Most northeast Ohio and U.S. medical bills contain mistakes, patient advocate says

CLEVELAND - investigators have uncovered medical billing mistakes that can cost Ohio patients thousands of dollars.

"You want to get on with regular life and you just want to move forward, and it's like those bills are holding you back," said Lorain resident Andrea Long.

Long suffered a stroke March 10 that nearly ended her life. So far, she said her insurance company has refused to pay any of the $30,000 in medical bills she has received from her month-long hospital stay. The reason: a coding error. She said she was told her hospital bills say she had a headache.

"There's no check and balance system. None," said Pat Willis, a Cleveland-area patient advocate for the Medical Billing Advocates of America. "Nobody's checking out these insurance companies. Nobody's checking out these hospitals. They're just, running rampant."

The Medical Billing Advocates of America helps patients fix medical billing mistakes. Christie Hudson, the organization's vice-president, said advocates find mistakes on 90 percent of the approximately 11,000 medical bills they review each year.

"They name these things so that you done even understand what you're getting charged for," said Willis about the bills she has reviewed.

Willis showed NewsChannel5 some of the bizarre charges she's deciphered for patients. One medical bill showed a $57 charge for a "cough support device." After investigating, Willis said the device turned out to be a teddy bear. The stuffed toy was given to a child to hold onto during medical treatment. On another bill, there is a charge for a "mucus recovery system." Willis said, "It's a box of tissues."

Willis said hospitals and providers are not supposed to bill patients for medical supplies they already have on hand, like tissues. However, she said she often finds supplies on patients' bills with prices that seem too high.


For example, Willis showed us one bill where a patient was charged $53 latex gloves, $22 per cotton swab and $8 per box of tissues. There is one charge on another bill that Willis said she will never forget.

"$1,000 for a toothbrush. Honest to God," she said.

Willis said patients are commonly charged twice for the same service, charged for services they did not receive or, like Alison Livensparger, charged for a service they did not need.

"They knew I was pregnant when I was getting off the ambulance," said the Mesa, Arizona woman. She was close to nine months pregnant when someone crashed into her car. However, hidden in her hospital bill, she found a charge for a pregnancy test. "They were going to charge me $136," she said.

Medical billing errors also cost U.S. taxpayers. Medicare estimates it spent $28.8 billion in improper payments in 2011. Ohio ranked eighth in improper payments in the U.S. in 2010.

Willis said there is no federal database to keep track of how much patients pay for errors each year. However, she said she thinks patients pay more than they should "way too often."

Long had to learn how to walk and talk again after her stroke.

"Every day, it's a struggle and a fight," she said.

So far, her physical recovery has gone well. The one thing she hasn't been able to fix is the medical bill mistake that could jeopardize her financial future.

"Emotionally, you're still on a roller coaster and you're stilling trying to get better, but the medical bills, the bury you," she said.

You can watch NewsChannel5's investigation into medical bill mistakes on Thursday at 11 p.m. on NewsChannel5.

Have you had to deal with a medical error on your bill? NewsChannel5's investigators want to hear about it. Click here to be part of our continuing investigation into medical bill mistakes:

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