Implant costs drive medical tourism

Elisabeth Rosenthal / New York Times News Service /

Published Aug 4, 2013 at 05:00AM

WARSAW, Ind. — Michael Shopenn’s artificial hip was made by a company based in this remote town, a global center of joint manufacturing. But he had to fly to Europe to have it installed.

Shopenn, 67, an architectural photographer and avid snowboarder, had been in such pain from arthritis that he could not stand long enough to make coffee, let alone work. He had health insurance, but it would not cover a joint replacement because his degenerative disease was related to an old sports injury, thus considered a pre-existing condition.

Desperate to find an affordable solution, he reached out to a sailing buddy with friends at a medical device manufacturer, which arranged to provide his local hospital with an implant at what was described as the “list price” of $13,000, with no markup. But when the hospital’s finance office estimated that the hospital charges would run another $65,000, not including the surgeon’s fee, he knew he had to think outside the box.

“Very leery” of going to a developing country like India or Thailand, which both draw medical tourists, he chose to have his hip replaced in 2007 at a private hospital outside Brussels for $13,660.

That price included not only a hip joint, made by Warsaw, Ind.-based Zimmer Holdings, but also all doctors’ fees, operating room charges, crutches, medicine, a hospital room for five days, a week in rehab and a round-trip ticket from America.

“We have the most expensive health care in the world, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best,” Shopenn said. “I’m kind of the poster child for that.”

As the United States struggles to rein in its growing $2.7 trillion health care bill, the cost of medical devices like joint implants, pacemakers and artificial urinary valves offers a cautionary tale. Like many medical products or procedures, they cost far more in the United States than in many other developed countries.

Makers of artificial implants — the biggest single cost of most joint replacement surgeries — have proved particularly adept at commanding inflated prices, according to health economists. Multiple intermediaries then mark up the charges. While Shopenn was offered an implant in the United States for $13,000, many privately insured patients are billed two to nearly three times that amount.

An artificial hip, however, costs only about $350 to manufacture in the United States, according to Dr. Blair Rhode, an orthopedist and entrepreneur whose company is developing generic implants. In Asia, it costs about $150, though some quality control issues could arise there, he said.

So why are implant list prices so high, and rising more than 5 percent a year? In the United States, nearly all hip and knee implants — sterilized pieces of tooled metal, plastic or ceramics — are made by five companies, which some economists describe as a cartel. Manufacturers tweak old models and patent the changes as new products, with ever-bigger price tags.

Generic or foreign-made joint implants have been kept out of the United States by trade policy, patents and an expensive Food and Drug Administration approval process that deters startups from entering the market. The “companies defend this turf ferociously,” said Dr. Peter Cram, a physician at the University of Iowa medical school who studies the costs of health care.

Though the five companies make similar models, each cultivates intense brand loyalty through financial ties to surgeons and the use of a different tool kit and operating system for the installation of its products; orthopedists typically stay with the system they learned on. The thousands of hospitals and clinics that purchase implants try to bargain for deep discounts from manufacturers, but they have limited leverage since each buys a relatively small quantity from any one company.

In addition, device makers typically require doctors’ groups and hospitals to sign nondisclosure agreements about prices, which means institutions do not know what their competitors are paying. This secrecy erodes bargaining power and has allowed a small industry of profit-taking middlemen to flourish: joint implant purchasing consultants, implant billing companies, joint brokers. There are as many as 13 layers of vendors between the physician and the patient for a hip replacement, according to Kate Willhite, a former executive director of the Manitowoc Surgery Center in Wisconsin.

Hospitals and orthopedic clinics typically pay $4,500 to $7,500 for an artificial hip, according to MD Buyline and Orthopedic Network News, which track device pricing. But those numbers balloon with the cost of installation equipment and all the intermediaries’ fees, including an often hefty hospital markup.

‘Sticky pricing’

The American health care market is plagued by “sticky pricing,” in which prices of products remain high or even increase over time instead of dropping. The list price of a total hip implant increased nearly 300 percent from 1998 to 2011, according to Orthopedic Network News, a newsletter about the industry. That is a result, economists say, of how American medicine generally sets charges: without government regulation or genuine marketplace competition.

“Manufacturers will tell you it’s & and liability that makes implants so expensive and that they have the only one like it,” said Dr. Rory Wright, an orthopedist at the Orthopedic Hospital of Wisconsin, a top specialty clinic. “They price this way because they can.”

