SEIU workers accuse California hospitals of 'price gouging'

Health care workers from SEIU urge health care reform in Los Angeles.
Health care workers from SEIU urge health care reform in Los Angeles.
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Union health care workers spent their Valentine's Day collecting signatures outside Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood for two initiatives they hope to get on the ballot this fall. The initiatives are both designed to reduce a practice workers call "hospital price gouging."

The signatures are being collected by volunteers and paid signature gatherers on behalf of the United Healthcare Workers West branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The first initiative addresses how much hospitals can charge patients. It would limit hospitals from charging fees more than 25 percent above the actual cost of services.

The state of California tracks hospital prices through “chargemasters," publicly-available online spreadsheets. Potential hospital-goers can look up a particular location to see how much they charge for everything from an Ace bandage to a bottle of eyedrops.

Union spokeswoman Elizabeth Brennan says they looked up prices at Centinela Hospital.

“We’ve learned that they charge $21 for a single Advil," said Brennan. "Not the bottle, but a single Advil. People wonder why their health care costs are so high; I think we’ve found part of the reason.”

“The SEIU has identified a very real problem, they just simply have the wrong solution," countered Jim Lott, a spokesman for the Hospital Association of Southern California. He says hospital costs are raised because of lower payments they receive from customers who use Medicare and Medi-Cal.

"The solution isn’t to cut a hospital’s ability to charge," Lott said. "They should be focusing on trying to get government to pay its fair share.”

SEIU is also trying to get support for a second ballot initiative that would expand charity services at some hospitals. Under current state law, nonprofit hospitals are required to provide “charity care,” but there is no minimum amount.

The proposed ballot would require some nonprofit hospitals to spend at least 5 percent of patient revenue on health care for needy patients.