To its credit, UC Davis Medical Center has admitted its mistake. It should not have sent the parents of Scott Hawkins a bill for $29,186 just 10 days after the Sacramento State student was pronounced dead in the emergency room after a beating in his dormitory.
As Sam Stanton reported in Tuesday's Bee, Hawkins' parents were sent the demand for the money, accompanied by a form letter that implied – inaccurately – that they were indigent. Hawkins' father, already grieving the loss of his son, called the experience "devastating and insulting." And UC Davis Medical Center, finding itself in a public relations nightmare, has apologized, suspended the sending of such letters, and launched a review of its billing process.
There is a larger issue here for families, insured and uninsured, than just a clerical error. The issue is the financial predicament of hospitals and emergency rooms and the billing practices that grow out of them.
Here is the major flash point that affects us all: Federal law requires hospital emergency rooms to treat anyone who shows up at their doors. As a result, they are the primary source of care for Americans without health insurance. Because the uninsured have no access to primary care doctors, they often delay their arrival at the ER until their condition has progressed to a more serious stage. The situation has only gotten worse since the economy has melted down. In the capital region, emergency room visits rose by 12 percent in the first six months of 2009, according to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.
Channeling the uninsured to ERs, the most expensive venue for receiving medical services, when they should be treated by primary care docs is bad enough. But hospital billing practices add another surreal element to the process.
To read the complete editorial, visit The Sacramento Bee.