Maternity Delivery: US is the COSTLIEST country in the world–by far.

This article, from the New York Times, should give pause to anyone who is having a baby–or has had a baby–in the United States. If this doesn't make the strongest case for health care reform in our country, then I don't know what does.

— Josie

 

American Way of Birth, Costliest in the World

Photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times

"I feel like I'm in a used-car lot." Renée Martin, who, with her husband, is paying for her maternity care out of pocket.

By  | Published: June 30, 2013

As you read this article, please share your experiences by responding to the questions that will appear. Your responses will inspire future articles in this series.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, reporter

YOUR PERSPECTIVE

What do you think the total cost of a woman’s pregnancy should be, from prenatal checkups through delivery and newborn care?

$

COMPARE

 

LACONIA, N.H. — Seven months pregnant, at a time when most expectant couples are stockpiling diapers and choosing car seats, Renée Martin was struggling with bigger purchases.

At a prenatal class in March, she was told about epiduralanesthesia and was given the option of using a birthing tub during labor. To each offer, she had one gnawing question: “How much is that going to cost?”

Though Ms. Martin, 31, and her husband, Mark Willett, are both professionals with health insurance, her current policy does not cover maternity care. So the couple had to approach the nine months that led to the birth of their daughter in May like an extended shopping trip though the American health care bazaar, sorting through an array of maternity services that most often have no clear price and — with no insurer to haggle on their behalf — trying to negotiate discounts from hospitals and doctors.

When she became pregnant, Ms. Martin called her local hospital inquiring about the price of maternity care; the finance office at first said it did not know, and then gave her a range of $4,000 to $45,000. “It was unreal,” Ms. Martin said. “I was like, How could you not know this? You’re a hospital.”

Midway through her pregnancy, she fought for a deep discount on a $935 bill for an ultrasound, arguing that she had already paid a radiologist $256 to read the scan, which took only 20 minutes of a technician’s time using a machine that had been bought years ago. She ended up paying $655. “I feel like I’m in a used-car lot,” said Ms. Martin, a former art gallery manager who is starting graduate school in the fall.

 

Like Ms. Martin, plenty of other pregnant women are getting sticker shock in the United States, where charges for delivery have about tripled since 1996, according to an analysis done for The New York Times by Truven Health Analytics. Childbirth in the United States is uniquely expensive, and maternity and newborn care constitute the single biggest category of hospital payouts for most commercial insurers and state Medicaid programs. The cumulative costs of approximately four million annual births is well over $50 billion.

And though maternity care costs far less in other developed countries than it does in the United States, studies show that their citizens do not have less access to care or to high-tech care during pregnancy than Americans.

“It’s not primarily that we get a different bundle of services when we have a baby,” said Gerard Anderson, an economist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who studies international health costs. “It’s that we pay individually for each service and pay more for the services we receive.”

Those payment incentives for providers also mean that American women with normal pregnancies tend to get more of everything, necessary or not, from blood tests to ultrasound scans, said Katy Kozhimannil, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health who studies the cost of women’s health care.

Financially, they suffer the consequences. In 2011, 62 percent of women in the United States covered by private plans that were not obtained through an employer lacked maternity coverage, like Ms. Martin. But even many women with coverage are feeling the pinch as insurers demand higher co-payments and deductibles and exclude many pregnancy-related services.

From 2004 to 2010, the prices that insurers paid for childbirth — one of the most universal medical encounters — rose 49 percent for vaginal births and 41 percent for Caesarean sections in the United States, with average out-of-pocket costs rising fourfold,according to a recent report by Truven that was commissioned by three health care groups. The average total price charged for pregnancy and newborn care was about $30,000 for a vaginal delivery and $50,000 for a C-section, with commercial insurers paying out an average of $18,329 and $27,866, the report found.

Women with insurance pay out of pocket an average of $3,400, according to a survey byChildbirth Connection, one of the groups behind the maternity costs report. Two decades ago, women typically paid nothing other than a small fee if they opted for a private hospital room or television.

YOUR PERSPECTIVE

What aspects of maternity care or its costs were unexpected for you?

