culture, politics, commentary, criticism

Tuesday, March 16, 2004
Those galling medical bills. If Ashcroft were uninsured for his recent bout with gallstone pancreatitis, he'd probably be mighty pissed at Dan Frosch for writing
While it's almost impossible to figure out the exact figure on Ashcroft's bill, one can estimate. Five days in an ICU unit alone at Providence Hospital in Washington, for example, would run up to $30,000. And then there's the laparoscopic gall bladder surgery and the five days in recovery -- which could cost an additional $28,000 (according to Fairview University Medical Center in Minneapolis). But there are still all the expert doctors who've visited him daily and have their own separate charges. That price tag might run Ashcroft as much as $5000 for the ten days he's in the hospital, says Dr. Quentin Young, PNHP's National Coordinator and former Director of Medicine at Cook County Hospital. Using such rough estimates, Ashcroft is told he'll have to fork over at least $63,000.

Shocked at such an outrageous figure, Ashcroft insists there's no way in hell he can pay that amount of money and begins to explain his situation.

A financial counselor enters the room and tells Ashcroft that the hospital has done a little research on his "situation," and because he does have assets and a steady source of income, however small, he's not eligible for the hospital's charity fund, reserved for those who truly have no resources. The counselor says the hospital can put Ashcroft on an assistance program, where he'd be charged an incremental fee depending on his financial status. Or, if he's lucky, the hospital might eat a percentage of the bill -- again, based on his status.

The counselor doesn't mention it, but he knows that if Ashcroft doesn't make his payments he can send collection agents after him, and eventually take him to court if need be. After all, the hospital is already strapped for cash and has spent a lot of money treating Ashcroft. Besides, just letting uninsured patients walk out the door could force the hospital to close. Everyone knows what happened to D.C. General.

The D.C. Hospital Association doesn't keep track of how often its hospitals go after patients who cannot pay, but as David Sparks, Chief Financial Officer of Providence Hospital, puts it, "Collections happen every day and every week. It's part of the standard process."

In the end, says Dr. Quentin Young, there's a good chance Ashcroft will have to pay much of the money he owes in some capacity, or face a lien on everything he owns. The fact is, according to Roger Whelan, a resident scholar at the American Bankruptcy Institute and a former bankruptcy judge, medical bills attributed to a lack of insurance or insufficient coverage are a leading reason why a record 1.7 million bankruptcies occurred in this country last year.
So much Department, so little Justice...

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