Hospital Charges Push Bounds of Reason

0509_charges_md.jpgIn the consumer marketplace, businesses and vendors are free to charge whatever they wish to charge for the product or service they offer.   Customers may shop around for better deals, and competing businesses may even engage in price wars to earn higher sales.  But in the arena of our lives in which we often have the least control or information, we are at the mercy of health care profiteers who routinely charge whatever the traffic will bear.  While these costs may not always be directly passed along to patients who have private or public insurance coverage, it will be difficult for us to begin controlling costs in our health care system with so many providers nationally and in Colorado taking advantage of so little oversight of their industry.

This week, we’ve seen the national spotlight on the wide variances in hospital charges as the New York Times reported in a front page story how the costs for the same medical and surgical procedures may be thousands of dollars different at one hospital than another without clear explanation.  Those who follow these issues closely know that Medicare reimburses for procedures based on standardized rates and insurance companies negotiated contracted rates for the amounts they will pay.  Insured patients and their families may never see the wildly divergent rates or feel much impact from them.  But, according to the NYT, “Experts say it is likely that the people who can afford it least — those with little or no insurance — are getting hit with extremely high hospitals bills that may bear little connection to the cost of treatment.”

So, what is happening in Colorado?  Because an estimated 400,000 Coloradans will likely remain uninsured even after the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the state’s insurance exchange is operational later this year, Colorado’s residents without insurance who require care will pay a steep price to access what they need.  From the Denver Post:  “Colorado hospital retail prices for common surgeries and treatments often vary from one another by 400 or 500 percent, and the most egregious rates are eight to 10 times what Medicare pays, according to new federal data.”  Click here to read the entire story.

We can fix this with a simple, clear solution – a universal, public, single-payer plan that covers everyone would have the ability to negotiate prices and prevent the kind of price gouging that this week’s federal data release is highlighting.  Needing care when we are sick or hurt is not the same as shopping around for a new or used car.  We are often at our most vulnerable when we are sick or someone we love needs care, and it is impossible for many to understand why some hospital charges are so high and what if any options they may have to avoid unreasonable charges.

Taking advantage of a broken health care system just because it is legal to do so and charge as much as possible for care does not make those practices ethical or decent in a civil society.  We can do better in Colorado, and we must demand that of one another as we create a system in which health care is a human right and a public good for all.  Endorse our campaign here.

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