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After 92 years, the cost of dying is 500 times the cost of being born

This St. Mary's Hospital bill shows the cost of childbirth and a week-long stay at the Duluth hospital in 1917. Today, it would cost about $7,000 for a routine delivery and the average two-day stay at St. Mary's Medical Center. (Submitted)

When Dorothy Miller was hospitalized for several days at St. Mary's Medical Center shortly before her death in June from Lou Gehrig's disease, the bill came to about $13,000, her sister said.

When Miller was born -- at the same hospital -- 92 years earlier, the bill her parents received for delivery of the baby and a week's hospitalization came to $27.10.

Her sister, Eileen Cerney, has the bill to prove it.

Cerney found the old yellowed bill on Monday, which would have been Miller's birthday.

"I thought, well, isn't that ironic," Cerney said.

Adjusted for inflation, that $27.10 bill still would add up to only $452.77 in 2009 dollars, according to an inflation calculator on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site.

The cost today of a routine delivery and the average two-day stay at a hospital is about $7,000.

Though the difference is dramatic, a comparison between 1917 and today's medical care isn't fair, SMDC birthplace manager Kim Pearson said.

"To compare medical care now to what it was a hundred years ago isn't even close," Pearson said. "There are just too many differences."

Today's costs aren't just for the delivery and hospital stay, but also for cutting-edge technology, more-attentive patient care, modern buildings and costly malpractice insurance, Pearson said.

Hospital technology and the environment have changed, she said, and there also has been a shift in the way society views childbirth. It used to be thought of as traumatic for the female body. One week was a typical -- if not short --

hospital stay following childbirth in 1917. Today it is common for women to be on their feet within hours and out of the hospital in a day or two.

It also was commonplace to use anesthesia during childbirth, either to render the mother unconscious or to leave her in a state of "twilight sleep" -- conscious but unable to feel or take an active part in the delivery.

Today, some women choose not to use pain medicine. Many women use epidural anesthesia, which blocks the transmission of signals through nerves in or near the spinal cord, allowing them to have a less-painful delivery while staying conscious and participating.

Kim Kaiser, a media relations specialist at SMDC, said that the current $7,000 cost of childbirth also is paid for differently than it would have been in the past: With the involvement of insurance companies, patients usually only pay a portion of their bill.

"It's a very different world now than it was in 1917," Kaiser said.

For Eileen Cerney, who grew up in Duluth but lives in Cape Coral, Fla., the difference in price between her sister entering the world and leaving it was eye-opening, but far less important than the care her sister received before her death.

"I just want to say one thing," Cerney said: "I was overwhelmed by the care of the nurses; I have to compliment the medical care in Duluth."