Most Americans know that if you get sick enough to go to a hospital, it's going to be expensive. But you may be surprised to learn that hospitals all over the country charge their highest prices, by far, to those who can afford it least — the 46 million Americans who don't have health insurance.
Hospitals charge uninsured patients two, three, four or more times what an insurance company would pay for the same treatment. And, when the uninsured can't pay, they often find themselves the target of collection agencies or in bankruptcy court.
60 Minutes had no idea how much hospitals can charge people without insurance, until we met Carlos Ferlini and his daughter Peggy.
Correspondent Dan Rather reports.
"I would consider us, you know, right at the bottom of the middle class. We're not poor," says Peggy Ferlini.
"I pay my bills. I pay all the regular guys, but I'm not a rich man," adds her father, Carlos.
Carlos Ferlini made a decent living installing and repairing gutters, but not enough to afford health insurance. Then, last February, Carlos fell off a roof while on a job in suburban Los Angeles.
He was rushed to Providence St. Joseph's Medical Center, a Catholic-run, non-profit hospital in Burbank, Calif. Carlos' wife and daughters knew it would be expensive, but they weren't thinking about costs at that time.
"We thought he was gonna die. I mean, at that moment, you're terrified. You're just — you don't even care about anything. You don't care about the money," Peggy explains.
Ferlini was seriously injured; he fractured his skull and ribs and punctured one lung. He spent 18 days in St. Joseph's, 14 of them in intensive care. He had no surgery and was sent home. Then he got the bill.
"We knew we were gonna owe a large amount, and we know we have to pay it," recalls Peggy.
Carlos remembers first seeing the $246,000 bill. "I showed my daughter, 'This is the bill?' And she say to me, 'Oh, my God."
The Ferlinis didn't know what to do until Carlos heard KB Forbes on a local Spanish-language radio station, saying that many hospitals don't give uninsured patients a fair break.
They contacted Forbes, a community activist who has been waging a nationwide crusade on behalf of the uninsured. He says what happened to the Ferlinis is all too common.
"Basically, hospitals charge uninsured people four or five times more than what they would accept as payment in full from an insurance company. Simply put, it's price-gouging," says Forbes.
Forbes and his staff analyzed Carlos Ferlini's bill from St. Joseph's, using figures that American hospitals are required to submit to the federal government each year. Those figures are a matter of public record.
The bottom line: Forbes found that, while St. Joseph's was billing Ferlini almost a quarter of a million dollars, it would accept just under $50,000 as full payment from an insurance company for the same treatment.
The hospital charged Ferlini more than $5,800 a day for intensive care, nearly 2½ times more than what an insurance company would pay.