In Morgantown, W.Va., the West Virginia University health system just opened a 10-story medical tower and hired 2,000 employees last year. In Danville, Pa., the Geisinger Health System has added more than 2,200 workers since July and is trying to fill 2,000 more jobs across its 12 hospital campuses and a health plan. Out West, the UCHealth system in Colorado expanded its Fort Collins hospital and is building three hospitals in the state.
In cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and St. Louis, health care has replaced dying industries like coal and heavy manufacturing as a primary source of new jobs. “The industry accounts for a lot of good middle-class jobs and, in many communities, it’s the single-largest employer,” said Sam Glick, a partner at the Oliver Wyman consulting firm in San Francisco. “One of the hardest decisions for the new Trump administration is how far do they push on health care costs at the expense of jobs in health care.”
House Republicans, with backing from Trump, took the first swipe. Their American Health Care Act sought to roll back the current health law’s Medicaid expansion and cut federal subsidies for private health insurance. The GOP plan faltered in the House, but Republican lawmakers and the Trump administration are still trying to craft a replacement for Obamacare.
Neither the ACA nor the latest Republican attempt at an overhaul tackle what some industry experts and economists see as a serious underlying reason for high health care costs: a system bloated by redundancy, inefficiency and a growing number of jobs far removed from patient care.
Labor accounts for more than half of the $3.4 trillion spent on U.S. health care, and medical professionals from health aides to nurse practitioners are in high demand. But the sheer complexity of the system also has spawned jobs for legions of data-entry clerks, revenue-cycle analysts and medical billing coders who must decipher arcane rules to mine money from human ills.
For every physician, there are 16 other workers in U.S. health care. And half of those 16 are in administrative and other nonclinical roles, said Bob Kocher, a former Obama administration official who worked on the Affordable Care Act. He’s now a partner at the venture capital firm Venrock in Palo Alto, Calif.
“I find super-expensive drugs annoying and hospital market power is a big problem,” Kocher said. “But what’s driving our health insurance premiums is that we are paying the wages of a whole bunch of people who aren’t involved in the delivery of care. Hospitals keep raising their rates to pay for all of this labor.”
Take medical coders. Membership in the American Academy of Professional Coders has swelled to more than 165,000, up 10,000 in the past year alone. The average salary has risen to nearly $50,000, offering a path to the American Dream.
“The coding profession is a great opportunity for individuals seeking their first job, and it’s attractive to a lot of medical professionals burned out on patient care,” said Raemarie Jimenez, a vice president at the medical coding group. “There is a lot of opportunity once you’ve got a foot in the door.”
Some of these back-office workers wage battle every day in clinics and hospitals against an army of claims administrators filling up cubicles inside insurance companies. Overseeing it all are hundreds of corporate vice presidents drawing six-figure salaries.
Administrative costs in U.S. health care are the highest in the developed world, according to a January report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. More than 8 percent of U.S. health spending is tied up in administration while the average globally is 3 percent. America spent $631 for every man, woman and child on health insurance administration for 2012 compared with $54 in Japan.
America’s huge investment in health care and related jobs hasn’t always led to better results for patients, data show. But it has provided good-paying jobs, which is why the talk of deep cuts in federal health spending has many people concerned.
Linda Gonzalez, a 31-year-old mother of two, was among the thousands of enrollment counselors hired to help sign up Americans for health insurance as Obamacare rolled out in 2014. The college graduate makes more than $40,000 a year working at an AltaMed enrollment center, tucked between a Verizon Wireless store and a nail salon on a busy street in Los Angeles.
In her cramped cubicle, families pull up chairs and sort through pay stubs and tax returns, often relying on her to sort out enrollment glitches with Medicaid. As the sole breadwinner for her two children, ages 9 and 10, she counts on this job but isn’t sure how long it will last.