The most important thing to keep in mind is that billing in the US healthcare system is utterly insane. Identical procedures and even medication prices can vary wildly in price depending on where you get the service performed and the specifics of your insurance. We aren't talking about small differences here, we are talking about things that can vary by 10's of thousands of dollars. There's no doubt in my mind that someone has gotten, for example, a bill for cold treatment that was $1,000. In fact, some insurers pay the people they insure to obtain their medication or have an MRI done at certain places rather than others, because the cost to them is so drastically different. Or even to go to a different country:
Vox journalist Sarah Kliff did some excellent reporting on billing discrepancies, I highly encourage you to look up her work. Here's some of an interview she did with NPR:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You wouldn't believe what some emergency rooms charge, or maybe you would because you've gotten bills. For example, one hospital charged $76 for Bacitracin antibacterial ointment. One woman who fell and cut her ear and was given an ice pack but no other treatment was billed $5,751. My guest, Sarah Kliff, is a health policy journalist at vox.com who spent over a year investigating why ER bills are so high even with health insurance and why the charges vary so widely from one hospital to the next.
Here is a particularly gross example:
KLIFF: Yeah. So this patient, his name is Justin. He was a community college student in northern California, was walking down a sidewalk in downtown San Francisco one day. And there was a pole hanging off the back of the bus that wasn't where it's supposed to be. It essentially flew off the back of the bus, hit him in the face and knocked him unconscious.
And the next thing he knows, he's waking up at Zuckerberg San Francisco General, which is the only Level I trauma center in the city. He ends up needing a CT scan to check out some brain injuries. He needs some stitches. And then he's discharged. He ends up with a bill for $27,000.
But, you know, as I began figuring out through my reporting, San Francisco General does not contract with private insurance, and they end up pursuing him for the vast majority of that bill. He has $27,000 outstanding. And somewhat ironically, San Francisco General, it is the city hospital. It is run by the city of San Francisco. So this student is hit by a city bus, taken by an ambulance to the city hospital and ends up with a $27,000 bill as a result.
GROSS: So did he have insurance?
KLIFF: He did. He had insurance through his dad.
Having insurance, even good insurance, is not even enough (as this example shows). And what makes it all worse is that is actually very hard to make an informed price decision because it's very hard to figure out ahead of time if your insurance will cover something, and if they will how much procedure x will cost at facility y.
So tldr, your question:
What is the cost of health care in the US?
The sad truth is that it's basically impossible to answer this question. Your ambulance ride might be free. It might be a hundred bucks. It might be literally 10's of thousands of dollars.
Groggy from painkillers, Khan managed to ask the doctors how much the flight would cost and whether it would be covered by his insurer. “I think they told my friend, ‘He needs to stop asking questions. He needs to get on that helicopter. He doesn’t realize how serious this injury is,'” Khan recalled.
Total bill: $56,603 for an air ambulance flight. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, Khan’s insurer, paid $11,972, after initially refusing altogether; the medevac company billed Khan for the remaining $44,631.
This is hardly uncommon -- there are many incidents of people refusing medical services because they are terrified of what the bill will end up being.