Patient complains about being overcharged thousands of dollars by a Napa hospital for medical laboratory tests

Dark Daily published an article saying a community hospital charged Kathy Meinhardt inpatient prices for clinical laboratory testing when she was a walk-up customer. As a result, Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa Valley has found itself centered within a media flare-up.

A California newspaper heralded the story of an understandably displeased inpatient charged $4,316.55 for lab panels that a national lab would have performed for just $464, about 90% cheaper! Papers have not released all of the tests that were administered, but had Meinhardt paid for six full suites of labs at Atlas MD she still wouldn’t have spent as much she did at the national lab.

According to sites like Daily Dark, price transparency is trending in healthcare and people are opening their eyes to the reality of insurance price gouging conducted in part through unscrupulous chargemasters. Kathy Meinhardt, who does graphic design in Napa Valley, California, illustrates a flaw in the clinical lab testing industry. According to an article in the San Francisco Business Times, she was overcharged the amount of $4,316.55 for blood panels in April 2012 at Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa Valley. What the billing department was unaware of was that Meinhardt had been charged $464.81 for a similar panel by a lab ran by Quest Diagnostics Incorporated. It’s no surprise she called them out. Four hundred bucks is already too much in our humble opinion, but do people really think you can invent a price ten times as high out of thin air? We need to get serious, all of us, doctors, patients and insurers. First off, this overcharging is unethical, but secondly, allowing it to occur is shameful, too.

Dark Daily says that as the story goes Meinhardt emailed the newspaper, saying “The [clinical laboratory] tests have the exact (same) CPT codes! There is no reasonable or logical explanation for the difference. It’s just greed. Why should I have to take out a small loan to have blood work done?” And we’re totally on her side. Greed might be a primary culprit, second only to the public’s hopeless resignation to an intimidatingly complex healthcare administration that we’re wrapped up in.

The article continues saying, “San Francisco Business Times cited the following example: QVMC charged $315 for a Cortisol test, compared to $32.16 for the same test at the Quest Diagnostics laboratory. After Meinhardt complained to QVMC, the medical center reduced her bill to $3,012.77 and then to $1,766, the newspaper reported.”

And now for some more daily headshaking. We especially love the woman at Queen’s Valley Medical Center who said that comparing the clinical lab to her hospital was not comparing, and this is quoted, “apples to apples.” This is insulting to every person who writes ANYTHING, on ANY medium. THIS might be exactly the point we’re trying to make here. As much as we’re doctors trying to help patients, we are actually stuck in a bullying match with jerk linguists. If a simple blood panel is not a simple blood panel AT ANY LOCATION, what is even going on? How does anyone even go shopping for ANYTHING if an item is not AN ITEM? Although, to clever Karen’s point, gas is basically gas, and we all know that prices vary depending on the location, neighborhood, distance to an offramp, etc. But there’s a huge difference: THEY CLEARLY MARK THEIR PRICES. If some knucklehead wants to charge $40/gallon of unleaded gas, no one will buy it from him. Sadly, that’s what QVMC did to Meinhardt, and they almost got away with it. Mostly because chargemasters and hospitals have made pricing an opaque puzzle. Throw in some clever propagandists who bully consumers into believing that they are getting something “different” from the hospital, and it’s understandable why these groups are raking in unfair amounts of cash.

We encourage you to check out the complete article from Dark Daily. They reference another story from last year, reported by The LA Times. Evidently a woman in California ended up in a similar situation as Meinhardt with repeat CT Scans that were 400% different in price. In her case, though, it came to light that the hospital was using two chargemaster prices that led to a class action lawsuit against her insurance company, Blue Shield. Reporters dug deeper, investigating the hospital, too, and they found more fuel for the price transparency fire: according to Dark Daily, “The Los Angeles Times wrote, ‘The lowest price is usually available only if patients don’t use their health insurance. In one case, blood tests that cost an insured patient $415 would have been $95 in cash.’”

More Reading
“California Patient Gets Outrageous Clinical Pathology Laboratory Test Bill From Napa Hospital, Almost 10 Times Higher Than Similar Testing from Quest Diagnostics” | Dark Daily