Failure of Medical Implant Devices Severely Escalates Health Care Costs

The on-going debate over the state of health care in the United States will move front and center in the 2012 presidential election year. For the most part, politicians will be focused on major policy points, like the highly contentious requirement for all Americans to carry health insurance by 2014. The decision the Supreme Court hands down after its review of that aspect of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will contribute materially to all the subsequent political rhetoric. In the meantime, real people are dealing with real health insurance issues out of the national limelight, like the crisis of failed medical device implants, in particular, metal-on-metal artificial hips.

Widespread Failure of Metal-on-Metal Hip Implants

These devices, which were marketed to consumers in their mid-50s were touted as a significant improvement over the previous generation of implants. Specifically recommended for younger patients, implants like the DePuy hip, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, were supposed to have an operational life of 15 years or more. As many as half a million Americans may have received these implants, that once accounted for a third of all artificial knees and hips used in America. Now, however, more than 5,000 lawsuits are underway, with many more to come, targeting surgeons for improperly positioning the devices and seeking recompense from manufacturers for their faulty designs.

In addition to simple failure of the hip’s function, the all-metal devices, during the regular motion of normal wear and tear, can shed metal debris into the surrounding bone and tissue. If left unattended, this may lead to bone necrosis or “death.” If the damage is sufficiently severe, a second “revision” surgery may be impossible, since the bone will no longer hold an implant. Consequently, thousands of Americans are being left permanently crippled in their 50s. The costs for these defective implants ultimately trickle through the entire medical system; they result in higher insurance premiums as companies try to recoup their benefit expenses; and they are even felt by taxpayers via the cost of Medicare payments.

Individual Medical Bills Reach Staggering Levels

A case highlighted by the New York Times vividly shows just how expensive a prolonged medical crisis of the nature of a failed hip implant can be. The newspaper profiled a 55-year old man whose artificial hip failed. Although his insurance did cover all his costs, the associated hospital fees were in excess of $400,000 with an additional $28,000 in doctor’s fees. Insurance companies will make that money back, and they typically do so by raising premiums across the board. Since health insurance benefits have already seen an 8-9 percent hike in 2011, with some pundits expecting that much again in 2012, specific cases like the crisis of medical device failures materially deepen an already bad situation.

The medical device failure issue also points to the broader scope of a phrase like “health care reform.” Most Americans equate that simply with, “I want to pay less for my health insurance,” when the next statement should be “and I want the Food and Drug Administration to do a better job of protecting me.” As long as problems of the size and severity of medical implant failure exist, bringing the cost of health care down in the U.S. is going to be extremely difficult. No one wants to eat the expense of such a failure, and so a complex game of robbing Peter to pay Paul begins, with the consumer most often being the one who loses in the end.