How Much is Your Knee Worth?

Earlier this year my husband Ben got one of these bionic knees, called a full knee replacement. He’d put it off for ten years, always hoping things would magically get better. He’d tried supplements and even switched to a vegan diet in 2012.

When it became clear that he could no longer enjoy many things because of his inability to walk distances, he decided it was time. We researched doctors and clinics and chose a well-known, nationally ranked surgeon in Mooresville, Ind.

Xray of full knee replacement
Ben’s New Knee

The surgery took place in an ambulant hospital—in around 9 a.m., home with new knee and crutches around 5 p.m. Within two days, Ben threw away the crutches. After one week, he walked and after three he was driving back to work. We were elated. It had to be a new record.

Then came the bills. Now, first of all we’re lucky. We have decent health insurance with an individual deductible of $5,500. That’s still steep, but…Get this. The surgery, about one hour in the ambulant hospital had a flat fee of $75,000. Why do I know? I requested an itemized bill from the surgery center, something not easily attained, especially before the surgery. In addition, the surgeon’s time ran about $12,000, his assistant’s time also $12,000. The total cost was well over $120,000. After the insurance company was done with their calculations, the hospital received about $55,000 instead of $75,000 plus assorted payments for surgeons, knee implant, etc. And we paid several thousand more to anesthesiologists, labs, etc.

Again, we’re lucky. Ben has an excellent new knee put in place by an excellent surgeon. And we have insurance. What do people do who don’t have insurance? They continue limping. Or they mortgage their homes, go into debt for the rest of their lives or declare bankruptcy. And mind you, this is an elective surgery. God forbid we have a major illness or an accident.

You’ve got to ask yourself how any doctor or institution can justify charging $75,000 for the use of a room, no matter how sterile it is and that a lot of technology is being used. This is ridiculous. But this is the norm. I even called the insurance and asked about the charges. Oh, this is a standard charge, the agent told me. What? Or should we say that no price is too high for our health? That our knee, curing cancer or bringing a healthy baby into the world are worth whatever is being charged? Most people whose health is in jeopardy will say yes, do whatever it takes. I don’t care, I must live. And when it is your spouse or your child you say the same. So who is right?

But shouldn’t we rather ask why U.S. institutions charge so much more than any other country in the world and on average provide less quality? How come the U.S. ranks 34th in infant mortality? I spare you all the statistics about the ineffectiveness of U.S. healthcare and how poorly it compares to other developed countries. A total knee replacement in Germany runs about $12,000. That includes a two-week hospital stay. Did I just read that right? In Thailand you pay $15,000, in India $7,000.

Sadly, this is only the tip of the iceberg.