Getting Stuck: Uninsured Patients Slammed with Lawsuits by Not-for-Profit Hospital

Memorial Hermann treats patients without insurance, tells them not to worry about the cost and then sues them for thousands of dollars.

Memorial Hermann is a business, Ho said, and while it has a charity, costs are rising for hospitals just as they are for patients. "If they're going to take on so many patients that have limited resources, it's going to make sense that they're going to be more aggressive to collect payments from the ones they think can pay," she said. "It would be a mistake to assume this is just Memorial Hermann being greedy."

Still, Robert Painter, a Houston lawyer who specializes in representing patients against hospitals, says he was appalled early this year to realize Memorial Hermann was suing patients. He looked around and couldn't find anything similar happening at the other nonprofit hospitals in the Houston area.

"Memorial holds itself out as a nonprofit system, trying to help the public and the uninsured with funds from George Hermann," Painter said. "The behemoth then, on a very regular basis, will sue its uninsured patients. A nonprofit system that is supposed to have the best interests of its patients in mind is suing the most vulnerable patients, the ones they should be helping."

Ignacio Alaniz  and his girlfriend, Theresa Malone, were told Alaniz would get charity care after he was brought to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in January 2012, but Memorial Hermann Health System is  suing him for more than $456,000 in medical bills, interest and legal fees.
Photo By Chris Curry
Ignacio Alaniz and his girlfriend, Theresa Malone, were told Alaniz would get charity care after he was brought to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in January 2012, but Memorial Hermann Health System is suing him for more than $456,000 in medical bills, interest and legal fees.
Ignacio Alaniz has a footlong scar on his side from the incision doctors used to get at his broken ribs and collapsed lungs after he was run over by his car in January 2012.
Photo By Chris Curry
Ignacio Alaniz has a footlong scar on his side from the incision doctors used to get at his broken ribs and collapsed lungs after he was run over by his car in January 2012.

Painter dug up the records of the most recent suits filed and sent the people listed in the suits certified letters in which he offered to represent them against the hospital, on a contingency fee basis so he would get paid only if they won. He told Alaniz and Malone that the hospital was changing its name to the Memorial Hermann Health System and that Alaniz would be served new papers reflecting the name change in coming weeks. When the papers showed up, just as he'd said, Alaniz and Malone decided to take Painter up on his offer.
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If they'd known this was what staying at Memorial Hermann would mean, Malone said, she and Alaniz would have gone to another hospital. But they never really had a choice. There are only three Level 1 trauma centers in Houston and four in the larger area, counting the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. When responding to a call, EMTs have the authority to take the patient to the hospital that is best equipped to handle the injuries at hand, without any consideration of cost.

There's a "golden hour" with these kinds of injuries. Being taken to the wrong hospital, or taking too long to get to the right doctors, could mean death after incurring a massive trauma, such as the one Alaniz experienced.

The law required the hospital to keep Alaniz until he stabilized — a fuzzy term that usually means until the patient is able to leave. Most likely there was never an option to transfer him to another hospital once he got into the Memorial Hermann system.

Even if he had been able to make the transfer, it would have been difficult to find another facility willing to take him without insurance. If he had tried to move to a county hospital, either Ben Taub or Lyndon B. Johnson, there was a question of whether those packed public hospitals would have had space for him. There was nowhere else for him to go.

People like Alaniz face a difficult situation when they need emergency care, because it can often cost almost double what it would cost an insured person by the time the patient is left holding the final bill, Painter said.

Hospitals are like car lots when it comes to pricing services. There is a sticker price on individual services, but if the patient has Medicare or Medicaid, government officials tell the hospital what price they'll actually pay. If the patient has insurance, the insurance companies negotiate the original price down to something more reasonable.

Alaniz didn't have anyone who would try to negotiate the price down. His bills were adding up, and there was nothing he could do about it. As nurses administered the drugs, gave him a pillow to prop him up so he could breathe and wheeled him off for X-rays, they would scan each item.

Alaniz was being billed $24.50 to $49 for the silk sutures holding the long crescent of a surgical scar on the left side of his back closed in a cross-stitch. He was to pay $486 per day for oxygen and $1.25 per 5-milligram tablet of Oxycodone, one of the many painkillers that got him through those first days when all he seemed to do was try to ride the waves of pain before he fell unconscious again from the drugs. He was billed $174 each time they X-rayed his chest. The X-rays alone cost $18,055.57.

Malone asked if the nurses might use some of the stuff left over from the last time they'd come through his room on their rounds. They continued on, pulling out new medical supplies, one more item on the bill with each beep of the ­scanner.

The individual charges were alarming, but the sheer weight of the debt didn't sink in until Alaniz realized he'd have to face it in court.

Court is where a lot of these cases end up. ­Patricia Keel's husband landed in Memorial Hermann in 2005 after a massive heart attack. Johnny Keel was in the middle of an emergency triple bypass when Patricia Keel learned that her husband's employer hadn't been paying his ­insurance.

