Latest from Slate: Surprise Medical Bills Fueling U.S. Medical Debt Crisis
Public Policy Intern
“It feels like a scam,” says Cybele Perry, a mother who received a surprise medical bill after her baby was born. An exhausted mom, Perry didn’t think to ask if the company performing the newborn hearing test for her baby was “in-network” at the in-network hospital she just gave birth in. Instead, she learned the hard way that the testing company was outside her network when she was hit with a $239 bill.
Slate columnist Helaine Olen shares Perry’s story in a new piece on surprise medical bills, and shares how everyday patients are “caught in the middle” between insurers and doctors who can’t agree on payment. The fact that Perry’s story is so commonplace makes it gut-wrenching. Slate cites a Consumer Reports survey that found nearly one in three Americans with private insurance received a surprise medical bill in the past two years. What’s more, surprise medical bills contribute to medical debt that can lead to a worse case scenario: bankruptcy.
“Yeah, that’s the way it is,” Leigh Lehman’s insurance company retorted unhelpfully when he asked what to do about his surprise bills. Lehman and his wife carefully chose an in-network hospital and surgeon for his heart surgery, but were struck with a $2,200 bill for an out-of-network doctor he didn’t know the hospital had assigned to the ICU. Likewise Mayleen, a 46-year-old stay-at-home mom in Sacramento, was floored by nearly $5,000 in bills for her husband’s emergency gallbladder surgery. They had chosen the hospital because it was in-network, but the ER surgeon unexpectedly was not. “We were in the emergency room, and it was an emergency situation,” she says. “We didn’t have time to shop around for a different surgeon, nor did we think we had to.”
To fight back against surprise bills, Olen recommends patients ask questions about unexpected charges. As one study found, nearly 9 in 10 hospital bills contained errors. Review the charges for any services not received, or are questionable. If initial objections to an insurer don’t get the bill covered, appeal those decisions, and consider complaining to a state’s insurance regulator. And importantly, she reminds consumers to not sacrifice future financial options and security by paying medical bills with retirement accounts, which also may be protected in the event of a bankruptcy.
Lastly, Olen recommends patients take action to stop surprise bills for good by raising awareness about the problem and spurring legislative action. If you have ever been hit with a surprise medical bill, join our movement of thousands to #EndSurpriseMedicalBills by sharing your story today, and use our insurance complaint tool to find your state resources on fighting unfair medical bills.