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White House Takes On Surprise Medical Bills

May 9, 2019
Originally published on May 14, 2019 7:52 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today at the White House, President Trump held an event on surprise medical bills. He announced his priorities for legislation that would end the practice, and he highlighted that the stories of two patients who had been subjects of NPR and Kaiser Health News' Bill of the Month series. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: One of those patients is Drew Calver, a public school teacher in Austin, Texas. Two years ago, he had a heart attack and was taken to the nearest hospital.

DREW CALVER: Although I had insurance, I was still billed $110,000. I feel like I was exploited at my most vulnerable time in my life.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He spoke at the White House event today. Last summer, after he was featured in Bill of the Month, the hospital reduced the charge to just $332.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You look very good now.

CALVER: Oh, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: President Trump said he'd heard many stories like this. White House officials told reporters that was what got him interested in pursuing this issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: No American mom or dad should lay awake at night worrying about the hidden fees or shocking, unexpected medical bills to come. Today, I'm announcing principles that should guide Congress in developing bipartisan legislation to end surprise medical billing.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Among the ideas Trump outlined, out-of-network ER bills should always be paid at the in-network rate, since patients usually can't choose where to go in an emergency. Before scheduled care, patients must get a clear and honest estimate upfront, and patients should not receive bills from out-of-network providers they didn't choose. All of this should happen without increasing federal spending, Trump says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: From what I understand, we have bipartisan support, which is rather shocking.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It's not that surprising there's political consensus on this. A lot of families have their own stories. Four in 10 people say their family had an unexpected medical bill, according to a poll last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and a majority across party lines agree that the government should, quote, "take action" on surprise billing. Congress is starting to hammer out how they'll fix this. Legislation is in the works from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Last month, a House subcommittee held a hearing on it. Representative Phil Roe is a Republican from Tennessee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHIL ROE: How do we do all this and put this together where it's fair to the patients and it's also fair to the providers?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He's a doctor by training, and he has his own story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROE: Yeah, I've had a surprised bill, after a surgery I had a year and a half ago. And I could negotiate it because I knew the nuances of this; many people cannot. It is complicated.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Many in that congressional hearing and today at the White House agreed that the legislative solution can't rely on patients to file complaints or negotiate their bills down or, for that matter, turn to the media to draw attention to their particular story. In other words, it should be up to insurers, doctors, hospitals and other providers to solve this issue, not up to patients.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.