The cure for the $1000 toothbrush

From the Fixes blog at the New York Times:

Here is a basic fact of health care in the United States: Doctors and hospitals know what they charge, but patients don’t know what they pay. As in any market, when one side has no information, that side loses: price secrecy is a major reason medical bills are so high. In my previous column, I wrote about the effect of this lack of transparency on the bills patients pay out of pocket.

We know about these bills, which hit us directly. What most people don’t know, because the costs are hidden, is that the same imbalance exists with insurance. The employers and employees who buy health coverage have delegated vigilance over health care costs to insurers — but insurers, for the most part, have gone AWOL.

Consider the story of Texas811, a company with about 200 employees based in Dallas. (They mark utility lines so people don’t damage them when they dig.)

In January 2010, the company was enrolled in a Blue Cross P.P.O., or preferred provider organization. That month, Blue Cross told Texas811 that it was planning to raise the company’s premiums by 75 percent. That was extreme. But health insurance premiums are rising three times as fast as wages, doubling since 2002. “We freaked out,” said Lee Marrs, the company’s president. They negotiated. Blue Cross agreed to lower the increase to 68 percent. “At that point it was go out of business, drop health coverage, or try something new,” Marrs said.

They tried something new.

What Texas811 did first was drop Blue Cross and its P.P.O. and become self-insured. That means that the company itself paid claims up to a certain amount, and bought an insurance policy that kicked in after that. This isn’t revolutionary – self-insurance is how it’s done for about a third of the insured work force.  After one unsatisfactory year, Texas811 signed up with GPA, a Dallas-based company that administers claims for about 230 workplaces like municipalities, school districts, retail businesses.

The difference was astounding.

Under Blue Cross’s P.P.O., the company had been paying $10,000 per visit for dialysis patients. Now it was paying $975. Other costs dropped commensurately. After the first year, the company lowered premiums by 3 percent and increased coverage, providing free vision, dental and life insurance to all its employees, including part-timers.

      Read the complete post here.

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