A few hours after my daughter, Penelope, was born, a nurse came into the hospital room and asked my wife, Kate, and me if we wanted to have the baby taken to the nursery for a bit so we could get some sleep. Bleary-eyed and groggy after a long labor, we thought that was a fantastic idea. But we didn’t think so later on when we got a $1,420 bill for the nursery.
I saw red. Not just because $1,420 was equal to our monthly rent at the time, but also because we were being charged at all for Penelope’s two-hour stay in the nursery, a charge the nurse never mentioned.
Had she told us at the time that the nursery stay would cost several hundred dollars, we would have kept Penelope with us and I would have watched her myself so Kate could sleep. Looking back, it feels like a corrupt transaction.
To be clear, I don’t think the nurse was trying to pull one over on us. But I do think the hospital’s bureaucracy was.
I paid the bill — directly — given that we had a high-deductible plan. Maybe in hindsight I shouldn’t have. But I work a lot and would have found it hard to make the time to fight the bill.
As part of my job at the storytelling radio program “Our American Stories,” I’ve been working on a series called “What Happens When.” It’s about patients’ interactions with the health care system. A colleague encouraged me to dedicate the time — during work hours — to investigate that absurd nursery bill.
I called the hospital, Baptist Memorial — the only hospital in our town of Oxford, Miss. (which explains a lot of this) — with one simple question: Exactly what was included in that $1,420 nursery charge?
I had to call nine people to get an answer.
What I finally learned was that a newborn’s stay in the nursery costs $710 an hour. Penelope was there for about two hours, ergo the $1,420.
Let’s put that $710-an-hour charge into context. At home, we usually pay a babysitter $13 to $15 an hour. The average nurse makes $33 an hour, which is just about what I get paid. And the average doctor makes about $80 an hour.
If the hospital babysitter was to work full time at the rate Kate and I paid, she or he would make more than $1.4 million a year!
To be sure, the hospital must charge several times what a nurse is paid to watch a baby in order to keep the lights on, maintain the building, and do all the other things that go into running a hospital. But 21 times more? That’s not justifiable.
When I pointed out to one official that the hospital couldn’t reasonably think that I’d want to pay $710 for a babysitter to watch my child, she responded, “Well, it’s not a matter of watching, they have other things that they do.”
My story of this crazy hospital charge — and others’ stories of them — will keep happening as long as the following remain true.
- There is a lack of competition between hospitals for our dollars, and we have hospital monopolies like Baptist Memorial. The only area of health care in which the price goes down over time is pharmaceuticals. That’s because of the presence of vigorous competition through the introduction of generic versions of brand-name drugs.
- We continue to be lulled into an insurance-pays-for-everything mindset that makes it easier for health care providers to get away with not telling consumers the actual price of a service. Insurance is supposed to be for catastrophic events; we don’t use our car insurance for oil changes.
- Hospitals aren’t up front about what they charge you for. It’s morally wrong for a hospital to charge you $1,420 for a service you clearly would have said no to if someone had been straight with you instead of pretending it wasn’t going to cost anything.
This was an expensive lesson for Kate and me that we need to be more proactive about asking what various hospital services cost, especially those that are “elective,” like Penelope’s stay in the Baptist Memorial nursery. I hope that you will do the same and see through any cost obfuscation.
Alex Cortes is the vice president of content development at “Our American Stories,” a nationally syndicated storytelling program. This article is adapted from his audio story, “An Investigation: The Most Expensive Babysitter in the World.”