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Emergency rooms

Consumers poorly informed about emergency room costs, study finds

Friday, March 15, 2013 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: emergency rooms, patient costs, unpredictable

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(NaturalNews) Emergency room charges vary so dramatically that it's impossible for consumers to know what kind of bill they're going to be stuck with, according to a study led by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and published in the journal PLOS ONE.

For example, the out-of-pocket patient cost for treating a sprain varied from $4 to $24,110.

"Our study shows unpredictable and wide differences in health care costs for patients,'' senior author Renee Y. Hsia said.

"Patients actually have very little knowledge about the costs of their health care, including emergency visits that may or may not be partially covered by insurance,'' she said. "Much of this information is far too difficult to obtain.''

Researchers from Stanford University, the Ecologic Institute and the University of Minnesota also participated in the study.

The findings have serious implications for the ongoing national debate over healthcare costs. Emergency rooms are an important area where such costs could be managed, the researchers noted, particularly in the case of non-time sensitive conditions. While it's obvious that the uninsured suffer from exorbitant emergency room costs, the insured bear the burden as well, in the form of larger co-payments and deductibles.

Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population visits an emergency room each year. People without health insurance are significantly more likely to make such visits, particularly in the case of non-emergencies.

Shocking cost spread

The researchers examined records from the 10 most common conditions leading to 76 million emergency room visits between 2006 and 2008. All patients included in the study were between the ages of 18 and 64, which is the age range that typically faces the greatest out-of-pocket health charges. Visits that led to hospitalization were excluded. The researchers calculated the total charges billed to either the patients or their providers, regardless of whether the patient was insured or how much their insurance ended up covering. Costs included medical tests, care and treatment.

Costs for all 10 conditions varied to a shocking degree. For example, the cost of treating a headache ranged from $15 to $17,797, the cost of treating intestinal infections from $29 to $29,551, the cost of treating kidney stones from $128 to $39,408, and the cost of treating urinary tract infections from $50 to $73,002.

The researchers found that uninsured patients were typically charged the least (median charge $1,178), while Medicaid patients were charged the most (median $1,305). Charges to patients with private insurance fell in between (median $1,245). The most expensive condition to treat, on average, was kidney stones (median charge $3,437) while the least expensive was upper respiratory infections (median charge $740).

When possible, consumers should attempt to ascertain how much they will be charged before consenting to emergency room treatment, the researchers said, urging treatment centers to be more transparent about their prices.

"While most patients with time-sensitive conditions ... may not be in a position to make decisions about their care based on costs or charges," the researchers wrote, "there are many situations in which patients could reasonably inquire about the potential financial implications of their medical care."



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