Blame profits, not workers, for high health costs

The issue of corporate greed in health care is beginning to make its way into the mass media, thanks in good part to the blatant price-gouging of the pharmaceutical companies. The evidence pointing to drug company profiteering – as revealed by dramatically lower drug prices in Canada – is too overwhelming to deny.

Generally speaking, however, the term “profit” is deleted from any mainstream discussions regarding the high cost of health care. This is no accident. The for-profit hospitals, drug companies, medical supply companies and insurance companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to deflect popular attention away from their huge profits. They prefer that people blame their skyrocketing health care costs on doctors, on general inflation, or perhaps even on themselves.

People are desperately searching for a solution to this mounting crisis. Workers and their unions being assaulted with demands for draconian co-payments, deductibles and out-of-pocket payments at the time of service. Every labor negotiation includes employer demands for greater employee co-pays and deductibles. Employers say they want “financial relief” from escalating medical bills. And, make no mistake about it, these bill are astronomical. But its workers who are taking it in the chin.

For example, Milt Freudenheim, writing in the Oct. 22 issue of The New York Times, quotes the Hewitt consulting company that out-of-pocket costs to employees have doubled since 1998. This total is now over $2,126 a year. And, if that is not bad enough, the expectation is that this figure will top $2,600 by next year.

Even when there is a good negotiated labor contract for health benefits, workers have to fork out hundreds of dollars when they seek treatment. Still worse, as we’ve previously reported, the Commonwealth Fund reports that 9.6 million workers and their families at companies with more than 500 employees have no employer-provided health insurance at all.

A very dangerous new trend among employers is to keep the premiums and basic costs to employees steady, but then increase the out-of-pocket costs for people who actually use hospitals and physician services. This is old method of dividing the workers so as to better control them. It’s also a good illustration of blaming the victim.

Bosses point to sick workers as the cause of crisis. Stories circulate that “a few patients” are costing employers hundreds of thousands of dollars. “We need to control these excessive costs,” say whining employers, suggesting that patient behavior is the problem. Under this scenario, the for-profit health care companies are completely left off the hook.

In the early 1970s, the cost of health services was going through the roof. Hospital services were skyrocketing in terms of costs. The Republican administration of Nixon imposed price controls. These had the effect of slowing the increases and also put the pressure on Congress to take action, as in the proposed enactment of the Kennedy-Corman bill.

Economists cry bloody murder at the mention of price controls, but something must be done, and done soon.

Politicians running for office in 2004 must be forced to address not just the costs of health care, but also the profits that these costs are generating. When visiting all those running for office, make sure that they don’t get off just wringing their hands, shaking their heads and feeling sorry for the patients. Too many of them accept money from drug, health insurance and supply companies. Insist that they put human needs first. Insist that they address the wanton profiteering of the medical-industrial complex. And hold their feet to the fire for a truly universal plan of national health care.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org