The Worst Kind of Medical Debt

From The Atlantic: For More Info, Go Here…

When treated at military hospitals, civilians can end up with tens of thousands of dollars in debt that the federal government relentlessly tries to collect.

In the autumn of 2012, Ricardo Gonzalez Jurado was 25 feet off the ground, balancing on metal scaffolding as he sawed a stack of wood. Gonzalez Jurado owns a Central Texas yoga retreat — an oasis deep in the woods where he’s built a cluster of small houses for customers seeking a few days of bodily and spiritual cleansing. That day, he was precariously constructing a large, hollow pyramid — intended as a meditation room — out of the mountain cedar that grows all over his land.

Suddenly, the saw snagged on Gonzalez Jurado’s clothing. He jumped back instinctively and stepped off the metal platform. Plummeting toward the pyramid’s wood floor, he tucked his knees to his chin, so that his heels took the brunt of the impact. There was a loud crack, then searing pain radiating up his left foot. He dragged himself out of the pyramid and called an ambulance.

He asked to be taken to a nearby hospital in San Marcos. But because of the height from which he fell, he told us, the paramedics instead took him to the Brooke Army Medical Center, or BAMC, a trauma center about 50 miles away that was better equipped to handle his injuries. Located on Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, BAMC is the flagship of the military health system — a network of 37 hospitals and medical centers that are meant for soldiers, but that also treat civilians to give military doctors experience with the variety of injuries they might face when deployed to a war zone.

The doctors at BAMC explained to Gonzalez Jurado that he had fractured his heel bone and would need surgery. They inserted three pins in his heel, making a slanted “H” shape. Gonzalez Jurado called the doctors’ work amazing. After three days, he was out of the hospital and on his way to a full recovery. Soon, however, he would learn that treatment at a military health facility can come with a catch.

Before the surgery, Gonzalez Jurado, who is uninsured, had asked how much the procedure would cost, and he said the doctors told him they didn’t know. (BAMC told us, “Before any unplanned surgery, as in the case of trauma, it is exceptionally difficult to determine what charges may be incurred, as a variety of procedures may be necessary.”) About a month later, he received his bills from the hospital. They totaled more than $28,000. Gonzalez Jurado was taken aback. He hadn’t asked to go to BAMC, and he couldn’t afford to pay the hospital a giant lump sum. He negotiated a deal with the hospital to pay in increments. But even after years of on-time payments, he only sunk deeper into a billing nightmare. His account was sent to a collections agency, and he said the federal government garnished his tax refund as a penalty for supposedly underpaying his bill.

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