Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Saturday, January 2nd, 2010.

The $1,654 Staple

Health Care

To get an idea why health care costs are insane, check out this article from the Sarasota, Florida, Herald Tribune. A boy banged his head on a bookcase during a pillow fight. The scalp laceration wouldn’t stop bleeding, so his mother took him to a hospital emergency room. A doctor took a quick look at the boy’s scalp and closed the superficial wound with one small staple.

“The doctor came in for all of five seconds, said he needed a staple, and then told us to go to a pediatrician to take it out,” Tobio said. “We saw the doctor for three minutes total.”

The bill: $1,654.

The boy’s mother wanted to know how one staple cost $1,654, so a reporter, Anna Scott, contacted the hospital to find out. It turns out the staple itself, the staple gun used to apply it, a bandage, and a topical anesthetic cost $274. The gun holds 35 staples, but it can be used only once even if only one staple is used. Then it is thrown away to avoid spreading infection. Whatever happened to sutures?

Note this part:

The staple is helping pay for about $60 million the hospital loses every year from people who are uninsured or cannot pay for treatment, said the hospital’s chief financial officer, David Sullivan.

When the hospital staff says the staple costs $274, they are accounting for the fact that they only receive, on average, 30 cents for every dollar they charge. That includes deals brokered with private insurance companies, too, deals current health care bills do not propose regulating directly.

I keep harping on this, but it’s obvious to me that — within the confines of the current health care reform bills — getting costs hauled back into Reality Land requires getting as many people insured as possible. I fully appreciate that paying for insurance can be a real hardship. I’ve been there. But what’s happening is that people who aren’t insured are running up bills that are being paid by people who are insured, which is one reason why insurance costs so much. Getting more people insured — especially more younger and healthier people — should help. That’s why I support mandates.

The doctor’s charge to do the stapling was $951: $480 for the visit and $471 to repair what the bill calls “a superficial wound.” … Because hospital doctors are usually private contractors, the hospital does not control what they charge.

Now, I suspect the doctor has to jack up his charge for the same reason the hospital does — he doesn’t always get paid for what he does. But I’ve read in several articles that hospitals that pay physicians a fixed salary do a lot better job of keeping cost down, at no loss of quality. However, I suspect that’s the sort of thing we probably can’t do much about until we get closer to a single payer system.

After a few seconds of medical care, the boy’s mother spent about an hour filling out forms. A recent PriceWaterhouse study found that $210 billion is wasted each year on medical paperwork, mostly having to do with insurance. I believe there’s a provision for uniform insurance forms in the House and Senate bills.

In the case at hand, apparently when the boy smacked his head his pediatrician’s office was closed, so the mother took him to an emergency room. That’s what uninsured people do, of course, which is the most gawd-awful cost-inefficient way to provide health care possible, because emergency rooms have horrifically high overhead. A system of neighborhood walk-in clinics for non-critical medical problems would provide care at a lot lower cost.

For his vote on the Senate bill, Sen. Bernie Sanders got an increase of $10 billion in funding for nonprofit community clinics to provide basic health care and pharmacy services, billing on a sliding scale. For this, lots of progressives blew up in outrage and threatened to campaign against him in the future.

And that’s the story of the $1,654 staple.

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