How Not Having Bronchitis Cost Me $1,500 at Lankenau

A trip to the hospital without health insurance.

A 2011 Centers for Disease Prevention and Control study states that about 79.7 percent of adults aged 18–64 whose last hospital visit in the past 12 months did not result in hospital admission visited the emergency room due to lack of access to other providers.

Uninsured adults were more likely than those with private health insurance or a public health plan to visit the emergency room due to having no other place to go.

When I was laid off in September, it was sudden and unexpected, although not entirely surprising given the economic and political climate. The nation’s economic tumult has been the backdrop of most young adults’ careers.

I was faced with a new reality, an existence that has since been dictated by how to maximize my unemployment dollars until a new opportunity comes through. At the top of the cold and flu season, my other objective was to avoid getting sick. Which, of course didn’t happen.

Of course, some two months after my insurance coverage lapsed, I contracted one of the most severe bouts of the flu in recent memory. My usual arsenal of over-the-counter medicine proved no match, so I shuttled back and forth to the drugstore, trying to piece together some of the very best, inexpensive store-brand medicine that my meager dollars could afford. My misery necessitated Robitussin.

I took the doses as directed, and within a span of 24 hours I felt like new—except for a noted pain in my chest as I inhaled, coupled with a sneaking shallowness in my breathing. I hadn’t had a cough or any other type of respiratory issue while I’d been sick, so it alarmed me.

Still, I let it pass for three days, entirely untreated, hoping that it would go away. When it didn’t, my boyfriend convinced me to take a “quick trip” to Lankenau Hospital.

My boyfriend accompanied me to the hospital, and after my vitals were taken, we were taken back to a room where I explained my symptoms for the second time that evening.

Putting a cool stethoscope to my chest, the doctor listened and said she didn’t hear signs of an abnormality. “Sometimes, if you have a bad case of the flu, it can seem like bronchitis,” she said.

Like, bronchitis, I thought. I was ready to hurry out of the ER, scared that I was being charged by the minute. I asked for a script and to be discharged.

But there was the matter of my bloodwork. As it turns out, one of my indicators was high, so she sent me in for both a chest X-ray and MRI “just to be sure” that I wouldn’t need to stay overnight because of a more chronic issue. Two hours into our “quick trip,” I started to cry at the possibility of having to stay overnight, and the thought of how much that would cost me without insurance.

As I sat hooked up to the machine that monitored my vitals, a nurse-type came over and asked me to fill out forms. “Do you have insurance?” she asked matter-of-factly.

“No,” I said, a sense of embarrassment looming.

“Okay, so you don’t have any insurance?” And with that, the squiggle pattern on the monitor changed as my stress levels increased.

Hours later, I was no longer sure if I was losing my breath or losing my patience. I waited an additional two hours for the results of the X-ray and MRI. Finally, around midnight, the doctor returned. Everything was fine.

“Sometimes, if you have a bad case of the flu, it can seem like bronchitis,” she repeated.

She gave me a prescription for an inhaler with directions to use “as needed” and discharged me.

As I left the ER, I asked for the grand total of my hours-long visit to the ER. I wanted a copy of the bill. “It will be sent to you,” I was told.

Weeks later, I received a communication from the billing department instructing me on how to set up payment arrangements. I followed directions, sending me into a tangled labyrinth of 800 numbers. I left messages. No one returned my call.

The bill finally arrived, after the new year, and in segments. A $300 sum here. An additional $500-something there.

I paid the bills, but curiously, more bills began to trickle from offices with obscure-sounding names, with little indication as to what specific service I was being billed for.

Turns out, my case of non-bronchitis has a price tag of more than $1,500.

Max Baucus, a Democratic senator who helped author President Obama’s healthcare law, said last week that he fears the plan’s rollout will be a “train wreck.”

If it is, it will be thanks in no small part to the Republicans who have made it their missive to obstruct implementation of the healthcare law by refusing to authorize the necessary funding.

On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the Senate Finance Committee about her decision to divert HHS budget funding toward implementation of the healthcare bill.

Congressional Republicans are determined to make the uninsured and their allies sing for our supper.

Another bitter pill.

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