What Hospitals Waste

Medical surplus flies under the radar in health-care cost debates

Just outside Portland, Maine, a warehouse is packed with reasons the U.S. health care system costs so much: shelves overflowing with unopened packages of syringes, diabetes supplies, and surgical instruments that run hundreds of dollars apiece. There are boxes of intravenous fluids, bags of ostomy supplies, and kits with everything needed to perform obstetrics surgery––all of it tossed by hospitals in the area and destined for landfills.

Ten years ago, Elizabeth McLellan, a registered nurse, shocked to see what hospitals were throwing out, began asking them to give her their castoffs instead. In 2009 she launched Partners for World Health, a nonprofit group that now has four warehouses throughout Maine. Today, she and hundreds of volunteers collect medical equipment and supplies from a network of hospitals and medical clinics, sort them, and eventually ship containers full of them to countries such as Greece, Syria, and Uganda.

McLellan’s efforts and the high cost of hospital wastage are the subjects of a report posted on the ProPublica website.

McLellan started her nonprofit venture after watching patient rooms being cleaned out at Maine Medical Center, where she was a nurse administrator. When patients were discharged, hospital staff threw out everything, including unopened supplies. McLellan got permission from the hospital’s CEO to put out bins to save the discarded items. A year and a half later, she had gathered more than five tons of supplies and equipment.

Today, Partners for World Health has three paid employees—McLellan is a volunteer—and an annual budget of $357,000, most of it from donations. Similar nonprofit groups have sprung up around the country.

Many experts agree that medical surplus would be a good place to start in the current efforts to reduce health care spending, the ProPublica report says. In 2012 the National Academy of Medicine estimated that the U.S. health care system squandered $765 billion a year, more than the entire budget of the Defense Department. Dr. Mark Smith, who chaired the committee that authored the report, said the waste is “crowding out” spending on critical infrastructure needs, such as better roads and public transportation. The annual waste, the report estimated, could have paid for the insurance coverage of 150 million American workers.

Brock Slabach, vice president for member services at the National Rural Health Association in Leawood, Kansas, told ProPublica that more than 600 rural hospitals are so strapped financially that they risk closure, and some may be uncomfortably similar to facilities in Algeria and Bangladesh. Wealthier hospitals’ discards could help them stay afloat, he said.

Back in Maine, McLellan has invited hospital CEOs to visit her warehouses to see the vast display of wasted health care dollars. So far none has come.

“I want to go talk to Trump,” she said. “Trump wants to figure out how to do this business in a different way, how to be more cost effective. I’m sure he doesn’t understand what the waste is. Not this kind of waste. People don’t get it until they see how much is wasted.”

Source: ProPublica; March 9, 2017.