Twenty years ago I had my first knee surgery, after tearing some cartilage while skying for a thunderous dunk on the basketball court (or it might have been just falling backward while getting faked out on defense—who remembers the details?). Although I had insurance, I was responsible for a substantial copay, and I vividly recall the one item that stood out among the dozens on the bill. For the two steri-strips that covered an incision—tiny pieces of tape that even today cost about 20 cents retail, and which hospitals buy in bulk so surely cost them just a couple of pennies—I and my insurance company were charged $11, or $5.50 per strip. A miniscule amount in a five-figure bill, but it struck me as the most absurd, since it represented a markup of approximately 10,000 percent, if not more. More recently, I was getting some physical therapy for the same knee, and in what turned out to be a session that wasn't covered by my insurance, a therapist put a piece of kinesio tape around my kneecap. The retail price for that length of tape is around 40 cents (though again, they buy it in bulk so it's probably a quarter of that); and there was the therapist's time to retrieve, cut, and apply the tape, which took about 60 seconds all told. Total tape charge: $75.
My experience is not at all uncommon, as an excellent piece in today's New York Times explains. The article discusses things like people getting charged thousands of dollars to have a couple of stitches put on a finger, or my personal favorite, the $137 charge for an IV bag that costs the hospital one dollar. There are a number of reasons why they can get away with this, including the fact that nobody tells you what the charges are going to be before you're treated, and the fact that information is diluted through the insurance system.
But since we're now talking about what government is and isn't capable of handling when it comes to health care, allow me to repeat something I've argued elsewhere: The government didn't give us this kind of price-gouging, just like the government didn't give us 50 million uninsured Americans. Nor did the government give us lifetime and yearly caps on coverage. Nor did the government give us now-outlawed "rescission," in which your insurer cancels your coverage because you got sick. Nor did the government gave us denials for pre-existing conditions. You know what gave us all that? The free market. Government can certainly cause problems, but just about all the major reasons our health-care system is so expensive and serves so many people so poorly (or not at all) are the result of the free market.
Or more specifically, the health-care market, which is so different from other kinds of markets. The unique features of health care are what makes a far higher level of government involvement than exists in the markets for wristwatches or shoes necessary. If we don't want to have a system that costs so much more than every other one in the world while giving us crappy results, then we're just going to have to accept that. In other industrialized countries, the government says, "We can't sustain a system in which an MRI costs $1,200. So an MRI is going to cost $300." And guess what? The MRI manufacturers and the hospitals accommodate themselves to that reality, and not only do they manage to survive, but people still get MRIs when they need them.
If maintaining the ability of certain people to suck as much profits from the health-care system as possible is your highest value, you find that unacceptable. But if having a system that serves everyone, maximizes health, and is affordable rank higher for you than making sure there are hospital systems with 28 different executives pulling down salaries of over $1 million a year, you have to make a different choice.
And let's be clear about this: what conservatives are arguing for is the maintenance of the status quo that gives us the $2,229.11 hospital charge for putting in three stitches. It was their devotion to the primacy of market freedom in health care that put us where we are now. When the government doesn't work properly, by, say, making a terrible website that took months to fix, the answer is to make it work better. Because we don't have to wonder whether the alternative is worse. We've been living it.