Only in America

In most other developed countries, comprehensive maternity care is free or cheap for all, considered vital to ensuring the health of future generations.

Ireland, for example, guarantees free maternity care at public hospitals, though women can opt for private deliveries for a fee. The average price spent on a normal vaginal delivery tops out at about $4,000 in Switzerland, France and the Netherlands, where charges are limited through a combination of regulation and price setting; mothers pay little of that cost.

The chasm in price is true even though new mothers in France and elsewhere often remain in the hospital for nearly a week to heal and learn to breast-feed, while American women tend to be discharged a day or two after birth, since insurers do not pay costs for anything that is not considered medically necessary.

 

YOUR PERSPECTIVE

If you gave birth outside the United States, what was your experience with medical testing, procedures and costs?

 

Only in the United States is pregnancy generally billed item by item, a practice that has spiraled in the past decade, doctors say. No item is too small. Charges that 20 years ago were lumped together and covered under the general hospital fee are now broken out, leading to more bills and inflated costs. There are separate fees for the delivery room, the birthing tub and each night in a semiprivate hospital room, typically thousands of dollars. Even removing the placenta can be coded as a separate charge.

Each new test is a new source of revenue, from the hundreds of dollars billed for the simple blood typing required before each delivery to the $20 or so for the splash of gentian violet used as a disinfectant on the umbilical cord (Walgreens’ price per bottle: $2.59). Obstetricians, who used to do routine tests like ultrasounds in their office as part of their flat fee, now charge for the service or farm out such testing to radiologists, whose rates are far higher.

Add up the bills, and the total is startling. “We’ve created incentives that encourage more expensive care, rather than care that is good for the mother,” said Maureen Corry, the executive director of Childbirth Connection.

In almost all other developed countries, hospitals and doctors receive a flat fee for the care of an expectant mother, and while there are guidelines, women have a broad array of choices. “There are no bills, and a hospital doesn’t get paid for doing specific things,” said Charlotte Overgaard, an assistant professor of public health at Aalborg University in Denmark. “If a woman wants acupuncture, an epidural or birth in water, that’s what she’ll get.”

Despite its lavish spending, the United States has one of the highest rates of both infant and maternal death among industrialized nations, although the fact that poor and uninsured women and those whose insurance does not cover childbirth have trouble getting or paying for prenatal care contributes to those figures.

Some social factors drive up the expenses. Mothers are now older than ever before, and therefore more likely to require or request more expensive prenatal testing. And obstetricians face the highest malpractice risks among physicians and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for insurance, fostering a “more is safer” attitude.

But less than 25 percent of America’s high payments for pregnancy typically go to obstetricians, and they often charge a flat fee for their nine months of care, no matter how many visits are needed, said Dr. Robert Palmer, the chairman of the committee for health economics and coding at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. That fee can range from a high of more than $8,000 for a vaginal delivery in Manhattan to under $4,000 in Denver, according to Fair Health, which collects health care data.

Rather it is the piecemeal way Americans pay for this life event that encourages overtreatment and overspending, said Dr. Kozhimannil, the Minnesota professor. Recent studies have found that more than 30 percent of American women have Caesarean sections or have labor induced with drugs — far higher numbers than those of other developed countries and far above rates that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists considers necessary.

During the course of her relatively uneventful pregnancy, Ms. Martin was charged one by one for lab tests, scans and emergency room visits that were not included in the doctor’s or the hospital’s fee. During her seventh month, she described one week’s experience: “I have high glucose, and I tried to take a three-hour test yesterday and threw up all over the lab. So I’m probably going to get charged for that. And my platelets are low, so I’m going to have to see a hematologist. So I’m going to get charged for that.”

She sighed and put her head in her hands. “Welcome to my world,” she said.

Extras Add Up

Though Ms. Martin has yet to receive her final bills, other couples describe being blindsided by enormous expenses. After discovering that their insurance did not cover pregnancy when the first ultrasound bill was denied last year, Chris Sullivan and his wife, both freelance translators in Pennsylvania, bought a $4,000 pregnancy package from Delaware County Memorial Hospital; a few hospitals around the country are starting to offer such packages to those patients paying themselves.

