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Can Obamacare End Emergency Room Overcharges?

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Los Angeles, CAYesterday marked the first day of hearings regarding President Obama's new federal health care law—Obamacare—with the goal of improving access to care and controlling costs, including Emergency Room Overcharges.

Uwe Reinhardt, an economist at Princeton University recently told National Public Radio (NPR) that Americans want the best possible care, want access to the doctors they need, but don't want to lose their life savings if hospitalized, or see any increase in their wages eaten up by much larger hikes in insurance premiums. And that includes emergency room costs.

According to the federal government, 50 million people were uninsured in 2009 and their unpaid medical bills totaled $43 billion, which insurers recaptured by adding $1,000 to every family's yearly policy, based on hospitals overcharging ER patients, from dishing out aspirin to hi-tech diagnostics.

For instance, Ella Moser, an 11-year-old boy recently taken to Providence Tarzana Medical Center's emergency room complaining of a stomach ache cost his parents more than $5,000.

Ella's father, Dr. John Moser, told The Los Angeles Times (March 24, 2012) that the cost for walking into the ER alone was $1,288. An ultrasound came to $1,135, and another $158 was charged for a saline solution to be administered by IV drip, which Mr. Moser declined after he was told it was unnecessary.

Count $540 for pathology and $309 for the doctor, and here is the kicker: $1,212 for a comprehensive metabolic panel (blood analysis), which can be charged as low as $39 by some labs. A comprehensive metabolic panel is a blood test that typically takes a lab technician a few minutes.

Patients seldom know in advance what they are being charged, Dr. Moser said, and many later find themselves in "medical bill bankruptcy."

Glenn Melnick, who teaches hospital economics at USC, said that "By and large, these prices are fictitious numbers," and that Tarzana, like most other hospitals nationwide, routinely overcharge outrageous ER fees for emergency room services, in particular.

Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a leading health policy institute, recently commented on the upcoming Supreme Court review of Obamacare. He said that the biggest factor driving people into poverty "was their out-of-pocket health costs" and that the biggest impact of the Supreme Court's impending ruling may be its impact on the law's momentum in the states.

The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision this June. Meanwhile, one attorney experienced with emergency room overcharges advises how you can prevent unnecessary emergency room costs.

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