Alright, I'm going to walk you through this step by step. I'm not trying to patronize here, but each step follows from and builds upon the previous step so it's important to understand all of the steps from start to finish. So with that in mind here we go:
1. What is the purpose of insurance, any insurance not just health insurance? The concept is simple enough, it's about offsetting risk. Suppose that we want to insurance against the costs of a certain adverse event, whether that be a major medical expense or property loss or whatever, that has low probability but high costs when it does occur. We can say that the probability that the event occurs is P and that the probability that the event does not occur is 1 - P. In theory, we should be willing to pay a premium amount, call it A, which exactly balances the amount of the loss, call it L, should the event occur. So the formula for the balanced equation is:
A * ( 1 - P ) = P * L
A rational person should be willing to pay the premium amount A (or less) that balances the cost of the adverse event should it occur with probability P.
2. Different people have different financial situations coming into the event. Some people might have substantial assets, be they houses or cars or stocks or bonds or maybe even their bodies themselves if they make their livings with their hands or their looks or even just what's in their heads. The point here is that the consequences of a bankruptcy are not the same for all people. A person with fewer assets to protect is not willing (or even able) to pay the same amount of insurance premium that a wealthier person with more to lose in bankruptcy is. In this case I'm viewing bankruptcy strictly as an expedient financial decision, apart from any moral considerations which are necessarily subjective. Companies declare bankruptcy all the time, so an individual should not allow moral compunctions to prevent them from taking advantage of the rights afforded them under the same legal system used by corporations. Which leads into the next point.
3. Each person or household must decided for themselves, based upon their own perceived risk factors, tolerance for risk and the dollar value of any assets how much insurance they need to carry. To use an example from the auto insurance business you can carry the minimum amount required by state law or you can carry extra liability, medical or property damage insurance for a higher premium. Some people choose to carry more insurance than the minimum required because they feel that the benefits of this extra insurance equal or outweigh the additional premium costs.
4. So the point of all this is that insurance is a risk pricing exercise, nothing more and nothing less. People inject emotion into the argument, especially when it comes to health insurance, but that does nothing other than to distract from the essential issue which is cost.
Now, to address some of your points:
What does the requirement to provide life-saving treatment have to do with anything? It helps people who are so broke that they have no assets, but it doesn't help anyone else.
It helps to the extent that your life was saved. I will grant you that debt or bankruptcy are not pleasant, but at least you're still alive (hopefully) after receiving treatment. I would argue that having your life saved counts as being helped, apart from how large or small the bill ends up being.
You have a heart attack, you get treated at a hospital which is required to do so; you're insured but not adequately, and you get a bill for $50,000 more than your insurance covers. Welcome to medical bankruptcy.
So what? If you have assets to protect then be smart and carry enough insurance. If you don't have assets or at least not substantial assets, buy what insurance you think you need or can afford and accept that bankruptcy is a possibility. Why the fear of bankruptcy BTW? In the corporate world bankruptcy is viewed as just another tool in the financial toolbox, one that you shouldn't be afraid to use if you really need it. That's why we have bankruptcy, to allow a fresh start in the face of adverse circumstances. Did you also know that many assets are protected against creditors even in a bankruptcy? For example, your primary residence is protected and your retirement savings accounts, like 401K and IRA, are also protected. So even a bankruptcy should not wipe out all of your savings provided that you've planned ahead and saved in protected accounts. If you need help setting up these accounts, it's readily available in the marketplace at reasonable prices. These options, or similar in the case of 401K (depending upon employment situation), are available to all citizens.
Now, how exactly are you supposed to shop around, rather than just taking the first-available treatment? Sure, they're required to provide that treatment whether or not you can pay -- but if you can pay, they're going to do everything in their power to be sure that you will.
In the case of an emergency, you don't shop around. You are taken to the hospital, probably the nearest one, and receive treatment. As for them doing whatever is in their power to collect, you let insurance handle it and if it blows through your coverage than you either make a payment arrangement with them, if they're willing to be reasonable, or file for bankruptcy protection, discharge the debt, and move on. It's not pleasant, but that's life.
In my wife's case, it wasn't a heart attack, but brain surgery -- and while she was in the hospital, her employer went out of business. Her insurance policy disappeared with them, and she was personally on the hook for follow-up care, wiping out years of savings.
That's most unfortunate and I'm sorry to hear that. Nobody takes pleasure in the suffering of another, or at least most normal people don't, but I find myself compelled to ask whether or not you two carried additional long term disability insurance? Many life insurance companies offer products designed to pay out in the event that you become disabled or incapacitated due to a serious accident or illness. These types of policies help pay for ongoing care or long term needs or things that health insurance doesn't usually cover or covers for only a limited period of time. Again, I'm sorry to hear about your wife, but if anyone else is reading this I would definitely recommend both life and disability insurance so that your family or significant other is taken care of should something catastrophic, like illness requiring brain surgery and follow up care, occur.
I hope you understand that I'm not trying to be mean or vindictive about your situation or that of anybody else. I'm just trying to explain what health insurance should be like, but isn't, because of bad government policies that have incentivized the bad system that we have today and why I don't think that ObamaCare is the answer to either our collective health insurance problems or the problem of high health care costs in general.