National trauma expert calls Florida's trauma costs "unsustainable"

New level-two centers threaten to dismantle system

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Chances are one in four that you or a close family member will be a trauma patient sometime in your life.

But one of the nation's top trauma experts says rising trauma costs in Florida could threaten the very system we all depend on to provide that care.

Eric Leonhard's life was turned upside down by a 2012 limo crash.

Since then, the uninsured boat captain has spent his days trying to recover from both physical and financial pain.

“There are so many bills you can't even comprehend,” Leonhard said.

He is one of thousands of trauma patients charged high costs for treatment at Florida's new for-profit, level-two trauma centers operated by Hospital Corporation of America.

“They have figured out a way to gouge the patient who is brought to them virtually without any knowledge or no choice,” said Connie Potter, one of the nation’s top experts when it comes to trauma care.

Potter served for a decade as president of the Trauma Association of America and helped develop trauma activation fees to fund such things as equipment, training and on-call pay.

A recent investigation by the I-Team in partnership with the Tampa Bay Times revealed those fees have skyrocketed to up to $33,000 at some HCA hospitals, 4 1/2 times higher than at non-HCA trauma centers.

“The cost is simply unsustainable. It's outrageous,” Potter said.

Those high costs are even passed along in cases where patients have relatively minor injuries.  

Mason Jwanouskos got a $33,000 charge the second he arrived at HCA-owned Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point’s trauma center for a concussion. His bill rose to $99,000 in about a day.

“The initial fees that they bring out, it's unimaginable,” said Mason’s father, Bruce Jwanouskos.

HCA defends its billing, saying in a statement to the I-Team, "What patients pay has more to do with whether they are covered by Medicare or Medicaid, the type of insurance they have, or if they receive an uninsured or charity discount." 

Potter believes what's happening in Florida now could unravel years of careful, deliberate planning.

“What you have going on now is not best for the patient. There may be a few glowing examples, but for the most part, it defies all the rules of trauma systems,” said Potter.

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