Hips

In her latest piece on medical costs in the US, Elisabeth Rosenthal looks at the costs of joint replacement:

he reached out to a sailing buddy with friends at a medical device manufacturer, which arranged to provide his local hospital with an implant at what was described as the “list price” of $13,000, with no markup. But when the hospital’s finance office estimated that the hospital charges would run another $65,000, not including the surgeon’s fee, he knew he had to think outside the box, and outside the country.

“That was a third of my savings at the time,” Mr. Shopenn said recently from the living room of his condo in Boulder, Colo. “It wasn’t happening.”

“Very leery” of going to a developing country like India or Thailand, which both draw so-called medical tourists, he ultimately chose to have his hip replaced in 2007 at a private hospital outside Brussels for $13,660. That price included not only a hip joint, made by Warsaw-based Zimmer Holdings, but also all doctors’ fees, operating room charges, crutches, medicine, a hospital room for five days, a week in rehab and a round-trip ticket from America.

Here a couple asides on this:

Like many other countries, Belgium oversees major medical purchases, approving dozens of different types of implants from a selection of manufacturers, and determining the allowed wholesale price for each of them, for example. That price, which is published, currently averages about $3,000, depending on the model, and can be marked up by about $180 per implant. (The Belgian hospital paid about $4,000 for Mr. Shopenn’s high-end Zimmer implant at a time when American hospitals were paying an average of over $8,000 for the same model.)

“The manufacturers do not have the right to sell an implant at a higher rate,” said Philip Boussauw, director of human resources and administration at St. Rembert’s, the hospital where Mr. Shopenn had his surgery. Nonetheless, he said, there was “a lot of competition” among American joint manufacturers to work with Belgian hospitals. “I’m sure they are making money,” he added.

Which means that all that extra pricing in the US is just extra sauce for the companies.

The pricing system in Belgium does not encourage amenities, though the country has among the lowest surgical infection rates in the world — lower than in the United States — and is known for good doctors. While most Belgian physicians and hospitals are in business for themselves, the government sets pricing and limits profits. Hospitals get a fixed daily rate and surgeons receive a fee for each surgery, which are negotiated each year between national medical groups and the state.

Notice two things here: despite the much lower costs, Belgium has a lower infection rate; most physicians and hospitals in Belgium are in business for themselves. This brings up the point that having government pay for healthcare does not mean there is no competition in medicine–in Canada for example: “According to Dr. Albert Schumacher, former president of the Canadian Medical Association, an estimated 75 percent of Canadian health care services are delivered privately, but funded publicly.”.

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