Those Indecipherable Medical Bills? They’re One Reason Health Care Costs So Much.
Hospitals have learned to manipulate medical codes — often resulting in mind-boggling bills.
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Mar 29 2017
The catastrophe struck Wanda Wickizer on Christmas Day 2013. A generally healthy, energetic 51-year-old, she suddenly found herself vomiting all day, racked with debilitating headaches. When her alarmed teenage son called an ambulance, the paramedics thought that she had food poisoning and didn’t take her to the emergency room. Later, when she became confused and groggy at 3 a.m., her boyfriend raced her to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in coastal Virginia, where a scan showed she was suffering from a subarachnoid hemorrhage. A vessel had burst, and blood was leaking into the narrow space between the skull and the brain.
During a subarachnoid hemorrhage, if the pressure in the head isn’t relieved, blood accumulates in that narrow space and can push the brain down toward the neck. Vital nerves that control breathing and vision are compressed. Death is imminent. Wickizer was whisked by helicopter ambulance to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, 160 miles away, for an emergency procedure to halt the bleeding.
After spending days in a semi-comatose state, Wickizer slowly recovered and left the hospital three weeks after the hemorrhage, grateful to be alive. But soon after she returned home to her two teenage children, she found herself confronted with a different kind of catastrophe. Wickizer had had health insurance for most of her adult life: Her husband, who died in 2006, worked for the city of Norfolk, which insured their family while he was alive and for three years beyond. After his death, Wickizer worked in a series of low-wage jobs, but none provided health insurance. A minor pre-existing condition — she was taking Lexapro, a common medicine for depression — meant that her only insurance option was to be funneled into the “high-risk pool” (a type of costly insurance option that was essentially rendered obsolete by the Affordable Care Act and now figures in some of the G.O.P. plans to replace it). She would need to pay more than $800 per month for a policy with a $5,000 deductible, and her medical procedures would then be reimbursed at 80 percent. She felt she couldn’t afford that. In 2011, she decided to temporarily stop working to tend to her children, which qualified them for Medicaid; with trepidation, she left herself uninsured.
And so in early 2014, without an insurer or employer or government agency to run interference between her and the hospital, she began receiving bills: $16,000 from Sentara Norfolk (not including the scan or the E.R. doctor), $50,000 for the air ambulance. By the end of January, there was also one for $24,000 from the University of Virginia Physicians’ Group: charges for some of the doctors at the medical center. “I thought, O.K., that’s not so bad,” Wickizer recalls. A month later, a bill for $54,000 arrived from the same physicians’ group, which included further charges and late fees. Then a separate bill came just for the hospital’s charges, containing a demand for $356,884.42 but little in the way of comprehensible explanation.
In other countries, when patients recover from a terrifying brain bleed — or, for that matter, when they battle cancer, or heal from a serious accident, or face down any other life-threatening health condition — they are allowed to spend their days focusing on getting better. Only in America do medical treatment and recovery coexist with a peculiar national dread: the struggle to figure out from the mounting pile of bills what portion of the fantastical charges you actually must pay. It is the sickness that eventually afflicts most every American.
What’s less understood is the extent to which our current medical-billing system itself is responsible for the high prices patients are charged. There are, of course, many factors that have led to the United States’ record-breaking $3 trillion health care bill: runaway drug prices, excessive testing and sky-high charges for even the most basic medical interventions. But all of those individual price increases have been enabled — indeed, aided and abetted — by the complex system of billing and coding that underlies bills like those sent to Wickizer. That system, with its lines of alphanumeric codes and arcane medical abbreviations, has given birth to a gigantic new industry of consultants, armies of back-room experts whom medical providers and insurance companies deploy against each other in an endless war over which medical procedures were undertaken and how much to pay for them. Caught in the crossfire are Americans like Wanda Wickizer, left with huge bills and indecipherable explanations in languages they cannot possibly understand.
Disease-classification systems originated during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 17th-century London — epidemiologic constructs to classify and track causes of death and prevent the spread of infections among populations that spoke different languages. In the 1890s, the French physician and statistician Jacques Bertillon further systematized death reporting by introducing the Bertillon Classification of Causes of Death, the first medical-coding system, which was adopted and modified in many countries. It became an official global effort, which was periodically revised by an international commission. During the first half of the 20th century, the number of entries naturally increased with improved understanding of science, and many countries began tabulating not just causes of deaths but also the incidence of diseases.