors in the British NHS can make additional money in private practise.

It also completely ignores the fact that while the NHS is a meets minimum, free at the source of treatment health service, there is a thriving private, and private insurance marketplace.

The NHS is funded(or should be) to take care of everyone to a level of minimum care. No one(in practice) should have to pay for any medical care.

However, these days the cost of drugs, the number of highly complex surgical procedures that are “standard” has grown beyond the normal funding of the NHS from say 20-years ago. Cancer care and the drugs for it now consume huge amounts of money, as does the treatment for obesity and the treatment of it, including heart disease.

If you are in a car crash, some form of violent attack, or other urgent care need, the NHS will supply an ambulance, emergency care, surgery, drugs, Dr’s, everything and you’ll never see anything related to billing or cost. Same for almost any minor health care problems, even many elective surgeries, and pregnancy, cancer care, pretty much any medical need.

Elective surgery does tend to get backed up, there are often long waits to see a specialist, as well as to get surgery. This depends though on the problem, the area of the country, and the time of year.

This time of the year the NHS is always stretched to and beyond its limit. It’s damp in the UK, older people tend to have been life long smokers and are very susceptible to respiratory illness. Both my parents died this way after a few weeks of gradually declining health as they were unable to recover from pneumonia. My Dads complicated by heart disease; my Mum a 7-year lung cancer survivor.

Both received 100% free NHS service, they were not rushed or hurried to move out of their hospital beds. The nursing and medical attention was top class. In fact, I’d go as far as to say  much better than here in the USA because there was never a discussion, question or insinuation that insurance might not cover something.

For those that a “meets minimum”, free healthcare service won’t do, you can always pay. Many companies offer private “top-up” insurance, which provides priority appointments, private hospital beds etc. And you can always elect to pay for the treatment you need need.

luton-news-sept-21st-1978I had two major hospital admissions, one on the NHS for a tib/fib fracture in 1978; the 2nd some 16-years later for corrective surgery. The 2nd I was working for IBM with top-up insurance. I saw the same specialist who’d saved my leg 16-years earlier. If I’d wanted to see him on the NHS, there was an 4-week wait; I saw him the next week at a local private hospital.

He recommended corrective surgery. On the NHS he would have done it in 4-6 weeks, depending on lots of things. I was able to schedule a specific day for 10-weeks out that better suited IBM’s schedule, private hospital, private staff, same consultant.

Fast forward to 2013. I’ve done over 100 triathlons and running races, including 6-Ironman races. Despite an initial prognosis in 1979 that I’d never run again. My knees are not so good. I wanted to see the same consultant, he is no longer practicing, wished me luck. I was recommended to the British Olympic Association’s Orthopedic Consultant. Chances of seeing him on the NHS, zero to very little.

I scheduled an appointment with him at Private hospital, flew to the UK, and he came in to see me especially. We spent the whole hour together, what I’d paid 450 UKP for. We discussed options, did measurements, x-rays, looked at different types of replacement knees etc.

He said that when I was ready for surgery to let him know, he would schedule me on his NHS roster and I could fly back. When discussing the same surgery here in the USA, he told me not to bother.

His experience had been that in the USA even dedicated specialist consultants didn’t have nearly the experience as NHS Specialist. In the USA they spend too much time consulting with patients and negotiating over billing. Patients in general take 3x as long to consult with in America because the options, cost and insurance options, and choices are so daunting and often when a preference is stated it has to be negotiated with insurance, co-pays, deductibles etc. all have to be understood by the Doctor and patient. The alternative is you get the Doctor, but little or no choice in replacement technology.

He has 2x 6-hour surgery days per week, they do 6-8 knee replacements per day; he spends 1-day NHS consulting, and 1-day private consulting and has 1-day open for Private surgery or additional consulting.. If he wants he can do private surgeries on Saturdays, vacation days or early mornings before NHS work. Average cost for NHS Surgery $0.

