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.

Car horns blared and the 5 o'clock traffic stacked up behind him as Ignacio Alaniz rolled back under his car to try to start the engine again. As he lay there, touching the wire to divert the starter on the ancient white Buick Century, he heard a click as the car jolted alive and popped into gear. Seconds before it happened, flat on his back on the cool pavement that January night in 2012, belly pressed against the metal works, Alaniz realized he was about to be run over by his own car.

More than 3,000 pounds of metal smashed across his chest. He heard the snap of his ribs, the sharp crack of bone as the front wheel and then the back slammed into his torso. The car sped blindly forward, popped over a curb and sailed into a ditch. People watched as Alaniz, bloody and twisted, pulled himself up off the pavement. He tried to walk, moving with lurching steps, but his insides were screaming.

"Don't move," he heard a woman say as she pulled out her cell phone to call 911. Once she knew the ambulance was on its way, she let Alaniz use her phone to call his girlfriend, Theresa Malone.

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.

Seeing a number she didn't recognize, Malone would normally have ignored the call, but she answered.

A neighbor drove her to Old Galveston Road, just minutes from Malone and Alaniz's home in south Houston. Alaniz was already in the ambulance. His chest and right arm were puffing up as the injured parts filled with fluid. Beneath the blood and the swelling, she could see the solemn black eyes, the droopy, graying mustache he wore, the face of the man she'd been with for more than a decade. She asked if she could ride in the ambulance.

They weren't taking him in the ambulance, an emergency medical technician told her. The thudding whir of a helicopter filled the air. EMTs loaded Alaniz aboard. They were taking him to Memorial Hermann, in the Texas Medical Center, the EMT said. The helicopter ride meant a difference of crucial minutes as Alaniz's abdomen filled with fluids and his body went deeper into distress.

By the time the helicopter landed, he was already $12,196.37 in debt.

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 — and Malone wondered for a second why they weren't taking him to Ben Taub, the public hospital that's part of the Harris Health System (formerly the Harris County Hospital District).

By the time Malone got there, Alaniz was already in surgery. The doctors weren't sure he was going to make it, she was told. Doctors cut a footlong crescent-shaped incision in his side to get at his collapsed lungs and nine broken ribs. They grafted a square of skin onto his right elbow, covering the space where it had been ripped open to the bone. They set his broken arm and treated the burns from the tire tread across his stomach.

The next few days passed in a blur. While Alaniz was in the intensive care unit, in too much pain to be conscious, Malone started worrying about the bill. She knew this hospital wasn't cheap.

They weren't wealthy people, she told Memorial Hermann Financial Counselor Linda Ramon. Malone worked as an office coordinator and Alaniz had just gotten a job refurbishing turbines. She was paying for gas and parking with money collected by her co-workers.

Ramon reassured her that Memorial Hermann was a nonprofit hospital with a charity arm that would help them. If Malone could put down $100 in good-faith money, they would be able to work something out.

The bill was now at $59,000, Ramon told her, looking through Alaniz's file. A soft electric ding sounded from the computer.

"What was that sound?" Malone asked.

"Oh, the bill just went up $10,000," Ramon said.

Malone got the first official bill while Alaniz was still in the ICU. She tried to talk to Ramon about it, but Ramon didn't return her calls. Once, Malone flagged the woman down in the hallway, asking if they could set up a time to talk about how the payment plan would work, what part the hospital would take care of and what Alaniz and Malone needed to start planning to pay. Ramon told her she'd be in touch.

That was the last time Malone saw her.

The total bill was issued in September 2012 and came in at $444,518.11. Malone and Alaniz didn't know what to do with it, so Malone put it in the small brown accordion file she'd placed the other notices in and kept trying to reach Ramon.

On January 5, 2013, Alaniz was served papers informing him that Memorial Hermann Health System, the largest nonprofit hospital in Houston with a flagship facility in the heart of the city's world-famous medical center, was suing him for $456,675.23 — the sum of his bill plus interest and $2,500 in legal fees.

As a nonprofit, Memorial Hermann is expected to help those in the community without the means to pay for medical care, which exempts the hospital from paying most federal, state and local taxes. But while the hospital deals with uninsured patients more than any other nonprofit in Houston — partly because of its size and partly because of its Level 1 trauma center that requires it to accept all patients — the hospital sues some of its uninsured patients, often those least able to pay.

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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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