As Saturday marked the third anniversary of Obamacare’s passage into law, journalist Steven Brill ’72 LAW ’75 emerged from the media firestorm surrounding his March 4 Time magazine cover, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” which has continued to fuel public disillusionment with the health care industry.
Brill’s exposé — the longest ever printed in Time, clocking in at 24,105 words — decodes the difficult language of medical bills, revealing inflated charges that account for the lavish 11.7 percent average profit margin for nonprofit hospitals nationwide. Brill, the founder of The American Lawyer magazine and the Court TV network, writes of excessive hospital markups on products such as a single acetaminophen tablet, for which hospitals charge $1.50 per tablet, while 100 tablets cost $1.49 on Amazon. Such charges are mechanized through a chargemaster, a massive computer file that lists prices for thousands of products and services, which Brill argues should be eliminated in the interest of hospital budget transparency.
“Complete lack of transparency is dangerous when arguably the most important part of our economy deals with life and death itself,” Brill told the News.
Brill added that transparency would prevent hospitals from maintaining “completely unaccountable power” to commit rampant abuse. While he recognized that hospitals are not intrinsically villainous because of the public services they provide, he said he hoped that that the public would regard their billing practices and positions as important local charities with more skepticism.
“I have a friend who told me after reading the story that he was immediately quitting the hospital board,” Brill said. “It didn’t need the money.”
Brill said the story has garnered more attention than anything he has ever written — since publication, the story has been shared by over 4,000 people on Facebook and peaked at 32,000 simultaneous page views at one point. Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel told The New York Times he was initially hesitant to print the 36-page special in its entirety because it would be “a tough story to read.”
Though Brill said he knew his material would be revelatory, he acknowledged that he could not have anticipated the thousands of readers inundating his inbox with queries about their exorbitant hospital bills. He said he hopes to create an online infrastructure for individuals to report billing quandaries and channel them to legal services or advocacy groups.
Brill said he has also seen increased legislative action against unfair billing practices in the aftermath of his story’s publication. He cited Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s campaign to strip the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center of its tax-exempt status for failing to provide enough free care to low-income patients and granting excessive executive compensation.
Brill founded the Yale Journalism Initiative for undergraduates with his wife, Cynthia Margolin Brill ’72, in 2006 and teaches Yale’s “Journalism” class in the fall.