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South Florida women sue HCA over 'unreasonable' ER bills

HCA, the biggest for-profit hospital chain in Florida, has been sued by two South Florida women for "unreasonable, unconscionable and unlawful pricing and billing practices" in a class-action lawsuit filed this week in Hillsborough County.

The women were injured in unrelated car accidents in spring 2013 and treated at HCA's JFK Medical Center in Atlantis, south of West Palm Beach. The chain has a dozen hospitals in the Tampa Bay area.

Each woman received bills for CT scans and X-rays that far exceeded their $10,000 coverage under the insurance required of all drivers, leaving them with thousands in unpaid bills.

The complaint alleges that since HCA's charges were as much as 65 times more than what Medicare pays, they violate a Florida statute that says hospitals may charge only a "reasonable amount" for services to patients covered under the state's Personal Injury Protection, commonly known as PIP.

For instance, the women were billed $6,400 for CT scans of their brains, but the Medicare reimbursement rate is just $163. X-rays that cost each woman more than $2,000 are reimbursed by Medicare at $38.

"People pay for insurance and expect to be covered," said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Leslie Kroeger of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Palm Beach Gardens. "They don't expect these crazy high bills."

Lisa Gardi, a spokeswoman for JFK Medical Center, said, "We believe the lawsuit is baseless and intend to vigorously defend it."

According to the lawsuit, both women were required to sign a form at the HCA emergency department saying they agreed to pay rates on the hospital's price list, though it was never provided.

One of the plaintiffs, Marisela Herrera, was charged nearly $18,000 by HCA for CT scans and X-rays after an accident in April 2013. PIP paid 80 percent of the charges; Herrera is responsible for the rest.

The other plaintiff, Luz Sanchez, was injured in May 2013 and billed about $14,500 in radiology charges that exhausted her PIP coverage and left her with unpaid bills.

The bills could have been even higher if their injuries had been more traumatic. In March, the Tampa Bay Times published a yearlong investigation that revealed that specialized trauma units at five HCA hospitals around the state charge far more than other trauma centers in Florida.

Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report. Contact Kris Hundley at hundley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @hundleykris.

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