Skyrocketing? Just put it on my bill

Art Buchwald

September 17, 1992|By Art Buchwald

WHEN it comes to hospital costs the word "skyrocketing does not do them justice. For several years now economists, health officials and even medical personnel have been trying to figure out what has sent the prices right through the ozone.

If they still want an answer they should talk to Ron Patterson. Ron is the father of the hospital printout, which changed the course of American health care forever.

I found Ron at the Computer Programmer's Home for the Aged in Silicone Valley. He was surprised that anyone knew he was still alive.

"They say that you developed the first modern hospital bill," I said.

"I did," he responded. "Let me tell you how it happened. A hospital administrator came to me in the '50s and said, 'We're losing money on our rooms because we're not charging enough. How do we squeeze the patients?' I told him that I would go out to the hospital disguised as a patient, wearing one of those gowns that opens down the back, and report to him what was happening.

"Well, I was shocked. I discovered waste there that you would never imagine. For example, I was lying on my bed and the nurse came into the room to say good night, and she didn't even charge me for it. Then she put a cotton swab in my ear which she didn't bother to record as medical treatment. At 2 in the morning they gave me a glass of water. I asked, 'How much?' and the resident replied, 'It's free.'

"In just three days I saw violation after violation of sound fiscal bookkeeping. I transcribed 100 pages of notes underneath my blanket. When I was discharged they gave me a bill that said, 'Room for Three Nights $400.'

"I headed directly to my computer and listed all the procedures that I underwent in the hospital from being fed Jell-O to having the pillow propped on my bed.

"Then I gave each one a code number. According to my calculations the hospital should have charged me $14,890 for my stay.

"I showed the printout to the hospital director who couldn't believe it. He said, 'I feel the way President Roosevelt did when he was informed that the atomic bomb worked.' He asked me if I thought that he had enough codes for the hospital bills. I wanted to know what he meant. He explained, 'You haven't put anything down for the nurse visiting the room to see if the patient was watching TV, and don't forget when the patient takes a walk in the hall.'

"He had a good point. I had forgotten them. I worked day and night thinking up codes that had never been thought of before. Finally, I arrived at 12,789 things that they do in a hospital. Each one should have been charged separately on the patient's bill. It was the breakthrough in health care that the world had been waiting for. Not since the invention of anesthesia had there been such an advance in the field of medicine. My codes were distributed to every hospital in America and the rest is history."

"You never got the credit you deserved."

Ron agreed. "That's because the medical profession looks down on computer people. They drive Mercedeses and we drive Fords. They need us to justify their high costs, but when it comes to credit they don't give a damn."

"You sound bitter."

"Why shouldn't I be?" He took a printout from his bathrobe pocket. "This is my bill for the week. They charged me $30 a day for mileage on my wheelchair and an extra $10 for putting air in the tires."

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