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Burn victim's $1.7 million medical bill from military hospital is waived

Man relieved of $1.7 mllion debt relief
Man is relieved of $1.7 million medical debt, while others still fight their sky-high bills 06:08

A Puerto Rican man who suffered burns over most of his body in a gas explosion and was treated at a U.S. military hospital in Texas, and who later received a bill from the government for $1.7 million, has had his medical debt waived.

As "CBS This Morning" reported earlier this year, 25-year-old Alexis Hernandez, a Puerto Rican resident who was studying medicine in Mexico, was billed for his treatment at a burn center located at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

CBS News consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner brought us the story of Hernandez, who has been waiting almost two years for someone to help him with the huge bill. And now, after two members of Congress responded to our broadcast, Hernandez got good news: military officials had waived the bill, with permission from the Justice Department.

"Now, I know that anything is possible," Hernandez said.

Werner asked, "How do you feel now that this weight has been lifted off your shoulders?"

"I feel great, because I have 1.7 million reasons to smile!" he replied.

Burn victim Alexis Hernandez, a civilian who was charged $1.7 million for treatment at a San Antonio military hospital, has had his medical bill waived. CBS News

A gas explosion in his apartment had left Hernandez with burns covering over 70 percent of his body, and he was sent for specialized treatment at that burn center. He spent seven months there, enduring 19 surgeries. 

And as he told us earlier this year, "It was really painful. I cannot express in words how painful it was." 

With a $1.7 million bill hanging over his head, Hernandez potentially faced a lifetime of debt, and worried he might never be able to return to medical school. "I'm not going to be able to pay it," he said.

Explosion victim receives staggering bill after months of recovery 05:40

After Werner told his story, New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who herself was born in Puerto Rico, wrote the Treasury Department asking that the bill be forgiven.

"This could happen to any other person, any other American," she said.

Representative Joaquin Castro, who represents San Antonio, also contacted government officials. He said, "It's a tragic story, and we've seen cases like that in Texas over and over." 

Cases like Hernandez's are the reason Castro initiated legislation, which passed last year, that allows military officials to waive medical bills for civilians who are unable to pay who received "emergency medical treatment."

"Oftentimes, folks are unconscious and not making a decision about which hospital they're going to go to," Castro said.

He said there's a good reason why bills for civilian patients who can't afford to pay should be waived: "This is a training hospital where members of our military train on treating trauma," Castro said. "And so, there's a benefit to the United States government and to the military of being able to see these patients. And yet, that really wasn't being taken into account when people were being charged."  

Despite the law change, "CBS This Morning" found some people still waiting for a waiver.

Ernest Faris, a 52-year-old welder from Fisher, Texas, suffered a neck fracture in August 2018, after falling some 20 feet off a ladder. Emergency responders airlifted him to Brooke Army Medical Center's trauma unit, where he remained for a week.

"Just remember hurting real bad," Faris said. "They put pins and screws in my neck. It broke it in two places, I believe. So, I'm extremely lucky to even be alive." 

An X-ray shows pins and screws used to repair Ernest Faris' broken neck.  Ernest Faris

The bill from Brooke Army? Over $114,000, which he had no insurance to cover. The best he said the government would do was offer a payment plan of $4,000 a month.

"It would have been impossible," Faris said. "There would have been no way, and I told her that on the phone. I said, 'Ma'am,' I said, 'I don't even make that much a month.'"

So, earlier this year, the government started garnishing his wages, taking over $470 every month.

Faris said, "I have no control over this. They're going to take whatever amount of money they want, and I have no control over it." 

Faris said the government also seized his tax refund, and with interest and penalties, the debt keeps rising. It now stands at over $159,000. "It's not making a dent in it, so I'll probably never get it paid for," he said. "I mean, you work your whole life, to someday be able to retire. Just try to go on with life the best I can, but, you know, knowing that is there, it's pretty sickening."

Brooke Army Medical Center officials did not respond to our questions regarding Faris' case, but said they work "diligently to educate patients about the billing process," and that they follow "regulations and policies for collections of federal debt."

A Treasury Department spokesperson told CBS News, "By law, when agencies, including the Department of Defense, initiate claims, the Bureau of the Fiscal Service is required to assist in the collection of debts that are valid. The Bureau of the Fiscal Service works with the federal agencies to ensure those who owe debt receive proper notices and opportunities to dispute debts as well as have the chance to repay debts over time.  Federal laws prevent the Bureau of the Fiscal Service from commenting on an individual's case."

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