Hidden Costs: When The ER is in Network, but the ER Doctor is NOT

When Jennifer Hopper raced to the emergency room after her husband, Craig, took a baseball in the face, she made sure they went to a hospital in their insurance network in Texas. So when they got a $937 bill from the emergency room doctor, she called the insurer, assuming it was in error.

But the bill was correct: UnitedHealthcare, the insurance company, had paid its customary fee of $151.02 and expected the Hoppers to pay the remaining $785.98, because the doctor at Seton Northwest Hospital in Austin did not participate in their network.

“It never occurred to me that the first line of defense, the person you have to see in an in-network emergency room, could be out of the network,” said Ms. Hopper, who has spent months fighting the bill. “In-network means we just get the building? I thought the doctor came with the E.R.”

Patients have no choice about which physician they see when they go to an emergency room, even if they have the presence of mind to visit a hospital that is in their insurance network. In the piles of forms that patients sign in those chaotic first moments is often an acknowledgment that they understand some providers may be out of network.