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Proposal would limit hospital bills of uninsured

By Martiga Lohn

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota hospitals wouldn't be able to charge uninsured patients significantly more than those treated under Medicare or Medicaid under a proposal by Attorney General Mike Hatch.

Charging uninsured patients more is unfair, said Hatch, whose legislation would limit hospital bills to no more than 5 percent above prices paid in the government health programs.

"Why pick on the people least able to negotiate for themselves?" Hatch asked. "The hospitals might fight it, but we'll see. There is a shame component to this. How can you really oppose this for people who don't have coverage?"

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The legislation, backed by the Senate's lead Democrat on health issues, Linda Berglin of Minneapolis, also would prevent health providers from going after patients instead of insurance companies to recover unpaid insurance claims. Hospitals would be required to disclose Medicare and Medicaid prices for services such as knee surgeries and office visits.

The bill doesn't have a House sponsor yet, and might face a chilly reception there.

Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, chairman of the House Health Policy and Finance Committee, called the proposal "a simplistic, government-knows-best approach."

"I think the world is a little more complicated than that," Bradley said. "Price-fixing as a concept doesn't stand much of a chance in the House. But we'll give it a look."

Meanwhile, hospitals said the proposal wouldn't solve one of their biggest financial problems -- that they lose money on Medicare and Medicaid patients already, a dilemma that leads to higher prices for privately insured and uninsured patients.

Bruce Rueben, president of the Minnesota Hospital Association, said he hopes legislators will come up with a more far-reaching solution for what he called a "complex morass" of health care financing.

"This is a symptom of a much bigger illness," Rueben said. "If the government paid the full cost of treating Medicaid patients, as an example, that would be a significant amount of cost that would no longer have to be shifted as a hidden tax to the other patients who are covered by commercial insurance or who pay out of pocket."

Backers of the proposal said limiting charges for uninsured patients would make health care providers more likely to collect their money. Right now, hospitals send about $90 million in unpaid bills to collections agencies and end up getting about $15 million back, Hatch said. That amount doesn't include bills paid by patients on their own before collections agencies become involved.

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