Final Notice: 16 News Now Investigates Medical Debt in Michiana
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - Going to the ER or getting surgery is a stressful experience, but for many, the cost of that care takes an even bigger toll. Earlier this month, we told you about the struggles many Americans face when they are diagnosed with debt. But how common is medical debt in our community?
For one local educator, what started as a toothache led to a rare diagnosis. Krystin and Kent Carlson were both working full-time, had insurance, and were saving for retirement when Krystin was diagnosed with neurosarcoidosis, gastroparesis, hemiplegic migraines, aphasia, and trigeminal neuralgia-- a painful condition that causes seizure-type activity.
“They look very much like strokes so that led me going to the emergency room because you just never know… this could be the big one,” explains Krystin and her husband Kent.
But with multiple ER visits comes multiple co-pays. As her condition developed, it became impossible to work, which means losing her income and her insurance.
“The one thing that I know that would really help us is me going to work. And I can’t do it. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I wanted to desperately, but I physically could not work. And so every bill that came there was this huge guilt because I am causing it,” says Krystin.
The cost of Krystin’s care became overwhelming, impacting not just their bank accounts, but their quality of life.
“Medical debt can affect your marriage, it can affect, you know, how you parent, it can affect every aspect of your life,” she says. “You know you look at people taking vacations and you’re like, I want to do that. But instead, I’m trying to take care of the hospital bills.”
That’s causing them to confront a harsh and unaffordable reality. But Kent and Krystin are not alone… not even close.
Nationally, 13.9% of all Americans have medical debt in collections. Non-profit researchers at the Urban Institute found Americans with medical bills in collections typically owe an approximate $774. In Indiana that amount is a bit higher at $797.
Here in Michiana, Fulton County tops the list with over 21% of residents having medical debt in collections, typically owing an approximate $949. In Pulaski County, more than 19% of residents medical debt in collections, owing $1,210 typically.
In Elkhart County, more than 15% have debt in collections, owing a typical $631. In Marshall and Kosciusko Counties, around 14% have medical debt in collections, with the typical resident owing more than $600.
Krystin and Kent live in St. Joseph County, where 14.52% percent of people have medical debt in collections, typically owing close to $600.
These numbers only includes medical debt in collections, not all the debt owed to providers.
“It can be very, very lonely to think that you have thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of debt that you didn’t ask for,” says Krystin.
“We didn’t go ask for a loan, we just asked for help. You know, medical help,” adds Kent.
When medical debt is sent to collections, it can impact your credit rating, which can drive up the cost of home and auto insurance and diminish your ability to get a personal loan to try to pay down the debt, creating a vicious cycle.
Trying to get out of this overwhelming financial situation can impact the rest of your life.
“To try to set ourselves up so that we could survive, we ended up draining both of our retirement accounts. So there’s no retirement.,” explains Kent. “At one point we came very close, like within a couple months, of losing both our house and our only vehicle.”
Thankfully, their prayers were answered when a local church paid off their medical debt, offering relief at a time when they needed it most. But over a decade since Krystin’s diagnosis, the financial hardships from her condition continue, with $1,600 in costs each month just for her medications alone.
“I take so much medicine that trying to decide should I skip, should I go every other day to try to just make this copay last a little bit longer, but no that’s not really a real option,” says Krystin.
“The end result is more medical care trying to make up for the medicine that was missed,” says Kent.
And that’s not including a promising experimental treatment with a cost of $35,000 per month for six months.
“Literally it’s cheaper to have a funeral than it is to pay for this one medicine that I’m going to need for six months,” Krystin explains. “I do think that realizing that this medication can save your life, you just have to kind of decide, are you worth medical debt? And that’s hard.”
Krystin and Kent still need help with their expenses. They have a GoFundMe campaign explaining their struggles and allowing the community to donate. You can find that here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/ongoing-medical-expenses-for-krystin-carlson.
As they move forward, Krystin and Kent say they’ve been humbled by their experience, and the help they’ve received from friends and family makes them eager to help others.
“I would really like to be the person who could do that… most people who give help are the ones that have needed it at some point, and somebody helped them,” says Kent.
They want those hit with a burden of unpayable bills to remember others are going through the same struggles.
“Just know you’re not alone. You’re not alone and to find somebody who can listen to you I think makes a world of difference. It doesn’t take the debt away, but at least it makes you feel like you’re sharing the burden with someone who cares,” says Krystin.
While most of the non-profit organizations that pay off medical debt for community members do so at random, there are other ways you can get help.
The Greater National Advocate Organization gives you access to a network of independent patient advocates– they’ll fight for you when dealing with doctors, medical professionals, and insurance companies. You can search for help on their website, gnanow.org.
Another site you can check is AdvoConnection.com. It works much the same way, and you may qualify for discounted or even free patient advocate guidance.
You will likely pay a fee by the hour for a patient advocate. And while prices vary, they could save you several hundred dollars even several thousand on medical bills.
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