In the U.S., going bankrupt because of medical bills and debt is something that doesn’t just happen to the unlucky uninsured, but also to people with insurance.
Though health plans have an “out of pocket max” – the most you’d be required to pay for medical services in a given year – that’s no guarantee that number will ensure a safety net.
This is what pro cyclist Phil Gaimon discovered after a bad crash in Pennsylvania last June that left him with his collarbone, scapula, and right ribs broken. The bills totaled $250,000.
“I have good insurance,” Gaimon told Yahoo Finance. “I pay a lot of money for it. I just haven’t gotten good explanations for any of this.”
Gaimon pays $500 a month for a plan with a $10,000 deductible, and is fighting the bills.
This type of medical debt isn’t uncommon. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a healthcare think tank, has reported that insurance can be incomplete and that the complexity of the system often leaves people seeking treatment in financial hardship. In a survey KFF found that 11% of consumers with medical bill problems have declared bankruptcy, and cited the medical bills as at least a partial contributor. Another report found that medical problems contributed to 66.5% of all bankruptcies. (Currently, there’s some legislation addressing surprise billing issues.)
Gaimon was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital after his crash. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an out-of-network hospital. Gaimon told Yahoo Finance that he thought it would be okay, because the emergency nature could be seen as an extenuating circumstance. His insurer, Health Net, has an appeals process for situations like that.
Gaimon figured the no-other-option aspect of the situation would solve the problems, and believed it enough to post on Instagram soon after that people should donate to No Kid Hungry, a children's food insecurity charity, rather than a GoFundMe for his bills.
“I said, ‘Hey, I crashed, what would you donate to my GoFundMe if i didn’t have health insurance? Take that money and give it to this instead,’” said Gaimon. “We raised around $40,000 in 48 hours.”
The $103,000 raised in the next few months would have taken a big chunk out of his medical bills, but Gaimon has no regrets. “Someone out there needs more help than I do,” he said.
It’s hard to comparison shop when you’re in physical pain
Things may have been easier if it would have been possible for Gaimon to steer the ambulance towards an in-network hospital. But an ambulance isn’t a taxi — it’s a vehicle designed to bring a patient to health care providers in the least amount of time possible.
Also consider that Gaimon, as he put it, was in “various states of consciousness” following his accident — hardly in a position to check which hospitals are in his insurer’s network.
Gaimon may be able to win the appeals process with his insurer for the out-of-network hospital. But that’s just the beginning of his insurance woes.
The cyclist’s scapula break was complex enough to require a special surgeon, and Gaimon said the hospital was unable to find someone capable.
“I was laying in the hospital for three days hitting the morphine,” Gaimon said. Multiple times a potential surgeon would come to examine him only to say that they weren’t up to the task.
After multiple cycles of fasting before a surgery only to be told that the surgeons couldn’t operate, Gaimon took matters into his own hands. Eventually he found a surgeon in New York to do it, and even though it was out-of-network as well, he figured the fact that there was seemingly no other alternative would mean his insurer would cover the surgery.
Six months later, Gaimon finds out that it did not, and is fighting the charges. He’s hired a lawyer to help, as has had mixed results with the system so far.
“No one talks prices until it’s over — that’s the other horrible flaw,” he said.
Gaimon said that he’s numb to things at this point, though he doesn’t know what will happen.
“Ultimately I'm going to have to negotiate with that hospital, or the health insurance will choose to cover,” said Gaimon. “Or they’ll have to sue me and I’ll go bankrupt — the traditional way you deal with medical stuff.”
Gaimon’s sarcasm aside, sky-high health care costs are a central issue in the current presidential election and a frequent talking point for Democratic candidates. In this week’s Democratic debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders highlighted the issue. “You’ve got 500,000 people going bankrupt because they cannot pay their medical bills,” Sanders said. “We’re spending twice as much per capita on health care as do the people of any other country.”
The whole ordeal has shown Gaimon how fragile the healthcare system really is.
“The whole idea that you could be in a car accident and you wake up in a hospital and owe $100,000 — and that could happen to anyone — that’s a ridiculously scary thing,” he said. “I was making no decisions, I was on drugs, and in fetal-position-level pain. Every decision was made to live. And then you emerge and you’re financially ruined.”