President Trump and his health chief pledged Wednesday to tackle the issue of eye-popping surprise medical bills, raising the prospect of bipartisan action on a major healthcare problem.
“We are here today to discuss how the healthcare system too often harms people with unfair surprises… in a very negative sense, medical bills and the like,” Trump said at a meeting at the White House with patients who had faced such circumstances. “The pricing is hurting patients and we have stopped a lot of it, and we are going to stop all of it, and it’s very important to me.”
The roundtable appeared to represent an emerging area of focus for an administration that has primarily dedicated itself to changing Obamacare and lowering the price of prescription drugs, though Trump boasted about achievements in both areas ahead of the meeting. Congress has held hearings on the issue of high medical bills, particularly toward the end of 2018, but has not advanced legislation to curb its prevalence.
Still, it’s considered to be an area of bipartisanship at a time when Republicans and Democrats have reached an impasse regarding other healthcare issues. Some have proposed requiring doctors to notify patients when they could rack up high medical bills or providing more information to patients so they can make informed choices about where to receive care.
People can receive an unexpected big bill if they are administered a pricey medication that their health insurance won’t cover or if a doctor who assists in surgery at a hospital turns out to be outside of their network, an occurrence that can happen even when a patient is under anesthesia or in the emergency room for a traumatic injury.
“Patients should know… what’s going on with the real prices of procedures, because they don’t know,” Trump said at the White House meeting. “They go in, they have a procedure then all of a sudden they can’t afford it. They had no idea it was so bad.”
The 10 people who met with Trump Wednesday had either personally suffered, or had a loved one suffer, from massive bills after visiting a medical facility. One patient, Eric Ferguson of North Carolina, received a $ 89,227 bill for an 18-hour hospital stay after a snake bite. He paid about $ 5,400 in deductibles and co-pays.
Another White House guest, Dave Altman of Colorado, received a $ 169,600 bill from his insurance company after his wife had surgery to treat back pain that turned out to be ineffective. The daughter of Dr. Paul Davis, a retired family physician, received a $ 17,850 bill for a urine sample from a medical lab.
The White House said in a statement that the administration was “committed to delivering a healthcare system that takes care of the American people – not one that takes advantage of them.”
The Trump administration said the roundtable mostly would focus on price transparency, or making sure that people understand what different costs are involved in their care. Alex Azar, Health and Human Services Secretary, said at the meeting that the way to bring down costs and improve quality was to “empower consumers and to employ market forces.”
“People should have the right to know what a service or a drug will cost them before they have to buy that service or drug,” Azar said.
Federal health officials put out a rule that went into effect during the new year that has hospitals post the list prices of their medical procedures on their websites. Seema Verma, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told reporters two weeks ago that the administration might go further, including by fining hospitals that don’t comply, but said the latest information was a first step.
So far, the hospital information has been confusing for patients to access and locate, particularly because a hospital’s list price is different from what health insurance companies negotiate down and then patients ultimately end up paying. Proponents, however, hope that it will encourage hospitals to compare their prices to one another and bring costs down.