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32 comments
fratdawgg23
fratdawgg23

Health care should be right in this country. Instead of spending so many billions of dollars on war equipment to shatter the societies in smaller, weaker countries, we should reappropriate a few billion taxpayer dollars for healthcare.

John Hodges
John Hodges

What's really interesting is that George Hermann stated in the original hospital charter that it would ALWAYS provide charity care, and would never charge patients that couldn't pay...

Julie T Vu
Julie T Vu

but isn't he not happy that they saved his life?

Shannon Robichau
Shannon Robichau

Yep. Medical care isn't free. Ask all of those paying $600 a month for health insurance. They saved his life, he should at least try to pay for it.

papaoso
papaoso

It's a shame that even poor countries from Latin America have better Health care system than USA, where social security is not the best, but the tax contributions help to provide assistance for their citizen, US Government regardless of Democrat or Republic, instead of wasting money and resources on Food stamps, should fix the Health problem.

joesmithers
joesmithers

So he made a conscious choice to not have health insurance but then doesn't want to be responsible for his health care bill when he needs it.  The downfall of America, personal responsibility.  So, can I cancel my car insurance, crash my car and then demand the shop to fix it for free?

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

I would not be surprised that if Alaniz had an "average" health care plan in effect at the time of the accident, that the actual amount paid to Hermann would have been on the order of 25% to 30% of what the hospital claims that he owes.

rdorr1
rdorr1

We have the crappiest healthcare system in the world.


Owen Dunn
Owen Dunn

On my phone the picture looks like an ass

Mark Haubrich
Mark Haubrich

Counter sue them back. The federal pro bono Lawyer in the area should be on this. Mgh

jberlat1
jberlat1

We all pay for it in higher taxes. 

Colleen Chriss
Colleen Chriss

The hospital cannot let everyone have free surgeries. Go after the companies that create $10k skin grafts. These people deserved to be sure because, from the article, it seems no payments were made from September to the following January when the suit was filed. If you neglect almost half a million in bills, wouldn't you expect a suit? Memorial Hermann workers like Ramon should be more easily contacted, but if you want to pay a bill I promise you someone will talk to you.

Vanessa Man
Vanessa Man

Oh, and they always strive to keep you at least 8 hrs so they can charge more. Also, when I had to go back after I was insured again they wanted to overcharge my co-pay and said that unless I paid they were not going to treat me. My card said $75 for hospital ER and they wanted to charge $250 on the spot. I had a big argument with them and once I threatened to sue, their harassment stopped.

Vanessa Man
Vanessa Man

They did that to me. I went to the ER with swine flu and the ER doctor kept saying that I was wrong and kept ordering tests afters tests. In the end did the flu testing against his will. The bill? Over $5K. It is the worse hospital.

h_e_x
h_e_x

Too bad there isn't any other way to go about providing healthcare. Nope, no other way whatsoever.

SoSezYou
SoSezYou

And people STILL say the best medical system is in the United States? This is insane. No other word for it. 

witchtoy
witchtoy

@Shannon Robichau 8th paragraph down: Alaniz didn't have insurance — he'd just gotten a new job after months of being out of work, he was healthy and it would have taken too big a chunk out of his weekly paycheck —  Very clear. Plus, as pointed out later, he also pays child support. Get far enough behind on THAT and you get thrown in jail. And then he had to build his own strength back up, by himself, because they couldn't afford physical therapy! I LOVE how people think poor and working class people have buckets and buckets of hidden cash lying around to pay for stuff.

gilbertdeirdre
gilbertdeirdre

@Shannon Robichau The point in this article is that Memorial Hermann is suing him when it is a charity hospital.  What they are not telling you is they are using most of the funding for their salaries and that is not what it is suppose to be used for.  They killed my daughter, covered it up and billed her Medicaid for charges they did not do.  This hospital is a criminal facility and they will get caught very soon.

witchtoy
witchtoy

@joesmithers He "chose" not to have health insurance because, as it stated in the article, it would have eaten most of his check. And the only thing worse than owing a hospital money is owing child support. THAT they can put you in prison for.

h_e_x
h_e_x

@joesmithers I thought the downfall was because we have a Commie-Nazi Muslim President? I always get confused as to what is causing the downfall of this or that.

susanroucis
susanroucis

@rdorr1 No we have the most irresponsible people here that expect others to take care of their bills and feed them too

h_e_x
h_e_x

@susanroucis @rdorr1 Who do you think pays the bills at the end of the day? Please tell me you think you aren't.

SoSezYou
SoSezYou

@jberlat1 Yeah, sure and might as well end his life as be able to pay off that life crushing debt. You people in this country just don't understand the concept of going to a doctor and walking out of his office WITHOUT having to pay for visiting. You have paid thru the nose for so long, you actually get aggressive about someone coming up with a plan for you to pay less..or nothing. And as the other gentleman proves, we ALL end up paying for it anyway...because 99% of people WOULDN'T be able to pay off this half a million dollars either. Why not stop the silliness and have Medicare for all? 

h_e_x
h_e_x

@SoSezYou @jberlat1 Because we want the freedom to become poor because we had to go to the hospital, or something like that.

 
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