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A Trip to the Emergency Room

I realize that listening to other people’s health-care tales is only slightly less tedious than enduring someone else’s complaints about their air travel. But when you get a stunning reminder of how screwed-up our health-care system is, sometimes you need to share.

A few weeks ago, our 21-month-old daughter, Fin, had her first ambulance ride. (Try finding the entry to record that precious memory in the baby book.) Quick summary: she fell off the couch, bonked her head on the wood floor, turned blue, stopped breathing, and passed out. She came to not long after, but head injuries are nothing to fool around with, so I called 911.

The friendly EMS guys checked out her and took us to the nearby Children’s Hospital—a thrilling ride for a little girl who loves sirens and who got to sit on her mama’s lap. By the time we arrived, Fin was back to her old self, running laps around the ER and scaring the heck out of the doctors by racing headfirst into the curtains separating exam areas. (“Is your daughter acting like herself, ma’am?” “Yes, I’m afraid she’s acting completely like herself.”)

The attending pediatrician decided that Fin didn’t need a CT scan, but decided to keep her for observation for a few hours. Some hospital staff brought over crayons and a few toys, we waited until the doctor gave us the all-clear, and went home.

The bill arrived a week later: $2,238.00 for a 4-hour stay. I understand that visiting the ER isn’t cheap, but remember, Fin didn’t have a CT scan. In fact, she didn’t have a single test. I felt comfortable with the care she received, but none of it involved anything more complicated than a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff. And she spent no more than 15 minutes total with medical staff. The rest of the time, she was jumping on the crib bed in the observation room, dragging me on loops around the ER, and playing with the Sesame Street loaner toys. That works out to a ridiculously high hourly rate for toy rental.

With luck, our insurance company will pick up most of the cost. But not out of the goodness of the hearts of insurance executives. Subsidizing the ER care of uninsured patients is expensive business, and it gets passed along to us in the form of higher premiums. That’s one of many reasons it is so hard to get health-care costs under control. (Jonathan Cohn has obviously covered this with much more wisdom, eloquence, and detail.)

Note: This post has been updated and edited at 4:05 p.m.