The couple knew that price did not cover extras like amniocentesis, a test for genetic defects, or an epidural during labor. So when the obstetrician suggested an additional fetal heart scan to check for abnormalities, they were careful to ask about price and got an estimate of $265. Performed by a specialist from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, it took 30 minutes and showed no problems — but generated a bill of $2,775.

“All of a sudden I have a bill that’s as much as I make in a month, and is more than 10 times what I’d been quoted,” Mr. Sullivan said. “I don’t know how I could have been a better consumer, I asked for a quote. Then I get this six-part bill.” After months of disputing the large discrepancy between the estimate and the bill, the hospital honored the estimate.

Christopher Gregory/The New York Times

"Most insurance companies wouldn't blink at my bill, but it was absurd." Dr. Marguerite Duane, who questioned line items on her hospital bill.

 

Mr. Sullivan noted that the couple ended up paying $750 for an epidural, a procedure that has a list price of about $100 in his wife’s native Germany.

Even women with the best insurance can still encounter high prices. After her daughter was born five years ago, Dr. Marguerite Duane, 42, was flabbergasted by the line items on the bills, many for blood tests she said were unnecessary and medicines she never received. She and her husband, Dr. Kenneth Lin, both associate professors of family medicine at Georgetown Medical School, had delivered babies in their early years of practice.

So when she became pregnant again in 2011, she decided to be more assertive about holding down costs. After a routine ultrasound scan at 20 weeks showed a healthy baby, she refused to go back for weekly follow-up scans that the radiologist suggested during the last months of her pregnancy even though medical guidelines do not recommend them. When in the hospital for the delivery of her son Ellis in February, she kept a list of every medicine and every item she received.

Though she delivered Ellis with a midwife 12 minutes after arriving at the hospital and was home the next day, the hospital bill alone was more than $6,000, and her insurance co-payment was about $1,500. Her first two pregnancies, both more than five years ago, were fully covered by federal government insurance because her husband worked for the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality.

“Most insurance companies wouldn’t blink at my bill, but it was absurd — it was the least medical delivery in history,” said Dr. Duane, who is taking a break from practice to stay home with her children. “There were no meds. I had no anesthesia. He was never in the nursery. I even brought my own heating pad. I tried to get an explanation, but there were items like ‘maternity supplies.’ What was that? A diaper?”

Ms. Martin is similarly well positioned to be an expert consumer of health care. She administered the health plan for a large art gallery she managed in Los Angeles before marrying and moving to Vermont in 2011 to enroll in a year of pre-med classes at the University of Vermont. She has a scholarship this fall for a master’s degree program at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health and Society, and then she plans to go on to medical school. Her father-in-law is a pediatrician.

RENÉE MARTIN’S PREGNANCY COSTS

Video by Dave Horn; Photography by Cheryl Senter for the New York Times

Statement after delivery without any discounts; not an official bill:
Hospital charges
$20,257
Obstetrician
4,020
Anesthesiologist
3,278
Drugs
1,125
Bills for prenatal care:
Emergency visit
1,600
Genetic testing
1,500
Ultrasound
1,191
Radiology
520
Hematologist
346

 

She and her husband, who works for a small music licensing company that does not provide insurance, hoped to start their family during the year they were covered by university insurance in Vermont, she said, but “nature didn’t cooperate.”

Then they moved to the New Hampshire summer resort of Laconia, her husband’s hometown, for a year before she started the grind of medical training. But in New Hampshire, they discovered, health insurance they could buy on the individual market did not cover maternity care without the purchase of an additional “pregnancy rider” for $800 a month. With their limited finances and unsuccessful efforts at conceiving, it seemed an unwise, if not impossible, investment.

Soon after buying insurance coverage without the rider for $450 a month, Ms. Martin discovered she was pregnant. Her elation was quickly undercut by worry.

“We’re not poor. We pay our bills. We have medical insurance. We’re not looking for a handout,” Ms. Martin said, noting that her husband makes too much money for her to qualify for Medicaid or other subsidized programs for low-income women. “The hospital is doing what it can. Our doctors are taking wonderful care of us. But the economics of this system are a mess.”

