Online help dealing with hospital bills…

With California’s large and growing uninsured & underinsured population, we at Health Access are really pleased to unveil a new website–http://www.HospitalBillHelp.org–to help California patients know their consumer rights and financial options to deal with the biggest bill they get in their entire life. Here’s the release that announces the new resource:

New Consumer Protection Website
Informs Consumers against Underinsurance and Overcharging
By Hospitals and Health Providers

HospitalBillHelp.org provides help for growing number of uninsured and underinsured in CA;
informs consumers about their rights and financial options, including under new, first-in-nation fair pricing law

On Wednesday August 12th leading consumer protection groups in California announced the launch of HospitalBillHelp.org, a new consumer information website that helps patients deal with hospital and other medical bills, including inflated charges, “junk” insurance, and aggressive collections practices. The new site is part of a collaborative effort called the California Health Initiative on Overcharging and Underinsurance (IOU), led by Health Access and including Consumers Union, Western Center on Law and Poverty, ACORN, CALPIRG, Congress of California Seniors, and other consumer and community groups.

Visitors to HospitalBillHelp.org will find many resources informing them about their consumer rights and financial options in dealing with hospital, including under California’s first-in-the-nation Hospital Fair Pricing Act, a 2006 law authored by Assemblywoman Wilma Chan and sponsored by Health Access California, which limits the common practice of charging uninsured and underinsured patients more for care than everybody else pays.

Typically, hospitals and doctors overcharge self-pay patients three to four times what insurance companies and government programs pay for exactly the same procedures. The Hospital Fair Pricing Act, effective since January 2007, limits the amount that most uninsured and underinsured patients have to pay to the amount that a public insurer would pay for the same care. In most cases, this will be the Medicare price, which is 65-85% less than the inflated price. The Hospital Fair Pricing Act also requires hospitals to adequately inform patients about their charity care and discount policies.

However, despite clear rules outlined in the Hospital Fair Pricing Act, many California hospitals are still failing to inform uninsured and underinsured patients about their right to a fair price.

“In our current health system, self-pay patients lack bargaining power, and are asked to pay more than anybody else for needed care. HospitalBillHelp.org is a new and unique one-stop shop for the nearly 10 million Californians who are either uninsured or underinsured. HospitalBillHelp.org lets Californians know what their consumer rights and financial options are, so that individual patients get what insurers already get: a fair price for hospital care, ” said Anthony Wright, Executive Director of Health Access. “If you have a large hospital bill and need help paying it, or if you need hospital care and can’t afford it, this website can help you.”

Medical debt is a growing problem for low- and middle-income consumers, especially those who are self employed or between jobs. Some go without health coverage and others purchase “junk” or “catastrophic” insurance plans with extreme gaps in coverage. Both scenarios put consumers at tremendous risk of overwhelming medical debt or delay receiving treatment when needed.

The case of Laura Burwell of Chico, CA is demonstrative of the way in which deceptive “junk” insurance policies and the failure of hospitals to inform patients of their options can have traumatic consequences. Laura thought she was buying comprehensive coverage when she purchased health insurance with a $281 monthly premium, a $500 deductible and $50,000 in hospital coverage. She didn’t realize that her hospital coverage was capped at $3,000 a day, until a rattlesnake bite landed her in the Intensive Care Unit and with a $73,000 hospital bill.

“There I was thinking I was covered for $50,000,” Burwell said, “but my insurance only paid $3,000 and then I was responsible for the rest.”

Fortunately for Laura, she was protected by California ’s Hospital Fair Pricing Act, which prohibits hospitals from charging underinsured and uninsured patients more than Medicare would pay for the same care. In her case, that meant her final bill was reduced to $7,300, one-tenth the original bill. Laura hopes HospitalBillHelp.org will help other consumers faced with high hospital bills.

“The hospital never told me I was entitled to a discount. I had to do a lot of research on my own before I even found out about the Fair Pricing Act. This new website is going to make it a lot easier for Californians to get a fair price for hospital care,” she said.

The site also provides a wide variety of tools, features, resources and information to help consumers better understand their legal rights and financial options, including links to public health insurance options and applications, information on how to get discounted health care and even an Underinsurance Calculator to figure out whether you count as underinsured under any of the definitions commonly used.

“In May 2009, Consumer Reports published an article describing seven signs that a health insurance plan might be ‘junk’ insurance. Consumers can use HospitalBillHelp.org and use the site’s resources to discover loopholes in their own insurance plans, or as a helpful guide when purchasing new plans,” said Laurie Sobel, senior attorney with Consumers Union. “The site provides important information to help consumers make informed decisions when purchasing health insurance and steps to take to ensure that hospitals recognize their rights as stipulated under California ’s fair pricing law.”

When visiting HospitalBillHelp.org consumers can also research ways to get a discount on an existing bill, who to call for help and instructions on what to do when a hospital doesn’t follow the law. Furthermore, the site features a directory to help patients locate the closest and most affordable hospitals where they may be eligible for discounted care, regardless of their income.

“Western Center has long advocated for the needs of low-income uninsured people who are saddled with unaffordable hospital bills,” said Jen Flory, attorney with the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “We’re pleased to have a website that breaks down into plain English the complex programs that are available to help and provide information to those who might qualify.”

Other useful resources available on the site include information and steps on troubleshooting other common hospital and insurance billing problems, such as getting an independent medical review if an insurance company denies an individual coverage, and finding information on the prohibition against balance billing of HMO patients for out of network Emergency Room visits.

While the site serves as an important resource for consumers, including providing steps and information on how Californians can take advantage of our state’s strong consumer protection laws, the major problems in our health care system require broad federal health reform, like that proposed in H.R.3200, and further steps to ensure that self-paying patients and consumers are sufficiently protected against overcharging by health providers, like AB1503(Lieu), and inadequate private health insurance policies, like AB786(Jones).

“Whether it is overcharging, underinsurance, or care that is just plain unaffordable, the need for health reform is urgent. This website helps inform consumers about their rights and options, but they are limited. If anything, our work on HospitalBillHelp.org only reaffirmed our urgency for comprehensive health reform, like that which President Obama has proposed.” said Anthony Wright of Health Access California. “And California can continue to take the lead with specific reforms pending in the state legislature, by passing AB1503(Lieu) to prevent overcharging by emergency room doctors, and AB786(Jones) to prevent people being trapped in plans that leave them with unlimited financial risk.”

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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