While waiting at a medical clinic in Vancouver, Washington last summer, Debbie Moehnke was struck with the first surprise—an intense heart attack.
“She had an appointment because her feet were swollen real bad,” said husband Larry Moehnke. “But she got in there and it was like, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!’”
An ambulance rushed the 59-year-old to a local hospital where she was stabilized, and the next day, to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for heart bypass surgery. But after that, another surprise—a harsh infection that required powerful IV antibiotic treatment.
And after a month in the hospital she was finally discharged home. only to find what she suggested was the worst surprise of them all: medical bills of over $454,000, only about half of which was covered by her health insurance.
What caused the high bill? Moehnke had been taken to an out-of-network hospital and had not been told about in-network hospitals that could have serviced her medical issues for less money.
“I wish I would have known. I would have said ‘no’ to life support,” said Debbie Moehnke. “We’ll lose everything.” Moehnke, a former cocktail waitress, suffers from signs of early-onset dementia.
Massive "surprise bills" like these are a nationwide epidemic that plague even progressive states like Washington. Washington lawmakers are trying for the fourth time to pass legislation that alleviates consumers from paying the insurmountable medical bills.
“Everybody agrees we’ve got to get the consumer out of being stuck in between,” said state insurance commissioner Mike Kreidler, who has repeatedly backed the proposals.
The story ends relatively positively for the Moehnkes:
Early this month, after repeated inquiries about Debbie Moehnke’s care — first from a reporter, then from a patient advocate alerted by the Washington state insurance commission — the couple’s outstanding bills were resolved.
With the help of Jared Walker, who runs Dollar for Portland, a nonprofit group, the couple applied for a medical charity care waiver, in itself a complicated process. OHSU officials granted the waiver, erasing the sky-high debt.
“Their balance is now zero,” OHSU spokeswoman Tamara Hargens-Bradley confirmed in an email.