How Healthcare Became Big Business

The American health care system is a $3 trillion mess. Although it has significant technological sophistication, this big business doesn’t seem consistently able to get appropriate treatments to the patients who need them. Millions of people have no insurance, or the insurance they have doesn’t cover the care they need. Increasing premiums and unexpected bills can put families under great economic pressure.

Medicine as Big Business:

We look at the business of medicine and how it evolved. Health care was once considered a nonprofit industry. How did profit come to dominate it so thoroughly? Now, some cancer centers may charge nearly half a million dollars for a new treatment. Few individuals can afford that, and eventually insurance companies will find it challenging to pay. Is there anything that can be done to change this situation?

An American Sickness:

Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal has examined the conditions that culminated in our current health care system. She has also looked at the consequences for American health. You’ll definitely want to hear about the rules that the dysfunctional economic system of health care uses.

In addition to analysis, she offers suggestions for both individual and collective action to turn health care around. How can you make sense of your hospital bills? What can you do to reduce the chance of an unexpected out-of-network charge? Learn what political action could take health care back from big business.

This Week’s Guest:

Elisabeth Rosenthal, MD, is editor in chief of Kaiser Health News, an independent newsroom focusing on health and health policy journalism. Before that, Dr. Rosenthal earned her medical degree from Harvard Medical School and practiced as an emergency physician. She spent twenty-two years as a reporter, correspondent and senior writer at The New York Times.

Her book, just out in paperback, is An American Sickness: How Health Care Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back.

The photo of Dr. Rosenthal is by Nina Subin.

Listen to the Podcast:

The podcast of this program will be available the Monday after the broadcast date. The show can be streamed online from this site and podcasts can be downloaded for free. CDs may be purchased at any time after broadcast for $9.99.

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  1. Susaj W

    I have been in health care at a large medical center for 40 years. I am appalled at what I see going on. Corruption is rampant and it is obvious to the older employees. Hospitals have so much money they don’t know what to do with it. I just want out.

    Single-payer is the only way out of this mess but I don’t think it will happen.

  2. Pancakes
    Durham ,NC

    I am a 77years young Afro American that went to Wake Med emergency room with a laceration. I received a cat scan, some antiseptic and a large bandaid. Two days later I was back at the emergency room because my laceration hadn’t stopped bleeding. I informed the doctor that I was on one aspirin a day and that may have something to do with the bleeding. They gave me another bandage and said keep it on for three days. The bill was $6000 plus for the first visit and $700 plus for the second.

  3. cate

    One small observation on the topic, re “how the heck do you read the hospital bill?” For decades, the insurance company’s EOB (explanation of benefits) was a readable, compact, indispensable tool for figuring out medical bills. Suddenly, it went away, at least, my insurer, Geisinger , replaced it with an utterly stupid, useless four or five page unreadable mess, that leaves off the date of the document itself, and refuses to show you account numbers for the bills from doctors and hospitals, so that it is almost impossible to figure out which are legitimate bills. There was a time when even that was not a big problem, but then a local mega-corporation hospital outfit that has bought up every physician practice in its sight, started billing us for things that it had no right to bill us for under the insurance contract we had. Illegal, you suspect? NO. The feds have allowed as to how it is perfectly legal to do that. According to Geisinger, it is also the feds who wanted them to change their functional two page EOBs into useless five page piles of dreck that have no earthly use. We dropped all the doctors who were owned by LVH and went over to another hospital, St. Luke’s, that at least bills honestly, even tho it is also building a far-flung empire of hospitals and practices.

  4. Bill

    After what I just read, it is so sad for patients to have to go through this. I am 75 years old and, by God’s grace, I don’t have to go through all this. A long time ago, I was informed by a “health-nut” that “Death Begins in the Colon”. I firmly believe that “health-nut” was right. That is why I use my “Fountain (Syringe) of Youth” daily to keep my colon clean. I do not “poison” my body with a multitude of pills and then have to worry about their side-effects, which could possibly lead to death. Instead I use 2 quarts of warm water in a fountain syringe in order for me to stay as young and healthy as I can be. A healthy and cleaned-out body has so many benefits as one can imagine. The “Fountain (Syringe) of Youth” definitely works for me and it may just work for you.

    • Mirka

      Why it’s even tlerated here to publish snake oil products ???

  5. Conrad
    Buffalo, NY

    We need a class action suit to be brought against pharmaceuticals, private health insurance and all those in the medical industry that aid and abet the outrageous profiteering that takes place on a daily basis in the USA. Health insurance and the cost of drugs have been on the rise for decades and our Congress is incapable of fixing it.

  6. Retired RN

    The healthcare industry is bloated with people who do not actually provide care or have patient contact. To get costs down, we have to consider the entire spectrum from development & manufacture to the delivery of the care. Right now, to save costs, patients are asked to do with less and direct care providers are asked to do more in the same amount of time. Meanwhile executives get bonuses on the pain and suffering of the consumers. Thank you capitalism.

  7. SD

    Wow, wish I had heard this before my surgery. Very informative

  8. karen

    Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal shared that there was a generic drug being tested to benefit diabetes. Please tell me the name of the drug.

    • Terry Graedon

      We don’t know for sure. It may be salsalate.

  9. Allie
    Minocqua, WI

    I am glad I caught the show today, as I have been trying to find a way to dispute charges from my local health care clinic. I get a yearly STD test at Planned Parenthood, where the costs are covered, but this year I moved and asked my physician at the local clinic. When I went to schedule my tests, I asked if there was any way to find out if my insurance was going to cover the costs, and all they said was that they take most insurances, and since I had Blue Cross Blue Shield it should be covered. I later received a bill of $1,181 for the office visit and the various tests. I was never advised of this additional cost, and had I known, I would have opted against the test. This amount is a significant percentage of my income for an elective medical procedure that I would have opted out of had I known the extreme cost. I will be renting Ms. Rosenthal’s book, but any advice would be much appreciated. Thanks for shining light on the topic and for all of your insightful conversations. I appreciate the show and enjoy learning from you.



