The coronavirus crisis has exposed the ways in which big investors of hospitals are squeezing the sick and injured for as much money as possible after they leave the hospital.
The New Yorker reported Thursday about the way private equity firms have been throwing "surprise medical billing" on patients that accepted their health insurance. In some cases the hospital may be in-network for a patient, but the emergency surgeon isn't or the radiologist, or anesthesiologist isn't in-network.
"A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicated that more than seventy-five percent of the public wanted the government to do something to prevent it. Congress members starting hearing complaints from their constituents," the report cited.
Even President Donald Trump says that he opposes it and wants legislation to fix it.
"Democrats and Republicans in the House Energy and Commerce Committee introduced a bill, called the No Surprises Act, that would require medical providers to give patients twenty-four hours’ notice if they were going to be treated by a medical provider who was outside their insurance network, and would create a benchmark to restrict how far above the median price out-of-network providers could charge," the report continued.
It seemed on track to end, then the lobbyists and corporate profiteers moved in.
"Soon after the Senate version was introduced, a barrage of television ads criticizing the bills appeared across the country," the report revealed. "The ads were slickly produced and ominous-sounding; they described the bills as 'government rate-setting' that was likely to shutter hospitals and endanger lives. In one, a pair of emergency responders rush a bloody sixteen-year-old strapped to a gurney through the doors of a hospital, only to find that it has closed."
The claim was that the insurance companies made the billion-dollar profits while hospitals were closing. Surprise billing was the fault of those companies, not the hospitals, they claimed. The lobbies argued that it's the insurance companies that should be better regulated, not hospitals.
The massive advertising effort was paid for by a group called Doctor Patient Unity, The New Yorker called it a "dark-money group and did not disclose its staff or where it got its money."
Eileen Appelbaum at the Center for Economic and Policy Research has kept a watchful eye on the effort. She discovered that private equity firms "investment funds that purchase companies and try to increase their profitability," are the ones responsible for changing the face of a hospital.
"In many cases, companies were sending work to other countries where labor costs were lower. In others, they were practicing 'domestic outsourcing': subcontracting out parts of their businesses to other U.S.-based companies, to run their accounting departments, corporate cafeterias, or janitorial services, among others, rather than employing those workers directly," the report explained.
“They moved away from the idea of, How do we make our current workforce more productive? to, How do we move workers off our payroll and onto a contract company? And then they can do whatever they want with the workers,” Appelbaum said. “And, if you’re a contract company, how do you get the contract? By being the lowest bidder. You’re at rock bottom, offering just barely enough to attract any workers at all.”
She explained that given the coronavirus, the issue of "surprise billing" is even more important. COVID-19 has a tendency to go from bad to dangerous in some who come down with the virus. That can be the moment that people are forced to go to the hospital or call an ambulance. It's exactly the conditions where surprise billing can surface and bankrupt people, even if they are fully insured.