As Igancio Alaniz lay beneath his ancient white Buick, trying to get his car restarted one evening in January 2012, he heard a click as his car popped into gear. A split-second before more than 3,000 pounds of metal smashed over his chest, Alaniz realized he was about to be run over by his own car.
Alaniz was in shock, his body was already swelling with fluid when the EMTs loaded him into a helicopter to take him to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, the flagship of Memorial Hermann Health System, the largest nonprofit hospital system in Houston. Alaniz, like about 28 percent of the Houston population, didn't have health insurance. The helicopter ride alone was more than $12,000.
His girlfriend, Theresa Malone, talked about his lack of health insurance with Memorial Hermann Financial Counselor Linda Ramon. Ramon assured her that Memorial Hermann Health System was a nonprofit with a charity arm that would help cover the costs of Alaniz's medical care. But the charity never materialized and when Alaniz received his final bill it was more than $444,000. In January 2013, Alaniz was served papers notifying him he was being sued by Memorial Hermann Health System for more than $456,000, the bill plus interest and legal expenses.
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Health care has changed dramatically in the past century. While those changes have resulted in tremendous medical advances, it has also ushered in a world where the uninsured, like Alaniz, stand to be financially destroyed even if they survive a traumatic injury. Memorial Hermann sees more uninsured patients than any other hospital system in Houston, but the hospital's lawyers also sue uninsured patients, those often least able to pay, for thousands of dollars in bills.
Incidents like this happen more than most people realize, University of Houston Professor Patricia Gray, director of the Health and Law Policy Institute, said.
"I don't think they want to appear that they're just giving it away to anyone who walks in the door," Gray said. "Hospitals do have to get paid. In this country, I think patients think that healthcare is a right, but this one of the few countries where it isn't."
Get the whole story in this week's cover story, "Getting Stuck."