Raising Women’s Voices

The health care costs of bringing home baby

Posted in Insurance companies, Maternity Care by raisingwomensvoices on May 13, 2009

maternity hospital bills picWhile not the most exciting part of getting pregnant and having a baby, welcoming another member into any family is a major financial undertaking.  But even before expecting mothers and families start paying for food, clothes, childcare, and schooling, bringing a new baby into the world can place a huge financial burden on families in the first moments and days of their babies’ lives. 

Anna Wilde Mathews had a piece in the Wall Street Journal on May 7 about the hospital bills for the uncomplicated traditional delivery of her baby son last December.  As someone who is fortunate enough to have good health insurance, she did not have to pay much of the $36,625 bill that was sent to her home for three days of care, which charged her and her son separately.  Mathews stresses how important it is for expecting mothers, and patients in general, to have an idea in advance of how much they are going to owe for a hospital visit.  But in order to be informed “consumers” of health care, information needs to be made more accessible to patients.  In the weeks leading up to and following her son’s birth, Mathews had a difficult time getting her hands on specific, understandable information about the services she was charged for and the ultimate price she would have to cover out-of-pocket after her insurance company negotiated costs with the hospital.

In a call to her insurance company prior to her due date, Mathews asked how much the bill would be, assuming an uncomplicated delivery.  She never received a direct answer, and searching through the company’s website only got her an average expected cost for Los Angeles-area hospitals — no information was available for the specific hospital she had in mind.  When she did eventually receive five separate bills for her and her son’s stays in the hospital, the charges for each indivdual component of care seemed to her “stunningly high,” but she had little way of knowing whether such pricetags were generally accepted as appropriate for these services, or if something was wrong.

Furthermore, while Mathews’ plan places a $2,000 cap on her annual out-of-pocket charges on in-network care, she was unaware that when her son was born, he, too, came with a $2,000 cap, doubling the maximum amount she could be charged out-of-pocket for their care.

To decipher other items, I decided to check out consumer services that advise people about medical bills… Although my bills were hard to decipher, I couldn’t point to any mistakes in them, so I paid up. The experience left me befuddled, though. To be smart medical consumers, we need to be able to easily learn and compare prices for medical services. And we should have a way to effectively check our bills.

Mathews says that hospitals and insurers are aware of these problems in transparency and some are trying to work together to keep patients more informed.  Some hospitals have experts on-call 24 hours a day to answer patients’ questions about projected costs; others have websites capable of generating estimated out-of-pocket costs for a particular patient.  Her insurance company and the hospital where she delivered her son later informed Mathews that she could have called the hospital for an advanced estimate of out-of-pocket costs (although she was never informed of this option) and that they were working to add hospital-specific cost information to the insurer’s website.

A spokesperson for the insurance company later told Mathews they “view [it] as an error” that their customer-service representative failed to tell Mathews about her baby’s deductible in advance.

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  1. […] 13, 2009 On the heels of an earlier post about unexpected and hidden costs of child birth care, comes a discussion about transparency and […]

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