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Patients Blame Hospitals for High Medical Bills

Analysis  |  By Alexandra Wilson Pecci  
   September 14, 2018

When asked which groups are most responsible for surprise medical bills, 82% said hospitals were 'very' or 'somewhat' responsible.

Patients are nearly as likely to blame hospitals for their surprise medical bills as their insurance company, finds a new survey from NORC at the University of Chicago.

When asked which groups are most responsible for surprise medical bills, 82% said hospitals were "very" or "somewhat" responsible.

Eighty-six percent of respondents said insurance companies are "very" or "somewhat" responsible.

This hospital blame game played out in real life recently when St. David's Medical Center in Austin, Texas, got slammed in the media over a teacher's $109,000 heart attack bill.

The bill was featured in Kaiser Health News' and NPR's "Bill of the Month" series, which scrutinizes high or confusing medical bills.

Several factors reportedly stacked up against the teacher, including his insurance coverage and visiting an out-of-network hospital. Indeed, the NORC survey shows 20% of respondents' surprise bills were a result of a doctor not being part of their insurance network.

However, it was St. David's Medical Center that got the brunt of the blame in the media.

They also eventually ate the original bill: NPR reported that after its story, the hospital reduced the patient's responsibility to just $332.

The NORC survey shows that getting surprised by a medical bill is fairly common: 57% of respondents have experienced this kind of healthcare sticker shock.

"Most Americans have been surprised by medical bills that they expected would be covered by their insurance," Caroline Pearson, senior fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago, said in a statement. "This suggests that consumers may have difficulty understanding their insurance benefits or knowing which providers are included in their plan's network."

Of course, the "surprise bill" is only the tip of the nonpayment iceberg, though: A Commonwealth Fund survey from May showed that 46% of people would not have the money to pay a $1,000 medical bill within 30 days in the case of an unexpected medical event.

That's why some hospitals are turning to a consumerist approach to pricing and billing, including competitively pricing their services, publicly publishing their prices, and giving consumers ways to pay their hospital bill upfront.

Alexandra Wilson Pecci is an editor for HealthLeaders.

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