Panel rebuffs Perdue on hospital bills May 25, 2012 


Gov. Beverly Perdue speaks to the media about appointing a N.C. Supreme Court Justice and the acquiring of the Dix Hospital site after attending a function at Biogen Idec, who were marking the opening of its new, 190,000-square-foot building at its RTP campus.


A House subcommittee on Thursday rejected Gov. Bev Perdue’s plan to make hospital bills more transparent and understandable.

Perdue had proposed giving the N.C. Institute of Medicine $100,000 to study the problem of overly complicated and opaque hospital bills, one of the issues highlighted in a recent series in The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer.

Hospital bills are unlike any others. When buying a car or computer, consumers choose the product and agree on the price. At hospitals, doctors generally choose the medicine, tests and treatment, though often in consultation with patients. Prices are seldom discussed; patients generally learn the charges when they receive their bills. Comparison shopping is difficult.

There can be multiple bills. An appendectomy, for example, could result in bills from the hospital, the surgeon, the anesthesiologist and an ambulance service. Most bills are short with little explanation; detailed bills can run for pages and consist of hard-to-decipher codes.

Perdue had proposed the study to develop transparency in hospital billing as part of her proposed $20.9 billion budget.

House Republicans dropped it from the budget they released Thursday.

Rep. Verla Insko pushed an amendment to restore the study. The Chapel Hill Democrat said she wasn’t only trying to help patients navigate the bewildering bills. Taxpayers fund a good portion of hospital budgets through Medicare, Medicaid, payments for the uninsured and tax breaks for nonprofit hospitals, she noted.

“When tax money is involved, it is the legislature’s responsibility to make sure the money is spent transparently and responsibly,” Insko said.

The main opponent to the study was Rep. William Brisson, a board member of the Bladen County Hospital Board. Brisson could not be reached for comment.

Some states, such as Maine and New Hampshire, have websites that show estimated prices of medical care for both insured and uninsured consumers. New Hampshire and Maine post price information based on paid claims data collected from health insurers. Their websites show estimates not just for the hospital bill, but for the total bill, including doctors’ fees and other services.

The House budget also takes aim at the long-standing state subsidy to UNC Hospitals. For years, the General Assembly gave up to $45 million each year to UNC Hospital to subsidize health care for the poor. In 2011, the General Assembly reduced the subsidy to $18 million. The proposed House budget eliminates it entirely.

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