By Jay Hancock

July 16, 2021

The care was ordinary. A hospital in Modesto, California, treated a 30-year-old man for shoulder and back pain after a car accident. He went home in less than three hours.

The bill was extraordinary. Sutter Health Memorial Medical Center charged $44,914 including an $8,928 “trauma alert” fee, billed for summoning the hospital’s top surgical specialists and usually associated with the most severely injured patients.

The case, buried in the records of a 2017 trial, is a rare example of a courtroom challenge to something billing consultants say is increasingly common at U.S. hospitals.

Tens of thousands of times a year, hospitals charge enormously expensive trauma alert fees for injuries so minor the patient is never admitted.

In Florida alone, where the number of trauma centers has exploded, hospitals charged such fees more than 13,000 times in 2019 even though the patient went home the same day, according to a KHN analysis of state data provided by Etienne Pracht, an economist at the University of South Florida. Those cases accounted for more than a quarter of all the state’s trauma team activations that year and were more than double the number of similar cases in 2014, according to an all-payer database of hospital claims kept by Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration.

While false alarms are to be expected, such frequent charges for little if any treatment suggest some hospitals see the alerts as much as a money spigot as a clinical emergency tool, claims consultants say.

“Some hospitals are using it as a revenue generator,” Tami Rockholt, a registered nurse and medical claims consultant who appeared as an expert witness in the Sutter Health car-accident trial, said in an interview. “It’s being taken advantage of” and such cases are “way more numerous” than a few years ago, she said.