Woman goes for blood test; gets $17,850 bill.

After Elizabeth Moreno had back surgery in late 2015, her surgeon prescribed an opioid painkiller and a follow-up drug test that seemed routine — until the lab slapped her with a bill for thousands of dollars.

A Houston lab tested her urine sample for a constellation of legal and illicit drugs, many of which, Moreno said, she had never heard of, let alone taken.

“I was totally confused. I didn’t know how I was going to pay this,” said Moreno, 30, who is finishing a degree in education at Texas State University in San Marcos and is pregnant with twins.

Her bill shows that Sunset Labs charged $4,675 to check her urine for different types of opioids; $2,975 for benzodiazepines, a class of drugs for treating anxiety; and $1,700 more for amphetamines. Tests to detect cocaine, marijuana and phencyclidine, an illegal hallucinogenic drug also known as PCP or angel dust, added $1,275 more.

The lab also billed $850 to test for buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opioid addiction, and tacked on an $850 fee for two tests to verify that nobody had tampered with her urine specimen.

Total bill: $17,850 for lab tests that her insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, refused to cover, apparently because the lab was not in her insurance network. The insurer sent Moreno an “explanation of benefits” that says it would have valued the work at just $100.92.

Moreno’s father, in a complaint to the Texas attorney general’s office about the bill, identified the Houston surgeon who ordered the costly test as Dr. Stephen Esses. His office said the surgeon would have no comment.

Sunset Labs is part of a network of pain clinics and other medical businesses founded by Houston anesthesiologist Phillip C. Phan, according to Texas secretary of state filings and court records. Court records say Phan’s companies also own the facility where Moreno had her surgery.

Three experts interviewed by KHN said the lab grossly overcharged and doubted the need for the test.

“This just blows my mind,” said Jennifer Bolen, a former federal prosecutor and lab and pain management consultant. “It’s very high and incredibly out of the norm.”

Dan Bowerman, a medical fraud expert, called the lab bill “outrageous” and “unconscionable,” and said it should have prompted an investigation.

“Sounds real fishy,” said Charles Root, a veteran industry adviser. He wondered if the lab had “misplaced the decimal point,” because such a test should cost a few hundred dollars, tops.

The lab disagrees.

Sunset’s billings “are in line with the charges of competing out-of-network labs in the geographical area,” lab attorney Justo Mendez said in an emailed statement.

Mendez said pain doctors agree that extensive urine testing is “the best course of action” and that a lab “is not in the position” to question tests ordered by a doctor.

Urine testing for patients with chronic pain has grown explosively over the past decade as deaths from opioid abuse rose sharply. Pain doctors say drug testing helps them make sure patients are taking the drugs as prescribed and not mixing them with illegal substances.

Yet the testing boom costs billions of dollars annually and has raised concerns that some labs and doctors run urine tests needlessly — or charge exorbitant rates — to boost profits.

Some insurers have refused to pay, which can leave patients like Moreno threatened with ruinously high bills they had no idea they had incurred.

“Surprise bills larded with unexpected expenses and little explanation inflict sticker shock on vulnerable patients,” said James Quiggle, communications director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, whose members include insurers, consumer groups and government agencies. Quiggle said many “puffed-up bills straddle a fine line between abuse and outright fraud.”

Moreno said her insurance covered the disc removal surgery in December 2015. She said the operation went well and she weaned off the hydrocodone pain pills. To her surprise, on a second return about a month later, the surgeon’s office asked her to leave a urine sample.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” Moreno said of the test. “I said fine, whatever.”

More than a year later, she said, the lab phoned while she was driving and asked her to pay the $17,850 bill. The lab then sent her an invoice, dated March 10, 2017, which says: “(B)ased upon information from your health plan, you owe the amount shown.”

Luckily, her father, Paul Davis, was visiting her in Texas at the time. Davis, 66, is a retired family practice doctor from Findlay, Ohio.

Davis doubted the need for the test, not to mention what he thought was a sky-high price. He said the University of Findlay, where he helped train physician assistants, gave applicants a basic drug test for $174, while the local juvenile courts in Ohio paid $10 for a simple drug screen.

Fearing it would ruin his daughter’s credit scores, Davis said, he called Sunset and settled the bill in April 2017 by paying $5,000, which he said he now regrets. The lab sent Moreno a receipt that said it discounted her bill because of “financial need/hardship.”

Asked for comment, Blue Cross spokesman James Campbell said he couldn’t discuss a specific case but noted:

“We are disappointed as well as concerned about transparency whenever (any) member is surprised by an excessive charge for a seemingly routine service or received services that may not have been medically necessary.”

Campbell also said the lab was out-of-network and “we do not control how much they charge for services rendered.” The insurer encourages patients to confirm that all medical care they seek comes from medical providers in the Blue Cross network, he said.

Prices for urine tests can vary widely depending upon complexity and the technology used. Some doctors’ offices use a simple cup test, which can detect several classes of drugs on the spot. These tests rarely cost more than $200, and typically much less.

Bills climb higher when labs check for levels of multiple drugs and bill for each one, a practice that insurers argue is seldom medically justified. But even labs sued by insurers alleging wildly excessive testing typically have billed $9,000 or less, court records show. One insurer sued a lab for charging $1,845 for a drug test, for example.

