Is Health Care Too Expensive?

nursing careI recently spent 36 hours at Passavant Area Hospital. A bad stomach pain, which I first attributed to eating too much clam dip while watching the Super Bowl, got much worse, so I arrived at the emergency ward at 1:30 AM looking for help. A day and a half later, my stomach pain was gone. I had received professional care from warm, friendly people, who restored my health and revived my spirits. I also had a bill for $12,074.

That’s a lot of money. Median household income of Americans after taxes is less than $50,000. So my $12,000 bill for a common stomach bug would be a financial disaster for anyone without good health insurance.

I admit that I don’t know how to think about the cost of my brief hospital stay. Was that too much? Or a bargain?

Here’s what I got. In the emergency room, I saw an intake receptionist, two doctors and four nurses. Once I was transferred to a semi-private room, I saw three RN’s, two CNA’s, a nursing student, a dietician, an X-ray technician, a room cleaner, a chaplain, and my own family doctor. Also contributing to my successful stay were security personnel, food service workers, a billing department, and various administrators. The president of the hospital came into my room to ask that I fill out a survey, so they could find out what might be done better.

A portable X-ray machine was wheeled into my ER cubicle to see what was wrong. Later I had blood tests and a CAT scan, which were analyzed almost immediately, allowing the doctors to diagnose me quickly and correctly. Then I received an IV of antibiotics and fluids, which cured my bug and kept me functioning.

The technology was expensive. The CAT scan alone cost $5300, nearly half the total bill. The blood tests added another $1500. My room was billed at $1400 a day.

Hidden in those prices are the costs of all those people who cared for me. About 60% of total hospital costs nationwide are for people. I asked what everybody made at Passavant. The CNA’s make $10 to $15 an hour, which comes to $20,000 to $30,000 a year. RN’s make $50,000 or more. The ER doctors earn about $200,000 a year, family practice doctors up to $400,000, and surgeons (fortunately I didn’t have to see any of them) upwards of $600,000.

To most people, I would guess, doctors’ incomes seem enormous. Perhaps the huge gap between what doctors and nurses earn should be disturbing. In terms of caring for me, the whole patient, beyond my particular ailments, nurses tend to do much better than doctors.

But my doctors have been successful, so far, in keeping me healthy, and after my one serious injury as a teenaged touch football player, in keeping me alive. Who could say that surgeons make too much money, when professional athletes and stock brokers and bankers and corporate managers make many times more? Average compensation for CEOs at the 3000 companies in the Russell index was $5.8 million. Doctors’ compensation is not too high – nurses’ is too low, compared to the importance of their work.

Those are my subjective reactions to the financial side of our health care system. I’m glad that I have a good health insurance plan and that my employer pays part of that cost. I can’t say that any of the care I received was unnecessary or too expensive. I think every American deserves that same quality of care.

Most people have an opinion about our health care system and its costs, but most people don’t know any more than I do. In fact, wrong ideas about the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) are responsible for most of the opposition to it.

About 40% of Americans still believe in “death panels” of bureaucrats deciding whether patients get treatment, a nightmare invented by Republican politicians trying to defeat the ACA. More than half believe the law requires free treatment of illegal immigrants. More than one-third believe smokers will have to pay $1000 extra a year. These incorrect beliefs about unpopular ideas promote opposition.

On the other side, many people are sure that very popular provisions of the law are not in it: 20% don’t realize that children under 26 can be included under their parents’ insurance; nearly 30% don’t realize that insurance companies will have to cover people with preexisting conditions; and 40% don’t realize that insurance companies will be prevented from limiting the total amount paid for a person’s health care.

steve hochstadtNo wonder opposition to “Obamacare” hovers near 40%. Here’s what the researchers who conducted this survey said about the connection between correct knowledge and support: “If the public had perfect understanding of the elements that we examined, the proportion of Americans who favor the bill might increase from the current level of 32% to 70%”.

Politicians could help us have that perfect understanding, so we could make good decisions about what system we would prefer. They don’t, and they won’t until we demand that they do.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Image: Big Stock Photo

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