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TV commercials threaten hospital closures to protect a scam

The secretive group hopes to sucker you into protecting a lucrative racket: "Surprise bills" you'll only discover until after the fact.

The secretive group hopes to sucker you into protecting a lucrative racket: "Surprise bills" you'll only discover until after the fact. Doctor Patient Unity

You likely saw the alarming commercials during last Sunday’s Vikings game, or perhaps on the local news.

The opening scene is the kind you’ll only find on television: A clean, spacious hospital waiting room, absent of blood or agony, nor overwhelmed by those without insurance who’ve arrived as a last resort.

A nurse calls two patients. But she’s interrupted by Suit Man, who says he’s with “Big Insurance.” He tells everyone to leave. They’re closing the hospital, he explains, because “insurance companies teamed up with Congress on a scheme called ‘government rate-setting.’” What it really means is “doctor shortages” and “hospital closures.”

It urges you to call Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, among those behind this assault on your health care.

The commercials are the work for something called “Doctor Patient Unity,” though you’d be hard pressed to find any actual patients involved in this equation. The group doesn’t disclose who’s running it, nor the sugar daddies forking over the millions of dollars spent targeting senators around the country, including $277,000 aimed at Smith. All that’s known is that it shares the same address as a prominent Republican law firm in Virginia.

Its motive, on the other hand, isn’t hard to glean. It’s hoping to keep legal one of the most lucrative schemes in medicine, a scam called “surprise billing.”

You’re probably familiar with this, since roughly 40 percent of America has fallen victim.

It happens when you go to an emergency, or even a scheduled surgery. You make sure the hospital is covered by your insurance so you’re not assaulted by out-of-network costs. Then the bill arrives.

What the hospital neglected to mention is that the doctor performing your emergency appendectomy is not covered by your insurance. Nor is the anesthesiologist who assisted with your knee surgery. The “surprise bill” can run in the four, five, even six figures for something like a heart attack. And there’s a good chance it could lead you to ruin. In Denver alone, one collection agency placed liens on 170 homes due to unpaid bills.

The whole scheme is a bit like buying a new house, then finding out after closing that there’s a separate bill for the kitchen. To hear doctors, hospitals, and the big money behind them tell it, they simply can’t survive if they’re not allowed to rip you off like this.

Yet there’s a movement’s afoot to make the practice illegal. In some weird convergence of the angels, it has the backing of not just Democrats like Smith, but Republicans and President Trump. It appears that even in the larcenous confines of Congress, there are some things still too shameless.

A number of bills are being bandied about Congress. They would force doctors and hospitals to negotiate directly with your insurer, or the government would set rates for them, instead of allowing them to bill whatever they wish after the fact.

But all have one recurring feature: Doctors, hospitals, and insurers would have to battle it out themselves. They could no longer directly scam a patient. And hospitals would have to get your consent before out-of-network services were rendered.

Needless to say, moneyed interests are not keen on this -- doctors and hospitals, to be sure, but also those great predators increasingly hunting treasure in American medicine: private equity groups and venture capitalists.

Doctors are often independent contractors, rather than employed by a hospital. So facilities use staffing companies to fill their ranks. Think of them as the Manpowers of medicine. And rather than join insurance networks, those companies realize the money comes in bigger denominations when they can prey on you after the fact.

So venture capitalists and private equity groups are gobbling up staffing companies. There’s gold to be had in your misery.

Which is why they’re now appearing on your television under the wholesome banner of “Doctor Patient Unity.” They duplicity is that we’re in this together, fighting big insurance and an evil Congress to “put patients first,” to “stop big government and insurance companies from controlling your health care,” to halt this “first step towards Socialists’ Medicare-for-All dream.”

And they’ll be pounding that message home on TV, radio, and the internet for the coming months.

So, yes, you really should contact Tina Smith. But not with the message they hope.