Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments

Journey of the Piñata Master Part 2: The Great American Health Care Bash

As I mentioned in my post last week, Journey of a Pinata Master, The lessons of a piñata party are many and subtle, where children must acquire sufficient skill and insight to reach the highest status. Let me show you how the custom of the Mexican piñata, stuffed with candy and used to placate children, has been adopted unwittingly by the U.S. healthcare system to create the Annual American Healthcare Bash. At this gala, candy replaces money and adults represented by special interest groups fill in for children.

The American Healthcare Bash is hosted yearly by insurance companies and the government. These two organizers start asking for donations. In 2009, the piñata will be stuffed with $2.4 trillion (give or take a few billion). In 1999, the piñata held a measly $1.2 trillion. By 2019, piñata is expected to hold $4 trillion. Party planners already are worried about finding a rope strong enough to hold this massive elephant piñata (or donkey, depending on which animal you prefer to hit).

Donations arrive through taxpayers, employers and anyone willing to gain admission to the festivities. Before the party starts, insurance companies remove 20% of the money as their “set-up fee” for hosting and establish the basic game rules. During the event, they take turns controlling the rope holding the piñata.

Any American who contributed to the party, including everyone over 65, is invited to watch the spectacle as the myriad special interest groups (SIGs) take turns batting the piñata. These SIGs include ad almost infinitum: primary care doctors, nurse practitioners, radiologists, imaging specialists, laboratory services, pharmaceutical companies, durable medical suppliers, lawyers, software engineers for electronic medical records, coders, billers, patient navigators, receptionists, schedulers, nurses, billing specialists, hospital administrators, HIPPA compliance “police,” pay-for-performance analysts, the American Medical Association delegates, and hundreds of other professional organizations and credentialing specialists.

Every year, more SIGs have been invited to the gala for their turn to bash the piñata. Most thank the public for such an extravagant event, repeating the chorus, “Don’t worry what this is costing, we’re not hurting you, we’re going after the piñata.” This piñata promises more loot than any other in America.

One by one, players are blindfolded and spun in dizzying circles by the insurance companies or government. Patients start the play and then hand we doctors the bat saying, “Good luck! Give your best shot at whacking what you can from that piñata! I could care less because I’m “protected” by my insurance plan.”

Each player swings wildly, sometimes accidentally bashing the others crowding around the bobbing target. The crowd roars its approval while some SIGs scream instructions of where to aim as the batter swings away. The rope jerking increases as more skilled batters take their turn. When money pours from the breaking hull of the piñata, hordes of SIGs dive in a feeding frenzy. After decades of careful construction, the piñata has been compartmentalized so that no single player can knock out too much money at once.

As the party winds down, most SIGs have received a “fair “ amount of money, but they are angry, never satisfied with their share. Of course, there are a few masters in the crowd, who are grinning ear-to-ear.  When the party closes, the insurance companies take the piñata to another room and remove, behind closed doors, the remaining money (profit) of the day.

After counting its loot, the insurance companies emerge, announcing that it’s been another successful party, drinks all around! Then they say, “The party next year will cost only 8% more. Before you leave tonight, pay up.” Feeling threatened, taxpayers and employers reach deep into their pockets to pay for next year’s gala. Why ruin a great American tradition? If you get sick or don’t pay “your fair dues,” then hasta la vista.

As we grow up, most of us move past the need to gorge candy. Contrarily, when it comes to healthcare, few can limit how much they want to consume, nor recognize its often empty promises. Americans watch with fascinated horror at what’s happening in healthcare while remaining paralyzed to move cohesively towards change.

No matter how well intended and dedicated the doctors and nurses or how amazing the technology and medical breakthroughs to which the  “insured” have access, the unrelenting piñata party lure inevitably results in a mass psychology of “How much money can I make?”

If you, dear reader, are scared of change and continue to support the current  American healthcare piñata party, then be prepared to be beaten to a pulp. Now that you’ve paid your $20 co-pay entrance fee to the party and have emptied your wallet to the insurance company for what you believe is unlimited access to care, you have unwittingly turned yourself into the piñata.

Personally, after lots of experience and practice, I developed a healthy cynicism regarding the greed of this kind of parties.  Ten years ago, I no longer could support the American Healthcare Bash. We built a new practice where the only focus is the patient; the patient pays transparently for the time they need. This idea delivers better care, 24/7 immediate access whenever and wherever you need help at a price that is almost 50% less than the current model.  We need a lot more healthcare professionals and patients to invest in a new future of responsibility. A growing mantra is needed among patients and doctors alike, ”Do the right thing, for the right reason at the right price.” Unlimited wealth, and unlimited health are nothing but mirages, the deepest secret of all stuffed inside the piñata.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Alan Dappen, MD


You may also like these posts

Read comments »


Comments are closed.

Return to article »

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »