Suppose you went into a grocery store, and found no prices on anything. You ask a clerk how much five pounds of potatoes would be, and he asks you whether you are 65 or older. You’re taken aback, but you tell him you are 64, and he asks whether your income is less than $40,000.00 a year. Startled, you say it is more than that, and then he asks whether you have food insurance. Why would the price of potatoes depend on the buyer’s age, income, and insurance status, rather than on the cost of growing, transporting, and stocking the potatoes? That would be absurd.
Yet that’s how it is with medical care. I would be unable to find out, for example, the cost of an echocardiogram from the hospital where I did my residency. The price is different for different people.
The government instituted this ridiculous situation, in 1965, with Medicare and Medicaid. There is a lot of mythology about these programs, but few people understand them like the physicians who are on the front lines actually seeing the patients. For some of them, it has been a gravy train. They game the system. For others, it has been a disaster to go through medical school and residency, and come out a de facto servant to government programs, but of course, without “benefits” or retirement. If you are scrupulously honest, these programs will bankrupt you -even while turning you into Public Enemy #1.
Senators Ron Wyden and Charles Grassley have put forth the Medicare Data Access for Transparency and Accountability Act (the DATA Act) to open a database so that everyone can see how much money Medicare has sent to any physician enrolled in it. Regardless of the cost to provide medical services, the price the taxpayers are forced by the government to pay for other people’s medical care has gone down and down per procedure, per diagnosis, per office visit.
The public won’t see that, but it will hear about some isolated cases; for example, an Oregon neurosurgeon who allegedly performed multiple spine surgeries on the same patient, or a Florida physician accused of $3 million dollars in Medicare fraud.
Gaming the system is fraud. But the biggest fraud is the one perpetrated on the working people of this nation who are forced to pay for other people’s medical problems. When Medicare was first instituted, Americans were reassured that it would never cost the taxpayers more than $9 billion a year. It is more like $500 billion a year now.
Patients learn to game the system too. Workers must pay through their taxes for even the most trivial complaint when someone on Medicare makes an appointment for it -say for a cosmetic skin lesion that has been present for 30 years without causing any problem. Working people are also forced to pay for the consequences of other people’s smoking, excess drinking, or risky lifestyle choices. That’s fraud, perpetrated by the government on taxpayers. It’s hidden behind political smoke and mirrors.
Amazingly, we managed somehow for 189 years after 1776 without Medicare and Medicaid, and things were getting better and better until Lyndon Johnson came up with a good fraudulent vote-buying scheme, and then a lot of people decided there was money to be made off medical problems with the taxpayers the losers.
So, Wyden and Grassley, open your database. But include a list of all the procedures and diagnoses, and what Medicare and Medicaid actually send the physicians as “reimbursement” so people can see that physicians -who spent years of their life in training while incurring tremendous debt- are paid about the same as auto mechanics. And also account for where the rest (about 80%) of the $500 billion goes.
That would be a good start for medical price transparency. And a good precedent for another database, one detailing just how much value politicians give taxpayers who pay their salaries.