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Gary Horton: American medicine has become a joke

Posted: April 30, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: April 30, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Let me let you in on a joke I recently experienced.

My daughter, Katie, was recently struck by a motorcycle while on a trip to India and suffered a very serious traumatic brain injury.

We were able to get Katie to a private hospital, where she was quickly attended to without delay. She spent four hours in the emergency room and subsequently underwent brain surgery at the hands of two experienced brain surgeons.

She spent six days in ICU attended to by a private nurse, 24/7. After coming to from a coma and gaining strength, Katie was moved to a private room attended to two nurses, 24/7, for 19 more days.

Our family also had a private room next door so as to assist Katie with the nurses and to help with translation.

During her 25 days in the hospital, Katie received six CT brain scans, physical therapy, ENT care, a cornucopia of drugs, and abundant visits from a variety of specialists.

The total bill for these 25 days – all inclusive at this non-subsidized, for-profit hospital - was $17,000. (Yes, that’s seventeen thousand U.S. dollars.)

Yes, we know the cost of living in India is one-tenth that of the U.S. Still, my doctor here at home estimates the same procedure and care here in California might have easily topped $1 million.

That’s not 10 times more, as per cost of living – rather, the American bill would have been 59 times higher.
Higher wages and real estate aside, is the U.S. really that much less efficient, or is there something more sinister at play?

Here’s the punch line. Two weeks back I had a 10-minute procedure for steroid shots at a private hospital in Los Angeles. I was prepped in a common staging area, was rolled into an operating room and spent 10 minutes getting my shots.

I recovered for roughly one hour and zoom, was out the door. Two weeks later I got a bill for some $14,000 from the hospital, some $1,300 for the anesthesiologist, and another $1,200 from my doctor.

Somehow, the insurance company thereafter knocked the bills down to where I’m actually myself paying $1,300 for the hospital, another $300 for the pain guy, and $400 for the doctor.

So I’m in for $2,000, my insurance company is in for something similar, and there’s a one-inch-thick file on my kitchen counter demonstrating the ridiculous paper chase and bureaucracy behind my getting four simple shots in my back.

Stories like this are making the United States the medical joke of the world each and every day. Little doubt, those with money and access receive great care in America. But we pay through the nose via the most arcane system possibly ever invented by man.

Conversely, our hospital experience in India was easy and transparent. We had upfront pricing on everything.

Brain surgery? Three thousand dollars, and please pay a $500 deposit first. Private hospital rooms? $100 per day, each. CT scans? $300 apiece. You get the drift. Everything disclosed and no surprises.

In America, for some reason we’re told price of facelifts, boob jobs and dental work ahead of time, but pretty much beyond elective anything, all medical pricing is hidden from view until the bill is presented to the unwary - after the fact. Who could have created such a smoke-and-mirrors show?

I had to renew my blood pressure meds during our extended Indian stay. It cost me 50 U.S. cents for what costs me $10 here - plus whatever my insurance pays after my co-pay. Meanwhile, the generic pills you and I get here are often the very same generics folks get there, as many U.S. generics are actually made in India!

“Obamacare” didn’t create this mess – but it also didn’t fix it, either. It just pretty much tweaked the most egregious aspects of medical insurance while enrolling even more people into our long-running mess.

With America now paying 18 percent of GDP on health care – double the next country, Switzerland - obviously something’s got to give before the entire medical house of cards crashes in on every working man and woman in the country.

We can literally fail under our own weight if we don’t correct this morass.

Why, in the “free competition,” capitalist, “Land of the Free” America, can’t you and I purchase basic non-narcotic pharmaceuticals from competitive international sources as we do so many other products?

Why has our own government created an entire price-protected pharmaceutical industry against the interests of its own working people? We pay five, 10, 20 times more for drugs than all other nations because of this government mandated, forced non-competition.

Why are our surgeons and specialists paid as rock stars, driving prices through medical roofs? Why not a national policy to produce more doctors and specialists – or at least openly recruit them from outside countries for the benefit of our people?

Why aren’t prices posted at hospitals and clinics? Why do cash payers actually pay more than those beating heads inside the insurance system?

Ultimately, as with so many other things, we can look to an American government deeply distorted in its priorities by nearly unlimited lobbyist money.

The AMA and Big Pharm lobbies are among the largest and best funded in our country. Folks, the NRA lobbies for the interests of gun makers. AARP lobbies for seniors. It should not be shocking that the AMA lobbies for the financial interests of doctors and Big Pharm lobbies for the enrichment of drug manufactures.

Who is looking out for you and me?

It seems we can vote and vote and vote, but so far, you and I still pay five to 20 times more for drugs than any other country, and quite remarkably, it’s 59 times cheaper to fly all the way to India for brain surgery than to attempt the same right here in the land of “capitalist, free competition.”

This is a literal joke and outrage.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.



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