Whitney Curtis for Kaiser Health News
Martand Bhatt’s parents weren’t sure he needed immediate medical care when the energetic toddler burned his hand on the kitchen stove one April morning.
Dhaval Bhatt, Martand’s father, said he’d been warned about hospital emergency rooms after he arrived in the U.S. from his native India.
“People always told me to avoid the ER in America unless you are really dying,” said Bhatt, a research scientist and pharmacologist at Washington University in St. Louis.
But after seeing a photo, the family’s pediatrician directed them the next day to the local children’s hospital.
Dhaval Bhatt was traveling at the time. So Martand’s mother, Mansi Bhatt, took their son to the hospital and was sent to the emergency room. A nurse took the toddler’s vitals and looked at the wound. She said a surgeon would be in to inspect it more closely.
When the surgeon didn’t appear after more than an hour, Mansi Bhatt took her son home. The hospital told her to make a follow-up appointment with a doctor, which turned out to be unnecessary because the burn healed quickly.
Then the bill came.
The patient: Martand Bhatt, a toddler covered by a UnitedHealthcare insurance plan provided by the employer of his father, Dhaval Bhatt.
Medical service: An emergency room visit for a burn sustained when Martand touched an electric stove.
Total bill: $1,012. UnitedHealthcare’s negotiated rate was $858.92, all of which the Bhatts were responsible for because their plan had a $3,000 deductible.
Service provider: SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, one of 23 hospitals owned by SSM Health, a Catholic nonprofit health system with more than $8 billion in annual revenue.
What gives: Many patients don’t understand that they can rack up huge bills almost as soon as they walk through the doors of an ER.
Unlike a restaurant or a mechanic that won’t charge if someone gets tired of waiting for a table or an inspection of a rattling engine, hospital emergency rooms almost invariably charge patients as soon as they check in.
And once they register, patients will be billed — often a lot — whether treatment was rendered or not.
Martand received almost no medical service. A nurse practitioner looked over