OP ED

I got a $48,000 medical bill, even with insurance. We need more protection from this debt

Opinion: Being a nurse and having insurance didn't shield me from a big medical bill. Arizona should do more so people like me won't lose everything to debt.

Sherri Brown
opinion contributor
Healthcare Rising Arizona is pushing another ballot initiative, this time that would offer Arizonans more protection against medical debt.

Arizona families are drowning in medical debt; my family is one of them.

Having worked as a nurse for decades, I thought I knew how to navigate our health care system – but I was wrong.

This year, I learned the hard way that having insurance doesn’t necessarily protect you from medical debt when I got a bill for $48,410.

Even families that have done everything right can end up with bills that they can’t afford to pay.  

My cancer treatment was covered, then wasn't

In 2015 I was diagnosed with a cancer called multiple myeloma. As a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, I had good insurance coverage through my health care employer, and my treatment was covered. But when my husband and I decided to move to Arizona, everything changed.

At first, I paid out-of-pocket to continue my insurance through short term federal COBRA coverage, and continued to get chemotherapy at a hospital. When I got to Arizona I expected to find a new nursing job, but when COVID-19 hit, my oncologist told me it was not safe for me to work in a health care setting.

While my cancer is in remission, I need prescribed chemotherapy treatment for the rest of my life as maintenance therapy. So, when my COBRA program expired, I went out and bought a new insurance plan.

In January when I went for my monthly chemo treatment, I checked to make sure that the hospital accepted my new insurance. The receptionist told me they did, so I went upstairs for treatment.

You can imagine my shock when I was told that I owed them $48,410 for the medical treatments I had undergone only after confirming that my insurance was accepted. When I alerted the billing department of what I was certain must be an error, I was told, “I am sorry, but we don’t take HMO plans. I’m so sorry.” 

Huge bills can ruin families and their future

I was in a panic.  

All of a sudden, I was not only fighting cancer, but I also was trying to survive with an enormous medical debt. My oncologist contacted the billing department and advocated for me to go on a payment plan that stretched into the 2030s. Paying for cancer treatment has drained my retirement funds.

One thing that I have learned is that switching insurance during treatment for a disease is very confusing. Fortunately, I spent some time looking for doctors who would accept my new insurance, and after a lapse in treatment, I restarted chemotherapy through another hospital that accepts my new insurance.

I know that I am not the only one going through this in our country. Many people with gigantic medical bills are losing homes, losing jobs and living without a way to feed families or help their kids get ready for college.

The truth is that 18% of Arizonans have medical bills that are past due.

I am fortunate because I still have a home, and my husband and I can afford insurance. How many people end up dying because they can’t get affordable health insurance, or they lose their homes and end up on the streets with a chronic illness?

If you agree we need protection, help us

My experience has made me passionate about fixing this problem – so other families don’t have to face what I’ve faced.

Arizona law ​already sets limits to protect some family homes and cars from seizure for debt, but rising housing prices and costs have made those limits out of touch with everyday Arizona families.

That’s why I am working to pass the Predatory Debt Collection Protection Act, a citizens initiative that increases the protected value of a person’s primary home to match Arizona’s median home value. The measure protects household goods and bank accounts, plus family vehicles, and adjust the amounts annually for inflation.

To help Arizonans avoid being trapped by debt, the initiative adds protection against wage garnishment and limits the interest rate on medical debt to 3%.

If you believe that people shouldn’t have to worry about losing their home or car because they get sick or face large medical bills, I invite you to join our effort. We will need help to make this change. More information at www.healthcarerisingaz.org or at info@healthcarerisingaz.org or 602-354-8829.

Sherri Brown is a registered nurse, cancer survivor and member of Healthcare Rising Arizona, which pushes for change in health care policies and practices. She lives in Cave Creek. Reach him at sherribrowngeier@gmail.com.