Hospital investors expect big profits, even from labor and delivery

October 25, 2022

Women who have had a healthy pregnancy can experience false labor but believe it’s the real thing.

Many go to the hospital and are quickly seen by a doctor who tells them to head home and come back if their contractions continue or pick up in pace. In some instances, these women are admitted to an obstetrics emergency department for a check-up, and many don’t even know they’re tapping into emergency services.

They find that out when they get the bill.

Take Elizabeth Huffner. She went to her hospital during labor, was quickly checked by a doctor and told to come back later. The hospital charged her about $1,300 for that visit, according to KHN.

“It should be a cautionary tale to every woman,” Huffner told KHN.

KHN also shared the bills of a dozen patients who were hit with similar surprise charges for going to an obstetrics emergency department, also known as OBED. Many didn’t realize they were going into an emergency department because they say they were put in small rooms and the spaces weren’t marked as emergency rooms.

According to three physicians in Colorado, their hospital didn’t make big physical changes when it opened these OBEDs – but there were big changes to the billing practices.

“When I see somebody for a really minor thing, like, someone who comes in at 38 weeks, thinks she’s in labor, but she’s not in labor, gets discharged home — I feel really bad,” said Dr. Vanessa Gilliland, a former hospitalist in OBEDs. “I hope she doesn’t get some $500 bill for just coming in for that.”

Three of the main companies behind OBEDs are affiliated with for-profit private equity firms, according to KHN. Proponents say OBEDs deliver better care, reduce unnecessary cesarean sections and help hospitals pay for 24/7 hospitalists, who are physicians who work exclusively in a hospital.

Critics aren’t so sure.

“That’s no excuse,” said Dr. Lawrence Casalino, a physician and health policy researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine. “To have people get an emergency room charge when they don’t even know they’re in an emergency room — I mean, that doesn’t meet the laugh test.”

Have you received a surprise medical bill after giving birth? Tell us your story here.