Shocking medical costs an eye-opener for this patient

This week I accompanied my Uncle Gene, 82, for his lab tests. He’d been feeling dizzy, and his doc suggested he wait three months to see if the symptoms disappeared of their own accord. The dizzy spells increased. The doctor prescribed a medication and changed the dosage of another medicine, but the spells continually worsened. In addition, he now has unpredictable stabbing pains in his head that stop him mid-step for a few minutes, until they disappear as mysteriously as they attack.

Uncle’s doctor ordered blood work, an EKG, a CT scan, an echocardiogram, and a check of his arterial blood flow to his head, given that he’d had a bad fall and injured his neck area shortly before the spells began. He was also fitted with a heart monitor that he was instructed to wear for 24 hours.

When we entered the central Illinois hospital registration area to check in, it was impossible to miss the large, predominantly placed sign that posted generic hospital prices. My uncle looked at his list of ordered tests and whistled. “I couldn’t afford any of these on my own,” he said, adding he felt guilty about using so many resources, even though he has insurance due to 20 years of military service. He worried about what his final cost would be, since he has a small fixed income.

In reality, most of us — if we lost our insurance coverage tomorrow — would be one catastrophic accident or illness away from dire trouble. What can we do? A significant antidote for rising medical costs, hospital administrators tell us, is for John and Jane Doe to fully understand the cost of their care. “Informed consumers” would make better use of resources, we’re told.

Okay, my uncle now fully comprehends the cost of his lab work. Is he now to choose which test is most important and refuse the rest as optional or frivolous? Does he have the judgment to know which one could discern an answer that might prevent him from hitting his head if he falls during a dizzy spell? What exactly is he supposed to do with that information? Hospital shopping might work in Madison, but his next option is about 50 miles away from his doctor and, in that larger city, costs are even higher.



A nurse (RN) provided all of the care my uncle received. She told him, while we watched images of his heart beating on her screen, that he had an irregular heartbeat that likely will (at the very least) require medication. His first question was not about the wisdom of adding another medication to those he already takes, or a mention of his fear of heart damage, but a worry about the cost of the medication.

He was still fretting about that as we passed the signboard on our way out of the hospital. “I don’t know if I can afford to get any older,” he said with a sigh. “If something happens to me and if I don’t die outright — if they ever ask you if I should be resuscitated — tell them no. I could never afford it.”

He also wondered aloud why anyone would want to share a room with two other people if a private room cost the same. I reminded him that he isn’t the “paying customer,” he’s only the patient. The insurance company will dictate his comfort or privacy level, and unless his surname is posted above a room as a hospital benefactor, I’d bet he’s going to be sharing a room if he’s hospitalized. 

So thanks, hospital administrator, for posting the sign. You’ve reminded one older gentleman of how helpless he is to influence — let alone change the cost of — that which he has no control over.

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