With blood oozing from deep lacerations, the two patients arrived at California Pacific Medical Center’s tidy emergency room. Deepika Singh, 26, had gashed her knee at a backyard barbecue. Orla Roche, a rambunctious toddler on vacation with her family, had tumbled from a couch, splitting open her forehead on a table.
On a quiet Saturday in May, nurses in blue scrubs quickly ushered the two patients into treatment rooms. The wounds were cleaned, numbed and mended in under an hour. “It was great — they had good DVDs, the staff couldn’t have been nicer,” said Emer Duffy, Orla’s mother.
Then the bills arrived. Ms. Singh’s three stitches cost $2,229.11. Orla’s forehead was sealed with a dab of skin glue for $1,696. “When I first saw the charge, I said, ‘What could possibly have cost that much?’ ” recalled Ms. Singh. “They billed for everything, every pill.”
In a medical system notorious for opaque finances and inflated bills, nothing is more convoluted than hospital pricing, economists say. Hospital charges represent about a third of the $2.7 trillion annual United States health care bill, the biggest single segment, according to government statistics, and are the largest driver of medical inflation, a new study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found.
A day spent as an inpatient at an American hospital costs on average more than $4,000, five times the charge in many other developed countries, according to the International Federation of Health Plans, a global network of health insurance industries. The most expensive hospitals charge more than $12,500 a day. And at many of them, including California Pacific Medical Center, emergency rooms are profit centers. That is why one of the simplest and oldest medical procedures — closing a wound with a needle and thread — typically leads to bills of at least $1,500 and often much more.
At Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, Daniel Diaz, 29, a public relations executive, was billed $3,355.96 for five stitches on his finger after cutting himself while peeling an avocado. At a hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., Arch Roberts Jr., 56, a former government employee, was charged more than $2,000 for three stitches after being bitten by a dog. At Mercy Hospital in Port Huron, Mich., Chelsea Manning, 22, a student, received bills for close to $3,000 for six stitches after she tripped running up a path. Insurers and patients negotiated lower prices, but those charges were a starting point.
The main reason for high hospital costs in the United States, economists say, is fiscal, not medical: Hospitals are the most powerful players in a health care system that has little or no price regulation in the private market.
Rising costs of drugs, medical equipment and other services, and fees from layers of middlemen, play a significant role in escalating hospital bills, of course. But just as important is that mergers and consolidation have resulted in a couple of hospital chains — like Partners in Boston, or Banner in Phoenix — dominating many parts of the country, allowing them to command high prices from insurers and employers.
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