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Continued: Whistleblower: A lost bid to control health costs

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 21, 2009 - 10:35 PM

Alexandria Cody went to the hospital on Christmas Eve with excruciating pain in her ribs. She and her husband, David, left the hospital stinging with frustration over their failed effort to control the costs of their care.

The couple have been married for 37 years and live in Hopkins. They are among more than 300,000 people in Minnesota who lack health insurance. Alexandria, 54, was laid off in March 2008 from her position as an administrative assistant. David, 58, retired from a car dealership in 2006.

Late last year, Alexandria had tried to ignore the pain in her side for a week. But when she woke up on Dec. 24, it felt as though someone was stabbing her in the ribs. Urgent care would be cheaper than an emergency room, they figured, so they went to Park Nicollet's clinic in St. Louis Park.

The doctor ordered up X-rays and saw a suspicious bump. You'll need to go to Methodist Hospital for a CT scan, the Codys were told.

They asked how much that would cost. They were told the hospital would know. At Methodist Hospital, David Cody asked again how much the CT scan would cost, telling everybody that they had no insurance. Someone handed him a telephone number. David got on the phone, trying to track down a price. Alexandria was taken to a room and prepped for the scan.

David was put on hold. After 10 minutes, the answer finally came: about $780.

For taking a picture? David thought.

But it was too late. The CT scan was

done by the time he learned the price. Diagnosis: a cracked rib, probably from coughing. Treatment: painkillers.

"They went through this so fast, I hardly had a chance to do anything," David Cody said.

Alexandria's rib cage has healed. But the anger has persisted. They complained to Attorney General Lori Swanson's consumer division, which sent a letter to Park Nicollet. That drew a March 5 letter in response from Trisha Martin, customer service manager for patient financial services at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital.

"Park Nicollet physicians and clinical staff are not able to provide patients with estimated costs regarding charges for care at Park Nicollet and Methodist Hospital," Martin wrote. That's why Park Nicollet has created an "entire department" called the Patient Access Liaison to answer those questions.

Martin went on to explain how the Codys could have taken control: "You could have ... refused the CT scan at the time and rescheduled after you had had an opportunity to obtain the cost of the procedure. We would certainly have respected your right to do so."

Bottom line: The Codys have to pay the $788, but they're likely to use a payment plan offered by Park Nicollet.

The Codys feel they did their part in trying to save health care costs, but the system didn't. It's a frustration more and more consumers are feeling: aside from the uninsured, Minnesota has a rising number of people with high-deductible plans that require them to make big out-of-pocket payments.

"Isn't there help out here for the unemployed/uninsured?" the Codys wrote to Whistleblower. "Or do we have to suck it up and pay? When does the madness stop?"

  • INFORMATION ONLINE Minnesotans who do have insurance can find some price information through websites maintained by HealthPartners, Medica and Blue Cross and Blue Shield, but the technology is young.
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