Joaquin Lopez had emergency gallbladder surgery after rushing to an ER last year. He has been haggling with Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis over what he owes ever since.
The 37-year-old college professor was hit with a nearly $8,000 bill from the out-of-network hospital — that was after the $11,000 he and his insurer had already paid.
Consumers are increasingly vulnerable to such so-called balance bills, which represent the difference between what insurers pay and hospitals’ list prices. List prices can be several times higher than what they accept from Medicare or in-network insurers.
Congress is considering bipartisan legislation to limit balance billing. But some legal scholars say that patients should already be protected against some of the highest, surprise charges under long-standing conventions of contract law.
That’s because contract law rests on the centuries-old concept of “mutual assent,” in which both sides agree to a price before services are rendered, said Barak Richman, a law professor at Duke University.
Thus, many states require, and consumers expect, written estimates for a range of services before the work is done — whether by mechanics and plumbers or lawyers and financial planners.
But patients rarely know upfront how much their medical care will cost, and hospitals generally provide little or no information.