Perhaps the most monstrous thing about the American medical system — and the bar for that title is high indeed — is predatory billing.
A great many medical providers adjust their prices based on how defenseless the patient is, and bleed the weakest ones for every last red cent, often with preposterously inflated charges for things like aspirin and bandages. A 2015 study looked at the worst price gougers in the country and found 50 hospitals that charged uninsured people roughly 10 times the actual cost of care.
Key to this practice is something called “balance billing,” and it’s why the American Medical Association is strongly supporting Donald Trump’s pick of Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicare. Balance billing is forbidden for Medicare enrollees, but Price wants to allow it — thus allowing doctors and hospitals to devour the nest eggs of thousands of American seniors.
So what is balance billing? It’s the practice of billing the patient for the difference between the sticker price and what insurance will pay. So if a hospital visit costs $1,000, but your insurance will only cover $300, some providers will “balance bill” you for $700.
For unscrupulous providers, the method of exploitation is obvious: When doing any sort of expensive procedure, take a rough estimate of the absolute maximum the patient can pay, and jack up the price so the balance hits it. Or if you’re short on time, just bill them into the stratosphere, and you’ll get whatever the patient has during the bankruptcy proceeding.
Balance billing is basically illegal for Medicare patients, and heavily restricted for Medicaid patients. It was restricted under the Affordable Care Act as well, but only partially. Out-of-network care — increasingly common as insurance networks get narrower and narrower — can still be balance billed even if it is for an emergency, both for ACA plans and employer-provided ones, and doesn’t have to be counted toward out-of-pocket limits. People being blindsided by immense out-of-network bills — going to an in-network hospital that employs an out-of-network surgeon they conveniently failed to tell you about, for example — is an increasingly common experience. That is why ObamaCare failed to stop people being bankrupted by medical debt (though it did slow medical bankruptcies substantially).