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Surprise Medical Bills Result In Home Liens, Crippling Debt

After Nicole Briggs woke up one night with intense stomach pain and drove herself to a freestanding ER, she was told that she had appendicitis and needed surgery. As she rushed to nearby Swedish Medical Center, she called to make sure that the hospital would be in her insurance network, NBC reports.

Even when the hospital said yes, Briggs continued asking. She said that she asked more than a dozen times whether her care would be covered.

"I thought [that meant] the anesthesiologist takes my insurance," she said, "that the surgeon [does], that the nurse, you know, that that's all part of the same deal."

Unfortunately, like four in 10 Americans, Briggs received a surprise bill. The bill totaled more than $4,700 in charges from the physician who had performed Briggs’ surgery, Dr. Emmet McGuire. Dr. McGuire practiced independently at Swedish Medical Center and did not accept Briggs’ insurance.

Briggs called her insurance company and tried to explain the situation, hoping they would help her negotiate or pay the bill. Instead, her insurer told her that she was on the hook for the full thing.

"I was so frustrated with it," Briggs recalled. "I thought, 'I'm just going to let this die in collections. I'm not going to pay this.'"

Instead of dying, the bill grew. With interest, it amassed to more than $5,800 two years later. Credit Systems, Inc. sued Briggs on behalf of Dr. McGuire and won. A lien was placed against Briggs’ home.

“I hopefully can bounce back in the next year or so," Briggs said, "but I'll never forget how horrible this was. I'll never forget how many times I cried to my husband, to my mom, to everybody about how frustrating and how illogical this system is."

Briggs isn’t alone. KUSA, NBC’s Denver Affiliate, found more than 170 local homes had liens placed on them by just one collection agency since 2017. NBC News found home liens due to medical bills in New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and Vermont as well.

Dr. Ashish Jha, a health policy professor at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, says that many patients have no way of knowing before they receive care if a physician is in network.

"I find this really unconscionable … This is really a failure of our system to stick people with these kinds of bills that really have no justification whatsoever."


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