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Meet America’s insane health-care pricing: My brush with the $2,809 raisin

By Paul Hellweg
DEC 22, 2019 AT 5:00 AM

Michele’s raisin was just the start of the tale. (Courtesy of Paul Hellweg)

According to a new study, Americans spend an estimated $231-241 billion more on health-care every year than they otherwise would in a more competitive market. Most people aren’t aware of how truly egregious that pricing can be. Here’s a personal example. Look up at the title of this essay. That’s what it cost my wife and me to have a nurse practitioner remove a raisin from our 2-year-old daughter’s nose. 

We didn’t even get to keep the raisin. It was all gooey and yucky, and the NP simply threw it in a wastebasket. The extraction was done with an ordinary pair of tweezers; the whole process took a minute or so. At that point, things could’ve proceeded one of two ways. Our daughter could’ve been given a lollipop and a pat on the head and sent home with no charge because no time or expense was involved. Or the hospital could’ve charged us $2,809. 

Time for a little backstory: We were at a library about 70 miles from Frazier Park, Calif. Snack time led to a playful little girl stuffing said raisin (which cost less than a penny at this point) up her nostril. Mommy and daddy were worried that our little bundle of joy might aspirate the you-know-what, so off we rushed to a nearby urgent care center. We expected to pay $50 or so to get the raisin removed before the minor incident turned into a true medical problem. The receptionist directed us to the local ER. We went to the Northridge Hospital Medical Center. Once there and after signing lots of forms, we were ushered into a large room with a few other people already present. A nurse practitioner motioned us over and had Mommy sit in a chair to hold the squirming little one. Then the NP grabbed those tweezers and extracted the raisin. One minute down. 

We were billed $394 for “emergency services.” I have no idea what that was, but it clearly was not a reference to extracting the raisin. The nasal surgery — yes, surgery — was $565. So what was the “emergency service”? Could it have been the couple seconds it took the NP to motion us over? I don’t see what else it could’ve been, because we were billed an additional $1,850 for use of the emergency room. All in all, our bill came to the aforementioned $2,809. I’m just glad we didn’t get that lollipop because I hate to think how much that hospital’s “food service” would’ve cost. 

$1,850 for use of the ER? Yes, and heaven only knows what that was all about. Most of our time was spent filling out paperwork — surely we weren’t being charged for the time that took. But it looks as if we paid big-time for someone else’s paperwork. Health-care administrative costs — including billing and reporting to insurance — run about $266 billion per year. 

No, we didn’t foot the entire bill out of pocket. First, our insurance company got those charges reduced by $560. Then our coverage paid $1,385; we have had to fork over the remaining $864. 

In retrospect, I can see how it costs $266 billion for billing. A person might think that one visit to one hospital would result in one bill. Wrong; we were billed by two different departments, both of which sent multiple versions. Combined with receipts and insurance notifications, we have a file folder of paperwork devoted to this single experience. I will never go to an ER again unless it’s a serious crisis or life-threatening medical emergency. It is, after all, called an emergency room for reasons that should be obvious. But my wife and I were worried, and we had naively expected treatment based on reasonable charges. That’s an assumption I will never fall victim to again. The reality is I’ve lost my respect for and trust in our health care system. Something is wrong, and I don’t know how to fix it. 

If only the problem were as easy to address as that pesky raisin.

Hellweg is a freelance writer.

© Paul Hellweg. All rights reserved.