If you happened to be listening to NPR this morning, you might have heard this story on outrageous medical bills sandwiched between reports of the new U.S. embassy in Israel and dozens of dead Palestinians (welcome to Infrastructure Week!). For months, NPR has been working with Kaiser Health News to collect stories of medical bills gone wrong, and today, they brought us the tale of Sherry Young, a retired librarian who underwent two relatively minor surgeries in one day, one for a shoulder injury and one for a bone spur in her foot. In total, she was in the hospital for three days.
Her bill? Over $115,000.
Young had insurance, but because her hospital stay wasn't pre-approved, Young was on the hook for the whole thing, which was more than her home was worth and over five times her annual income. Young did the smart thing: She asked for an itemized bill, and what she found was shocking. According to the bill, Young was being charged $15,076 for four tiny screws made by a company called Arthrex that were placed in her foot.
"Unless the metal [was] mined on an asteroid, I do not know why it should cost that amount," Young told NPR. She tried to get to the bottom of it herself, but the University of Oklahoma, where she'd had her surgery, refused to tell her how much the screws and other things had cost the hospital, so Young did another smart thing: She got in touch with NPR, and NPR was able to get more answers than the patient herself.
John Schmieding, senior vice president and general counsel for Arthrex, declined to tell reporters exactly how much his company charges hospitals for those screws, but he did say that screws generally range from $300 per screw to $1,000 per screw, which means the hospital marked them up anywhere from 275 to 1,150 percent. Those screws, according to an expert NPR interviewed, likely cost around $30 to manufacture.
And that was just the beginning of it. Young was also charged $4,265 for a drill bit, $5,047 for a tool that removes and cauterizes tissue, and $619 for a saw blade. And those tools are (or at least should be) reusable.
Young got lucky. When reporters started looking into her story, BlueCross BlueShield of Oklahoma said the whole thing was a mistake. But if she hadn't been insured—and if she hadn't contacted the media—she would have been responsible for those $115,000 in hospital fees, the sort of money that that makes people go broke. And she's hardly alone: There are endless accounts of outrageous hospital fees: from $3000 for a 15-minute consult and no treatment to $1,420 for two hours of babysitting to $441 for one liter of salt water. In general, insurance companies negotiate with hospitals over prices and patients don't ever see the true costs of their care. But of course, without insurance, and having no negotiating power with hospitals, the uninsured are often times out of luck. Those $15,000 screws are coming out of your pocket.
NPR and Kaiser are going to continue to report on these issues, so, if you have an outrageous medical bill, upload it here. Or, if you live in Seattle and are getting screwed on the screws in your foot, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll see if what the hospital has to say when the media calls.