As governors from across the country gather in the Beehive State for the National Governors Association Summer Meeting this week, health care — particularly its high costs and the overall uncertainty in the system — will surely be discussed. Governors must also focus on addressing predatory hospital practices against financially vulnerable patients, including Utahns.
People turn to hospitals when they are desperate for care and, in many cases, experiencing emergencies. Patients shouldn’t have to worry about financial ruin as a result of emergency medical procedures or hospital visits. Unfortunately, such visits can become financially toxic for patients as a result of hospital practices designed to maximize profits.
In multiple states including Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Colorado, hospitals have pursued lawsuits and other predatory actions against patients for unpaid hospital bills. These hospitals have added annual interest to medical bills, placed liens on patients’ homes and garnished wages and bank accounts, threatening the economic stability of Americans who can least afford it.
At the same time, they have also neglected to inform many patients about community benefits or charity care that they may qualify for. Some hospitals have pursued these actions despite increasing service charges and receiving revenue through the 340B federal program which is intended to help cover low-income or uninsured patients’ costs.
These lawsuits aren’t the only ways hospitals have been financially toxic for patients. Right here in Utah, surprise hospital bills are a pervasive practice that puts patients like Lisa Ray in the middle of health care providers and insurance companies, often after experiencing emergencies.
After Lisa’s 16-year old son broke his jaw and her in-network hospital turned them away because it was at capacity, she sought treatment for him at a hospital a short distance away. She was then billed $41,000, because that hospital was out of network. Utah hospitals have also been steadily raising prices and charging vastly different amounts for common procedures. For an angioplasty, one hospital in Murray charged $41,136, while a hospital in Ogden charged $91,250, more than double the amount of the other facility.
Between hospital lawsuits, surprise medical bills, and a lack of clarity and cost transparency within the health care system, it’s no wonder 84 percent of Americans report being concerned with health care costs, according to a recent Ipsos-Consumers for Quality Care study. Further, 91 percent of patients are concerned about receiving surprise bills from hospitals and 65 percent say it’s difficult to understand the cost of care at a hospital, including finding out how much a hospital charges for a specific type of care.
As stories of patients struggling financially due to the predatory practices of hospitals continue to come to light, governors must take note. States are the laboratories of our democracy, and governors can provide critical leadership in addressing the health care challenges experienced by their state’s residents.
As the nation’s governors meet in Salt Lake City, they must take note of the larger pattern of unethical hospital practices impacting states across the country. We ask that they work together with their Departments of Health and other regulatory entities to curtail toxic hospital practices that take advantage of patients and leave them in severe financial distress. The financial stability and health of our communities is on the line.
Donna M. Christensen retired from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2015, where she served nine terms as the delegate representing the U.S. Virgin Islands. She now serves on the board of directors of Consumers for Quality Care, a coalition of health advocates and former policy makers working to provide a voice for patients in the health-care debate as they demand better care.