A Hospital Charged $1,877 to Pierce a 5-Year-Old’s Ears. This Is Why Health Care Costs So Much.
By Marshall Allen
November 28, 2017
Two years ago, Margaret O’Neill brought her 5-year-old daughter to Children’s Hospital Colorado because the band of tissue that connected her tongue to the floor of her mouth was too tight. The condition, literally called being “tongue-tied,” made it hard for the girl to make “th” sounds.
It’s a common problem with a simple fix: an outpatient procedure to snip the tissue.
During a pre-operative visit, the surgeon offered to throw in a surprising perk. Should we pierce her ears while she’s under?
O’Neill’s first thought was that her daughter seemed a bit young to have her ears pierced. Her second: Why was a surgeon offering to do this? Wasn’t that something done free at the mall with the purchase of a starter set of earrings?
“That’s so funny,” O’Neill recalled saying. “I didn’t think you did ear piercings.”
The surgeon, Peggy Kelley, told her it could be a nice thing for a child, O’Neill said. All she had to do is bring earrings on the day of the operation. O’Neill agreed, assuming it would be free.
Her daughter emerged from surgery with her tongue newly freed and a pair of small gold stars in her ears.
Only months later did O’Neill discover her cost for this extracurricular work: $1,877.86 for “operating room services” related to the ear piercing — a fee her insurer was unwilling to pay.
At first, O’Neill assumed the bill was a mistake. Her daughter hadn’t needed her ears pierced, and O’Neill would never have agreed to it if she’d known the cost. She complained in phone calls and in writing.
The hospital wouldn’t budge. In fact, O’Neill said it dug in, telling her to pay up or it would send the bill to collections. The situation was “absurd,” she said.
“There are a lot of things we’d pay extra for a doctor to do,” she said. “This is not one of them.”
Kelley and the hospital declined to comment to ProPublica about the ear piercing.
Surgical ear piercings are rare, according to the Health Care Cost Institute, a nonprofit that maintains a database of commercial health insurance claims. The institute could only find a few dozen possible cases a year in its vast cache of billing data. But O’Neill’s case is a vivid example of health care waste known as overuse.
Into this category fall things like unnecessary tests, higher-than-needed levels of care or surgeries that have proven ineffective.
Wasteful use of medical care has “become so normalized that I don’t think people in the system see it,” said Dr. Vikas Saini, president of The Lown Institute, a Boston think tank focused on making health care more effective, affordable and just. “We need more serious studies of what these practices are.”
Experts estimate the U.S. health care system wastes $765 billion annually — about a quarter of all the money that’s spent. Of that, an estimated $210 billion goes to unnecessary or needlessly expensive care, according to a 2012 report by the National Academy of Medicine.
ProPublica has been documenting the ways waste is baked into the system. Hospitals throw away new supplies and nursing homes discard still-potent medication. Drugmakers combine cheap ingredients to create expensive specialty pills and arbitrary drug expiration dates force hospitals and pharmacies to toss valuable drugs.
We also reported how drug companies make oversize eyedrops and vials of cancer drugs, forcing patients to pay for medication they are unable to use. In response, a group of U.S. senators introduced a bill this month to reduce what they called “colossal and completely preventable waste.”
But any discussion of waste needs to look how health care dollars are thrown away on procedures and care that patients don’t need — and how hard it is to stop it.
Just ask Christina Arenas.
Arenas, 34, has a history of noncancerous cysts in her breasts so last summer when her gynecologist found some lumps in her breast and sent her for an ultrasound to rule out cancer, she wasn’t worried.
But on the day of scan, the sonographer started the ultrasound, then stopped to consult a radiologist. They told her she needed a mammogram before the ultrasound could be done.
Arenas, an attorney who is married to a doctor, told them she didn’t want a mammogram. She didn’t want to be exposed to the radiation, or pay for the procedure. But sitting on the table in a hospital gown, she didn’t have much leverage to negotiate.
So, she agreed to a mammogram, followed by an ultrasound. The findings: no cancer. As Arenas suspected, she had cysts, fluid-filled sacs that are common in women her age.
The radiologist told her to come back in two weeks so they could drain the cysts with a needle, guided by yet another ultrasound. But when she returned she got two ultrasounds: one before the procedure and another as part of it.
