Hospital systems are now counting on non-emergency knee and hip procedures to help restore their financial health.
Dr. Ira Weintraub, a recently retired orthopedic surgeon who now works at a medical billing consultancy, saw a hip replacement bill for over $400,000 earlier this year.
“The patient stayed in the hospital 17 days, which is only 17 times normal. The bill got paid,” mused Weintraub, chief medical officer of Portland, Oregon-based WellRithms, which helps self-funded employers and workers’ compensation insurers make sense of large, complex medical bills and ensure they pay the fair amount.
Charges like that go a long way toward explaining why hospitals are eager to restore joint replacements to pre-COVID levels as quickly as possible — an eagerness tempered only by safety concerns amid a resurgence of the coronavirus in some regions of the country. Revenue losses at hospitals and outpatient surgery centers may have exceeded $5 billion from canceled knee and hip replacements alone during a roughly two-month hiatus on elective procedures earlier this year.
The cost of joint replacement surgery varies widely — though, on average, it is in the tens, not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Still, given the high and rapidly growing volume, it’s easy to see why joint replacement operations have become a vital chunk of revenue at most U.S. hospitals.
The rate of knee and hip replacements more than doubled from 2000 to 2015, according to inpatient discharge data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. And that growth is likely to continue: Knee replacements are expected to triple between now and 2040, with hip replacements not far behind, according to projections published last year in the Journal of Rheumatology.
Joint procedures are usually not emergencies, and they were among the first to be scrubbed or delayed when hospitals froze elective surgeries in March — and again in July in some areas plagued by renewed COVID outbreaks. Loss of the revenue has hit hospitals hard, and regaining it will be crucial to their financial convalescence.