1. Opinion

The financial trauma of private health care

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Published Mar. 11, 2014

Sometimes a good healthy sense of outrage needs time to marinate in the juices of indignation, repugnance and disbelief.

Don't worry. It's coming. Only a matter of time.

Since the Affordable Care Act, or as it is otherwise known, Lenincare, became law, its "we're all doomed" opponents have claimed it would result in a federal government takeover of the country's health care, ruin the American way of life and eventually lead to the adoption of The Internationale as the national anthem.

We were told Kremlincare would devastate the economy, kill jobs and socialize medical treatment. Only the private sector could more efficiently — and democratically — deliver health care to the masses. Oh, the purple mountain majesty of it all. Really? Is that so?

As Tampa Bay Times' staff writers Alexandra Zayas and Letitia Stein have revealed, if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in the middle of a health emergency or an accident and you are sent to a Florida trauma center, especially one operated by Gov. Rick Scott's former employer, the Hospital Corporation of America, you are going to be traumatized in more ways than one.

As the Times' investigation noted, since trauma center response fees were created in 2002, the tab has steadily ballooned, increasing at 20 times the rate of inflation since 2006. Today the average non-HCA trauma center response fee is about $6,754. But HCA can charge as much as $33,000 — the highest in the state.

If you have the misfortune to get injured or sick in Bradenton, Ocala, Fort Pierce, Clay County, Pasco County or Miami, you might want to think — even if you are profusely bleeding, or slipping into a coma — of trying to crawl into the next county or jurisdiction before HCA goes after your life savings.

When people are at their most vulnerable, they find themselves transported to a trauma center where corporate bean counters exploit their health crisis.

Zayas and Stein provided numerous examples of excessive fees, including the family of a 17-year-old man who suffered a concussion resulting in $99,000 HCA bill, including a $33,000 just-for-the-heck-of-it charge imposed the moment he entered the trauma center.

Or consider the case of Eduardo Sarmiento of Homestead, who broke his leg in a bike accident. He, too, was charged a $33,000 trauma center response fee by HCA. But if he had been taken 15 miles away to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, the same cover charge would have been $1,363.

HCA isn't the only hospital chain treating its patients like intravenous ATM machines. A patient suffering a burned finger at a Tenet Healthcare emergency room in Palm Beach County was handed a $1,126 bill to treat her injury and $12,500 la-dee-dah, la-dee-dah trauma response fee invoice.

Since 2010, Florida patients have been charged more than $500 million in just-because we-can trauma center response fees. The bloated numbers have destroyed family savings and led to virtual indentured servitude as overcharged patients find themselves indebted to the hospital chain oligarchs of gurneys.

Given their aversion to Castrocare as an economic disaster, one would think those stout-hearted Republican members of the Florida Legislature would want to quickly rein in the brigands of Band-aids by imposing caps on the onerous trauma fees, create tighter regulations over the hospital chains and demanding greater transparency and accountability of the billing process to better protect the victim patients.

After all, aren't these folks supposed to be defenders of the middle class?

It's entirely possible, in a rare moment of consumer protectionism, the Florida Legislature might want to take on the powerful health care industry that pours gobs of money into the coffers of our champions of liberty. HCA contributed $1.6 million to Florida candidates, parties and political committees in the 2012 election cycle.

Even an ethically blind politician finds an acorn of common sense now and then.

Still, even if a bill creating greater oversight of the hospital chains and their trauma fees actually passed the Legislature, what do you suppose the chances are it would be signed into law by a governor who made his personal fortune running HCA?

Stop busting your stitches laughing at that dubious prospect. You don't want to wind up in the emergency room.