A Sacramento sickness

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.

As I was reading Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal’s book, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back, I thought about my dad, who was a family doctor in a little town in Northern Ohio until he sold his practice and moved to California in 1964.

Shortly after we moved, I was riding in the car, alone with my dad. This was a somewhat unique experience, as there were six kids in our family. Dad told me that the doctor who bought his Ohio practice had doubled his income. This sounded like a good thing. But I saw my father’s sad face. So I asked, “How did he double the income?”

Just then, we pulled into a parking space. My dad looked at me with a very sincere expression, put his hand on my knee and said, “I think you have the flu, but I just want to run some tests to make sure.”

Having resisted family pressure, I am not a doctor. But even I know that if the flu is going around, most people do not need expensive tests. I also know that, if the doctor suggested these tests, the working-class parents of my classmates in Ohio would have acquiesced. My dad was ashamed that he had sold his practice to someone who would take advantage of their patients just to make more money.

According to Dr. Rosenthal, a longtime New York Times senior writer, America has a $3 trillion health care system made up of doctors, hospitals, insurance and pharmaceutical companies, all using their white coats, campaign donations, market concentration and lobbyists to run the health care system in such a way as to maximize profit.

Since hospital costs represent 40 to 50 percent of our country’s health care bill, much of Rosenthal’s book focused on hospitals. Hospitals can use various methods such as billing practices, buying out competitors and using nonprofit tax advantages to maximize their income. According to Rosenthal, the “grand master” of a hospital system that has increased rates by consolidating different hospitals is Sacramento’s own Sutter Health.

“The existence of one dominant healthcare system in a region can result in price increases as high as 40 to 50 percent,” Rosenthal writes. In 2013, California’s Valued Trust, a public employees benefits provider, found that Sutter hospitals “represented seven of the ten most expensive hospitals in California.” According to a June 2017 article in the Sacramento Bee, “The highest-paid nonprofit CEO in the region in 2015 was Sutter Health’s Patrick Fry, who earned about $7.5 million in pay and benefits.”

One does not need to be a brain surgeon to know that America’s health care system is screwed up, costing more than other countries for worse coverage. So, what should we do? Rosenthal has some suggestions for what people can do to protect themselves from an out-of-control health care system. The first step is to have more transparency. Let people know what things cost. Let market forces do their job.

Patients, taxpayers and employers in the Sacramento region pay approximately 20 billion dollars for health care. Rosenthal believes, and I agree, that with better information on prices and quality, we would all make better choices.

If your business or organization would like to utilize N&R Publications to educate Sacramento health care consumers, please get in touch. I would like to make my dad proud.