By Gavin McIntyre/Kaiser Health News
Every now and then, Suzanne Rybak and her husband, Jim, receive pieces of mail addressed to their deceased son, Jameson. Typically, it’s junk mail that requires little thought, Suzanne said.
But on March 5, an envelope for Jameson came from McLeod Health.
Jim saw it first. He turned to his wife and asked, “Have you taken your blood pressure medication today?”
He knew showing her the envelope would resurface the pain and anger their family had experienced since taking Jameson to McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence, S.C., two years ago.
As KHN previously reported, Jameson was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from quitting opioids. Suzanne feared for her son’s life and took him to McLeod’s emergency room on March 11, 2020.
There, they encountered a paucity of addiction treatment and the potential for high medical costs — two problems that plague many families affected by the opioid crisis and often lead to missed opportunities to save lives.
Jameson was not offered medications to treat opioid use disorder in the ER, nor was he given referrals to other treatment facilities, Suzanne said. The hospital wanted to admit him, but, being uninsured, Jameson feared a high bill. The hospital didn’t inform him of its financial assistance policy, Suzanne said. And he decided to leave.
Three months later, Jameson, 30, died of an overdose in his childhood bedroom.
Months of red tape
In the following months, the Rybaks received bills from McLeod Health addressed to Jameson. He owed $4,928, the bills said. Suzanne called and wrote to hospital administrators until September 2020, when the bill was resolved under the health system’s financial assistance program.
That was the last they had heard from McLeod Health until the new envelope arrived March 5 — one week before the two-year anniversary of Jameson’s ER visit. That visit was what Suzanne calls “the beginning of the end for my son.”
When the Rybaks opened the envelope, they found a strikingly familiar bill for $4,928.
“I can’t even describe my anger and sadness,” Suzanne said. “It’s always present, but when we received that statement, we were just stunned.”
There’s no national data to indicate how often patients or their families receive medical bills that were previously paid or forgiven, but hospital billing experts say they frequently see it happen. Patients might receive bills for claims their insurers already paid. A reminder statement may arrive even after a patient has submitted payment.
Unlike “surprise bills,” which often result from policy gaps when a provider is out