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Berkeley balcony collapse: Injured survivors could face big medical costs despite insurance

By Caroline Crawford

Survivors of the Berkeley balcony collapse could now be facing massive medical bills as they are treated in American hospitals for their injuries.

Medical insurance is mandatory for all J1 visa holders and the level and range of such insurance was upgraded earlier this year for all those travelling to the US.

However, it is feared that costs could still mount for the injured.

Minimum levels of Insurance cover for J1 students are determined by US State Department Regulations.

In May, the Department increased the amount of insurance coverage J1 program participants are required to maintain. It saw the required level of medical benefits paid per accident rise from $50,000 to $100,000.

The level of expenses associated with the medical evacuation of a student back home also increased from $10,000 to $50,000.

The new requirements were announced last October and came into force in May.

All J1 visa holders are expected to have these increased limits covered by their insurance.

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While the injured Irish students who are currently undergoing treatment in three hospitals in California, should have this mandatory insurance, it is not clear if this will completely cover all medical bills that are incurred as a result of the tragedy.

Medical costs in America are notoriously high, with the cost of hospital stays quickly spiralling out of control.

One day as an in-patient in an American hospital can cost an average of more than $4,000, according to the International Federation of Health Plans in figures gathered in recent years.

The body, which is an international network of health insurance industries, say the figure is five times higher than the average charged in many other developed countries.

The excessive costs accumulate because everything from an aspirin to a bag of IV fluid is charged.

Each hospital has a "charge master" sheet, a price list which can have up to 10,000 entries. In California these sheets are required to be filed with health regulators and are then disclosed.

The price list is not based on market prices and can be set at any level the hospital wants. The price lists show a CT scan can cost over $4,000, ten times the cost of a similar scan at outpatient facilities.

Basic stitches can often run to several thousand dollars while certain surgeries can cost more than $10,000. While the emphasis for victims will now be on making a recovery and returning home, the crippling costs of treatment in American hospitals may add an extra level of worry and stress to an already emotional and traumatic experience.

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