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Surprise medical bills are landing millions of patients into debt

1 in 3 Tampa Bay area patients is in medical debt
Posted: 6:10 AM, Nov 21, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-22 00:08:08-05
high medical bill

TAMPA, Fla. — Shockingly high surprise medical bills are putting a strain on Floridians and pushing some into medical debt – including patients in the Tampa Bay area, the I-Team found.

A 2018 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 40 percent of Americans reported they received a surprisingly large medical bill within the past year. And in Florida, more than 600 people filed complaints over hospital billing errors since 2017, according to Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

“It is ridiculous the amount of time that is required to argue a bill,” said Jeanne Pinder of Clearhealthcosts.com. “A simple blood test could be as little as $9 or as much as much as $550 dollars.”

Experts also blame surprise bills for fueling the national epidemic of medical debt. Last year, the I-Team revealed medical debt plagues millions of Americans including one in three families in the Tampa Bay area.

I-Team Investigator Jackie Callaway spoke with Marie May, who battled and beat breast cancer only to be hit with thousands of dollars in surprise medical bills – even after she called her insurance company beforehand to verify how much her radiation treatment would cost.

May said she was quoted $900 for treatments at a freestanding medical facility, so she underwent radiation at Hollis Cancer Center in Lakeland, which brands itself as a freestanding medical center.

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When that’s now how May was billed. Lakeland Regional Medical Center, which is not a freestanding facility did the billing for Hollis and charged May $3,500 for her radiation treatments – nearly four times what she was expecting.

“I about had a heart attack and I thought, ‘Something’s wrong,’” said May, who told ABC Action News she doesn’t have the money to pay a bill that high.

Dr. Eric Haaff of Ohio said he experienced the same sticker shock after a trip to the Palms of Pasadena Hospital emergency room when he was on vacation in St. Petersburg this summer.

Haaff, who had cut his hand, said a physician assistant treated him.

“Once he cleaned it out, he just put in three stitches,” said Haaff.

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Those three stitches that triggered nearly $4,000 in medical bills – something Haaff called “outrageous.”

Palms of Pasadena Hospital charged Haaff $2,200 for the visit and the physician assistant who put the stitches in billed another $1,700 dollars.

In a letter to Haaff, the hospital said they reviewed the bill and “all charges were billed appropriately.”

Lakeland Regional wouldn’t speak with the I-Team about May’s case – even after she agreed to sign a patient privacy waiver.

But after the I-Team questioned the charges, May told ABC Action News a hospital representative called to say her bill would be reduced to zero.

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In Haaff’s case, Palms of Pasadena Hospital told the I-Team in an email, “The team at Palms of Pasadena Hospital thanks you for reaching out to us with this concern. It is our pleasure to serve the many visitors and winter residents who come to enjoy our beaches, and we certainly want to make sure they understand their insurance coverage and the services they received. We have reached out to the patient directly to discuss.”

Pinder recommends whenever patients get a quote in writing before undergoing any procedure, saying “It is much easier to get a firm price on the front end rather than get a bill on the back end and talk it down.”

When dealing with a surprise medical bill, patients should always ask for an itemized bill and confirm every charge and file an appeal with your health insurance company if you are denied for something the policy normally covers.

The website www.floridahealthfinder.gov offers resources to help you calculate medical costs beforehand. The site shows common procedures by county.

The Florida Hospital Association also reports medical procedure prices on its own website www.missiontocare.org.