What Hospitals Waste

Updated 1 year ago Special to HuntingtonNews.Net

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.

“This is money.” McLellan said, extending her arm to the vast array of supplies. “This is one of the reasons why your health insurance is so expensive.”

The vexing riddle of how to make health care more affordable has seldom been more front and center on the national stage. President Trump and Republican lawmakers are wrestling with the future of the Affordable Care Act, which has helped millions of people obtain health insurance. But most Americans would rather their legislators focus on bringing down health care costs, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Two-thirds of those surveyed said reducing such costs should be the “top” health care priority for Trump and the Republican-led Congress.

Talk to experts and many agree that waste would be a good place to start. In 2012 the National Academy of Medicine estimated the U.S. health care system squandered $765 billion a year, more than the entire budget of the Defense Department. Dr. Mark Smith, who chaired the committee that authored the report, said the waste is “crowding out” spending on critical infrastructure needs, like better roads and public transportation. The annual waste, the report estimated, could have paid for the insurance coverage of 150 million American workers — both the employer and employee contributions.

“It’s unconscionable that we’re not only wasting money in health care but in doing so are sacrificing other important social needs,” Smith said.

Smith’s committee blames the obvious villains — overtreatment, excess administrative costs and high prices — for most of the fat in the system. Left untallied, however, are the discards that arrive in waves into McLellan’s warehouses, most of which would otherwise end up in landfills. McLellan estimates the goods her group has right now are worth $20 million. Sure, that’s a rounding error in the overall waste tab, but it starts being real money if you add up the discards of all the nation’s medical facilities.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, for instance, recently estimated that in a single year the hospital wasted $2.9 million in neurosurgery supplies alone. Nearly $3 million. On wasted supplies. In one department.

Last year Partners sent seven containers overseas, each weighing up to 15,000 pounds and with an estimated value of up to $250,000. One is being sent to Syria this week. It includes an ultrasound machine ($25,000), a dozen trocars ($4,400) and an infant warmer ($3,995).

MedShare, a Georgia-based nonprofit more than 10 times the size of Partners, sent 156 containers of discarded medical supplies to developing countries last year, each one worth as much as $175,000. As lawmakers debate, ProPublica is setting off to document the rarely examined — and mind-boggling — ways your health care dollars are frittered away. Our first stop: the world of “medical surplus.”



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