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I am a physician who has served the Northern Virginia community for over 12 years, and I have seen many trends in health care that aren’t in the best interest of our patients. Hospital consolidations are one such trend, where large systems buy up other hospitals, independent physician offices and freestanding diagnostic and care facilities – and then add extra, unnecessary charges on patients’ medical bills for providing exactly the same services.
I am hopeful this unethical practice will end. Ensuring patients pay the same price for the same service is an important step toward holding prices in check and making health care affordable. Congress is considering proposals to stop these medically unnecessary fees, and to help rein in already unaffordable health care costs.
When a hospital buys up small practices, patients who had seen their doctor there for many years now suddenly find themselves being charged more money to see the same doctor, talk with the same staff and undergo the same tests, treatment and therapies. The only difference in their experience is that the once-independent doctor’s office has now been branded with the large hospital system’s logo – and their medical bill, under this new logo, is more expensive.
Hospitals are designating these offices and freestanding facilities as “hospital outpatient departments.” This allows them to game the system and insert extra fees into patients’ medical bills.
My in-state and out-of-state colleagues say they see the same thing, although many are reluctant to speak out because they may now be employed by the same hospital corporations that exploit loopholes and gray areas to squeeze patients and pad their profit margins.
Nationally, a growing number of notorious cases have caught the attention of policymakers. One involved a 3-year-old who had an evaluation for speech therapy done online via telehealth, only for his mother to get a whopping $847 bill for using the hospital’s equipment staff and records, even though they were nowhere near the hospital. These fees blindside millions of Americans every year — at a time when four in 10 Americans are delaying care because they can’t afford it.
Meanwhile, health care mergers have been surging in recent years and more than half of all physicians are now employed by hospitals and health systems. These health care mergers and acquisitions are bad news for working families who are already facing rising costs everywhere else. When a hospital buys a doctor’s office, costs go up an average of 14% and much more for some procedures, such as ultrasounds (double the price) and biopsies (five-fold, from $146 to $791 on average).
Sticker shock doesn’t just hit individual patients. We all pay, because as health care costs continue to increase, premiums for all of us increase. And evidence shows, and doctors have known for a long time, that people skip getting care when health care gets too expensive and unaffordable.
Hospitals in our community are full of skilled and dedicated health care professionals who work hard to keep everyone safe and healthy. The corporations they work for, however, are seizing every opportunity, however unjustifiable, to pad their profits and increase their CEO salaries.
I tell my patients to look closely at every hospital bill and know that the extra fee hospitals add to their bills is sometimes medically unnecessary, ethically dubious and does nothing to improve their care. My patients are fed up. So am I, and a growing number of my fellow physicians. It’s time for Congress to act.
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