This and other aggressive tactics by one of the nation’s largest collectors of medical debts, Accretive Health, were revealed on Tuesday by the Minnesota attorney general, raising concerns that such practices have become common at hospitals across the country.
The tactics, like embedding debt collectors as employees in emergency rooms and demanding that patients pay before receiving treatment, were outlined in hundreds of company documents released by the attorney general. And they cast a spotlight on the increasingly desperate strategies among hospitals to recoup payments as their unpaid debts mount.
To patients, the debt collectors may look indistinguishable from hospital employees, may demand they pay outstanding bills and may discourage them from seeking emergency care at all, even using scripts like those in collection boiler rooms, according to the documents and employees interviewed by The New York Times.
In some cases, the company’s workers had access to health information while persuading patients to pay overdue bills, possibly in violation of federal privacy laws, the documents indicate.
The attorney general, Lori Swanson, also said that Accretive employees may have broken the law by not clearly identifying themselves as debt collectors.
Accretive Health has contracts not only with two hospitals cited in Minnesota but also with some of the largest hospital systems in the country, including Henry Ford Health System in Michigan and Intermountain Healthcare in Utah. Company executives declined to comment on Tuesday.
Getting serious about Medicare solvency requires that we get serious about reducing health care costs in general. In his new book, Dean Baker offers two rarely discussed ways to reduce health care costs quickly. The first is the elimination of drug patents. Although they are taken for granted as necessarily existing, drug patents — and patents in general — should be understood as artificial, government-issued monopolies over the production of a certain drug. This government-issued monopoly allows pharmaceutical companies to charge exorbitant prices for prescription drugs which drives up costs for individual consumers and government programs like Medicare.
By constructing a non-competitive marketplace for life and death products like drugs, government policy undermines its own interests in reducing health care costs. Baker claims that consumers and the government pay around $270 billion more per year for prescription drugs than they would without drug patents. Patents are usually held up as necessary to incentivize drug research, but as Baker points out, the government already spends $30 billion a year through the National Institute of Health on medical research. Increasing that by another $30-$80 billion could completely replace the drug research being done in the private sector, an increase which would be more than offset by the massive savings on patent-free prescription drugs.
In addition to eliminating drug patents, Baker also suggests in a previous book that we use the tactics of free trade already used against low-wage earners to depress the wages of doctors. As it stands, doctors in the United States benefit from exorbitant salary levels that result from proctectivist licensing restrictions manufactured by the American Medical Association. They also benefit from policies which make it difficult for professionals to immigrate to the United States and practice, professionals who would likely demand less for their services. Doctors in the United States presently make about twice as much as doctors in other wealthy countries do. Intentional policies to increase competition among doctors in the United States would likely put downward pressure on the salaries of doctors which would ultimately decrease health care costs.
The last big way to decrease health care costs, although not a suggestion mentioned by Baker, is to implement a single payer health care system. Single payer systems across the world have much lower administrative expenses than private insurers which decreases the cost of health insurance to consumers.
These three proposals are just a few ways to get started cutting costs, a policy approach which will both reduce government expenditures and overall health care spending in the economy. Medicare and Medicaid are not the problem and never have been; spiraling health care costs are and will continue to be. Any approach which is not focused on bringing those costs down or checking their growth should be immediately dismissed as non-serious. That conservatives have endorsed none of these approaches and continue to pursue merely cost-shifting — an approach which is still unsustainable as the CBO projection demonstrates — reveals their self-proclaimed fiscal realism as the posturing that it really is.
The Cost of a Long Life - via The UC Atlas of Global Inequality
Costs of Care, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), is a social venture that helps doctors understand how the decisions they make impact what patients pay for care. By harnessing social media, mobile applications, and other information technologies, we give doctors and patients the information they need to deflate medical bills.
One of the criticisms of the health care reform bill enacted last year is that it expanded coverage without doing enough to control rising health care costs. Surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande says there are hopeful signs that costs can be contained — not by cutting back, but by providing more intensive services to chronically ill patients who incur huge costs with long stays in hospital rooms and intensive care units.
“Although advocates of the pure single payer model will find some problems with this report on a reform proposal for Vermont, there is very good news in this analysis. The report emphatically confirms the superiority of the single payer model in ensuring that everyone is included while containing health care costs.”
Read William Hsiao’s statement and PNHP’s analysis here.
Way to go Vermont!