Emergency rooms, magical thinking, and the poor

emergency sign Emergency rooms, magical thinking, and the poor

To hear Mitt Romney (and many others) tell it, Emergency Rooms are the physical embodiment of Mother Theresa, treating indigents like Jesus treated the lepers. The great seas of health care are suddenly parted for the poor and ill, and outstanding bills just miraculously become absorbed into the ether of write-off’s and tax exemptions.

This type of magical health care thinking isn’t limited to multi-millionaire politicians. Many in the public also believe ER’s effectively fill the wide gap between sickness and insurance. It’s a fallacy that has become so engrained that its standard line — get sick, get treated by an ER, get the tab picked up by someone else — goes nearly undisputed by those on both the right and the left.

That’s simply not the way it works.

Setting aside the fact that ER’s are not mandated to treat what their doctors may consider a non-emergency — a subject which merits its own, separate discussion — many uninsured ER patients find themselves saddled with bills they can’t hope to pay. These bills are not just from the hospital, but from outside physicians, diagnostic services, and laboratories, none of whom are mandated to treat the indigent or uninsured for free.

Depending upon the state and the hospital, uninsured patients may meet with a hospital social worker who will have them fill out forms for state aid or other programs. There is no guarantee of approval, and even when someone does qualify, benefits may not extend to other services rendered in the course of care.

On a trip across the US, I spoke to several people in dire straights due to medical debt. One of them was a homeless man in his 30s. John M. was a single laborer who was working a temp job when he was hit with over $8,000 in medical bills for non-work related wound that had led to a staph infection. In the hospital, he met with a social worker who helped him apply for aid. Later, he received notice that he didn’t qualify due to his income and status as a single person. The bills started pouring in, not just from the hospital, but from doctors whose names he didn’t recognize and labs that had processed his tests.

When bills like John’s go unpaid, hospitals and other businesses may “write them off,” but contrary to what many people may believe, this does not mean that they disappear. Collection agencies buy such debts for pennies on the dollar and then may vigorously pursue the patient-debtor, through judgments, wage garnishments, and bank account liens. To add to the confusion, medical debts can be bought and sold many times over, involving an almost incomprehensible string of collection agencies.

Like many people with medical debt, John attempted to work with the collection agencies on a payment plan, but there were too many of them, each demanding that their bill take precedence. Desperate for relief, John went to an agency that specializes in helping debtors reach payment agreements and was told he didn’t make enough to carry the minimum monthly payment that would be required. At that point, John considered filing for bankruptcy, but he couldn’t afford the attorney’s fees.

Four years after his illness, with his credit ruined and with several court judgments against him, John’s low wages were garnished and he could no longer afford his rent. He applied for a second job as a cashier at a home goods store and was told that they’d run his credit report as a matter of practice. It was the same at other places he applied. While he was never told why he wasn’t hired, he suspected that his low score had something to do with the lack of call-backs, particularly since he’d never had such a problem finding a minimum wage job before.

John scrambled for a cheaper place to live, but none of them were cheap enough to make up for the loss of wages, and all of them required better credit than his. He was told he’d need a cosigner or a larger deposit, neither of which he had. Feeling he had no choice, John quit his job and found work with another temp agency, hoping to outrun his garnishment and at least catch up on his rent. Within two months, the collection agencies had found his new place of employment and set the wheels in motion to collect their pay. John was eventually evicted. Jobless, he lived out of his 14 year-old truck for a while, but then his truck died and he couldn’t afford repairs. He sold it for scrap so that he could eat. He showed up at the county day labor office every weekday, hoping to make enough money to rent a motel room. Sometimes there was work, sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes he slept in shelters, but many times he slept in the streets. When winter got to be too much, he scraped together enough to take a bus to a warmer climate. When I met him, he was among many of Florida’s homeless and his prospects for crawling out of the hole were dimmer than ever.

Of course, not all stories are as extreme as John’s, but the fact that some are is a stark reminder of how easily a life can be unraveled, particularly when medical debt can bring a host of life-altering consequences.

Some people do end up qualifying for State programs, and there are some hospitals which have developed their own foundations to assist in care, but there’s no national uniformity to the system. While an uninsured person at one hospital may qualify to have their ER charges reduced or paid for by another entity, another person, at another hospital, may not.

In any case, medical debt is on the rise and collection agencies are becoming increasingly aggressive in pursuing debtors.

The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that sponsors health care research, estimates that 22 million Americans were contacted by collection agencies for unpaid medical bills in 2005. That increased to 30 million Americans in 2010. – March 2012, USA Today

As the article in USA Today points out, credit may be wrecked even when medical debt is paid. Slow and late payments can stay on records for seven years, and as much as ten if there is a judgment involved. There is also a valid and growing concern that collection agencies are misusing the court system to have debtors thrown in jail, adding the element of warrants and jail time to people’s background checks which, like poor credit, may diminish their future employment and housing opportunities. Poverty by itself is a vicious cycle that is difficult to escape. Adding collections, garnishments, judgments, bad credit, and arrests to the list of obstacles can make it nearly impossible. In the bigger picture, it would seem to do more harm to our economy and social structure to keep people locked in the cycle of medical debt for years on end, rather than to offer them a real solution.

Despite receiving tax exemptions to care for the uninsured and poor, some hospitals have gone so far as to sue these patients for what they are owed. Others, as noted, turn their debts over to collection agencies. In the mix are the outside services which are not given the same exemptions, and which aren’t subject to the same guidelines.

The result of all of this is that both patients and the medical care industry are suffering, while collection agencies are growing richer. By 2007, the number of collection agents had doubled from the early 1990s, while industry revenue tripled to $15 billion (on $40 billion in collected debt).

So, no, emergency rooms are not the answer for America’s sick and uninsured. The illness that’s treated today should not result in years of financial consequences, which not only affects individuals, but society as a whole. To what end is a culture that binds people to medical debt in ways that may cost them their homes, jobs, and futures? To what end is a medical system that only increases the need for shelters, welfare, and other social services — while burdening the healthcare industry with millions of dollars in extra costs? An America that grows poverty is not as valuable as an America that grows potential. Anyone who would argue against that is as short-sighted as they are unreasonable.

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About Jane Devin

Jane Devin is a culture critic, essayist, and author. Her memoir, Elephant Girl, is available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com. In 2010, Jane ended an extended road trip across the U.S., which was blogged on Finding My America. She also blogs at The Huffington Post. You are welcome to follow her on Twitter or fan her on Facebook. She can be reached at jane [at] janedevin.com.
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