Not knowing whether the pregnancy would fall at the $4,000 or $45,000 end of the range the hospital cited, the couple had a hard time budgeting their finances or imagining their future. The hospital promised a 30 percent discount on its final bill. “I’m trying not to be stressed, but it’s really stressful,” Ms. Martin said as her due date approached.

YOUR PERSPECTIVE

How would you describe the ideal scenario for insurance coverage during pregnancy?

Package Deals

With costs spiraling, some hospitals are starting to offer all-inclusive rates for pregnancy. Maricopa Medical Center, a public hospital in Phoenix, began offering uninsured patients a comprehensive package two years ago. “Making women choose during labor whether you want to pay $1,000 for an epidural, that didn’t seem right,” said Dr. Dean Coonrod, the hospital’s chief of obstetrics and gynecology.

The hospital charges $3,850 for a vaginal delivery, with or without an epidural, and $5,600 for a planned C-section — prices that include standard hospital, doctors’ and testing fees. To set the price, the hospital — which breaks even on maternity care and whose doctors are on salaries — calculated the average payment it gets from all insurers. While Dr. Coonrod said the hospital might lose a bit of money, he saw other benefits in a market where everyone will have insurance in just a few years: mothers tend to feel allegiance to the place they give birth to their babies and might seek other care at Maricopa in the future.

Laura Segall for The New York Times

"Making women choose during labor whether you want to pay $1,000 for an epidural, that didn't seem right." Dr. Dean Coonrod, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix

 

The Catalyst for Payment Reform, a California policy group, has proposed that all hospitals should offer such bundled prices and that rates should be the same, no matter the type of delivery. It suggests that $8,000 might be a reasonable starting point. But that may be hard to imagine in markets like New York City, where $8,000 is less than many private doctors charge for their fees alone.

One factor that has helped keep costs down in other developed countries is the extensive use of midwives, who perform the bulk of prenatal examinations and even simple deliveries; obstetricians are regarded as specialists who step in only when there is risk or need. Sixty-eight percent of births are attended by a midwife in Britain and 45 percent in the Netherlands, compared with 8 percent in the United States. In Germany, midwives were paid less than $325 for an 11-hour delivery and about $30 for an office visit in 2011.

Dr. Palmer of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists acknowledged the preference for what he called “medicalized” deliveries in the United States, with IVs, anesthesia and a proliferation of costly ultrasounds. He said the organization was working to define standards for the scans.

 

To control costs in the United States, patients may also have to alter their expectations, including the presence of an obstetrician at every prenatal visit and delivery. “It’s amazing how much patients buy into our tendency to do a lot of tests,” said Eugene Declercq, a professor at Boston University who studies international variations in pregnancy. “We’ve met the problem, and it’s us.”

Starting next year, insurance policies will be required under the Affordable Care Act to include maternity coverage, so no woman should be left paying entirely on her own, like Ms. Martin. But the law is not explicit about what services must be included in that coverage. “Exactly what that means is the crux of the issue,” Dr. Kozhimannil said.

If the high costs of maternity care are not reined in, it could break the bank for many states, which bear the brunt of Medicaid payouts. Medicaid, the federal-state government health insurance program for the poor, pays for more than 40 percent of all births nationally, including more than half of those in Louisiana and Texas. But even Medicaid, whose payments are regarded as so low that many doctors refuse to take patients covered under the program, paid an average of $9,131 for vaginal births and $13,590 for Caesarean deliveries in 2011.

Insured women are still getting the recommended prenatal care, despite rising out-of-pocket costs, according to a recent study. But that does not mean they are not feeling the strain, said Dr. Kozhimannil, the study’s lead author. The average amount of savings among pregnant women in the study was $3,000 to $5,000. “People will find ways to scrape by for medical care for their new baby, but are young mothers taking care of themselves? And what happens when they need to start buying diapers?” she asked. “Something’s got to give.”

Ms. Martin, who busied herself making toys as her due date neared, could not stop fretting about the potential cost of a complicated delivery. “I know that a C-section could ruin us financially,” she said.

