How healthcare can work when it is a right, not a privilege

UCLA Medical Center

Patient Debra Wurzel was surprised to get a bill for nearly $720 for blood work at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Previously, such tests had cost her $170. (Stefano Paltera / For the Los Angeles Times)

It was a weekend and his regular doctor's office was closed. Feeling unwell, and mindful of his wife's diagnosis overseas, he went to the emergency room at Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center in Thousand Oaks.

Blood tests were performed and a chest X-ray taken. Two days later, he had to return to the ER to double-check one of his blood tests. A bacterial infection was diagnosed.

The total bill for both hospital visits: nearly $17,000.

"You hear people all the time talking about how bad the British or the Canadian system is," Davis told me. "All I know is that I got great treatment and I didn't have to wait at all."

And she posed this question: "Which would you rather have, my London bill or my husband's California bill?"

Expensive tests

Along these same lines, Debra Wurzel, 57, of Santa Monica had to find a new doctor after her regular physician retired. She settled on a doctor at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

As part of a routine physical, the doctor ordered some blood tests. "She just wanted to get a base reading for me," Wurzel said.

The bill for the blood work arrived a few weeks later. The hospital was charging a total of $1,298, nearly $720 of which would come out of Wurzel's pocket.

When her former physician ran the same tests, she recalled, her out-of-pocket expenses totaled $170.

Wurzel contacted the hospital and asked what was going on. The bill was so high, she was told, because the blood tests were considered outpatient treatment, rather than in-office care.

"Outpatient?" Wurzel said. "I didn't leave the building. I just walked down the hall from my doctor's office to have the blood taken."

Dale Tate, a spokeswoman for UCLA Health Sciences, told me that anyone who isn't hospitalized is considered a recipient of outpatient care.

She also said there's no difference in how much outpatient and hospitalized people are billed for lab tests.

What that means, it seems, is that UCLA Medical Center will happily gouge all patients for routine lab tests.

Ask your doctor if he or she would mind if you had your blood tests done elsewhere. Companies such as LabCorp and Health Testing Centers will perform many tests at a fraction of the cost charged by hospitals.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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