An ER's error lands a 4-year-old in collections — for care he didn't receive
Dr. Sara McLin thought she made the right choice by going to an in-network emergency room near her Florida home after her 4-year-old burned his hand on a stove last Memorial Day weekend.
Her family is insured through her husband's employer, HCA Healthcare, a Nashville-based health system that operates more hospitals than any other system in the nation. So McLin knew that a nearby stand-alone emergency room, HCA Florida Lutz Emergency, would be in their plan's provider network.
But McLin said a doctor there told her she couldn't treat her son, Keeling, because he had second- and third-degree burns that needed a higher level of care. The doctor referred them to the burn center at HCA Florida Blake Hospital, about a 90-minute drive away.
McLin, who is a dentist, said the doctor told her the stand-alone ER would not charge for the visit because they did not provide treatment.
"I don't remember exactly how she phrased it. But something along the lines of, 'Well, we won't even call this a visit, because we can't do anything,'" McLin said.
At Blake Hospital, she said, a doctor diagnosed Keeling with a second-degree burn, drained the blisters, bandaged his hand, and sent them home with instructions on how to care for the wound.
"I didn't think anything more of it," McLin said.
Then the bills came.
The Patient: Keeling McLin, now 5, is covered by UnitedHealthcare through his father's employer.
Medical Service: From the stand-alone emergency room, none. A physician assessed Keeling and sent him to another facility for treatment. "Keeling needs a burn center," the doctor wrote in the record of his visit.
Service Provider: Envision Physician Services, which employed the emergency room physician at HCA Florida Lutz Emergency in Lutz, Florida, near Tampa, and HCA Florida Trinity Hospital, the main, for-profit hospital to which the stand-alone emergency room belonged.
Total Bill: For the emergency room visit, Envision Physician Services billed $829 to insurance and about $72 to the family. HCA Florida Trinity Hospital billed Keeling about $129, noting it had applied an "uninsured discount." An itemization showed the original charge had been nearly $1,509 before adjustments and discounts.
What Gives: The stand-alone emergency room and ER doctor, who saw Keeling but referred him to another hospital, billed for his visit. But McLin soon learned she was unable to dispute some of the charges — because her young child's name was on one of the bills, not hers.
Months after the ER visit, McLin received a bill addressed to the "parents of Keeling McLin" from Envision Physician Services, the provider staffing service that employed the emergency room doctor who did not treat her son. She recalled the doctor's promise that they would not be billed. "I should have made them write something down to that effect," she said.
She said she called her insurer, UnitedHealthcare, and a representative told her not to pay the bill.
She received an insurance statement that identified the bill from Envision's doctor — an out-of-network provider working in an in-network emergency room — as a "surprise bill" for which the provider may charge only copays or other cost-sharing under federal law. McLin said she had not heard anything since then about the bill.
After being contacted by KHN, Aliese Polk, an Envision spokesperson, said in an email that Envision would waive the debt, apologizing to Keeling's family "for the misunderstanding."
She described the ER doctor's evaluation, determination, and referral as a medical service. She said the bill was for cost sharing for the visit — not the difference between what the doctor charged and what insurance paid, as the law prohibits.
"We recognize the patient's family may have understood at the time of treatment that there would be no charge for the visit, including the medical service provided by our physician," Polk said. "Unfortunately, this courtesy adjustment was not captured when the claim was processed."
Maria Gordon Shydlo, a UnitedHealthcare spokesperson, said the insurer believed the matter had been resolved and did not follow up on requests for an interview, even after McLin waived federal health privacy protections, which would allow the insurer to speak to the reporter about the case.
McLin also received a bill from HCA Florida Trinity Hospital for its stand-alone ER at Lutz and decided to dispute the charges.
But after calling the hospital to appeal, McLin said, the billing department would not discuss the debt with her because the statement was in her young son's name.
"They had him as the guarantor," McLin said. Unlike Envision, which billed Keeling's parents and their insurance, McLin said the hospital listed the child as "unemployed, uninsured."