On May 25, she had a healthy daughter, Isla Daisy, born by vaginal delivery. Mother and daughter went home two days later.

She and her husband are both overjoyed and tired. And, she said, they are “dreading” the bills, which she estimates will be over $32,000 before negotiations begin. Her labor was induced, which required intense monitoring, and she also had an epidural.

“We’re bracing for it,” she said.

(c) 2013 The New York Times.

 

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Another way in which our Congress is the best Big Pharma can buy.

Drug costs

This article in the New York Times spells it out succinctly. Having a mother who died of the blood disease Myelodysplasia, this truly breaks my heart. If she hadn't been old enough for Medicare, it would have bankrupted her.

Almost ten years ago, TIME magazine pointed out that "The prices Americans pay for prescription drugs, which are far higher than those paid by citizens of any other developed country, help explain why the pharmaceutical industry is — and has been for years — the most profitable of all businesses in the U.S. In the annual Fortune 500 survey, the pharmaceutical industry topped the list of the most profitable industries, with a return of 17% on revenue."[1]National expenditures on pharmaceuticals accounted for 12.9% of total health care costs, compared to an OECD average of 17.7% (2003 figures)…"

Not much has changed.  Like locusts, 12,389 Big Pharma lobbyists hover around our lawmakers. In fact, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the pharmaceutical industry spent $18,530,000 in 2012 — and $232,583,920 between 1998-2012 – ensuring that the laws created protect their clients while decimating the health and wellbeing (and bank accounts) of the American people.

I guess a few hundred million over a span of fourteen years is a small price to pay for the tens of billions they net in revenue  each year.

These companies are profiting on our lives. — Josie

Doctors Denounce Cancer Drug Prices of $100,000 a Year

By ANDREW POLLACK / New York Times
Published: April 25, 2013 
 (c) 2013 New York Times

With the cost of some lifesaving cancer drugs exceeding $100,000 a year, more than 100 influential cancer specialists from around the world have taken the unusual step of banding together in hopes of persuading some leading pharmaceutical companies to bring prices down.

Prices for cancer drugs have been part of the debate over health care costs for several years — and recently led to a public protest from doctors at a major cancer center in New York. But the decision by so many specialists, from more than 15 countries on five continents, to join the effort is a sign that doctors, who are on the front lines of caring for patients, are now taking a more active role in resisting high prices. In this case, some of the specialists even include researchers with close ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

The doctors and researchers, who specialize in the potentially deadly blood cancer known as chronic myeloid leukemia, contend in a commentary published online by a medical journal Thursday that the prices of drugs used to treat that disease are astronomical, unsustainable and perhaps even immoral.

They suggested that charging high prices for a medicine needed to keep someone alive is profiteering, akin to jacking up the prices of essential goods after a natural disaster.

“Advocating for lower drug prices is a necessity to save the lives of patients” who cannot afford the medicines, they wrote in Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology.

While noting that the cost of drugs for many other cancers were just as high, the doctors focused on what they know best — the medicines for chronic myeloid leukemia, like Gleevec, which is enormously profitable for Novartis. Among the critics is Dr. Brian Druker, who was the main academic developer of Gleevec and had to prod Novartis to bring it to market.

Novartis argues that few patients actually pay the full cost of the drug and that prices reflect the high cost of research and the value of a drug to patients.

Gleevec entered the market in 2001 at a price of about $30,000 a year in the United States, the doctors wrote. Since then, the price has tripled, it said, even as Gleevec has faced competition from five newer drugs. And those drugs are even more expensive.

The prices have been the subject of intense debate elsewhere as well. The Supreme Court in India ruled recently that the drug could not be patented, clearing the way for use of far less expensive generic alternatives.

Some of the doctors who signed on to the commentary said they were inspired by physicians at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who last fall refused to use a new colon cancer drug, Zaltrap, because it was twice as expensive as another drug without being better.

After those doctors publicized their objections in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times, Sanofi, which markets Zaltrap, effectively cut the price in half.

What impact the new commentary will have remains to be seen. The authors, however, call merely for a dialogue on pricing to begin.

