3 On Your Side
3 On Your Side

CONSUMER WARNING: Growing health care trend causing sticker shock

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There's a growing new trend in the health care industry and, most likely, you're not going to like it.

That new trend involves hospitals buying out doctors' offices.

So, what does that possibly mean to you? Sticker shock, so get ready.

Nicolette Weidner values quality time with her daughters, 5-year-old Ava and 2-year-old Adella.

But unfortunately, a lot of their time is spent at the doctor's office.

"They were both born with actually the same heart defects, multiple heart defects," Weidner said. "So with Ava, we didn't know until after she was born. And with Adela, they found out in utero."

Following numerous hospital visits and surgeries, Weidner says she has to take her girls to a pediatric heart specialist to constantly monitor their health.

The cost, Weidner says, has always been a $35 copayment per visit.

However, when she called the doctor's office recently, they gave her some disturbing news.

"I called to make the appointment, and I was told it was going to be $798.56. Just for one child," Weidner said.

She couldn't believe it. How could a $35 copay spike to almost $800?

“It's the same doctor. It's the same doctor's office. It's the same equipment. It's the same procedure. Everything is the same. The only difference is that Phoenix Children's has bought them and is now charging a facility fee," Weidner said.

Yes, because Phoenix Children's Hospital took over that doctor's office, the office can now charge hospital prices, including something called a "facility fee."

Weidner had never heard of a "facility fee" before.

"It's almost like they're holding a gun to my head," she said. "My husband has called it extortion."

But Phoenix Children's Hospital doesn't see it that way.

They didn't want to talk to 3 On Your Side on camera, and as far as their billing practices, a spokesperson said, in part: "Phoenix Children's Hospital bills for both facility and professional services. ... The facility charge covers the cost of running the hospital or clinic. This includes supplies, equipment, exam rooms and non-physician staff. The physicians, radiologists and other specialists may bill separately from their own practices for the medical care they provide."

“It absolutely needs to be addressed,” said Joel White, who is a health care expert.

He says hospitals are gobbling up doctor's practices across the nation, inserting that so-called "facility fee" and then passing the inflated bill on to patients.

"That's putting people in a very difficult position," White said.

White understands why consumers are feeling blind sided and helpless.

"We really do need to change the law," he said.

But until that happens, White says you shouldn't assume your doctor hasn't already made a similar deal with a hospital.

“There ought to be a communication between the patient and the physician about the fact that the physician's decision to merge or affiliate with the hospital,” White said.

So, don't be afraid to ask questions in advance.

Find out if there any merger plans in the works. If so, ask if they will be charging a facility fee and what that will cost. And don't forget to get the new fee in writing if you can.

You should also inquire if there are payment plans. Unfortunately for Weidner, the only payment option she was offered wasn't even affordable.

"They told us that if we paid up front, that we could get a 50 percent discount," she said. "That's still $400. That's not money that I have laying around."

And finally, don't forget to price shop, because finding a doctor outside your network may be cheaper than in network.

As for Weidner, she fears this trend could end up costing some families more than just money.

“I can imagine that other families might just skip this doctor's appointment, and what is that going to lead to? Is that going to lead to children dying?” she said.

Again, until legislation is implemented, consumers could be stuck with these larger bills.

3 On Your Side reached out to some of our senators and representatives about this issue, and you know what? They never got back with me on this very important issue.

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