One of the scariest things about going to the hospital can be the medical bill afterwards. Margaret O’Neill had an eye-opening experience with “unnecessary care” after a surgeon offered to pierce her daughter’s ears.

In an interview with ProPublica, O’Neill said she was surprised when the surgeon, Dr. Peggy Kelley at Children’s Hospital Colorado, offered to pierce her 5-year-old daughter’s ears during a pre-operative visit two years ago.

O’Neill remembered telling Kelley, “That’s so funny. I didn’t think you did ear piercings.”

But O’Neill agreed with Kelley that earrings could be a nice bonus for her daughter. Because O’Neill assumed the service would be free, she brought in earrings on the day of the surgery. A few months later, the family received a bill in the mail.

After reading the bill, O’Neill realized she had been charged $1,877.86 for “operating room services.” At first, O’Neill thought the charge was a mistake. She contacted both the insurance company and the hospital. Both refused to pay for services.

O’Neill told ProPublica that she never would’ve agreed to get her daughter’s ears pierced if she knew the cost. “There are a lot of things we’d pay extra for a doctor to do,” she said. “This is not one of them.”

‘Operating Room Services’

Elizabeth Whitehead, a spokeswoman for the hospital, told The Denver Post that she couldn’t talk about the case directly. But she explained that generally the operating room services are based on the amount of time a procedure takes to complete.

Since it is “incredibly difficult” to assign minutes to one procedure or another, Whitehead said, the cost of the procedure is divided by the number of procedures completed. This practice is standard across the industry.

Whitehead noted if the ear piercing had not taken place, the cost of the surgery might not have changed. However, the surgical costs might have been shifted to another category that would’ve been covered by insurance.

Whitehead told the Post that ear piercing during operations is rare and “done only upon the request of the family.” However, the hospital is currently reviewing the incident.

Unnecessary Health Care

O’Neill, who’s an attorney, continued to call and write letters to the hospital expressing her concern over the bill. After ProPublica contacted the hospital about the story, the hospital waived the $1,877 as a “one-time courtesy adjustment.”

Sadly, O’Neill isn’t alone in her experience of being charged for unnecessary or needlessly expensive care. And most families can’t count on the reporting of journalists to encourage hospitals to “waive” the fee.

According to a report by the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine, one-third of health care costs don’t actually improve health. An estimated $750 billion is spent on unnecessary health care each year.

Several other stories were highlighted in ProPublica’s report, including cases where doctors recommended tests or procedures that resulted in care that was not covered by insurance.

Unfortunately, practices such as billing $1,877 for a doctor to pierce a little girl’s ears is legal under the current medical system.

How to Protect Your Family

There isn’t always a sure-fire way to determine the cost of a medical procedure before receiving care.

But LifeHacker recommends that you can contact your insurance company before electing to receive additional medical care.

You can also use online tools to help find the price of certain health procedures in your area.

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