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Woman says ER bill cost thousands just for 'walking in the door'

Posted: 2:04 PM, Jan 03, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-03 17:04:14-05

LITTLETON, Colo. — When you need to see a doctor, should you go to an emergency room or an urgent care? The difference could save you thousands of dollars, as one Colorado woman learned the hard way.

When you’re sick, you just want a quick fix. That's what this woman, who shared her story anonymously, was looking for.

“I had bronchitis ongoing for a few weeks and just started feeling a little worse," she said. "I was having a little difficulty breathing.”

She visited a University of Colorado Health Emergency Room in Littleton, Colorado.

“i just remember seeing a small freestanding building right off the freeway,” she said.

She said there was no wait and the staff had been attentive.

“They did a chest x-ray just to rule out pneumonia because that was a concern, and then I did a breathing treatment and it dramatically helped me," she said. "I felt better and I went home.”

She said she remembered paperwork, but no explanation of costs. Then she got the bill in the mail.

“The actual treatment was very inexpensive," she said. "The x-ray was only $300 and that treatment was only a dollar. Just walking in the door was $5,500. Just for the visit.”

After her insurance covered a little of it, she said she was stuck with the remaining $3,600. She said she didn’t realize she got treatment at a free standing ER, instead of an urgent care center. She called the billing department to complain about the expensive bill.

“They said, 'Well, we are considered an emergency room, because of certain services that we provide here,'” the woman said.

Standalone ERs have been popping up all over Colorado and can look like urgent care facilities.

HIPAA privacy laws prevented a UC Health spokesperson from commenting on the woman’s situation, but explained that standalone ER’s provide care 24/7, unlike urgent care centers. They are also staffed by board-certified emergency physicians and registered nurses and are equipped with full radiology equipment and labs

In a statement, the UC Health spokesperson said that the particular ER that the woman visited in Littleton had visible signs posted in the lobby notifying patients that it was not an urgent care center.

ER visits are generally more expensive than urgent care. A National Institute of Health study put the median cost at more than $1,200, while an urgent care visit averages $150.

Unfortunately, the woman overlooked it and is now learning an expensive lesson.

“I didn’t realize it wasn’t an urgent care," she said. "Next time I’ll make sure. I didn’t know that a little freestanding building could consider themselves a hospital.”

Below is the statement from UC Health:

UCHealth cannot discuss any specific patients because of the federal HIPAA law that protects patients’ privacy. however, here is some information that will hopefully help you.

We have information on our website to help patients determine when an urgent care or ER location is best for their needs, and when they should immediately call 911: ER vs. Urgent care . It is important for patients to seek the appropriate level of care. Here is more information that may be helpful: is that sore throat an emergency? A nd, please see the urgent care vs. emergency care info on our website. primary care and urgent care locations may be the best option, during their operating hours, for those who have non-emergent injuries and minor illnesses.

Freestanding emergency facilities are designed to provide high quality emergency care, close to home, for patients in a community. Different from urgent care centers, all emergency facilities provide emergency care 24 hours a day, 7 days per week, and are staffed exclusively with board-certified emergency physicians and emergency trained registered nurses. The facilities are equipped with a full radiology suite, including ct scanner, digital X-ray, ultrasound, as well as certified and accredited on-site laboratories.

All UCHealth emergency room locations display very prominent “emergency” and “ER” signage to clearly show that we provide emergency care. There are also ER and emergency room signs on the front doors and above the front entrance. These freestanding locations are open 24 hours a day and are designed to care for patients with emergency medical conditions. Accordingly, the billing at a freestanding emergency facility is similar to a hospital-based emergency department.

All UCHealth freestanding ER locations prominently display signs in our lobbies that state:

“This is an emergency medical facility that treats emergency medical conditions. This is not an urgent care center or primary care provider.”

UCHealth also provides information to patients that states these facilities are not urgent care facilities, and we provide a list of the charges for the most common services. This information is also posted on our website at www.uchealth.org/fsed-info . Additionally, UCHealth offers a procedure cost estimator tool that provides individualized estimates specific to patients’ own insurance plans online and through a dedicated call center.