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New Database Compares Discount Hospital Care in Calif.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- Californians have another tool to help them navigate hospital costs.

The Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development launched a new searchable online database Tuesday that allows the public to compare the charity care and discount payment policies of hospitals across the state.

"We hope that this helps uninsured people not be deterred from getting the care they need because of the bill they expect to get," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a statewide nonprofit working to get health care for all residents.

The tool, which can be found at syfphr.oshpd.ca.gov, allows consumers to search by hospital name, address, city, county or zip code and download the hospital's policy and discount application.

It is a product of a bill sponsored by Health Access and passed in 2006, which requires hospitals to have policies about charity care and to limit costs for services to the poor to what it charges government-sponsored health programs.

And while each hospital has a different policy, in general, the uninsured and underinsured may be eligible for discounted or free services if their income is below 350 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2007, this was $35,735 for a single person, $47,915 for a couple and $72,275 for a family of four.

Some hospital officials criticized the site for user-unfriendliness.

San Joaquin Community Hospital's page didn't exist until Tuesday afternoon, and even then, it had incorrect information.

For number of total beds, the site lists zero. For "federal poverty level for free care" it lists zero percent, which makes it seem like the hospital doesn't give free care, but further down the page it says patients with income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty limit have zero liability, spokesman Jarrod McNaughton said.

"It's a little confusing for the consumer," he said. "It's a good thing, but it needs some tweaking."

Charity care info for Bakersfield Heart Hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital, HealthSouth Bakersfield Rehabilitation Hospital and Kern Medical Center hasn't been posted.

About 80 percent of the hospital information is listed, said Patrick Sullivan, spokesman for the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. "If you don't see it, it will be on there soon."

Memorial and Mercy hospital officials said their information is correct. The Catholic Healthcare West hospitals offer charity care to people up to 200 percent of the poverty limit, after other means of payment such as Medi-Cal, Medicare and Healthy Families have been tried.

None of the hospitals anticipate a flood of patients in their emergency rooms due to this tool.

"No one is doing comparison shopping in the ambulance on the gurney," Wright said. "This is more useful for people who already get the bill and who need guidance on how to negotiate it down."

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