Davis said Sunset Labs ignored his requests for a full explanation of the charges. In May, he filed a written complaint about the bill with the Texas attorney general’s office that included a copy of the bill and accused the lab of “price gouging of staggering proportions.”

“Young people just starting out, such as my daughter, may not have the ability to pay and this could result in damaged credit ratings or even bankruptcy,” he wrote.

Davis got a letter back from Attorney General Ken Paxton, who said the office would “review the information.” A spokesperson for Paxton said: KHN: “We have received complaints about that business, but we can’t comment on anything else.” Sunset attorney Mendez said the lab is “not aware” of any such complaints.

In an interview, Davis also questioned the need for his daughter’s urine test because she received opioids only for a short period and the results would have had no impact on her treatment. In his complaint to the attorney general, Davis said the surgeon told him he ordered the tests because he feared possible retribution from the state medical licensing board for not testing patients who had been prescribed opioids. The Texas Medical Board doesn’t require urine tests for patients receiving opioids for short-term pain, said spokesman Jarrett Schneider. That’s a “question of independent medical judgment as to whether the physician believes a drug test should be required,” he said.

Sunset Labs has an “F” rating with the Houston Better Business Bureau, which on its website posts an August 2017 complaint from a patient charged $16,150 for a urine test.

“This is not covered under my health insurance so I am expected to pay this excessive bill,” the complaint reads.

In two lawsuits filed in 2015, three doctors seeking to quit working at pain clinics operated by Phan accused the facilities of improper billing practices, including unnecessary urine testing. The doctors said they feared losing their medical licenses unless they severed their ties.

In one suit, Purvi Patel and Lance LaFleur also alleged that the pain clinics “pressured” doctors to overprescribe medical gear and genetic tests to insured patients “regardless of medical necessity.” The case did not go forward because the doctors did not pursue it. Neither doctor would comment.

In the second legal case, pain specialist Baominh Vinh said he resigned in April 2015 “based on certain questionable business practices … that are inconsistent with my ethical boundaries.” Vinh also alleged urine testing was overused. In a countersuit against Vinh, the pain clinics called his allegations a “falsehood” to justify violation of his employment contract.

The parties settled in March 2017. Terms are confidential, but a lawyer for the pain clinics said Vinh paid money to the company “and not vice versa.”

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  1. bogsidebunny says:

    in the meantime the Liberal Left-Coast cities are setting up “safe” heroin injection sites and dispensing “clean” needles to the junkies there….For free, of course.

    What a fucked up nation America has become. And it’s going to get worse.

    We’re DOOMED!

  2. Leonard Jones says:

    I spent more than a decade working for a union Millwright service in Paramount
    CA. As a condition for working in refineries, the company had to perform random
    drug tests on the employees. It was a small business with about a dozen regular
    employees. I was one of the few full-time journeymen along with a number of
    field foremen. When we needed extra hands, we called the local union hall.
    I was picked at Random to go to the clinic.

    90 days later, I was picked again. This went on 7 times in a row. I was sitting
    in a bar slurping Budweiser with my favorite foreman at a local bar in North
    Long Beach near the shop. I asked my buddy Jim “What are the odds of
    my being selected 7 times in a row?” Jim called me a dumb ass and told
    me that I was covering for his ace foremen. OK, I am generally not that
    slow on the uptake, but I remembered the stories about these guys
    snorting cocaine off the horizontal doors on their utility trucks.

    The Mel Brooks classic History Of The World: Part 1 popped into my
    head and I said does that mean I am the Vaughan’s piss boy?

  3. dekare says:

    And this is why you MUST require the doctor to tell you of how much it will cost and if it will be covered or not by your insurance BEFORE the work begins. In Florida. there is a law that states if you tell the doctor you don’t want anything done that you first have not been informed of the cost, and he does something that results in an issue like this…you do not have to pay. I have used this many times for instances when I went to the doctor, paid my deductible, and days later, got an insane bill for stuff I was made to believe was covered. Of course, when you go to the doctor about this, he says stupid crap like…”I don’t know how much things cost, I only do what is in your best health interest”. Well, then you can eat the cost after I prove I gave you notice to you of the statute, which I do when I fill out my initial forms.. Simply write it down somewhere and if you like, and you’re good.

    Imagine these same doctors hiring you to repair their car or remodel their home, and you end up doing all sorts of things they didn’t ask for, and hit them with a huge bill. Do you think they would happily pay after you state that you were not concerned with the cost, but only what was best for the home or their car.

    The fact is, NO ONE buys anything without first knowing the cost…except in healthcare. Why is this. Especially when it’s not like we are talking about a few bucks. Everything is damned way too expensive, and we should be told first the cost and if the work was necessary. Don’t send me for a test that costs thousands of dollars, without first telling me if it will not be covered and how much the bill is going to be.

    I don’t have time to look it up, but it is a Florida law, and I am willing to bet other states have similar laws too. It’s all about giving your doctor notice before he does anything.

  4. Dan says:

    THIS is one of the many reasons health insurance is ridiculously expensive. There’s a good chance this was a violation of the Stark Act. The surgeon had a specific lab…Sunset Labs…do
    these tests. If he or any of his relatives have ANY financial interests in Sunset Labs or a company
    that owns said lab than this would be considered a “self referral” where the doctor referred a patient
    to a facility that he has a financial interest in. And THAT IS ILLEGAL. Unfortunately it’s hard to ferret out the financial connections that motivate many physicians.

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