Marie Mitchell/ Conversations Columnist

Marie Mitchell/ Conversations Columnist

Several weeks ago, one of our children was quite unexpectedly hospitalized for three days. We'd gone to the doctor to get a shot for something fairly routine. It should have been no big deal.

But, in the course of that visit, and to our utter dismay, we ended up in the emergency room, where we spent 12 hours. During that extensive wait, we consulted with assorted medical personnel. Those conversations led to transportation to another facility, difficult decisions, anxious moments and second guessing ourselves about the choices we'd had to make without much time to study the problem and analyze our options.

In the throes of all this chaos, we flashed our insurance card to numerous officials who needed to see it, never asking what any test, procedure or treatment would cost. There was no point in requesting an itemized list of expenses. Not that anyone could, or would, produce those figures on the spot.

Everyone was concerned about treatment. We'd worry about the bills later, once the emergency had passed. We were in no position to shop around for the best price. Or haggle about the cost of what they were doing to help our child.

But now that the most pressing part of the crisis has passed, we are beginning to receive the bills. I have to muster my courage to open them. None, of course, are for small amounts. More in the neighborhood of several hundred dollars. Each.

We had no idea how many there would be. How many doctors, labs, medical companies -- and others -- were involved in this team effort. How much each would charge, and the percentage that our insurance carrier would pay. We still don't know how much more billing is out there. For what amounts. And when we might finally be finished with this onslaught.

A few of the bills are extremely vague. In fact, I have no idea what I'm actually paying for. Example: we were charged $200 for discharging our child. Really? Why would signing a few papers to release someone cost that much?

That will require at least an hour on the phone trying to track down an explanation. With little hope that any challenge will be seriously considered. I can see where this could easily become a full-time job of trying to make sense of the expenses, let alone what the insurance company calculates as its fair share, and what our financial responsibility is.

When I was a journalist, a quote from an interviewee about medical insurance has always stuck with me. "We're all just one medical emergency away from bankruptcy and homelessness."

ABC News reports that in 2018, middle-class workers spent about 11.5% of their income on health insurance premiums and deductibles. That's up from 7.8% in 2008.

Now, I hope we'll still be able to keep our house, since it's already paid for. We can live on peanut butter sandwiches if we have to. And I don't plan on cancelling Christmas. But, it's the financial uncertainty hanging over us that drives me nuts.

While we're trying to keep up with the bills for services already provided, there is still the follow-up care to consider. More doctors to consult for check-ups. Making time for those appointments. And, some prescriptions to fill.

We're lucky. Mason and I have insurance. We both have jobs. Fortunately, with fairly flexible hours. And we have some savings socked away. One of the saddest things I've read recently is that many of the GoFundMe campaigns, asking strangers to help pay for a medical procedure, are created by people already covered by insurance, but who can't afford specific surgeries. These aren't cosmetic or elective surgeries. They tend to be life-saving measures, or a way to improve the patient's quality of life.

I have no problem paying a fair price for the medical services we received. But there should be a way for all the providers to keep a running tab to share with patients and their families. That way we're not as shocked by the overall cost as we continue to receive bills for services we didn't realize we'd used, and from companies we've never heard of. Plus never knowing when we'll get caught up on paying for this one medical emergency.

I know this sounds like whining. But I don't think I'm alone in being baffled and blind-sided by the mounting bills, paying them as they are received, and waiting for that glorious day when we are debt free. For now, I hope we can all stay healthy. Because I'm not sure we can survive another medical emergency any time soon.

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