Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The $70 childbirth bill

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 5:47 PM EST, Mon February 11, 2013
Newborns diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome are transported to East Tennessee Children's hospital for treatment.
Newborns diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome are transported to East Tennessee Children's hospital for treatment.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene's friend found the hospital bill from his birth in 1947. It was $70, $726 in 2012 dollars
  • He says the price of a hospital birth in 2008 was $11,000. Why is it so expensive now?
  • He says huge pricetag is partly due to advanced technology that has greatly cut infant mortality
  • Greene: Some say not all costly procedures necessary, but outcomes are better now

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- Seventy dollars.

Gary Bender had difficulty believing what was right before his eyes.

Bender, an accountant who lives in Irvine, California, was looking at a hospital bill he had found while going through the possessions of his late mother, Sylvia.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene
Bob Greene
Bob Greene

"I'm kind of the family historian," he told me. "I keep things."

What he was looking at was the bill for his own birth, in 1947.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The bill had been mailed to his parents after they, and he, had left Grant Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, in May of that year.

The grand total for his mother's six-day stay at Grant, for the use of the operating room, for his days in the nursery, for the various medicines and lab work -- for all aspects of his birth -- was $70.

"It made me think, 'How did we get from that, to where we are today?'" Bender said.

He was referring to the soaring costs of health care in the United States. For all the discussion of how out of hand the price of medical treatment has become, somehow that one old piece of paper put the subject in sharper focus for Bender than all the millions of words in news accounts analyzing the topic.

10 ways falling off the fiscal cliff could hurt your health

"It can't just be inflation, can it?" he asked.

Documentary: Health care overhaul needed
Miracle baby lives after pronounced dead
Obama win means health care law stays

No, it can't. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $70 in 1947 would be equivalent to $726 in 2012 dollars.

Does it cost $726 for a hospital stay to deliver a baby these days?

Dream on.

According to a 2011 report from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the cost for a hospital stay, including physician fees, for a conventional birth with no complications was a little over $11,000 in 2008, the most recent year the report covered. For a birth involving a Caesarean section, the cost was around $19,000.

(While five- or six-day hospital stays were commonplace for mothers and newborns in the 1940s, today they routinely leave the hospital within 48 hours of childbirth -- so the higher costs are for shorter stays.)

At Grant Hospital in Columbus -- now called Grant Medical Center -- a spokeswoman told me that the average cost for having a baby is around $15,000.

So what exactly has happened, for costs to rise so astronomically?

A lot of things, said Dr. Gary Hankins of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, a former chair of ACOG's obstetric practice committee. The technology available to keep mothers and babies safe is light years removed from what was available in 1947, he said, and "regrettably, the technology is expensive."

He said that in almost every way, new mothers and their babies are better off now than they were 65 years ago. The antibiotics that have been developed to fight infections, the improved surgical procedures, the sophisticated anesthesia, the highly accurate electronic fetal monitors and other medical machinery -- all provide advantages for mother and child that did not exist in 1947.

Medical malpractice insurance premiums figure into the high cost of childbirth today, he said. And there are some physicians who question whether all procedures that are regularly performed, increasing costs, are routinely necessary. But for all the frustration that patients feel about the price of medical care, one fact is indisputable:

The rate of infant mortality, and the rate of mortality for new mothers, has plummeted, said Hankins. In 1950 nearly 30 infants out of 1,000 died at or soon after birth; in 2009, that number was 6.4 out of 1,000, according to the ACOG report. It may be more expensive to give birth to a child today, but both the mother and child, if there is trouble during delivery, have a much better chance of survival than they once did.

Opinion: Fairness needed for pregnant workers

At Grant, where Gary Bender was born, Dr. Michael Sprague, medical director of women's health, told me that "infection, blood clots, hemorrhage -- our ability to diagnose and treat all of these" is considerably better today. "You never know who that patient is going to be," Sprague said -- the mother or baby who suddenly requires all the resources a hospital maintains, at great expense, to save lives during delivery.

I sent copies of Gary Bender's childbirth bill to Hankins and Sprague. Both were amazed at the particulars:

The hospital room charge for Sylvia Bender was $7 per day, for six days. The cost for Gary to stay in the nursery was $2 per day. The flat rate for maternity service was $15.

Grant Hospital, by the way, was not an anomaly; a 1947 brochure from Santa Monica Hospital in California, to use one example, listed a similar price structure for having a baby: $17.50 for maternity service, $2 per day for the nursery, an extra $15 if the birth was by cesarean section.

And Gary Bender, who came into this world for $70?

He told me that last year, the cost of the health insurance he and his employer sign up for, covering him and his wife, was in excess of $18,000 -- and that was before a single visit to a physician, and before a single prescription was filled.

"It just astonishes me that in our lifetime, we have seen such extremes in medical costs," said Bender, who was one of more than 3.8 million American babies born in 1947.

And who -- with that old hospital bill still in hand -- lived to tell the tale.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT