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$18,836 emergency room bill includes $15,666 mystery fee

mystery feeIt was the first morning of Jang Yeo Im’s vacation in San Francisco, when her 8-month-old son, Park Jeong Whan, fell off the hotel room bed and hit his head.

The baby wasn’t bleeding but he wouldn’t stop crying, so Jang and her husband called for an ambulance, which took the baby to the hospital emergency room.

Doctors quickly determined that the baby was fine, aside from bruising on his nose and forehead. He took a nap in his mother’s arms, drank some formula and was discharged a few hours later.

The family continued their vacation as planned and didn’t even think about the incident until two years later, when the family received a hospital bill for $18,836 at their home in South Korea, according to Vox/Kaiser Health News reports.

“It’s a huge amount of money for my family,” Jang told Kaiser Health News. The family had travel insurance that would only cover $5,000 of the bill.

The parents were mystified by the high cost. Their son had not received extensive treatment. No blood transfusions. Not even stiches. Upon further inspection, a mystery fee of $15,666 was labeled “trauma activation.”

Also known as a “trauma response fee,” this emergency room fee varies from hospital to hospital. It’s the arbitrary price the facility charges when it activates a team to respond to a patient with potentially serious injuries. It is billed on top of physician, procedures, lab and other hospital fees.

Upon further inspection, a mystery fee of $15,666 was labeled “trauma activation.”

Vox and Kaiser Health News found such fees ranged from $1,112 at a hospital in Missouri to more than $50,000 at a hospital in California. Experts say there’s no rule or reason in the way these fees are set.

“It’s like the Wild West. Any trauma center can decide what their activation fee is,” Dr. Renee Hsia, director of health policy studies at the University of California- San Francisco, told reporters.

What about the baby’s bill? His mother is working with a patient advocate to negotiate a lower bill with the hospital, an option always open to consumers.

Have you received a shocking hospital bill? Have you successfully negotiated a medical bill to a more reasonable amount? Share your tips and stories with Voices for Affordable Health.