10 Wildly Overinflated Hospital Costs

A Tylenol pill for $15? Or $53 per pair of gloves? Here, a medical billing advocate reveals some of the crazy costs of some very basic medical goods.

By Lauren Gelman
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    Why exactly are our medical bills so high?

    Investigative journalist Steven Brill explored this in a recent, hot-button Time magazine cover story. After spending seven months analyzing hundreds of bills from hospitals, doctors, drug companies, and medical equipment manufacturers, he discovered that health care costs are largely arbitrary, inflated, and unfair. “The health care market is not a market at all. It’s a crapshoot,” he concluded. “Everyone fares differently based on circumstances they can neither control nor predict.”

    In our own investigation last year, Reader’s Digest learned that it pays to try to get to the bottom of your medical bills because they’re subject to more errors and overcharges than you might think. Here, Pat Palmer, founder of Medical Billing Advocates of America, a group that helps patients handle medical bills, reveals examples of ridiculous overcharges on a patient’s itemized bill (which you usually need to ask for—and review with a fine-toothed comb).


    Charge to patient: $15 per individual pill, for a total of $345 during average patient stay

    Patient belonging bag

    Like a grocery bag, to hold your personal items

    Charge to patient: $8

    Box of tissues

    Sometimes listed as “mucus recovery system”

    Charge to patient: $8


    Charge to patient: $53 per non-sterile pair (sterile are higher), for a total of $5,141 during average patient stay

    Cup medicine

    Cost is for the plastic cup used to administer medicine, not the actual medicine inside it

    Charge to patient, per cup: $10, for a total of $440 during average patient stay

    Marking pen

    To mark the body for surgery

    Charge to patient: $17.50

    Cuff, BP Adult

    Use of blood pressure cuff

    Charge to patient: $20

    Oral admin. fee

    Charge for nurse to hand you medicine taken by mouth

    Charge to patient: $6.25 per instance, for a total of $87.50 during average patient stay


    Cost of use of overhead light in operating room

    Charge to patient: $93.50

    Swabs, alcohol

    Charge to patient: $23 per swab, for a total of $322 during average patient stay


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    Your Comments

    • tpMRS

      I work for a company that researches patient’s medical bills to find errors such as over-charges. You honestly wouldn’t believe some of the ridiculous charges we have seen… From a $23-dollar alcohol swab to a $1,000-dollar tooth brush. The details of these charges are usually never seen unless you request a detailed itemized statement of your hospital bill. Sadly, so many of these charges are paid by the patient because they trust that the bill they receive is true and accurate.

    • Randy Williams

      I also work at a non profit. none of the items mentioned except the Tylenol are chargeable items. Also we only average receiving 30 cents on the dollar billed, so that makes that $15 pill pay only 4.50 to cover all the enormous overhead of operating a hospital. There are so many compliance issues that a normal business doesn’t have that cost big bucks to meet. Also nowhere else do you have so many technical people working that requires a very high payroll, It is sad to say but the patients that will pay have to cover for the ones that don’t, or else there would be no hospital to go to!

    • ram1020

      When our twins were born 23 years ago, I was shocked that they charged $5 per diaper. Later, I realized that $5 for a diaper INSTALLED was not that a bad price.

    • May

      I don’t know what hospitals were investigated but I can tell you we have never charged for or even counted the number of alcohal swabs or gloves we use. Our OR charge includes all the equipment in the room including spot lights and even a special Surgeon headlight.
      I also noticed that not one time did you mention just how any of any staff from pharmacy to nurses to housecleaners were paid, use of utilities, repair of equipment or buildings. I am tired of being the bad guy. I work for a non profit and I have had just one raise in 4years. Why doesn’t any one look at real costs vs compensation.

      • Jen

        You don’t count the number of alcohol swabs or gloves you use, but hospitals use a set average number of gloves/swabs a patient will go through based on the procedure they’re getting. Patients are charged for that average rather than for what they actually consume. So, I might go in for a procedure that averages a two-day stay and 10 pairs of gloves, but I recover quickly and am discharged in 18 hours and only go through six pairs of gloves. I’m still going to get charged for the 10 pairs I *might* have used, though.

    • Emily

      I work in the hospital and we definitely don’t count the number of pairs of gloves we use nor the number of alcohol wipes. We also don’t charge for the med cups. Where are they getting this? Most of it is bogus.

      • Tom the Iconoclast

        Emily, those are actual charges on actual bills. I went through the hospital bill when my son was born and I was shocked the point of angry enough to want to go back to the hospital with a loaded gun and pose some SERIOUS questions to the billing department. (I didn’t, but I was that angry.) The people who wrote this article are not joking when they say $15.00 for ONE Tylenol pill, or $25 for ONE alcohol swab. This garbage about “mucus recovery system” for tissues is not made up – that kind of sleaze is real and hospital bills are FULL of this kind of crap. I eventually got an “off the record” explanation from a lady at the hospital: since the hospital loses so much money on those people who cannot pay their bills, they screw everyone else to make up the shortfall. They count on the fact that insurance companies are paying the bills, and the actual patient does not see it. Then the insurance company just charges monthly premiums to pay whatever it takes to pay those inflated bills. Americans are to uninterested and stupid to realize what is really going on here. The Mafia wishes it was as clever as health care professionals.

    • Sara Stephens

      Is your insurance not covering enough for Medical benefits?like a trip to the ER or maybe a ride in a ambulance or maybe a few days in the hospital that could cost you thousands I offer benefts up to $54,750 in daily hospitail bill benefits 150 a day in hospitail stay, My name is Sara and I have great benefits and all of this is very affordable and easy to have always be prepared for the worst please give me a call at 720-427-3776 or email me at sara.stephens8292@gmail.com, Have a Great day.

    • bkurtin

      The hospital bill my insurance company got was an ASTRONOMICAL $237,800 for an angioplasty and stent implant. I talked to the company and told them NOT to pay all of it. The hospital said that it was a “billing error.” Yeah, I was in and out THE SAME DAY!

      Following a carotid endarterectomy, I had a massive hemorrhagic stroke. It was so bad that my family was told that if I lived, I’d never walk, talk, or work again. Six months later I returned to work, but the brain damage I incurred forced me to have to retire 18 months later. Even though I stayed in the ICU for several days and was hospitalized for over two weeks, my bill didn’t even come close to the $237,800 a different hospital charged.

      Oh yes…I NEVER would go back to that “non-profit” hospital again. Crooks!

    • bob

      I was going to tell you something important but I found out I am taking 5 of the memory loss medications. no wonder!

      • bkurtin

        Bob, I am chuckling as I read what you said. I have almost no short term memory, but have learned to carry a digital recorder with me. Sometimes, however, I just tell ‘em I just forgot.

    • http://www.faceliftmasks.com/ FaceliftMask

      I recently was involved in a car accident. 4 hours in the hospital were $26,000.00. The CAT Scan alone was $6,000. I called around to find the going rate if I did not have insurance. $900 Cash for the same CAT Scan outside the hospital. When I brought it to my insurers attention, they just blew it off.