The child's ER record also included his date of birth and doctor's notes referencing his age. McLin said she wrote to HCA in November asking to appeal the bill and that a billing representative told her over the phone that it would put the debt on hold and review the dispute.
"I never heard anything back and assumed we were good," McLin said.
Then, in January, she received a letter from Medicredit, a collection agency and an HCA subsidiary, stating that Keeling owed $129 and that he had until mid-February to contest the debt. KHN was unable to make contact with Medicredit representatives, and HCA Healthcare did not respond to requests for comment from its subsidiary.
Once again, Sara McLin's name was not on the debt collector's letter, and she said Medicredit representatives refused to discuss the debt with her because it was in her son's name. She said she called HCA, too. "They said, 'We can't help you. We don't have the case anymore,'" she said.
Erin Fuse Brown, a law professor and director of the Center for Law, Health & Society at Georgia State University, said McLin did everything right and that it is unusual for a parent to be barred from discussing a debt related to their minor child.
"The fact that the hospital wouldn't even talk to her strikes me as the part that is absurd. It's absurd as a business matter. It's absurd as a privacy matter," Fuse Brown said, adding that federal health privacy laws allow a parent or legal guardian to access their dependent's medical information.
Fuse Brown said the hospital should have been able to correct the error quickly with more information, such as a birth certificate or other document establishing that McLin was Keeling's parent. At the very least, she said, it could have given McLin notice before sending the bill to collections.
"You get the feeling that it's this large, automated process, that there's no human to get through to, that there's no human to talk to and override the mistake," Fuse Brown said. "Maybe it's routine, but she couldn't even talk to someone to correct a correctable billing error, and then the system just steamrolls over the patient."
The Resolution: When the collection agency's deadline passed without resolution, McLin said she felt frustrated. "Nobody can explain to me who has to approve talking to me," she said. "I don't know who that person is or what the process is."
After KHN contacted the health system, HCA Healthcare canceled the family's debt. HCA representatives declined to be interviewed on the record despite also receiving a privacy waiver from McLin.
"We have attempted to contact Mrs. McLin to apologize to her for the inconvenience this has caused her and to let her know that there is a zero balance on the account," Debra McKell, marketing director for HCA West Florida Division, said in an email on March 3. "We also will be sharing with her that we are reviewing our processes to ensure this does not happen again."
McLin later received a letter from HCA stating that the account had been cleared. She also said she received a call from a customer service representative informing her that the debt had not been reported to any credit agencies.
She said she was pleased, but that patients should not have to struggle to correct a billing error before it is sent to a collection agency and potentially ruins their credit.
"It's the principle of the thing that's annoying me at this point," she said.
The Takeaway: Though the notion of a debt collector pursuing a 4-year-old boy may seem farcical, it happens. When seeking medical care for a minor, it is important for the parent or guardian to ensure their name is listed as the responsible party.
Consumers who find themselves fighting a medical billing error need to "think like a lawyer," Fuse Brown said, including documenting every interaction with the debt collector, getting any promises in writing, and recording phone calls. (State laws vary about how many parties on a call must give permission to record a conversation.)
Patients do not have to give up once a bill goes to collections, Fuse Brown said. "Once you hear from a debt collector, it's not like the game is over and you lose," she said. "Consumers do have rights."
François de Brantes, a home health company executive and expert on how money flows through the health care system, said that hospital billing errors are not uncommon but that he had never heard of a situation like the one McLin experienced. He called it "puzzling" that HCA would issue a formal claim in a dependent child's name.
De Brantes said those in a similar situation should also ensure that the collection agency removes any record of a debt against a minor to protect the child's financial future.
"This stuff happens, where you have children who are improperly billed for stuff that they shouldn't be billed, and they end up in collection," he said. "Then the kid finds themselves with a collection record and they can't get loans in the future, potentially student loans."
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KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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