Patients in the Dark on Medical Costs, Study Finds

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And devastating it is for millions of Americans. In a 2007 study by Harvard Medical School and Ohio University researchers, 62.1 percent of bankruptcies were medically related. Most of these happened to well-educated Americans who owned their homes and were in middle-class occupations. Not all these families were struck by devastating cancer or incurable disease. Hsia's findings suggested that it was possible that even a routine procedure could produce a bill in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"No one is protected," Hsia said. "Even with insurance, it is a crazy and secret system"

Others working in the field suggested there was no simple solution.

"Consumer empowerment can only occur if prospective patients actually have easy access to user-friendly, reliable information," Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt explained in his 2006 article, "The Pricing of U.S. Hospital Services: Chaos Behind a Veil of Secrecy."

In 2006, California started to require hospitals to publish average charges for common procedures. However, these charges were rarely posted on hospital websites, making the information difficult to obtain. Furthermore, published charges rarely reflect negotiated payments.

Meanwhile, numerous websites have popped up allowing consumers to search for the average prices of common medical procedures and services according to ZIP codes. And a select few hospitals and insurance companies have made treatment cost estimators available to help patents prepare for upcoming hospital bills.

Despite these efforts, not much has changed to help patients become informed consumers. It's a fact to which Hong can attest.

"Before you get sick, for young people especially, it would help to spend a few minutes to figure out which hospitals near you are covered by [your] insurance," he said. "That would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights and thousands of dollars."

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