Do you have a story like this one? I’d like to say that stories such as mine simply don’t happen anymore but the truth is that they happen all the time. A story by Elisabeth Rosenthal in The New York Times looked at a modest medical procedure-stitching a wound closed. By her estimates, the cost of a single stitch begins at around $500 and climbs from there. It’s quite hard to get an accurate look at prices because hospitals charge a variety of behind the scenes costs. A trip to the hospital for treating a cut finger won’t get you charged just for stitches. You’ll also get charged a facilities fee, plus inflated prices for everything from gauze to Tylenol to the doctor. In a follow-up article, Rosenthal looked at the prices for an ambulance ride, which also shoot for the moon.
Those high prices help hospitals continue to build larger facilities although the presumed reason that hospitals are non-profit is that they provide charity care. That’s why they are allowed a tax exempt status. But the facts say otherwise. What The New York Times and other newspapers repeatedly find is that the result of not having to pay income, property or sales tax, non-profit hospitals often generate some of the largest profit margins, pay their top executives millions, and inflate their prices for drugs and procedures leaving patients with exorbitant bills they struggle to pay. It isn’t as you might imagine, that more people with lower incomes are cared for.
There’s been a push to offer other options for the community such as retail clinics and medical malls but those offerings often aren’t as much about keeping the price of medical care down so much as sharing the profits hospitals experience.
With an average day in a hospital costing more than $4,000, patients may need to do like one of the individuals interviewed in the story and shop around for emergency care even as they are racing to get it. Most people seeking emergency care in a hospital have no other option but go to their local ER. So the time to look at where to go in case of an emergency is not when the emergency is occurring but rather beforehand. For those individuals with chronic conditions such as diabetes or asthma problems, the patient can prevent emergency admission to a hospital by better managing the disease, finding and staying with a professional that specializes in preventing problems rather than curing them, living in a community with better integration between health professions and by getting a commitment by all the parties including the patient to better manage care once an event does occur.