Co-Pay Issue: "No Big Deal"

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Four West Virginia hospitals, including one in Parkersburg, have been ordered by their parent company to collect at least partial payment of insurance co-payments and deductibles before providing non-emergency care.

The policy applies to all of HCA's 191 hospitals nationwide. The Nashville-based company is the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain. It owns St. Francis Hospital in Charleston, Putnam General Hospital in Hurricane, Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley and St. Joseph's Hospital in Parkersburg.

Jill Parsons, spokeswoman for St. Joseph's, says the policy is no different than what a patient faces when going to a doctor, and says, in fact, it's a common practice among hospitals in general.

"Just like when the insurance company asked your doctor to collect the co-pay, thee insurance company puts the onus back on the hospital to ask for the co-pays for hospital services," Parsons said in a prepared statement. "It's a part of the registration process, and if other hospitals are honest with you, it's a part of their registration process, too."

HCA spokesman Jeff Prescott says many of the company's facilities already seek some type of payment upfront. When a patient can't pay the full co-payment amount, the H-C-A policy says hospitals should have a method of figuring a minimum down payment amount.

"If you've been to any hospital in the past few years, you've been asked about your co-pay when you register," Parsons' statement continued. "Your insurance company has set co-pays for different services, and hospitals include this as part of the registration process for insurance patients."

HCA's refined billing policy is part of a growing nationwide trend to clamp down on unpaid hospital bills, which costs hospitals billions of dollars every year.

Earlier this year, HCA reported that first-quarter earnings fell 26 percent from a year ago because it treated more patients unable to pay their hospital bills.