An official of a firm who helps people untangle their medical bills and negotiate with providers tells Brill that most of the firm’s clients are middle or upper-middle people with insurance. That tracks with studies by CUNY professors Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein and Elizabeth Warren (now a US Senator from Massachusetts), who found it was mostly middle class people with insurance who declared medical bankruptcy. Brill’s predictions about rising premiums and rising medical costs may not change this picture.
Brill’s solutions: A big omission in Brill’s remarkable tour through the American health system is a serious critique of the doctors. Although the piece devotes a brief section to the doctors’ role in creating this mess, he gives their complicity short shrift. To bolster this notion of what he calls “over-doctoring,” Brill seems to generalize from an 89-year-old patient named Alan A., who got 33 visits in one year from 11 doctors who, according to Brill, “had nothing to do with his recovery from the heart attack or his cancer.” While noting there’s been some progress toward weaning the docs from fee-for-service payments to salaries, he doesn’t directly address the question of whether US physicians, particularly specialists, are paid too much, a subject policymakers have been reluctant, for decades, to address.
Nor does Brill discuss Congressional efforts to limit inflation in doctors’ fees through the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, and the doctors’ mostly successful efforts to thwart its mandated cuts in Medicare reimbursements. Failing to discuss the “Doc Fix” campaigns by physicians’ professional organizations leaves the impression they have no role in the high cost of care. They do.
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.