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Deciphering your hospital bill — good luck with that

Deciphering your hospital bill — good luck with that
Blue Shield of California says it follows the "industry standard" for disclosing healthcare costs to policyholders -- that is, telling them as little as possible. (Getty Images)

Denis Robinson wasn't bothered in the least that he was billed nearly $100,000 by Providence Tarzana Medical Center for the recent removal of his gallbladder.

"What do I care?" he said. "I have Medicare Plan F, the Cadillac of Medicare plans. They covered every dime."

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Actually, Robinson, 69, should care a great deal. Medicare is a taxpayer-funded system, so any claim submitted by a doctor or hospital affects the financial integrity of the entire program. The fact that Medicare paid less than $4,000 for a $97,000 claim — we'll get back to that in a moment.

What sizzled Robinson's bacon was the explanation of benefits he received from Blue Shield of California, through which he purchased his supplemental Medicare coverage and which covered about $900 of his massive hospital bill. It features three pages of itemized costs, each listed only as "surgical services."

Seriously. Three pages of individual charges, ranging from $1 to $66,607, and no way to tell what any particular one might be for, or whether there were any errors or instances of double billing, or just the perverse satisfaction of knowing that $100 was paid for a Tylenol.

I pointed to a charge for $49.50. What's that for? What about this one for $132.04?

"I have no clue," Robinson replied. "I have no way of knowing."

He could narrow down the possibilities. Each listing for a surgical service was accompanied by a billing code. A little rooting around online will reveal, for instance, that code 0636 is pharmacy-related. But it's anyone's guess what that may be.

This is, to put it mildly, nuts.

How can a hospital charge $97,000 for a procedure that Medicare and Blue Shield say is fairly valued at closer to $4,500, the total Providence received? Why aren't all costs made clear to patients in their explanations of benefits, which insurers send policyholders ostensibly to shed light on the billing process?

"The way it's set up, medical billing isn't at all useful to the patient," acknowledged Paul Ginsburg, director of public policy at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics. "It's not designed to let you understand things."

A key problem is that almost the entire financial conversation regarding healthcare goes on behind closed doors between insurers on the one hand and doctors and hospitals on the other. The patient, who typically pays only a fraction of the overall cost, is little more than an afterthought.

However, that system was established before the current era of rising deductibles and co-pays, leaving patients responsible for an ever-growing share of medical costs, and before hospitals started defraying overhead expenses by charging $10 for a Band-Aid, say, or $50 for a piece of gauze.

"Hospital spending is so difficult to get under control because the patient has no idea about actual costs," said Craig Garthwaite, an assistant professor of strategy at Northwestern University who focuses on healthcare.

The explanations of benefits that patients receive typically contain "fictional numbers that have no relation to the economics of what's going on," he said.

Clinton McGue, a Blue Shield spokesman, demonstrated the lunacy of medical billing by explaining that even though the insurer receives its own receipt from the hospital for all services rendered, spelling out details of each and every cost, Blue Shield feels no need to share such information with policyholders in its explanations of benefits, or EOBs.

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"Blue Shield provides industry-standard EOBs to its members," he said, in effect admitting that the company denies patients helpful information because everyone else does. McGue said that if people want a proper explanation of benefits, they can request one from the hospital.

I pointed out that since Blue Shield is sending out an explanation of benefits anyway, why not include real information?

"We adhere to an industry standard with EOBs," McGue reiterated. "We will provide the detail if asked, but we think that it is best for the member to review and discuss the services with the provider."

Patricia Aidem, a spokeswoman for Providence Health & Services, which runs half a dozen hospitals in Southern California, acknowledged that the billing system can be a challenge for most people.

"This is absolutely something that needs to be fixed and Providence is working to create and implement solutions that will make this easier for patients," she said.

Well, let's start with Robinson's bill. Providence charged $97,000 for his operation and then, according to the explanation of benefits, willingly wrote off more than $90,000 as the "amount saved by using a network provider." That's a pretty hefty markup for anyone visiting the hospital on an out-of-network basis.

Aidem declined to elaborate on how the hospital arrived at these figures. She said only that "Medicare pays a preset, non-negotiable rate for diagnoses and procedures" and that "hospitals almost always lose money on Medicare cases."

The federal Medicare Payment Advisory Commission says the average hospital is paid about 95 cents for every dollar spent treating a Medicare patient. Hospitals recoup some of those losses from the rates they charge private insurers. Hospitals also balance their books by charging uninsured patients about three times, on average, what Medicare allows, according to the journal Health Affairs.

If that sounds like a profit grab, Providence's initial bill to Robinson — the starting price, presumably, for someone without coverage — was more than 20 times higher than what it received from Medicare and Blue Shield.

"This just shows that the system is crazy and that it's manipulated by healthcare providers for their benefit," said Alain Enthoven, a Stanford University health economist.

Here's a thought: How about a requirement that explanations of benefits truly explain benefits, clearly and precisely?

Or we can just keep things as they are, forcing patients to seek explanations for their explanations.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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