Friday, October 26, 2018

Book Review: 'An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back' by Elisabeth Rosenthal

An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back
By Elisabeth Rosenthal

Review by David Wineberg

An American Sickness is a gripping, fast paced and revolting dive from 50,000 feet above into the morass of what passes for healthcare in the USA. Patients are barely tolerated in a system optimized to pass money from bank accounts to providers. The industry is mean, nasty and greedy, with worse results than comparable nations - for far more cost. Everything you feared is true, and there is much more in these 400 pages.

Because Rosenthal (an MD herself) was a columnist for the New York Times, she received thousands of contacts over the years. She researched them and they provide the vivid and shameful examples of financial abuse in the industry (with real names). She has distilled them into a perverse list of principles of US healthcare that explains everything and forms the backbone of the book:

1. More treatment is always better. Default to the most expensive treatment.
2. A lifetime of treatment is preferable to a cure.
3. Amenities and marketing matter more than good care.
4. As technologies age, prices go up rather than fall.
5. There is no free choice. Patients are stuck. And they’re stuck buying American.
6. More competition vying for business doesn’t mean better prices. It can drive prices up, not down.
7. Economies of scale don’t translate to lower prices. With their market power, big providers can simply demand more.
8. There is no such thing as a fixed price for a procedure or test. And the uninsured pay the highest prices of all.
9. There are no standards for billing. There’s money to be made in billing for anything and everything.
10. Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.

As the American economy freefalls into dysfunction, doctors and nurses have become “independent contractors”, just like everyone else. They must look out for themselves first. Administrators are no longer senior caregivers but numbers people who must limit the poorly insured and maximize the profit on every square foot.

What becomes obvious is that the “market” system has failed utterly and completely. Health cannot be left to capitalists, be they doctors, hospitals or manufacturers. The rest of the western world and history are the proof: “If the March of Dimes was operating according to today’s foundation models, we’d have iron lungs in five different colors controlled by iPhone apps – but we wouldn’t have a cheap polio vaccine,” Rosenthal quotes Dr. Michael Brownlee. The incentives are all wrong.

An American Sickness is a public service. It gathers, for the first time I know of, the various scams used by the professions to jack up bills. It explains the why and the how of all those bills being so high. It is well organized, clear and it puts everything into perspective as part of a greater scheme. It identifies what to look out for, what to ask, and how to skirt the event horizon. Rosenthal provides really useful links and sample letters, because customers are all in this same situation – ignorant and powerless. I particularly like her examination of prices for the same procedures around the world. You can afford to have treatments elsewhere, because the costs are so much less, that you can throw in the travel – for two – and still come out well ahead. This book is worth far more than a month’s health insurance; it can save you a fortune, and give you back your life.

Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.