How much does a bottle of formula and a nap cost? Apparently, a mind-boggling hell of a lot more than retail if you go to the ER. A couple who visited San Francisco with their baby in 2016 were shocked by the hospital bill they recently received from an incident during their trip.
According to a Vox and Kaiser Health News report, Jang Yeo-im and her family were visiting from South Korea when on the first morning of their vacation, their baby boy fell 3 feet off the bed in the family's hotel room and hit his head.
The parents didn't see any blood but were still worried that the inconsolable 8-month-old might be injured, so they called 911. By the time EMTs arrived, the baby was crawling on the bed and had no signs of major injury. But after the EMTs consulted with a physician at San Francisco General Hospital, an ambulance transported the baby as a trauma patient to the hospital. There, medical staff determined that the baby, who had some bruising on his nose and forehead, was fine.
The parents said that their son only took a short nap in his mom's arms and drank some infant formula and that the whole visit lasted just three hours and 22 minutes. The bill they received, two years later? $18,836. The family's travel insurance would only cover $5,000.
"It’s a huge amount of money for my family," Jang told Vox. "If my baby got special treatment, OK. That would be OK. But he didn’t. So why should I have to pay the bill? They did nothing for my son."
The bill they received two years later? $18,836. The family's travel insurance would only cover $5,000.
Unfortunately, stories of extremely high or even incorrect hospital bills are pretty common in the U.S.—from a Canadian mom getting charged $1 million when she unexpectedly gave birth in Hawaii, to a $40 charge a mom received just to hold her baby after a C-section, to another mom getting charged $1,000 for a circumcision—despite giving birth to a girl.
In Jang's case, the hospital bill's large fee wasn't because of a glaring mistake. Instead, the biggest hit was a $15,666 charge for "trauma activation," which is a fee charged when a medical team is assembled to await a patient with potentially serious injuries. It's separate from any charges for the ER physician, procedures, equipment and facility fees.
"We are the trauma center for a very large, very densely populated area. We deal with so many traumas in this city—car accidents, mass shootings, multiple vehicle collisions," San Francisco General Hospital spokesman Brent Andrew told Vox. "It's expensive to prepare for that."
Trauma activation or response fees were supposed to be the answer to the high costs of staffing a trauma team 24/7, costs that threatened to shut down trauma centers at the turn of the century.
The thing is that trauma fees vary widely and, according to a 2014 report by the Tampa Bay Times, the fees are also a completely unregulated source of revenue and are growing at an absurd rate. The Times reported that the National Foundation for Trauma Care, which pushed for the fee in 2002 after the September 11, 2001, attacks, told its members that a conservative start was $3,500 to $5,000. But in the paper's investigation of 267 trauma hospitals in 30 states, most of the hospitals charged more than the "conservative start," and almost one in five charged at least $15,000.
Jang is now working with a patient advocate and hoping to negotiate the bill with the hospital.