Consumer Reports: Avoiding unexpected hospital charges

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Consumer Reports: Hospital Bills - Nydia Han reports during Action News at 4:30pm on July 31, 2018. (WPVI)

The last thing you need after a medical procedure or hospital stay is a pile of confusing bills - especially if those bills contain unexpected charges or incorrect fees.

These are common and sometimes complicated problems that Consumer Reports says can take years to resolve. They say we are in a sickening state when it comes to medical bills.

When Bill Linden's wife Kate was rushed into an emergency c-section, he was only thinking about one thing.

"It's a life or death situation. Baby has to come out now. Period. End of story," he said.

He was not thinking about the anesthesiologist who was brought in or whether insurance would cover that part of the procedure.

"I was not really thinking about paperwork at that point in time," said Linden.

But soon, paperwork was all he'd be thinking about. Bills started arriving, saying he owed roughly $2,500 dollars. Many phone calls later he found that it came down to a network classification. The anesthesiologist was considered out-of-network, even though the hospital was in-network.

Sounds simple enough to correct, but Linden says it took 14 months to determine they didn't owe the money.

"It was a lot. It was a lot," he said.

Consumer Reports Money Editor, Penelope Wang, says this is hardly uncommon.

"There's a very good chance that your billing problem will drag on for weeks, months or even years and it may never be resolved correctly," she said.

A Consumer Reports survey recently found 2 out of 3 people who'd had a major health expense in the past two years had an issue with their bill. More than a third said they'd paid bills they weren't even sure they owed.

"They felt it was too much trouble or too much effort to fight," said Wang.

So what can do to ease the pain? Linden ultimately worked with a non-profit patient advocacy group which laid out the steps he should take.

"This is the documentation you need to get. This is who you chase down. Send things certified mail," said Linden.

You can also hire a medical billing advocate for a fee. And if the unexpected charge is one you actually owe, Wang suggests trying to negotiate with your provider.

"They may offer you a payment plan or if you agree to pay in cash right away they may discount the amount.," said Wang.

Consumer Reports also says if possible know exactly what's covered before you go in for a procedure - that can help avoid surprises later.

Also, if you are asked to sign a document that says you accept financial responsibility, write in that you agree only for services that are IN NETWORK. It's not a guarantee, but it may help if you need to dispute a charge later.

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