The leader of the protest is Dr. Hagop M. Kantarjian, chairman of the leukemia department at the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Many of the roughly 120 doctors who were co-authors of the commentary — about 30 of whom are from the United States — work closely with pharmaceutical companies on research and clinical trials. They say they favor a healthy pharmaceutical industry, but think prices are much higher than they need to be to ensure that.

“If you are making $3 billion a year on Gleevec, could you get by with $2 billion?” Dr. Druker, who is now director of the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health and Science University, said in an interview. “When do you cross the line from essential profits to profiteering?”

Gleevec’s sales were $4.7 billion in 2012, making it Novartis’s best-selling drug. A newer Novartis leukemia drug, Tasigna, had sales of $1 billion.

Novartis said in a statement released Thursday: “We recognize that sustainability of health care systems is a complex topic and we welcome the opportunity to be part of the dialogue.”

It said that its investment in Gleevec continued after the initial approval, expanding the drug’s use to other diseases. It also said that it provided Gleevec or Tasigna free to 5,000 uninsured or underinsured Americans each year and to date had provided free drugs to more than 50,000 people in low-income countries.

Novartis and the manufacturers of the other drugs for chronic myeloid leukemia say the prices reflect the value of the drug. While many cancer drugs with equally high prices extend life by only a few months on average, it is widely agreed that Gleevec and rivals are near-miracle medicines that essentially turn a death sentence into a chronic disease likediabetes.

“It is a little surprising that their focus is in a cancer where the small-molecule medicines have had the greatest impact on long-term benefit,” said Dr. Harvey J. Berger, chief executive of Ariad Pharmaceuticals, which sells the newest and most expensive of the leukemia drugs, Iclusig.

Dr. Berger said the price of Iclusig was $115,000 a year, not the $138,000 a year cited in the commentary. Pfizer said the price of its drug, Bosulif, also was overstated in the piece. The manufacturers cite the price at which they sell to wholesalers, while the authors of the commentary were referring to a price they say better reflects what is charged by a pharmacy to patients. 

The other drugs for chronic myeloid leukemia are Sprycel from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Synribo from Teva.

The commentary noted that despite drug company programs, a minority of the estimated 1.2 million to 1.5 million people in the world with chronic myeloid leukemia were receiving one of the drugs. In many developing nations, it said, cancer experts were advocating risky bone marrow transplants because that is a one-time procedure that is cheaper than continuous treatment with one of the drugs.

The article also said the survival rate for patients in the United States appeared to be less than it should be, perhaps because costs are forcing patients to not take their medicine. Prices for the drugs are twice as high in the United States as in many other countries, which often apply some government pressure or price controls to keep drug costs down.

Even if out-of-pocket costs can be low, health systems in general still must pay for the drugs, the commentary says. And some patients say assistance programs are not always easy to use.

Raven Riedesel of Winlock, Wash., said she had been turned down by various charities — though she hadn’t yet tried Novartis itself — because her husband, a pipe fitter, makes too much money. Yet the insurance from his union would require her to pay $1,200 to $1,600 a month as a co-payment for Tasigna.

“It would take everything that we had left over after buying necessities and paying our bills,” said Ms. Riedesel, 28, a mother of two young children. She is now in a clinical trial allowing her to obtain Tasigna free; the trial will end in November.

Patients in the United States circulated an online petition last year protesting the price of Gleevec, but the effort was dropped after receiving about 400 signatures.

Cheap generic versions could enter the American market as early as 2015 when the main patent on Gleevec expires., Novartis might try to assert other patents to stave off competition, however. It is also trying to shift patients to Tasigna, which has a longer patent life.

Dr. John M. Goldman, emeritus professor of hematology at Imperial College in London and a co-author of the commentary, said he knew several researchers who declined to become authors because they feared losing research money from the industry.

Dr. Kantarjian, the lead author, said that was a risk.

“I am sure I am going to be blackballed,” he said. “My research career will be hurt.”

But he said it was time to speak out. “Pharmaceutical companies have lost their moral sense,” he said. Prices, he added, “are getting to the point where it is becoming unsustainable.”

(c) 2013 New York Times