During a devastating time in her life, Lisa Edmonds, 66, of South Carolina received medical treatment at Prisma Health Greenville Hospital. She had previously worked there, and was relieved to be helped by past colleagues. But even with all of her knowledge in hospital care — and billing — her own experience as a patient laid a tough road ahead.
“I had the best people to work with, and for, in [hospital] emergency,” Lisa said of the staff she worked with for nine years. “But unfortunately, due to everything that was going on, I lost my job.”
Lisa explained she was having “severe problems” when she learned that her husband of 35 years was having an affair. While experiencing a crisis in her mental health, “I attempted suicide in February of 2022,” she said.
First treated in the emergency department, Lisa was told she’d died three times. She was later intubated in the intensive care unit for over a week and had a nurse with her at all times. She also spent a couple of weeks in the hospital’s mental health facility, meaning it was about a month before she was able to go home.
Though Lisa had not been employed right before her suicide attempt, she’d made sure to get medical insurance. “But of course, mental health is just not covered by a lot of insurance companies,” she said. “You can imagine, my hospital bill was unbelievable.”
Shortly after being released from the hospital, Lisa began getting calls and bills in the mail regarding her new medical debt: over $150,000. At that time, “I really could not even function on my own,” she said.
Looking over the bills, Lisa said it was hard to understand where each was coming from and if they were multiples for the same things.
Because she’d worked at Prisma Health, Lisa knew to apply for financial aid. She said: “I did everything I knew needed to be done. If they asked for three years of tax records, I gave three years of tax records. If they asked for six months of bank statements, that’s what they got. I was very hopeful, initially.”
But when asked to start making payments, Lisa hit a roadblock. Her finances were frozen as she was going through a divorce. Meanwhile, phone calls from the hospital and debt collectors kept coming.
In November 2022, Lisa’s first request for her medical debt to be forgiven was denied, even though she followed the same steps she’d advised others to go through when she was employed at the hospital.
“I was told that for them to release my debt, I would have to be, I believe, four times below the poverty level. Well, you’re in the hole if you’re four times [below]. So, in other words, nobody’s going to qualify,” Lisa explained.
That information was incorrect. The US Department of Health and Human Services’ poverty guidelines for 2023 show that in all states except Hawaii and Alaska, an individual needs at least $14,580 a year to afford basic needs. Four times less than that would mean having an income of $3,645 a year. Actually, on average, a family of 4 earning less than $100,000 a year will qualify.
Lisa was denied three times and had just submitted a fourth application for medical debt relief before she heard about and reached out to Dollar For, in August 2023. Three days later, she heard back and was told the organization would start contacting the hospital for more information.
Erica Dowden, a patient advocate manager with Dollar For, said her team of seven people is constantly answering emails and texts from patients seeking help with hospital charity care. “Because we don’t turn anyone away, our group of patients we’re helping just keeps growing, so it means a little bit longer to get back to people,” she said.
Lisa said there were times she wouldn’t hear from the hospital “at all,” regarding her latest application. To have Dollar For “continually reach out, through either text or email, asking me if I knew anything yet, that was a huge relief,” she said.
Less than a month after she began working with Dollar For, Lisa finally received a call from the hospital with good news: Her debt would be “forgiven 100%.”
In reviewing her new bill, page by page, Lisa said it showed a balance of $0. “It [says] ‘final billing due’ and it says ‘zero, catastrophic event.’ That’s the only thing that I have that shows that they have released that debt. So, I printed it out,” she said with a laugh.
With Lisa’s mental health crisis deemed a catastrophic event, her debt of over $150,000 was eliminated, meaning she was able to avoid another catastrophe of having to spend the rest of her life trying to pay for her medical care.
Yet, Erica with Dollar For said high medical debt like Lisa’s is common — as is the difficulty of the application process for medical relief.
“The fact that she was an employee there and applied four different times and was continually denied? That is up in that higher level of frustrating and difficult, but it’s not something we haven’t seen before. So, I wouldn’t say it’s the everyday case, but it’s, unfortunately, not shocking,” Erica said.
As frustrating as it was for Lisa to be continuously rejected, Erica explained that she took all the right steps, including before reaching out to Dollar For.
“The patient probably did a lot more than maybe she realized to get this through just by the fact that she didn’t give up… It’s not giving up and it’s being persistent and not letting the hospital just say, ‘No, we’re moving on.’ So, it may have been a situation where she loosened the lid and we just came in and pushed it over,” Erica said.
With every application, Lisa applied as if doing so for the first time. “Each time, I had filled it out like it was a new debt, because they could see I had no money coming in, that there were only bills being paid,” she said.
Her advice for patients in a similar situation is the same as Erica’s: Don’t give up.
Lisa added: “Be diligent in applying through that [hospital’s] financial aid office … That was the department that had the ability to write-off debt … Because of my [past] position in the hospital, I knew that every year, every hospital that’s not-for-profit turns in the debts that they have released to the government and they receive money back. So, I was fairly certain at the beginning of this year that had probably already been done … They certainly didn’t need to be asking me for more money.”