Americans put their health-care costs in spotlight after flap over skier Sarah Burke’s hospital bill

The whopping medical bill faced by the family of Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who died from a head injury while practising at Park City, Utah, has triggered a spasm of embarrassment among Americans over their health-care system.

Burke, of Squamish, B.C., died at a Salt Lake City hospital nine days after crashing on the half-pipe course at Park City. The accident tore a vertebral artery in her neck, causing bleeding into her brain.

Her care wasn't covered by competitor insurance provided by the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association because the Park City event was unsanctioned.

That left Burke's family with a bill initially estimated at $550,000, later revised downward to around $200,000, some of which will be covered by B.C. Medicare.

Burke's husband, Rory Bushfield, also set up a web site to solicit donations, while the event's sponsor, drink-maker Monster Energy Co., belatedly promised to assist the family.

But the Salt Lake City Tribune reported Tuesday that the medical-bill flap has been cited by U.S. and international media "as proof of what ails the U.S. health-care system."

Wendell Potter, a former U.S. insurance industry executive but now a critic of the American system, wrote in the Huffington Post this week that the Burke family's plight compounded their grief.

"The irony is that had the accident occurred in Canada, her family would not be having to come up with more than half a million dollars to pay for her care," wrote Potter, an analyst for the Center for Public Integrity. "Her care would have been covered because, unlike the U.S., Canada has a system of universal coverage."

An estimated 700,000 American families file for bankruptcy each year because of medical debt, he wrote.

"No one in Canada finds themselves in that predicament, nor do they face losing their homes as many Americans do when they become critically ill or suffer an injury," Potter wrote.

Calgary Herald columnist Robert Remington, who along with Potter was cited in the Tribune story, quoted an un-named commentator who summed up the Burke family's experience this way: "Sorry for your loss. Here's your bill."

Steve Morgan, a health policy analyst at the University of British Columbia, told Remington that U.S. insurance companies routinely negotiate down such big medical tabs but uninsured Americans pay full retail because they have no bargaining power.

"Morgan says Burke's case should be a sobering reminder to Canadians of what could happen in a privately-insured market, rather than a public system where everyone is insured against a catastrophic event," Remington wrote.