California Hospital Giant Sutter Health Faces Heavy Backlash On Prices

Kaiser Health News, May 16, 2018

The state's top cop is suing Sutter, accusing one of the nation's biggest health systems of systematically overcharging patients and illegally driving out competition.

This article first appeared May 16, 2018 on Kaiser Health News.

By Chad Terhune

Cooking dinner one night in March, Mark Frizzell sliced his pinkie finger while peeling a butternut squash and couldn’t stop the bleeding.

The 51-year-old businessman headed to the emergency room at Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Sutter charged $1,555 for the 10 minutes it treated him, including $55 for a gel bandage and $487 for a tetanus shot.

“It was ridiculous,” he said. “Health insurance costs are through the roof because of things like this.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra couldn’t agree more. The state’s top cop is suing Sutter, accusing one of the nation’s biggest health systems of systematically overcharging patients and illegally driving out competition in Northern California.

For years, economists and researchers have warned of the dangers posed by large health systems across the country that are gobbling up hospitals, surgery centers and physicians’ offices — enabling them to limit competition and hike prices.

Becerra’s suit amounts to a giant test case with the potential for national repercussions. If California prevails and is able to tame prices at Northern California’s most powerful, dominant health system, regulators and politicians in other states are likely to follow.

“A major court ruling in California could be a deterrent to other hospital systems,” said Ge Bai, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University who has researched hospital prices nationwide. “We’re getting to a tipping point where the nation cannot afford these out-of-control prices.”

Reflecting that sense of public desperation, Sutter faces two other major suits — from employers and consumers — which are wending their way through the courts, both alleging anticompetitive conduct and inflated pricing. Meanwhile, California lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban some contracting practices used by large health systems to corner markets.

Sutter, a nonprofit chain, is pushing back hard, denying anticompetitive behavior and accusing Becerra in court papers of a “sweeping and unprecedented effort to intrude into private contracting.” Recognizing the broader implications of the suit, both the American Hospital Association and its California counterpart asked to file amicus briefs in support of Sutter.

Kaiser Health News

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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