Heart attack patient’s $227K balance highlights inconsistent billing practices

A woman who was on the hook for nearly $227,000 in medical bills after suffering a heart attack and other complications had her balance wiped out by a medical charity waiver, Kaiser Health News reported. But that didn’t save Debbie Moehnke and her husband, Larry, the stress of mounting medical bills and calls from debt collectors, and the story highlights how inconsistent billing practices could impact other patients.

“It shouldn’t be (a system) where the squeaky wheel gets help,” Mike Kreidler, a Washington state insurance commissioner who has backed proposals to eliminate surprise billing practices, told KHN.

“There should be fairness and equality in the system. You shouldn’t have to file a complaint. This should be ingrained into the system so that when you have a problem and you’re due relief, you get it.”

Surprise bills often arise when patients receive medical care out-of-network, a fact that isn’t always communicated to them—particularly in emergency situations when they have little control over what hospital an ambulance shuttles them to.

In Debbie Moehnke’s case, KHN reported that she was stabilized after her initial heart attack at a local hospital in Washington, then sent to Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland for urgent cardiac care. That included bypass surgery, a valve replacement and another valve repair along with subsequent treatment for an infection that developed during her hospitalization. All told, she spent a month in the hospital, racking up $454,000 in medical bills, including $226,591 that wasn’t paid by insurance.

According to KHN, both OHSU and Moehnke’s insurer, LifeWise Health Plan of Washington, said the other party should have notified the Moehnkes they were accumulating high bills at an out-of-network facility, but Larry Moehnke told the publication that conversation never occurred.

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