$5,751 for an ice pack? Hefty bills await patients just for walking into ER

In the latest article in Vox’s series on hospital billing practices, Jessica Pell told a story that isn’t a one-off case: She went to an emergency room (ER), received a minimal amount of help and still got saddled with a massive bill. 

Pell went to ER at Hoboken University Medical Center in New Jersey after fainting and cutting her ear on a table. She said the only tangible help she received was an ice pack. Unlike other ER visitors, she was keenly aware of “surprise” bills that could arise when receiving care from an out-of-network physician. The plastic surgeon who would see her wasn’t included in her network, so she left for a different facility, thinking she had smartly avoided any hefty balance for her care.

Instead, her insurer paid the hospital only $862, leaving Pell with a balance of $4,989 to cover on her own. The hospital only reversed the balance after Vox began inquiring about Pell’s treatment.

“There was no way for me to have avoided this bill, to have known what I would have been charged,” Pell said.

Vox’s series has so far collected more than 1,300 hospital bills from all 50 states—even attracting a warning from the American Hospital Association. Other patients have reported the same kind of scenario as Pell, even when they first seek out care from a lower cost setting. Carolyn Wallace brought her 4-year-old daughter, bleeding from a cut above her eyebrow, to an urgent care clinic before being directed to the ER at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital in Houston. After waiting an hour, the only care she received was a physician assistant taking her temperature.

For that minimal amount of care, the physician assistant sent a $669 bill while the hospital tacked on $300 for its facility fee.

“I just felt that it was an exorbitant fee that was not at all in correlation to the service provided,” Wallace said. “It seemed really out of line with the situation. They didn’t give me new gauze or a bandage or replace the paper towel we brought from home. They didn’t give me anything to clean it with.”

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