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ProPublica: A Hospital Charged $1,877 to Pierce a 5-Year-Old's Ears. This Is Why Health Care Costs So Much.

By: Marshall Allen

This story was co-published with NPR's Shots blog.

Two years ago, Margaret O'Neill brought her 5-year-old daughter to Children's Hospital Colorado because the band of tissue that connected her tongue to the floor of her mouth was too tight. The condition, literally called being "tongue-tied," made it hard for the girl to make "th" sounds.

It's a common problem with a simple fix: an outpatient procedure to snip the tissue.

During a pre-operative visit, the surgeon offered to throw in a surprising perk. Should we pierce her ears while she's under?

O'Neill's first thought was that her daughter seemed a bit young to have her ears pierced. Her second: Why was a surgeon offering to do this? Wasn't that something done free at the mall with the purchase of a starter set of earrings?

"That's so funny," O'Neill recalled saying. "I didn't think you did ear piercings."

The surgeon, Peggy Kelley, told her it could be a nice thing for a child, O'Neill said. All she had to do is bring earrings on the day of the operation. O'Neill agreed, assuming it would be free.

Her daughter emerged from surgery with her tongue newly freed and a pair of small gold stars in her ears.

Only months later did O'Neill discover her cost for this extracurricular work: $1,877.86 for "operating room services" related to the ear piercing — a fee her insurer was unwilling to pay.