Zimmer Holdings declined to comment on pricing. But Sheryl Conley, a longtime Zimmer manager who is now chief executive of OrthoWorx, a local trade group in Warsaw, said high prices reflected the increasing complexity of the joint implant business, including more advanced materials, new regulatory requirements and the logistics of providing a now huge array of devices. “When I started, there weren’t even left and right knee components,” she said. “It was one size fits all.”

Shopenn’s joint implant and surgery in Belgium were priced according to a different logic. Like many other countries, Belgium oversees major medical purchases, approving dozens of different types of implants from a selection of manufacturers, and determining the allowed wholesale price for each of them, for example. That price, which is published, averages about $3,000, depending on the model, and can be marked up by about $180 per implant. (The Belgian hospital paid about $4,000 for Shopenn’s high-end Zimmer implant at a time when U.S. hospitals were paying an average of more than $8,000 for the same model.)

“The manufacturers do not have the right to sell an implant at a higher rate,” said Philip Boussauw, director of human resources and administration at St. Rembert’s, the hospital where Shopenn had his surgery. Nonetheless, he said, there was “a lot of competition” among U.S. joint manufacturers to work with Belgian hospitals. “I’m sure they are making money,” he added.

No gift shop

There are, of course, a number of factors that explain why Shopenn’s surgery in Belgium would cost many times more in the United States. In America, fees for hospitals, scans, physical therapy and surgeons are generally far higher. And in Belgium, even private hospitals are more spartan.

When Shopenn arrived at the hospital, he was taken aback by the contrast with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where his father had been a patient a year before. The New York facility had “comfortable waiting rooms, an elegant lobby and newsstands,” Shopenn remembered.

But in Belgium, he said, “I was immediately scared because at first I thought, ‘This is really old.’ The chairs in the waiting rooms were metal, the walls were painted a pale green, there was no gift shop. But then I realized everything was new. It was just functional. There wasn’t much of a nod to comfort because they were there to provide health care.”

The pricing system in Belgium does not encourage amenities, though the country has among the lowest surgical infection rates in the world — lower than in the United States — and is known for good doctors. While most Belgian physicians and hospitals are in business for themselves, the government sets pricing and limits profits. Hospitals get a fixed daily rate and surgeons receive a fee for each surgery, which are negotiated each year between national medical groups and the state.

While doctors may charge more than the rate, few do so because most patients would refuse to pay it, said Boussauw, the hospital administrator. Doctors and hospitals must provide estimates. European orthopedists tend to make about half the income of their American counterparts, whose annual income averaged $442,450 in 2011, according to a survey by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that studies health policy.

Belgium pays for health care through a mandatory national insurance plan, which requires contributions from employers and workers and pays for 80 percent of each treatment. Except for the poor, patients are generally responsible for the remaining 20 percent of charges, and many get private insurance to cover that portion.

With baby boomers determined to continue skiing, biking and running into their 60s and beyond, economists predict a surge in joint replacement surgeries, and more procedures for younger patients. The number of hip and knee replacements is expected to roughly double between 2010 and 2020, according to Exponent, a scientific consulting firm, and perhaps quadruple by 2030. If insurers paid $36,000 for each surgery, a fairly typical price in the commercial sector, the total cost would be $144 billion, about a sixth of the nation’s military budget last year.

So far, attempts to bring down the price of medical devices have been undercut by the industry.

When Dr. Daniel Elliott of the Mayo Clinic decided to continue using an older, cheaper valve to cure incontinence because studies showed it was just as good as a newer, more expensive model, the manufacturer raised its price.

“If there was a generic, I’d be there tomorrow,” he said.

With the federal government unwilling to intervene directly, some doctors and insurance plans are themselves trying to reduce the costs by mandating preset prices or forcing more competition and transparency.

The Affordable Care Act tries to recoup some of the medical device manufacturers’ profits by imposing a 2.3 percent tax on their revenues, effective this year. But Brad Bishop, executive director of OrthoWorx and a former Zimmer executive, said the approach would harm an innovative U.S. industry, and that the cost would ultimately be borne by joint replacement patients “whose average age is 67.” He argued that the best way to reduce the cost of joint replacement surgery was to rescind the tax and decrease government interference.

The medical device industry spent nearly $30 million last year on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Senate moved to repeal the tax, and the House is expected to take it up this fall. The bill’s supporters included both senators from Indiana.

comments powered by Disqus