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Senate passes bill to make hospitals more patient-friendly

The state Senate passed a bill Thursday to make hospital bills more transparent and easy to understand.

The bill would require hospitals to post prices and payments for the 100 most common hospital services, similar to the hospital data released by the federal government Wednesday.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Matthews, goes farther. Hospitals would list the prices they charge, the amount paid by an uninsured patient, the amounts paid by Medicare and Medicaid, and the amounts paid by large insurers.

Unlike shopping for a house or television, patients seldom know ahead of time the price of hospital care and how much they will owe. Patients typically find out days or weeks later when the explanation of benefits arrives. This makes it almost impossible to shop for the best price.

The bill, which now goes to the state House, prohibits more extreme forms of bill collecting: No hospital or ambulatory surgical center could put a lien on a delinquent patient’s primary residence, and public hospitals could no longer garnish a patient’s wages.

North Carolina’s hospitals have been under heightened scrutiny since last April, when the Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh published a series of stories revealing nonprofit hospitals’ high profits, large markups on drugs and aggressive pursuit of patients struggling to pay their bills.

Last year’s investigation found that some hospitals frequently sue uninsured patients and put liens on their homes – a practice that can make it impossible to refinance a home or pass it on to children when the original homeowner dies.

During the five years ending in 2010, North Carolina hospitals filed more than 40,000 lawsuits to collect on bills, the newspapers found. Most of those suits were filed by just two entities: Charlotte-based Carolinas HealthCare System and Wilkes Regional Medical Center in North Wilkesboro.

Interviews suggested that most of those sued lacked insurance, and that many of them were among the working poor.

The legislation also calls for hospitals to detail “in language comprehensible to an ordinary layperson the specific nature of the charges or expenses incurred by the patient.”

Observer staff writer Ames Alexander contributed.

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