After her skiing accident, an uphill battle over snowballing bills

December 19, 2018

Originally publsihed by NBC News

Sarah Witter couldn’t get a break even though her leg had gotten several.

As she lay on a ski trail in Vermont last February, Witter, now 63, knew she hadn’t suffered a regular fall because she could not get up. An X-ray showed that she had fractured two major bones in her lower left leg.

A surgeon at Rutland Regional Medical Center screwed two gleaming metal plates onto the bones to stabilize them. “I was very pleased with how things came together,” the doctor wrote in his operation notes.

But as spring ended, the wound started to hurt more. In June, Witter returned to the doctor. “He X-rayed it and said it broke,” she said. “And I was thinking, what broke? And he said, the plate. He said, 'They do sometimes.' ”

The doctor performed another operation, removing the cracked plate and replacing it with a larger one.

Witter said she had been dutifully following all the instructions for her recovery, including going to physical therapy and keeping weight off her leg.

“I was, of course, thinking, ‘What did I do?’” Witter said. “The doctor said right off the bat it was nothing I did.”

Then the bill came.

Patient: Sarah Witter, a retired teacher and ski buff who had moved from Pennsylvania to Vermont for the outdoorsy lifestyle.

Total bill: $99,159 for emergency services, therapy and hospital care, including $52,587 for the first surgery and $43,208 for the second surgery. Altogether, Witter’s insurer, Aetna, paid $76,783. Witter paid $18,442 — including $7,808 for the second surgery. About half of Witter’s total expenses were copayments; an additional $7,410 was the portion of hospital charges that Aetna considered unreasonably high and refused to pay.

Service provider: Rutland Regional Medical Center, the largest community hospital in Vermont, performed the surgeries. Emergency services, anesthesia and physical therapy were handled by other providers.

Medical service: In February, two metal plates called bone fixation devices and manufactured by Johnson & Johnson’s DePuy Synthes division were surgically attached to two lower leg bones Witter had fractured in a skiing accident. These plates are long, narrow pieces of metal with holes drilled in them at regular intervals for screws to attach them to the bones. A crack had developed in one of the plates running from the side of one of those holes to the edge of the plate. A second operation was required to remove the plate and replace it.

What gives: When devices or treatments fail and need to be replaced or redone, patients (and their insurers) are expected to foot the bill. That may be understandable if a first course of antibiotics doesn’t clear a bronchitis, requiring a second drug. But it is more problematic — and far more expensive — when a piece of surgical hardware fails, whether it’s a pacemaker, a hip that dislocates in the days after surgery or a fractured metal plate.

Warranties, standard features at an electronic store or a car dealership, are rare for surgeries and in the medical device industry.

Dr. James Rickert, an orthopedic surgeon in Indiana and president of the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics, said a plate like the one implanted in Witter’s leg can fail if the surgeon does not line it up correctly with the bone, although usually that causes the screws to break or back out. A plate also can fail if the patient puts too much weight on it or doesn’t follow other recovery instructions.

“When the plate breaks, it’s usually from overworking it, or a defect in the plate itself,” Rickert said. “The vast majority of people follow their instructions and are honest about it. If a person comes in and tells you they’ve been following their instructions and the surgery’s done properly, to me that’s a hardware failure.”

Nancy Foster, vice president for quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association, said sometimes hospitals will not charge for a second surgery “if they were aware that it was something they did that caused the patient to need follow-up care.”

Rutland Regional, Witter’s hospital, would not discuss Witter’s care or bills, even though she gave it permission to do so. “The organization is not comfortable in getting into the specifics of an individual patient’s case,” a spokeswoman wrote. The hospital also declined to discuss under what circumstances, if any, it would discount a second operation’s cost because of the first’s failure.

Read the full story at NBC News