Late last month the NY Times had a pretty horrendous article about a family that was losing its house because it couldn’t pay for all the co-pays and co-insurance for its sick son’s care. I’ve just got round to catching up on my reading and I’m pretty shocked. You might think that someone who’d taken the Hippocratic oath might decide not to pile in on this, but you’d have mistaken the ever blackening stone that Syd at Medpundit seems to have in place of a heart these days.
She decides that the problem is that the family ran up credit card debt. And one of her readers jumps in to!
Sounds like the real problem here might be the credit cards.I get one or two notices of bankruptcy a year concerning my patients. They always list the debt that is to be forgiven along with the creditors, and it’s overwhelmingly credit card debt – the major cards and the local retailers that have their own credit cards. That’s probably true for the general population as well – which is why the Times couldn’t find a better example of people with health insurance going broke because of medical expenses alone. UPDATE: A reader does the math: The $5,000 a year quoted comes out to: $416.67 a month, $13.69 a day, 7% of the household’s income. One mistake people do make in managing their financial affairs is that they fail to readjust their living standards downward to account for unexpected regular expenses (e.g., sell the house and car and downgrade).Or are we so rich now that the idea is that not only should an illness not bankrupt but that you shouldn’t have to skip trips to the mall?
The only problem is that Syd and her reader failed to read the bloody article! Here’s what it said and it is quickly apparent that the expenses connected to the kid’s illness massively exceed their max-out of pocket and the $5000 number, almost certainly because many of these expenses are somehow excluded from their insurance coverage.
Then the bills started coming in. After a week in the hospital, the couple’s share came to $1,100 – not catastrophic, but more than their small savings. They enrolled in a 90-day payment plan with the hospital and struggled to make the monthly installments of nearly $400, hoping that they did not hit any other expenses.
But Zachery, who was eventually found to have an immune system disorder, kept getting sick, and the expense of his treatment – fees for tests, hospitalizations, medicine – kept mounting, eventually costing the family $12,000 to $20,000 a year.
So the cost is not the $5,000 a year. That’s just the co-pay on ONE of his drugs. The rest is between $12 and $20K a year, and the poor bloody father is out working 90 hours a week to make just 68K a year (which for those of you counting at home is under $30K for a regular working week). So somewhere between 17% and 30% of the family’s PRE-tax income was going to these costs. That’s way more than any young family is going to have to spare, unless perhaps they have a high-earning physician bringing home the bacon. So either the Times didn’t do any fact checking (and God knows they have a sorry legacy on checking them when it helps conservative loonies and their issues), or this family was financially destroyed by medical bills despite having some insurance coverage. And "some" is the appropriate word here:
As the family went from one doctor to the next, without a diagnosis of the root problem, the insurance company often questioned the expenses. Why did Zachery need four doctor visits or five rounds of antibiotics for an ailment that most children shook off in a couple of days? Mrs. Dorsett spent days on the phone, often in voice-mail loops, and often long-distance, pleading her case.
"Like when they refused to pay for antibiotics when he had pneumonia" last year, she said. "The antibiotics cost $373, and we didn’t have it. But we couldn’t just not give it to him. I knew the review board would come around eventually, but he needed the medicine right away. Finally the doctor gave us samples."
She managed the expenses, like many people, by constantly applying for new credit cards, rolling the debt from the old cards into the new ones, which usually came with low introductory interest rates. In a good year, they would have the rolling charges on their credit cards down to $5,000 or $6,000, but the charges always went up again.
And how does Syd’s reader really think they should do it? Their solution: Stop going to the Mall! Of course Syd’s "reader" didn’t get to page two where it showed that they family buys its clothes at yard sales. And don’t bother bringing your plastic into Syd’s office for your co-pay. Syd apparently doesn’t know that you can use credit cards to pay medical bills, and that they charge outrageous interest rates, and that that is likely to be where the debt came from.
"Not only are the bills higher, but the way we pay for care has changed," said Elizabeth Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School and one of the study’s authors. "My mother always carried a bill with the doctor, but every dollar she paid went to principal. Today, the doctor takes a credit card, and a family might be paying that off at extraordinary interest rates. So people may recover physically from major medical injury, but may not recover financially."
So yup we have a nation of over spenders, but I don;t think this family fits the pattern. But the bullshit morality aimed at people with medical problems like this by our conservative brethren is just astounding. And I remind you that this does not go on to anything like this extent in other industrialized countries because they have come to the reasonable position that being sick should not be a financial death sentence.