Health-care costs overall have been rising faster than inflation, but not all medical costs are skyrocketing. In a few pockets of medicine, costs are down while quality is up.
Dr. Brian Bonanni has an unusual medical practice. His office is open Saturdays. He e-mails his patients and gives them his cell-phone number.
"I need to be available 24 hours a day," he says. "I want to be there when a patient has questions, and I want to be reachable."
I’ll bet your doctor doesn’t say that. Bonanni knows he has to please his patients, not some insurance company or the government, because he’s paid by his patients. He’s a laser eye surgeon. Insurance rarely covers what he does: reshaping eyes so people can see without glasses.
His patients shop around before coming to him. They ask a question that people relying on insurance don’t ask: "How much will that cost?"
"I can’t get away with not telling the patient how much exactly it’s going to cost," Bonanni says. "No one would put up with it. And the difference of a hundred dollars sometimes makes their decision for them."
He has to compete for his patients’ business. One result of that is lower prices. And while the procedure got cheaper, it also got better. Today’s lasers are faster and more precise.
Prices have fallen and quality has risen in other medical fields where most people pay for care themselves, like cosmetic surgery. Consumer power works — even in medicine.
When government and insurance companies are kept away from the transaction, good new things happen.
A doctor in Tennessee I talked to publishes his low prices, such as $40 for an office visit.
Most doctors would say you can’t make money this way. But Dr. Robert Berry told me you can. "Last year, I made about the average of what a primary-care physician makes in this country," he said.
Berry doesn’t accept insurance. That saves him money because he doesn’t have to hire a staff to process insurance claims, and he never has to fight with companies to get paid.
His mostly uninsured patients save money, too. Unlike doctors trapped in the insurance maze, Berry works with his patients to find ways to save them money.
"It’s coming out of their pockets. And they’re afraid. They don’t know how much it’s going to cost. So I can tell them, ‘OK, you have heartburn. Let’s start out with generic Zantac, which costs around five dollars a month.’" When his patients ask about expensive prescription medicines they see advertised on television, he tells them, "They’re great medicines, but why don’t you try this one first and see if it works?"
Sometimes the $4 pills from Wal-Mart are just as good as the $100 ones.
Speaking of Wal-Mart, medical clinics are popping up in Wal-Mart stores and in other similar markets. The clinics offer people with simple problems like sore throats and ear infections relatively hassle-free care … cheap. Almost everything costs $59 or less. And the clinics are typically open seven days a week.
Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute [http://tinyurl.com/28plct], a health-policy research organization, explains how these clinics thrive: "They’re figuring how to do something faster, better, cheaper! They’re responding to consumer demand because they see that they might make some money on this."
When consumers pay for medicine themselves, saving insurance for the big things, and doctors deal directly with consumers, doctors begin to compete. They start posting prices and work to keep them low.
And consumers gain more control of their health care. Instead of governments and insurance companies deciding for patients, patients decide.
Competition gives consumers more choices. And choice gives them power. Remember that when you hear a politician promise to make health case accessible and affordable through the force of government.