“I had just retired in 2021 when I had my appendix explode on me,” Ronald Barajas, a 65-year-old lifelong resident of Baytown, Texas, said of his traumatic medical emergency.
After having a fever, feeling shaky and losing his appetite for two days, Ronald thought he’d caught COVID-19. When he told his daughter that he also felt abdominal pain, she encouraged him to rush to an emergency room.
Ronald remembers the exact day he checked into Houston Methodist Baytown (San Jacinto) Hospital, in March 2021, because it was his birthday. Upon arrival, he learned he had a ruptured appendix.
He was admitted for six days, as an operation was too high risk because the rupture had caused dangerous toxins to spread inside his abdomen. Fortunately, his doctor provided some good news: his body had “miraculously capsulated the poison,” essentially creating a protective seal around it and allowing the medics to drain the toxins from his body.
When asked if he was ever given a cost estimate or told how much the bill would be, Ronald said, “Of course not.” Nor did he hear about charity care. (Nonprofit hospitals are required to offer charity care programs to maintain their tax-exempt status.)
It was 90 days before Ronald could finally have the surgery to remove his appendix. First he had to find a surgeon who accepted his insurance. But even before then, he was already being billed for medical services.
“They came out with an $85,000 bill, but with my insurance, they negotiated it down to $16,000 and my insurance paid about $8,000,” Ronald said. He still had to pay the deductible and copayments.
Going into retirement, Ronald had yet to get his first social security check and already owed a total of $9,800 for treatment of his ruptured appendix. He said he spent part of his first two retirement checks, which he receives once a month, on trying to lessen that debt.
“I ended up with around $6,000 in debt on a payment plan. Certainly, that didn’t help my situation, in just retiring,” he said.
For Ronald, another miracle came via a post he saw about Dollar For on Facebook, from local nonprofit Love Has No Limits. He had brought his debt down to $4,500, but he clicked on it, thinking maybe the organization could still help him.
Before that, Ronald hadn’t really considered trying to get his bill reduced. “I thought about it when I first got my bill… but I thought, that stuff doesn’t work. I am right at the verge of where I make too much money for them to do that. I thought about it but I didn’t try it.”
Nevertheless, he began tackling his bill with Dollar For’s help in November 2022. He submitted his bills and other requirements to process the proper paperwork.
About two weeks later, Ronald said he received notice that his remaining debt had been cleared. In December 2022, he received “11 text messages in a row,” each one noting he was getting back $240, with the total amount adding up to all that he had been trying to pay off from his debt.
“That was a happy new year to me,” he said.
“It took about seven days for my payments to finally be refunded. And not only that, they sent me a paper check for another $240, so I actually got 12 payments,” Ronald said with a wide smile. “I was elated. Oh my God, that’s a $240 a month pay raise, for someone who’s retired.”
Ronald said the debt relief provided “a great start to 2023,” and allowed him to finally enjoy his retirement. He called his daughter and his parents to celebrate. “Anytime you pay off a debt like that, it’s just a big relief, especially when I had three years to go on the payment plan.”
“I think about it now. Maybe I should’ve tried, from the very beginning, to contact the hospital and ask if there was any way I could get a piece of my debt forgiven,” Ronald said. “It never hurts to try.”
Read more stories about Texans who got their medical bills crushed: Mercy, Alexandria, Hailey.