Aria Konishi/KFF Well being Information
Final June, Jay Consolation flew to the US from his house in Switzerland to attend his solely daughter’s marriage ceremony. However the week earlier than the ceremony — on a Friday night — Consolation mentioned he discovered himself in “excruciating ache.”
“I attempted to intestine it out for 3 hours due to the insurance coverage state of affairs,” mentioned Consolation, a retired instructor 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 mentioned.
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 assessments confirmed he had a uncommon most cancers, which docs in Switzerland later eliminated with one other surgical procedure after he returned house. “It was a miracle,” Consolation mentioned, 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 marriage ceremony and, ultimately, 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 obligatory primary 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 assessments, 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 one of many state’s largest employers, with 40 hospitals.
Whole invoice: $42,156.50, overlaying emergency surgical procedure, scans, laboratory testing, and three hours in a restoration room. His insurer has mentioned it can 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 provides: 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 outdoors 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 non-public 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 supplied is a fraction of what Consolation owes the U.S. hospital.
“I am making an attempt to do the suitable factor and say I am keen to pay my accountability,” he mentioned.
Invoice of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KFF Well being Information and NPR that dissects and explains medical payments. Do you might have an attention-grabbing medical invoice you wish to share with us? Inform us about it!
Groupe Mutuel doesn’t have agreements with overseas suppliers, akin to UPMC, and doesn’t cope with them instantly, mentioned 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 in another country — a complete of 4,838 in Swiss francs, or about $5,460.
Whereas useful, Consolation mentioned, that quantity would not repay the $42,156.50 he owes UPMC.
UPMC has expanded its attain all through Pennsylvania and is now the most important supplier of care in lots of components 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’s much less competitors, hospitals have extra energy to cost what they need when sufferers have non-public insurance coverage or are paying out-of-pocket.
Within the U.S. the quantities charged for medical care are “everywhere in the map,” mentioned 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 just isn’t concerned in Consolation’s case.
Clarke mentioned he would anticipate an appendectomy to be priced between $6,500 to $18,800, primarily based on his evaluation of Medicare funds within the Pittsburgh space. Healthcare Bluebook — which evaluates insurers’ claims information to offer price estimates primarily based on what insurers have paid, quite than what suppliers cost — says a good value for a laparoscopic appendectomy in Williamsport is about $14,554.
Consolation mentioned a “affordable value estimate” primarily based on his personal web analysis could 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 totally clarify the hole between price estimates and what the hospital charged. As an example, UPMC charged $8,357 for Consolation’s three-hour keep within the restoration room.
Manko mentioned Consolation’s whole invoice aligns with UPMC’s commonplace prices.
The fee disparities spotlight the stark distinction in worldwide pricing. Value estimates final yr confirmed the common quantity paid for an appendectomy within the U.S. was “practically precisely double” that paid in Switzerland, mentioned Christopher Watney, chief government 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 international locations, Watney mentioned. The Swiss pay double for an appendectomy in contrast with Germans, and greater than thrice that of these in Spain, he mentioned. Throughout the globe, Watney mentioned, many international locations 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, mentioned he labored within the U.S. lengthy sufficient to qualify for Social Safety advantages and Medicare. He mentioned he had beforehand tried to achieve Medicare protection at one level however nonetheless just isn’t enrolled, after being transferred to a few places of work and “enjoying telephone tag.”
Nonetheless, not like many sufferers coping with a five-figure medical invoice, Consolation mentioned he’s not involved about UPMC harming his monetary repute. The well being system would not “appear to place unhealthy marks towards folks’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 yr; it states the well being system won’t have interaction in “extraordinary assortment actions” akin to lawsuits, liens on properties, arrests, or reporting to credit score companies.
She mentioned the well being system — which, as a nonprofit system, is tax-exempt — maintains a “strong monetary help program” for sufferers unable to pay. However “to our information” Consolation has not utilized for monetary help, Manko advised KFF Well being Information.
The decision: Consolation mentioned he spent months ready for a invoice and at last reached out to UPMC as a result of, if the invoice had arrived this yr, 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 mentioned there was “confusion” on the time of Consolation’s ER registration. Consolation’s spouse supplied the insurance coverage info, she mentioned, “however there was no documentation within the sufferers document for handle, coverage quantity or coverage holder info.”
As soon as Consolation acquired his invoice, he realized it was a lot larger than his Swiss insurance coverage reimbursement and, pissed off, contacted KFF Well being Information.
Flückiger mentioned the unique fee 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 now have 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 might pay Consolation. In all, the insurer mentioned, Consolation ought to obtain 7,260.40 in Swiss francs, or about $8,184.
Consolation nonetheless hopes to barter instantly with UPMC to scale back what he owes.
“I do not wish to attempt to stroll away, saying I do not owe you something,” Consolation mentioned. “That is not proper. We’re ethical folks, you recognize. But when you are going to attempt to gouge me and play the facility journey and assume you are going to attempt to get every part you’ll be able to out of me, I will not play that sport.”
The takeaway: Although the Reasonably priced Care Act was meant to offer insurance coverage to extra People 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 forward to comparability procuring.
Clarke, the cost-containment professional, mentioned the “solely factor” Consolation might have carried out 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, mentioned: U.S. costs are “form of loopy numbers.”
KFF Well being Information, previously referred to 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 packages at KFF — the unbiased 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.