“As someone struggling with medical bills myself, it became my mission to make sure everyone knew about financial assistance.”
A patient navigator for ACR Health and helpline volunteer with Community Health Advocates, Sheryl knows firsthand how challenging it can be to access the funds New York hospitals are legally required to provide to low-income patients.
One case in particular stands out. A man and a woman Sheryl helped enroll in Medicaid were still unable to make payments on their bills. When Sheryl called the hospital’s billing department to ask why they hadn’t received financial assistance, the response was: “We can’t just tell everybody about that. Frustrated, Sheryl responded, “Well, you’re supposed to!”
All New York hospitals are charities under state law, meaning they receive billions of dollars to cover uninsured low-income patients. Still, New York’s nonprofit hospitals have sued over 52,000 patients for medical debt in the past five years — and reviews of these court files indicate that few patients were informed of or offered financial assistance.
For Sheryl, the fight to access these funds is personal as well as professional. In addition to helping others, she has dedicated herself to staying active for her mental and physical health, particularly in the Upstate New York winter. When I spoke with her, the snow was just starting to thaw from the -20 degree weather earlier that week in her home county of St. Lawrence.
When breast cancer struck at 47 years old, however, Sheryl was caught off-guard. Having come in for a follow-up visit during a short gap in coverage before her new employer-sponsored insurance kicked in, she became responsible for the full cost of her care.
Rather than offer financial assistance she was eligible for, her hospital’s billing department suggested a non-profit organization cover her care. “That proved to me that they aren’t using financial assistance either. It’s not offered, suggested or posted.”
Sheryl urged other patients with unaffordable medical bills to either pester their hospital, or find someone who will. “I know from experience – bills pile up and I didn’t have the energy to deal with them. Now working at ACR Health and CHA, I can fight for someone while empathizing with them truly.”
When asked her opinion on New York’s health system, Sheryl said: “We all deserve quality health care. It should be affordable, and it can be – if the system is used effectively.”
To learn more about hospital financial assistance and efforts to make it easier for patients to access, read the Community Service Society’s issue brief here.