Brill does talk about hospital consolidation and how hospitals are buying up doctor practices and steering patients to them, thus increasing their leverage with insurance companies—an ominous trend. As news outlets like National Journal, the Tampa Bay Times, and The Charlotte Observer have reported, such consolidations have already boosted prices and set up a battle between giant hospitals and giant insurers. Perhaps someday a Brill Part 2 might explore all this.
His offers some solutions, which Time lays out in an infographic. Each yields billions of dollars in savings.
• Recapturing 75 percent of the profits from hospitals by taxing them, regulating their prices, ensuring real competition and transparency, and rethinking the chargemaster so it reflects real costs, not phony ones. The savings: $84 billion.
• Allowing and funding comparative effectiveness evaluations in prescribing drugs. (We hope he means both clinical and cost effectiveness.) The savings: $28 billion.
• Reducing the number of tests and procedures done only to prevent malpractice lawsuits. (The literature is full of alternatives to this broken system, which both sides perpetuate.) The savings: $74 billion.
Brill’s list goes on, totaling some $360 billion in savings, or about 13 percent of the country’s total healthcare spending.
What’s really eye-opening is the $3.6 billion operating profit amassed by the country’s ten largest nonprofit hospitals—money that now goes for huge executive salaries and for buying up other hospitals and doctor practices, which, as the consolidation frenzy continues apace, will further drive up costs.
Are his remedies adequate? He concedes some are unlikely to happen. And he doesn’t quite follow the logic of his own research all the way.
He convincingly argues that Medicare is the superior angel in the US system, and that it could actually control costs if only Congress would let it. Medicare is “the only player in the system that seems to have to balance countervailing interests the way market players in a real market usually do,” he writes.
Brill recommends lowering, not raising, the age for Medicare eligibility—a goal the creators of Medicare had in 1965. Lowering the age would improve the government’s cost challenge, because people in their late 50s and early 60s would be covered by a more efficient and less costly arrangement than will be the case under Obamacare’s insurance exchanges, which will be able to exert little, if any downward pressure on prices.
Brill’s solution seems to set the nation on the path of Medicare for All and toward a national health system—that Brill cannot bring himself to endorse.
Gunn, the chief operating officer at Sloan-Kettering, told Brill. “If you could figure out a way to pay doctors better and separately fund research… adequately, I could see where a single-payer approach would be the most logical solution.”
Brill sees it somewhat differently: “The real issue isn’t whether we have a single payer or multiple payers. It’s whether whoever pays has a fair chance in a fair market.” Yet he still roots for government power to strip away some of the tremendous leverage held by healthcare providers in today’s health market.
Logically, that circles back to how much doctors should get paid, who pays for their education (Medicare finances some of it), how much nonprofit hospitals should profit, and how much drug and device manufacturers really need to earn. Those questions have been on the shelf for decades. Brill’s contribution dusts them off, exposing them once again to scrutiny by the public and the press.
Maybe Brill has finally succeeded in breaking down the fences that have penned in what’s possible to discuss when it comes to healthcare, and offering to Americans some previously out-of-sight, out-of-mind topics for honest, objective consideration. In his morning on the Sunday network news circuit, the roundtable participants on ABC’s This Week raced as hard as they could to fence in the discussion and cut Brill off, but they didn’t completely succeed.
The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team. And follow Trudy Lieberman @Trudy_Lieberman.