Lost in the confusion and uncertainty clouding the fight over how to repeal or repair the Affordable Care Act is an important aspect to cutting medical costs that we can all agree on: Paper is expensive.

Now, I know that paper, especially in political discussions, is usually an easy target for environmentalists. But what about economists? Shouldn’t they also be taking a hard look at paper as it relates to the cost of health care in the U.S.? After all, it was hospitals and clinics over the last decade that transformed their patient records from paper to electronic, improving the accuracy, speed and convenience of patient care. The same concept holds true for back-office processes across the spectrum of health care facilities and services.

Hospitals overwhelmingly rely on paper billing. In fact, for every dollar spent on medical care, we estimate that about one cent is eaten up by paper-related costs.

Image: Bloomberg News
Image: Bloomberg News

It might seem small at a glance, but in our work with hospitals we have discovered that removing paper from the billing process creates a frictionless, faster and more cost-efficient payments process. A Harvard University economist recently estimated that migrating the entire U.S. health care system to electronic billing would save around $32 billion annually. That’s a lot of bandages.

If we’re truly serious about cutting medical costs to ease the burden on the nation’s patients, doctors, clinics, and hospitals, we must stop treating symptoms and go straight for the cure. For example, there are numerous solutions to improve hospital financial efficiency, but many solve one pain point only to replace it with another.

An Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) can reduce paper and increase digital data sharing but often has limited supplier enrollment due to participation cost. Or an electronic billing solution for a supplier in the health care industry doesn’t communicate with or integrate data with the enterprise customer’s electronic billing solution. There needs to be a democratization of electronic means for billing and payments, and, in today’s cyber environment, the solution also needs to be highly secure.

What I’m describing is a secure business network that enables any size of business or organization in health care to connect with their suppliers and customers online in a single place to exchange invoices and payments while also having real-time visibility into the status and details of those transactions.

Paper is eliminated or minimized, and efficiency and cost savings are maximized. The health of our nation’s health care infrastructure is boosted. And it can all be done regardless of what happens in Washington or to the current healthcare law.