Back when South Carolina resident Mary Richardson was a recent college graduate, she experienced for the first time what it means when healthcare providers aren’t transparent with the costs for medical services. Her sister advised her to seek care for a blister on her foot, but she didn’t expect to be slammed with an astronomically high bill after the fact for something so simple.
“I was charged a $1,200 hospital bill plus a $1,200 doctor bill, and all they did was lance it and put a band-aid on,” Richardson said, adding that the appointment lasted no longer than 20 minutes.
Since Richardson hadn’t met her deductible for that blister removal, her insurance didn’t cover any of that $2,400, and she was responsible for the full amount. Richardson said this left a very foul taste in her mouth for the healthcare industry.
“It was so horrendous, and I was so poor then. I wrote a letter to the hospital; they discounted it somewhat, then put me on a payment plan for the next several years,” she said. “The ‘promise’ of insurance is very deceptive, as it demands upfront costs but doesn’t promise much in most plans until you reach even more money paid.”
Now that Richardson is a mother of four and expecting another child, she said that she regularly struggles with a lack of price transparency for her family’s medical care. She explained that, in many cases, because medical professionals didn’t tell her about costs ahead of appointments, she assumed they would be free consultations.
“I’m starting to feel like an idiot for not asking up front every single time what the price for such-and-such is,” she said. “I’ve been hit with bills up to $200 per visit.”
Recently, one of Richardson’s children was advised by her orthodontist to have five teeth extracted ahead of getting braces. The orthodontist sent an extraction order to a dentist with whom Richardson scheduled an appointment, but after her daughter had been seen, it ended up simply being a consultation where the dentist stated that five teeth need to come out and asked her daughter to return in a few weeks.
“I got a bill for $88 for that. We found a new dentist, and I found it ironic that it took the same amount of time for the dentist to actually pull the teeth (about 35 minutes) as it did for the first to ‘consult’ us,” she said. “And, when the treatment started, the new dentist presented us with a written estimation of the exact cost we’d pay when leaving the office. What a relief.”
For her own time-sensitive prenatal care, however, Richardson has struggled to find a transparent provider that also agrees with her birthing preferences. She had a routine obstetrician appointment scheduled but was denied care for not wearing a face mask—despite her medical history preventing her from being able to do so.
Within a week, Richardson got a positive pregnancy test, so she called that office back for an appointment. She requested to see a female practitioner for her own personal privacy and comfort, but the office insisted she had to see male and female practitioners. Fifteen weeks into her pregnancy, however, she began spotting, so despite her discomfort with that policy, she again called the office to set up an appointment.
“I accidentally told the scheduler that I still hoped for a home birth, and I was immediately told that my goals do not align with theirs,” Richardson said, explaining her frustration since she needed prenatal care regardless of where she would eventually give birth.
After this OB-GYN office turned her away, Richardson called another practice but was similarly denied prenatal care if she didn’t agree to their full plan for birthing at the hospital. Richardson said she was desperate to be seen for the spotting, so she reached out to the hospital’s CEO and was given an appointment the next morning for what she was told was a “second opinion.”
“I didn’t realize this meant I would not be examined. I was ushered into the doctor’s office, not an examination room, and again argued and fought about my right to receive an examination regardless of where I ended up birthing in the end,” she began. Eventually, the doctor agreed to give her an ultrasound, but when she tried to schedule the appointment, another staffer refused her care. Richardson continued:
“I went back to the CEO, whose hands were tied but, wanting to help me, offered me this helpful insight: ‘You have to follow the money trail. They don’t make much money off prenatals, but off births, so he doesn’t want to see you for prenatals unless he’ll birth your baby.’ Then, my husband said that it’s time to go ahead and hire a homebirth midwife.”
Fortunately, the midwife that Richardson hired performed an ultrasound and confirmed that the baby was healthy. But, after the lengthy process to arrive at that conclusion, the aforementioned hospital ended up charging her $250 for their “second opinion,” despite providing her no prenatal care.
“In every other sector of our economy, prices are advertised up front, and any discounts or deals are also given honestly. This helps consumers to be able to make educated decisions about their spending,” Richardson said, sharing that these instances were not the first time she has been given a “litmus test” for health care. “My distrust of the medical establishment grows with each visit I make.”