Spinal surgery made it possible for Liv Cannon to plant her first vegetable garden.
“It’s a lot of bending over and lifting the wheelbarrow and putting stakes in the ground,” the 26-year-old said as she surveyed the tomatillos, cherry tomatoes and eggplant growing in raised beds behind her house in Austin, Texas. “And none of that I could ever do before.”
For as long as she could remember, Cannon’s activities were limited by chronic pain and muscle weakness.
“There was a lot of pain in my legs, which I can now recognize as nerve pain,” she said. “There was a lot of pain in my back, which I thought was, you know, just something everybody lived with.”
Cannon saw many doctors over the years. But they couldn’t explain what was going on. She’d pretty much given up on finding an answer for her pain until her fiancé, Cole Chiumento, pushed her to try one more time.
“It never improved, it never got better,” Chiumento said. “That just didn’t sound right to me.”
So about two years ago, Cannon went to a specialist, who ordered a scan of her spine. A few days later, her phone rang.
“We found something on your MRI,” a voice said.
The images showed that Cannon had been born with diastematomyelia, a rare disorder related to spina bifida. It causes the spinal cord to split in two.
In Cannon’s case, the disorder also led to a tumor that trapped her spinal cord, causing it to stretch as she grew.
In December 2017, a neurosurgeon opened her spinal column and operated for several hours, freeing the cord.
“I think it was day three after my surgery I could feel the difference,” Cannon said. “There was just a pain that wasn’t there anymore.”
As she recovered, Cannon saw lots of huge medical bills go by. They were all covered by her insurance plan. Almost a year had passed since the operation.
Then a new bill came.
Patient: Liv Cannon, 26, of Austin, Texas. At the time of her surgery, she was a graduate student insured with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas through her job at the University of Texas.
Total bill: $94,031 for neuromonitoring services. The bill was submitted to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, which covered $815.69 of the amount and informed her she was responsible for the balance. The insurer covered all of Cannon’s other medical bills, which came to more than $100,000, including those from the hospital, surgeon and anesthesiologist.
Service provider: Traxx Medical Holdings LLC, an Austin company that provides neuromonitoring during spinal surgery. Neuromonitoring uses electrical signals to detect when a surgeon is causing damage to nerves.
Medical service: Cannon was born with a rare spinal condition that had caused chronic pain and muscle weakness since she was a child. In December 2017, she had successful spinal surgery to correct the problem. Her surgeon requested neuromonitoring during the operation.
What gives: Neuromonitoring made sense for the type of surgery Cannon had. The bill did not. Cannon should have been warned long before her surgery that the neuromonitoring company would be an out-of-network provider whose fees might not be covered by her insurer.
At first, she was baffled by the billing information Blue Cross sent her. “It was one of those things from the insurance company that says this is the amount we cover and this is the amount you might owe your provider,” she said, referring to her explanation of benefits.
The statement listed four separate charges from the day of her surgery. Each was described as a “diagnostic medical exam.” Together, they came to $94,031.
Blue Cross said the covered amount was $815.69 — minus a $750 deductible and $26.27 for coinsurance — and informed Cannon she might have to pay the balance: $93,991.58.
“I was shocked,” she said. Chiumento was outraged.
“As soon as I saw that, I thought it was a scam,” he said.
The charge came from Traxx Medical Holdings LLC, an Austin company. Traxx did not respond to emails, phone calls and a fax seeking comment on the charge.
The company’s website shows that Traxx provides a service called intra-operative neuromonitoring, which evaluates the function of nerves during surgery. The goal is to help a surgeon avoid causing permanent damage to the nervous system.
There is an ongoing debate about whether neuromonitoring is needed for all spinal surgery. But it is standard for a complicated operation like the one Cannon had, said Rich Vogel, president of the American Society of Neurophysiological Monitoring.
On the other hand, a $94,000 charge for the service can’t be justified, Vogel said.
“You’re not going to meet anybody who believes that a hundred thousand dollars or more is reasonable for neuromonitoring,” Vogel said.
Most neuromonitoring companies charge reasonable fees for a valuable service and are upfront about their ownership and financial arrangements, he said. But some companies are greedy and submit huge bills to an insurance company, hoping they won’t be challenged, he added.
Even worse, “some neuromonitoring groups charge excessive fees in order to gain business by paying the money back to surgeons,” Vogel said.
Last year, Vogel’s group published a position statement condemning these “kickback arrangements” and other unethical business practices.
It is unclear whether Traxx has any financial arrangements with surgeons. Cannon’s surgeon did not respond to requests for comment.
The size of the fee for Cannon’s monitoring was only part of the problem. The other part was that Traxx — unlike her hospital, doctor and anesthesiologist — had no contract with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. As an out-of-network provider, the company could set its fees and try to collect from Cannon any amount it didn’t get from her insurer.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas said it doesn’t comment on problems affecting individual members. But the insurer did offer a general statement by email about the problem:
“Unfortunately, non-contracted providers can expose our members to significantly greater out-of-pocket costs. These charges often have no connection to underlying market prices, costs or quality. If given the opportunity, we will try to negotiate with the provider to reduce the cost.”
One thing working against Cannon is that she is pretty sure that, just before surgery, she signed a paper that authorized the out-of-network neuromonitoring.
“It was 4:30 in the morning and you’re like, ‘OK, let’s get this over with,’” she recalled.
Getting consent in the hospital may be legal, but it’s not reasonable, said Dr. Arthur Garson Jr., who directs the Health Policy Institute at the Texas Medical Center in Houston.
For example, a patient might be having a heart attack, Garson said. “You got chest pain, you’re sweating, sick as you can be, and they hand you a piece of paper and they say, ‘Sign here.’”
The Texas Legislature passed a bill in May to protect patients from the sky-high bills this practice can produce. And Congress is considering similar legislation.
These are small steps in the right direction, Garson said.
“Asking the individual patient to make that decision even when they’re not sick I think is difficult,” he said, “and maybe we ought to think of some better way to do it.”
The Texas legislation is expected to take effect later this year but affects only bills that occur after it becomes law. So that $94,000 figure is never far from Cannon’s mind, even as she and Chiumento plan their wedding.
“Every time I go out and I collect the mail, I’m wondering, ‘Is this the day it’s going to show up and we’re going to have to deal with this?’” she said.
The Takeaway: Neuromonitoring during complex surgery involving the spine can help prevent inadvertent damage. But monitoring may be unnecessary for lower-risk back operations, like spinal fusion.
It is odd that neuromonitoring is charged as a separate service, rather than part of the spine surgery. Cardiac monitoring is not charged separately during bypass surgery, for example.
When considering spine surgery, ask your doctor whether neuromonitoring will be part of the procedure. If so, will it be billed separately? Try to find out the name of the provider and get an estimate of the cost beforehand.
Check with your insurer to determine if the neuromonitoring provider is within your network and to make sure the estimated charge would be covered.
Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by Kaiser Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!