I-Team: How to make sure hospitals don't overcharge your medical expenses

CINCINNATI -- Thomas Colangelo was having breathing trouble when he visited Premier Health's Atrium Medical Center in September of last year.

Insurance covered most of his $3,000 bill, but a $245 charge leapt out at him next to the words: "drugs identification."

"When you're on Social Security, you watch every penny," Colangelo said. "I questioned that in my own head and said, 'Wait a minute -- what drugs did they give me during this testing?'"

Colangelo said he called Atrium and discovered the drug was albuterol. Colangelo challenged the charge. The hospital sent him a letter stating the drug "should have been included as part of" his test and hospital officials "sincerely apologize for any inconvenience."

What happened to Colangelo isn't rare. Pat Palmer, founder of Medical Billing Advocates of America, said she sees overcharging of anywhere from 17 to 49 percent on hospital bills. She said her firm has helped patients reduce thousands of dollars worth of inflated bills. 

Atrium released a statement that said errors in bills are "taken seriously."

"Our hospital regrets that a patient found an error in his bill for hospital services," the organization said. "Through the hospital's quality control process, if a mistake is discovered, it will be corrected."

However, Colangelo said the statement did little to alleviate his worry about this potentially happening to other people. He said others may not examine bills as carefully as he does.

"They have $3,000 worth of testing. (After insurance), they get a bill for $272. Their first reaction is OK...that's all it cost me...I'm going to pay it," Colangelo said.

Pat Willis of MD Bill Advocate LLC near Cleveland also helps patients reduce "inflated bills." Her organization studies up on the complex codes and names for hospital services and goods, she said.

For example, a plain box of tissues becomes a "mucous recovery system" in hospital speak. That mucous recovery system ends up costing the patient far more than the price of a regular box of tissues, she said.

"A 'cough support device' is a Teddy bear for kids to calm them down," Willis said. "And they charge $57 for that."

She said the average person may miss all of that. That's why experts stay busy challenging what they consider excessive or duplicate charges such as a $23 charge for a Q-tip. 

John Palmer of the Ohio Hospital Association cited a practice called "cost-sharing" as an explanation for the mark-ups.

"When we don't receive cost on Medicaid and Medicare...when we don't receive any kind of reimbursement or are uninsured, we have to make up for those costs in some other fashion," Palmer said.

Palmer said it's a patient's right to question all charges. Our billing experts advised these tips to make sure you don't spend more than you should.

  1. Always request an itemized bill.
  2. When you have questions, call the billing department.
  3. Before surgery or a hospital stay, request an estimate for what it will cost, and get it in writing.

A less detailed check of his receipt might not have given Colangelo the opportunity to successfully challenge the "drugs identification" charge.

"Food. Gas. Recreation," Colangelo said. "I live in a trailer not by choice. It's hard to make it out here."

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