Better Solutions for Healthcare

Vox: I read 1,182 emergency room bills this year. Here’s what I learned.

By Sarah Kliff

December 18, 2018

For the past 15 months, I’ve asked Vox readers to submit emergency room bills to our database. I’ve read lots of those medical bills — 1,182 of them, to be exact.

My initial goal was to get a sense of how unpredictable and costly ER billing is across the country. There are millions of emergency room visits every year, making it one of the more frequent ways we interact with our health care system — and a good window into the health costs squeezing consumers today.

I started my project focused on one specific charge: the facility fee. I found this charge for walking through an emergency room’s doors could be as low as $533 or well over $3,000, depending on which hospital a patient visited and how severe her case was. I also learned that the price of this charge had skyrocketed in recent years, increasing much faster than other medical prices for no clear reason.

But given the volume and diversity of bills I received, I’ve learned so much more.

I’ve read emergency room bills from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. I’ve looked at bills from big cities and from rural areas, from patients who are babies and patients who are elderly. I’ve even submitted one of my own emergency room bills for an unexpected visit this past summer.

Some of the patients I read about come in for the reasons you’d expect: a car accident, pains that could indicate appendicitis or a heart attack, or because the ER was the only place open that night or weekend.

Some come in for reasons you’d never expect. Like the little girl who swallowed a coin to hide it from her sister, the 12-year-old boy who was hit by a home run ball at a professional baseball game (who, incidentally, was given a $60 ibuprofen at the local children’s hospital), and the adult who ate an entire bag of chocolate candy … without realizing it was edible marijuana. Rest assured, they are all fine!