A US Specialist, according to him, does 6-10 operations per month, and my US research was cost around $30,000. In terms of knee replacements, the UK has much better insight, and much less medical device and insurance company influence on the type of replacement, they base their choices on OUTCOMES.

I’ll return to the discussion on healthcare systems shortly, but suffice to say, I’ll be going back to the UK when my time finally comes.

Out of control drugs

For-profit hospitals appear to be better players in this price-gouging game,” says Bai, an assistant professor of accounting at Washington & Lee University. “They represent only 30 percent of hospitals in the U.S., but account for 98 percent of the 50 hospitals with highest markups.

Of the many things wrong with the US Medical system, and there are a great many, not least it is the most expensive in the world, are the prices of ancillary parts of the healthcare system.

I’ve just been catching up on my bills, one of which was a visit to a chiropracter. A single visit, with a company provided insurance, my out of pocket cost was $485. Yes, it’s complicated, it involves deductibles, co-pays etc. and of course since it’s my only healthcare visit so far this year, I got essentially nothing from insurance. You then start to question what you got for $485. 10-mins with the specialist; 15-mins electrical stimulation; and about the same ultrasound. Sigh.

I have a mild form of psoriasis which randomly appears(stress?) on my right elbow, left thumb and a couple of other areas. It’s really no big deal, I use maybe two or three small tubes of Fluocinonide per year; in a couple of days and it’s gone. I went to get a replacement tube of cream from CVS recently. It’s a prescription cream, which comes with its own problems. The pharmacist gave me the cream and announced they’d changed providers and the price was now $8. No big deal to me, I can afford it. I paid and left.

Out in the car, I stopped and thought about it. I’d just been stung with 62.5% price hike. Seriously same active ingredient, same size tube; different generic brand. And there you have it, you have no control, no choice, no free market, it’s effectively too difficult to shop around because it’s prescription only. Yet, strangely you can buy it online for pets, it’s about the same price, meaning again, my drug insurance is effectively worthless.

The problem in America is that there is no effective control for the price of drugs. This report by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health report, highlights how this is commonly exploited, let alone specific deliberate abuse.

The 50 hospitals, they found, charged an average of more than 10 times the Medicare-allowed costs. They also found that the typical United States hospital charges were on average 3.4 times the Medicare-allowable cost in 2012. In other words, when the hospital incurs $100 of Medicare-allowable costs, the hospital charges $340. In one of the top 50 hospitals, that means a $1,000 charge.

Of the 50 hospitals with the highest price markups, 49 are for-profit hospitals and 46 are owned by for-profit health systems. One for-profit health system, Community Health Systems Inc., operates 25 of the 50 hospitals. Hospital Corp. of America operates more than one-quarter of them. While they are located in many states, 20 of the hospitals are in Florida.

For-profit hospitals appear to be better players in this price-gouging game,” says Bai, an assistant professor of accounting at Washington & Lee University. “They represent only 30 percent of hospitals in the U.S., but account for 98 percent of the 50 hospitals with highest markups.

We all pay the price for this abuse. It’s nonsense to think that a single payer, public healthcare system would cost anymore. If we had it, there would be drug price control. Those against price control often argue that would stifle innovation and invention of new drugs, they role out the enormous cost of bringing out new drugs and using the profit of successful drugs to underwrite research, and failures during the process.

This is simply invalid. Anyone who thinks that humans won’t become involved because they are prepared to standby and watch their fellow citizens die, is just plain wrong. While medical innovations have progressed dramatically over the previous century, the last 20 years specifically have resulted in monumental advancements that substantially increased medical care standards and improved overall global health, but most of those advances didn’t actually come from the actual drugs(*), but from a better understand about the human body, how diseases spread and much about healthcare. The real ripoff in drug use is both at source, manufacturers, and those that sell the drugs.

Lets hope the next President take drug pricing as a priority.

* Not withstanding massive public health crisis drugs, like HIV, Ebola et al. These serve as exactly as an example of the invention that will still come.