Medical Bills Are Their Own Trauma

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    Soon, the bills started coming. They arrived from the hospital and DuBarry’s insurer, each itemizing fragments of her toddler’s care—anesthesiologists, emergency room physicians, trauma surgeons, orthopedists, intensivists, lab tests, and the ambulance—each accompanied by amounts charged by the hospital or paid by her insurance company. The numbers didn’t always match.

    “I think anyone who’s been through something like that understands that you’re not really high functioning in the aftermath of a tragedy,” DuBarry told me by phone. “So to start getting the bills was just really bewildering…. You have to sort through this mountain of paperwork and try to understand what you’re responsible for paying, what your insurance company is responsible for paying—and if there’s anything the insurance company doesn’t want to pay for, they just don’t.”

    Even worse than deciphering the math, though, was what the bills evoked. Every one of the technical terms listed in the paperwork corresponded to a medical intervention performed on her son’s tiny body, and decoding the items meant anguishing over each one. One bill contained a charge for a “chest tube.” DuBarry felt overwhelmed by guilt: She didn’t know what a chest tube was and didn’t know Seamus had even had one. She’d been so focused on his severe brain trauma that she’d barely considered the rest of his body; now her insurance company left her no choice. Had it hurt? Where had it been inserted? How had she been so inattentive? “Looking at that bill brought me back to a place of complete, blinding panic,” she said. “And then having to get on the phone and ask the insurance company why they won’t cover it… it’s just terrifying.”

    The pain of losing a child is almost unimaginable anywhere, but forcing grieving parents to navigate the health insurance bureaucracy under threat of financial ruin is uniquely American. No one should have to feel like that, and DuBarry wouldn’t have had to if it hadn’t been for the damn bills.

    Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction

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