Flu Vaccine

FILE - In this Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a nurse prepares a flu shot from a vaccine vial at the Salvation Army in Atlanta. Preliminary figures released Feb. 14 suggest this winter’s vaccine is 47 percent effective overall in preventing flu illness severe enough to send a patient to the doctor's office -- an improvement from the previous year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Earlier this month, I got the flu.

It might have been from traipsing around drizzly, near-freezing Berlin the week before, or from the woman who kept sneezing and coughing on me on the plane ride home. It doesn’t really matter.

And shame on me for not getting a flu shot. I don’t have any good excuse for that. It was not very smart.

But about three days in, I decided I should go to the doctor, mostly to make sure it was in fact the flu rather than, say, a less-contagious sinus infection. I wanted to know how long I would need to stay home from work.

The woman at the front desk helpfully warned me that it would cost $129 for the visit since I hadn’t met my insurance deductible. That’s not chump change, but I appreciated the pricing clarity and paid upfront assuming that our transaction was complete.

Oh silly, naïve me.

This week, I got something arguably worse than the flu — a $440 bill from the health insurance company.

It turns out that taking my temperature, listening to my breathing and running a simple flu test cost more than $300 on top of the fee to get in the door.

Did spending that money help me get well more quickly? Nope. Did it provide me with any information or advice that I hadn’t already gathered after a thorough visit with Dr. Google? Not particularly.

But the most infuriating thing of all is the surprise.

Had I known it would cost so much to find out so little, I would have stayed home. Had I known a flu test would cost more than $200, I would have said “no thank you” as emphatically as possible and walked out the door.

Unfortunately, and insanely, that’s not how medical care works in the United States.

Instead, we receive treatment at an almost entirely unknown cost. Medical providers are then more or less free to charge whatever they deem a fair price, and the insurance company decides how much — if any — of the tab to pick up.

What pitiful rules we have to regulate fair pricing and transparency don’t seem to be making much of a difference. Surveys of medical bills nationwide have found that the same services for the same conditions can range in price by several thousands of dollars in some cases.

And almost anyone who has been to the doctor or, heaven forbid, the emergency room in the past several years has horror stories about surprise bills or hidden fees or some other customer service nightmare that would never fly in any other industry.

I asked desperately if there was any way to appeal the charges for my flu visit, and was told simply, “no.”

Imagine going to the grocery store, buying a bunch of groceries (with no price tags), waiting for the bill to come a few weeks later and then being shocked to find out that the total cost for a mundane list of supplies turned out to be more than an entire month’s food budget.

We would demand grocery reform. And rightly so.

Not surprisingly, health care is shaping up to be a big issue in the 2020 election. Unfortunately, most of the proposals thus far to build a fairer, more affordable health care system in the United States are so vague as to make them effectively meaningless.

Few lawmakers have been able to offer specifics about how their proposed systems would work or why they would be an improvement, much less how they would be implemented or paid for. And obviously, the specifics matter a lot. Because some of the details that are out there are scary.

But at this point there ought to be broad consensus that the way most of us receive and pay for health care is deeply flawed. At a bare minimum, patients merit more honesty and transparency on pricing, and insurance coverage that helps bear more cost for routine care.

I’m not holding my breath. I am, however, getting a flu shot from now on.

Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.