RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The case of a man who was stuck with a $14,419 bill that he calls inflated and unreasonable after three days of care in a Charlotte hospital is going to be heard by the North Carolina Supreme Court.
The case, scheduled to be heard by the state's high court on Monday, is upsetting officials at the state's major medical centers.
Robert Talford argues that there should be a trial to determine whether the cost of medications was reasonable. He says the hospital, which he declined to identify, charged 24 times more for the medication than what a local pharmacy would charge.
"The cost was not reasonable since the difference in the charges for the medications was 24 times, 15 times and 11 times higher," Talford said in court documents. "The reasonable man could find these charges unreasonable."
The bill from Talford's 2007 hospital stay doesn't include another $5,556 for his room, he said.
The North Carolina Hospital Association and big hospital groups based in Durham, Asheville, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Raleigh want the Supreme Court to rule against Talford and make it easy for them to collect overdue bills in court without a trial.
"While all patients receiving care are generally liable for payment for services they receive, the practical reality — especially in the current economy — is that hospitals do not receive payment from a significant number of their patients, many of whom have no means to pay," the hospitals said in arguments submitted to the court. "So it is imperative that hospitals are able to collect money from patients able to pay for their medical care without unreasonable barriers to hinder such efforts."
Talford, 68, of Charlotte, declined comment Saturday. A lawyer for more than 30 years, Talford is representing himself. His license to practice law was suspended in 2009 after the North Carolina State Bar determined he charged an excessive fee when he tried to collect one-third of a former worker's compensation client's settlement money after the client had dropped Talford as his lawyer.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, which does business as Carolinas HealthCare System, appealed the case to the Supreme Court after a divided Court of Appeals panel determined the hospital shouldn't get a court order forcing collection without a trial. Carolinas Health Care System operates nearly three dozen health care facilities in the region, including its flagship hospital, Carolinas Medical Center.
The lower appeals court said the hospital bill doesn't itemize the charges, and the only evidence that the costs were reasonable come from hospital employees. So a trial should weigh whether the hospital's price was right.
Lawyers for the nonprofit hospital authority did not respond to a message seeking comment, but in court documents they said they have the right to collect because Talford signed a contract upon hospital admission promising to pay.
The hospital's financial department director testified in earlier court hearings that the charges assessed to Talford were standard for patients receiving the care Talford needed, and also standard at other hospitals complying with federal Medicare and Medicaid cost regulations.
Talford's argument that he was overcharged says he was most severely overcharged for the drug diltiazem, which is used to treat high blood pressure and control chest pain, according to the National Institutes of Health website. Talford said he was also given enoxaparin sodium, an anti-coagulant drug, and folic acid, which helps the body manufacture red blood cells.
The fact that the drugs given Talford cost more in a hospital than a street-corner pharmacy offers "no more guidance to the issue of 'reasonable price' than would the obvious fact that a bottle of water sold for $6 at a Carolina Panthers home game could be purchased for $.99 from a local grocery store," the hospital system's attorneys said.
"In essence, defendant provides the unremarkable assertion that he can buy a pill cheaper at the hospital pharmacy or at a local CVS drug store than to have that same pill served by a technician, who is supervised by a nurse, who reports (to) the hall nursing supervisor, who reports to the director, and on up the chain of command. In addition, this pill will not be picked up to be taken at home, but rather is served in a room that is clean, maintained and supervised 24 hours a day, seven days a week," hospital attorneys said.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio