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Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us


Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us
By Steven Brill, Feb. 20, 2013

1. Routine Care, Unforgettable Bills
When Sean Recchi, a 42-year-old from Lancaster, Ohio, was told last March that he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his wife Stephanie knew she had to get him to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Stephanie’s father had been treated there 10 years earlier, and she and her family credited the doctors and nurses at MD Anderson with extending his life by at least eight years.

Because Stephanie and her husband had recently started their own small technology business, they were unable to buy comprehensive health insurance. For $469 a month, or about 20% of their income, they had been able to get only a policy that covered just $2,000 per day of any hospital costs. “We don’t take that kind of discount insurance,” said the woman at MD Anderson when Stephanie called to make an appointment for Sean.

Stephanie was then told by a billing clerk that the estimated cost of Sean’s visit — just to be examined for six days so a treatment plan could be devised — would be $48,900, due in advance. Stephanie got her mother to write her a check. “You do anything you can in a situation like that,” she says. The Recchis flew to Houston, leaving Stephanie’s mother to care for their two teenage children.

About a week later, Stephanie had to ask her mother for $35,000 more so Sean could begin the treatment the doctors had decided was urgent. His condition had worsened rapidly since he had arrived in Houston. He was “sweating and shaking with chills and pains,” Stephanie recalls. “He had a large mass in his chest that was … growing. He was panicked.”

Nonetheless, Sean was held for about 90 minutes in a reception area, she says, because the hospital could not confirm that the check had cleared. Sean was allowed to see the doctor only after he advanced MD Anderson $7,500 from his credit card. The hospital says there was nothing unusual about how Sean was kept waiting. According to MD Anderson communications manager Julie Penne, “Asking for advance payment for services is a common, if unfortunate, situation that confronts hospitals all over the United States.”

Sean Recchi

Sean Recchi
Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 42. Total cost, in advance, for Sean’s treatment plan and initial doses of chemotherapy: $83,900. Charges for blood and lab tests amounted to more than $15,000; with Medicare, they would have cost a few hundred dollars

The total cost, in advance, for Sean to get his treatment plan and initial doses of chemotherapy was $83,900.


The first of the 344 lines printed out across eight pages of his hospital bill — filled with indecipherable numerical codes and acronyms — seemed innocuous. But it set the tone for all that followed. It read, “1 ACETAMINOPHE TABS 325 MG.” The charge was only $1.50, but it was for a generic version of a Tylenol pill. You can buy 100 of them on Amazon for $1.49 even without a hospital’s purchasing power.


3 thoughts on “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us

  1. Most relevant to Ridgewood is the expose of the hospitals amazing profits, and need to continually expand, buy doctors’ practices, etc. The pay of their executives, their p.r., all at the expense of the residents. Its not the doctors or the nurses who benefit, it is the hospital and the health care industry itself. The hospitals are scrambling to play down this amazing story, but they cannot. The non profit argument is a myth, and even if some people want P.I.L.O.T it is a false argument, cause it wouldn’t matter to the hospitals bottom line, they make so much money and they would use this as an argument to expand.

  2. Something to think about: I had an emergency operation that cost 19000 and change. My insurance paid for it sans the deductible. About a year later I’m discussing the cost of the operation with an employee from valley. She said ” your insurance didn’t pay 19000 dollars for that operation they probably paid between 8800 and 9300 for. BUT if I did’t have insurance I would be on the hook for the whole 19000, And in nj the hospital could put a lein on my house for the payment. If the hospital can charge the ins co. those figures why do they get away with beating up the uninsured for whole inflated bill?

  3. Healthcare is the biggest scam in this country.
    The article even made Medicare out to be a hero, believe it or not. The real reason for the valley expansion is nicely explained here.

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