How to Cut Your Doctor's Bills

Patients should haggle with doctors and hospitals to bring down medical costs.

ByABC News
July 28, 2009, 3:33 PM

Aug. 3, 2009— -- Eric Remjeske, 38, was skiing in Vail, Colo., this February when he missed a jump. The result: broken bones in both feet and the prospect of big medical bills. Remjeske needed a night in the hospital plus an orthopedic surgeon to put two screws in each heel. His health insurance required him to meet a $6,000 deductible and pay a 20% share of any expense after that.

So Remjeske, a financial planner, returned home to Minneapolis for surgery and set out to trim his costs. He got quotes from three different surgeons at three hospitals and tried to anticipate related expenses, like anesthesia and physical therapy. The estimates ranged from $14,000 to $18,000. He picked the University of Minnesota's hospital, which had the lowest estimate.

After the successful surgery, the bills arrived, totaling $16,000--more than what he'd expected. Remjeske fought back, objecting to specific hospital charges. The hospital agreed to strike a $500 charge for time in the recovery room, $200 for a leg-lifting device that Remjeske claims wasn't used and $800 in other charges, including the cost of physical therapy sessions that never happened. Remjeske says he missed out on the opportunity to get a deal on his sedation medicine because the anesthesiologist wasn't able to tell him the price ahead of time.

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"If you go in unknowing and come out unknowing, you could end up with an unbelievable bill," Remjeske says. As for the hospital, "We think we give the best care," says spokeswoman Jennifer Amundson, "so it's nice to know that we're also competitive."

Haggle with your doctor and hospital? These days you'd be crazy not to.

The rise in health care costs, and especially in the share paid by the patient, is giving people a lot more incentive to gather their courage to try to bargain down prices. Last year, an average insured family spent $3,350 on copays, coinsurance (the percentage that is the patient's responsibility), premiums and deductibles. That's twice the average of a decade ago.