A single stitch? $500 please

Hospital costs soar in the US, showing the failings of the marketised system just as England races towards it.

caroline m.jpg
Caroline Molloy
3 December 2013

American hospital costs charged to patients have soared to the point where a single stitch costs $500.

Today’s New York Times describes the experience of patients like Deepika Singh - charged $2,229 for 3 stitches after she gashed her knee at a barbeque, and toddler Orla Duffy, whose parents were handed a bill for $1,696 for a dab of skin glue after she cut her head tumbling off the sofa.

These - some of the oldest and simplest surgical procedures - are often in the hands of profit making companies, the paper reports.

A 50 cent painkilling pill is charged to patients at a rate of $36.78 by one of the big hospital companies, California Pacific. A heart x-ray is charged at $32,901. An inpatient stay costs over $4000 a day, 5 times the rate in many developed countries.

Hospital costs are driven further upwards by middlemen and by the fact that many hospitals are now run by the same few chains, giving them huge market power. Including chains like United Health, former employer of incoming NHS chief, Simon Stevens. United Health is currently renewing its pursuit of the UK healthcare market, including a near one billion pound NHS contract in Peterborough, after some earlier disastrous forays.

Even non-profit hospitals are playing this game in the US’s marketised system, the New York Times reports. The hospital groups exploit the fact that few patients are likely to want to ‘shop around’ when they need urgent treatment, and that the healthcare market is extremely under-regulated in the US.

Crossbench peer and former Health Secretary Lord Owen, who has prepared a draft ‘NHS Reinstatement bill’ as the first step towards undoing the most damaging market 'reforms' and restoring a comprehensive health service to England, commented

"I was shocked in 1973 when I had a bill for $30 for six stitches on my son. Be warned - those who bring marketisation of the English NHS are responsible for the greatest social policy mistake for a century or more. It must be stopped in its tracks at the next election in 2015.”

Owen and others are also worried that the EU/US Trade Agreement, currently being secretively negotiated, so far contains no exclusion for health services and so could level down our regulations and public protections to the US level, making it far harder to unpick and prevent damaging commercialisation of healthcare.

Lord Owen added, “Signing an EU/US Trade agreement without NHS safeguards must be stopped at the European Elections next year."

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