Log In

Reset Password
Columnists View from the Center Bear Smart The Travel Troubleshooter Dear Abby Student Aide Life in the Legislature Of Sound Mind Others Say Powerful solutions You are What You Eat Out Standing in the Fields From the State Senate What's up in Durango Skies Watch Yore Topknot Local First

Out-of-control health care in dire need of reform

Jan Phillips
Greg Phillips

Over the past 22 years, the price of medical care, including services provided, insurance, drugs and medical equipment, rose faster than prices in the overall economy. Medical prices grew 110% while prices for all consumer goods and services rose by 71%.

Although there are many reasons for the difference, fundamentally the cause is that the health care industry plays by a different set of business rules compared to other industries.

Take, for example, price transparency. When you need to take your car in for an oil change, you can look up many different shops, find out what each charges, then make your decision. Prices usually won’t be greatly different between shops because they want to be competitive. Transparency acts as a “check” to keep prices under control.

Not so in the health care industry. Patients are typically unable to get an accurate price after visiting a primary-care doctor or undergoing a medical procedure. Hospitals within miles of each another can have dramatically different charges for identical procedures.

Then there’s the middleman. In the health care industry, we rarely pay our providers directly. Our health insurers handle payment. They, too, don’t tell us in advance what our care will cost. Providers and insurers negotiate rates without any public oversight. And those rates vary according to the patient’s coverage. There is a wide range of what a particular procedure costs for an uninsured patient, a patient with Medicaid, Medicare or private insurance. There is no standard price for a knee replacement or any other health care service.

In an attempt to reign in rising costs, the Affordable Care Act included a provision meant to keep insurance companies’ profits in check. The Medical Loss Ratio required insurers to spend 80% of their revenue from premiums on medical care.

Unfortunately, while it was intended to keep premiums low, it also removed any incentive health insurers had to negotiate lower provider and hospital prices. In reality, it created a perverse incentive for the industry to increase health costs. Imagine a mom telling her child she can have only 20% percent of a candy bar. A clever child would ask for a jumbo-sized bar. Twenty percent of $10 is $2; 20% of $100 is $20. Insurers make more money when health care prices increase.

Meanwhile, on the provider side, industry consolidation is wreaking monopolistic havoc. Hospitals are buying up practices and each other, eliminating competition. Private equity firms continue to invest heavily in health care, recognizing the immense profit potential of an industry that lacks price controls, is loosely regulated and has a growing customer base. The PEFs are focused on increasing profitability by raising prices, cutting staff and pruning less profitable services like hospital labor and delivery.

Another way health care differs from other industries is how much of its revenue comes from taxpayer funds. The federal and state governments account for 50% of the dollars spent annually on health care. Lawmakers, presumably influenced by billions of dollars spent by health care lobbies, control legislation that protects the interests of providers, insurers, pharmaceutical companies and medical equipment manufacturers on the receiving end of government contracts.

Our health care system is in need of serious reform to become fair, equitable and more like other market-driven industries. Whether it’s implementing price transparency, regulating middlemen profitability, breaking up monopolies and implementing campaign finance reform to reduce the influence of the health care lobby, the resistance to change is likely to be significant.

It starts with all of us letting our elected leaders know we deserve and demand better.

Jan and Greg Phillips of Durango are involved locally in advocating for health care reform.