– Sarah Kliff
April 24, 2019
California is moving forward on a new law to end surprise emergency room bills like those that left one patient with a $20,000 treatment bill after a minor bike crash — legislation that was inspired by Vox’s reporting on the issue.
The new bill, introduced by state Assembly member David Chiu and state Sen. Scott Wiener, would bar California hospitals from pursuing charges beyond a patient’s regular copayment or deductible. The ban would apply even if a hospital was out of network with a patient’s health insurance.
The bill passed out of the California Assembly Committee on Health on Tuesday and now heads to the appropriations committee. No members of the health committee voted against the proposal.
In January, a series of stories published by Vox drew nationwide attention to the aggressive billing tactics used by Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, which have left insured emergency room patients with overwhelming medical debt.
The problem is especially acute for patients like Nina Dang and Jason Zanders, both of whom were brought to the hospital by ambulance — Dang after a bike accident, and Zanders after being hit in the face with a pole hanging off a city bus.
Both Dang and Zanders have health insurance but didn’t realize that Zuckerberg Hospital was out of network for all private coverage — something that academic experts and patient advocates describe as an extremely unusual billing practice.
Dang ended up with a bill of $20,243, which the hospital reduced to $200, the copay listed on her insurance card, after our story about her experience. Zanders received a bill of $27,660 that he spent two years fighting in court.
Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital has, in light of reporting from both Vox and the San Francisco Chronicle, revised its billing policies to end surprise bills and cap what it charges privately insured patients, based on their income.
But Chiu, who represents San Francisco, thinks even more action is needed: a statewide law that would outlaw this kind of behavior.
“This all came to my attention through your article,” he said. “When your story broke, I started digging into how state law impacted the situation and saw that there were some clear holes in California policy that we needed to address.”