Four months ago, on the second run of a beautiful spring morning at Winter Park, I ran full force into a tree going over 30 miles an hour on my snowboard. I woke up on the slopes in severe pain and with a sense of fear like nothing I’d experienced before. After an intense couple of days of being stabilized and assessed, my injury list included fractures of my scapula, two ribs, a vertebrae, and bones in my shoulder and knee, a punctured lung, a concussion, and a torn ACL, MCL, and meniscus in my right knee. After four days in the hospital, I headed home in a lot of pain and with a long recovery in my future.
Before my accident, I probably would have expected that a close call like I had would’ve inspired feelings of relief at still being alive or gratitude toward the amazing medical providers; it did, but a different emotion dominated my thoughts: dread. Specifically, dread about the medical bills I was sure to face, despite my excellent health insurance. I hurried out of the hospital as quickly as I could.
It’s a feeling most of us are familiar with. American families consistently rank health care costs as their most important financial problem, over debt, unemployment, and cost of living. This problem persists even after recent major health care reforms. In Colorado, approximately 810,000 people still had problems paying their medical bills, despite major gains in insurance coverage in 2015. Ever since a landmark 2009 Harvard study attributed 62% of all bankruptcies to medical bills, the toll of personal health care bills has been a prominent part of our national dialogue. Confusion and frustration with medical bills is well-documented; story after story continues to come out.
In the months after my accident, one of the most challenging aspects of navigating my medical bills was the simple fact that I didn’t know how much the $200,000 in services I was receiving would ultimately cost me. I received dozens of letters in the mail attempting to describe the services and their associated costs, but inconsistencies were everywhere. Unlike other services I buy, in the lead up to my recent reconstructive knee surgery, I had little power to shop around and compare prices.
Some recent health care system change efforts have begun to address these issues. Price transparency has been gaining traction around the country over the past decade, and many states, including Colorado, have implemented all-payer claims databases (APCDs) or are exploring the idea. Colorado’s APCD allows anyone to see how much some health care services—like maternity care and knee and hip replacement—would cost at area hospitals. Other organizations, like Healthcare Bluebook and Castlight Health, are working to not only make health care prices more transparent, but also calculate “fair” costs and educate consumers to encourage money-saving choices.
It’s only a start, to be sure. Even if we all had full access to the cost of each health care service before it was rendered, and we all made the most cost-effective decisions, costs would still be too high. There are a lot of additional forces at work driving up prices that also need dedicated attention and efforts, and we’ll always need to balance those with maintaining and increasing the quality of care. Clearly we still have many questions to answer about price transparency and health care costs, especially as it concerns medically underserved populations.
My firsthand experience in navigating medical bills and insurance coverage has re-energized me for our work at CCMU to address these difficult questions and complex issues. I’m sure it’ll keep me plenty busy while I eagerly await being able to get back out on the slopes.