“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,” says Gunn, Sloan-Kettering’s chief operating officer. “It would certainly be a lot more efficient than hospitals like ours having hundreds of people sitting around filling out dozens of different kinds of bills for dozens of insurance companies.” Maybe, but the prospect of overhauling our system this way, displacing all the private insurers and other infrastructure after all these decades, isn’t likely. For there would be one group of losers — and these losers have lots of clout. They’re the health care providers like hospitals and CT-scan-equipment makers whose profits — embedded in the bills we have examined — would be sacrificed. They would suffer because of the lower prices Medicare would pay them when the patient is 64, compared with what they are able to charge when that patient is either covered by private insurance or has no insurance at all.
That kind of systemic overhaul not only seems unrealistic but is also packed with all kinds of risk related to the microproblems of execution and the macro issue of giving government all that power.
Yet while Medicare may not be a realistic systemwide model for reform, the way Medicare works does demonstrate, by comparison, how the overall health care market doesn’t work.
Unless you are protected by Medicare, the health care market is not a market at all. It’s a crapshoot. People fare differently according to circumstances they can neither control nor predict. They may have no insurance. They may have insurance, but their employer chooses their insurance plan and it may have a payout limit or not cover a drug or treatment they need. They may or may not be old enough to be on Medicare or, given the different standards of the 50 states, be poor enough to be on Medicaid. If they’re not protected by Medicare or they’re protected only partly by private insurance with high co-pays, they have little visibility into pricing, let alone control of it. They have little choice of hospitals or the services they are billed for, even if they somehow know the prices before they get billed for the services. They have no idea what their bills mean, and those who maintain the chargemasters couldn’t explain them if they wanted to. How much of the bills they end up paying may depend on the generosity of the hospital or on whether they happen to get the help of a billing advocate. They have no choice of the drugs that they have to buy or the lab tests or CT scans that they have to get, and they would not know what to do if they did have a choice. They are powerless buyers in a seller’s market where the only sure thing is the profit of the sellers.