Hospitals Often Charge Uninsured More

Chris Huston makes about $25,000 a year walking dogs for a living in Chicago. Medical insurance is beyond her reach, but dog bites are not.

Two years ago, a mutt bit her thumb almost in half, sending her to the hospital.

The hospital bill: $18,000, later discounted to $12,000, to be paid back at the rate of $100 a month. Huston offered to pay $25 a month.

"I was actually laughed at by the personnel in the hospital," she said.

At that rate, the hospital told her, don't bother.

"And so I stopped paying them. And then, a little over a year later, I was sued," she said.

There are 44 million uninsured Americans like Huston, and for them a stay in the hospital is often followed by lawyers, liens and collection agencies.

What's worse, their charges are higher than those for the same services negotiated by big private insurers, HMOs, or government programs like Medicare or Medicaid.

$116,000 Bill for Encephalitis

Dianna and Ed Jellison got a bill for $116,000 after Ed contracted a case of encephalitis and spent 17 days in the hospital.

They are uninsured, but their lawyer said the same services would have cost Medicare about $14,000.

Dianna said their hospital promised to work something out.

"And the next thing I heard, I got a letter from a collection agency," she said.

Why the Hardball?

Why are the hospitals playing hardball?

"It's just an indication of the stress that hospitals are under in that constant tension between survival and service," said Ken Dobbins of the Illinois Hospital Association.

In addition to the rising costs hospitals face for labor, drugs and new equipment, hospitals in this country last year provided more than $22 billion in care for which they were paid nothing.

In recent months, as Congress has taken a greater interest in the matter, hospitals have offered more breaks to the uninsured.

The Jellisons, for example, just had their bill reduced to $20,000 on one condition — that they not make the settlement public.