Wife Saves Husband, Then Saves Thousands on Their Medical Bills

Even the smallest errors on medical bills can cost-- here's how to spot them.

ByELISABETH LEAMY via via logo
January 07, 2009, 9:34 PM

Jan. 8, 2009 — -- Michelle Katz is a health-care savings expert with a master's degree in nursing, so when her husband Martin had a heart attack right in front of her, she fought to save his life. Then, she fought the errors on his medical bill and saved the couple $7,000.

Today on "Good Morning America," Katz discussed the horrifying experience and shared the lessons she learned that could save other Americans thousands of dollars.

Click here to read Michelle Katz's answers to questions she received online through "Good Morning America."

Katz was talking with her husband in June 2008 when she noticed his face turning gray.

"I looked over and I said, 'Martin, are you OK?'" she told "Good Morning America." "If I can describe death, that's kind of what I was seeing. And that's when I grabbed him. And as I grabbed his hand, it was almost like putting my hand in a vat of ice cubes. It was that cold. He started stiffening up."

Terrified, Katz immediately gave her husband CPR.

"I started pushing down on the compressions and was just screaming and saying 'Are you OK? Are you still with me?'" she said. "I just wanted him to know, even if he wasn't listening, that I was not going to let someone die in my hands. And especially not my own husband."

Later, X-rays showed that Katz had cracked her husband's ribs with the force of her compressions. After 16 long minutes, an ambulance arrived and took Martin to the emergency room.

When hospital took over, Katz, the author of two books about saving money on medical bills, started paying attention. She vowed to follow the advice she had given others in "Healthcare for Less" and "101 Health Insurance Tips."

"I knew the dollar signs were going up," Katz said. "That's when I started documenting things." In the days that followed, Katz found errors on the bills that, when corrected, saved her and her husband $7,000.

Lessons to Save Money on Medical Bills

Katz offered nine tips on how to keep medical bills low:

Lesson 1: Keep a log.

Katz recommends that somebody close to the patient keep a log of all the procedures performed and medications given during a hospital stay. If friends and family are taking shifts to give a patient moral support around the clock, this concrete duty can be welcome. If unsure what nurses and doctors are doing, ask. It's a good idea to engage with the medical professionals anyway. It can help prevent medical mistakes.

Lesson 2: Request an itemized bill.

After a medical episode, she says the key is to request an itemized copy of your bill. It's pages and pages long and breaks down every procedure, every medication. On "GMA" today, Katz shared some of the mistakes she found on that bill, ones she urges patients to look for in their own medical bills.

Lesson 3: Make sure the dates match up.

When Katz went over her husband's medical records, she found that he had been charged for procedures performed a day before his heart attack has occurred -- when he was not in the hospital.

Lesson 4: Watch out for extra zeroes.

On one bill, Katz said she found a mistake that would have cost nearly $800. A common medication that is normally $80 had been billed for $874 instead.

Lesson 5: Beware of 'fat fingers.'

Katz calls extra line items on bills "fat fingers." For example, one medication was listed on her husband's bill seven times a day even though it was only supposed to be administered four times a day.

"That would be like giving him an overdose," Katz said.

Lesson 6: Know what's included.

Katz says sometimes patients are charged for the "value meal" and the a la carte items in the value meal. For example, at certain levels of care in a hospital, the physician is included in the package, but you may receive a separate bill from the doctor.

There is often a category on your bill with a name like "daily supplies," which should include things like IV lines, syringes, etc. But often patients are also billed for those items separately.

Lesson 7: Don't pay for medical mistakes.

Katz told "GMA" the hospital caused an IV infection in her husband's arm and then charged him for the extra day he was forced to stay.

"I fought that and negotiated it down," she said.

Lesson 8: Don't be afraid to negotiate -- with the doctors, not the billing department.

"Doctors are in the field," Katz said. "They're compassionate." She pointed out that the people in the billing department don't know you personally and are sometimes paid a commission based on how much money they collect.

Lesson 9 : You can hire help.

Rather than take on a medical bill, you can get help from professionals. Katz says most hospitals have a "patient advocate," a person whose job it is to guide patients through the medical process.

After you leave the hospital, if you need help interpreting your bill, Katz suggests paying cash for an appointment with your doctor and asking the doctor to explain the itemized bill to you, line by line. That can also be an opening to negotiate a discount or a payment plan.

Alternatively, patients can hire medical claims professionals to help scour the bill for mistakes. These professionals either charge a flat fee or a commission based on how much money they save you.

If you need help getting an insurance company to pay, contact your state insurance commissioner. The commissioner oversees insurance companies to make sure they are fair and follow the law and the commissioner's assistance is free.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events