"What are we going to do?" Mario Sanchez says of his family's nearly $14,000 bill for a two-day hospital stay following a car accident. "I have never seen [that] much money in my life."
An HMO would have been charged only $1,216 for the same services.
When Mr. Sanchez can't pay, a collection agency working for the hospital threatens to ruin his credit rating.
"They are going to take away our dreams of buying … a car or a house," he says.
The story of Mr. Sanchez, an Orange Country resident, is one of more than 100 cases documented in a new study of billing practices of public and private hospitals in Southern California. The report, compiled by the Los Angeles-based Consejo de Latinos Unidos, concludes that uninsured Latinos are often charged as much as five times the amount HMOs are billed for the same health care services.
"We believe that hospitals … are charging these outrageous fees so that they can … [make] a profit on the most vulnerable: the uninsured Latino," read the report, entitled "Cinco," Spanish for the number five.
In one case, a teenage girl, Maria Luis, was charged $33,707 for having her appendix removed. According to a compensation agreement between a major HMO and a Los Angeles-area hospital cited in the study, the HMO would have been billed only $1,100.
If the patients cannot afford the exorbitant sums, the hospitals refer their bills to debt collection agencies, which often harass and threaten them, the study claimed.
"The most abusive tactics are created by ruthless collection agencies and billing departments using high-pressure and scare tactics for payment," it said.
Elizabeth Mejilla, a 30-year-old woman was threatened with the loss of her home when she couldn't pay a $23,608 bill for treatment after falling into a diabetic coma. An HMO would have been asked to pay only $4,110 for a similar four-day stay.
Study: 'Latinos Are Easy Targets'
"[H]ospitals need to unequivocally end the immoral practice of overcharging patients with inflated medical bills," the report said.
Such pricing schemes, however, are not unique to Southern California, nor to Latinos. Health care experts say the differential between fees hospitals charge insurance companies and uninsured individuals has grown dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years, as managed health care organizations negotiated volume discounts.
The price disparities vary widely from state to state and area to area, but are prominent in many major cities.
The report made no allegation of any hospital employing a policy of deliberate discrimination against a particular ethnic group, but did cite numerous examples of non-English-speaking Latinos being forced to sign contracts written in English before being given treatment.
"Latinos are easy targets, we believe, because of the language barrier," the report said.
According to a study released earlier this year by UCLA, 36 percent of Latinos living in California had no health insurance of any kind, as of 1999.