Aria Konishi/KFF Well being Information
Final June, Jay Consolation flew to the US from his residence in Switzerland to attend his solely daughter’s wedding ceremony. However the week earlier than the ceremony — on a Friday night — Consolation stated he discovered himself in “excruciating ache.”
“I attempted to intestine it out for 3 hours due to the insurance coverage state of affairs,” stated Consolation, a retired trainer and American citizen who has Swiss insurance coverage.
When the ache turned insufferable, Consolation referred to as his brother, who drove him and his spouse, Nazuna, just a few miles to the closest emergency division, on the College of Pittsburgh Medical Middle’s hospital in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Each bump of the drive was “like somebody taking one thing and simply jabbing it into my stomach,” he stated.
On the hospital, Nazuna Konishi Consolation handed over her husband’s Swiss insurance coverage card, which confirmed protection by Groupe Mutuel. Jay recalled the employees making copies of his insurance coverage card after which treating his acute appendicitis. Medical doctors carried out emergency surgical procedure to take away the infected appendix.
Diagnostic checks confirmed he had a uncommon most cancers, which medical doctors in Switzerland later eliminated with one other surgical procedure after he returned residence. “It was a miracle,” Consolation stated, including that the most cancers was utterly eliminated.
After his appendectomy, Consolation recalled vomiting after which ready in a restoration room. In all, he spent about 14 hours at UPMC Williamsport earlier than being launched. He attended his daughter’s wedding ceremony and, finally, traveled again to Switzerland.
Then the invoice got here.
The affected person: Leslie “Jay” Consolation, 66, a retired educator who labored in Japan and Switzerland. Consolation pays a month-to-month price and deductible for Switzerland’s necessary fundamental medical insurance, which he has with the Swiss-based Groupe Mutuel. His advantages — and the costs for procedures — are outlined by the Swiss authorities.
Medical service: Emergency laparoscopic appendectomy and diagnostic checks, which confirmed Consolation had a uncommon subtype of most cancers referred to as goblet cell adenocarcinoma.
Service supplier: College of Pittsburgh Medical Middle Williamsport, which is about 3½ hours northeast of Pittsburgh. The UPMC well being system is among the state’s largest employers, with 40 hospitals.
Complete invoice: $42,156.50, overlaying emergency surgical procedure, scans, laboratory testing, and three hours in a restoration room. His insurer has stated it would pay him about $8,184 (7,260.40 in Swiss francs), which is double the process’s value in Switzerland. This left him to cowl the remaining roughly $34,000.
What offers: Though Consolation has well being protection, his Swiss insurance coverage had no contract with the U.S. hospital the place he underwent emergency surgical procedure — or with another supplier exterior Switzerland.
With what is taken into account a wonderful well being system, Switzerland has the very best costs for medical care in Europe. As within the U.S., the nation depends on personal insurers and hospitals. However the price of care in Switzerland is considerably decrease than what’s charged within the U.S., so the reimbursement his insurer provided is a fraction of what Consolation owes the U.S. hospital.
“I am making an attempt to do the proper factor and say I am keen to pay my duty,” he stated.
Invoice of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KFF Well being Information and NPR that dissects and explains medical payments. Do you may have an attention-grabbing medical invoice you need to share with us? Inform us about it!
Groupe Mutuel doesn’t have agreements with overseas suppliers, equivalent to UPMC, and doesn’t cope with them immediately, stated Lisa Flückiger, a spokesperson for Groupe Mutuel. The insurer initially agreed to reimburse Consolation what would have been paid in Switzerland for a similar remedy in a public hospital after which double that as a result of it was an emergency abroad — a complete of 4,838 in Swiss francs, or about $5,460.
Whereas useful, Consolation stated, that quantity would not repay the $42,156.50 he owes UPMC.
UPMC has expanded its attain all through Pennsylvania and is now the biggest supplier of care in lots of elements of the state. In 2016, it bought a smaller well being system and now runs two majors hospitals, UPMC Williamsport and UPMC Williamsport Divine Windfall Campus.
Research present that in areas the place hospital consolidation is excessive, costs go up. As a result of there may be much less competitors, hospitals have extra energy to cost what they need when sufferers have personal insurance coverage or are paying out-of-pocket.
Within the U.S. the quantities charged for medical care are “all around the map,” stated Johnathan Clarke, vice chairman of technique and enterprise improvement at Penfield Care, a medical cost-containment firm in Canada. The corporate negotiates medical payments on behalf of people, together with worldwide guests to the U.S., however is just not concerned in Consolation’s case.
Clarke stated he would anticipate an appendectomy to be priced between $6,500 to $18,800, based mostly on his evaluation of Medicare funds within the Pittsburgh space. Healthcare Bluebook — which evaluates insurers’ claims knowledge to offer price estimates based mostly on what insurers have paid, somewhat than what suppliers cost — says a good value for a laparoscopic appendectomy in Williamsport is about $14,554.
Consolation stated a “cheap value estimate” based mostly on his personal web analysis can be between $7,500 and $12,000.
