When Mr. Berg received a notice in the mail informing him he was being sued by Samaritan Hospital in Troy, NY over unpaid medical debt, he and his wife were shocked, then confused. They had been making regular payments to the hospital’s collection agency to cover Mr. Berg’s $5,300 bill for an emergency room visit for months.
At the time of his visit in December 2016, Mr. Berg was uninsured after being unable to afford the cost of his employer’s coverage. He applied for hospital financial assistance to cover his emergency room expenses, but was told he was financially ineligible even though his income was well below the maximum requirement. The hospital rejected Mr. Berg’s application and demanded three payments of $1,766 – he didn’t qualify for a long-term payment plan, either.
Meanwhile, finances were tight for Mr. Berg and his wife. Mr. Berg was receiving veterans’ services for his years in the Coast Guard, but he was unemployed at the time and almost two years away from his first disability payment from Social Security, and his wife was working part-time. The couple was digging into their savings account to pay for necessities, while working to pay off their mortgage. Mrs. Berg joked that at one point, their total revenue consisted of a $25 food card from SNAP.
With very little income and no financial assistance, Mr. Berg agreed over the phone with a collection agency representative to make monthly $100 payments toward his bill. Despite a documented record of those payments, Samaritan still took him to court, beginning a lengthy legal process and pressuring him to pay the full medical bill.
Though he was frustrated by the lawsuit, Mr. Berg wasn’t wholly surprised by the hospital’s behavior. Having retired from a 30-year career in the medical field as a Radiologic Technologist at clinics large and small, he is well-versed in the “money-driven” nature of the health system. “It’s the corporate mentality,” He said. “The bottom line is the dollar.”
Mrs. Berg had a different reaction to the ordeal. Born in Canada, she was baffled. “I don’t understand it. When you invest in the system [by paying insurance], you should be taken care of when you’re old and sick.”
When asked to share how her husband’s experience shaped her view of U.S. health care, she added: “I didn’t know a lot about the U.S. health system at the time. Someone once told me, Americans with sick kids ended up homeless. I used to think, ‘no way’ – now I realize that’s probably true. I’ve seen people sell their trailers to get into a nursing home.”
After researching the aggressive collection agency, paying $70 for a jury trial, and returning to court three times over the past year, Mr. Berg learned that Samaritan had ultimately dropped his case. The hospital hasn’t contacted him since.
He is now insured with Medicaid and Medicare, and hopes his experience can offer hope to other patients facing a similar situation. “It’s only a loss if you don’t learn from it. If you can help others with it, that’s even better.” To those patients, he says, “Fight back, don’t quit and don’t give up.”