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Debbie Moehnke made an appointment with her doctor because her feet were badly swollen. By the time the Vancouver, Wash., woman arrived at the doctor’s office, she couldn’t breathe.
Moehnke, 59, was having a heart attack. She was first rushed by ambulance to a local hospital. The next day she was transported across the Columbia River to OHSU Hospital in Portland for urgent cardiac care.
She underwent heart bypass surgery, heart valve repair and replacement. A few days after the surgery, Moehnke developed an infection that took powerful IV antibiotics to treat.
She spent about a month in the hospital. Then the bills started to arrive. The cost for Moehnke’s life-saving treatment: $454,000. Stunning. Moehnke was even more shocked to learn that she still owed $226,591.35 after her health insurance paid.
“I wish I would have known. I would have said ‘no’ to life support,” Moehnke told Kaiser Health News. “We’ll lose everything.”
A new study reported by Modern Healthcare estimates that 1 in 7 patients receive so-called “surprise” medical bills. These bills typically occur when a patient seeks care at a hospital within their insurance network but is treated by an ER doctor, lab or specialist who is outside the insurance plan’s network. This may happen without the patient even knowing.
Lawmakers in Washington state are working to pass legislation to protect consumers from “surprise” medical costs. Oregon has a law banning surprise bills but it has limits and does not apply to Moehnke, who is covered by a Washington insurer.
Despite the shock, Moehnke’s story has a happy ending. After repeated inquiries from a reporter and patient advocates, OHSU officials granted a waiver eliminating the unpaid debt.
Moehnke and her husband, Larry, told Kaiser Health News they were relieved. But they agreed that six months of receiving mounting medical bills and calls from collectors is not how the system should work.
Have you or someone you love received a “surprise” medical bill? How did it resolve? Share your story with Voices for Affordable Health. (Note, if we have new surprise page up by the time this blog is used, let’s tell people they can go to the page to read more).