This is a story of bloodshed and cupcakes and our stupid-expensive health care system.
It is a Tale of Two Splinters.
Two journalists walked into the Star Tribune newsroom this summer with splinters in their fingers and hard choices in their futures. One outsourced her splinter removal to me. The other, after waiting two painful weeks with a thorn jammed in her good typing finger, headed for an urgent care clinic in St. Paul, where a real doctor was waiting with medical-grade tweezers.
Back in the newsroom, we took turns poking with needles and prodding with tweezers until someone called in an editor ruthless enough to really dig in there and pop that splinter out. My colleague, dazed and bloodied, bought the editor a cupcake as a thank you.
We all figured this was the most painful method of splinter removal. Until my other colleague walked out of urgent care with a bill for $751 and half a thorn still lodged in her finger. Even with insurance, she’ll have to pay $365 out of pocket, which would have bought oh so many cupcakes. Plus a month’s worth of groceries.
It’s not the nastiest surprise to arrive in a medical bill, of course. In 2016, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five working-age Americans with health insurance are struggling to pay their medical bills. Families burn through their savings, pile up credit card debt and skimp on everything from groceries to prescriptions to pay their bills. And still, health care bankrupts American families with heartbreaking, infuriating frequency.
It would be nice if we lived in a country where nobody had to choose between groceries and Grandma’s insulin.
It would be nice if we lived in a country where you knew how much splinter removal would cost before you got the splinter removed.
But we live here. In a state that can, with some effort, survey hospitals to find out the going rate for an appendectomy. But they can’t tell you where to go to get the best price.
The Minnesota Department of Health released a report last week on the price of four common medical procedures at Minnesota hospitals from July 2014 to June 2015. The price list for spinal fusion surgery, major bowel surgery, appendectomy and uterine fibroid removal reads like a bunch of contestants screaming wild guesses on “The Price is Right.”
The same bowel procedure costs $14,500 at one hospital and $68,800 at another. Spinal fusion is $27,600 at one hospital and $80,800 somewhere else. A lot of us would dearly love to know where to bargain shop, but the hospitals’ price for cooperating in this exercise in transparency was secrecy.
Speaking of strict secrecy ... . As we speak, my colleague is storming the gates of Allina, trying to figure out why her Bandana Square Clinic charges $751 for splinter removal. Here’s what she’s learned so far: There’s a $565 standard charge “to remove a foreign object from soft tissue.” All foreign objects, all soft tissues. (Bullets? Porcupine quills? That time my little sister sewed through her fingernail on Mom’s Singer sewing machine?) Plus $186 for the 20-minute office visit.
Since she has insurance, the price was adjusted to $628. That charge, they told her, is nonnegotiable. It’s cheaper than a trip to the ER for splinter removal (please don’t do that) but more expensive than going to your primary care physician for splinter removal. Definitely not as cheap, we now know, as asking a ruthless editor to go to town on your soft tissues with a safety pin.
So the “foreign-object-from-soft-tissue” bill went to her insurance company, HealthPartners, which covered the cost, minus the $300 deductible and the 20 percent copay of $65.73.
My colleague did manage to dodge one expensive bullet. As she was leaving, the doctor offered her a Band-Aid. She balked, because the last time a physician offered her a Band-Aid, it showed up on the bill as “strapping” and cost her 40 bucks. The doctor promised that this Band-Aid would be on the house.
Imagine, she said, what the bill would have been with the Band-Aid included.
There you have it. We still don’t know which hospitals in Minnesota offer the best price on appendectomies, but now we all know the price of splinter removal at Bandana Square. Our health care system is bad, and we should all feel bad.
Feel free to share your own stories of outrageous medical billing in the online comments or shoot me a line. Maybe together we can find the hospitals with the cheap appendectomies.
Meanwhile, if anyone needs a splinter removed, I know an editor.