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A hard pill to swallow: How our medical bills are killing us

In case you haven’t noticed, medical costs are out of control.

In case you haven’t noticed, medical costs are out of control. Steven Brill, who wrote the longest-ever–36 page--cover story for Time magazine, joined Hardball on Monday night, to discuss his astronomical medical findings in his latest piece.

Brill spent seven months examining eight cases and their corresponding hospital bills. Some  of the jaw-dropping highlights include patients being charged:

-$77 for a box of gauze pads

-$18 for a single diabetes test strip (You can buy a box of 50 on Amazon for $28)

-$50 for a simple Tylenol tablet—that’s a 10,000% markup!

-One patient who had a month-long stay in a Texas hospital to be treated for pneumonia was charged more than $474,000 (less than 20% was covered by insurance).

What’s behind the sticker shock? Brill lays part of the blame on marked-up prices by manufacturers and hospital administrators; the country lacks price controls. There's also the egregious profits made by technically non-profit hospitals. He says the country is arguing the wrong issue—who should pay a medical bill versus why the bills are so high in the first place.

“Over the past few decades we’ve enriched the labs, drug companies, medical device makers, hospital administrators and purveyors of CT scans, MRIs, canes and wheelchairs,” Brill writes. Meanwhile “we’ve squeezed everyone outside the system who gets stuck with the bills.”

Will President Obama’s  Affordable Care Act fix this mess? Obamacare is a massive piece of legislation, but the basics go like this: it requires that nearly all Americans obtain health insurance or pay a fine; it requires states to set up exchanges where people can purchase health insurance; it expands Medicaid; it lets grown children stay on their parents' plans longer; and it bars insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

Brill isn't optimistic the plan will curb costs.

"The fair thing to say is [the Obama Administration] tried," he told guest host Michael Smerconish, but added ACA "did nothing to cut the profits of everyone involved. In fact, if anything, it’s going to add to the profits because it will put more people into health care, which is a good thing—they’re going to have insurance--but  the taxpayers are going to subsidize that insurance."

Brill added that a reason why the ACA passed because "it didn't do anything to cut into profits of the drug companies, of the hospitals, the exorbitant prices that your local, non-profit hospital makes."

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, who worked on the Affordable Care Act as a senior adviser for health reform at the Department of Health and Human Services, said Obamacare has some steps to curb the problem but acknowledged more can be done. She pointed to ACA's expansion of bundled payments, where one can pay a flat fee per episode of care, rather than having Medicare receive separate bills from each provider. Tandem argued that would help create incentives to lower the price of individual items.

"We should take additional steps...but it's not that we haven't done anything," said Tanden.