Health Care

Kaitlyn Finley | June 17, 2021

Oklahomans’ medical debt points up the need for price transparency

Kaitlyn Finley

Obtaining a service estimate from medical providers can often seem like an insurmountable task for patients in Oklahoma. Oftentimes, after many inquiries and phone calls from patients, insurance companies and medical providers say they cannot reveal the total price or out-of-pocket costs until after the service is performed. Needing the care, patients proceed with the service or procedure anyway, only to receive numerous “surprise” bills months later from “out-of-network” providers, including the surgical assistant or anesthesiologist that was involved in the procedure.

In some cases, after the pile of inflated bills arrives, Oklahoma hospitals aggressively go after their former patients to collect payment.

An analysis from Oklahoma Watch in 2019 “found  that dozens of  hospitals across the state have filed at least 22,250 lawsuits against their former patients over unpaid medical bills” since 2016.

“In many of those cases,” Oklahoma Watch reported, “the hospitals have garnished wages to collect  anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000.”

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Commonwealth Fund, and the Urban Institute, credit analysts at QuoteWizard, a subsidiary of LendingTree, found that more than 1 in 5 Oklahomans have medical debt tied up in collections. The analysis also found Oklahoma residents with medical debt had the highest median value of debt in collections ($1,176) compared to all other states.

Legislation proposed by state Senator Julie Daniels this year would have helped deter surprise medical bills and address the issue of medical debt for Oklahomans.

Senate Bill 548 would have encouraged medical providers to provide a good-faith estimate to patients prior to the medical service. If providers choose not to oblige, they cannot seek payment through collections or garnish the patient’s wages.

Senate Bill 548 passed the Oklahoma Senate this year but failed in the House.

Thanks to a federal rule change first issued by the Trump administration, federal law now requires hospitals to post all their prices online, but the postings are often not user-friendly for patients.

Patients may have to wade through multiple spreadsheets and decipher and combine multiple hospital procedure codes to come up with the right price. Some hospitals provide a tool to estimate charges for procedures but they disclose that the price estimate may be just the hospital facility fee. Providers involved may bill the patient separately.

As health care costs steadily rise, it is time for medical providers to be upfront with service costs. When applicable, providers should always provide a tailored estimate for medical services; no one should have to guess how many different medical bills they will receive in the mail after the fact.

Kaitlyn Finley Policy Research Fellow

Kaitlyn Finley

Policy Research Fellow

Kaitlyn Finley currently serves as a policy research fellow for OCPA with a focus on healthcare and welfare policy. Kaitlyn graduated from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Previously, she served as a summer intern at OCPA and spent time in Washington D.C. interning for the Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

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