Patients in revolt over health bills: Strict charges by private hospitals are costing insurance companies and their clients dear. Sue Fieldman reports

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BECAUSE patients are not picking up the bill directly, private hospitals are often creative with their charges. But recession and rapidly rising health premiums are causing people to complain more readily about the tariffs.

Last week George Sparks, a finance broker from Essex, received the bill for his recent stay in a local private hospital. He had been due for admission two weeks last Wednesday at 3pm to undergo a minor operation three hours later.

The hospital then rang to postpone his appointment until 7.30 the following morning for an operation at 9am. It finally took place at 11am on the Thursday.

The hospital charges a daily rate for each 24-hour period beginning at 8am. As Mr Sparks arrived at 7.30am, the hospital billed him pounds 60 for the extra 30 minutes he was on their premises. He is furious.

'I may have been admitted to the hospital at 7.30am but I doubt if I had reached my room by then and I certainly was not in bed until just before the operation,' he said.

'I would have been more than happy to come in at 8.01, save my insurer pounds 60, and stop mine and everyone else's premiums continuing to go up.'

He intends to ask his insurer to query the charge.

In another recent case, a patient went to a private hospital to have a sebaceous cyst - a little lump on his head - removed. This task is frequently performed at local surgeries.

After the deed was done he got off the couch and was offered a chair to sit down and a cup of tea before he trotted off home. The hospital charged pounds 40 for the use of a recovery room. He complained to his insurance company.

Michael Johnson, a businessman from north London, was so appalled at the service he received in his local private hospital that he complained and got 50 per cent knocked off his bill.

In September Mr Johnson and his son spent one night in Garden Hospital, north London. They both had minor operations.

Mr Johnson had a catalogue of minor complaints which added up to make his stay in hospital unpleasant to say the least - the service was atrocious.

The complaints included a refusal to change blood-stained sheets because he was leaving that evening, a fly in a glass of orange juice, and lack of cleaning in the bathrooms.

Mr Johnson had told the hospital he would be unable to leave until 8.30pm for religious reasons. No mention was made of any extra charge. He was then billed pounds 200 for a part-day room charge.

Even though his insurer was paying the bill, Mr Johnson complained to Compass Healthcare, which owns the hospital. John Greenwood, the managing director of Compass, was most apologetic.

In a letter to Mr Johnson he said: 'We clearly failed to deliver the standard of service we would aspire to and you would reasonably expect of us.

'There are no excuses for this and I can only apologise for our unacceptable lapse.'

Mr Greenwood has arranged for a reduction of 50 per cent in the hospital accommodation charges.

Mr Johnson says that Compass has dealt with the complaint extremely well. For him, complaining was a matter of principle. For his insurer, Western Provident Association, it is a matter of hard cash.

Julian Stainton, the managing director of WPA, said: 'If you have a problem, complain and query the bill even if the insurer is paying. Errors do happen and Compass handled this complaint very responsibly.

'If all patients bring pressure to bear on the hospitals to provide value for money then it will benefit everyone. The less we have to pay out, the lower we can keep premiums.'

Medical insurers frequently pay hospital bills routinely. Their checking leaves a lot to be desired.

The patients' names have been changed to protect their identity.