Science & Nature

An Elbow Injury Exposes the Exorbitant Costs of Health Care

Last winter, I banged my proper elbow taking part in hockey, and it turned swollen and pink. Doctors recognized bursitis, irritation of my elbow’s bursa sac, and prescribed antibiotics. In late May, I turned feverish and delirious. I checked into the one hospital in my hometown: Hoboken University Medical Center. An emergency-room doctor recognized sepsis based mostly on blood and different assessments.

I spent three nights within the hospital, throughout which an orthopedic surgeon operated on my contaminated elbow. In a earlier column, I reward my surgeon and others who handled me. These caregivers boosted my analysis of American well being care, which I’ve criticized (see right here and right here). I didn’t point out the prices of fixing my elbow as a result of the payments hadn’t are available in but.

Now that my caregivers have billed my insurance coverage firm, I really feel compelled to jot down this follow-up column. The payments for my therapy complete $287,365.08. By far the largest two gadgets are the hospital’s invoice ($185,037.45) and the orthopedic surgeon’s invoice ($86,969). Separate payments from pathologists, radiologists, anesthesiologists and different suppliers make up the stability.

The hospital’s $185,037.45 invoice consists of $13,500 for an MRI of my elbow, $9,500 for a CAT scan and $17,797.12 for 2 x-rays. “Laboratory” bills—primarily associated, I’m guessing, to blood assessments carried out all through my keep—complete $44,787.96. The invoice for my semi-private hospital room is $54,000, or $18,000 per evening. The hospital’s prices strike me—and two physicians I ran them by—as excessive. And, actually, a medical-imaging Web web site says “upper-extremity” MRI scans price between $1,050 and $7,000; one other web site says in a single day hospital stays common $11,700.

My private funds, thus far, have been minimal, as a result of I’m insured by Cigna Health by my employer, Stevens Institute of Technology. I bought Cigna’s Open Access Plus plan, which “lets you select your well being care suppliers,” though you pay extra for suppliers that don’t settle for Cigna’s insurance coverage. At the time of my hospitalization, neither my surgeon nor Hoboken University Medical Center belonged to Cigna’s community; the hospital joined Cigna on June 1, sooner or later after my operation.

Fortunately, I notified Cigna of my state of affairs shortly after being admitted to the hospital, and Cigna approved my hospital keep and surgical procedure as “emergency therapy.” That means Cigna defines my out-of-network care as in-network as a result of I lacked choices. But simply because Cigna authorizes the therapy doesn’t imply it should pay what caregivers cost. Moreover, caregivers can stress the insurance coverage firm to extend reimbursements they take into account too low.

As of this writing, Cigna has reimbursed the hospital $50,816.82 for my room, in accordance with information that Cigna posts on my on-line account. (The admitting doctor put me in a personal room as a result of, given my low white-blood-cell depend, I used to be liable to COVID-19 and different infections.) Cigna has denied all the opposite claims of the hospital. Because I’m in my late 60s, I’m additionally insured by Medicare, which covers hospitalization. Hence Hoboken University Medical Center can search further reimbursement from Medicare.

Before working on me, my surgeon assured me the operation can be simple, even “boring.” While I used to be beneath normal and native anesthesia, he minimize a five-inch incision throughout my elbow and eliminated my bursa and different contaminated tissue. He additionally minimize by a tendon with the intention to shave a bone spur off my elbow and sutured the tendon again collectively. He flushed out the remaining tissue with antibiotics and closed my wound with steel staples. All this took lower than two hours, or so I recall; fever, medicines and lack of sleep made me foggy-headed throughout my hospital keep.

As of this writing, Cigna has reimbursed my surgeon $2,495.18 for his providers. His invoice of $86,969 appears excessive, however Cigna’s reimbursement appears low. According to at least one web site, elbow bursectomies common $10,186 (and that doesn’t embody bone-spur removing.) A consultant of my surgeon left a telephone message (which I’ve stored) suggesting that we should always each contact Cigna to dispute the unreimbursed stability of his invoice in order that I might not be “liable” for it. She persuaded me to name Cigna and produce her in on the decision so collectively we might urge Cigna to extend its reimbursement. During the convention name, the Cigna agent stated the corporate would take 30 days to rethink its cost to the surgeon.

