In 2012 the National Academy of Medicine estimated the U.S. health care system squandered $765 billion a year. Today hundreds of volunteers collect discarded medical equipment and supplies from a network of hospitals and medical clinics and ship them overseas. From ProPublica.
This article first appeared March 9, 2017 on ProPublica.
By Marshall Allen
Just outside Portland, Maine, there's a 15,000-square-foot warehouse that's packed with reasons the U.S. health care system costs so much: Shelves climb floor to ceiling, stacked with tubs overflowing with unopened packages of syringes, diabetes supplies and shiny surgical instruments that run hundreds of dollars apiece. There are boxes of IV fluids and bags of ostomy supplies and kits with everything you'd need to perform an obstetrics surgery.
This, however, isn't a story of about the crippling price of medical supplies. This is about the high cost of medical supplies that hospitals throw away.
On a recent snowy day the warehouse's 65-year-old proprietor, Elizabeth McLellan, gave an indignant accounting: She yanked a urinary catheter out of one bin. It's unopened and has an expiration date of July 2018. "There's no reason to get rid of this." A box of 30 new feeding bags has an August 2019 expiration date. The same type sells on Amazon.com for $129.
That surgical stapler? It's unopened. The same model sells online for $189. And McLellan simply shook her head over a set of a dozen long thin laparoscopic surgery instruments that some hospital discarded. Similar used tools can go for hundreds of dollars.
"There's nothing wrong with these, nothing wrong with any of these," she said.
Ten years ago, McLellan, a registered nurse, shocked to see what hospitals were tossing out, began asking them to give her their castoffs instead. In 2009 she launched Partners for World Health, a nonprofit that now has four warehouses throughout Maine. Today, she and hundreds of volunteers collect medical equipment and supplies from a network of hospitals and medical clinics, sort them and eventually ship containers full of them to countries like Greece, Syria and Uganda.
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