For months, Sovereign Valentine had been feeling progressively run-down. The 50-year-old personal trainer, who goes by “Sov,” tried changing his workout and diet to no avail.
Finally, one Sunday, he drove himself to the hospital in the small town of Plains, Mont., where his wife, Jessica, happened to be the physician on call. “I couldn’t stop throwing up. I was just toxic.”
It turned out he was in kidney failure and needed dialysis immediately.
“I was in shock, but I was so weak that I couldn’t even worry,” he said. “I just turned it over to God.”
He was admitted to a nearby hospital that was equipped to stabilize his condition and to get his first dialysis session. A social worker there arranged for him to follow up with outpatient dialysis, three times a week. She told them Sov had two options, both about 70 miles from his home. They chose a Fresenius Kidney Care clinic in Missoula.
A few days after the treatments began, an insurance case manager called the Valentines warning them that since Fresenius was out-of-network, they could be required to pay whatever the insurer didn’t cover. The manager added that there were no in-network dialysis clinics in Montana, according to Jessica’s handwritten notes from the conversation. (The insurance company disputes this, saying that its case manager told Jessica there were no in-network dialysis clinics in Missoula.)
Jessica repeatedly asked both the dialysis clinic staff and the insurer how much they could expect to be charged, but couldn’t get an answer.
Then the bills came.
Patient: Sovereign Valentine, 50, a personal trainer in Plains, Mont. He is insured by Allegiance, through his wife’s work as a doctor in a rural hospital.
Total Bill: $540,841.90 for 14 weeks of dialysis care at an out-of-network Fresenius clinic. Valentine’s insurer paid $16,241.73. The clinic billed Valentine for the unpaid balance of $524,600.17.
Service Provider: Fresenius Medical Care, one of two companies (along with rival DaVita) that control about 70% of the U.S. dialysis market.
Medical Treatment: Hemodialysis at an outpatient Fresenius clinic, three days a week for 14 weeks.
What Gives: As the dominant providers of dialysis care in the U.S., Fresenius and DaVita together form what health economists call a “duopoly.” They can demand extraordinary prices for the lifesaving treatment they dispense — especially when they are not in a patient’s network. A 1973 law allows all patients with end-stage renal disease like Sov to join Medicare, even if they’re younger than 65 — but only after a 90-day waiting period. During that time, patients are extremely vulnerable, medically and financially.
Fresenius billed the Valentines $524,600.17 — an amount that is more than the typical cost of a kidney transplant. It’s also nearly twice Jessica’s medical school debt. Fresenius charged the Valentines $13,867.74 per dialysis session, or about 59 times the $235 Medicare pays for a dialysis session.
When Jessica opened the first bill, she cried. “It was far worse than what I had imagined would be the worst-case scenario,” she said.
Sov had a different reaction: “To me, it’s so outrageous that I just have to laugh.”