Meanwhile my surgeon has billed me $77,299.82, nearly all the unpaid stability of the surgeon’s authentic invoice to Cigna. Only just lately have I discovered that actually I’m not “liable” for the unpaid stability of my surgeon’s invoice. New Jersey, my residence state, prohibits well being care suppliers from billing insured sufferers for unreimbursed prices, a apply referred to as stability billing, for “out-of-network providers supplied on an emergency or pressing foundation above the quantity of the lined particular person’s legal responsibility for in-network cost-sharing.” Many different states have legal guidelines to guard sufferers from stability billing, Medicare and Medicaid each prohibit the apply, and the federal authorities will ban it beginning in January 2022.

I’ve described my case to some well being care veterans, and so they say it’s commonplace. Providers routinely overcharge insurance coverage firms, which in flip routinely underpay the suppliers. Providers and insurers then haggle over the distinction. Providers additionally search reimbursement from sufferers, though this apply is normally banned. All of this paperwork and haggling consumes time, vitality and cash.

I sympathize with my surgeon’s want to get extra out of Cigna, as a result of I’m in search of reimbursement for an antibiotic prescription. The backstory: I acquired intravenous antibiotics all through my hospital keep. My surgeon, nervous that my sepsis may return, advisable holding me on intravenous antibiotics after I left the hospital. I wished to keep away from the trouble of an intravenous port in my arm, and so I used to be thrilled when an infectious-disease specialist on the hospital prescribed a robust oral antibiotic: linezolid.

When I left the hospital, I walked to a CVS pharmacy in Hoboken to get the linezolid. The pharmacy, which stated Cigna had not approved the prescription, charged me $851.66 for a 10-day provide. Later, I sought reimbursement from Cigna, mentioning that oral antibiotics are nearly actually cheaper than intravenous antibiotics would have been. Cigna retroactively approved the prescription, but it surely nonetheless solely reimbursed me $48.40 for my $851.66 invoice.

Another problem price mentioning: When I used to be within the hospital, 5 docs indirectly concerned in my case dropped in on me, unannounced, to talk. I used to be flattered. I believed they have been visiting me as a result of they cared about me and my case. My naivete, looking back, is comical. These physicians in all probability simply wished to make somewhat cash. Each billed Cigna between $93 and $450 for our transient conversations.

Hoboken University Medical Center additionally certainly noticed me as a great affected person. I’m totally employed and double-insured, by Cigna and Medicare, and my case was comparatively simple. Hoboken University Medical Center is owned by CareLevel Health, a for-profit company that has struggled financially.

Although my case is comparatively easy, and I’m comparatively clever, I’m overwhelmed by the complexities of my therapy and its prices. I’ve a file full of payments and different paperwork associated to my silly elbow. I’ve been pondering of contacting “Bill of the Month,” a collaboration between Kaiser Health News and National Public Radio, which helps folks perceive “exorbitant or baffling” medical payments.

I maintain questioning about folks with critical diseases corresponding to most cancers, coronary heart illness, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. How do they address the nightmarish monetary penalties—on high of the physiological and psychological results—of their situations? I’m extra satisfied than ever that American medication is corrupted by capitalism—extra particularly, by the will of each suppliers and insurers to maximise income—and wishes radical reform.

The U.S. spends considerably extra on well being care per capita than every other nation on the earth, and but its well being is just not proportionately higher. Far from it. A latest comparability of the U.S. to “peer nations,” together with Australia, Japan and the U.Ok., discovered that the U.S. “ranks final in a measure of well being care entry and high quality.” The U.S. spends greater than 10 instances as a lot per capita on well being as Costa Rica. But Costa Ricans, who’ve socialized medication, are on common longer-lived and more healthy than Americans, in accordance with a latest report within the New Yorker.

Behind each medical story, together with ones that finish effectively, lurks the colossal dysfunction of American well being care. My story ended effectively. I’ve recovered the energy and mobility of my proper arm. I sit up for taking part in hockey once more, with elbow pads, this winter. My elbow is ok. I want I might say the identical for our damaged well being care system.

Further Reading:

My Stupid Elbow and the Crisis in Health Care

Is Medicine Overrated?

The Cancer Industry: Hype vs. Reality

Can Psychiatry Heal Itself?

Has the Drug-Based Approach to Mental Illness Failed?

I describe the pleasures of hockey in my books Mind-Body Problems and Pay Attention.



    John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings on the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books embody The End of Science, The End of War and Mind-Body Problems, accessible without spending a dime at For a few years, he wrote the immensely widespread weblog Cross Check for Scientific American.

     Follow John Horgan on Twitter

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