Rising health care costs have hidden tolls

Southeastern Wisconsin businesses have been hollering loud and hard about employee health care costs for years now. Understandably so, since this region’s health care costs are among the highest in the nation.
However, those costs to businesses only begin to tell the story of the impact of skyrocketing health care costs. The total impact is even worse.
Allow me to tell you a true story, recounted as best I can, of a recent real adventure into southeastern Wisconsin’s health care world.
My 11-year-old son is, as the saying goes, all boy. While eluding a classmate in an innocent game of tag on the playground at his school, my son decided to take a short cut between the chains on one of those suspended wooden playground bridges. My boy jumped off between the chains. His left arm stayed behind.
A short time later, I received a call on my cell phone as I went to lunch.
School secretary: "Mr. Jagler?"
Me: "Yes."
School secretary: "This is Mrs. So-and-So at Such-and-Such School. Your son had an accident on the playground. He’s got a scrape on his arm, and I’ve cleaned it and put a bandage on it."
Me: "Thank you. So, he’s OK?"
School secretary: "Well, his arm has a bend in it."
Me: "A bend? What do you mean, his arm has a bend in it? Is it broken?"
School secretary: "I’m not a physician."
Me: "Well, did the school nurse look at it?"
School secretary: "Well, our schools have had budget cuts, and we don’t have nurses in the individual buildings anymore."
Me: "Well, where is he?
School secretary: "He’s in the office here. But it’s your call as to whether you want to take him to get an X-ray."
Me: "So, you’re telling me that my son is sitting there with a broken arm, and there’s no medical attention being given to him?"
School secretary: "I’m not a physician. That’s a decision you’re going to have make."
Me: "Is he crying?"
School secretary: "He is, but he’s being very brave."
Me: "Well, can’t someone help him until I can get there? I work downtown, and it’ll be a half hour before I can get there."
School secretary: "I’m not a physician …"
Me: "Forget it. Just tell my son that his daddy loves him and I’m on my way."
A half hour later, I pull up to the school. Two firetrucks and an ambulance are parked out front. My heart beats faster, as I fear the worst. I find my boy in the school office. The principal had intervened and called the local emergency medical service personnel. They are tending to my boy.
I take him to the nearest hospital. Over the course of the next few hours, my son is repeatedly asked how old he is and asked how he hurt his arm. Oh, and he’s asked if it hurts. The same questions come from the nun who checked him in and asked for my insurance card, and the nurse’s practitioner, the nurse, the doctor and finally the radiologist. And then the doctor again. We waited for two hours before my son ever received any pain medication, and he only did because I asked. We waited another two hours because the doctor forgot to order the X-rays, and he only did so when the nun (God bless her) came back to check on us and reminded the doctor to get a move on. All told, we were at the hospital for about six hours and received about one hour of actual care.
The terms redundancy and inefficiency come to mind. It wasn’t like the ER was swamped. There were only a handful of patients, and the doctor had plenty of time in between to flirt with the nurses.
My boy’s broken arm eventually was X-rayed and placed in a cast.
And life goes on.
About three weeks later, the bills start arriving in the mail.
The first bill is for the hospital. The total insurance claim is $817. We are billed for the $150 emergency room visit co-pay. OK. We owe another $332 to pay for the physician who happened to be on duty when we brought him in. That means the insurance company is covering less than half the bill. Toss in the costs for X-rays, follow-up doctor visits and prescription drugs, and we owe more than $600 for about three hours of actual medical care.
And that doesn’t count the costs for reading materials and other cerebral distractions to keep an active 11-year-old boy from being so active for eight weeks.
So, the moral here is that those rising health care insurance premiums only tell part of the story. The full story is far bleaker.
Employers effectively are drawing lines in the sand to limit their employee health care insurance costs. As well they should.
As this publication reported recently, employees are being asked to shoulder greater shares of the costs for health care. This trend is supposed to introduce more consumerism into the health care market.
That’s fine. But when Wisconsin consumers tried to get better deals on prescription drugs from Canada, the Bush administration told them that would not be allowed. That’s a curious position indeed for an administration that preaches "free market" principles and says outright that the outsourcing of American jobs is good for this country. Apparently, free markets are good unless they harm the key donors of a political campaign.
On the other side of the aisle come howls for socialized medicine. If we think the health care system is inefficient now, just imagine a system administered by the federal government.
So, businesses and consumers are left to languish in between in a health care system that is capitalistic when it’s politically expedient, and socialistic when it has to be.
To be sure, consumerism has limitations when it comes to health care. If my child has a broken arm, I’m not going to call or drive all over town to find the best deal to soothe his pain. It’s not like shopping for a vacuum cleaner.
As more dollars are taken out of this region’s consumers’ pockets for outrageous health care costs, those consumers have less disposable income. It only stands to reason that if consumers have less disposable income, they will spend less. Take that fact a step further, and it limits the amounts of products and services they will buy from local businesses. And if businesses have less demand for their products and services … Round and round we go. We’re all in this together.
I just hope my boy is going to get used to his new bubble.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of Small Business Times.
August 6, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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