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Cost Blast From Health Care Past: 'It's The Prices, Stupid.'

Believe it or not, Americans use fewer health care services than people in many other developed countries.

But we sure pay a lot more when we do finally go to the doctor or hospital. (Did I mention the $50 copay for my recent ER visit?) In case you needed a more in-depth reminder, the Washington Post shone a light on high U.S. health care prices over the weekend.

Sure, overhaul will extend insurance coverage to tens of millions over the next decade. But the federal law won't much to rein in costs, a point some critics of overhaul leveled at the legislation as it was being drafted.

Reducing volume doesn't help a nation’s health budget much if unit costs are going through the roof. And prices are climbing.

Hospital consolidation is some markets is one reason, as Kaiser Health News' Jordan Rau wrote about recently for Shots.

For more on the price problem, take a look back at the classic “It’s The Prices, Stupid” paper mentioned in the WaPo article. It was published in Health Affairs seven years ago and based on data from 2000.

So a decade ago, it was already quite clear then, as now, that the United State spends the most on health care. Yet each American's number of visits to doctors or hospitals was below the median of other developed countries.

No fancy economics training is needed to conclude that "this implies that much higher prices are paid in the United States than in other countries."

And what are we getting for all that dough? Well, bigger bills and better cancer care. But overall, we're not getting healthier for all the money we spend.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.