The radiologist then sent the fluid from the cysts to pathology to test it for cancer. That test confirmed — again — that there wasn’t any cancer. Her insurance whittled the bills down to $2,361, most of which she had to pay herself because of her insurance plan.
Arenas didn’t like paying for something she didn’t think she needed and resented the loss of control. “It was just kind of, ‘Take it or leave it.’ The whole thing. You had no choice as to your own care.”
Arenas, sure she’d been given care she didn’t need, discussed it with one of her husband’s friends who is a gynecologist. She learned the process could have been more simple and affordable.
Arenas complained to The George Washington Medical Faculty Associates, the large Washington, D.C., doctor group that provided her treatment. Her request to have the bill reduced was denied. Then bill collectors got involved, so she demanded a refund and threatened legal action.
She said she never got to speak to anyone. Her demand was routed to an attorney, who declined her request because there was “no inappropriate care.” She also complained to her insurance company and the Washington, D.C., attorney general’s office, but they declined to help reduce the bill.
Overtreatment related to mammograms is a common problem. The national cost of false-positive tests and overdiagnosed breast cancer is estimated at $4 billion a year, according to a 2015 study in Health Affairs. Some of this is fueled by anxious patients, some by doctors who know that missing a cancer diagnosis can be grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit. But advocates, patients and even some doctors note the screenings can also be a cash cow for physicians and hospitals.
With Arenas’ permission, we shared her case with experts, including Dr. Barbara Levy, vice president of health policy for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and three radiologists.
Levy said there’s a standard way to treat a suspected breast cyst that’s efficient and cost-effective. If the lump is large, as in Arenas’ case, a doctor should first use a needle to try and drain it. If the fluid is clear and the lump goes away there’s no cause for concern or extra testing. If the fluid is bloody or can’t be drained, or the mass is solid, then medical imaging tests can determine if it’s cancerous.
However, doctors often choose to order imaging tests rather than drain apparent cysts, Levy said. “We’re so afraid the next one might be cancer even though the last 10 weren’t,” she said. “So, we overtest.”
Levy and the radiologists agreed that at least some of Arenas’ care seemed excessive. But their opinions varied, which shows why it can be difficult to reduce unnecessary care. Standards are often open-ended, so they allow for a wide range of practices and doctors have autonomy to take the route they think is best for patients.
The American College of Radiology recommends an ultrasound for a 32-year-old — Arenas’ age at the time of the procedure — with an unidentified breast mass. Mammograms are also an option, but “most benign lesions in young women are not visualized by mammography,” the guidelines state.
Dr. Phillip Shaffer, a radiologist who’s practiced for decades in Columbus, Ohio, said he didn’t think Arenas needed the mammogram. “I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “If I did an ultrasound and saw cysts, I’d say you have cysts. In 32-year-olds the mammogram does almost nothing.”
Dr. Jay Baker, chair of the American College of Radiology breast imaging communications committee, agreed that the ultrasound alone would have “almost certainly” identified the cyst. But, he said, maybe something about the lumps concerned Arenas’ radiologist, so a mammogram was ordered.
None of the radiologists consulted by ProPublica could explain why two ultrasounds on the return visit would be necessary. According to Arenas’ medical records, the practice told one reviewer that two were done to make sure the cysts hadn’t changed.
Shaffer didn’t buy it. “They just billed her twice for one thing,” he said.
Levy, the gynecologist, said it’s “excessive” to do two ultrasounds. And, she said, there was no need to send clear fluid to pathology.
Arenas offered to waive her privacy rights so the practice that provided her treatment could speak to ProPublica. Officials from the practice declined to comment. Her medical records show that in response to reviews by her insurance company and the attorney general’s office, her doctors said the care was appropriate.
Since then she has her cysts drained without images in her gynecologist’s office for about $350. But Arenas said on two occasions she’s used a needle at home to do it herself. (Doctors do not recommend this approach.) She admits it was an extreme choice, but at the time she worried she would be subjected to more unnecessary tests.
“I was taken advantage of because I was a captive audience,” she said.
In a brick-and-glass office park just outside Roanoke, Virginia, Missy Conley and Jeanne Woodward have battled on behalf of hundreds of patients who believe they’ve been overtreated or overcharged. The two work for Medliminal, a company that challenges erroneous and inflated medical bills on behalf of consumers in exchange for a share of the savings.