We Asked People About Their Most Outrageous Medical Bills
"I have another cavity that needs filling, but I guess I'll just live with it."
Dan Brownsword / Getty Images
You're not just imagining it: Healthcare in the United States is hella expensive. Like, twice as much as it is in other developed nations expensive. If the healthcare sector had its own economy, it'd be the world's fifth-largest economy. But still. $710 for an hour of babysitting at the hospital? More than 33 grand for unspecified "supplies?"
If you take a trip to the ER, are uninsured, or just don't know what a certain drug or test is going to cost you, unexpected health care costs can add up faster than you can say "Affordable Care Act." We asked people to share their most over-the-top billing nightmares.
Alyssa Mastrocco, 27, Brooklyn, New York
Cancer runs pretty strongly in my family. I also grew up in a town with statistically higher rates of cancer, and where I knew four or five kids whose moms died of breast cancer when we were young. Put all this together and I didn't really hesitate when my doctor asked if I wanted to be tested for the cancer gene, BRCA. The problem was that my insurance company wouldn't always cover it. The nurse taking my blood said they would look into it and cancel the test if the insurance company would require me to pay out of pocket.
They kept saying how expensive it was to test for this kind of thing. I didn't know just how expensive it would be until I got the bill—apparently, they'd never canceled the test, and I was in the hole for almost $6,000. I was also screwed by signing the standard "financial responsibility" form they give you as a new patient. I'm in the process of appealing it, but it's taking forever.
Lindsey Nogueira, 26, Milford, Massachusetts
A month after I turned 26 (and came off my parents' health insurance) I fainted at a metal show in Boston and was taken away in an ambulance. They ran many tests including a CAT scan and found no cause except that I must have fainted from "stress" or a "vasovagal episode."
For months afterwards, I kept getting bills in the mail. I knew the bill for the ambulance would be expensive, but not $1,400. That wasn't even half of it. I got more and more bills—one for $600 from a doctor I don't even remember seeing. These amounted to over $3,000 total. I do have health insurance through my work at Whole Foods, but I have a high deductible ($3,500) so until I pay that I have to pay out of pocket for most things. This was the first time I was ever in an ambulance and will hopefully be the last, at least until I get better health insurance or hospitals stop taking advantage of people with high deductible insurance from their job where they earn $12 an hour.
Will To, 29, Queens, New York
In March 2016, I went to the hospital with severe stomach pains because I thought I had appendicitis. After undergoing a CAT scan and waiting for hours in an overcrowded waiting room, they released me and told me that nothing was wrong. The bill came out to $2,600, split into three parts: $1,900 for the emergency room fee, which included the solution for the CAT scan, needles, and IV and other equipment, $526 for the emergency room doctor, and $126 for the CAT scan specialist. Granted, this isn't as much as the original amount, which came out to approximately $12,000 ... but still, it was more than I could afford to pay. They refused to negotiate it down further.
Further, I had to spend hours on the phone getting them to itemize the bills, and all departments were separate from each other. To me, this indicated a top-heavy bureaucracy, one where administrative costs account for more than the actual care.
Quána Madison, 36, Boulder, Colorado
I only have ten more years to live, and I've almost died several times in these last few months. My health changes as my cancer [progresses]. It's been shocking to see the financial part; I'm going to have to declare bankruptcy. And I used to have perfect—excuse my language—fucking credit. It sucks. From the first time I was working at 13 under the table—I had to, as a homeless youth—I worked very hard to establish my credit and follow the rules, and it's been the most dehumanizing experience of the last two years, everything with my health stuff. In terms of the cost, just recently, my medical bill was well over $50,000. And that's not even counting everything. I can't be in school full time because I'm too disabled, so I lost my health insurance. Right now, I need to find a job that wants to hire me.
Ashley Edinger, 25, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
I get recurring ovarian cysts, which usually break down, but mine tend to stick around and burst. I was in Lancaster [Pennsylvania] one time and went to the Heart of Lancaster emergency room with a terrible pain in my ovaries. I was asked so many questions about my sex life; not a single doctor laid a hand on me or drew blood for tests. I was told to take a pregnancy test, and when it was negative they asked me to leave.
Three or four days later I was in surgery to have a dermoid cyst [a noncancerous growth often present since birth] removed. If it would have burst before my surgery I could've died from infection. I still got handed a hefty bill from Lancaster for upwards of $1,500 for literally nothing. We tried and tried to fight it, threatening to sue, and it ended up in collections because I refused to pay a cent. And on top of that, my surgery cost a couple grand.
TJ Copello, 29, Kingston, New Hampshire
In November of 2015, my band and I were on tour in New York. I woke up the morning after Halloween having had an allergic reaction to the mascara I had on the night before. My entire eye was swollen. I went to the ER at my mother's request with no insurance. They sat me in a chair in the hall and someone came over, looked at it real quick, and said something along the lines of, "It's just a stye. There's nothing we can really do for it. Hot compress twice a day..." They prescribed me an eye ointment and sent me on my way. I was there maybe five minutes. I never even entered an actual emergency room. The ointment itself was $20, but the bill I received in the mail about two months later was for $650.
In March of 2016, while touring Germany, I fell ill with a stomach virus. I was physically weak, pale, and couldn't hold anything down. I was driven to a hospital and had to be wheeled into the ER. An American tourist, once again without health insurance. I was immediately hooked up to an IV and allowed to sleep for at least an hour. When I awoke, I was given a urine test. As I left in a wheelchair, I was told it only cost about $100, and the prescription I was given cost just $5. While the $650 might not be as outrageous as some other bills on this list, the drastic difference between the two experiences certainly was.
Rachel Hock, 30, Boston, Massachusetts
About a year ago, I went to the dentist to have two cavities filled. I have dental insurance, but it was my first time going to the dentist on my own insurance and not my parents', and it cost me $600. I'd had major jaw surgery about six months prior, and my total co-pay for a $200k surgery was $800, so it was totally bananas to me that two fillings could be $600.
They said it was because they used white filling instead of silver and they were "back teeth" and that silver fillings are now shown to have some dangerous side effects. I have another cavity that needs filling, but I guess I'll just live with it.
Violet Neff, 22, Poultney, Vermont
When I was eighteen I went to get an IUD at a local hospital. The vast majority of the procedure was definitely going to be covered by insurance, so I felt good about the decision I was making. But there were some complications during insertion and I was sent downstairs to radiology to have an ultrasound, which lasted hours and was very painful.
I got a call a few days later and was told I had a cyst which looked like it might become cancerous and that I should come back for another ultrasound the following month. I went back for the second ultrasound, and eventually, everything was fine in terms of my health. However, a few months later I got a bill from the hospital for over $7,000—despite not having been informed or given explicit options in terms of procedures which would or would not be covered by my insurance.
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