Avoiding a surprise Medical Bill

July 6, 2016

Getting hit with an unexpected medical bill is sometimes more unpleasant than falling ill. Have you ever come across a situation where after receiving a medical treatment from your doctor, you were simply out-of-pocket?

To many consumers, a hefty medical bill comes as a surprise when there is no pre-disclosure about the fees and they are just seen briefly by the doctor during consultation.

There are, however, steps you can take to avoid at least these types of surprises. First, you should check with your doctor and hospital about the fees/charges before you seek any medical attention. Obviously, this isn’t always possible. And even when you do get a chance to ask, you may find it uninformative, since sometimes up-front estimates are not available at all.

A recent case received by the Consumer Council of Fiji was shocking, as the complainant was required to pay $500 for a five-minute brief doctor’s consultation.

 Last November, Jack and his family were involved in a car accident while travelling to Nadi.  Jack then checked in his family at a hotel in Denarau Island, Nadi. While he was away sorting out details of the incident, his family was attended by a doctor on the call of the hotel staff. After a very short consultation, the wife was given a tax invoice of $500. Unfortunately, the wife had signed the invoice provided to her without seeking any clarifications on the bill and/or the consultation provided to her and the kids. The doctor was from a medical centre in Nadi, which had an arrangement with the hotel to attend to guests’ requests for medical attention.

According to Jack, the medical bill was unreasonable. According to him, the medical practitioner examined his family briefly without any procedures being performed. The doctor did not conduct any medical examinations and, or, tests, which could have resulted in such a hefty consultation fee imposed on him.

A dissatisfied Jack lodged a complaint with the Council. He informed the Council that neither he nor his family were advised by the hotel staff about the medical fees/charges prior to the consultation. The doctor was called to attend to his wife and children in his absence. When she was in the hotel room, the doctor was accompanied by a hotel staff to the room and he began examining the children without any explanation and disclosure about the fee/charges. An invoice was given to Jack’s wife to sign which she did without understanding the exorbitant amount charged to them. When Jack and his family were checking out from the hotel, they were asked to pay the medical bill. In the event they did not pay the matter would have been reported to the police.

The Council’s investigation showed that the medical consultation fees were not available at the hotel reception or in the hotel rooms for the guests to view. It was also found that there was no breakdown of the $500 bill that Jack had to clear. The Council requested the medical centre for an itemized bill, which reflected the services provided to the family.

The medical centre, however, stated that their doctor had attended to Jack’s two children and the wife and the fees/charges were: consultation (three people) at $160 each and transport surcharge of 20. The Centre waived $160 after a request was made by the hotel staff on behalf of Jack.  They explained that all their house calls had a standard charge, which is communicated to the patients prior to the consultation. They further advised that the consumer has every right to refuse private treatment and opt for public hospital care prior to consultation. Nevertheless, whether and how this was communicated with the complainant has been an issue. The medical centre insisted that the general practitioner had informed Jack’s wife about the medical fees prior to the consultation but the complainant stated otherwise.

Ultimately, upon Council’s intervention, the medical centre agreed to waive the total fees.

Both consumers and the service-providers have much to learn from this case. Consumers must always know what they are paying for. They should demand for a breakdown of services charged for as this will help them make an informed decision. The service-providers, on the other hand, must be transparent and clearly state their fees/charges, so that consumers know exactly what they are paying for.

Consumers’ right to information remains a vital aspect in avoiding cases such as this, where consumers are duped into paying extra. In this case, the hotel staff or the doctor owed a duty to Jack’s family to provide them with a breakdown of fees before the medical consultation was provided to them. The consumer also had the responsibility to seek clarifications on the consultation and medical fees prior to signing the invoice.

Next time, you visit your doctor, ask for a breakdown of the medical bill before making a commitment to pay up.