Friday, February 17, 2012

Committee delays action on Hospital Payment Assistance Act while parties negotiate

A legislative committee heard details about the proposed Hospital Payment Assistance Act on Thursday but delayed a vote on the measure, pending amendments on the bill. Sen. Irene Aguilar, the sponsor of Senate Bill 12-134, expressed a desire to continue working on a compromise.

The Colorado Center on Law and Policy is backing the bill along with the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. CCLP is optimistic continued dialogue with Colorado hospitals will lead to a solution that, as Aguilar described it, will allow uninsured patients "the dignity to pay their bills without going bankrupt."

Thursday's hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee was the first public hearing for Senate Bill 12-134. The measure gives uninsured patients the opportunity to understand and responsibly pay their hospital bills without fear of being sent to collections or going into bankruptcy. Patients who have been subject to high levels of medical debt, a bankruptcy attorney and hospital executives were among those offering testimony to the committee.

CCLP and the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative offered testimony on the lack of transparency regarding hospital prices and charity care policies. Hospital sticker prices are significantly higher than the actual amount paid by private insurers or Medicare, which leaves only the uninsured paying the full price for hospital care. The consequences for consumers can include being sent to collections, paying additional fees and ultimately bankruptcy.

A number of uninsured patients testified to the difficulty they had understanding their hospital bills. Many of the patients were never informed of or were unable to find information about hospital discount or charity care policies. Nick Wimmershoff, a local bankruptcy attorney, said he sees cases where medical debt leads to bankruptcy, but that's not necessarily the end of the problem. Even after discharging debt in a bankruptcy, patients often have ongoing need for medical care, which can result in additional unmanageable debt.

The testimony included several stories about patients who refused treatment because they were uninsured and did not want to incur the financial burden of a hospital stay. One story detailed how a pregnant woman refused a pelvic ultrasound to determine if she had an ectopic pregnancy, due to cost of the procedure. She ended up in the emergency room a few days later with a rupture and potential shock, necessitating a much more serious extensive surgery and a prolonged hospital stay.

Among the concerns expressed by the Colorado Hospital Association and two hospital executives was that requiring hospitals to charge uninsured patients no more than the cost of providing care would harm rural hospitals. Responding to the point, Aguilar shared data demonstrating that certified critical access hospitals in Colorado already charge much closer to cost than many of their urban counterparts. Therefore, rural hospitals would not need to significantly change business practices to comply with the new legislation, she said.

Find news coverage from The Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.

For more information about the bill, and for ways you can get involved, visit CCLP's Hospital Payment Assistance Program action center.

No comments: