DENVER (CBS4) - As 17-year-old Daniel Joseph walked through an open space park near his Centennial home before school last April, he felt a stinging pain in his leg.
"I didn't even hear a rattle until two or three feet until it passed," said Joseph.
A rattlesnake bit him twice.
"It was very sharp stinging pain and it went really deep," recounted Joseph.
In short order, Joseph was in an emergency room receiving anti-venom. Six hours later, he was released.
His father, John, then received medical bills totaling about $43,000 for the six hours in the emergency department.
"Well first I thought maybe I'm in the wrong profession," said Joseph, who is a veterinarian.
Terming the bill "outlandish," Joseph quickly identified the highest dollar item -- the anti-venom. His son received six vials of the crotalidae anti-venom and was billed $34,025.88 for that portion of his treatment, or nearly $6,000 per vial. But the same anti-venom can be found selling wholesale for about $1,000 to $2,000.
Joseph said he was stunned at a markup of between three to six times the wholesale price.
"If they are a private company I wish I had stock in them because they are making a good profit margin," said Joseph.
Wendi Damman, a spokesperson for Centura Health, which operates the emergency department where Daniel Joseph was treated, told CBS4, "Unlike a physician's office or urgent care, emergency departments have all appropriate diagnostic resources available 24/7/365, which contributes to the cost of care."
Damman declined to specifically discuss Joseph's case.
Dr. Mark Earnest, a professor of medicine and health policy with the University of Colorado, said families like the Josephs also face inflated bills to compensate for all the patients who pay nothing.
"If you've got 30 to 40 percent of the people who pay nothing, the people who do have some ability to pay pay a lot more to cover the other guys."
Earnest says estimates of the people who use ER services but cannot afford to pay runs between 30 and 70 percent.
CBS4 spoke to another family, the Stephens family of Evergreen, who had a similar ER story. When their ten year old son Justin became ill earlier this year with breathing and fever problems, they took him to the emergency room. He had been vomiting and the parents said "We were scared, real scared."
They were in the emergency room less than three hours and received bills totaling $5,468.50.
"Where do they get $5500. For giving him Benadryl, ibuprofen, a glass of ginger ale and a nose swab?" questioned Tad Stephens.
"I called them to tell them there has got to be a mistake," said Tricia Stephens.
Ultimately, the hospital said it had made an error and agreed to reduce the Stephens bill by about half. The family says they still can't get over the initial bill.
"You want your children taken care of then you find out you can't afford to pay for it," said Tricia Stephens.
Earnest says challenging their bill was the right thing to do.
"If you want your bill to be lower, you've got to question and challenge it. My friends in hospital administration are going to hate me for saying that. If the bill seems unreasonable you should ask about it and seek satisfaction about that. We have a system that requires you to haggle and if you haggle hard, the price will drop because they are inflated. And if you don't haggle or insurance doesn't, you're going to pay a lot."
Earnest says he has had firsthand experience with ER bills that leave the patient with sticker shock. He said his 11-year-old son cut his finger while doing some woodworking. The cut was deep enough that Earnest and his wife decided to take their son to an emergency room.
"He got it washed out, the ER doc came in and said 'no stitches.' He got a steri strip and was sent home and our bill was $1,500. I thought 1500 bucks is a lot for a band aid."
Earnest says his experience is typical. He said in a primary care physician's office his son's treatment would have cost about $150.
"I knew going in our bill was going to help pay for those other children in that room. It's a bizarre system," said Earnest.
- Written by Brian Maass for CBSDenver.com
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