An Open Letter to WC’s U.S. Senators

Dear Senators Murkowski, Sullivan, Crapo and Risch –

You probably haven’t heard of Jessica Pell? She’s just a New Jersey lady. She fainted and injured her ear back in 2016. She went to the emergency room at Hoboken University Medical Center. She was given an ice pack and an ace bandage. That was it. The bill was $5,171.

Or how about Carolyn Wallace in Houston, Texas? She was charged almost $1,000 by the Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital in Houston to have a physician’s assistant take her daughter’s temperature. For a cut to her forehead, above her eyebrow.

And Bradley Sroka, who took his 1-year old daughter to a Sterling, Virginia emergency room at the direction of Brad’s own doctor? The 29-minute visit cost almost $1,000. A physician’s assistant examined the 1-year old’s injury, applied some antibacterial cream and that was it.

It should be the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House that is investigating these outrageous charges. Emergency room prices rose 89 percent between 2009 and 2015 — rising twice as quickly as overall health care prices. Instead it’s the much-maligned media doing the investigation, specifically Vox. Why is that? Does it have anything to do with the fact that each of you accepts large sums of money from the health care industry?1

Senator Crapo, you accepted almost $100,000 from DaVita HealthCare Partners alone. Senator Sullivan, you’ve pocketed $131,000 from the health care industry. Can you honestly say you accept that money and it doesn’t influence your actions? For most of us, the question kind of answers itself. So please give us something more than generalities when you answer.

The issue of emergency room economic extortion is particularly acute because your actions in voting for repeal of the individual mandate – that was buried in the tax bill – had the predictable effect of jacking up health insurance premiums. That forces more and more people to drop health insurance, which sends the to the emergency room instead. Everyone knew that would happen. To the extent you excuse young, healthy folks from being required to buy health insurance, you increase the cost for those who do. Every health care provider except community health centers and emergency rooms turn away patients who don’t have insurance. Giving emergency rooms an effective monopoly. The results, as documented by Vox, were perfectly predictable.

Nor is the solution to allow ERs to turn away patients, as some of your more heartless colleagues have urged. Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) – a candidate for governor in Tennessee as well – wants to repeal the anti-patient dumping law, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which was signed into law by former President Ronald Reagan in 1986. She wants to deny health care to anyone who can’t afford it. And, as the Vox reporting makes clear, who can afford it?2

No one has suggested that the Affordable Care Act was perfect. But you’ve taken an imperfect law and made it vastly worse. You’ve created a disastrous financial crisis for tens of thousands of American families who have the bad luck to be uninsured (or under-insured) and have a health care crisis outside of regular office hours. The problem is as real and as serious as a heart attack.

What are you going to do about it? WC is afraid the issue is urgent, and awaits your immediate answer.

/s/ Wickersham’s Conscience


  1. The health care industry takes the Vox investigation very seriously. The American Hospital Association sent a warning memo to its members. Perhaps you should take it seriously, too? 
  2. And don’t get WC started on treatment for rabies exposure. Vox reports the health data firm Amino combed through 45,000 claims for rabies treatment and found about half of the bills ranged from $280 to $4,500. Five percent of the bills were above $9,912. Why? Just, why?