Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Profit Motive

"Greed is good," intoned Gordon Gekko infamously in Wall Street. And we expect greed of bankers, brokers and credit card companies. Exxon and Enron sticking it to the consumer? Who bats an eyelash at that news? But a reputable academic institution and healthcare facility engaging in dubious billing practices to boost the bottom line? Well, that surprised even very cynical me...

I am careful consumer. I price check, use coupons, scout sales. When your income is low and L.A. cost of living high you have to pinch pennies to make ends meet. I have health insurance. It's a pretty decent plan. If I choose a preferred provider, I maximize my benefits. So, when I needed to go to a dermatologist to get a stubborn rash checked out, I made sure to check the Blue Cross (ooops--now it's "Anthem" although I ain't singing any praises...) listings of providers. The UCLA Dermatology Group came up in the listings and since Westwood is close by, I thought I'd make an appointment.

I explained to the person making the appointment that I had Blue Cross and was looking for a doctor who participated with my plan. No problem. Arrived at the office, which is in Building 200--a building that looks like any generic medical office building, and proceeded to wait the usual waiting time to be seen. And then wait some more in a tiny examining room. For the five or so minutes that a medical doctor actually spent with me (along with half a dozen young interns who gawked at me as part of their medical training...), I was billed $200 for "outpatient services."

My insurance covers medical office visits with a co-pay of $35 for me. That's what I thought I was getting. I sure didn't receive anything different than what happens at my GP's office or at my endocrinologist. Well, except for the gawking medical students...But my insurance doesn't cover outpatient services the same way as they do medical office visits. So my cost? $136 for five minutes and a prescription for a cortisone cream (cost of cream not included). But wait, there's more! In addition to billing me for "outpatient services," the good people at UCLA also billed me a $190 "facility charge." Do you mean to tell me that the time I got to cool my heels in the tiny yet totally standard examining room cost me $10 per minute?!!! Outrageous! Even L.A. landlords aren't THAT greedy!

Instead of concentrating on providing high quality healthcare or showing respect for their patients, UCLA has found a way to legally double-dip the system and rip off patients to the tune of almost $400 for a 5 minute office visit. And while it might be technically "legal," it's not legitimate, ethical or fair.

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