Medical care in this country is pretty much a joke, which you know if you've had to be seen by a doctor, get a prescription filled, or stay in the hospital for any length of time. It seems like everyday we hear stories of regular folks like you and us being fleeced by the medical and insurance industries. When your life-saving medication costs thousands of dollars a month, that's a problem! When hospitals charge $900 for two Motrin, that's a problem. A lot of us have probably been on the receiving end of a surprise bill for a hospital stay or medical procedure, wondering how in the world you're going to manage to pay it while also trying to figure out why in the world it cost so much. This is the situation one midwife found herself in, after she delivered her second child. Karli-Rae Kerrschneider opted for a water birth at her local hospital, and used laughing gas during her labor and delivery. You can imagine her surprise when the bill arrived and the facility charged her nearly $5,000 for the gas. This story is crazy, but sadly, all too common.
Laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, had gained in popularity in the last few years as an alternative to more invasive pain management techniques during labor and delivery. It's super easy to administer, it can be used by the woman as needed, and it's incredibly cheap. It doesn't completely erase the pain associated with childbirth, but it helps take the edge off. That's why Kerrschneider wanted to use it.
She was in labor for 11 hours, and had a routine and uncomplicated vaginal birth assisted by a doula and a nurse-midwife. The only pain management she used was the laughing gas, and she estimates she took approximately 10-15 puffs during her entire labor and delivery. She and her newborn son were in the hospital for 2 days. Straight-forward enough, right? But when the bill came, Kerrschneider was in for a shock. The total for her stay at Hudson Hospital in Hudson, Wisconsin came to nearly $12,000, with $4,836 due for the use of the laughing gas.
Turns out, Hudson Hospital uses a billing practice that charges patients for the time they are receiving care, and not for the actual care they receive. Kerrschneider had the nitrous tank in her room for about 10 hours, and even though she only used it a handful of times, she was charged about $124 every 15 minutes JUST FOR THE TANK SITTING IN HER ROOM.
To compare, an epidural administered by an actual anesthesiologist at the same hospital would have cost about $1,495. But even though no doctor or nurse anesthetist administered her laughing gas, the hospital still billed it under an anesthesia code. Generally, laughing gas is bill in one flat fee, which can range from $100-500 for the machine and gas. Nowhere near the nearly $5,000 Kerrschneider was charged.
Eventually, the hospital knocked the bill for the laughing gas down to a one-hour rate of $496 (still astronomical), and Kerrschneider paid the bill to put this whole debacle to rest. But this story just highlights the ridiculous hoops people have to jump through just to get medical care. And it's also a good reminder to talk with the hospital's billing department prior to any care you receive, so you know all the ways they're going to try to nickle and dime you.