VACAVILLE, Calif. (KGO) -- A Solano County couple went to the hospital for rabies shots after finding a bat in their house and the bill from that single, simple visit? More than $200,000.
Tens of thousands of people each year receive a series of shots to prevent rabies after a possible exposure. It normally costs between $1,200 and $6,800. Not in this case.
Eileen Aguilar describes that day, "I couldn't see, so I'm squinting. And then it just had this awkward walk like this."
Aguilar was putting on her contacts in the upstairs bathroom of her Vacaville home when something startled her out of the corner of her eye.
"I grabbed my glasses, put it on and kind of went like this. And I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, it's a bat,'" said Aguilar.
By the time her husband, Al, came up, the bat was crawling up the wall.
He told the I-Team, "Of all things, it's behind the door, so then I had to go on and close the door and just the bat and I were in there."
Al captured this little guy in a bucket, took it out to the creek, and released it. Even though neither of them had been bitten, their doctor recommended they get a rabies shot at the local emergency room.
"I really didn't want to go to the ER," said Eileen Aguilar. "I just know it's expensive and it's a long wait, but she checked and she says no, the first vaccination has to be done at the emergency room."
At the nonprofit NorthBay Healthcare VacaValley Hospital, they had a simple 15-minute consultation - had blood pressure taken, no tests, no lab work. Then, injections with the rabies vaccine. The bill? More than $112,000 for Al.
Eileen described her reaction to the bill: "It's like, this has got to be wrong."
The bill for Eileen? $93,500.
"It was just shock and surprise, I was looking at that going, this can't be. And then the additional bills started coming in, as well," said Al Aguilar.
Three follow-up visits for rabies shots at NorthBay Health clinics cost just $1,300. That first visit to the ER totaled $206,285.68. The Aguilars did not receive an itemized bill; it just lists "emergency medicine." They assume the major expense was sitting in a room for more than four hours, waiting for their shots.
"They stuck us in the back room. That seemed to be an unused part of the ER, we saw a bunch of equipment and supplies in the back and at one point I was thinking, did they forget about us?" said Eileen Aguilar.
The Aguilars signed a release form so the I-Team could discuss their rabies treatment with anyone, but NorthBay Health's Marketing Director Diane Barney emailed, "NorthBay Health does not engage in the practice of discussing patient billing matters publicly, out of respect for patient privacy."
Barney also said no executive from NorthBay Health would agree to be interviewed, not her or the chief executive officer, the chief financial officer, the vice president of operations, or even the chief medical officer/chief quality officer.
Charles Rupprecht, rabies expert: "You're gonna report on this, right?"
Dan Noyes: "Yes."
Rupprecht: "I can see the title now, the $200,000 bat."
We discussed the case with Charles Rupprecht, one of the world's foremost experts on rabies. He headed the CDC's Rabies Program for 20 years, and still consults for the World Health Organization. Rupprecht has seen reports of overcharging for rabies vaccines across the country, even the $48,000 cat bite, but never this much. He's worried, this massive bill might dissuade other patients who need treatment.
"That might cause them not to seek care. That may cause them to trivialize the event. And if that occurs because of socio-economic reasons, and it was a real rabies case, and it results in a productive infection, they're gonna die," said Rupprecht.
The California Department of Public Health tells us they would get involved only if there is an issue with quality of care, that "CDPH does not have a role in setting charge limits or ranges for services." The hospital is required to make its charges public. NorthBay Health's online listing shows $547.65 for a rabies vaccine.
We also checked with the state senator from the Aguilar's district, Bill Dodd.
He told us, "When we found out from your office about this, you know, frankly, we've already checked in with NorthBay Health Center, just asking how they possibly could justify this, pretty outrageous."
Dodd says you should try to avoid the emergency room if possible; that's the most expensive healthcare we can receive. But from his position on the Senate Committee on Insurance, Dodd has a question about the Aguilar's insurance. Even with plan discounts, United Healthcare still paid more than $58,000 for the couple's rabies treatment.
Dodd: "How can it get this costly? And why would an insurance company not put up the same type of outrageous indignation, if you will, that I'm sure these people are feeling."
Dan Noyes: "So, you have questions and you're actually looking into it."
The Aguilars wound up paying $3,546.64 out of pocket. The insurance company told us Wednesday that they "are reaching out to NorthBay Healthcare... to address these excessive charges." By the way, the rabies expert told us, chances are that bat was not infected. The couple should have kept it, had it tested for rabies, and may have avoided the shots in the first place.
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