Three years ago, Dr. Keith Smith, co-founder and managing partner of the Surgery Center of Oklahoma, took an initiative that would only be considered radical in the health care industry: He posted online a list of prices for 112 common surgical procedures. The 51-year-old Smith, a self-described libertarian, and his business partner, Dr. Steve Lantier, founded the Surgery Center 15 years ago, after they became disillusioned with the way patients were treated at St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City, where the two men worked as anesthesiologists. In 1997, Smith and Lantier bought the shell of a former surgical center with the aim of creating a for-profit facility that could deliver first-rate care at a fraction of what traditional hospitals charge.
The major cause of exploding U.S. heath care costs is the third-party payer system, a text-book concept in which A buys goods or services from B that are paid for by C. Because private insurance companies or the government generally pick up most of the tab for medical services, patients don’t have the normal incentive to seek out value.
The Surgery Center’s consumer-driven model could become increasingly common as Americans look for alternatives to the traditional health care market—an unintended consequence of Obamacare. Patients may have no choice but to look outside the traditional health care industry in the face of higher costs and reduced access to doctors and hospitals.
The Surgery Center demonstrates that it’s possible to offer high quality care at low prices. "It's always been interesting to me,” says Dr. Jason Sigmon, “that in any other industry, tons of attention is devoted to making systems more efficient, but in health care that's just completely lost." Sigmon, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon, regularly performs procedures at both the Surgery Center and at Oklahoma City's Integris Baptist Medical Center, which is the epitome of a traditional hospital. It's run by a not-for-profit called Integris Health, which is the largest health care provider in Oklahoma serving over 700,000 patients a year.
Sigmon says he can perform twice as many surgeries in a single day at the Surgery Center than at Integris. At the latter institution, he spends half his time waiting around while the staff struggles with the basic logistics of moving patients from preoperative care into the operating room. When the patient arrives, Sigmon will sometimes wait even longer for the equipment he needs.
Except for the clerical staff, every employee at the Surgery Center is directly involved in patient care. For example, both human resources and building maintenance are the responsibility of the head nurse. "One reason our prices are so low," says Smith, "is that we don't have administrators running around in their four or five thousand dollar suits."
Because bills charged by Integris are paid primarily by insurance companies or the government, the hospital gets away with gouging for its services. Reason obtained a bill for a procedure that Dr. Sigmon performed at Integris in October 2010 called a “complex bilateral sinus procedure,” which helps patients with chronic nasal infections. The bill, which is strictly for the hospital itself and doesn't include Sigmon's or the anesthesiologist's fees, totaled $33,505. When Sigmon performs the same procedure at the Surgery Center, the all-inclusive price is $5,885.
The Integris bill for the same nasal procedure went to Blue Cross of Oklahoma, so the patient had no compelling reason to question its outrageous markups. They included a $360 charge for a steroid called dexamethasone, which can be purchased wholesale for just 75 cents. Or the three charges totaling $630 for a painkiller called fentanyl citrate, which all together cost the hospital about $1.50. ...The only reason we don't move all healthcare towards this successful example is an irrational fear of free markets.
Perhaps it is not irrational. If you pay attention to democrats, the media, or the uninformed you too will probably begin to fear the market.
Update: Monopolies only exist as the government or with the help of the government.