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  1. Florida Politics

No justification for gouging patients with sky-high trauma fees

Published Mar. 15, 2014

At the risk of oversimplifying a year's worth of investigative reporting, here is the most important takeaway from the Tampa Bay Times' recent report on hospital trauma care bills:

When asked about the high cost of trauma response fees, the CEO of UF Health Shands Hospital acknowledged prices were out of whack with reality. He pledged to lower the trauma response cost, which is essentially a cover charge, from $10,000 to $4,000.

But here's the kicker:

Shands fees were already a mere fraction of the $27,600 average response fee being charged at HCA hospitals across the state.

Let that sink in.

Shands, in Gainesville, is among the finest hospitals in the nation, and officials there acknowledged their trauma fees were beyond outrageous.

So if $10,000 is a ridiculous price at Shands, how do HCA officials justify charging roughly 300 percent more?

Answer: They can't.

And anyone who suggests otherwise is either delusional or a paid shill.

Now, HCA officials will point out they rarely receive the entire fee. Between Medicare, negotiated insurance prices and reductions given to uninsured patients, HCA often gets a small percentage of its original charge.

So that explains why they charge up to $30,000 for a trauma patient to simply pass through the ER doors. Insurance companies pay a percentage of the bill, so higher prices mean greater profits.

As for uninsured patients, when negotiations begin at $30,000, then a $15,000 cut seems downright generous.

Meanwhile, the limit set by Medicare for trauma response fees is less than $1,000.

This is not to suggest that trauma care should be cheap. The equipment and personnel are the best of the best, and that comes at a high cost. The issue is the vast gulf between fair rates and price gouging.

Our governor and legislators love the idea of privatization and deregulation, but this is a perfect example of what happens when for-profit interests are allowed to run amok.

Corporations make million-dollar investments in campaign donations and lobbyists, and then reap tens of millions in profits as lawmakers look the other way.

Within days of publication of the Times' investigation, a committee in the state House cleared the way for legislation that makes life easier for HCA's hospitals in Florida.

Understand, this is a state that wants to drug test government employees, cut jobless benefits and withhold voting rights from felons. Yet when it comes to HCA, a company that was involved in what was once the largest government health care fraud in history, our representatives in Tallahassee can't wait to grease the skids for them.

And don't be fooled when they hide behind public safety arguments. That has nothing to do with obscene bills and profits. If lawmakers were truly interested in protecting patients, they would regulate trauma fees.

Gov. Rick Scott seems to care so little about your health care costs that he did not have the decency to answer a reporter's direct question about regulating trauma fees.

And make no mistake, this is costing you money. The higher trauma fees cause insurance companies to make higher payments to hospitals, and that means the cost eventually trickles down to your health insurance bills. The bottom line is you are being robbed. And your elected officials are working as lookouts.

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