You need heart surgery. You can choose between two competing practices:
One surgeon drives a fancy car and lives in a big house. He took the job
because it pays in the mid six figures, easily beating out hundreds of
other medical students, discovering both the theory and the manual skills
came to him as easily as falling off a log.
Your other option is a government-run hospital where, as a matter of considerable
pride, the doctors refuse to accept pay any higher than the nurses' aides.
The surgeon who will handle your case is an earnest young man who took
post-graduate medical courses at an inexpensive medical college in the
Caribbean after spending the past two years in Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps
program, painting pig sheds in Alabama.
Noble young man with a mission to serve ... or greedy capitalist?
As with any other field of endeavor, the free market with its "focus
on the almighty dollar" has historically done the best job of encouraging
individuals to seek out the employment where their talents are most valued
by their fellow men.
But now, with the well-publicized indictment last month of three managers
of the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, Nashville-based Columbia/HCA
Healthcare Corp., some of Washington's usual suspects are braying that
medical care and profits don't go together.
The profit motive "has no place in the health care system,"
says Rep. Pete Stark, the California collectivist credited with prompting
the probe of Columbia/HCA. For-profit hospitals "will self-destruct
because they'll get too greedy. I think Columbia's getting into that corner
It's significant that most of the problems being faced by America's now-booming
"for-profit" medical segment seem to result when this different
paradigm interfaces with government bureaucrats inherently suspicious
of "greedy capitalists," and thus far more likely to cry "fraud"
than they are to blow the whistle on any amount of incompetence or misallocation
in a wholly government-run system, like, say ... the Veterans Administration
Hospitals have no realistic choice but to accept Medicare patients, and
it's no secret Washington's main initiative in containing runaway Medicare
costs has been to pro rate payment of billings for such care, down to
an official rate of 89 cents on the dollar (it's often lower) -- even
before the current "budget-balancing deal" on Capitol Hill,
where most of the Medicare savings come in the form of "lower reimbursements."
The government has engaged in this "ratcheting down (of) the reimbursements,"
Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. writes in the August 5 Wall Street Journal,
"in the full and complete knowledge that its payments don't cover
the cost of the services provided, and that hospitals make up the difference
by 'cost shifting' to other patients whose bills are paid by private insurers.
If anybody has been gaming the system, it's the fine people of the Health
Care Financing Administration, the federal body that runs Medicare. And
their unindicted co-conspirators are a flimflam outfit known as the U.S.
Frightened by federal forms that promise "imprisonment, fine or civil
penalty" for seeking too much reimbursement, doctors actually tend
to "downcode" their bills, creating further shortfalls in hospital
reimbursements, Jenkins explains. Yet when hospital administrators revise
the billings to more accurately reflect the real services provided, they
risk of being accused of "fraud."
Does this mean no one at Columbia/HCA did anything wrong? It's too soon
to know. Certainly, investors who pressure managers to keep repeating
the kind of 15 percent annual earnings growth Columbia/HCA has been showing,
may invite trouble.
But the problem here is not the tentative resurgence of the profit motive,
but rather the government net in which these businesses still find themselves
"Depending on sunspots or the mood of the auditor, some charges are
permissible on Thursday, a felony on Friday, and OK again on Monday,"
Jenkins reports, under Medicare regulations which "run to 45,000
How many profitable auto manufacturers do we imagine would be left in
this country -- what kind of innovation would we find in auto design,
and how long would waiting lists be -- if each auto buyer paid only $1,200
for her vehicle, and the dealer then had to wade through 45,000 pages
of regulations in order to send in a "claim form" to Washington
for his remaining $22,800, knowing he might get as little as 60 cents
on the dollar, months down the road, and in the meantime could be indicted
for fraud for "overcharging the government" by as little as
Did I mention the amount of "excess" capital overhead for which
Columbia/HCA is alleged to have "overbilled" Medicare in these
$1.7 million over 10 years.
Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las
Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.
The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/.