First the cat, now the health system puts the bite on me

A $55,000 hospital bill includes $16 for a generic Tylenol pill. Obamacare may end the systematic inflation of prices.

Call it the $55,000 cat bite.

That's the rough total in medical costs (so far) for a cat bite on my hand that turned into an infection that turned into surgery that turned into a week in the hospital. Cruddy cat.

When I first wrote about the episode in November, I observed that it opened my eyes about various aspects of the healthcare system, not the least of which was the extraordinary care provided by nurses and the state-of-the-art resources available to doctors.

I still have my left hand, thanks to them.

But the bill has finally arrived, and I'm a good deal less impressed with the money side of our medical system. Put simply, it's nuts.

Quiz: Test your healthcare knowledge

Case in point: My cozy hospital room at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica was priced at $4,000 a night. Four thousand. You can book a 1,400-square-foot Premier Suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel for less than that.

Another case in point: Sixteen bucks for a Tylenol. Actually, not even a proper Tylenol. That's for the generic equivalent.

"It's totally crazy," admitted Dr. David Feinberg, who isn't just some innocent bystander when it comes to UCLA's medical pricing. He's the president of UCLA Health System. He runs the place.

"Our billing system is terrible," Feinberg told me. "I get some explanations of benefits from my insurer, and I don't understand what they are."

To be fair, it's not just UCLA that's guilty of loony pricing. It's almost all hospitals and clinics.

This is the flip side to our exceptional levels of treatment — the insane and systematic inflation of prices to accommodate contracts with insurers and so-called cost shifting that leaves people lucky enough to have insurance holding the bag for those who don't.

Happily, that system may be coming to an end thanks to Obamacare. More on that in a moment.

First, let's take a closer look at some of the charges I racked up during my hospital stay. At four grand a night, that's $24,000 right there.

The surgery on my hand: $12,282. Anesthesia: $780. MRI: $3,290. Assorted drugs: $3,412. Laboratory services: $4,534. Inserting a tube in my arm so I could have an intravenous drip at home: $2,352.

All in all, the various services and supplies I received were priced at $52,660.53. The assorted doctor visits and physical-therapy appointments that have accompanied this mess added a few thousand more to the equation.

My employer-provided insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, will cover $38,448 of the hospital bill. My total amount due: $1,504.47.

That leaves $14,212.53 unaccounted for. Feinberg said it simply has disappeared. Poof!

"It's funny money," he explained. "It's not even there."

Now, I just want to point out that we spend nearly $3 trillion a year on healthcare in this country, which represents about 17% of the overall economy, which is more than any other country in the world. And we're talking about funny money?

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