By: Senator Michael Bennet
Don Binetti is a Coloradan with health insurance. Three years ago, a life-threatening clot was discovered in his aortic valve, requiring him to be rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment. The hospital, however, was not in-network, and within days he was shocked to receive a medical bill for more than $33,000.
One Colorado couple told me their daughter had to undergo brain surgery. Like so many Americans, they studied their insurance plan carefully before taking their daughter to an in-network hospital for the operation, only to receive a $3,000 bill later for an out-of-network anesthesiologist.
These stories are as familiar as they are unacceptable.
Forty percent of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency expense without having to borrow or sell something, according to a study by the Federal Reserve. But every year, four in 10 Americans who end up in the hospital or emergency room will receive a surprise medical bill. For ER visits, these bills cost over $600 on average. And every year, these surprise medical bills push thousands of Americans over the edge, even though they are working and have health insurance.
My office continually hears about the toll of surprise medical bills on individuals and families—from costly lawsuits to garnished wages, property liens, lower credit ratings and crushing debt. It is no surprise that Americans often worry about these bills more than any other expense, according to recent polls.
Surprise medical bills are among the worst symptoms of America’s broken healthcare system, which is more expensive, opaque and unpredictable for patients than any in the developed world. Surprise medical bills arise most commonly in three cases: when patients receive out-of-network emergency services; when they go to an out-of-network hospital for emergency treatment and require additional care before they are safely discharged; and when they are seen by an out-of-network provider at their in-network hospital.
Surprise medical bills are ruining lives, and they must end. Earlier this year, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and I introduced the STOP Surprise Medical Bills Act, the first-ever bipartisan legislation in the Senate to ban the practice in its three most common forms. Under our bill, patients would only be responsible for the in-network rate they agreed to when first enrolling in their current plan. In certain cases, health providers and insurers could negotiate another rate, but the patient would be taken out of the crossfire and given much-needed peace of mind.
Our bill is the product of more than a year of discussions with patients, doctors, hospitals, insurers, and experts in Colorado and across the country. It has broad bipartisan support, with 27 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. Committees in the House and Senate have already passed legislation to end surprise medical bills, and both bodies should move quickly to a full vote.
The American people deserve action from Washington, D.C. For years, they have called on their elected leaders to deliver a healthcare system that is more transparent, predictable and affordable. For them, this has nothing to do with politics. It is about getting the care they need for themselves or their families. It is about living their lives without the misery of a system that too often throws them into chaos, anxiety and crushing debt.
Significant, structural reforms are needed in our healthcare system. Acting to end surprise medical bills would be an excellent place to start.