Consolation’s care included an X-ray and an EKG, or electrocardiogram for his coronary heart, as a result of “there was no info referring to previous medical/surgical historical past for this affected person,” wrote Susan Manko, vice chairman of public relations at UPMC. The employees additionally performed pathology work that recognized most cancers.
However these extra companies didn’t absolutely clarify the hole between price estimates and what the hospital charged. As an illustration, UPMC charged $8,357 for Consolation’s three-hour keep within the restoration room.
Manko stated Consolation’s whole invoice aligns with UPMC’s customary fees.
The associated fee disparities spotlight the stark distinction in worldwide pricing. Price estimates final 12 months confirmed the typical quantity paid for an appendectomy within the U.S. was “practically precisely double” that paid in Switzerland, stated Christopher Watney, chief govt of the Worldwide Federation of Well being Plans, an trade affiliation whose members embrace well being insurers on six continents.
Well being care in Switzerland, although, is usually costly in contrast with different European nations, Watney stated. The Swiss pay double for an appendectomy in contrast with Germans, and greater than 3 times that of these in Spain, he stated. Throughout the globe, Watney stated, many nations embrace an in a single day keep in the price of an uncomplicated appendectomy in distinction to Consolation’s expertise, which was billed as outpatient care.
Consolation, who has twin residency in Switzerland and Japan after practically three a long time working overseas, stated he labored within the U.S. lengthy sufficient to qualify for Social Safety advantages and Medicare. He stated he had beforehand tried to realize Medicare protection at one level however nonetheless is just not enrolled, after being transferred to a few workplaces and “enjoying cellphone tag.”
Nonetheless, in contrast to many sufferers coping with a five-figure medical invoice, Consolation stated he isn’t involved about UPMC harming his monetary repute. The well being system does not “appear to place dangerous marks in opposition to individuals’s credit score document — and I haven’t got credit score in the US. I have been out for 30 years.”
Manko confirmed that, saying UPMC reviewed and up to date its assortment coverage final 12 months; it states the well being system won’t interact in “extraordinary assortment actions” equivalent to lawsuits, liens on houses, arrests, or reporting to credit score companies.
She stated the well being system — which, as a nonprofit system, is tax-exempt — maintains a “sturdy monetary help program” for sufferers unable to pay. However “to our information” Consolation has not utilized for monetary help, Manko instructed KFF Well being Information.
The decision: Consolation stated he spent months ready for a invoice and at last reached out to UPMC as a result of, if the invoice had arrived this 12 months, he would have needed to pay his insurance coverage deductible once more on prime of the fees.
Consolation acquired a full UPMC invoice six months after his surgical procedure. Manko stated there was “confusion” on the time of Consolation’s ER registration. Consolation’s spouse supplied the insurance coverage info, she stated, “however there was no documentation within the sufferers document for tackle, coverage quantity or coverage holder info.”
As soon as Consolation acquired his invoice, he realized it was a lot greater than his Swiss insurance coverage reimbursement and, annoyed, contacted KFF Well being Information.
Flückiger stated the unique cost quantity Consolation’s insurer calculated was particularly for the appendectomy and didn’t embrace the scan or laboratory prices. After receiving questions from a KFF Well being Information reporter, Groupe Mutuel “realized that we have now not included the laboratory evaluation and the CT scan,” which aren’t routinely a part of an appendectomy, Flückiger wrote.
After KFF Well being Information supplied an in depth abstract of the UPMC invoice, the insurer elevated the quantity it will pay Consolation. In all, the insurer stated, Consolation ought to obtain 7,260.40 in Swiss francs, or about $8,184.
Consolation nonetheless hopes to barter immediately with UPMC to scale back what he owes.
“I do not need to attempt to stroll away, saying I do not owe you something,” Consolation stated. “That is not proper. We’re ethical individuals, . But when you are going to attempt to gouge me and play the facility journey and assume you are going to attempt to get all the pieces you possibly can out of me, I will not play that recreation.”
The takeaway: Although the Reasonably priced Care Act was meant to offer insurance coverage to extra Individuals and convey down the price of care, hospital payments stay terribly excessive and extremely variable.
For a nonemergency, Consolation might have tried to match costs at different hospitals. However most hospitals within the space the place he fell unwell are owned by UPMC. And an infected appendix cannot look ahead to comparability purchasing.
Clarke, the cost-containment skilled, stated the “solely factor” Consolation might have executed in a different way was to buy a journey medical insurance coverage earlier than leaving Switzerland. Whereas costs for well being care in continental Europe are similar to Switzerland, the excessive price of care within the U.S. means Groupe Mutuel insurance coverage is “inadequate.”
That’s particularly necessary for guests to the U.S. since, as Robin Ingle, CEO of journey insurance coverage firm Ingle Worldwide, stated: U.S. costs are “sort of loopy numbers.”
KFF Well being Information, previously often known as Kaiser Well being Information (KHN), is a nationwide newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about well being points and is among the core working applications at KFF — the impartial supply for well being coverage analysis, polling, and journalism.
Emmarie Huetteman of KFF Well being Information edited the digital story, and Taunya English of KFF Well being Information edited the audio story. NPR’s Will Stone edited the audio and digital story.