A recent note from a friend of a friend:
‘Here we are in the Pyrenees foothills outside Perpignan [France]. An hour away from the closest ER. X was in the hospital with afib [atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disturbance] before we left for France in July and I’m worried about being so isolated. So in Sept he seemed disoriented for a few moments and I was worried so called the French version of 911. I just told them what was going on and they connected me directly with a doctor. They sent an ambulance. The EMTs thought he was OK after checking. But just in case, they SENT A HELICOPTER WITH A DOCTOR from Perpignan. Who also thought he was probably OK. But to be safe they took him by helicopter to Perpignan, arriving in nine minutes. They kept him overnight and let him go the next morning. He’s fine. I had to call them three weeks later to ask for a bill. They emailed it to me. It was itemized: ER, helicopter, two cardiologists, several imaging tests, overnight stay. Total price (for the uninsured): 249 euros.’
Wow! How much is a Euro? Must be like 10, or 100, times as much as a dollar, right? Um, no. Actually, with its recent fall the Euro is just about exactly $1. So $250 for all that? Unbelievable! In fact, if the Euro was worth $100, it would be $25,000, which would still be a lot less than the cost would have been in the US. If you could get that kind of care!
Indeed, that was the situation for this same family earlier…
‘Five years ago X had another chronic problem which has mercifully since been totally fixed. We came here, it started up, and we ended up with five ER admissions, six weeks in private rooms, 3 specialists, transfusions, intensive care, many tests, IV antibiotics etc etc etc. Total bill: about 20,000 euros over 6 weeks. Then back to [hometown in US], one night at [university hospital]: same price.’
What is going on here? It really is unbelievable! Except what is unbelievable, to people in France, or most of Europe, or most countries in the wealthier part of the world, is that we would find their out-of-pocket cost of care surprising. Everyone thinks, to some degree, that what they know, what their world consists of, is pretty much normative, that it is the same for kind of the same people everywhere. In fact, even when they intellectually know that it is not true, it is still one’s instinctive reaction, to think that what is normal for you is normal. Luckily for the French, what is normal for us in the US, in regard to the cost of healthcare, is not normal for them. And, of course, unluckily for us. And this is not a recent change. It wasn’t even new back on January 21, 2012, almost 11 years ago, when I wrote ‘One thing to NOT worry about: paying for health care -- in France. Or for decades before that. In that piece, I wrote about going to see the film Le Havre and noted that in it a really poor person spends weeks in the hospital and the one thing no one is worried about is the cost. This could never be true in the US.
Doesn’t this upset you? Don’t you think something is wrong here? What is going on????
Sorry. Of course it does. But, you know, it must be costing someone a lot of money, even in France, or wherever. All that health care, all those hospitalizations, all those tests, do not come cheap.
No, they don’t. But they don’t have to be so expensive. There is incredible markup on the bills and amount paid in the US. Not that anyone actually knows what the price is, or that there is any consistency to it. US hospitals do have a Master Price List (like “one gall bladder surgery, $X) but it rarely is what is either billed or paid. These hospitals have deals cut with large insurers on how much they will be charged, and pay, on behalf of their customers. Medicare, the government insurance system for the aged and disabled, sets its own rates as to what it will pay (and the private insurance rates are usually expressed in “multiples of Medicare”). Really the only people who might be charged the “list price” are those who are uninsured and poor, those least likely to be able to pay it – although very few of us could pay those amounts! The couple who wrote about their experience in France is obviously well enough off to have spent that time in France, and to have paid their bill, but just being reasonably well off is far from sufficient to be able to pay hospital bills out of pocket.
Let us be entirely clear and simple: The reason US health care costs so much is profit. It is that everyone, everywhere along the line, is taking a cut. The insurance companies, right from the start, huge profits (and salaries to their executives). Hospital systems, huge markups (and salaries to their executives). Pharmaceutical companies, huge markups (and salaries to their executives). Doctors also, especially in some specialties. I could give lots of examples of those specialties with the highest income/work ratios. It is not because we use “too much health care” – indeed, it is really unlikely that any of us (unless a billionaire or a head of state) could have gotten the care that X did in France, and they did that just “routinely”, because it was what they thought was medically the right thing to do.
That, of course, is the other part of this story. It is not just that the charges and costs to the individual were so much less than what they would have been in the US. As a physician friend pointed out “The dollars and cents issue is important. But freeing the medical community to just do the right thing is immeasurable.” Think about that. At each stage, from the person’s wife calling French 911, to the EMTs who came, to the doctors who decided to airlift him to the city, to those who cared for him in the hospital, the decisions that they made were medical, what, in their judgement, was the best for the health of the person/patient. At no point did the cost of the care enter into their decision. Well, I take that back. It may have. But what did not enter the decision was “what kind of coverage does this particular person have? Does it pay enough? Does it cover what we want to do? Have they met their deductible? Can they afford the copay?” This is what you would want for your own health care, and it is absolutely what doctors and other health professionals want to be able to do. Once there was a joke (what today would be a meme) that before doing a procedure the doctor would do a “wallet biopsy”. Today, it is more often the hospital, and it is more likely an “insurance biopsy”. This is crazy. It is crazy. It is unacceptable. And more important, it is unnecessary.
And the cost of health care per capita is much LESS in France, just as the quality of care is higher (as I cited from the Commonwealth Foundation in my last blog post, Premiums are up, people are dying and insurance companies are making out like the bandits they are, October 25, 2022). Indeed, it is less than half the per capita cost in the US. And in France, that includes everyone; no one is without coverage.
Of course, not foreigners, like those visitors from the US, who had to pay their whole bill themselves with no insurance. All $250 of it.