5 Ways US Medical Billing Is Way More F#@ked Than You Think

#2. It's Probably Getting Worse

America's insurance-dominated healthcare system is not a friend to small, independent clinics. If you're running a small practice with a limited budget and staff, it's difficult to concentrate on patients while you're also essentially running an insurance-shakedown business. And it's getting worse: Every year brings new regulations requiring things, like fancy electronic record-keeping systems, that are as far outside small clinics' budgets as robot nurses.

As more and more of these clinics fold, the doctors who once would have worked there are instead getting hired by hospitals. In itself, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But those same hospitals that are swallowing up doctors like British police boxes are also merging with each other all across the country. And when big hospitals give in to their mutual love and merge into mega hospitals, patients' bills go up.

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"And here's where I drew a dick on a piece of paper. It's going to cost you $32,000."

Once a hospital chain becomes the dominant health provider in an area, insurance companies are pretty much forced to keep that hospital as a client, because otherwise they'll lose customers faster than if they changed their name to "Death Panels of America, Inc." Who would sign up with an insurance company that isn't accepted by any doctor in a 100-mile radius? Once insurers are trapped like this, hospital chains are free to start pushing up their prices even more.

A big problem here is that when Americans think about healthcare costs, we're used to pointing at insurers like they're the sole bad guys. After all, for most of us, "insurance company" means "those guys who call you up in the ER after you've been bitten by a mountain lion and question whether you really need all those stitches." Hospitals, on the other hand, are the good guys: They sew us up, remove all those mountain lion teeth, and save our lives. Unfortunately, these days a lot of hospitals seem to be taking this innocent goodwill and using it to turn into the antagonists in a James Cameron movie.

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If you're ever depressed about the modern world, it sometimes helps to imagine yourself as the hero in a cool dystopian sci-fi.

And one of the worst things about these increasingly awful medical bills is ...

#1. They Destroy the Way You Think About Money

Although the average American cable news station spends approximately 50 billion hours a year discussing healthcare, one thing hardly anyone talks about is the psychological effect of these stupidly huge bills. I know all about this, because I'm a person with chronic health problems who recently switched to private health insurance after many years participating in the socialized healthcare system known as "the U.S. military." I have the best insurance I can afford, and yet every trip to the mailbox involves psyching myself up for this week's third surprise bill, or maybe even another letter accusing me of getting a medically unnecessary blood test, because apparently I'm some kind of blood-test junkie who bursts into clinics and shakes down doctors to get my next phlebotomist-administered hit.

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The needle is the only way I can feel anything anymore.

Logically, at this point I should become super financially responsible so I can pay these bills, right? But nope, it's a constant effort not to react in the exact opposite way. I want to be a responsible middle-class person with a mortgage and a sensible haircut and well-organized kitchen utensils, I really do, but what's the point in trying? At any moment in the near future, my insurance could decide to dispute a random medication and send me a bill that wipes out all my savings and more. So tell me why I shouldn't live in the moment and spend $250 on a jewel-encrusted cockring.

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Sir Edgar Crowington deserves only the best.

Yes, many things can go wrong in life. Your house might burn down. A dying bald eagle might fall on your parked car. The difference with medical bills is that they're so potentially huge and arbitrary that there is no preparing for them. You can't just buy insurance and stop worrying: Insurance might cover your bills, but it might not. You can't predict how bad your bills are going to be if you get hurt in an accident, because costs are pretty much random. I have no idea why one of my generic medications costs me $150 after insurance and the other costs me $15. It's not like the first one works 10 times better, or a panel determined that the second medicine is needed only by people who are jerks. The extent of your money-beatdown depends entirely on how your body decides to go wrong and how unlucky you are.

We're living in a society where an ordinary misfortune like a broken bone or a car accident can strike normal, responsible, insured Americans out of nowhere, and it could cost us $200 or it could cost us $200,000. There's nothing any of us can do to prevent this looming financial shark attack, except be incredibly rich. And we're all getting older, and most of us aren't in perfect health, so why not just say "fuck it, YOLO" and spend all our income on monster trucks and golden unicorn statues? Yet you'll hear people refer to this whole shitty situation as some kind of opportunity to learn and practice "personal responsibility." Guys, those words: I don't think they mean what you think they mean.

C. Coville has a Twitter here and a Tumblr here.

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