Hospital pricing: You've lost our trust

Americans can't get reliable estimates for what the services provided by hospitals will cost, according to a recent Kaiser Health News (KHN) report. In the example provided by KHN, a hospital negotiated with an uninsured motorcyclist prior to surgery for his broken leg and set a price (at a 30 percent discount) of $8,260 up-front. A month later, the hospital came back and told him he owed an additional $10,000.

Discussing the perils of obtaining a straight answer about the cost of hospital services, an American Hospital Association spokesman told Congress that meaningful upfront pricing was hindered by the different needs of patients.

But let's be clear: While a patient's clinical needs can impact which services they need at the point of care, they also need to be able to trust their healthcare providers. As an uninsured consumer of healthcare services for the 10-plus years of my freelance career, I can tell you that:

(1) I wouldn't have trusted that the $8,260 original bill really represented a 30 percent discount because pricing is so inconsistent across payers, particularly individual payers; and

(2) I wouldn't have trusted that the additional $10,000 was in fact a valid charge for a service that I was provided.

Hospitals have done little to demonstrate that they have costed out their services and added in a reasonable profit to set a reasonable charge. The sad truth is that, in addition to dealing with the emotional and physical trauma of whatever healthcare problems have landed patients in the hospital to begin with, many patients now have the added worry of trying to make sure they aren't bilked by their healthcare provider. I realize that's a strong word, something normally associated with con men and the like, but that's the feeling patients are left with when they realize they can't trust their hospital bills. - Caralyn