It had been months since Brittany Leary visited the emergency room in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc., after a fall that caused her knee to swell to twice its size. An ER doctor had said her knee would heal on its own, but Brittany, 26, was still in pain, so she sought a second opinion from her primary care doctor. She ordered an MRI and diagnosed Brittany with a torn meniscus.
The average cost of the knee MRI that Brittany received is $301, according to Medicare data. But when Brittany opened her bill from Aspirus Riverview Hospital, she saw that the Wisconsin-based health system had charged $3,580 for the procedure. Brittany’s high-deductible health plan covered just $644.40, so Aspirus’ billing department asked Brittany, a preschool teacher, to begin paying the balance of $2,935.60 in monthly installments that were nearly as large as the rent on her apartment.
“I love my job to death,” said Brittany, but it doesn’t pay her enough to have hundreds of dollars “just floating around” to pay a surprise medical bill. “I’m living basically paycheck to paycheck.”
Aspirus mailed Brittany a form to apply for financial assistance, a program that nonprofit hospitals must maintain as a condition of their tax-free status. But the form was confusing, Brittany said, and Aspirus billing staff would not clarify what she needed to answer in parts of the form.
Frustrated after several days of working on the form, Brittany was scrolling through TikTok when she saw a video about how Dollar For has helped patients, for free, get millions of dollars in debt forgiven through the charity care system. She read comments on the video from people who had worked with Dollar For and had their debts forgiven. “It’s worth a shot,” Brittany recalled thinking, as she clicked on Dollar For’s eligibility form.
After entering basic information about her bill and income, Brittany received an email from a Dollar For Patient Advocate. The Patient Advocate team worked with Aspirus on Brittany’s behalf, sending her updates and checking in to get more information when the health system requested it. Their work freed Brittany, who works 10-hour shifts, from having to rearrange her schedule just to reach Aspirus during business hours. “I would not have been able to get this done without [them],” she said.
Five weeks after she reached out to Dollar For, Brittany checked her account with Aspirus and saw that the balance had changed. “I owed zero dollars,” she said. In disbelief, she called the Aspirus billing department, which confirmed that her debt had been forgiven.
Just weeks earlier, Brittany did not know how she was going to weather a surprise medical expense of several thousand dollars on top of her regular bills for student loans, rent and other expenses. She had even considered taking out a loan to cover the debt. Instead, she can focus on her passion of working with children and on her goals: returning to school for her Bachelor’s degree and saving for a down payment on a home.
Brittany reflected on the relief she felt working with Dollar For. The knowhow of Patient Advocates meant she no longer had to look up medical billing terms just to make sense of the debt relief application. More than that, though, “it felt safe to have somebody to talk to the big bad guys” for her.
“It was nice to have people in my corner,” she said, “having my back.”