A torn meniscus. It did not disable but it impaired, and unpredictably. My stomach learned quickly to tighten at the sound of A’s peculiar whimper in response to a crippling pain that would shoot through her at seemingly innocuous movements of the afflicted leg. We have health insurance of sorts, the type that will help you keep your home if tragedy strikes, but that does not shield you from the brunt of what most of day-to-day health care cost is about. We’re well practiced in deferring and foregoing care. Here however, we reluctantly acknowledged that a hospital would need to be visited and a doctor consulted.
Tests and a physical examination made clear that an operation was unavoidable. The doctor was a thoughtful man who conscientiously went through what the operation would entail. Surgery would take half a day, then back home by afternoon, convalescence over the following few weeks, with complete recovery the usual outcome. While not painless, the procedure seemed reassuringly routine. His tone was caring and his outlook about our case optimistic.
The admirable candor with which medical personnel have learned to speak about difficult topics concerning our bodies and our care did not extend to the costs involved. The question of what the procedure would cost, gently broached, initially baffled the staff, eliciting answer-deflecting counter-questions about the adequacy of our insurance coverage, but resulted in no quotes or estimates.
With my insistence on the point, an assistant promised that a figure could be determined, if we needed it, once the surgery was scheduled. “But not before?” I was now the baffled one. A person who linked dollar amounts to medical procedures was eventually found and I was seated at her desk. She required a billing code however, and without a scheduled surgery there was none to offer. As we danced around that issue, my concern over the cost of repairing A’s knee was replaced by another curiosity: “Is what I’m asking not routine?” It was not. A billing code was finally lifted from the paperwork of a previous operation, and after some minutes a dollar number was produced. It was a sizable figure, but less than what I’d been led to believe such things cost, at least in the United States. I suspected something still was not clear. “This is then what I’ll pay, roughly, to have the procedure done?” I asked in a half questioning, half confirming tone. “No, that’s just our part of it, the hospital has their charges, of course.” “But we’re in the hospital and I’m asking you for an estimate of what this operation will cost.” She explained, with some frustration, that the operation itself was only a fraction of the pie; she had no way of knowing what the hospital might charge. This was not actually true – she was far better situated than I to know what the hospital charges would be. It was if I had asked for the price of a new car on a showroom floor and had been told by the car salesman that only the engine could be quoted – other components’ prices would need to be discovered separately, by me. In the real world, the total price for most services and products are conveyed to the consumer by the seller or provider at the end of a long chain of added values. In this case, the multiple components of the medical care provided a shield to simultaneously obscure the cost and justify its lack of availability. The billing person scribbled down a number for me to call, then asked if there was any other matter where she could be of assistance.
Hoping for a face-to-face conversation, I asked at the hospital information desk for directions to the office matching the telephone number scribbled on the scrap of paper. “That’s not in the hospital”, the information desk attendant declared, “but the call is toll-free”. We went home. For some reason, the inability to locate a price anywhere on the hospital premises for an operation that would take place there shook us as much as would have an encounter with a manifestly incompetent doctor. Though A and I talked only briefly of the cost, or rather the opaqueness of it, we were both invaded with a foreboding that a thing so untethered to its own cost would be in some unspoken way unreliable, dangerous. That night, A announced that she wanted to do the procedure overseas . . . anywhere but here.
Eric Lespin is a patient who lives in Alaska.
Costs of Care (Twitter: @CostsOfCare), where this post was originally published, is a Boston-based nonprofit organization that collects anecdotes from doctors and patients.