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.

Since the accident, Alaniz has stayed focused on getting his strength back. The white Buick sits in back of the house. Alaniz shakes his head when he looks at it — he hates the sight of the car — but he repaired it and is keeping it. The car is worth something only as scrap metal, but if his truck ever gives out, the car might be his only option. Saddled with debt from the hospital that saved his life, he might not be able to get another vehicle loan.

He still walks carefully, and the tattoos across his back and chest hang crooked now, reshaped across his body according to how the car crushed him. His bones ache when the weather changes, and he goes out in the garage in the evenings to hang off the rope and pulley he set up, mimicking the one in the physical therapist's ­office.

He finally got a new job and went back to work a couple months ago. When he got his first paycheck, he wondered how long he'd be taking home the full check before the hospital started garnishing his wages (which actually the hospital can't do).

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.

When Alaniz was served with the papers informing him he was being sued, he racked his mind for a way to come up with the money. He might have to go sit this out in jail, he told Malone. He wasn't sure how long it would take to pay his bills, but it was the only thing he could think of to try to clear the debt. Of course, hospitals don't accept time in jail as payment. Now Alaniz and Malone are hoping the countersuit against the hospital, slated to be heard in civil court in October, will do what they were unable to and find a legal way to deal with the debt.

He and Malone have been together for 13 years. They were first introduced on a blind date in 1980 and dated for a year before they split up. He moved on to other relationships and Malone became a widow when her second husband died. They met again at a party in 2000.

He moved into the little house she had bought and paid off with her second husband. Alaniz started talking about marriage, but Malone told him he needed to pay his child support and clean up his finances before they got legally joined. They'd started talking about marriage again just before the accident, but the same people who saved his life have now crippled him with debt. Now Alaniz is the one hesitating. If he doesn't win when his case goes to trial in October, he could be paying off this debt for the rest of his life. He doesn't want to drag Malone down with him.

dianna.wray@houstonpress.com

MEDICAL ADVANCES
Hospitals began as the last place anyone wanted to be.

The first charity hospitals, those established in Europe in the Middle Ages and hundreds of years later in America, were places for the poor, the dying, the mentally ill, the disabled and the homeless. If you had any means at all, you stayed home and the doctors came to you.

At the beginning of the 20th century, churches and benefactors began establishing more nonprofit hospitals in the United States. Famed oil man George Hermann, made rich off his wells in the Humble Oil Field, had been in poor health for years and had an abiding fascination with hospitals. He visited hospitals and spas all over the country and around the world, including the infamous Kellogg sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Hermann died at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, but he'd always felt Houston needed a first-class hospital, so he left the bulk of his $2.6 million estate and a chunk of land to the city to establish a nonprofit hospital. It opened in 1925 with 100 beds.

Meanwhile, medicine galloped out of the Dark Ages with developments in anesthesia and antibiotics and a myriad of other advances. Before these changes, the biggest cost people had faced when they were sick was from missed days at work. Suddenly doctors had more options to treat patients, and medical care became the biggest expense.

The number of people buying health insurance and demanding hospital care skyrocketed. At the same time, the Great Depression ushered in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and the expectation of a society with safety nets for the poor. Health care, once a luxury of the rich, was beginning to be seen as something everyone should have access to.

While Houston's medical center was growing, the laws and approaches to hospitalization were changing as well. Through the Hill-Burton Act of 1946, legislators encouraged hospitals to modernize their facilities by offering grants to nonprofits that agreed to take care of the poor for free or at reduced prices.

Medical funding shifted again with the advent of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s. At the same time, hospitals started coming under pressure to admit people to emergency rooms even if they couldn't pay for care. Texas was one of the first states to enact a law to that effect, but it wasn't until 1986 that Congress passed the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, which required hospitals participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs to provide "stabilizing care" to all ER patients. The law was put in place to ensure that someone badly injured or sick wouldn't be denied care.

Over the years, Hermann became a part of the Texas Medical Center. In 1997, Hermann merged with Memorial to become Memorial Hermann. Within two years, the hospital began appearing as the plaintiff in lawsuits against patients.

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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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