  10. Berryman

    I believe we should have a two-tier medical care system, free to every citizen of this country.

    The first tier would be the existing system with insurance and independent medical providers.

    The second tier would be free to all citizens, staffed by the same method as the old draft and volunteer system. The government would draft and train for all positions required, through doctors, being supplemented by volunteers of all positions. Wages for all would be commensurate with their duties, however no goldbricking, only pay for performance, with minimal wage difference from top to bottom. Just as in the armed service, all positions would start at the bottom with minimal wage, third shift, no exceptions. In this system, you may work your way from entry to the top physician with the government supplying your education as qualified, as desired, as required. Each entry into a new level of service would put the individual at any slot required by the system, probably at a third-shift position. I believe this would build camaraderie among all our citizens and eventually supplant the tired old system owned by the millionaires and for the millionaires.

  11. Mary
    Hilton Head, SC

    Fabulous speaker and probably the most informative and riveting guest and subject I have heard on the People’s Pharmacy – and I am a devoted listener. WOW! Please…more.

  12. Julie
    Front Royal, Virginia

    Terry and Joe, this was one of your best shows EVER. I would like to put a stellar review of it on iTunes, but I don’t know how to navigate iTunes. When I go to it, I am overwhelmed by loud pictures of Hip-Hop artists. Are you able to put a link on your site that takes us directly to the part of iTunes where we can review your show? I was particularly struck by Dr. Rosenthal’s discussion of how, if the current medical model were in place 50 years ago, we would not currently have had an inexpensive polio vaccine: instead we would have iron lungs in 6 colors with iPhone plug-ins! And the fact that Pharma has surpassed Defense as the strongest lobbying presence in Washington is sobering. I plan to buy multiple copies of the CD of this show and give it to everyone I know with a family member in the hospital. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Warm regards from Virginia.

  13. Leo E.

    After moving from the UK to the USA, it’s depressing to see how out of control the healthcare costs are over here, not to mention how we’ve allowed companies to pay off the politicans to push their industry into one big monopoly. The products of someone’s labor may not be a guaranteed right, but the free market is, which includes buying across state borders.

  14. Neville
    United Kingdom

    I have to consider myself very fortunate to reside in the United Kingdom where we have the NHS. The National Health Service is excellent despite the strain it is undergoing. No fear to have to call 111 for advice or 999 for emergency doctor or ambulance and at no charge. At some point, increased taxation may be necessary, but this institution is to be cherished. We have free doctor consultations and prescriptions for the young and retired and for some other catagories. Otherwise, there is a charge for prescriptions.

    There is the optional private insurance sector if the NHS waiting list for hospital treatment is considered to be too long, and one is in discomfort. I find that primary health care is covered fairly quickly, approximately two weeks under the NHS. The option for private care can follow if desired.

  15. Thomas

    As a retired physician, Ex-RWJF fellow, student of our healthcare system compared to what I learned about English healthcare during 4 years living in Cambridge, England while being a Pediatrician in the USAF, and traveling to other EU countries and Russia, I am pleased to see Dr. Rosenthal and others writing about our expensive and struggling healthcare system. We DO NEED many positive changes.

  16. Paul Riley

    I work as a biomedical equipment technician and wonder which efforts contributed more to the medical industrial complex; the the Ralph Nader related efforts or the fact that the military has a biomed program or that there are healthcare aspects to the military Nuclear efforts. Curiously the VA hospital system does not seem to play a big role in this development.

  17. Nan

    I have said for years it is just a money making business. I have diabetis 2 , and I have to go to dr every 6 months or I don,t get my medicine. Now this is hurtful for seniors on s. security . Having to drive in there and then set for hours if terrible. Wish there was something I could do.

  18. Gerry
    Inverness Citrus Co. Fl

    Yes my premium for HEALTH OPTIONS supplemental ins. from AARP keeps going up, first 200 isn’t covered, most docs here don’t take insurance. What’s wrong with this picture? we pay health insurance, medicare, etc. and still have to pay out of pocket for dental work as we age which is super expensive. Crazy. This country needs an attitude adjustment!! Why pay for insurance when all the doctors want is cash?

  19. Tom M

    We have about 5-6% of the world’s population and about 50% of world wide medical costs. The system is totally rigged in favor of Big Pharma, hospitals and doctors and insurance companies. As consumers, we are paying for CEO multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses…and all this to be part of a broken system that in the majority of cases can’t even fix your disease or affliction.

  20. Lisa

    The cost of my health insurance that I pay out of pocket is putting my financial future at risk. I pay $887. per month for health insurance for my daughter and myself (up from $660 per month in 2017). Unfortunately, the coverage is minimal with a high deductible. I am diverting $$ I was putting toward my retirement now to pay for monthly health insurance coverage. Plus, I need to have some extensive dental work done to my teeth. I can’t afford it. I have to choose between repairing my teeth and keeping my health insurance. Being 50 years old I am worried about not fixing my teeth but also forgoing health insurance to pay for it.

    I feel I do not have any options. When I figure out how much I pay in taxes and add in the amount I pay out of pocket for health insurance. I pay more than 42%. Single payer insurance that covers everyone sounds like a good idea to me. At least it might cover a procedure that I have done. I had a minor surgical procedure a few years ago that was ordered by a doctor. My insurance covered $0.00 because I hadn’t met my deductible. I had to pay $3500 additional to cover the surgical center and doctors.

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