We hear a lot about the pros and cons of cash-pay medicine. I’ve written about it in the past. So far, I haven’t made the leap of faith it would require in my own practice.
But recently I developed a gradually worsening toothache. For a while I ignored it, hoping it would go away. Like most doctors, my first thought was “I don’t have time for this.” But, as it progressed, I knew I didn’t have a choice.
I didn’t have a dentist, either, and have never had dental insurance. Now what?
So I called a family friend who’s a dentist. His actual charge for the visit was around $200, but he kindly charged me only $50. I sent him a $100 gift card to thank him for his help, and I’m well aware most folks don’t have the benefit of knowing a dentist on nonprofessional terms.
Unfortunately, he found he couldn’t help me. I had an upper molar that was busily reabsorbing itself, and needed to come out.
So I went to an oral surgeon. The first visit (“limited exam and counseling”) was $95. Two days later, I went back to get the tooth yanked for good. That was $275. I paid both in full by credit card.
Do I think any of these charges were unreasonable? Absolutely not. The transaction is done; the tooth is out. His office doesn’t have to bill my insurance, hope to collect part of it, and then bill me for the rest. I don’t have to worry about being billed for something my insurance didn’t pay, or spend an hour (or more) on hold to ask questions of an insurance representative as to why my claim was denied. And I get to put the $520 down on my 2015 taxes as a medical deduction.
It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? The guy pulls my tooth, and I pay a fair amount for his service. This is the same business relationship I have with a grocery store, car mechanic, or office landlord.
So why doesn’t this catch on for most of medicine? It would be nice if it were that simple.
I’m fortunate to be able to afford the total of $520 I’ve spent on the tooth. Many people don’t have that luxury, and have to rely on insurance coverage; $520 is also a pittance, compared with what other things may run. Multiple MRIs? An electromyogram/nerve conduction velocity test? Multiple sclerosis drugs? Chemotherapy? Neurosurgery? A hospital stay? In that group, you’re talking about things that can range from $1,000 to $100,000 (or more) – a far cry from what I spent on my tooth, but still medically necessary for many.
Some will argue these medical costs should all be cash pay, too. If patients can’t afford multiple sclerosis drugs out of pocket ($50,000/year and up for some), then the market will force the drug companies to lower their prices to where people will buy them. That may be, but the price an average person can likely afford isn’t going to support what the company spent to bring the drug to market or pay for trials of the next generation of treatments. So in the long run, it hurts people more than it helps.
Now if I apply this to my practice, I’m sure there are many who could afford my cash rates if I dropped their plan, but since there are other neurologists taking insurance in the area, people will generally go to whoever is best for their wallet. And a copay is going to trump my cash price for most – not to mention the costs of tests that may be needed.
For an office visit, cash pay would likely work for most. It’s simple, quick, and straightforward. But it’s the high costs of modern medicine – advanced tests, hospital stays, and upper-line pharmaceuticals (some patients don’t have other options) – that make it an unworkable proposition for many.
Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.